The Problem of Social Consciousness in Our Time

(Part 2)


Hegel, Marx and Engels cleared the path to true consciousness by demonstrating its dependence on social existence. Once this dependence was discovered and the decisive element of our social existence (production) with its inherent contradictions was analyzed, consciousness concerning the essence was established and the general result of our social development (as a consequence of its unfolding inner contradictions and antagonisms) could be predicted. Errors in details, even important ones, were still to occur as a result of shortcomings in concrete knowledge (often conditioned by restrictions of the time), yet the key to the comprehension of social processes and an adequate consciousness was found. This, however, does not mean that from then on consciousness was to spread and gain a great influence in social life. Quite the contrary, there were good reasons why this could not be. The main reason was given by Marx himself in connection with the fetish character of commodities. He explained:

The recent scientific discovery, that the products of labor, so far as they are value, are but material [objective] expressions of the human labor spent in their production, marks indeed an epoch in the history of the development of mankind, but by no means dissipates the mist through which the social character of labor appears to be an objective character of the products themselves. What is valid only for this specific form of production, for commodity production, namely that the specific social character of private labor executed independently of each other consists in their quality as human labor — this appears, before as after the mentioned discovery, to those prepossessed by the relations of commodity production just as final as the fact that, after the scientific decomposition of the air into its elements, the air continues to exist in its physical form.

In other words: If, as Hegel says, what is well known is on that account not cognized — what is cognized is on that account not well known. Nearly everybody remained prepossessed by the relations of commodity production, and the process of reification gained more power over consciousness the less commodity production had fully developed and exhausted all its possibilities. It is true that Marx, Engels and many of their followers believed that the proletariat would become the principal carrier of that consciousness required for the transformation of the capitalist system into a rational society. In a paragraph of the Preface to the second edition of Capital not contained in the English translation, Marx even wrote:

The understanding which Capital found quickly in wide circles of the German working-class is the best reward of my work. Herr Meyer, industrialist of Vienna, a man holding economically the bourgeois standpoint, pertinently demonstrated in a brochure published during the German-French war that the so-called educated classes of Germany had quite lost the great theoretical sense which was considered to be a German heritage, but that it revived anew in her working-class.

No need to elaborate that the understanding of Capital by workers and all references to the acquisition of social consciousness by the proletariat belongs to the important errors of Marx and Engels. Such errors stand, in fact, in unnecessary contradiction to their outline of social psychology, which makes it plain that the law of ignorance and isolation applies to all classes in bourgeois society. The truth is that just because reification progressed for a time and progressively degraded man (a process through which the proletariat was definitely integrated into bourgeois society), consciousness not only made no further inroads but actually regressed to an incredible degree. When Marx spoke about the “understanding” of his main work he noted also: “That the method employed in Capital has been little understood, is shown by the various conceptions, contradictory one to another, that have been formed of it.” This was due to the general regression in thinking unavoidable in a society in which the privilege of education cuts the masses off from experience with forms of thought. For in such a society the fetter in which the consciousness of the masses is held becomes a fetter for the educated strata themselves and enforces a constant lowering of cognition on both sides. The first result was the loss of the Hegelian tradition, the “great theoretical sense” embodied in its highest form in Hegel’s dialectic. It was even, as Marx says in the same place, the good pleasure of the peevish, arrogant and mediocre epigones who now talk large in educated Germany, to treat Hegel in the fashion in which the brave Moses Mendelssohn in Lessing’s time treated Spinoza, namely as a “dead dog.” The system is endangered if cognition is acquired even by “educated” members of the upper classes, a fact which determines the level of all education from universities down to public schools. On the other side, the leaders of the workers’ movement were, contrary to common belief, the least acquainted with dialectics and (in general) the first to pervert theory altogether. This was the case for the Second International in its entirety, which produced not one great dialectician (not to speak of Kautsky, Bernstein and so on — even Mehring, Rosa Luxemburg and Labriola never fully understood dialectics and displayed great theoretical weaknesses). Although led, in the person of Lenin, by the only creative dialectician after Marx and Engels, this was also the case for the Third International, which was transformed by Stalin into one vast institute for the falsification of consciousness in conformity with the political reduction of the Russian revolution to its bourgeois content. Notwithstanding various “Marxist” sects, Marxism as a political movement, that is as the theory and praxis of the “proletarian revolution” and the “dictatorship of the proletariat,” is absolutely dead.

