Why Science and Reason belong to the Left.


Talk delivered at EMS Smrithy 2018, Thrissur. Dedicated to the memory of comrades Dutt Mash and Murali Mash.


This note argues that genuine radical politics has an instinctive affinity to science and reason, whereas right-wing ideologies, especially those anchored in religious fundamentalism or varieties of obscurantism are fundamentally threatened by them. It points out that this requires some care in our view of what is meant by science and reason, going beyond mere empiricism or instrumental views of reason. We point out the significance of the bourgeois revolutions of Europe and the Enlightenment in the advance of a critical attitude to religion and the displacement of religion from its predominant position of an earlier era. The note specifically underlines the importance of the work of Marx and Engels in making science and reason intrinsic to being Left by establishing the foundations of a thorough-going scientific understanding of societies, and particularly through their scientific analysis of capitalism and its system of exploitation. We also argue that the crux of why science and reason belong to the Left lies in the transformative nature of the science of society that Marx and Engels developed, a science that was as much a science of social transformation as a science of society.

The note also discusses some of the challenges to science and reason in the contemporary period. It also, in particular, discusses briefly the recourse to anti-science and anti-rational views current among many variants of environmentalism and environmental thought.


The title that was originally intended for this talk was “Why science and reason threaten Right-wing ideologies.” On reflection though one felt the need to change it, partly because of a certain confusion and ambiguity that has come to attend, in recent times, the answer to the “dual” question, posed in the current version of the title. Even among those who would agree that right-wing ideologies are threatened by science and reason, and the evidence that they are has never been more stark in some respects, there are some who hesitate to stand behind the assertion that science and reason belong to the Left. To put it more bluntly, there is a marked reluctance among some on the Left to take ownership, as it were, of science and reason. Hence it appears necessary to address both questions if we are indeed to do justice to the original one.

Under the broad rubric of the Right in politics, one may of course identify a wide range of political formations and their ideologies, with fascism and extreme religious fundamentalism at one extreme, and including various shades of authoritarian rule that deny or restrict democratic rights to a significant degree, or formations that promote various kinds of majoritarianism, directed at different minorities depending on the context. In the particular context of India, one should note also the close connection between caste oppression and caste discrimination and the religious mind-set associated with most variants of Hinduism. In a more general sense, the term Right has been used for any reference to political formations that seek to preserve the status quo or are opposed to social and economic reform. Historically, this has encompassed those that sought to deny the active entry and participation of the working people in politics, the preservation of the hold of religion on various aspects of personal and social life, the denial of voting rights to women, regular encouragement to socially exclusionary policies – the list is virtually endless.

One common feature of all these formations is their general adherence to what we may broadly call the “rule of capital”, nor do they challenge capitalism in general on ideological grounds. Authoritarian versions of the Right-wing may of course demand the political allegiance of individual business leaders or business groups or sections of the business community. But in fact they are equally known to actively promote the interests of business, especially of large corporations. In particular they also show keen interest in curbing the rights of the working people in standing up to capital or in curbing any kind of balancing of the rights of working people vis-a-vis that of capital. Thus the Right, both historically and in the contemporary era, has always been associated with the ideological opposition to notions of public welfare, even if they resort to it for electoral reasons while in power.

It is not difficult to see that among the viewpoints within the scope of our use of the term Right, religious fundamentalism and various kinds of majoritarianism are , most obviously, immediately on a collision course with science and reason. For one, all religious fundamentalism depends in some way or the other on dogmas that must be accepted by fiat without the application of reason. This is not to deny that religion, or more particularly soteriology (doctrines or theories of salvation) have been the source of philosophical views that have a legitimate place in the history of intellectual thought and the development of knowledge. But religion as ideology has a fundamental divergence with the application of reason.

