"Crises in Physics," Crises in Philosophy and Politics

by Bob Avakian, Chairman of the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA

Originally appeared in Revolution #160, March 29, 2009 (http://revcom.us)

NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR: The following text is drawn from part of a talk, "Out Into the World—As a Vanguard of the Future," which I presented to a group of Party members in the first part of 2008. In preparing this for publication, I have reworked some parts of it. In this process, I have benefitted from, and wish to express my appreciation for, criticisms, questions, suggested changes and proposed formulations, etc., that were raised by various people on the basis of reading an earlier version of this text. In particular, I wish to thank Ardea Skybreak, author of the book The Science of Evolution and the Myth of Creationism—Knowing What's Real and Why It Matters, for her contributions to this process.

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It seems that there is today a reappearance of a phenomenon that appeared in an acute way 100 years ago, in Lenin's time. I am referring to what could be called "crises in physics" and crises in philosophy—and their political ramifications: discoveries or queries or theorizing in physics, the relation of this to questions of philosophy, and in turn the relation of that to the struggle for revolution—and, more specifically, the struggle, within the communist movement, between Marxism and revisionism (revising communism, to eliminate its revolutionary outlook and objectives, while still retaining the name of "communism").

It is noteworthy that a number of people, based on their reading of "Making Revolution and Emancipating Humanity," particularly Part 1,1 have raised objections in regard to the following (from the polemic against Karl Popper, in Part 1 of "Making and Emancipating"):

"There are definitely things in Marxism that are falsifiable. For example, dialectical materialism. If the world were made up of something other than matter in motion—if that could be shown—then clearly Marxism in its fundamentals, in its essence and at its core, would be falsified, proven wrong. Or, if it could be shown that, yes, all reality consists of matter, but that some forms of matter do not change, do not have internal contradiction and motion and development—that too would be a fundamental refutation of dialectical materialism."

The objections I'm referring to seem to be arising, at least in part, on the basis of some people looking into some recent discoveries and controversies in physics in particular. And, while this is occurring against a backdrop of the defeat of the first stage of the communist revolution (with the revisionist coup and the restoration of capitalism in China, several decades ago) and continuing difficulties for the communist movement in the present period,2 these questions concerning physics—and their relation to philosophy (world outlook and method)—do need to be addressed in their own right, as well as in a larger sense examined in their relation to politics and in particular the struggle between Marxism and revisionism.

If it were the case that all reality did not consist of matter in motion—if it could be shown that there are some parts of reality, some things which actually exist, which do not consist of matter, or if it could be shown that there are at least some things which exist but which do not undergo change, or that the changes in at least some things which exist are not owing to the motion and contradiction within matter itself—then, among other things, this would open the door to the existence of supernatural beings (gods, or one single God) as the controlling force in the universe, or at least as the "creator" and "prime mover" bringing things into existence and providing the initial impulse setting things into motion. The implications of this—not only philosophically but socially and politically as well—would obviously be enormous.

Well, let me say from the outset here: I don't pretend to be an expert in physics in any sense (either applied or theoretical physics), but there are some basic realities and fundamental questions of outlook and method that I do feel confident in speaking to, and indeed insisting upon.

In at least one response to "Making Revolution and Emancipating Humanity," it was actually raised whether it is correct to say that all reality does in fact consist of matter in motion—citing the example of space and time, noting that space and time are part of reality but questioning whether they are matter, and matter in motion specifically.

First, it seems clear, from the work of Einstein and others, that space and time are relative and not absolutes. It could be said that they are, in essence, properties of matter in motion. But, in any case, they are not something outside of—not something different from—matter in motion.

More often, however, what has been raised about the above passage in "Making and Emancipating" relates specifically to—and objects to—the last sentence in what is cited above here, which refers to the fact that all forms of matter change and have internal contradiction and motion and development. To a significant degree at least, these objections stem from (or at least relate to) an incorrect, mechanical understanding of what is meant by motion, change and development, and more specifically what is meant by internal contradiction. Saying that something has internal contradiction is not the same thing as saying that it is "infinitely divisible" in the sense that it can be divided endlessly into smaller and smaller components.