If one adds to all this the “observed fact” of general hostility towards the surviving elements of Marxism (including the permanent effort to distort them), namely the critique of political economy and historical and dialectical materialism as the key to full consciousness, one must conclude: It requires at least complete ignorance on the part of Wilson to assert that the dogma of the Dialectic is common to all Marxist creeds. There is, in the first place, no sense at all to speak about Marxist “creeds,” for the essentials of Marxism, the understanding of political economy and dialectics, is not, was never and could never be common to any of the groupings sailing under Marx’s name. Wilson himself mentions that Paul Lafargue had told Lenin it was impossible for the Russians to understand Marx, since nobody any longer understood him (in 1895, the year of Engels’s death) in Western Europe. Lafargue’s utterance voices the same deep truth as Lenin’s aphorism (20 years later) that after half a century none of the Marxists had understood Marx for lack of understanding dialectics. The comprehension of political economy and dialectics was thus always restricted to individuals and, for that matter, to very few of them. Wilson, for one, proves with every word he says concerning these subjects that he has no idea of what he is talking about and is not among the aforesaid individuals. His “arguments” against Marx as the “Poet of Commodities” and against dialectics will be reviewed in the course of the study — here one further reason why full consciousness about our social existence could not be attained by social groups.

Marx possessed the fundamental insight: It is not enough that thought strives toward reality — reality itself must strive toward the thought. True, he committed another of his errors in assuming that reality was ripe or soon to become ripe to reveal the truth of the thought and to awaken it in the minds of many. Actually, reality still had far to travel in order to arrive at conclusive results and thus left thought isolated. It is easy to see this 60, 70 or 100 years later and to grasp the force of Marx’s original insight, which compels us to recognize once and for all: Speak the purest truth with the tongue of an angel sent directly from heaven, it will fall on deaf ears if the force of appearance speaks against you.

One thing is nevertheless certain: There has been, in spite of all the gained detailed knowledge, no philosophical progress beyond the achievements of Hegel-Marx-Engels, no really new posing of the question of cognition and no new basic principles. Vice versa: Cognition has been obscured by futile attempts to “get around” dialectical materialism, by attempts to “modernize” older concepts and by masses of details (“observed facts”) which — whatever their validity, interpretation or consequence — cannot alter the situation. If under such circumstances dialectics still seems something strange or incomprehensible, then it is not because it has become obsolete but because we have not yet reconquered the level on which Hegel operated. And this due to the fact that the trivial, catastrophic and extremely painful development of bourgeois society, which with its initial revolutionary impetus gave birth to dialectics, is slow to close its life-circle and has not yet led back to the broad and immediately inspiring perspective it seemed to open at its beginning. In other words: Potentialities, which, in principle, could be visualized, had to become solid material reality before the consciousness of many could be affected by them. This latter point is basic in dialectical materialism, which declares that nature, society and thinking form a circular movement in which what is first becomes the last and what is the last becomes the first.

With the foregoing in mind, one may measure the ignorance of Wilson, who really believes he has delivered the “death-blow” against dialectics in arguing against Bernal (for whom, not being acquainted with his writings, we otherwise take no responsibility):

After all, the various discoveries invoked by Bernal were arrived at quite without the intervention of dialectical thinking — just as Mendeleyev’s Periodic Table, which so much impressed Engels as an instance of quality determined by quantity, owed nothing to the antithesis and the synthesis; and it is difficult to see how they are improved [!] by being fitted into the Dialectic.