Sometimes the argument is made that this criticism applies only to religions that depend on a single scriptural authority or a definite, anthropomorphic godhead with superhuman powers. Religions such as variants of Hinduism or Buddhism are in contrast, it is argued, not incompatible with reason since the invocation of such authority is not a fundamental part of the religion, which are hence more “philosophical” in nature. To this one may immediately respond with three straightforward arguments. The first is that religion as ideology has more to do with its practice rather than what is put down in associated philosophical/scriptural texts and by this criterion the dogmatism of any religion is evident, even if there are a number of slightly varying dogmas competing for allegiance. The second is that allegiance to a variety of texts rather than a single textual authority or the absence of a godhead do not necessarily render  religious belief any less in collision with reason. But the more fundamental argument is that the application of reason cannot extend equally as it were to a “supernatural” realm in the same manner that it is applied to the natural and social worlds. The Carvaka thus unerringly took aim at any notion of a “supernatural” world, even in an era where so little was known or understood of even the natural world, let alone the social. The hallmark of religion in the Indian sub-continent has been more often the supernatural notion of “karma”, common to both Hinduism and Buddhism for instance, and its soteriological significance. But clearly early anti-religious standpoints could not have countered this viewpoint consistently.

Reason in this view, is inseparable from science, though we need to say a little more about science in its application to the social world, which we shall turn to shortly. The emergence of modern empiricism going back to the early Enlightenment in Europe (or perhaps even earlier), then to subsequently resonate across the globe, was indeed a turning-point in philosophical thought in this respect, as it brought reason to earth without losing itself in speculative fancy. Ideologies that discriminate between sections of society based on religion, race, caste (particularly in South Asia) or culture have had a slightly longer run, but even they have, in the era of scientific advance, gradually lost any claim to scientific or even simple factual legitimacy.

While modern empiricism in association with the advance of the sciences, was an indispensable factor in dealing with the dogma of religion, the sciences themselves were of course critical in the dethroning of religious views of various kinds. Religion could not make assertions of a “supernatural” world without having at the same time to make assumptions and assertions regarding the natural world and the rapidly growing evidence of their unwarranted character became a powerful counter to religion. The gradual expulsion of religious dogma and prejudices from the study of the natural world has gradually led to the total annihilation of any reference to religion or “supernatural” explanations whatsoever in the practice of the sciences. At least for the last hundred years the association of science with atheism has been quite well established.

Especially after science had defeated religion on the battlefield of the study of Nature, the Achilles heel of science in the conflict with religion has been the question of the freedom of the human mind. In various forms this is quite the bulwark of the modern justifications of religious beliefs or even simply various pseudo-scientific beliefs relating to the workings of natural world. Why can one not simply believe? Why cannot such beliefs be taught as legitimate views alongside science? If the answer to the previous questions is no, doesn’t that make science oppressive and undemocratic? While many are willing to deride various political celebrities who openly espouse absurd beliefs, they would be reluctant to dismiss such views when they are presented as popular opinion of a majority, or the beliefs of a marginalised culture, a marginalised social stratum or a socially distinct community. If a majority of the population reiterates a certain belief, then should education in science be tailored to such belief? We shall return to answer these questions in just a moment.

Historically the collapse of the dogmas of religion included also the collapse of the dictates of religion regarding the nature of political and social life. In Europe, where this collapse first began, the demise of the feudal order was associated with the loosening of the hold of ecclesiastical authority in temporal matters (alongside the scriptural in dealing with the spiritual) and subjecting religion itself, at least partially, to the demands of reason. This of course was an uneasy compromise and in reality a contradiction that could only be resolved by the gradual acceptance of the withdrawal of religion from any serious philosophical or scientific reckoning.

However the general hold of religion and priestly authority on matters of personal law and personal choice relating to the individual or family has taken far longer to be pushed aside in practice. In contemporary times this has marked one of the areas where religion, as part of the armoury of the political Right, has made a striking comeback. This has provided a new foothold for religion in regions of the world, where religion appeared to have been thoroughly marginalized in personal and social life. In regions of the world where religion had a still a dominant hold in the realm of the personal or social/cultural, religion in these spheres has become the tool of religious fundamentalism. I believe that this distinction is important, that we do not conflate the evangelical Right of the United States and their insistence on the right to life of the unborn, for instance, with the rise of Hindutva and its predilection for restricting the freedom of women in public spaces. This of course does not preclude a few instances such as Turkey that perhaps do not fall so neatly into place

So why do religions and religious fundamentalism put up this determined effort to retain their dominance on personal and social life? In the case of religious fundamentalism as in Islamic fundamentalism and Hindutva it is clear that holding the front on the issue of the personal and the family is crucial in their attempt to hold modernity at bay. In this they both reinforce and depend upon patriarchy for sustaining their hold. In contrast, the new religious Right of the United States or Eastern Europe, while superficially similar are far more overtly directed by a political agenda and the religious fundamentalism is more of a convenient device to pursue this agenda.

