Science: Quantum mechanics and dialectical materialism

Marxism, materialism and particle physics

The following article is based on a talk given by Pete Mason during the 2010 CWI Summer School, held in Belgium, last July. In a personal contribution, Pete looks at quantum mechanics and its place in the history of science. Pete examines the debates amongst scientists, such as Einstein, Bohr and Heisenberg, surrounding quantum mechanics, and the contribution of Marxists, including Engels and Lenin, on aspects of dialectical materialism and science.

Atoms and their history in science

Quantum mechanics is the study of energy and atoms, of the very smallest particles. The discovery of the atom, 2,500 years ago, was just one of the astonishing achievements of the ancient Greeks who lived in Ionia, in great cities on the coast of present-day Turkey. Another was a materialist dialectic.

How did the Ionian philosophers, who were merchants and explorers living a hundred years or more before the famous Athenian philosophers such Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, arrive at the conclusion that the world was made of atoms?

Above all, they observed nature. These philosophers tended to run into trouble with the authorities for denying the gods and looking for material explanations for things – they were materialists. They asked how the stone statues could be worn over time, or how two different coloured liquids mix together – surely, these things must be made up of tiny particles, too small for the eye to see, which wear off statues and mix together.

The ancient Ionian city-state of Miletus experienced revolutions for two generations. The aristocracy were overthrown by the rising merchant class and a succession of revolutions followed. Power passed between the masses – the “demos” (“people”) – and the “people of property”.

“At first the people prevailed and, after they had thrown the rich out, they assembled… the fugitives on the threshing-floors, and had oxen trample on them and destroyed them in the most terrible manner. Thereupon the rich, again getting control, tarred and burned to death all whom they could get hold of…” (Athenaios, quoted by C J Emlyn-Jones, The Ionians and Hellenism, p. 31)

Dialectics: Nothing is fixed

In another amazing achievement, the philosophers of this time developed what Socrates later called his ‘dialectics’. Naturally reflecting the upheavals in society around them, they believed that nothing was fixed – all things that come into being must pass away. Their philosophy embraced the entire sweep of nature and society as one organic whole, perhaps reflecting the way a genuine social revolution sweeps everything into its turmoil, leaving nothing untouched. Dialectics is a holistic philosophy which always considers things in their relations and their development, as Lenin said.

Anaximander of Miletus argued that the world came into being in a ball of fire and that people evolved from fishes. It took science 2500 years to reveal the kernel of truth in these observations – the theory of the big bang origins of the universe and the theory of evolution. The ancient Ionian philosophers were the first to study the world using a materialist dialectic, a dialectic which insisted that all things were in the course of development. This development emerged from internal conflict, a war of opposing forces within all things, a “unity of opposites” as Lenin called it, an “interpenetration of opposites” as Engels termed it. These warring opposites were what drove the eternal flux of change. Dialectics is a philosophy born of revolution.

Gold and silver coins were minted in Ionia, perhaps the first western coins in history. The Marxist archaeologist, Vere Gordon Childe (1892 –1957), observed that the Ionian philosophers Democritus and Leucippus, who are considered the founders of the ancient Greek theory of atoms, “set out to resolve external nature into discrete indivisible bits or particles (atoms), just as the new currency resolved wealth into discontinuous particles – coins.” (Vere Gordon Childe, What Happened in History, p 215)

Opposing the philosophy of dialectics was a wealthy Greek law-maker and philosopher who lived in Italy. Parmenides argued that “thought and being are the same”, revealing himself to be an idealist, rather than a materialist who distinguishes thought from being. Perhaps Parmenides did not want his laws to be broken by revolution – he and his famous pupil, Zeno, argued that movement was impossible. He denied all change, in extreme opposition to the Ionian dialectics. All that exists, he claimed, is the ‘One’, a single spherical plenum, timeless, uniform and unchanging. Only an idealist could reach such an absurd conclusion.

Parmenides and Zeno had laid down a challenge to the Ionian philosophers – to explain the nature of change. Democritus and Leucippus suggested that rather than the world consisting of one single unchanging plenum, perhaps the world is entirely composed of tiny, indivisible, unchanging plenums, or atoms (the word ‘atom’ comes from the Greek word ‘uncuttable’). Then the world could undergo infinite change while, at the same time, the constituent parts are unchanging.

This is how they solved the philosophical riddle. But, in doing so, they opened the way for a new philosophy which rejected dialectics for a mechanical, individual, myopic, reductionist outlook which mistakenly examines things entirely in isolation, abandoning any notion of the interpenetration of opposites, and disregarding the wider relations and development. This outlook forms the basis of the philosophy of positivism.

Unity of opposites

In reality, the atom is not unchanging. It is a unity of opposites in various simple ways, such as between the positive nucleus and the negative electron cloud around it, and these opposing forces cement the building blocks of the natural world. But quantum mechanics reveals a more complex and challenging aspect of the subatomic world.

The materialist dialectic exposes the shortcomings of all fixed formulas, the Marxist George Novack writes:

“The materialist dialectic is based upon the existence of conflicting movements, forces and relations in history, whose contradictions as they develop expose the shortcomings of all fixed formulas. As Trotsky wrote in 1906 in Results and Prospects, ‘Marxism is above all a method of analysis – not analysis of texts, but analysis of social relations.’” (Leon Trotsky on Dialectical Materialism, in George Novack, Polemics in Marxist Philosophy, p. 309)

For this reason, Marxism does not approach sciences such as quantum mechanics as if it must consist of fixed formulas which must be either true for all time or false. Nor does it insist that the processes that quantum mechanics has discovered conform to dialectical formulas or laws. Quantum mechanics demonstrates stunning examples of dialectical transformations, quantum leaps, which we will not have time to discuss.