First of all it is a fine trick to cover up the fact that one has no argument against one law of dialectics (namely, that quantity turns into quality and vice versa, not simply that quantity determines quality as the static-minded Wilson mispresents this law) by dragging in another. Nobody except Wilson has ever asserted that the former must “owe” something to the latter, especially if the latter is presented as antithesis and synthesis. Secondly: It is entirely Wilson’s own business if he finds it difficult to see how discoveries are improved by being fitted into the Dialectic, for he is again the only one who burdens dialectics with nonexisting, nonsensical claims. To give a drastic example befitting the level of a very dialectical situation:

If Wilson writes a completely correct chapter on dialectics, the difference between quantity and quality does not show up — it is only there implicitly and we say without distinguishing between them that the chapter is good. One, two or even a few more errors in the chapter would still leave it a “good” chapter; they would not change its quality, though the difference between quality and quantity is now set into motion and appears in the number of errors. The more errors Wilson introduces into his chapter, the more will it change its quality (adjectives: not so good, pretty faulty, etc.) until it consists of nothing but errors and has become a totally bad one, regardless of whether the errors result from Wilson’s ignorance, lack of understanding or good intentions. The simple increase of errors has turned into a new quality, and this new quality turns out to be a quantity of sheer nonsense. This nonsense fills a chapter in which the difference between the two again does not show up yet is implicitly there. It can, as before, be set into motion if Wilson corrects his errors one by one, until he has not only written a good chapter, but has also given an excellent lecture on how easy it is to fool readers who are ignorant enough to take everything an author tells them for granted. Yet this all has nothing to do with any “synthesis,” and Wilson will never reach one even if he piles up correct statements or errors sufficient to make up a book or a library instead of a chapter. (Besides: If he thinks that the original or regained undifferentiated unity of quantity and quality is his “synthesis” he adds only one more error to his mass of nonsense.)

If we now summarize our “discoveries,” no attempt is made to “fit” them into dialectics. We leave such distortions to Wilson and simply recognize that in the changes which we have observed a general law of dialectics is at work. And therewith we have indeed neither “improved” these discoveries nor Wilson’s chapter nor anything else he may think of. We have, instead, greatly improved our knowledge of how such changes occur and thus also improved our method of thinking and investigation, for we know much better where to look and will commit fewer errors if we are well acquainted with the laws regulating our whole natural, social and spiritual existence. Only common sense, untrained in higher forms of thought, can be so foolish as to suppose that discoveries must improve because they fit into anything, be it the Dialectic, the law of gravity or the foolishness of common sense itself. One of the merits of dialectics is precisely that it protects us against producing sheer nonsense and helps us to make discoveries, while their “improvement” is entirely a matter to follow, provided that the concrete case permits it at all. For the sake of common sense banality one is tempted say that Wilson surely is the “discoverer” of America. If he now would improve his discovery according to the laws of dialectics, the result would be something awfully good.

The best example of the superiority of dialectical thinking is Wilson’s “argument” that the various discoveries invoked by Bernal were arrived at quite without it. Since such talk constitutes no objection to the dialectical character of the discoveries in question, nonrefutation is simply confirmation. Since the whole universe is, if you please, dialectical, and since this cursed property is thus not something subjective but something very objective, it must show up in all processes, observations, discoveries, thoughts and whatever we do and experience. Molière’s famous hero was astonished to learn that he had spoken “prose” all his life without knowing it — Wilson may be surprised to learn that we arrive at dialectical results without dialectical thinking and without knowing that the results have anything to do with dialectics or even that there is such a kind of prose. Hegel knew already that the progress of the sciences in particular gradually brings to light higher relations of thought, or at any rate raises these relations to greater generality and thereby attracts more attentive consideration to them. No less than Hegel did Marx and Engels rely on the dialectical development of society and the sciences themselves. Engels made it plain even for children that one can arrive at the dialectical comprehension of nature by being forced to it through the accumulation of scientific facts, but that we come to this comprehension more easily if we meet the dialectical character of these facts with the consciousness of the laws of dialectical thinking. What he has to say further in this respect can only astonish because of its great actuality.

Engels first points out that the results of natural science force themselves upon everybody who is occupied with theoretical matters and do so with the same irresistibility with which today’s natural scientists willy-nilly see themselves driven to general theoretical inferences. And here, he notes, a certain compensation takes place: If theoreticians are sciolists in the field of natural science, then natural scientists are sciolists in the field of theory, in the field of what has been hitherto denoted as philosophy. He continues:

Empirical exploration of nature has heaped up such a tremendous mass of positive matter of cognition that the necessity to order it in each single field of investigation systematically and according to its inner connection has become simply peremptory. It becomes equally peremptory to bring the individual fields of cognition among themselves into the right connection. But therewith natural science betakes to the theoretical field, and here the methods of empiricism fail, here only theoretical thinking can help. But theoretical thinking is only as a disposition an innate property. This property has to be developed, has to be trained, and there is for this training till now no other means than the study of the hitherto existing philosophy.
       The theoretical thinking of each epoch, thus also that of ours, is a historical product which assumes at different times a very different form and therewith a very different content. The science of thinking is thus, like any other, a historical science, the science of the historical development of human thinking. And this is also of importance for the practical application of thinking to empirical fields. For the theory of the laws of thinking is, firstly, by no means a once and for all established “eternal truth,” as the common sense of the philistine imagines with the word logic. Formal logic itself has remained, from Aristotle till today, the field of vehement debates. And dialectics even has till now been more exactly investigated only by two thinkers, by Aristotle and Hegel. But just the dialectic is for today’s natural science the most important form of thinking, because it alone offers the analogon and therewith the method of explanation for the processes of development occurring in nature, for the connections in general, for the transition from one field of investigation to another.

Engels then describes the decline of theoretical thinking, beginning, as has been seen, in 1848. Together with Hegelianism, the dialectic was thrown overboard and thinking was again helplessly delivered over to the old metaphysics — just at the moment when the dialectical character of the natural processes announced itself forcefully; just when only the dialectic could help natural science over the theoretical mountain. The final outcome was the unsteadiness and confusion of theoretical thinking which now reigns.

* * *

Engels’s “now” means 1878, but the unsteadiness and confusion of theoretical thinking were even more manifest on February 2, 1956, when (just as these lines were written) the eminent physicist Robert Oppenheimer addressed the twenty-fifth anniversary meeting of the American Institute of Physics and its founding societies and declared that physics is now in search of a new order in the universe.

He told the meeting that man’s probing into the mysteries of the universe within the atom have led to “a maze of findings” that could not be reduced to an orderly concept of the physical world. Whereas, in the past, vast and disparate experiences had been reduced to a few general ideas and principles, we have today “a vast jumble [!] of odd dimensionless numbers, none of them understandable or derivable, all with an insulting lack of obvious meaning.” We have not found that “single key to the new physics” discovered at the turn of the century [!] by Max Planck. Nor do we have anything analogous to the postulates of Niels Bohr, founder of the modern concept of the atom.

Above all we do not have the great guidance of the correspondence principle to relate familiar physics that we understand with the phenomena now newly discovered.

Will this world, with its variety, its un-understood numbers, ever yield to an orderly description, simple and necessary?

Will our future students be able to explain the mass of new phenomena as necessary consequences of the physical principles of the subnuclear world? Or will these remain empirical findings, to be measured with greater and greater accuracy and recorded in tables that every physicist must memorize or carry about with him?

Surely past experience, especially in relativity and atomic mechanics, has shown that at a new level of explanation some simple notions previously taken for granted as inevitable had to be abandoned as no longer applicable.

But always in the past there has been an explanation of immense sweep and simplicity and in it vast detail has been comprehended as necessary.

Do we have the faith that this is inevitably true of man and nature? Do we even have the confidence that we shall have the wit to discover it? For some odd reason the answer to both questions is yes.

The new explanation of “immense sweep and simplicity,” Oppenheimer said, however, must await the coming of a new Newton or Einstein. This Genius was not likely to come soon, possibly not in his own lifetime, he said in answer to a question. (Cf. the New York Times of February 3, 1956.)

Compare with this the following statement of “immense sweep” by Engels:

One can hardly take into one’s hand a book dealing with natural science without getting the impression that natural scientists themselves feel how much they are dominated by this unsteadiness and confusion, and how the so-called philosophy now customary offers them absolutely no way out. And there is for once no other way out, no possibility to arrive at clarity, than the return, in one form or the other, from metaphysical to dialectical thinking.

