Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

Reaching for the Stars: Science & Socialism

October 11, 2010

At a time when neo-liberal governments the world over are taking the axe to public services, when warfare in central Asia continues to mete out destruction and when billions of people the world over live in poverty the issue of space exploration is, quite fairly, seen as an obscenely expensive distraction from tasks much closer to home.

Indeed, the news that NASA may not be able to host an independent fleet of space craft, relying instead on the Russian space agency for the next five years, signals that even America, whose space programme has long been the jewel in its crown of supremacy, is choosing economic pragmatism over utopian science.

However, when the daughter of US astronaut Scott Kelly watched her father climb aboard the Russian Soyuz rocket at the the Baikonur cosmodrome in southern Kazakhstan yesterday she saw in the rocket, its design unchanged for four decades, a connection to a forgotten age. She told the assembled press that this was the place where Soviet Cosmonaut Major Yuri Gagarin had flown his historic first mission into space in 1961, and that she concluded was ‘pretty neat.’

Ms Kelly was enjoying the history of the moment, and was clearly taking great pride in her father’s space mission, but unwittingly by mentioning Major Gagarin she reminded the world that it was the Soviet Union, not the capitalist west, which had first conquered the stars. A painful memory for a nation who are forced to hitch lifts to the international space station from the Russians, their once great rivals in the space race of the mid 20th century.

21st century Socialists are often at pains to distance themselves from the historical legacy of Stalinism and the cold war. The USSR is the millstone around our necks and the charge sheet often read gleefully against us by our opponents.

Some groups respond to this simply by deny that the Soviet Union had any socialist characteristics at all, falling back on the theory of State Capitalism. A historical sidestepping of responsibility. Others point to the systems decay and degeneration from its embryonic early years following the revolution to a disfigured and perverted system transformed following Lenin’s death, the rise of Joseph Stalin and the establishment of ‘Stalinism.’

Whatever the crimes, faults and tragedies of Stalinism, of which there are many millions, it would be wrong to overlook some of the very real gains of the centrally planned economic system, the first to truly divorce itself from capitalism. By looking at what the Soviet Union achieved Socialists can say: if that can be achieved under an imperfect and degenerated form of socialism, just imagine the potential of a genuine socialist state founded on strong democratic foundations.

Today a parallel still exists with China which through its own Stalinist version of authoritarian capitalism, has been able to transform itself from a developing nation into the second largest economy on earth, with the greatest reduction of poverty in a population in history.

In the same way the Soviet Union was able to transform itself from a backward, peasant economy torn apart by civil war and invasion to be a global superpower, which not only defeated Nazi Germany in the Second World War, but outstripped the capitalist west in terms of production and scientific achievements long into the 1950’s and 60’s.

The Soviet space programme, personified in Major Yuri Gagarin, epitomised this rapid advancement, marking the moment of historical change. When one generation of Russians had known only serfdom and toil in mud and dirt, their children were able to gaze at the stars in the age of technology.

As Iina Kohonen says in The Space race and Soviet Utopian Thinking:

“The list of ‘firsts’ is admirable: the first satellite, Sputnik 1, in October 1957; the first living being in orbit, Layka in Sputnik 2 in November 1957; the first human-made object to escape Earth’s gravity and be placed in orbit around the Sun, Luna 1 in January 1959; 3 the first pictures of the far side of the Moon, Luna 3 in October 1959; the first return of living creatures from orbital flight, Sputnik 5 in August 1960, carrying the dogs Strelka and Belka.4.

The concept of space flight was visible everywhere; science fiction novels and films were extremely popular, while pictures of sputniks and space dogs could be found on every possible product from cigarette boxes to tea cups – the Soviets clearly knew how to merchandize these early achievements in space travel. Visually the Soviet Union was a society living in the Space Age.”

Capitalism today is in a period of historical crisis. Through massive state intervention in the US, Europe and China the system has been saved from degenerating further from crisis and recession to full global depression. While the immediate crisis of 2008 may have passed capitalism remains at an impasse, it offers little but economic stagnation and an era of austerity as the rich seek to defend and rebuild their wealth at the cost of working people.

While political consciousness and awareness of socialist ideas remains at a historically low point the idea that there must be a better way, that this system cannot be the best humanity can do, will once again take root. It is our historic task to prompt that questioning, to say that there can be an alternative, to say that under a different system mankind could achieve anything. If an imperfect system over 40 years ago can put a man in space what could a better system, of genuine democratic socialism, achieve in the 21st century?

