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by Robert M. Young

The main thing to be said about Marxism and the history of science is that more, much more, has been written that is explicitly or implicitly anti-Marxist than has been written which is avowedly an attempt to see the history of science in Marxist terms. Another class of writings can be seen as watered-down Marxism, while still another is silent about Marxism but does not make much sense unless one knows that Marxism is the silent partner in a one-voice dialogue or polemic in which the other position is not named. The analogy which springs to mind is that of a planet which is not seen but is inferred because of the perturbations of the other planets due to the gravitational effect of the unseen one. The defining feature of Marxist approaches to the history of science is that the history of scientific ideas, of research priorities, of concepts of nature and of the parameters of discoveries are all rooted in historical forces which are, in the last instance, socio-economic. There are variations in how literally this is taken and various Marxist-inspired and Marxist-related positions define the interrelations among science and other historical forces more or less loosely. There is a continuum of positions. The most orthodox provides one-to-one correlations between the socio-economic base and the intellectual superstructure. This is referred to as economism or vulgar Marxism. The classical source is a set of comments in the preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859):


My enquiry led me to the conclusion that neither legal relations nor political forms could be comprehended whether by themselves or on the basis of a so called general development of the human mind, but that on the contrary they originate in the material conditions of life, the totality of which Hegel, following the example of English and French thinkers of the eighteenth century, embraces within the term "civil society"; that the anatomy of this civil society, however, has to be sought in political economy.... The general conclusion at which I arrived and which, once reached, became the guiding principle of my studies can be summarised as follows. In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arise a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness... The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure. In studying such transformations it is always necessary to distinguish between the material transformation and the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, artistic or philosophic — in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out. Just as one does not judge an individual by what he thinks about himself, so one cannot judge such a period of transformation by its consciousness, but, on the contrary, this consciousness must be explained from the contradictions of material life, from the conflict existing between the social forces of production and the relations of production. No social order is ever destroyed before all the productive forces for which it is sufficient have been developed, and new superior relations of production never replace older ones before the material conditions for their existence have matured within the framework of the old society. Mankind thus inevitably sets itself only such tasks as it is able to solve, since closer examination will always show that the problem itself arises only when the material conditions for its solution are already present or at least in the course of formation.[1]

The attentive reader will notice that science is here distinguished from ideology, but all versions of Marxist history of science generalise the position take here about intellectual life and treat science as lying within the historical force described by Marx in this passage, which is of fundamental importance to Marxist historiography.

Next to economism is the theory of mediation, according to which there are various degrees of relative autonomy, elasticity, lag and room for contradictions. There is ample warrant for this in the writings of Marx and Engels. For example, Engels wrote to Bloch in 1890:


According to the materialist conception of history, the ultimate determining element in history is the production and reproduction of real life. More than this neither Marx nor I have ever asserted. Hence if somebody twists this into saying that the economic element is the only determining one, he transforms that proposition into a meaningless, abstract, senseless phrase. The economic situation is the basis, but the various elements of the superstructure — political forms of the class struggle and its results, to wit: constitutions established by the victorious class after a successful battle, etc., juridical forms, and even the reflexes of all these actual struggles in the brains of the participants, political, juristic, philosophical theories, religious views and their further development into systems of dogmas — also exercise their influence upon the course of the historical struggles and in many cases preponderate in determining their form. There is an interaction of all these elements in which, amid all the endless host of accidents (that is, of things and events whose inner interconnection is so remote or so impossible of proof that we can regard it as non-existent, as negligible) the economic movement finally asserts itself as necessary. Otherwise the application of the theory to any period of history would be easier than the solution of a simple equation of the first degree.[2]

All of this falls within the general framework which asserts that:


The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas: i.e., the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it. The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expressions of the dominant material relationships, the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas; hence of the relationships which make the one class the ruling one, therefore the ideas of its dominance.[3]

Marx stresses the historicity of all concepts throughout his writings, for example, in the Grundrisse:


This example of labour shows strikingly how even the most abstract categories, despite their validity — precisely because of their abstractness — for all epochs, are nevertheless in the specific character of this abstraction, themselves likewise a product of historic relations, and possess their full validity only for and within these relations.... In the succession of the economic categories, as in any other historical, social science, it must not be forgotten that their subject — here, modern bourgeois society — is always what is given, in the head as well as in reality, and that these categories therefore express the forms of being, the characteristics of existence, and often only individual sides of this specific society, this subject, and that therefore this society by no means begins only at the point where one can speak of it as such; this holds for science as well.[4]