There will be ample opportunity to verify both Oppenheimer’s and Engels’s statements concerning the crisis in theoretical thinking, but it must be emphasized at this point that with regard to its solution not many scientists share even the flimsy “optimism” displayed by Oppenheimer. Engels’s prediction that the return to dialectical thinking, if it took place spontaneously by the mere force of discoveries in natural sciences, would be a long-winded and unwieldy process in which an enormous quantity of friction would have to be overcome — this prediction has been confirmed beyond his own expectations. He did not envisage that all the factors that have been examined here would prevent a conscious return to dialectical thinking and, by coming into full play, widen the existing confusion. The theoretical crisis expresses a world crisis of the capitalist system, and that is why, in addition to the many who confess their theoretical poverty, not a few have gone so far as Dr. William G. Pollard, executive director of the Oak Ridge Institute of Nuclear Studies. Daniel Lang (in The Man in the Thick Lead Suit, Oxford University Press, 1945) tells us about this scientist:

Dr. Pollard says that he has no interest in trying to reconcile faith and skepticism. He considers them mutually antagonistic, and has chosen faith, in which, as he puts it, “explanations are useful but not necessary.” “I no longer believe that the approach of size-up-and-solve will produce a formula explaining all natural phenomena,” he says. “If this sounds like heresy to any of my scientific colleagues, I can only say that the more I have learned of science, the more I have become convinced that the origin of the universe will forever remain a mystery to us. And I say this with sympathy for those who disagree with me, for like them, I have been an agnostic who was sustained for many years, and happily so, by the hope of that master formula. Ten years ago, I would have been incapable of taking the step I have taken. [He was recently ordained as a Deacon in the Episcopal Church.] Wars, social upheavals, nationalism — I once reacted intellectually to such things, but now I see them as perhaps containing elements of God’s judgment. I’m less worried now about these problems than I used to be — though not because I have any greater confidence in man’s ability to cope with them.”

Explanations are not necessary but are useful, at least for all those clever people who were ever interested in trying to “reconcile” faith and skepticism. So it is good to explain (naturally, in a mutually antagonistic fashion): Only a total lack of philosophical education or an incredibly confident size-up-and-solve approach can be responsible for Dr. Pollard’s conviction that the origin of the universe will forever remain a mystery to us, nay, that it is “mystery” at all. For his high American standard and low-brow confusion, Dr. Pollard should receive two Nobel prizes — the faith-prize for his “conviction” and the physics-prize for his discovery of the “mystery.” Additional reason: The more he learned of science, the more ignorant he became. Of course, the worthy committee which so faithfully distributes the Nobel prize will not understand that this growing ignorance is due partly to the low theoretical level in general, partly to Dr. Pollard’s intelligence in particular, and partly to the factors in our social existence which work against cognition, consciousness, clarity, comprehension and education alike. So Dr. Pollard no longer “believes” that the approach of size-up-and-solve (double scientific method-prize for this approach!) will produce anything but his own nonsense (pardon: will produce a formula explaining all natural phenomena, including nonsense-producing intellects!). Having given up his former belief, he remains a strong believer nevertheless and now “sees” certain ugly things as “perhaps” (does this “perhaps” represent sheer guesswork or a remnant of skepticism?) containing elements of God’s judgment. And that, as will be shown in a minute, is for certain purposes a very useful “explanation” which fits excellently into Wilson’s remark (made in connection with Lenin’s Materialism and Empirio-Criticism) that even in our own day “the findings of filmy experiments provide pretexts for theological systems.”

Since Ernst Mach’s first philosophical writings appeared in 1872, there has been a steadily growing tendency among scientists to limit science to a clearly arranged description of actualities and then — to escape into mysticism, fideism and all sorts of flat positivism, the most “modern” version of which is Hans Reichenbach’s “Scientific Philosophy.” A wonderful though not always used pretext for scientific escapists is Mach’s fundamental thesis:

Sensations are not “symbols of things.” The “thing” is rather a mental symbol for a complex of sensations of relative stability. Not the things (bodies) but colours, sounds, pressures, spaces, times (what we usually call sensations) are the real elements of the world.

This thesis, in which without any confidence in it we immediately recognize Dr. Pollard’s “element” of God’s judgment, found among scientists one great and truly cultivated opponent, Max Planck. Struggling for many years against idealism in physics and especially against Machism, Planck delivered in 1910 at the university of Leyden a lecture in which, in opposition to Mach, he defended the materialist position. Mach reacted indignantly with an article (“Die Leitgedanken meiner naturwissenschaftlichen Erkenntnislehre und ihre Aufnahme durch die Zeitgenossen”) crying out against the reality of the atoms asserted by Planck. Almost comical in his helpless indignation, Mach reproaches the physicists for being on the way to becoming a church and appropriating a church’s methods. Thereupon he wants to make it plain as a pike-staff that, if the belief (!) in the reality of the atoms is so essential for physicists, he for his part desists from the ways of physical thinking. Indeed: Because he values freedom of thinking more highly and is unwilling to be a pure physicist, he will then renounce any natural-scientific (naturwissenschaftliche) cognition and decline further intercourse with believing men.

