‘Marxism and the Philosophy of Science: A Critical History: The First Hundred Years’ by Helena Sheehan reviewed by Michael D Gordin

Reviewed by Michael D Gordin

About the reviewer

Michael D Gordin is professor of the history of science at Princeton University. He specializes on …


What happened to dialectical materialism? It was once a vigorous philosophy of science, an alternative to the two other dominant schools: logical positivism and phenomenology. The last two have continued to mutate, evolve, and flourish, but dialectical materialism has retreated into the shadows, no longer even used as a sparring partner by most academic philosophers of science (a role sometimes still played by neo-Thomism). But dialectical materialism has not been abandoned; it has merely been reprinted. Publishers have released new editions of classics in the field by Christopher Caudwell, J. D. Bernal, J. B. S. Haldane, and others.

Helena Sheehan’s Marxism and the Philosophy of Science is a release of another order. This volume, first published in 1985 and reissued in 1993 (after the dissolution of the Soviet Union), has now been reprinted by Verso in its Radical Thinkers series, largely unchanged from the 1993 version except for the addition of a new afterword. Sheehan’s book remains the single best secondary analysis of the debates over Marxist philosophy of science from its creation in the late nineteenth century – largely by Friedrich Engels in Anti-Dühring (1878) and Dialectics of Nature (posthumously published in 1927 in the Soviet Union) – until the close of World War II. It is an indispensable reference to the polyglot efflorescence of dialectical materialist thought across Europe, with especial emphasis on writings in German, Russian, and English, though she impressively ventures even farther afield. It is essential reading for anyone interested in these questions.

Many such readers may perhaps already have come across it in a library. It bears revisiting. Opening the book catapults the reader back to the mid-1980s and a world where Marxism – including its philosophy of science – occupied a very different place. In her acknowledgments, Sheehan rolls off the eleven countries she visited in the course of her original research (vii). Depending on whether you believe today’s Federal Republic of Germany is the same place as the “West Germany,” as many as five of those countries no longer exist. Already in 1993 she had revised the core of the text to remove references to a sequel she had resolved to set aside unwritten, and already then, less than a decade after initial publication, the changes in the surrounding context were evident. Her new afterword (441) mentions she was inspired to revisit these topics after a conference at Princeton in 2006 (coincidentally co-organized by me); she has not revised the main text. Instead, trapped as in amber, we see the excitement of a sharp mind from the 1980s reaching back to the interwar period for inspiration among the early pioneers of dialectical materialism.

The book is organized in five chapters, the first two organized temporally by generation, the last two spatially by geography; the middle chapter serves as a bridge. Sheehan begins with Engels, sketching out his formulation of dialectical materialism. Her account is as clear as it can be given that Engels himself deployed a highly specific Hegelian terminology and had not finished Dialectics of Nature before he died. The potential inconsistencies within that work and between that work and Anti-Dühring, not to mention the rest of the Marx/Engels corpus, animate a good deal of the intellectual history that follows. Sheehan defends Engels from his (many) detractors, arguing that the principles he laid allowed for the development of a multifaceted, robust, non-dogmatic materialist philosophy of contemporary science: “What is significant in Engels is his fundamental orientation. His contribution lay in sketching the broad outlines of a processive, antireductionist and humanist materialism; in an integrated way of thinking that bridged the gap between rationalism and empiricism, between organicism and materialism, between humanism and naturalism” (47).

The second chapter follows the debates over philosophy of science into the broader (largely Germanophone) community of the Second International. Dialectical materialism was not necessarily the obvious philosophy of science for this group, and not only because Dialectics of Nature was yet to appear. Revisionist Marxists like Eduard Bernstein – the steward of Engels’s manuscript who received a noncommittal endorsement from Albert Einstein in favor of publication for the sake of intellectual history – were strongly shaped by a resurgent neo-Kantianism at the turn of the century, and this doctrine vied with the empiricism of Ernst Mach (which Sheehan defers to chapter 3) for the epistemologically inclined. Another important reason for the heterogeneity of views was the transformation in the sciences which graced the moment: special and general relativity, atomism, quantum theory, genetics (and eugenics), psychoanalysis, and more.

The reader is next introduced to the Russian context, and to the second most important thinker in the main line of dialectical-materialist thought: Vladimir Lenin. Lenin’s Materialism and Empirio-Criticism (1909) was a full-throated attack on Ernst Mach’s philosophy – itself later the inspiration for logical positivism, the leading school of the philosophy of science for the twentieth century – and its many adherents. Sheehan deftly untangles the various strands of Russian Marxist thought and situates Lenin in this milieu. With the October Revolution of 1917, the leading exponent of dialectical materialism became the head of state of the world’s largest country.