To summarise the less rigid form of Marxist approaches to the history of science which fall within the domain of mediation theory, one should begin with the concept of labour and the labour process as the key to human history. History or historicity is, in turn, the key to everything: 'We know only a single Science, the science of history'.[5] The net effect of this approach is to broaden and deepen one's perspective: to root explanations in labour and the labour process, to treat concepts historically, to investigate connections and articulations as fully as possible and constantly to bear in mind that the arrow of causality moves from being to consciousness. This means that a number of distinctions on which the false self-consciousness of science depends are seen as permeable and interactive, for example, the distinctions between fact and value, substance and context, science and society, the context of origination and the context of justification. If one connects these perspectives to recent developments in the philosophy of science, a useful simplification would be to say that all facts are theory-laden, all theories are value-laden, and all values are derived from world-views or ideologies which permeate and constitute what count as facts, theories, priorities and acceptable scientific discoveries. A further consequence is that the sharp distinction between science and technology vanishes. All is mediation — mediation of social and economic forces involved in the production and reproduction of real life. Science is inside society, inside history.

At the extreme of the position I have described as the theory of mediation lies structuralist Marxism with its concept of immanent or structural causality in which the formal features of an intellectual sphere correspond to formal features of the base, but in the most arcane writings of the structuralist Marxists, the lonely moment of the last instance never comes. My own experience of the trajectories of structuralist Marxist writers is that they eventually find themselves moving into the New Right and are therefore not a reliable guide to this point of view.

At the outermost extreme of Marxist historiography lies the point of view of totality. The entire effort of Marxist writings in this tradition is to transcend the attempt to treat science in isolation from society. Science was seen as 'incapable of grasping reality as a totality'.[6] At the extreme, the theory of totality argues that all aspects of reality are interconnected with and reflect all others. This is a point of view rather akin to Leibniz's monadology and it runs the risk of losing the directionality of causality from base to superstructure which is the bedrock or axiom of Marxist explanation. On the other hand, the point of view of totality insists on embedding ideas in society. As Lukács wrote,


For the Marxist as an historical dialectician both nature and all the forms in which it is mastered in theory and practice are social categories; and to believe that one can detect anything supra-historical or supra-social in this context is to disqualify oneself as a Marxist.[7]

The appearance of Marxist history of science in the Anglo-American literature can be linked to a single catalytic event: the surprise appearance of a Soviet delegation at The Second International Congress of the History of Science and Technology in London in 1931. The delegation was headed by Nikolai Bukharin, Lenin's favourite, who was still years away from his own dramatic purge trial. Another contributor to the volume of their essays, Science at the Cross Roads, was N. I. Vavilov, an eminent plant breeder who died of persecution a decade later, while among the others, E. Colman survived and slipped into Finland decades later. Far and away the single most important document in the Marxist historiography of science is the essay from that volume, 'The Social and Economic Roots of Newton's "Principia"' by Boris Hessen. This is the locus classicus of the base-superstructure approach to the history of science, using the greatest work of modern science's most revered hero as its case study. Hessen argued that each of Newton's main theoretical preoccupations could be rooted directly and unambiguously in technical issues in his historical setting. He began by reviewing Marx's views from the Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (quoted above). The following sentence appears in bold: 'The method of production of material existence conditions the social, political and intellectual process of the life of society'.[8] Moving on to Lenin, he claims that Marxism eliminates two main defects in previous historical writing:


Previous historical theories considered only the intellectual motives of the historical activity of people as such. Consequently they could not reveal the true roots of those motives, and consequently history was justified by the individual intellectual impulse of human beings. Thus the road was closed to any recognition of the objective laws of the historical process. "Opinion governed the world." The course of history depended on the talents and the personal impulses of man. Personality was the creator of history... The second defect which Marx's theory eliminates is that the subject of history is not the mass of the population, but the personalities of genius. The most obvious representative of this view is Carlyle — for whom history was the story of great men... The ideas of the ruling class in every historical period are the ruling ideas, and the ruling class distinguishes its ideas from all previous ideas by putting them forward as eternal truths. It wishes to reign eternally and bases the inviolability of its rule on the eternal quality of its ideas.[9]

He then traces the economics, physics and technology of the period of the English Civil War and the Commonwealth and dwells on communications, water transport, industry (especially mining) and war (including division of labour, army and armaments, and ballistics). He then concludes:


If we compare this basic series of themes with the physical problems which we found when analysing the technical demands of transport, means of communication, industry and war, it becomes quite clear that these problems of physics were fundamentally determined by these demands... We have compared the main technical and physical problems of the period with the scheme of investigations governing physics during the period we are investigating, and we come to the conclusion that the scheme of physics was mainly determined by the economic and technical tasks which the rising bourgeoisie raised to the forefront.[10}

Moving on, he says,


We cite all these facts in opposition to the tradition which has been built up in literature, which represents Newton as an Olympian standing high above all the ’earthly’ technical and economic interests of his time, and soaring only in the empyrean of abstract thought.[11]

Then, casting his net wider, he allows for a less vulgar view than is often attributed to him:


It would, however, be too greatly simplifying and even vulgarizing our object if we began to quote every problem which has been studied by one physicist or another, and every economic and technical problem which he solved.[12]

He goes on to repeat that the economic factor is not the sole determining factor — only the 'creation and recreation of actual life'. He then argues that it is important to 'analyse more fully Newton's epoch, the class struggles during the English Revolution, and the political, philosophic and religious theories [that] are reflected in the minds of the contemporaries of these struggles'.[l3] Hence, he discusses wider issues, including the history of concepts of energy, and the history of Luddism leading up to his own time.

I have considered this classical paper at some length, mostly because it is richer than is often supposed. Among the other writings in Science at the Cross Roads, Bukharin's essay seems to me the most interesting. In discussing 'Theory and Practice from the Standpoint of Dialectical Materialism', he puts forward a theory of science which roots it in practice. He argues that


...the idea of the self-sufficient character of science "science for science's sake" is naďve: it confuses the subjective passions of the professional scientist, working in a system of profound division of labour, in conditions of a disjointed society, in which individual social functions are crystallised in a diversity of types, psychologies, passions (as Schiller says: "Science is a goddess, not a milch cow"), with the objective social role of this kind of activity, as an activity of vast practical importance. The fetishizing of science, as of other phenomena of social life, and the deification of the corresponding categories is a perverted ideological reflex of a society in which the division of labour has destroyed the visible connection between social function, separating them out in the consciousness of their agents as absolute and sovereign values.[l4]

He goes on to include scientific theories within the superstructure, and says that the 'mode of production' determines also the 'mode of conception'.[15] Therefore, the 'highest forms of theoretical cognition’[16] are included in historical analysis; 'scientific cognition is the practice of material labour continued in particular forms (natural science)'.[l7] In my view, this approach lays the foundations for a labour process perspective in the history of science in which the relations between theory and practice — the connections or articulations of science — are always to the fore as constitutive rather than contextual, while science itself is seen in terms of raw materials, means of production, purposive human activity and the goals or use values which emerge from the labour process.

The effect of the appearance of the Soviet delegation has been described as electrifying — though not on the day, when hardly anyone responded. The papers were printed and made available in five days and appeared in book form ten days after they were delivered.

The historians of science whose work was most directly influenced in Britain were J. G. Crowther, a journalist and free-lance writer; Hyman Levy, a physicist; Joseph Needham, a chemical embryologist who became the historian of a massive work on Science and Civilization in Ancient China; and a polymath crystallographer, J. D. Bernal, who essayed broadly on the history of science, especially in his multi-volume Science in History. There were others, but I would say that the direct effect on historical writing (pace Needham) was not very great. It certainly did not influence the teaching of the history of science in the major British universities in the ensuing decades. Benjamin Farrington wrote interestingly on Francis Bacon, but the only noteworthy young historian of science in Great Britain, S. F. Mason, author of Main Currents of Scientific Thought, had to return to chemistry because he could not find work as a historian of science.

Instead, the history of science developed two deeply un-Marxist strands: the history of discovery and the history of ideas. Both were cut off from the study of the sorts of determinations which characterise the writings of Marx, Engels, Soviet writers and their English followers. There were a few English-speaking writers of note, especially Edgar Zilsel and Dirk Struik, but there was certainly no school or tradition. Indeed, an avowedly anti-Marxist historian of ideas, Rupert Hall, bragged in 1963 about how little Marxist writing there was [l8] and reiterated his position a decade later when he was badly out of touch.[l9]