It would of course be grossly incorrect to restrict reason to a purely negative role in its opposition to religion. The positive role of reason was really at work in shaping a new world view that developed alongside the development of the new economic order, namely capitalism. For the first time, it was possible to fashion, or at least begin to fashion, a rational account of human behaviour that had no need of any occult invocations of human spirit or soul and that was derived entirely (well, almost) from the purely objective nature of social relations, especially in the form of economic transactions. Adam Smith’s place in the history of the advance of reason is surely assured on this account. In the era of the development of capitalism, and the scientific revolution and industrial revolutions, reason rapidly shed its original speculative content, to encompass even the human and social worlds. The new sciences of the social world began to emerge, the most attractive and powerful of which was the science of economics. The development of the biological sciences, whose first theoretical achievement was the theory of evolution in the hands of Darwin (and partly Wallace), especially the locating of humanity itself in the natural world as the product of evolution, was to aid this comprehensive “disenchantment” of the human and social worlds.

But yet, as the enormous and rapid transformation of the social world brought no general well-being to society as a whole, as an earlier era of thinkers had optimistically hoped for, and indeed great dislocation and deprivation to many, the opposition to reason, the proponents of speculative thinking, and all those who were unwilling to give up the extension of science and reason to the human and the social, found fresh opportunities. As the rule of science and reason brought little comfort to the emerging working class, religion, especially of the traditional variety, attempted to retrench itself, by actively seeking a following among the poor, even if its traditional subservience to temporal authority remained, albeit with new masters. Philosophical speculation for its part found refuge in mounting a critique of the new order, a critique wherein the human qualities of speculation or the innate “spiritual” nature of the human were sought to be privileged over reason and science, which in their view had reduced the human condition to the exclusive pursuit of the technological and material dimension of human existence. From its earliest days, one major characteristic of such speculation was to expend much effort in decrying technology, especially the role of machinery, while privileging the innate mystique of craftsmanship. Political economy was the “dismal science”, whose depredations had to be mitigated by speculative thought. This line of intellectual thought built up in time a considerable following and its not insignificant influence continues to this day.

It was the genius of Marx, powerfully aided by Engels, to recognize that matters could not remain thus as they were, in the maelstrom of the intellectual and political life of the middle of the nineteenth century. They drew powerfully from the highest achievement of philosophical thought in their times, in Hegel’s account of the development of reason and his attempt at an objective understanding of the work of the subjective in the form of reason and scientific thought, seeking to replace speculative fancies on the human condition and humanity’s liberation with the goal of individual self-realization, and hence collective self-realization.

But in contrast to Hegel it was not reason that made the world, but the material conditions of human existence and their progressive evolution that fashioned reason. In contrast to empiricism, reason was not merely grounded in science. The entire realm of thought, all of “politics, science, art, religion, etc.” (as Engels spelt out) depended on humanity’s satisfaction of its material wants and securing its material conditions of existence. And as Engels beautifully summarised: “ consequently the degree of economic development attained by a given people or during a given epoch, form the foundation upon which the state institutions, the legal conceptions, art, and even the ideas on religion, of the people concerned have been evolved, and in the light of which they must, therefore, be explained, instead of vice versa, as had hitherto been the case.” Thus the the advance of science and reason, or as Marx and Engels emphasised, their dialectical development, lay not within reason alone, flowed from the practical activity of humanity. In addressing this, Marx and Engels, laid to rest the notion of a “freedom” that is divorced from its material origins. Freedom to believe was an incoherent notion and as Marx and Engels further added, this illusory sense of freedom was merely false consciousness, that sought an illusory realm of free will while being chained to the constraints imposed by the realities of material existence.