But Novack is wrong when he insists that Marxism teaches that all natural processes must “conform” to the various dialectical laws (ibid p. 161). On the contrary, Engels explains the mistake of the idealist philosophers such as GWF Hegel: “The mistake lies in the fact that these laws are foisted on nature and history as laws of thought, and not deducted from them.” (Engels, Dialectics of Nature, p. 83) Why should dialectics have fixed formulas to which nature should conform?

Quantum mechanics

The June 2010 Scientific American carries a feature entitled, ‘Does time really exist?’ and carries a news item on a ‘Quantum Microphone’, the width of a human hair, which “acts as if it appears in two places at once”, a type of “quantum weirdness” previously only seen at the molecular level. Another news item in the same issue quotes a theoretical physicist at Oxford university: “The idea of points of space-time as being primary objects is artificial”, commenting “Indeed, the concept of distinct positions [in space] and times breaks down” because of Albert Einstein’s relativity and “the notoriously spooky connections between quantum particles.”

Thus recently the old philosophical orthodoxy principally associated with Danish physicist Niels Bohr at Copenhagen, termed the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics, which restricted quantum phenomena to a realm unknowable in principle and that no other interpretation was possible, has been exploded by experiments like this. A neo-Copenhagen view has arisen in which there is no point at which quantum waves ‘collapse’ into the normal ‘macroscopic’ world – the quantum world is the normal world.

People find much of what is reported about quantum mechanics quite bizarre. They wonder whether scientists have lost all touch with reality. Various Marxist trends take the view that the usual interpretation of quantum mechanics is not materialist. Even Einstein argued that quantum mechanics lacks what he called “elements of reality”, including objectivity and causality.

I hope to give some insight into how scientists have begun to voice the claims made in the Scientific American about space and time. How quantum ‘weirdness’ is based on genuine research. The correct Marxist approach towards science is very important. In rejecting the claims of the Marxist trends that criticise quantum mechanics, I hope to open a discussion on where Marxists stand on these questions.

Materialism and idealism

There are various definitions of ‘materialism’ in philosophy. Marxists have a unique definition. For Marxists, in this context, materialism can be described as the philosophy that the world exists independently of the human mind. Ultimately, the material world is primary, and thought is secondary. Engels wrote that “those who regard Nature as primary, belong to the various schools of materialism”. (Quoted by Georgi Plekhanov in Bernstein and Materialism, July 1898)

Defending quantum mechanics against a raft of philosophers, Bernard d’Espagnat, one of the leading French particle physicists, argues for what he calls “mind-independent reality”, describing the idea of a reality which exists prior to and independent of the existence of thinking beings. This is fundamentally a materialist outlook.

Another essential example of a materialist outlook comes from Einstein himself:

“The elements of physical reality cannot be determined by a priori philosophical considerations, but must be found by an appeal to the results of experiments and measurements”. (Can Quantum-Mechanical Description of Physical Reality Be Considered Complete? Einstein, Podolsky and Rosen, Physical Review, 15 May 1935)

By contrast, idealism argues that there can be a thinking mind – whether it be the mind of a god or of humans – before (or instead of) the existence of the material world. The German idealist philosopher GWF Hegel, for instance, says that the world is nothing but thought. Discussing the ancient Ionian philosopher Anaxagoras, Hegel writes,

“Anaxagoras is praised as the man who first declared that Nous – thought – is the principle of the world, that the essence of the world is to be defined as thought. In so doing he laid the foundation for an intellectual view of the universe, the pure form of which must be logic.” (Hegel, Science of Logic, section § 54)

Anaxagoras, a Greek Ionian philosopher living from about 500 to 428 BCE, rejected the gods of the ancient Greeks and developed a theory of an expanding universe, which Nous or Mind first set in its various revolutions “from a small beginning”. He also developed a theory of atoms, arguing that everything in the world was made of “seeds”.

Marxist trends

An understanding of Marxism does not provide a short-cut to understanding science. Dialectical materialism is not a magic philosophical key which unlocks the mysteries of science, allowing the dialectician to make judgements and criticisms on scientific matters. On the contrary, it arose from very definite material circumstances, as we have shown. The dialectics of the ancient Greeks was developed further by the German Idealists philosophers, particularly Hegel, to the drumbeat of the French Revolution of 1789, and a materialist dialectic was developed by Marx and Engels just before the European-wide revolutions of 1848.

To understand a science enough to make meaningful criticisms of it, a concrete, thorough, and indeed exhaustive understanding of the science in question is required. Yet various trends within the Marxist tradition, particularly Communist Party trends, have attacked quantum mechanics and Einstein’s theory of relativity, which they believe is not materialist. These attacks continue today.

In 2008, the UK writer and journalist Manjit Kumar wrote a widely reviewed study on the debate between Einstein, Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg (who won the Nobel prize for founding quantum mechanics) about the nature of reality at the quantum level. Kumar argues that the way quantum mechanics is usually interpreted lacks what he terms ‘realism’, and lapses, instead, into ‘solipsism’.

‘Realism’ is the philosophy which holds that the world exists independently of us. This is a basic premise of the Marxist philosophy of materialism.

‘Solipsism’, on the other hand, is the view that the only thing we can know for sure is the existence of our own mind – that everything else is unknowable, even our own bodies. Elsewhere Kumar uses the term ‘subjective idealism’ to describe the philosophy of quantum mechanics, the view that there is no objective reality, only the mind and mental objects.

Of course, most particle physicists reject these accusations. We will come to Kumar’s most recent claims shortly. But previously in 1995, Kumar had written:

“From Copenhagen, Denmark, to Princeton, New Jersey, the interpretation put on quantum mechanics was and remains a subjective one. Indeed, it often lapses into outright solipsism.” (Science and the Retreat from Reason, by Gillott and Kumar, p. 81)

Kumar asserts that this all comes down to the outlook of the influential nineteenth century Austrian physicist and philosopher Ernst Mach.

