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.

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“Spontaneous System” or Dialectical “Totality”?


Recently some Marxist writers in India have started claiming that one of Marx’s fundamental contributions to the study of capitalism was “his insight into a basic characteristic of the system, that it is a spontaneous system. ” This is a rather curious formulation, especially in the year of Marx’s bicentenary, since neither Marx or Engels ever used the term. This merits the following observations:

1) Marx uses the word spontaneously in two senses in his work. In the Grundrisse, he predominantly uses it in the sense of referring to the beginning of some phenomenon, meaning arising of its own accord, as contingency rather than necessity. Later when the phenomenon or process of self-reproduction establishes itself, then the spontaneous (or natural which he uses alongside) becomes transformed into the historical presupposition (or precondition).

2) In Capital, Marx uses it in the sense of the objective reality of processes in society including economic, social, etc, that take place behind the actors’ back as it were, without the actors’ being aware of it.

3) It has been suggested that “spontaneous system” means that the system is driven by its own “immanent tendencies”. That is true of any mode of production. In fact it is true of any totality, because there is nothing “outside” a totality. In this sense to call capitalism a spontaneous system is a tautology, unless a “god” or something like that interferes from outside, which makes matters even worse.

4) In this view, “spontaneous system” is used to suggest that the capitalists as a class have very little or no freedom within capitalism to choose different courses of action. This is patently untenable since the trajectory of capitalist growth varies widely across countries with very different implications for societies and peoples.

5) At the same time, the underlying logic of capital constantly reasserts itself and is realized through the actions of actors, including both capitalists and the working class. Thus the struggle for the length of the working day is part of the working of capital and not a struggle happening outside of the logic of capital. The “spontaneous system” view therefore has a one-sided view of the tendencies in capital’s development and does not see its inherent contradictory development.

6) The dialectical view of the whole or a “totality” is a much richer view, showing how the abstract and the concrete are related, showing how the individual and the universal are related, showing how the whole and the parts are related. Understanding totality in a dialectical way involves the painstaking tracing of the development of the whole in all its richness of detail from the essence, with its unity of opposites. Marx puts down the key elements of this approach in the section titled Method of Political Economy in his Introduction to the Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy.

7) The “spontaneous system” view however follows really the path of metaphysical abstraction, where understanding totality amounts to a jump from some microeconomic explanations to a set of macroeconomic explanations (emptied of detail), where the former may eventually even be given up in favour of the latter. It is in this kind of abstraction that Marx appears the same as Keynes at the macro level while admittedly different at the microlevel. In this view Keynes may be forgiven his neglect of exploitation since he really understood, at least partially, some aspects of the spontaneous system of capitalism.

7) It is Marx’s view of totality that leads to the concept of absolute rent as Lenin so simply explains and no idea of spontaneous system will be of any use in such an explanation. Similarly the transformation problem or how, in a full capitalist economy, values are transformed into prices, can be understood only in a dialectical view of “totality” that Marx works out in the Grundrisse and explains (through the efforts of Engels) in volume 3 of Capital. This has been understood and explained by a host of Marxist economists and even by some mainstream economists such as Baumol.

8) In the year of Marx’s bicentenary our task, in my humble opinion,  should be to revisit and relearn Marx’s dialectical viewpoint primarily from his study of capitalism in Grundrisse and Capital and stand up to the renewed attempt to draw metaphysical conclusions from a dialectical Marx.

Dialectics — Towards an elementary understanding

DIALECTICS — Towards an elementary understanding
(Dialectics being understood in the sense of Marx)

i) Dialectics can be (should be?) characterised as the study of self-reproducing and evolving “totalities” or “wholes”.

ii) This definition is based on the meaning of “motion” for totalities as opposed to elementary phenomena such as balls, bullets or stones. Motion is dialectically understood as the contradiction of “being there” and “not being there” in both space and time for simple objects. Self-reproduction and evolution are the two corresponding aspects (corresponding to being there and not being there respectively) of the contradiction characterising the motion of a “totality”.

iii) Without a world “being there”, there will be nothing to comprehend, understand and act upon. At the same time, “not being there” is essential to change. A world in motion is not a world in ceasless “flux”, a fleeting world where there is nothing to hold on to. 

iv) Dialectics is the proper study of materialism when the world (both natural and social ) is in motion. Traditional presentations of materialism tend to assume a static and unchanging objective reality. In the presence of motion, categories such as essence, existence, objective reality, and so on have to be interpreted carefully taking account of motion, change and development. Categories such as “coming-to-be” or “coming-into-existence” cannot be made sense of in traditional materialism and need a proper grasp of dialectics. For instance, In traditional presentations of materialism, “coming-to-be” and “to-be” are routinely considered identical, whereas this is not in general true.

v)The negation of the negation is fundamental to understanding the nature of “totalities”, otherwise “totalities” as a category, and more generally materialism itself, will be metaphysical and abstract. The same holds for the fundamental unity of opposites (contradiction and ground) — without the unity of opposites, totalities will be without determinations and empty.

vi) The true meaning of possibility and necessity and their dialectical relationship is understood only in the context of self-reproduction and evolution (Darwinian evolution being the classic example of this). And it is only in this context can we make sense of the relationship of structure and agency in the social world.

vi) The very notion of “totality” or “whole” can only come by going beyond the illusion of the world as a fragmented, unconnected multiplicity, as we immediately apprehend in our perception. And it is only through seeing the world as made of totalities can we see how the illusion arises.