It was once thought that the atom was the smallest possible component of matter and that it would never be possible to break it down into smaller component parts. But it turned out that atoms are actually made up of a mix of sub-atomic particles, which include a dense nucleus (itself made up of a mix of neutrons and positively charged protons), surrounded by a cloud of negatively charged electrons. So the atom is a good example of a part of matter once thought to be indivisible which later turned out to be quite divisible after all. In fact, the discovery that the atom was not the smallest possible component of matter, and indeed consisted itself of smaller components, was one of the main factors giving rise to a "crisis in physics" and in philosophy (marked by a growing chorus of philosophical idealism, claiming that "matter has disappeared," when in reality what had happened was that the existence of matter in previously unknown forms had been discovered) and a related crisis in the socialist-communist movement—a collapse into revisionism on the part of more than a few former Marxists—which occurred in Lenin's time. This was particularly acute in Russia, where the movement had suffered a severe setback with the crushing defeat of the 1905 revolution in that country. For these reasons, Lenin recognized and acted on the necessity to vigorously struggle, in both the philosophical and political spheres, against these erroneous trends of thinking and the defeatism and capitulationism bound up with them. Lenin's work Materialism and Empirio-Criticism was a concentrated and powerful weapon in this struggle. And, as it turned out, this struggle was crucial in laying ideological and political foundations for the successful revolution in Russia, in 1917, which led to the establishment of the new, socialist republic.

The discovery that the atom consists of smaller component particles does not, however, necessarily lead to the conclusion that each and every particular component part of matter will eventually be shown to be divisible into ever smaller component parts, again and again...infinitely. Whether or not that proves to be the case is not the same thing as whether there is internal contradiction within all of these things. This kind of dividing (splitting into smaller and smaller components) may, in the future, be found to apply to small particles which are now the smallest particles whose existence has been detected (or has been inferred from other discoveries)—such particles may, in the future, be found to consist of even smaller particles, etc.—but it is not necessary for there to be an endless process of such discovery (of smaller and smaller particles, or components) in order to correctly appreciate how all matter has internal contradiction.

To take one dimension of this: At a scale below a certain point in the division of a particular form of matter—in motion—what may occur is the transformation of the particular form of matter into something else, such as a particular kind of energy (which is itself a form of matter), but that is still an expression of the internal contradiction of the particular form (or forms) of matter—and of the existence of all reality as matter in motion.

Once again, the existence of internal contradiction does not necessarily mean that something can be endlessly "split"—in the sense of being divided into further, smaller component parts. I am repeating this because it is a very important point—and one on which I think some people get hung up, because they look at this mechanically. This splitting into smaller and smaller components does not have to go on infinitely, the way we are used to thinking of dealing with everyday objects (for example, an apple or a cookie square: cutting these into half...and half again...and so on...which after all does finally reach at least its practical limits). And there is a difference—an important difference—between internal contradiction and internal "structure." Some particles, for example, may not have discernible internal "structure," at least in the way we are used to thinking of that (again, extrapolating from more everyday objects), but that does not mean that they do not have internal contradiction, or that they do not experience and take part in motion and change. Take subatomic electrons, for example. It is my understanding that they have no known internal substructure and yet are very dynamic constituents of change, capable of generating or deflecting magnetic fields, absorbing or emitting photons of energy, altering their nuclear orbits and entering into excited states, switching places with electrons of other atoms (which is the basis for the formation of chemical bonds), and they can even be annihilated in collisions with the corresponding anti-particles known as positrons. These are certainly very dynamic components of matter in motion!

Even the smallest of known particles have properties of matter in motion. We are told that photons of light, for example, can best be conceived of as being simultaneously both particles and waves. As I understand it, the much debated "string theory" in physics proposes that particles conceived of as waves on strings vibrating in different patterns could account for some of the basic properties of all matter. Regardless of whether this particular theory ends up being ultimately validated or not, the point here is that none of the many new discoveries and theoretical proposals in modern physics have in any way uncovered anything that would refute or undermine dialectical materialism as we understand it, and should correctly understand it—and specifically the understanding that all existence consists of matter in motion, of one kind or another, and, yes, that all matter involves, and is in fact characterized by, internal contradiction.