Within the Trotskyist tradition, the International Marxist Tendency (IMT) makes similar mistaken accusations against quantum mechanics, and takes a similar swipe at Ernst Mach. In 1995, IMT leaders, Ted Grant and Alan Woods, argued: “The subjective idealist nature of Heisenberg’s method is quite explicit”, and that “Einstein, under the influence of Ernst Mach, treated time as something subjective”. Lenin, Woods asserts, comprehensively answered the subjective idealism of quantum mechanics in his book, Materialism and Empirio-criticism. (Woods and Grant, Reason in Revolt, p. 118, p. 168)


It is no coincidence that both trends attack Ernst Mach. Both the Communist Party and Trotskyists trends which criticise modern science misunderstand Lenin’s Materialism and Empirio-criticism. Lenin launched a sustained attack on Ernst Mach, whose philosophy and physics, Lenin believed, were subjective idealist, lapsing into solipsism.

In 1908, Lenin was forced to write a book about Mach, the most popular representative of the philosophy of empirio-criticism at the time, because the leading Bolsheviks in Russia had abandoned dialectical materialism for Mach’s crude positivist philosophy. The Russian revolution of 1905 had led to defeat, and by 1908 leading Bolsheviks like Bogdanov and Lunacharsky had participated in a “veritable campaign against the philosophy of Marxism”, Lenin writes.

Lenin, living in exile and visiting the same radical café that Einstein had earlier frequented, could hardly aim his response directly at the Bolshevik leaders in Russia – which would inflict a terrible blow to the Bolshevik leadership. So he fired angry, devastating volleys at Ernst Mach, over the heads of the Bolshevik leaders (for the most part), his bullets cracking round their ears. But while much of the book is only of historical interest today, and written with great urgency (Lenin was in a great hurry to abort the errors of the Bolshevik party in Russia) and not without errors, nevertheless we can still learn from it the correct Marxist approach to the sciences, and sharpen our understanding of what dialectical materialism means for Marxists.

But Lenin has been completely misinterpreted by the Communist Party commentators, fellow travellers and the IMT.

Lenin’s Materialism and Empirio-criticism was used by Stalin’s henchmen to launch a devastating attack against USSR scientists in the 1950s. They called physicists who supported Einstein’s relativity and quantum mechanics, “Machists”, solipsists, and subjective idealists. They used phrases from Lenin’s Materialism and Empirio Criticism without understanding Lenin’s meaning or method, thereby making Lenin appear to have attacked the science of his day.

So let’s put the record straight.

In 1905, the year of the revolution in Russia, Einstein was writing ground-breaking papers while an amateur scientist working at the Swiss patent office. Einstein’s papers launched quantum mechanics and relativity. Lenin peers through the idealist distortions of the period and specifically says that Einstein’s relativity is a materialist model of reality. It appears that neither Stalin’s henchmen nor Ted Grant and Alan Woods were aware of this fact.

Lenin’s insight is astonishing, since many physicists and philosophers of the time were themselves expressing an idealist viewpoint, particularly after Mach and Einstein showed that space and time are relative.

For instance, Lenin writes:

“Anyone in the least acquainted with philosophical literature must know that scarcely a single contemporary professor of philosophy (or of theology) can be found who is not directly or indirectly engaged in refuting materialism.” (Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, opening sentence)

Philipp Frank, the Vienna physicists and founder of the (mistaken) philosophical school of logical positivism, correctly pointed out a decade or so later that:

“Many scholars have a deep dislike for mechanistic physics and… derive a malicious pleasure from every difficulty that the latter encountered… one can hardly open a periodical or book dealing with the development of our general scientific ideas without meeting such expressions as ‘the end of the age of Galileo,’ ‘the failure of mechanistic physics,’ ‘the end of the hostility of science towards the spirit,’ ‘the reconciliation between religion and science.’” (Is There a Trend Today Towards Idealism in Physics? Frank, Modern Science and its Philosophy, p. 127)

James Jeans and Arthur Eddington can be described as the founders of British cosmology before the second world war. Jeans wrote:

“… the law and order which we find in the universe are most easily described—and also, I think, most easily explained—in the language of idealism. Thus, subject to the reservations already mentioned, we may say that present‑day science is favourable to idealism.” (James Jeans, The New Background of Science, Cambridge University Press, p. 296)

On his speaking tours, Eddington associated relativity and quantum mechanics with personal religious experience and religious mysticism.

In the section of Materialism and Empirio-Criticism entitled ’”Matter Has Disappeared”’, Lenin gives a long quote from the French philosopher Abel Rey. This quote unmistakably describes key aspects of Einstein’s theory of relativity, which shows that at very high velocities, close to the speed of light, mass increases and space and time are warped. Rey does not name Einstein, still an obscure clerk who only resigned from the Swiss patent office in 1909.

Lenin comments:

“But however much both Rey and the physicists of whom he speaks abjure materialism, it is nevertheless beyond question that mechanics was a copy of [i.e. a model of ] real motions of moderate velocity, while the new physics is a copy of real motions of enormous velocity. The recognition of theory as a copy, as an approximate copy of objective reality, is materialism.” (Lenin, Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, p. 253)

While today, scientists would use the term ‘model’ rather than ‘copy’, Lenin correctly identified as materialist a theory that was to revolutionise physics and lead to the atom bomb.

Scientific models

Einstein questioned the way quantum mechanics was understood or interpreted. This has made quantum mechanics a legitimate subject for discussion among scientists and philosophers for the last eighty years. It forms the subject of Manjit Kumar’s 2008 book, Quantum: Einstein, Bohr and the Great Debate about the Nature of Reality.