There, I have this off my chest and put down in writing. There is obviously hell of a lot more to be said, but this is perhaps a beginning.

[[ I am grateful to Ganesh KN for the opportunity to speak on the subject of Dialectics and Capital at the EMS Academy on 30th Nov. It helped me in clarifying these thoughts and moving my attempt to understand dialectics forward — even if, regretfully, participants may not have found the presentation upto their expectations. The above are some highlights of what I picked up in preparing for the presentation.]]

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Marx on Science


It is a remarkable fact that at Marx’s funeral, his life-long friend and comrade-in-arms Friedrich Engels chose to eulogise his friend’s commitment to revolution in terms of his passion for science. Engels noted, “Science was for Marx a historically dynamic, revolutionary force. However great the joy with which he welcomed a new discovery in some theoretical science whose practical application perhaps it was as yet quite impossible to envisage, he experienced quite another kind of joy when the discovery involved immediate revolutionary changes in industry, and in historical development in general. For example, he followed closely the development of the discoveries made in the field of electricity and recently those of Marcel Deprez.” But to note only this part of Engels’ speech, would be to limit Marx’s vision of science.

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Environmentalism: Utopian and Scientific



While many nineteenth century thinkers, revolutionary leaders and working class movements had a vision of a just society, Karl Marx and his comrade, Friedrich Engels, writing more than a hundred and fifty years ago, underlined how the ideal of socialism could be realised only through a scientific study of the current economic order of society, namely capitalism, and its contradictions. And precisely in the study of these contradictions would the “necessity” of socialism, and the means of its realisation, be established (as surely as the contradictions of the pre-capitalist era had marked the “necessity” of the rise of capitalism), taking it beyond the mere utopian desires or dreams that had until then marked the vision of a society free from exploitation.

A great majority of working people across the world today recognize that any view of a better, more just and equitable society, must also include the vision of an environmentally viable and sustainable one. And more particularly, for the politically conscious working class, the contemporary view of a socialist future most definitely includes a balanced, non-exploitative relationship between human society and Nature. A hundred and fifty years on from the appearance in print of Marx’s Capital, his path-breaking study of capitalism and its contradictions, there can be no other way that humanity can face its environmental crisis, except by tracing the same kind of scientific path that led to a scientific view of socialism. And such a scientific view cannot but begin with the insights of Marx himself.

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The crisis of the Dravidian movement and its ideology — Part II




This is the second of the two-part note on the crisis of the Dravidian movement and its ideology. The view that we set out to elaborate was that the  ideology of the Dravidian movement, which has exercised its hegemony over Tamil society for the last half a century, severely restricts the scope for transformation of the social, political and cultural sphere, especially as its positive elements have receded in significance, and its backward-looking, unscientific or irrational and conservative elements gained the upper hand.  Without confronting Dravidian ideology, in theory and social and political practice, the Left cannot gain a more considerable following in Tamil Nadu persuading working people  to take a radical, transformatory agenda more seriously.

The recent demise of the leader of the AIADMK, Jayalalitha, has been the occassion for the unedifying spectacle of mind-numbing praise of the departed leader, followed by a scramble for power, that had little pretense of being based on political ideals, policies or values. The two  coteries that vied for power, one led by Jayalalithaa’s confidante and back-room fixer, Sasikala, and the other by the ever-obsequious-worm-that-turned O. Panneerselvam, matched each other in their absurd  behaviour, with secrecy and lack of transparency on the one side and wild conspiracy theories emanating from the other. The reality that Jayalalithaa was an accused in a high-profile corruption scandal, with the Supreme Court set to pronounce a verdict shortly, was soft-pedalled in much of the media commentary that followed. And convicted she was, inevitably, a few weeks later, along with Sasikala and some of her relatives, just as the latter was going all-out to ensure her elevation, from the post of the general secretary (sic!) of the party to Chief Minister.

One would have thought that the spectacle of the publicly conducted struggle for power within the AIADMK, the indictment for corruption of its leader, and the absurd behaviour of the DMK during the vote-of-confidence for the government of Palanisamy, the new Chief Minister, would have led to some serious stocktaking of what has become of the Dravidian movement today — a century or so after it began to play an increasingly prominent role in Tamil society and close to a half century of being in political power in the State. Unfortunately there is little sign of such a serious stocktaking and a consequent political churn any time soon.

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Notes on Dialectics and Understanding Society


These notes were originally prepared  for a lecture/discussion requested by friends in Bengaluru. Perhaps they are of more general interest, hence their presentation here. They are certainly not complete or exhaustive and I am sure they miss some points that both I and others may consider significant/important/essential. Hopefully, friends will consider it work in progress. Hopefully too, there are no gross errors.