Linked with this is the principle that Mao spoke to in "On Contradiction"—that, because the range of things is vast and there is the interconnectedness of things, what is universal in one context is particular in another (and vice versa). As you know, in speaking to this before, I've illustrated this in different ways—with examples from everyday life or, as a useful conceptual abstraction, the military sphere: When you take a war situation as a whole, that is the universal, and any particular campaign within that overall war situation is the particular; and in turn any such campaign can be the universal, viewed from that context, and in that context a specific battle becomes a particular within that...and so on. You can think of many different examples—in fact, this applies to any phenomenon. In reading a book, the book as a whole is the universal, but if you're within a particular chapter, that chapter can become the universal. This is not just a game, this is how reality actually exists and different "parts" of reality are inter-connected (and inner-connected, that is, connected internally, on another level).

It is important to understand that what is involved in this—the dialectical relation between the universal and particular, and the different levels on which this can be expressed—is not simply the "interaction" of different particular forms of matter (or levels of matter), which should be conceived of as simply "external" to each other and "separated" in some absolute sense. No—while each particular form, and level, of matter (in motion) does have discrete existence, and identity, as such (some defining characteristics or internal coherence), at the same time this is relative, and not absolute. Accordingly, a particular form of matter may not only "interact with" another distinct form of matter, but may also be integrated, along with that other form of matter, into another entity at a different level of the organization of matter. And, once again, each of these different forms, and levels, of matter has its own discrete existence and identity—relatively. To put this conceptually: "a"—a particular form of matter—"interacts" with "b"—another particular form of matter that is distinct, relatively, from "a"—while both "a" and "b" are also integrated into "C," embodying a different level of the organization of matter.

To help illustrate this more concretely, let's take the example of a cell within an overall human body. Such a cell itself has a discrete existence and identity as such—with its own relative identity (as spoken to here), which itself is marked by contradiction (internal contradiction in that context, or at that level), while at the same time that cell exists within, and forms a part of, a certain organ of the body (a lung, heart, liver, etc.), and in turn that organ exists within, and forms a part of, the body as a whole. The discrete existence and relative identity of each of these things (or particular forms, or levels, of matter) once again is real, but is also relative—there is not an absolute separation between them, and they not only "interact" with each other but also are integrated, at different levels, as part of a larger whole (or universal)...which in turn is integrated at another level, as part of a larger universal...and so on. And at every level—which again is only relative, and not absolute—the particular "organization of matter," corresponding to that level, involves internal contradiction, motion and change.

In order to grasp this more fully and correctly, it is important to emphasize, yet again, that internal contradiction does not necessarily mean (is not identical with) the existence of "component parts." Rather, as Ardea Skybreak expressed it, in an exchange on this point, internal contradiction is better understood as "the unevenness within things—or within a given level of matter, with its relative identity—that holds the potential, and in fact provides the material basis, for change within those things."

Skybreak further elaborated on this, along the following lines: Besides whatever other contradiction(s) there might be within a particular form of matter, there is contradiction in the sense that for a thing to have relative identity (some kind of defining and distinguishing characteristics), it seems that it must have a "limit" or "border" or "boundary," of one kind or another, which sets this thing off—relatively—from other "things." At the same time, this "border" or "boundary," while part of that particular "thing," also itself constitutes a contradiction within that thing, and specifically a contradiction with whatever lies "within" that "limit" (or "border" or "boundary"). And (in Skybreak's words), "this 'border' or 'boundary' would, in itself, seem to establish a minimally sufficient unevenness relative to the inside, which we can call 'internal contradiction.'"

Further, since the "separation" between the levels (and particular forms of) matter is only relative, and not absolute—and different particular forms, and levels, of matter are in turn "integrated into" other levels of matter—then at any level, along with the internal contradiction that characterizes the particular form of matter corresponding to that level, there is also internal contradiction in the sense of the contradiction involved in the relation(s) between different levels (or particular forms) of matter. A cell within a lung, another cell within the same lung, yet another cell within a different organ, those organs themselves: all are "integrated into"—but at the same time exist as, relatively, discrete entities within—the human body. And all these relations are marked by, indeed consist of, contradiction.