Einstein felt that the usual interpretation of quantum mechanics lacked what he called “elements of reality”.

In his paper, Can Quantum-Mechanical Description of Physical Reality Be Considered Complete? written with Boris Podolsky and Nathan Rosen, (Physical Review, 15 May 1935) Einstein asked whether or not quantum mechanics was the final word on the subject. Most, if not all, physicists today would answer “No”.

There will be a new model of reality at the atomic level at some point. But this immediately provokes the common question – What then is the value of the current quantum mechanical model? If one model merely replaces another, each new model negating the previous model, what can science tell us about reality? Science certainly does not proceed gradually and steadily towards revealing the exact nature of reality, as was once thought. Post-modernist philosophers therefore challenge the validity of all scientific models.

Post-modernist philosophy arose in the 1980s as an essentially right-wing philosophy, which (among other things) states that science tells us nothing about reality at all, but merely reflects the various political and cultural trends of the day.

But this philosophy can be traced back, through the philosophies of post-structuralism and structuralism to the US physicist and philosopher Thomas Kuhn. It was Kuhn who overthrew the idea that science advances gradually and smoothly towards some kind of final truth in his Structure of Scientific Revolutions, written in 1962.

Kuhn showed that science advances through scientific revolutions which break through the essentially conservative restraints of culture and society. Science tends to be funnelled within well-established scientific theories or ‘paradigms’ until a scientific revolution overturns our views of the natural world. This new world-view completely destroys the old paradigm. Kuhn’s concrete historical study presented a new dialectical understanding of the nature of the development of scientific models, describing the clash of opposites within science and the scientific community.

But Marxism has always understood the approximate nature of scientific models and rejected the idea of a final truth. Back in 1908, Lenin wrote:

“But dialectical materialism insists on the approximate, relative character of every scientific theory of the structure of matter and its properties.”

Engels stated over 100 years ago that “absolute truth” is unobtainable by philosophy or any other means. Instead, he wrote,

“one pursues attainable relative truths along the path of the [natural] sciences”

Almost two hundred years ago, Hegel addressed what he called “the true meaning of a much misunderstood phenomenon in the history of philosophy — the refutation of one system by another.” Hegel considers scientific development as merely part of this history of philosophy. Does the negation of one system by another mean that there has been nothing but a meaningless cycle of different philosophical (or scientific) systems? “If that was the case, the history of philosophy [including science] would be, of all studies, most saddening, displaying, as it does, the refutation of every system which time has brought forth.” (Part One of the Encyclopaedia of Philosophical Sciences: The Logic, para 86)

But this is not so. Hegel explains that elements of the old negated ideas are “preserved in the later: but subordinated and submerged”.

In science, successful new theories may be very different to the old ones they have overthrown, but they are far more powerful at predicting what nature will do under definite circumstances, so that scientists can manipulate nature ever more precisely, producing the vast and often destructive leaps science has made over many decades. Scientific interpretations (such as the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics, the usual, most commonly used interpretation for the last half century or so) arise to help with scientific predictions. Models may be approximate and temporary in the great scheme of things, but they nevertheless can be said to reflect reality (using the term ‘reflect’ in a natural, common and non-technical sense). Not the ultimate reality, just a reflection of reality.

What is absent in modern philosophical discussions of science is the understanding of the role of capitalism. This is precisely because post-modernism in its various forms arose to deny the validity of scientific Marxist descriptions of historical processes as well as the prevailing social democratic concepts of society – “there is no such thing as society”, former UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher once mistakenly declared.

How ever much capitalism distorts the functioning and usefulness of science, capitalists and capitalist countries need scientists who successfully understand nature to the extent that they can develop new products, so that their capitalist owners and capitalist nations can compete more successfully. In this way science does not and cannot tend towards mysticism, solipsism or subjective idealism, despite what any philosopher or scientist says, but instead, must always tend towards a materialist approach. As Lenin repeatedly says, scientists are instinctively materialist, (e.g. Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, p. 147, p. 153), and as Engels said, they discover relative truths.

Metaphysical and dialectical materialism

Einstein made a major contribution to the development of quantum mechanics through his paper on quantum leaps in 1905, for which he won the Nobel prize. As Kumar explains, an electron can appear to be in one place in an atom and then, “as if by magic, reappear in another without ever being anywhere in between”. It was like a tree disappearing in London and suddenly reappearing in Paris or New York.

In the 1930s, Einstein began a famous debate with Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, two founders of quantum mechanics. Bohr and Heisenberg realised that their discoveries meant the need for a new interpretation of reality. Heisenberg argues that quantum mechanics had “led physicists far away from the simplistic materialist views that prevailed in the natural sciences of the 19th century”.

Bernard d’Espagnat says, “Having vanquished materialism thanks to physics, shall we surrender to radical idealism?” But the point is, he answers No. (Bernard D’Espagnat, On Physics and Philosophy, p. 452)

Kumar sides with Einstein because quantum mechanics appears to defy materialism. In fact, Kumar is not defending genuine dialectical materialism, but rather the simplistic, 19th century interpretation of materialism which Heisenberg rejects. Kumar defends what Lenin termed “metaphysical” materialism, not dialectical materialism. Lenin said:

“The recognition of immutable elements, ’of the immutable substance of things,’ and so forth, is not materialism, but metaphysical, i.e., anti-dialectical, materialism.” (Lenin, Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, Chapter Five, section “Matter Has Disappeared” p. 249)

Kumar defends an abstract philosophy of metaphysical materialism against modern scientific theory.