While space travel itself is not a priority, we should still remember Yuri Gagarin, the son of a peasant family from the Urals, and by remembering the scientific and social potential an alternative system can herald, we too can be the generation who allow our children to look up to the stars.

The Human Conquest of Nature: Progress, Science & Socialism

August 20, 2010

As Socialists we spend the majority of our political time studying and campaigning around the class relationships of society, the state and the global economic system. Simply phrased we study humanities relationship with each other and our economic, cultural and sociological creations. So overwhelming are these relationships and conflicts, both to everyday life and to the task of building Socialism, that it is rare for us to consider a wider question: humanities relationship to nature and the wider world.

When I say nature, I do not just mean the environment and the ‘eco-politics’ of climate change, instead I refer to more fundamental questions which humans have instinctively striven to answer from the earliest days of our evolution. What is humanities relationship with the forces of nature, the planet, the soil, and the animals? How does mankind, in this urban age of metropolis cites and mass consumerism, relate to the natural struggle of daily survival? Has nature been conquered, and if not should it be?

While it is seldom mentioned directly our relationship to nature is a deeply political question which almost all political traditions draw from. In Europe, the Middle East and other areas historically dominated by the religions of Abraham, especially Christianity, mankind is seen as a higher form of life, separated by God from the animals and created in his image to rule over the earth. Such a view is the traditional ground of the conservative right, yet the far-right, specifically the racial theory fascists of Nazi Germany took much the opposite position. Joseph Gobbels’ propaganda machine routinely exulted species of animals which appeared to mimic traits which fitted Nazi ideas for society. In parallel with the virtues of nature, this crude social Darwinian concept of superficially applying the laws of nature to 20th century society gave ideological and pseudo-scientific backing to genocide and racially motivated mass murder of those considered ‘sub-human’.

In contrast elements of the liberal left and some of the eco-socialist tradition, that is to say the non orthodox Marxist left, argue that far from being separate from the animals, humanity should seek to live in harmony with nature and its laws, not to control it. Ecological disasters ranging from climate change to pollution, resource depletion and over population are, they claim, a result of humanities disregard for nature, our wanton attempt to control it and our failing to live in harmony with it. The solutions proposed such as curtailing economic growth or dramatically cutting carbon emissions, call for a ‘backwards’ step to a preindustrial society, heralding back philosophically to the pre-Christian nature religions of paganism where humans took their place within nature, rather than attempting to live without or outside of it.  

Marxism, as a political discipline born out of 19th century modernist Europe, also addresses these question, and while its conclusion is stark, and possibly anathema to the eco-liberals, if understood correctly it is inspiring. The very development of society and the domination of nature are intrinsically linked and are both essential preconditions for the survival and progress of mankind.

Such a position is easily misunderstood and indeed orthodox Marxists are often portrayed as being at loggerheads with the green movement, but it is a position born out of the context and historical roots of Marxism.

Marxism is a political philosophy of modernity, meaning that it is an ideology developed from the ideas of the renaissance and the enlightenment, founded on the principles of logic, reason and intellectual illumination.

The central tenant of all modernist thinking is that of ‘progress’, that as society has historically advanced a clear arc of development can be traced, from the first caveman to strike flint for fire, to the first fire engine rushing to extinguish a blaze, human history has been the story of scientific and technological progress.

This technological progress is, early Marxist reasoned, inherently linked to our relationship with nature.  While Karl Marx did not write extensively about environmental issues, he did write about mankind’s relationship with nature through technology, particularly in regard to agriculture and humanities attempt to extract and live off of nature.

In Grundrisse, Marx summarized humanities most fundamental relationship with nature, arguing that humans live both ‘in’ and ‘against’ nature. Clearly, Marx reasoned, we each live in the natural world, but from hunter gathering societies of pre-antiquity to the industrial agriculture of modern times humans have sought to use technology to transform and overcome nature in order to survive. As Marx put it, ‘technology discloses man’s mode of dealing with nature’.

To Marx, who further developed these ideas in Das Kapital, mankind’s relationship to nature is a material question. Man is driven to transform nature, to increase the yield of land or domesticate animals, as a means to survival. Indeed it is man’s ability to do this which truly separates him from wild animals. 