Understanding the economic order and the material conditions of social development was thus the key, especially with respect to capitalism. Marx hence set out to retrieve political economy from the hands of capital and its apologists, to strip away the limited empiricism that dominated the discipline, and to establish the scientific foundations of the workings of capital. In doing so, Marx ensured that philosophical debate would no longer be dominated by the confrontation of empiricism with speculation, but that there would be a third that would transcend both to a truly scientific world-view. And that scientific world-view in the realm of political economy emphasised that at the core of capitalism were its contradictions – on the one hand the potential of capitalism to take society to genuinely higher levels of material abundance and well-being, hitherto unknown to pre-capitalist societies, while on the other hand the entire enterprise was nevertheless founded on exploitation.

It is worth recalling that for Marx the development of productive forces was an absolute good, but this was not be confused with the irrational nature of its development under capitalism. In dialectical terms, and in terms of the categories of Marxist political economy, productive forces stood in relation to the relations of production in the same way that quantity stood in relation to quality. The former was unrestricted in scope, but it was precisely its characteristic of going beyond or transcending its limits, that set the stage for the breakdown of the unity of quantity and quality in measure. Crisis was the breakdown of the old measure and its giving way to a new measure – measure did not change by constant mutual interaction of quality and quantity. Thus within a given set of relations of production, the dialectical relationship is not the mutual constant refashioning of productive forces and relations of production but the continued development of productive forces till the relations of production have perforce to be transformed. This does not ignore the important point that new technologies constantly put new pressures and demands on the working class and changes in the organization of the workplace and specific productive activities and that resistance to these changes contributes in a significant way to the development of working class consciousness. However the view that somehow with every kind of technological advance there is a choice to be made of whether it is “good” or “bad” for the working class or whether it leads to a positive or negative change in the relations of production is a thoroughly un-Marxist notion.

With this advance, namely Marx and Engels’ understanding of the essence of the nature of the human world and the conditions of human existence, the Left was at last possessed of science and reason as its own weapon. No longer was science and reason to be the possession of a minority, of a ruling class – it would always be challenged by those who spoke for the majority, the working class, and claimed both as their own. We should not underestimate the extraordinary effect that Marx and Engels’ views had on the working classes of Europe initially and gradually much farther away, especially through the influence of the Social-Democratic parties that gained powerfully soon after Marx passed away, and whose initial stages, Engels was fortunate to witness in person. The basic secular character of modern Europe, despite its many weaknesses and the many trials and challenges that it has faced, owes much to the powerful working class, social democratic and communist movements of the late nineteenth and twentieth century.

At the same time, capitalism would increasingly deal with science and reason in purely instrumental or pragmatic fashion, restricting their scope lest they exposed its own transitory character. Capitalism would also make new room for, or take recourse to, reactionary, obscurantist ideologies as they served its own interests in the face of opposition to its rule. Finally, with the rise of the Soviet Union and the socialist world, a new vision of science and reason became part of being Left. And this vision was constantly set against the instrumental vision of science and reason under capitalism. Science was not necessarily dependent on capitalist accumulation, and the latter was no necessary condition for the development of the productive forces of society. Science was not intrinsically an instrument of war. It was capitalism and its contradictions that gave rise to war and not the possession of knowledge of the means to wage it. If human well-being was wanting despite the advance of science, it was not the nature of science that lay at its roots, but the nature of the social and economic order that prevented the consistent application of science and reason to human affairs.

We will not have the time or space here to examine in detail the Soviet experience with regard to science and reason. It must be emphasised though that the Soviet order kept religion at bay from the public and private lives of its citizens, deprived it entirely of any power of intervention in the public sphere, and allowed it to function only as a recourse for those who actively sought it out. The significance accorded to science in Soviet life was extraordinary, and the propagation of any kind of superstition and obscurantism ruled out almost entirely. It is clear also that the return of religious observance in the late Soviet era and its resurgence had more to do with the active role of the post-Soviet Russian state in this regard than any large-scale return of religious belief, especially in the form of active religious observance. The latter in particular continues to be very low. But the profound secular character of the Soviet state and society did not always guarantee that the rule of reason would prevail. While rank obscurantism may have been missing, the temptation to promote backward and unscientific views in some specific areas such as biology clearly point to the fact that even under a socialist regime the consistent pursuit of science and reason is by no means a foregone conclusion. One may also regard the widespread imprisonment and even execution of a significant number of citizens under Soviet rule in the immediate pre-Second World War years, as equally an exercise in unreason, driven as it was by cycles of wild speculation on the motives of those accused, meaningless and fraudulent denunciations of various kinds, and the extraction of forced confessions in a number of cases. But while this was an abhorrent deviation from democratic norms and rational behavior, it could be argued that such deviations did not characterize Soviet public life in the main, in the entire period of Soviet rule.