So what method did Lenin use, which led to him to correctly assess Einstein’s theory? Lenin argued that the latest scientific discoveries have not refuted dialectical materialism at all. Lenin showed this, not by defending what Heisenberg called the simplistic 19th century’s materialist views, but by revising them. In other words, by recognising that for the philosophy of dialectical materialism, what it means to recognise a scientific theory as materialist must change as science develops.

Materialism (as opposed to dialectical materialism) may take various forms, as upheld by various scientists and philosophers, over the centuries, but dialectical materialism is free from any particular epoch’s scientific fixations.

Lenin wrote:

“Engels says explicitly that ‘with each epoch-making discovery even in the sphere of natural science … materialism has to change its form’. Hence a revision of the “form” of Engels’ materialism, a revision of his natural-philosophical [i.e. scientific] propositions is not only not “revisionism”, in the accepted meaning of the term, but, on the contrary, is an essential requirement of Marxism.” (Lenin, Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, Chapter Five, p. 239)

Lenin therefore revised what had previously been considered to be the basic tenets of materialism for Marxists. And in point of fact, Lenin threw out all of Engels’ purely scientific materialist statements (his natural-philosophical propositions), such as ‘matter in motion’, an observation particularly insufficient after Einstein showed that mass and energy could be transformed one into the other. What was left was simply a return to Engels’ assertion that “those who regard Nature as primary, belong to the various schools of materialism” – an insistence that dialectical materialism recognises that the facets of a simple scientific, materialist outlook of a particular epoch are never fixed for all time, but “approximate” and “relative”.

Today, quantum mechanics seems to challenge our most basic assumptions about things like space and time – about things appearing to be in two places at once. In the famous Schrödinger’s cat thought experiment, the cat is both alive and dead until it is observed.

But in Lenin’s day, also, science appeared to overturn the way the material world was conceived. In the chapter entitled “The Crisis in Modern Physics” Lenin writes:

“The entire mass of the electrons… proves to be totally and exclusively electrodynamic in its origin. Mass disappears. The foundations of mechanics are undermined. Newton’s principle, the equality of action and reaction, is undermined, and so on.

We are faced, says Poincare, with the ruins of the old principles of physics, ‘a general debacle of principles.’” (Lenin, Materialism and Empirio-criticism, p. 241)

This led the Bolshevik leaders, against whom Lenin directed his book, to argue that Engels’ views had become “antiquated”. They believed “materialism thus appears to be refuted by … the ‘modern theory of knowledge’”, Lenin reports. Moreover, they argued, that Engels’ dialectics is “mysticism”. (Lenin, Materialism and Empirio-criticism, Preface)

The error the Bolshevik leaders made was outlined by Engels in a comment in his Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy:

“Feuerbach lumps together … materialism … and the special form in which this world outlook was expressed at a definite historical stage, namely, in the eighteenth century.”

The Bolshevik leaders under attack were mistaking materialism as expressed by Engels at a “definite historical stage” for Marxist materialism. What they lacked was a dialectical approach to materialism.

“Matter in motion” or “Energy”

A late twentieth century example of the same error can be found in the ossified use of Engels’ phrase “matter in motion” in the works of writers such as George Novack. In Dialectics of Nature, Engels celebrated the recent discoveries in science that broke down supposedly timeless and unchanging physical appearances into a flux of transformations:

“…physical energy, mechanical energy, heat, light, electricity magnetism, indeed even so-called chemical energy, become transformed into one another under definite conditions without any loss of energy occurring, and so proved post factum along physical lines Descartes’ principle that the quantity of motion present in the world is constant. With that the special physical energies, the as it were immutable “species” of physics, were resolved into variously differentiated forms of the motion of matter, convertible into one another according to definite laws. The fortuitousness of the existence of a number of physical energies was abolished from science by the proof of their interconnections and transitions. Physics, like astronomy before it, had arrived at a result that necessarily pointed to the eternal cycle of matter in motion as the ultimate reality.” (Engels, Dialectics of Nature, Introduction)

This is a scientific assessment rooted in the now forgotten physics of the mid-19th century. “It was argued for some years whether energy was a substance (the caloric) or merely a physical quantity, such as momentum.” ( Momentum is matter in motion. This debate over matter in motion tends to be obscured because, as Thomas Kuhn explained, scientific history is re-written to emphasise the paths taken to the current scientific theories, relegating those that have been abandoned to the footnotes, at best.

Science moves on. During the years that Engels was composing Dialectics of Nature, science leant to quantify “energy” in general, replacing the “special physical energies” Engels refers to. This was particularly through the work of James Joule and William Thomson (Lord Kelvin) which gave us the joule and the kelvin. The momentarily fashionable term, “matter in motion” was dropped by commentators and the scientific community. Engels abandoned the Dialectics of Nature manuscript unfinished. And of course, subsequently, Einstein showed that matter can be transformed into energy.

Yet we find the distinctly out-of-date term ‘matter in motion’ in common use in some Marxist literature almost a century later. For instance, in his excellent condemnation of the Hungarian philosopher George Lukács, Novack writes: “The dialectical method of Marxism is not present … as a logical instrument for analysing matter in motion in the physical, social and intellectual realms.” (Lukács as a Marxist philosopher in George Novack, Polemics in Marxist Philosophy, p. 142, my emphasis) It is ironic that Novack does not recognise his “metaphysical” materialism.

“Objective law in nature”?