This understanding can be traced to the philosophy of Hegel, who said: “As soon as he has to produce, man possesses the resolve to use a part of the available natural objects directly as a means of labour and subsumes them under his activity without further process of mediation.’ And: ‘Nature builds no machines, no locomotives, railways, electric telegraphs, self-acting mules etc. These are products of human industry; natural material transformed into organs of the human will over nature. They are organs of the human brain, created by the human hand; the power of knowledge, objectified.’

The view developed by modernist thinkers is clear, society will continue to develop, humanity will move forward and as society progresses we will continue to witness an uninterrupted advance of both science, technology and the domination of nature.

In the post-modern age it is fashionable to question the cherished position that science has often held in an increasingly secular society, yet for the most perfect example of ‘progress’ we need look only at health care. Our recent ancestors died of ailments which can now be cured from a simple visit to a GP or a supermarket pharmacy and no doubt our decedents will look back in wonderment that we ever suffered from the common cold, or perhaps even cancer.

Of course the progress of science and technology, even to the most fundamentalist of modernists, does not always equate to a positive outcome for humanity let alone nature. No doubt a critic would point to the advent of the Atomic bomb, a previously unimaginable leap forward for science. However, it was an advance which brought nothing but radioactive death to the residents of Hiroshima and Nagaski. Such critics would correctly point out that just as health care and our species’ ability to cure has developed, so has our capability to kill and destroy. This is of course true, but as socialists we must argue that this is not because science, technology and or the concept of progress are intrinsically harmful to either mankind or nature, but rather it is because of who and what is driving humanities push forward.  

Under our current system of capitalism progress and the conquest of nature have been achieved only at the expense of both man and nature. When discussing feminism I often say that patriarchy is a system which hurts most men and nearly all women, and so it is with capitalism and nature. So long as capitalism is maintained as the driver of progress it will always be a system where the elite minority rules to the cost of most of humanity and the entire natural world.

In Kapital Marx covered this fundamental point about man’s modern relationship to nature being determined by production, and thus capitalist exploitation, by saying:

“Progress in capitalistic agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the labourer, but of robbing the soil; all progress in increasing the fertility of the soil for a given time is a progress towards ruining the lasting sources of that fertility. The more a country starts its development on the foundation of modern industry, like the United States, for example, the more rapid is the process of destruction. Capitalist production, therefore, develops technology, and the combining together of various processes into a social whole, only by sapping the original sources of all wealth—the soil and the labourer.”

This is a key point for Marxists: ecological problems such as climate change, or over population, mass extinctions and resource depletion are not problems caused simply by mankind’s attempt to intervene and control nature, but are caused by specific ways of dealing with nature. Specifically the capitalist desire to put profit and the interests of capital before human wellbeing or the environment.

The very notion of mankind’s domination over nature, the so called ‘Promethean attitude’ is both contentious and unfashionable today, especially, among some sections of the ‘green’ liberal left who reject modernist thinking for the more fashionable post-modernism.   

Reiner Grundmann argued in the early 90’s: “Greens dismiss the Promethean attitude towards nature as the cause of all evil, and plead for a new, harmonious relationship with nature. They favour a re-enchantment of the world and the development of an ecological ethics.

Some extreme ecological fundamentalists even argue for a radical break with the modern approach towards nature, a return to modes of a ‘simpler life’. Even granted that such a jump backwards might be possible (which I deny) or desirable (which I leave open), it would cause considerable social tensions that might outweigh by far the hypothetical ‘gains’ of an ecologically ‘embedded’ life.”

In defense of the modernist, and thus the Marxist, position it must be said that ‘domination over nature,’ is not the same as destroying nature. Written by a 19th century pen the phrase is as misunderstood by modern readers as is that classical line “dictatorship of the proletariat”, which is so often followed with a hasty explanation any time it is mentioned.

As Grundmann also points out the phrase ‘domination over nature’ in a modernist sense ‘denotes nothing more than conscious control’. Just as ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ merely means the rule of the working class rather the rule of the capitalist elite, so ‘domination of nature’  has the innocent meaning that you may apply to describe mastering a musician instrument or a form of art. To cite Grundmann one final time: “It is in this sense that we have to understand the domination of nature. It does not mean that one behaves in a reckless fashion towards it, any more than we suggest that a masterly player dominates her instrument (say a violin) when she hits it with a hammer.”