To return to the realm of physics, if it is true that, as Brian Greene characterizes it in The Fabric of the Cosmos (p. 491), "space, like electrons, comes in discrete, indivisible chunks," that does not change the fact that these "chunks" not only interact with each other, even as electrons interact with other forms of matter in motion, but these "chunks" have internal contradiction themselves, as spoken to here, and are also "integrated with each other" at other levels of matter (in motion). Thus, even if space consists of "discrete" and "indivisible" "chunks," space would still be, at the same time, continuous—even while discrete—and "chunks" of space, like electrons, would still involve internal contradiction and motion, in the ways I have spoken to that here.

Also important here is the fact (referred to earlier) that motion is the mode of existence of all matter, and the point (a point emphasized by Engels) that motion itself involves contradiction—is a form, or an embodiment, of contradiction. And it seems clear that all forms of matter involve motion not only in relation to other "things" (forms of matter), which are (relatively) "external" to them, but also in their very internal coherence (or relative identity).

How does all this relate to the change—transformation—that different kinds of matter (including subatomic particles such as electrons) undergo, under certain conditions? It is true that an object, or "thing" (form of matter) can undergo change, in certain situations, when it is "acted upon" by something external to it (again, in the relative sense spoken of here). Yet I believe Mao was essentially correct in saying that external factors can be the condition of change, but internal factors—or contradiction—is the basis of change. That is, internal factors, or internal contradiction, is decisive in terms of the possibility for a particular thing to change—it provides the very material basis for this change to occur—and it is decisive in determining how it will change, even if that change is "brought about" by the action of an external factor, interacting with that internal material basis.

To take an example from everyday human experience, the transformation of water into steam: It is the effect of something external to water (the application of heat to the water) which causes the water to boil, but the fact that it can be changed, as a result of being boiled—and that it is changed into steam, and not something else—is owing, principally, to the internal nature (and contradiction) of water itself. And again, I believe Mao is essentially correct in arguing that this basic principle (concerning internal factors, or contradictions, as the basis of change, and external factors as the condition of change) applies to matter in general, although this is complex—and, among other things, is complicated not only by the fact that matter exists as particular forms of matter, each with its own relative identity, some of which differ greatly in their particularity, but also by the fact that the distinction between external and internal is itself relative, and not absolute, and what is external in one context can be internal in another context (and vice versa).

Now, if it could be shown that there is something which actually exists which does not consist of matter, that would constitute a fundamental refutation of dialectical materialism. But, in fact, nothing has ever been found which actually exists but which does not consist of matter.

Or, if it could be shown that some kinds of matter do not involve internal contradiction, motion and change, then that would falsify a basic tenet of communist theory—or at least of communist theory as it exists now and as we understand it now—and we, along with everyone else who is determined to be consistently scientific, would have to confront and draw the appropriate lessons from that—and not instrumentalist ones which suited and served our preconceptions. But it is not, in fact, the case that such a concept (of matter which does not involve internal contradiction, motion and change) has not only been posited but demonstrated, through scientific means, to be valid and true.

Once more, the scientific understanding we have of reality points to the fact that all reality consists of matter, and involves internal contradiction, motion and change, in one form or another.

As physics (and other branches of science) probe deeper into the nature of reality, on the "micro" as well as the "macro" level, and as they attempt to develop a scientific conception which correctly comprehends the integration of matter at those different levels ("macro" and "micro"), what is also said in "Making Revolution and Emancipating Humanity" is in fact what is taking place:

"And, over the whole period of more than 150 years since the time when Marx and Engels first formulated communism as a scientific theory, there has been the continuing enrichment of the understanding of dialectical materialism itself, on the basis of learning from continuing discoveries, in natural science as well as social science and history. It is not that these developments have shown that, after all, reality does not consist only of matter in motion; it is that they have deepened our understanding of what that means, and at the same time have posed new challenges in understanding particular forms of matter and particular aspects of the laws of motion of matter."

The problem is not that continuing discoveries and the continuing development and enrichment of scientific theories—or, for that matter, the positing of various hypotheses, in physics and other fields—have proved invalid, or objectively called into question, the basic understanding that all reality consists of matter in motion and that all such matter in motion involves internal contradiction. The problem is rather that some communists (and some erstwhile communists), at least in some cases on the basis of familiarity with some of these "continuing discoveries" and hypotheses—and, once again, in the context of the setbacks and difficulties of the communist movement in this period—have responded to this with what is an inadequate, or not a deep enough and not a fully correct, grasp of materialism and of dialectics—and more specifically have applied a mechanical and/or in other ways incorrect notion of internal contradiction and of motion and change—and for that reason (or at least in part for that reason) have fallen into questioning the basic dialectical materialist understanding of reality, when in fact there has been no scientific discovery and no verified theory that actually calls into question this basic understanding.