Lenin also assumed certain basic concepts that at the time were materialist, but which have been subsequently challenged by sciences such as quantum mechanics. Lenin attacks Ernst Mach over the question of causality, writing, “the recognition of objective law in nature and the recognition that this law is reflected with approximate fidelity in the mind of man is materialism.” (p. 142) But the revolutionary development of quantum mechanics and chaos theory ensured that science no longer can speak of “objective law in nature” common, if not almost universal, at the time of Lenin. Rather, physical laws are human attempts to approximate our formulas to reality. Reality is not now thought to be ultimately reducible to any laws. In his latest book, for instance, the mathematician Ian Stewart writes:

“We use formulas to model physical reality, but that’s just a technique, it’s how we like to think… mathematical models are always approximations to physical reality.” (Ian Stewart , Taming the infinite: The story of Mathematics from the first numbers to chaos theory, p. 198)

Causality is part of Lenin’s materialist outlook. Lenin attacks Mach for arguing, “In nature, there is neither cause nor effect.” Einstein also felt that the quantum mechanics lacks an element of reality because it appears to deny causality. We will look at this shortly. Mach, in fact, is partly arguing here that all apparently causal laws in nature are in fact human attempts to impose approximate laws on nature, which is correct.

Trotsky’s materialist outlook includes definite statements about space and time which are currently being questioned by scientists. Trotsky points out that in certain idealist, philosophical books, “you can read that time and space are categories of our minds, that they result from the requirements of our thinking, and that nothing corresponds to them in reality.” (Leon Trotsky on Dialectical Materialism in George Novack, Polemics in Marxist Philosophy, p. 307)

Today, you can read something which sounds similar (but is not the same) in the June 2010 edition of Scientific American: “The idea of points of space-time as being primary objects is artificial” (Scientific American, June 2010, p. 10) Time and space do not exist at the atomic level in the same way they do for us. One could argue that scientists (who, as a whole, are only exploring this issue at this stage), are defining reality in terms of what exists at the atomic level, whereas reality is what we experience ourselves. As Trotsky writes, “if any idealist philosopher, instead of arriving in time to catch the nine p.m. train, should turn up two minutes late, he would see the tail of the departing train and would be convinced by his own eyes that time and space are inseparable from material reality.”

But this becomes merely an anthropomorphic view if, as we shall shortly see, time and space do not exist in some real sense at the atomic level. Why define reality only by what we humans commonly experience? Scientists do not deny that time and space emerge so that we can experience them, as some kind of “emergent property of whatever the basic ingredients of the world are” as the Scientific American article, “Is Time an Illusion” puts it. (Scientific American, June 2010, p. 42) They do not assert, as idealists do, that nothing corresponds to time and space in reality. Another emergent property is life, which is real enough also – but do not expect to see life in individual atoms of carbon, though every living thing is composed entirely of atoms of carbon and other inorganic material.

What this all means is that when we approach quantum mechanics, we cannot simply insist that it bases itself on the old materialist presuppositions of the past. And when, shortly, we examine Einstein’s qualms about missing “elements of reality”, we shall see that these essentially out-dated materialist concerns have indeed been thrown into question.

Lenin’s theory of knowledge

Just as Lenin insisted it is a essential requirement of Marxism to revise Engels’ scientific propositions, so it is our duty very briefly to revise Lenin’s Materialism and Empirio-Criticism where required.

Unfortunately, Lenin was misled by the belief that the term “relative to the observer” meant “subjective”, an almost universal misunderstanding at the time. This means that his attacks on Ernst Mach on the question of space and time are incorrect.

However, Lenin is correct to attack Mach’s philosophical approach. Several chapters of Materialism and Empirio-Criticism deal with the theory of knowledge – what do we really know about the world? Since, with every great scientific revolution, science seems to throw everything we thought we knew into question, this subject pops up a lot in philosophy.

Positivists, like Mach, try to make sense of the world by starting with the individual’s sensations and hope to build from there a coherent view of the world, devoid of philosophical presuppositions. These attempts fail, just as we fail to detect life at the level of the atom. Equally, the more sophisticated attempts of the logical positivists failed. All that can really be discovered by this classical philosophical method, which is the antithesis of the dialectical approach, is what Descartes had already stated: “I think, therefore I am”. But nothing more. As Lenin correctly argues, this leads nowhere but the standpoint of solipsism.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, who heavily influenced the school of logical positivism, concluded his seminal work, the grandly named Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, with the words:

“My propositions are elucidatory in this way; he who understands me finally recognises them as nonsensical … Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”

And, silently, Wittgenstein gave up philosophy to train as a primary school teacher. (He returned to philosophy later in life, refuting his former views.)

Writing in 1908, when positivism was (once again) an exciting new fashion, Lenin did not have access to Marx and Engels’ early writings, (e.g. the chapter on Feuerbach in the German Ideology) and had not yet studied Hegel closely. For this reason, in Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, Lenin makes too many concessions to the positivist approach he is criticising. He writes, for instance, “The first premise of the theory of knowledge undoubtedly is that the source of our knowledge is sensation.” But contrast this with his treatment of Feuerbach:

“Feuerbach makes the sum-total of human practice the basis of the theory of knowledge… Before we perceive, we breathe; we cannot exist without air, food and drink. (Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, p. 128)

Lenin quotes Feuerbach:

“Does this mean then that we must deal with questions of food and drink when examining the problem of the ideality or reality of the world?—exclaims the indignant idealist. How vile! What an offence against good manners soundly to trounce materialism in the scientific sense from the chair of philosophy and the pulpit of theology, only to practice materialism with all one’s heart and soul in the rudest form at the table d’hôte.”

Lenin summarises thus:

“The standpoint of life, of practice, should be first and fundamental in the theory of knowledge.” (Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, pp. 128-9)

When the philosopher asks how, given the latest quantum mechanical discoveries, we can know that anything outside of our immediate sensations really exists, Marxists do not examine the sensations involved and work from the individual, but we ask, instead, in what historical context did this question arise? What is the context of the question, who is asking the question and why? What is the significance of the language in which it is being asked?