What strikes us in all this is the operation (positively or negatively) with belief and the bad taste of people who act as if one faith or belief (one of the “strongest” weapons which Wilson, too, brandishes against dialectics) were not as good as another. Instead of arguments and difference of opinion, which should be possible at least in scientific matters, we have fierce partisanship, groundless insults and the “terrible” (terribly tasteless) threat of declining intercourse — just as if that would impress anybody except those who, by the loss of Mach’s grace, must fear the loss of their social relations and their jobs according to the rule: If you don’t dance as I whistle, I’ll break your neck! Economy, the blind process of our perverted social existence, breaks into science with its full impact and manifests itself where we least expect it. What, for example, is behind Dr. Pollard’s utterance that he once reacted intellectually to wars, social upheavals, nationalism, yet is now less worried about these problems? He covers it up with the “superior” tone of a former “agnostic” who knows better now because he has chosen faith. But what the Dr. is aiming at is easy to see and as primitive as the elements of God’s judgments themselves.

Formerly (that is, ten years before Dr. Pollard became “capable” of taking his step) there was — didn’t you know that? — a war going on, a war which was the consequence of a “social upheaval” (German fascism) and nationalism. It was “clear” to all the Pollards (of whom there are more than plenty) that Germany had “simply” instigated an immoral, a simply flagitious world-conflagration. Thus all the Pollards reacted “intellectually” as one man to such a crime. But, alas! times change and with them the ideological pretexts necessary to keep in line with the system. Today we have the H-bomb and Oak Ridge, and the “intellectual” reaction to it, after the war, smells consciously bad. We have, further, a nationalistic government interfering arrogantly in the affairs of the whole world. Then there has been the Korean war which still stinks to God’s heaven — there may be other wars unchained by the U.S. government. Most important of all: There may even be a “social upheaval” of the Hitler-type (which the McCarthyites tried to get under way) which would fit very well with the whole scheme of “salvaging” our blessed American system and its supremacy over all others at whatever cost.

To react to that “intellectually” becomes nearly impossible if one wants or is “obliged” to go along with things formerly judged “immoral” because we had not yet had a chance to outdo them by our own insanities. There are, consequently, plenty of Pollards, for the whole picture changes if we install faith and with it renounce responsibility and explanation. Whatever happens and whatever we do: From now on we cannot do anything about it; we see retrospectively that we never could. A higher will than ours leads us, and if it leads us into a new mess (which it will, be assured!) we have the unnecessary but very useful explanation that there is no explanation except the elements of God’s judgment. Let’s close the front of faith reaching from the government down to the “people”! Let’s be directors in Oak Ridge and other beautiful places! Let’s have it as it comes, so that everybody gets enough of the elements discerned by faith! Let’s be less worried, less than we used to be, less than worried at all! Amen!

* * *

The directness with which the social process sometimes pushes the human mind along its path is so painfully brutal that one wishes people would in no way know what they are doing, but the bad conscience and apology in Pollard’s new master formula of rationalization forbid regarding him simply as a totally blinded victim of the social mechanism. Moreover, bad conscience and apology are present in all such cases, thus also in that of Oppenheimer, who once directed the development of the A-bomb. One must surely recognize merit when, speaking of the physicist as a teacher, Oppenheimer said in his address that “as physics grows, and there appears more and more to learn, the problem of reconciling [!] know-how and knowledge grows more urgent.” This is indeed a meritorious admission of the state of alienation in our society in which know-how and knowledge need “reconciliation,” yet become daily more estranged because the mechanism of capitalist know-how dictates: Let’s have less and less to do with each other, less and less than we used to have, less than anything at all! Oppenheimer is in the grip of this mechanism when he continues:

We must make more human [!] what we tell the young physicist and must seek ways to make more robust and more detailed what we tell the man of art or letters or affairs if we are to contribute to the integrity of our common cultural life.