So, it has been established that modernist thinkers, especially orthodox Marxists, understand that the domination of nature is inherently linked to the concept of progress and technological advancement. It has also been established that while capitalism’s treatment of the natural world results in ecological disaster the idea of domination over nature does not inevitably mean reckless destruction. The question to ask now is even more fundamental: Is human domination over nature desirable or even necessary in the 21st century, and how would this be realized under Socialism?

Nature, as Charles Darwin saw it, is beautiful but cruel. Each living species has evolved through many millennia of natural selection with one sole purpose: to survive. Marx wrote that the history of the world hitherto is a history of class struggle and just as truthfully we can say the history of the natural world hitherto is a history of the struggle for survival.

The key difference between mankind and animal-kind is that rather than simply evolving to compete and contest with rival species and predators in the way our primate relatives still do, we have challenged the very laws of nature itself. From the moment that humans turned away from hunter gathering towards agriculture and the primitive communist societies of pre-history we were taking the first steps towards transforming, refashioning and dominating the natural world around us.

Scientists of evolution and historians of pre-civilization can point to several reasons why early mankind made the evolutionary leap to becoming a more advanced species. These range from the increased brain capacity of the hominid species to which we belong, to the opposable thumb, but it was the manifestation of these evolutionary advantages by inventing and utilising technology to control nature which truly launched humanities march of progress.

An early example of the fundamental role of technology in early human development can be seen in recent archeological discoveries of our evolutionary ancestor the neanderthals. Neanderthals are often recognised as a sub-species of human Homo. Sapiens, although other scientists argue that while they were closely related to humans they were in fact a species in their own right. Either way neanderthals existed across much of Europe, Africa and the Middle East until 30,000 years ago when they vanished into extinction. However, while they existed they were a humanoid species running both in parallel and in competition with early humans.

While they existed in competition this is not to say it was a conscious competition, although some archeological evidence exists to suggest outbreaks of violence did take place. The overwhelming evidence suggests that Neanderthals coexisted with humans in pre-history, developing their own communities, complete with language and early forms of culture.

This suggests that until 30,000 years ago there existed, alongside humans, a separate species with similar evolutionary advantages over animals, including the opposable thumb and increased brain capacity.  The two species were so alike that the most recent research, published this year in Nature, reveals examples of mass inter-breeding between communities of humans and neanderthals.  A genetic analysis of 2000 people confirmed the traces of neanderthal DNA in humans living today and it is estimated that many modern descendants of Scandinavian or Middle Eastern communities may have a very distant ancient neanderthal relative.

The major difference between the two species was that unlike humans the neanderthals did not step beyond primitive methods of existing and did not show the ability to develop the rudimentary technology that gave ancient humans the edge in the battle for survival, ensuring that in nature’s competition humans flourished while neanderthals were eclipsed into extinction.

The neanderthals were not destroyed by conquest and they were not hunted to extinction like many species of the era. Instead they were either assimilated into the growing human population or else they were unable to adapt to the changing global climate and suffered the same fate as the Wooly Mammoth or the Saber Tooth tiger, while humans adapted, developed and flourished.  I propose that this example reveals the ability to constantly adapt, to innovate and to develop that has been the innate advantage of humanity, allowing the species to survive.

This unique ability became apparent when humans first turned away from the hunter gatherer form of subsistence survival to organised settlements built around agriculture. No other species on earth alters and develops the natural world around them in the way humans do through agriculture. As the previous quotes from Marx and Hegel acknowledged the point of agriculture is not to simply accept what is found in nature, but to increase the yield of the land through intervention and to determine which crops the land provides though systematic planting, growing and land management. Farming also allows humans to subvert animal life to human need, including the domestication of cattle or working animals such as horses and dogs, a characteristic which no other species on earth possesses.  

Coupled with the early methods of farming, which allowed man to at least master elements of nature for sustenance and survival, the establishment of human communities around fertile land drove the foundation of settlements and villages which would grow into towns and cities. Once again the building of settlements, be them villages or metropolis cities with modern infrastructure, shows the human tendency to not only dominate existing nature for sustenance, but to build our own un-natural world, a key component of the domination over the forces of nature which became the very theme of human history, from the first ancient astronomer to the first man in space.