Did it all drain into the sands? I would say no. Rather than look for directly Marxist historiography, it is worth noticing watered-down versions of it — linking ideas to their times but filtering out the nasty subversive and revolutionary potential of a fully Marxist analysis. I refer to the writings of Max Weber, Karl Mannheim and Robert K. Merton in sociology, the sociology of knowledge and the sociology of science. I will dwell on the last two, while noting in passing that Max Weber has been seen as the bourgeois Marx, placing ideas in history but rooting them in an irrational human nature rather than in the socio-economic base. Karl Mannheim, the father of the sociology of knowledge, has been called 'the bourgeois Lukács', since his work was deeply influenced by the Hungarian Marxist dialectician, Georg Lukács, whose writings on reification and the concept of totality were of fundamental importance in challenging economism or vulgar Marxism and providing a rich conception of the interrelations between forms of thought, ideas of nature and conceptions in science. Mannheim rooted ideas, including some ideas in the foothills of science, in human interest. He began with the concept of the value-ladenness of ideas which represented the interests of particular groups and then moved on to the sociology of knowledge. He wanted to determine the parameters of situationally conditioned knowledge versus detached knowledge. Mannheim acknowledged his debts to Marx and Lukács[20], but his own work was distinct from theirs in that his goals were avowedly epistemological rather than political. His aim was to avoid taking sides and to find a standpoint from which to view knowledge as a social product, while the Marxist position is to assert that knowledge always takes sides and to support the relatively progressive tendency in any particular circumstance. Mannheim attempted to rise above the dangers of relativism into the observer's viewpoint of 'relationalism', while Marxists always see their work as fundamentally polemical and partisan.

Many adherents to the perspective of the sociology of knowledge have joined Mannheim in attempting to stand above the battle and have drawn on other social sciences, including anthropology, to enrich their views on scientific knowledge. The approach of the sociology of knowledge has grown dramatically in recent years as a way of rooting science in society without endangering the career or detached academic perspective of the investigator, drawing a firm line between theory and practice.

A similar path was taken by Robert K. Merton, the doyen of bourgeois sociology of science, whose original work in the 1930s was littered with footnotes and homages to Hessen. Merton focused on the origins, the class perspectives, the choice of topic, and other parameters of scientific knowledge while avoiding any commitment to seeing the resultant discoveries in ideological terms. The sociology of knowledge thereby became an elaborate study of the context of origination while carefully keeping away from the context of justification, the holy of holies which is so dear to non-Marxist philosophers of science. Within this framework of sociology of science as sociology of knowledge, quite subtle work has been done about scientific communities, patronage, honours, the culture of laboratories, scientific accountability (or the lack of it) to the rest of society, and other topics which take the existing mode of production as given.

There are traditions of Marxist history of science in Eastern Europe, but there has been very little communication between writers in the Soviet bloc and those in the West. There are also Marxist and communist writers in, for example, France, Italy and Germany, but Anglo-Saxon scholars have not been particularly powerfully influenced by them. The single exception to this judgement is the work of Michel Foucault, who wrote within the structuralist tradition and always claimed to do so in the light of Marxism. However, his voluminous and brilliant writings have always struck me as lacking historical specificity. He paints boldly and audaciously on large canvases, dipping into historical particularity at moments, but his concept of power is relatively ahistorical in that a particular claim about it could often be moved fifty years in either direction without affecting his argument. My own experience of most writing in the wake of Foucault's ideas is that the practitioners lack his brilliance, do not do their homework, and tend to drift into relatively apolitical stances, bedazzled by belles lettres.

The best defence of Foucault's writings is that, like a Marxist, he treats theoretical and practical knowledges as forms of power. His most illuminating work has been about human knowledges — psychiatry, clinical medicine, penology and sexology. Yet he is un-Marxist in cutting these off from most of their articulations and in treating them formalistically. In this sense he is also anti-Marxist, or, at least, anti-reflectionist. Yet he leaves open the question of the appropriate conceptualisation of the relationship between knowledge and society: it remains to be investigated. For a Marxist, in the elusive last instance the question is not an open one. The arrow of causality must point, however circuitous its path, from the production and reproduction of real life to knowledge, whether theoretical or applied.