Chapter 4 forms the core of Sheehan’s historical narrative, and both the arc of the longer history and its eventual tragedy become evident. In the factionalization of Soviet philosophers in the 1920s, one sees in precise outline for the first time the essential tensions in Engels’s thought that had enabled the fruitful diversity of dialectical-materialist viewpoints. Engels’s philosophy was resolutely materialist in ontology, but it was also strongly shaped by Hegelian dialectics. Two different camps grabbed one of the horns and pulled as hard as they could. The so-called “mechanists” argued that the increasingly explicit Hegelianism of their arch-rival Abram M. Deborin veered into idealism when he claimed that dialectics existed actually in nature as opposed to being a human-created explanation of complex material processes. Deborin, in turn, criticized the mechanists as naïve. This conflict happened primarily in the philosophy of science because, as Sheehan astutely notes (180), the mechanists drew Deborin onto their own turf. No matter: by the end of the 1920s, the “Deborinites” had concentrated control of most academic philosophy in their hands – until the Great Break, when Joseph Stalin, otherwise largely uninterested in the philosophy of science, intervened. Now Deborinism was categorized as “menshevizing idealism,” and the mechanists and the Debornites were painted as the analogs to the right (Bukharin) and left (Trotsky) deviations, respectively. Soviet philosophy of science stagnated into rote invocation of classic texts, paving the way for the rise of agronomist Trofim Lysenko’s campaign against genetics in the mid-1930s. This chapter largely accounts for the dingy reputation of dialectical materialism in later years.

Some redemption appears in chapter 5, relating how communists outside the Soviet Union approached dialectical materialism. After an extended discussion of the limited science-related passages in Karl Korsch and Gyorgy Lukács, neither of whom appeals to Sheehan as especially generative, she devotes much more attention to Antonio Gramsci and especially Christopher Caudwell, whom she admires greatly. There are probably as many pages devoted to Caudwell as to Lenin, which struck me as particularly odd since Caudwell’s impact was not felt until many years after he died young in 1937 in the Spanish Civil War, and is to some degree still ongoing.

Sheehan ends her jam-packed narrative with its hundreds of characters in 1945, which makes sense pragmatically but is historically unfortunate for two main reasons. The first is the aforementioned Lysenko. When Sheehan leaves him, the conflict between his “Michurinists” and the so-called “Mendelian” geneticists was still a pitched battle, with neither on top. In 1948, as is well known, Stalin endorsed Lysenko’s neo-Lamarckian hereditary theory and largely proscribed genetics until Lysenko lost his dominant control of Soviet biology in 1965. The demarche of 1948 was a watershed for Marxist philosophy of science. Some, like Haldane, left the Communist Party of Great Britain two years later in (silent) protest; others, such as Bernal, doubled down on the Party line. The implications of Lysenko’s rise (and his fall) shape any reception of dialectical materialism, and it is regrettable that reasons of space constrain a treatment of its unfolding. Nonetheless, Sheehan’s condemnation of Stalinism, and Lysenkoism, is explicit: “It may be that the longer run is bringing the perspective denied to it by the short run, and that the martyrs of science are faring better than their accusers, bringing Vavilov to triumph at least posthumously over Lysenko. But things have not yet been set right and it is an episode that is far from over” (236). In the second afterword she gives references to recent scholarship providing a deeper contextualization (439).

Second, as is obvious through Sheehan’s footnotes and commentary, the postwar era was in many ways a new golden age of diverse Marxist thought about epistemology and ontology. Caudwell’s and Gramsci’s receptions are part of this, but so are the Althusserians (for whom Sheehan has little patience) and anti-Marxist intellectual historians like Leszek Kołakowski. The diversity of views within Eastern European philosophy is a particularly rich vein to mine for alternative visions of dialectical materialism. I wish Sheehan had seen her way to writing that sequel.

Does the book hold up well over thirty years after its original publication? As a guide to the major writers and their views the answer is: absolutely. Yet two analytical choices that Sheehan made in 1985 give the book, upon rereading, a rather strange cast in light of the practice of intellectual history, itself renascent in our new century.