One of the most crucial arguments to be made regarding the human ability to supersede and dominate nature and the natural laws is that it historically predates the existence of capitalism, which is a mere 500 years old. Capitalism, it is often proclaimed, is the driving force for innovation and it must be acknowledged that some of our species finest feats have been accomplished during, if not because of, the capitalist epoch. In the past 500 years the world has witnessed the industrial revolution, the invention of the car, global communications systems and the first humans to enter space. (Although it must be acknowledged that this final feat was accomplished first by the Stalinist USSR.)  Of course, as has already been mentioned the ecological costs of capitalism has been proven to be both devastating and unsustainable meaning that for the first time the mankind’s domination of nature, and the very concept of human progress, has been placed in jeopardy.

Marxists recognise that capitalism is simply a stage of human history, a stage necessary to develop society from feudalism, which in turn developed society from the ancient slave societies of Rome and Greece. However capitalism, like all stages before it, is not the final stage of human society and will be replaced once it is apparent that it can no longer drive society forward. With the ecological disasters of climate change and resource depletion now firmly in the public consciousness can it be denied that capitalism has reached this point?

For Marxists, the next stage of human development must be Socialism. Of course this is in no way inevitable; it is entirely possible that another, as yet unknown, stage could replace capitalism if the conditions for socialism are not built for. There is nothing inevitable about socialism, it requires the conscious mass will of the people. However, this is a separate debate entirely, so let us take a determined leap of faith in humanity and hypothetically say that when capitalism is replaced it will fall at the hands of mass movements of the working class who will begin to construct a new socialist society. The question is: how will the ideas of progress and the domination of nature continue under Socialism?

For Marx the creation of Socialism, or Communism as he referred to the complete accomplishment of a socialist society, will be the self-realisation of mankind.  Without the shackles which have bound mankind though the previous stages of society we will be free to realise our full potential. Marx links the concept of domination of nature to his communist project: for him communism is a state of affairs in which though human self realisation all natural and social conditions are the products of their common conscious control. Communism, therefore, is the culmination of a process of increasing mastery over nature.

The most inspirational thought is this. Consider the truly epic achievements of humans under slavery, feudalism or capitalism, from the building of the pyramids, to curing disease and becoming the first species to leave our own planet, to travel though space and land on the moon. If humans can achieve those herculean feats when bound and shackled, the potential for man’s achievements when truly set free are limitless.

Under a socialist society, which would by its very definition and creation, be the most democratic type of society ever created, the need to create profit will vanish with huge repercussions for science and nature.  In the field of agriculture, which we have demonstrated to be the most fundamental way in which man masters the natural world, a coordinated, democratic plan for production will mean that farmers are no longer economically forced to grow cash crops or manage their farms at the whim of the market. Instead a coordinated plan of sustainable farming, producing for human needs can be adopted.

Directly coupled with this the fields of scientific research will be completely revolutionised. Under capitalism scientific research is only deemed valuable and encouraged if it contributes to capitalism directly though profit or indirectly though areas such as the military. In the field of health care the finest scientific minds are forced to compete against each other by pharmaceutical corporations who, striving to be the first to bring a product to the market, refuse to share research.

Aside from the technological marvels such as flight or the agricultural advancements allowing mankind to sustain itself, the field of healthcare represents the supreme accomplishments of humanity and symbolises the most significant conquest over nature itself.  Diseases and ailments which ravage species in the wild have been vanquished and as society has developed so has our ability to defend ourselves from disease and prolong life itself.  Under socialism scientists would not be forced to compete for profit, but would be able to share research and collaborate in the most open fashion possible, freeing limitless potential to continue to vanquish diseases.

The establishment of socialism will herald the self-realisation of man, unlocking the potential to allow our species to realise total mastery over the forces of nature. Accomplishing this final stage of human society will complete a journey begun the moment we first turned our backs on the dank caves of animalistic pre-history and through endeavor, initiative and the cruel luck of natural selection did the one thing no other species could do, transform our surroundings and challenge nature itself rather than exist at its mercy.

The history of humanity hitherto is a history of progress and scientific discovery, and while we live within nature’s laws we have proven our ability to overcome them, and when our mastery of nature need no longer be at the expense of the majority or ecological disaster, the inspirational possibilities are truly endless.  

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Ben Norman is the Secretary of the Portsmouth branch of the Socialist Party. He is also a professional science writer in the field of Life Science.