Before we end this note, we turn to three significant challenges to science and reason in the contemporary period.

The first relates to the transformation to capitalism in parts of the world after the development of imperialism. The early phase of colonial rule, followed by the entry of foreign capital, wrought havoc on peoples across the world in a number of ways. One response to this in many nations in the colonial era and later was a retreat into the past, looking backward to an imagined romantic, idyllic view of the pre-colonial era, that was irrevocably transformed by the entry of colonial rule followed by the entry of capital. While the Left has stood in the main against this trend, the repeated invocation of such views, especially by the speculative viewpoint, has also done considerable damage. This traditionalist response of local elites to colonialism and imperialism has now been given a new lease of life in intellectual discussion by the anti-Enlightenment views of a section of academic and intellectual opinion current in many countries.

The second follows from the first, wherever the traditionalist response has managed to consolidate itself with the support or active participation of the more conservative elements of the traditional elite. Especially when the ruling classes are unwilling and/or unable to complete the task of overcoming of the burden of the pre-capitalist past, a new and resurgent traditionalism that is openly defiant of the minimum rule of reason in public life seeks political power, as in India under the banners of communal fascism, militant obscurantism, and revanchist nationalism. As Amarty Sen, who provided this characterisation notes, this three “not unrelated” tendencies have been manifested in the rise of Hindutva. I shall however not discuss this aspect further as Prakash Karat has already dealt with the issue at length in his lecture.

The third, and perhaps the most novel, is the new challenge to science and reason that comes from the arena of environmental issues and related conflicts. There is of course no question that environmental concerns, encompassing a wide range of spatial scales, from the local to the global, and varying both in form and content, have increasingly become an important aspect of social, economic and political life across the world. And there is indeed no doubt that the periodic upsurge of political mobilization on these issues points to the depth of popular concern that various forms of environmental degradation have evoked. One may add that even the ideal of socialism, that has animated the Left for more than a century, is now certainly unthinkable without environmental well-being as an integral part of it. Nevertheless, following the earlier trend of a backward-looking, romantic or traditionalist response to the rise of capitalism, we are witness to a new upsurge of movements and viewpoints on environmental issues that are founded on the rejection of science and reason.

For a number of such ideologies in the romantic tradition, neo-Gandhism in India being a prominent example, the crux of solving environmental questions lies in the rejection of science and technology, and a return to some variant of a divine view of Nature. A wide range of unscientific views of Nature are often peddled as the answer to environmental issues. Perhaps the most problematic attitude is the impatience with respect to waiting for the findings of scientific investigation in such cases and the readiness to point an accusatory finger at any possible cause without serious evidence to back it up. Alongside this, any insistence on accurate scientific data and investigation is often dismissed as arguing in favour of environmental degradation. Another important aspect of the problem is the inherent uncertainty in drawing scientific conclusions on environmental issues, as a result of which even scientists may be found arguing on both sides of the debate on any particular occasion. But, as one is well aware from the past, one of the entry points for religious belief in private and public life is indeed the need to cope with uncertainty. The environmental arena has proven to be no exception, despite the irony of an unscientific reaction to issues that one would not have become aware of without the work of science itself.

The result is the rise of a wide range of what may be termed “secular” obscurantism,whose essence is the dismissal of serious scientific analysis of the issue at hand. At the global level, on questions such as sustainability and global warming, long discredited views rooted in geographical and environmental determinism are aired freely in the new context while the damage done by such views is amplified by widespread media coverage that they receive. Unsurprisingly, a wide variety of religious leaders, gurus and assorted self-appointed “spiritual” leaders have taken to becoming active and vocal on environmental questions.

It is clear that the Left needs to carefully distinguish between reactionary, romantic or utopian views on the environment and genuinely scientific views, that recognize on the one hand the enhanced importance of science and technology in understanding environmental issues and their solutions, and on the other the importance of a critique of the irrationality of the capitalist mode of production as the source of the many  environmental crises of the contemporary era.


One thought on “Why Science and Reason belong to the Left.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s