The gem in this empty phrase of the Renan-Taine code-type is (a) our “common” cultural life, (b) its “integrity.” It contains not one iota of knowledge about our social existence (which strictly forbids common culture as well as its integrity) but much know-how of how to produce good-sounding nonsense (the lubrication that protects the machine against running hot). Oppenheimer proves that good will alone usually helps the devil it intends to fight — without acquiring knowledge before we talk, we cannot contribute anything human or cultural but will be forced to proceed as follows:

The labors of physicists in explanation and in prophecy are not and cannot be ended; and there is no standing Joint Committee on the World’s Salvation to which they can abdicate their concern.

This is again a good-sounding tirade, combining with the former to cover up for the amazing assertion:

Yet by now the problem of living with the new dangers and the new hopes is where it belongs: with the public and its officers, the governments. Let us be sure that by our effort and our clarity we always keep it there.

If ever there was a total abdication of the physicist’s “labor in explanation and prophecy,” then it is in this revolting declaration of “standing above” the public, the government and one’s own guilt, arrived at with the words “by now.” Oppenheimer, by his own effort, wants to establish with his own “clarity” that the problem, i.e. the responsibility for the new dangers, lies first of all with the public and then with the governments (which fill only a phraseological gap) but by no means with the scientists who created these dangers. Since he does not even care for the “new hopes” (an article sold to simpletons!), one must make an effort to introduce some clarity into a deliberately distorted matter.

The new dangers were and are invoked behind the back of the public, in secrecy, without giving information to the public, without asking its opinion and without having its consent. The public is and will be, under the present system, forever ignorant about the real scope of these dangers and cannot even understand their nature, significance and ramifications. Insofar as it has become aware of the dangers resulting from experiments with H-bombs it has protested (in Japan practically the whole population), but its protests have been treated by “its” officers like all the fears and wishes of the people: as if they were nonexistent. Oppenheimer has enough experience to know that governments live apart from the public, that the public is managed by “its” officers from the cradle to the grave, that governments are the private property of the possessing classes, and that the problem of living with the new dangers and the responsibility for them belongs entirely and exclusively to the scientists and the governments. No effort must be spared to assure that it is not shifted from there to the public, from which Oppenheimer, with one stroke, suddenly separates thousands of scientists, just as if they were living in a vacuum and had nothing to do with the poor business of ordinary people.

Yet they do not live in a vacuum, they only illustrate the urgency of reconciling know-how and knowledge and how the gap is filled with false consciousness. Imagine several thousand scientists listening to Oppenheimer’s address and not one telling him on the spot or later: “Now, this kind of explanation, prophecy and clarity is . . . well, I will not use a certain word because it is not very flattering, but the word I had in mind was balderdash.” The sore spot in the affair is that our scientists were not assembled to listen to something more “humane,” but in order to do business, i.e. to make “contacts” with the “right” people, to find ways into better paid positions and to gain attention for such purposes by reading their newest scientific toilet-paper in the ten minutes granted to everyone who has manufactured one. By a fluke coming at the right time and having the effect of an act of elemental justice, an article by I.I. Rabi appeared in the New York Times Magazine of February 12, 1956, under the editorial subhead: “A noted physicist deplores a tendency to look on scientists as a sort of strategic material. The danger is that we may lose our brightest young minds.” The author himself speaks about his qualms in rather amusing terms:

What disturbs the scientist is the increasing tendency to treat science and the scientists as commodities [!] with all the appropriate export and import regulations which relate to important strategic material. The great drive now going on to increase the number of scientists and engineers takes on the appearance of stockpiling of tungsten or copper.
       The aids to scientific education stem more from the fear that Russia will surpass us than from an interest in scientific knowledge and a concern for the general vigor and health of the scientific endeavor and the preservation of a strong scientific tradition. [One should remember that the interests of the bourgeoisie run violently against such — interest and concern!] They certainly do not stem from a desire of the public to know more about science and the visible and invisible world.
       The impact of scientific thought on the culture of our times becomes less and less, even as science advances to greater pinnacles of understanding and discovery. [Alienation over and over again!] As the importance of science in the country increases, its dignity seems to be diminishing. [For Wilson: This phenomenon is truly dialectical!] Many scientists have had the frustrating experience of trying to explain what science is about to laymen, either in government, or in the universities, or to the ordinary professional or business man.