Philosophers and theologians who ask philosophical questions about what we can know about the world (epistemology) arise only once humankind has raised productivity high enough to sustain scholars, administrators and clerics. The language in which the question is expressed, as the later Wittgenstein showed, develops historically in communities who carry its shared meanings. Language has no strictly logical structure – it is a shared heritage. Questions about epistemology can only arise in certain concrete circumstances.

Rather than starting from the individual, the historical materialist method insists that we start from the “origin and development of knowledge” as Lenin later surmised. If philosophers consider this reply to questions on the theory of knowledge an offence against good manners, that is too bad. For philosophers of dialectics, it is impermissible to consider things in isolation. Dialectical materialism is a monist, all-embracing philosophy which always examines things in their relations and development and does not allow the philosopher to rule out of order the context in which a question is being asked.

In 1914, Lenin turned to Hegel’s Science of Logic after the devastating defeat the international Marxist movement suffered when the Social Democratic parties decided to support their own capitalist class in the first world war (1914-1918). It was then that Lenin wrote Karl Marx, A Brief Biographical Sketch with an Exposition of Marxism, for publication in one of Russia’s most popular encyclopaedias. Lenin writes that the theory of knowledge “must regard its subject matter historically”:

“Dialectical materialism ‘does not need any philosophy standing above the other sciences.’ From previous philosophy there remains ‘the science of thought and its laws—formal logic and dialectics.’ Dialectics, as understood by Marx, and also in conformity with Hegel, includes what is now called the theory of knowledge, or epistemology, which, too, must regard its subject matter historically, studying and generalizing the origin and development of knowledge, the transition from non-knowledge to knowledge.” (Lenin, Karl Marx, A Brief Biographical Sketch with an Exposition of Marxism, 1914)

Einstein’s elements of reality: Locality

As Kumar correctly explains, Einstein championed three basic propositions which he called elements of reality, and which he felt were undermined by quantum mechanics. We will terms these Locality, Causality and Objectivity, aware that this is a vast simplification of issues we can only extremely briefly indicate.

Locality is the belief that things in separate localities cannot be in instantaneous touch with each other in the way quantum mechanics appeared to suggest. Einstein derided this “spooky action at a distance” of quantum mechanics, yet it has since been proved experimentally.

Experiments in the 1980s to the present day demonstrated that if two photons are simultaneously emitted from an atom they are ‘entangled’ or in instantaneous touch with each other. Even though they each travel speed of light away from each other, they are somehow still part of the same entity. It was Erwin Schrödinger who first used the term “entangled” when devising his Schrödinger’s cat thought experiment.

The latest experiment to test quantum entanglement was conducted by physicists from the University of Geneva in June 2008. Making pairs of entangled photons, they sent one of each pair from Geneva in Switzerland to the Swiss town of Satigny, while the other was sent to Jussy, 18 kilometres away, using optical fibres. (Spacelike Separation in a Bell Test Assuming Gravitationally Induced Collapses, Nature, 14 August, 2008). The experiment even took into account how the rotation of the earth might affect the experimental results. The scientists found, as expected, that the pairs of photons sent to the different Swiss towns seemed to ‘know’, in some sense, how their partner was being manipulated by the scientists, or more precisely by their equipment, more or less instantaneously. Compared to previous experiments, the distance between the two Swiss towns was so great that, if the particles had communicated with each other at the time of the experiment, communication between the entangled pair of photons would have taken place at ten thousand times the speed of light. It seems just as likely (if not more so), that entangled objects have a connection outside of time and space in some unknown way.

Just like the quantum leap of electrons which Einstein helped define in 1905, which appear to defy our concepts of space and time by disappearing from one place and reappearing in another without passing in between, these entangled objects appear to disregard space and time. They act as if they do not acknowledge the existence of separate localities.


Examining Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, Kumar compares the random radioactive decay of atoms to an apple falling from a tree. Once the apple is ripe, Kumar writes, it falls to the ground, caused by gravity. However, in the quantum world, Kumar asserts, there is no causality, and the apple would hover for an unknown period of time in the air before falling.

But this is misleading. In an apple orchard, the apples fall in autumn and we know the causes. Similarly, quantum mechanics has revealed the causes of atomic decay. Yet we do not know, precisely, when each apple will fall, just as we do not know, precisely, when each atom will decay. The wind blowing the apples down is chaotic and cannot be predicted precisely, nor can the atrophy of the cells in the stems of individual apples which connects the apple to the tree branch be precisely known..

It is not at all clear that there is a difference between causality in the example of the apple orchard, and causality at the atomic or subatomic level as understood by quantum mechanics. It appears that quantum mechanics has revealed that we had an idealised notion of causality. The most idealised notion of causality (determinism) was expressed by Pierre-Simon Laplace (1749 –1827)

“We may regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its past and the cause of its future. An intellect which at a certain moment would know all forces that set nature in motion, and all positions of all items of which nature is composed, if this intellect were also vast enough to submit these data to analysis, it would embrace in a single formula the movements of the greatest bodies of the universe and those of the tiniest atom; for such an intellect nothing would be uncertain and the future just like the past would be present before its eyes.” (Pierre Simon Laplace, A Philosophical Essay on Probabilities)

Yet in reality, as the French mathematician and physicist Henri Poincaré (1854 –1912) showed, even if only three physical bodies are in motion around each other, let alone more, whether they are atoms attracted by electrical forces or planets or stars attracted by gravity, their motion is chaotic and hence can never be calculated exactly. Differences in the initial conditions, discovered, for instance, merely by calculating the initial position or motion to a greater degree of accuracy, leads to completely different outcomes, rather than an increasingly accurate result. Poincaré’s ideas laid the basis for modern chaos theory.