They are also  only notes (in the form of bullet points) for a lecture. More detailed posts, based on my earlier Facebook posts will appear shortly.

Dialectics and Understanding Society

(Notes for lectures/discussion)

(Originally prepared March 2016, updated October, 2016)

  • Introduction

    • By dialectics we understand dialectical materialism

    • Cover some broad features of dialectical materialism in these notes.

    • Maurice Cornforth’s classic text provides an extremely useful and a good introduction – but needs to be a) updated in some respects b) reconfigured in a different order and c) supplemented by a more careful account of some aspects

  • Materialism

    • World (natural and social) exists as an objective reality – independent of our consciousness.

    • Rather obvious in the case of the natural world – but yet denied by many philosophical viewpoints. Two distinct variants of this view:

      • Our sensations and perceptions make up the world – idealism

      • The world we see and experience is objective but any sense of underlying order or the inference of the existence of things we cannot directly perceive are a product of the mind – positivists, post-positivists, neo-Kantian constructivists, social constructivists etc (The logical positivists would say – unless reducible to verifiable statements – but this got them into all kinds of tangles from which they never recovered – A detail which I will not revisit).

    • Contra the above — The world is real including the relations between entities (or things) that we see or perceive as well as things and relations we infer to exist but cannot directly see and perceive

      • Examples from Newton’s mechanics and theory of gravity – In modern science these distinctions are even more important (Protons, neutrons, electrons, quarks, new forces such as strong radioactive forces)

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Negation of the Negation


One of the payoffs of the considerations of the last post is getting hold of the idea of the negation of the negation. In all standard textbooks (the text of Maurice Cornforth for instance) or writings on dialectics, this is mentioned as one of the key elements. But over the years, especially in the Indian setting, but more generally too, Marxists seem to have drifted farther and farther from an understanding of why this is so important.

One of the key roles of the negation of the negation is in the understanding of a whole. By the whole here we will mean anything that is self-referential. If we are looking at disconnected things as opposed to such wholes, then negation alone is enough. If there is a thing, then you have not-things, which in terms of some specific quality or attribute, possess or do not possess that attribute. But when you talk of anything that is a whole, then obviously the idea something outside of it destroys the notion of a whole. But if all we can say, that a whole simply “is” then we are saying little. I had made this point in a slightly different way much earlier in these series of posts. Identity in this sense is tautological. And we learn nothing. To say therefore that a whole “is” in a meaningful way is actually through the negation of the negation. Two things about this negation. One is that it is negation not as annihilation, but as both negating and preserving in some respect. The second is that the negating always points inwards within the whole, and does not take us outside the whole.

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From Essence to Contradiction


Essence is the first step in reaching the “permanence in things” as we had noted last. What happens next? Two outcomes emerge from our consideration of essence and shine. The first is the way we understand relations, (such as the relation between essence and shine), which will lead us to the fundamental role of contradiction. The second is the rootedness of essence and shine together in something, so that how they are mutually sustained is brought out, in the concept of ground.

Now there are some key steps here in exploring the nature of relations. The first is that we have already spoken of relations in terms of determination and transitions, when talking of being (or the phenomenal world), where relations are between something and other. But here in essence and shine, we have relations that are self-referencing, that is they refer back to themselves and not to an other. You can see that happenning with fruits and apples, cherries , etc. Apples, cherries etc are non-fruit, but they are not an other to fruit as an essence. Fruit, is non-apple, non-cherry, but again it is so, not as seeds, flowers, etc. So here the key is essence actually refers back to itself!! So the relationship is that fruit is the NOT of illusory being, which is the NOT of essence. So essence is the NOT-NOT of itself!! In this way, its definition does not take it to an other, but keeps it within itself by this self-referencing.

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The Significance of Essence and Appearance


What is the significance of the relation between essence and appearance? Let me get ahead of the logical sequence of posts on dialectics to make some points that attempt to draw out the relevance of our discussion to the current situation. On the one hand is the to and fro of everyday life, the coming into being and passing away, the flux of transitions, the constant passage from quantitative to qualitative changes. But is that all there is to the world? Does every change produce a different world? In a sense yes. After all, if the DMK loses the election but has more seats in the Assembly than before, if the CPM gets a lesser vote share and its seats are reduced to half of what it had earlier, so indeed the world has “changed”, in some obvious sense in its appearance. So is this all there is to it?

And the response, from the dialectical view, is of course no. As Hegel says (and Marx would emphatically agree): “There is something more to be done than merely rove from one quality to another, and merely to advance from qualitative to quantitative, and vice versa: there is a permanence in things, and that permanence is in the first instance their Essence”. And so we must constantly seek to determine what is the “permanence in things” that underlies the ever-changing everyday world, especially the social world. This “permanence in things” is not easily grasped; it is the product of a long, repeated sequence of trying to understand the world and trying to change it. And so it is that we talk of the class character of the state, the political superstructure that it gives rise to, the class character of political parties, the nature of elections in bourgeois parliamentary democracy and so on. And it is this essence that is reflected (yes, reflected – but one needs to understand that more definitely) in the appearances of Indian political life.

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