The first concerns the definition of “science,” or rather Sheehan’s not providing one. If we are not clear on what “science” is – for the author, for the various thinkers in the book – it necessarily follows that we cannot sharply understand the boundaries of “philosophy of science.” For the Soviet case, Sheehan hews very close to a narrow delineation of the philosophy of science, for those debates there were explicitly tagged within that subfield. For the Second International and the Comintern periods, however, it is often unclear why the reader needs, for example, to follow many pages on Korsch’s dialectic when the link to “science” is tenuous. Although the ideas she chronicles are fascinating, she does not spend much effort explaining why philosophy of science – as opposed to, say, political philosophy or aesthetics – warrants special attention.

The stakes of the philosophy would be clearer if there were more close readings of specific transformations in the sciences, such as quantum theory. (The discussion of Lenin’s views of matter vis-à-vis contemporary physics on 134-5 is a great example; there could be more of this.) Part of the reason philosophy of science mattered to these thinkers was that science had started to matter to the modern world in a more dramatic way than before. The boundary between what would later be called the “natural sciences” and the “social sciences” was first negotiated by these intellectuals, as were the characteristics that several among them judged made “scientific socialism” scientific. This material is, to some degree, already in Sheehan’s omnivorous scholarship, but it remains partially obscured by journeys down other byways.

My final point concerns what Sheehan intends by the “critical history” of her subtitle. We certainly get a history, and we also get criticism; I am less certain that we get both together. Sheehan has definite intellectual and personal commitments and she often gets into the trenches and argues with the historical actors. This makes the philosophy more vivid, but at the cost of some historical perspective. We do not always appreciate why the various thinkers held the views they did on their own terms. Sheehan does treat neo-Kantianism’s postulates, but we receive little more than a glance at phenomenology or pragmatism; because we do not see the engagements of these writers outside of Marxism, we can only grasp their significance within a Marxist lineage, which is necessarily a retrospective glance.

Since the framework is partially retrospective, the account demands a more explicit articulation of Sheehan’s views about the Marxism of her day – whether in 1979 when she left the party, 1985 when she published the first edition, 1993 when she revised it, or last year when she reissued the text. Nonetheless, this volume (and Verso by reprinting it) provides a great service in bringing some unfairly neglected thinkers to center stage, ready for a new engagement with dialectical materialism’s legacy and its potential future.

4 June 2018


  1. Thank you for a most intriguing and interesting review.
    I was much struck by your comments on the “two analytical choices” that the author of the book made. Both are of great importance in my view.
    I would very much appreciate it if I could succeed in enticing you, as an experienced professional in the field, to offer your view of what “science” is.
    In order to provoke you I will offer my very simple-minded view of what “science” is.
    In my view “science” is simply correct knowledge, of the world around us and of ourselves. This sound knowledge is knowledge acquired in a particular manner and is finally and most securely confirmed by social practice.
    I should qualify my comments by saying that in English, at least, the word “science” has at least 3 different connotations. Firstly, as used above it may refer to the certain, well established knowledge in science. Examples are: the rules of mechanical dynamics, evolutionary biology, thermodynamics. Secondly, the word “science” is also used to mean the practice of scientific investigation. This is and has always been a social activity and is studied by historians and social scientists. Thirdly, it is often used when talking about “scientists”. These people are of course members of a specific geographical and historical society and are best studied as part of their society.

  2. Haven’t read the book, but this review is mostly a history of ideas, partly a political history, with a bit of reference to the impact of the scientific developments. In other words, the review is not historical materialist. Specifically, where is even a hint here of the main issue: the uses of science in capital accumulation and even more importantly the new contradiction in capital accumulation as a result of scientific advance?

  3. I do not find any reference to or discussion of two very important works on the subject, viz McCarthy’s Marx’ (Springer, 1988) and Patrick Murray’s Humanities Press, 1988) in Sheehan. Could Prof Gordon say something on this omission?

  4. I am sorry. In the cut-and-paste process, the titles of the books got omitted.

    George McCarthy’s Marx’ Critique of Science and Positivism. Springer 1988.

    Patrick Murray: Marx’s Theory of Scientific Knowledge.
    Humanities Press 1988.

    1. Check the dates. The reviewer points out that the book was written in 1985 and that this is its second reissue. Thus it would contain no references to works written three years after its publication. Rather, the question should be whether McCarthy and Murray were thorough enough to refer to Sheehan.

      1. Thank you for your comment. Sheehan’s book was revised and reissued in 1993, five years after McCarthy’s and Murray’s books. It is the revised edition that has been reprinted by Verso and reviewed by Gordin. When an author is revising her work, she is expected to take note of the important contributions made to the subject during the interim, the interval between 1983 and 1993. I had only expressed my surprise at this omission.

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