The economy under capitalism is equally chaotic. This does not challenge the Marxist view that in the final analysis the economic conditions in a society determine its political structure. Trotsky writes, “Although economics determines politics not directly or immediately, but only in the last analysis, nevertheless economics does determine politics.”

We know, due to our Marxist analysis, the means by which economic circumstances will determine the political superstructure, but we cannot precisely determine the pace of events or in many cases even the precise order of events. And we are aware, as Marxists, that there may be a sudden interruption of the old order by a revolution which renders all previous theories invalid. Capitalist economics is chaotic like the world’s weather – the economy falls into repeating cycles of prosperity or slump, but given the right conditions, a hurricane can suddenly develop, permanently transforming the landscape.


In 1958, Heisenberg wrote that Einstein wished to return to “the idea of an objective, real world”, where subatomic particles “exist objectively in the same sense as stones or trees exist, independently of whether or not we observe them”. (Physics and Philosophy, pp. 82-83)

Sounds reasonable, until you consider that it was Einstein who had discovered that space and time were relative to an observer or, more precisely, relative to a particular body of reference. Time and space are objective, of course, but you get different values for time and space depending on what your frame of reference is.

Einstein wrote:

“… there is no such thing as an independently existing trajectory, only a trajectory relative to a particular body of reference” or, using the common terms, relative to an observer. (Einstein, Relativity, (1916), p. 10)

Toss a coin in the air. It rises a metre and falls again. How far has it travelled? Two metres, one up one down? It depends. And it depends on the observer, or more precisely, on the place you measure from – the “body of reference”, to use Einstein’s more exact language.

Einstein gives the example of a train. If you tossed the coin in a train, it has travelled two metres as measured inside the train. But if we imagine the train is going 30 kilometres an hour from London to Manchester, you will readily accept that in the two second it took the coin to rise and fall, the coin has also travelled with the train some distance north – a little over 8 metres. You might be inclined to say your measurement on the train is incorrect and that the measurement of someone on the embankment watching the train go by is correct. That would be a scientific error.

Consider that the earth is going at some 30 kilometres a second round the sun. What about the space-traveller who is stationary with respect to the sun, who watches the coin, through some very powerful binoculars, as the earth thunders past? For her, the coin has travelled some 60 kilometres, plus the other movements. And the sun is going round the galaxy, and the galaxy is speeding at some 1000s of kilometres away from other galaxies… whose observation (measurement) is correct?

The answer is, there is no independently existing trajectory for the coin, only a trajectory relative to a particular body of reference, as Einstein said. And he learnt this from Ernst Mach and Henri Poincaré. You may decide, for a matter of convenience or policy, which measurement is to be accepted as the only correct one, but no amount of scientific measurements can show the difference – this is something which Galileo proved when he argued that the earth goes round the sun, without our being able to feel the effects of the motion.

“In the first place,” Einstein writes, “we entirely shun the vague word ‘space’ of which, we must honestly acknowledge, we cannot form the slightest conception, and we replace it by ‘motion relative to a … body of reference.’” (Einstein, Relativity, (1916), p. 9)

We return, then, once more, to the problem of space.

Subatomic particles may appear to be waves or particles, depending on how we set up our apparatus – that is, how we observe them. They even seem to change their behaviour retrospectively, as if they can go back in time and start again, if we change our method of measurement. Their behaviour indicates that somehow time is not what it seems, or does not exist.

Subatomic particles seem to be everywhere and nowhere all at once. The US physicist Nick Herbert pointed out that insisting that subatomic particles have an independent existence is like insisting that rainbows are solid objects and have some definite place in space irrespective of the observer. We know that rainbows appear to be different in appearance and in different places depending on the position of the observer. They are objectively real yet relative to the observer. A rainbow is not a single object but a complex combination of natural processes.

Supporting Einstein, the Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger also wanted to discover a physics which was deterministic rather than probabilistic and dependent on an observer. In 1935, he devised the famous Schrödinger’s cat thought experiment, in which a cat is both dead and alive until observed. But at issue here is the notion of observation, and it is true that the issue has not been resolved.

Einstein wanted science to be able to say precisely what the state of something was without disturbing it with an observation. But when you next use a thermometer to take the temperature of something, ask yourself what the temperature of the thermometer is. If it is hotter than the body you are testing, it will heat it up. If it is colder, it will cool it down. So how do you accurately take the temperature of something? In practice, the idea that the scientist lives in a bubble outside of nature and can experiment on it without disturbing it is an idealised notion.

It remains a fact that subatomic particles do not exist objectively, “in the same sense as stones or trees exist”, independently of whether or not we observe them, as Heisenberg explained, but are more like rainbows. Perhaps Einstein and Schrödinger were making an error of judgement similar to someone trying to find the origins of life by examining carbon atoms.


One day, a new theory will overthrow quantum mechanics and reveal the deeper reality behind subatomic particles, in the same way as the discovery of electromagnetic radiation helped us understand the transient nature of rainbows.

It might demonstrate that at the atomic level there is only “a single dimension of highly warped space” and none of time, which is merely a reflection of our own living experience. At least, that is what the ‘hottest’ physics on the planet is suggesting at the time of writing. (Scientific American, June 2010, p.10)

When the next revolution in science occurs, we must keep in mind Hegel’s “true meaning of the refutation of one system by another”.

Undoubtedly another cherished tenet of material reality will be demolished, with the usual cries of bewilderment from the media and philosophers of metaphysical materialism.

But as Marxists, as dialectical materialists, we cannot be found attempting to defend outmoded views on what constitutes reality, but must face up to the new results of experiments and measurements.


Quotes from Lenin’s Materialism and Empirio-Criticism are from the edition first published in 1947 by Progress publishers, Moscow.

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December 2010