Friedrich Engels Thinking on Science in These Times

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Friedrich Engels’ Thinking on Science in These Times

Prabir Purkayastha

Reflecting on the contributions of Friedrich Engels (1820 – 1895) on his bicentenary brings three issues to mind. The first issue is, how do we read his writings today? A lot of his writings were polemics against defenders of the existing order, or those proposing theories that ran counter to Marx and Engels’ views on the struggles of the working class for a new and just society. To understand this point, we have to consider what Engels was writing against, as those figures, such as Eugen Dühring, live on only because of Engels’ Anti-Dühring. The second problem is the... language of the text. It is written for its time (and space) and, therefore, takes for granted much of what we may not be aware of today. The third problem is that when it comes to science, we barely recognize the terrain about which Engels was writing. The subject matter – the sciences – have moved far away from Engels’ times.

So why do we need to plow through polemical texts of Marx and Engels, written against people whose writings have otherwise been forgotten? There are two reasons for going back to the basics, particularly as science is often presented as neutral, and autonomous from society. Instead, science is inextricably linked to the classes that control society and therefore also control the development of science.

It is no accident that big science in capitalist countries is tied to either war or the greed of capital. This is especially being sharply reflected during the present pandemic when we find that a large number of vaccines are for-profit, even if they have been funded by public money. Or when we see the link between weapons and science research in universities. J.B.S. Haldane, the well-known evolutionary biologist and British Marxist, had said, “… even if the professors leave politics alone, politics won’t leave the professors alone.” So science and scientific research have always been political even if individual scientists, in their own view, are not.

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