Would that I could cite a significant volume of avowedly Marxist writings in the English language to counterpose against the watered-down and disappointing versions discussed above. It could, of course, be argued that the flowering of Marxist writings in the later 1960s and early 1970s only glanced at problems which the history of the mode of production is not yet ready to solve. As Albert Camus, a fellow traveller of French Marxism, once wrote, 'One must imagine Sisyphus happy'.[2l]

In my own view, when future historians find themselves able to provide a richer Marxist history of science, the Marxist writer whose views they are likely to find most fruitful — along with those of Marx, Lukács and Marcuse — is Antonio Gramsci. I shall cite two passages to give a flavour of his insight — the first on objectivity and the second on science and nature:


...the idea of "objective" in metaphysical materialism would appear to mean an objectivity that exists even apart from man; but when one affirms that a reality would exist even if man did not, one is either speaking metaphorically or one is falling into a form of mysticism. We know reality only in relation to man, and since man is historical becoming, knowledge and reality are also a becoming and so is objectivity, etc.{22]

Matter as such therefore is not our subject but how it is socially and historically organised for production, and natural science should be seen correspondingly as essentially an historical category, a human relation... Might it not be said in a sense, and up to a certain point, that what nature provides the opportunity for are not discoveries and inventions of pre-existing forces — of pre-existing qualities of matter — but 'creations', which are closely linked to the interests of society and to the development and further necessities of development of the forces of production?[23]

Here, I propose, lie the germs of a richer Marxist history of science.


1. K Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859) (London, 1971), pp. 20-l.

2. _______ Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy (rough draft) (1857-58) (London, 1973 pp. 105-6.

3. ______ and F. Engels, Selected Correspondence (1955) 2nd ed. (Moscow, I965), p. 417.

4 ______ and F. Engels, The German Ideology (1845-46) (London, 1965), p. 61.

5. Ibid. p. 28.

6 M. Jay, Marxism and totality: the Adventures of a Concept from Lukács to Habermas (Cambridge, I984), p 117.

7. Quoted in ibid., p. 116.

8. N. l. Bukharin et al., Science at the Crossroads (1931), 2nd ed. (London, I971), p. 152.

9. Ibid., pp. 153-4.

10. Ibid., pp. 166-7.

11. Ibid., p. 174.

12. Ibid., p. 177.

13. Ibid.

14. Ibid., p. 20.

15. Ibid., p. 22.

16. Ibid., p. 23.

17. Ibid., p. 24

18. A. R. Hall; 'Merton Revisited, or Science and Society in the Seventeenth Century', History of Science, 2 (1963), 1-16.

19. ______, 'Microscopic Analysis and the General Picture', Times LIterary Supplement 26 Apr. 1974, pp. 437-38.

20. K. Mannheim, Ideology and Utopia: an Introduction to the Sociology of Knowledge (1936) (London, 1960, p. 279.

21. A Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays (1942) (New York, 1959), p. 91.

22. A. Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci (1929-35) (London, 1971), p. 446.

23. Ibid., pp. 465-6.


J. D. Bernal, Science in History (1954), 2nd ed. (London, 1957).

T. M. Brown, 'Putting Paradigms into History', Marxist Perspectives, 9 (1980), 34-63.

J. G. Crowther, The Social Relations of Science (1941), 2nd ed. (London, 1967).

M. Foucault, The Order of Things: an Archaeology of the Human Sciences (London, 1970).

L. R. Graham, Science and Philosophy in the Soviet Union (London, 1973).

D. Joravsky, The Lysenko Affair (Cambridge, Mass., 1970).

L. Levidow (ed.), Radical Science Essays (London, l986).

S. F. Mason, Main Currents of Scientific Thought (1956); reprinted as A History of the Sciences (New York, 1962).

R. K. Merton, Science, Technology, and Society in Seventeenth Century England (1938) (New York, 1970).

J. Needham et al., Science and Civilization in China (Cambridge, 1954-84).

Radical Science Collective, 'Science, Technology, Medicine and the Socialist Movement', Radical Science Journal, 1 l (1981), 3-70.

D. J. Struik, Yankee Science in the Making (1948), 2nd ed. (New York, 1962).

Gary Werskey, The Visible College: a Collective Biography of British Scientists and Socialists in the 1930s (London, 1978).

R. M. Young, 'The Historiographic and Ideological Contexts of the Nineteenth-Century Debate on Man's Place in Nature', in Darwin's Metaphor (Cambridge, 1985), pp. 164-247

E. Zilsel, 'The Genesis of the Concept of Scientific Progress', in P. P. Wiener and A. Noland (eds.), Roots of Scientific Thought (New York, 1957), pp. 251-75.

Reprinted from R. C. Olby et al., eds, Companion to the History of Modern Science. Routledge, 1990, pp. 77-86.

Address for correspondence: 26 Freegrove Road, London N7 9RQ


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