At the same time, while I remain firmly convinced that the fundamental principles of dialectical materialism, as I have touched on them here—including that all reality consists of matter in motion, and that all levels and forms of matter involve internal contradiction—are valid and have not been refuted, or called into question, by what has been learned in physics, or other fields, it also remains true that, without lapsing into an agnostic orientation—as if we cannot draw definite conclusions about, and proceed on the basis of, these fundamental principles—we could all benefit, and must continue to learn, from further exploration and grappling with questions concerning the basic character of reality (matter in motion). This, if approached with a consistently scientific outlook and method, will serve to strengthen our ability to grasp, apply and further enrich dialectical materialism.

Empiricism, agnosticism, relativism, and revisionism

In many ways, and in essential aspects, the tendency to call into question the basic understanding that all reality consists of matter in motion, and that all forms of matter in motion involve internal contradiction—and in particular the way this tendency finds expression among people who have considered themselves communists—is indeed very similar to the phenomenon Lenin addressed in Materialism and Empirio-Criticism. As alluded to above: today, as in Lenin's time, developments in physics have (in certain measure at least) led, or contributed, to—and have been mutually reinforcing with—a crisis in philosophy; and among communists, where this has not found expression simply in terms of a dogmatic clinging to a brittle version of (and essentially a religious substitute for) communism, it has been manifest as rampant empiricism, agnosticism, and relativism.

This, in turn, has been linked to a tendency to embrace revisionism politically. In some cases this has meant adopting an agnostic stand toward the prospect of making revolution and achieving communism—along with a more general philosophical agnosticism—or in fact openly abandoning the goal of revolution and communism altogether.

A number of erstwhile communists—including some who have gone from being in the camp of revolution to sinking into the cesspool of counter-revolution—are characterized, in their philosophical-ideological outlook, by a rather stark pragmatism and empiricism, which goes along with, and reinforces, rampant economism and revisionism, particularly in the form of "the movement is everything, the final aim nothing." Generally, this is also combined with an embrace of bourgeois democracy—and, where this does not involve an outright abandonment of communism, it is marked by the attempt to identify communism with bourgeois democracy. Among some of these former communists (and some "intellectual fellow travelers of communism") there is also a full-scale retreat toward relativism, agnosticism, and scholasticism. (By scholasticism I mean not just dealing with theoretical abstractions in their own right—which can be very important, particularly if this is part of an overall correct method and approach—but making a principle of divorcing theory from practice and in particular from the struggle to change the world; examining—or playing around with—ideas not only in abstraction from such practice and struggle but as a substitute for it, and as something held to be more important than understanding reality as it actually exists, let alone actually changing it.)

Some who are representative of these opportunist tendencies have even gone so far as to denounce our Party for "outlawing agnosticism." They have insisted that at times agnosticism is a good thing, because sometimes you can't really tell what's true, and can't draw firm conclusions about things. Here, as is typical of such types, we see an eclectic combining of things which are in opposition to each other—and specifically the eclectic combining (or identification) of aspects of the correct scientific outlook and method, on the one hand, with actual agnosticism, on the other hand. On the philosophical level—in terms of what characterizes agnosticism, its fundamental antagonism philosophically with dialectical materialism and its opposition to the scientific method generally—the fact is that agnosticism is not the assertion that, at a given time and in a given circumstance, it may not be possible to draw definitive conclusions about something. There are in fact times when not drawing definitive conclusions can be part of a correct, scientific approach. It depends on the circumstances, and what in the particular circumstances it is, and is not, possible to know (to determine with—yes, relative but nonetheless real—certainty). But agnosticism as an "ism," if you will—as a philosophical outlook and method—is the declaration that it is not possible to have any certitude about reality, or the assertion that you cannot know something when in fact there is a very solid basis to know and to draw definitive conclusions about it.

