Friday, December 20, 2019

Marx, Engels and Science (2019)

Ray Lankester
From the October 2019 issue of the Socialist Standard

That Marx followed the progress of natural science can be seen from the fact that chemistry professor Carl Schorlemmer and evolutionary biologist Ray Lankester were among the nine who attended the private funeral gathering to mourn the passing of an obscure economic scientist whom Engels eulogized as ‘the best hated and most calumniated man of his times.’

Engels studied mathematical physics in many sources, including the classic eighteenth-century Trait√© de dynamique by Jean Le Rond d’Alembert (co-publisher with Denis Diderot of the great French Encyclop√©die).  However, his primary modern source for mathematical physics was the Feynman lecture course of his day, the celebrated nineteenth-century Treatise on Natural Philosophy by Thomson and Tait (popularly known as ‘T&T’).

Engels’s primary modern source for chemistry was the celebrated Treatise on Chemistry by Roscoe and Schorlemmer. Those familiar with the Marx-Engels correspondence will have met organic chemist Carl Schorlemmer as a Marx/Engels comrade-in-exile from 1848 and their trusted scientific consultant.

The two treatises that Engels primarily studied happened to be the standard university textbooks from the mid–nineteenth century right up to the First World War.

Engels adopted a field (non-atomic) approach to electricity (of course, the electron had yet to be discovered, but so too had quantum electrodynamic field theory). To deprive Marx of an atomic theory is to ignore his PhD dissertation on Epicurus in which he famously defended Epicurus’s statistical atomic ‘swerve’ (a Greek pre-echo of quantum indeterminism) for allowing ‘free will’ to arise within a primarily deterministic atomic world.

Volume 31 of Section of Marx Engels Collected Works MEGA(2) [not yet translated into English] lets us glimpse the extent to which Marx took an active interest in the progress of natural science. A paper by MEGA scholars Somnath Ghosh and Pradip Baksi sets out the contents of Marx’s scientific notebooks of 1877-83:
Notebook 1. On the Atomic Theory
Notebook 2. Tabular summaries of inorganic and organic chemistry
Notebook 3. Tables of chemistry
Notebooks 4 & 5. Tables of inorganic and organic chemistry
Notebook 6. Formulae of organic chemistry
Marx’s Notebook Sources include:

  • Chemistry: Lothar Meyer, Henry Roscoe, Carl Schorlemmer, Friedrich Kekule
  • Modern chemistry: Marx attended August Hoffmann’s lecture course at the Royal College of Chemistry, London
  • Agricultural Chemistry: Justus Liebig
  • Physiological Chemistry: Wilhelm Kuhne
  • Human Physiology: Ludimarr Hermann; Johannes Ranke
  • Physics: Benjamin Witzschel
  • Geology: Joseph Jukes
  • Studies in electromagnetism: Edouard Hospitalier

Forthcoming natural scientific materials (perhaps now published) include Marx’s notes and excerpts on Physics, History of Technology, Geology, Soil Science, History of Agricultural Plants, Agricultural Chemistry, Physiology of Plants, of Animals and of Human Beings, parts of Mathematics and on the interrelationships of the Natural Sciences and Philosophy. One day we will discover just what the mature Marx actually wrote about the latter.

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