So, here once more, we see the eclectic combining (the conflating or "merging together") of agnosticism, as a philosophical outlook and approach, with the assertion that we cannot, at a given point, say with certainty what is true, or not true, about a particular thing (or process), which may or may not be the case—and which assertion may be part of a correct scientific approach or in fact may be part of an agnostic outlook and approach. But this "two-into-one"—this "merging together" of these two very different phenomena (situations where it may not be possible to draw definitive conclusions about something, and on the other hand the general assertion that it is not possible to really know anything, with any certainty, about reality, or the assertion that it is not possible to come to definitive conclusions about a particular part of reality, when in fact there is a very sound basis for doing so)—is a classic example of eclecticism, as a method and approach.

Here it is important to emphasize that the essence of eclecticism (and the way in which it serves revisionism, when it is communists, or those professing to be communists, who adopt and apply such eclecticism) is not simply to pose things in terms of "on the one hand 'this,' and on the other hand 'that'"—but to do so in a way that obscures the essence of the matter, and specifically undermines what is in fact the principal and defining aspect of the contradiction.

For example, take the statement: "True, imperialism involves the intense and vicious exploitation and oppression of people in many parts of the world; but it has also led to the development of many beneficial forms of technology and to a high standard of living for significant numbers of people." Both aspects here—what precedes the semicolon (before the word "but") and what follows after that—are true. But which aspect is principal, defining, and essential? Clearly, it is the former: the highly exploitative and oppressive nature of imperialism, and the very negative consequences of this for the great majority of humanity. But the way this sentence is formulated, it blunts that essential truth by, in form, putting the secondary aspect (as embodied in the second part of the above sentence) on an equal footing with the principal aspect. This serves, at least objectively, as an apology for imperialism.

All eclectic approaches have the same basic character and effect: They serve to muddle things and to deny or undermine the principal aspect and essence of things.

This, for example, is the way certain people, even certain self-proclaimed "communists," deal with religion and its effects on people, in particular basic masses, caught up in religion. True—such people would probably admit, at least when pressed—religion presents a false view of reality, causing people to believe in, and even to try to rely on, things which do not exist; but, they would hasten to add, it is more complicated than that—there is a way in which religion "explores the mysteries of existence" and/or provides solace and consolation for suffering, to people who are in desperate need of that, and certain kinds of religious belief may even impel people to take some actions which have a positive political, or social, effect.

Here, once again, both aspects of that statement have truth to them, but—as is characteristic of eclecticism as a method and approach—this statement, and the second part in particular, serves to obscure things, and specifically to obscure, blunt and undermine what is in fact the essence (the principal aspect) of the matter: the essential role of religion precisely in keeping people shackled to a false understanding of reality—including in the way religion presents a distorted picture of what may, at any given time, be "mysteries of existence"—obstructing and interfering with people's ability to confront reality as it actually is, and to transform it, through struggle (including by solving what were previously "mysteries"), in accordance with the pathways for change which lie within—the contradictory nature of—reality.

And, once again, such eclecticism frequently goes along with—is frequently bound together as a "package" with—agnosticism, relativism, empiricism and pragmatism and, in the political realm, revisionism and reformism (often in the form of "the movement is everything, the final aim nothing"), even if this is, at times at least, put forward in the name of—and as a gross perversion of—communism.

From all this, we can see that questions of science and philosophy—of outlook, and method and approach—are not only very important ideologically but also will be bound up with decisive questions of political line and orientation: with what kind of society and world one sees as possible, and desirable, and accordingly for what one is, or is not, prepared to struggle and sacrifice.


1. "Making Revolution and Emancipating Humanity," Parts 1 and 2, is available online (at revcom.us/avakian/makingrevolution and revcom.us/avakian/makingrevolution2) and in Revolution and Communism: A Foundation and Strategic Orientation, a Revolution pamphlet, May 1, 2008. The section referred to here appears in part 1 under the heading "Marxism as a Science—Refuting Karl Popper," pp. 18-30. [back]

2. The historical experience of the first stage of the communist movement, the basis for its defeats and setbacks, and what lessons should, and should not, be drawn from this experience, are spoken to in Communism: The Beginning of a New Stage, a Manifesto from the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA (September 2008), available online at revcom.us or as a pamphlet by RCP Publications, 2009. [back]