It is surely bitter to be treated as a commodity and to see that the dignity of science diminishes. However, as has been pointed out in connection with Renan and Taine: It is the intelligentsia itself which, with the reification of profession, is at the same time the instigator and the victim of it all — nothing is more erroneous than the belief that the scientists have not fully merited this ignominious degradation. Their science has become something so “special” that there remains only one science, namely their physics and mathematic, which under present circumstances lead to the undermining of thinking.[9] Therefore it will always be a frustrating experience if scientists try to tell the “layman” about science, even the layman in universities where, from what we have learned, they have other worries than bothering with that. Scientists are indeed so “apart” that they care little for “subordinate” matters with which the layman in governments and universities or the ordinary professional or business man are occupied. Thus said Dr. Curtis in 1945:

But scientists don’t care much, by and large, about political [!] matters. Let somebody else take care of politics — we [!] have our atoms to attend to. But the scientists have felt that they can and should make whatever contributions they could. (Science Legislation: Hearings before the Subcommittee on Military Affairs, U.S. Senate.)

Feeling that they (observe the highly “scientific” sequence in language!) can make whatever contribution they could, they cared little for their little care about politics and went straight into business when the war offered an opportunity for it.[10] Unfortunately for us and themselves, they did so with a nearly complete ignorance of social and political science and replaced knowledge of our social existence by the typical illusion of all men “in between” that their specific little bit of ideology possesses magic power and that all they need is a “free hand.”

* * *

The devastating consequences of ignorance and ideological illusions are summarized in Moral Reflections of a Mathematician by Norbert Wiener. In this document, intellectual sincerity and human concern go as far as alienation, reification and the ensuing isolation permit in the framework of bourgeois thinking, but blindness takes over when it comes to real solutions. We shall here, however, restrict ourselves to what Wiener develops around the problem of the atomic bomb, and in this only to the most essential points. The blind mechanism dominating our social existence worked, reinforced by blind and (objectively) lightmindedly-acting scientists, exactly according to the pattern set for bourgeois society. Wiener first speaks about his qualms that the A-bomb was used against Japan “when we might not have been willing to use it against a white enemy” and then says:

It is the plainest history that our atomic effort was international in the last degree and was made possible by a group of people who could not have been gotten together had it not been for the fact that the threat of Nazi Germany was so strongly felt over the world, and particularly by that very scholarly group who contributed the most to nuclear theory. I refer to such men as Einstein, Szilard, Fermi, and Niels Bohr. To expect in the future that a similar group could be gotten together from all the corners of the world to defend our national policy involved the continued expectation that we should always have the same moral prestige. It was therefore doubly unfortunate that we should have used the bomb on an occasion on which it might have been thought that we would not have used it against white men.

With the illusion of “moral prestige” where naked material might alone was the point of attraction for the defence of a “national policy” which, for a thinking person, could not inspire any confidence and inspired least of all the Stalinists or Stalinist-tinged among the scientists, while the people had to be cheated into that policy — with such an ideological deception the mechanism gained speed:

While the nuclear program did not itself involve any overwhelming part of the national military effort, it was still in and for itself an extremely expensive business. The people in charge of it had in their hands the expenditure of billions of dollars, and sooner or later, after the war, a day of reckoning was bound to come, when Congress would ask for a strict accounting of these enormous expenditures. Under the circumstances, the position of the high administrators of nuclear research would be much stronger if they could make a legitimate or plausible claim that this research had served a major purpose in terminating the war. On the other hand, if they had come back empty-handed — with the bomb still on the desk for future wars, or even with the purely symbolic use of the bomb to declare to the Japanese our willingness to use it in actual fact if the war were to go on — their position would have been much weaker, and they would have been in serious danger of being broken [!] by a new administration coming into power on the rebound after the war and desirous of showing up the graft and ineptitude of its predecessor.
       Thus, the pressure to use the bomb, with its full killing power, was not merely great from a patriotic point of view but was quite as great from the point of view of the personal fortune of the people involved in its development. This pressure might have been unavoidable, but the possibility of this pressure, and of our being forced by personal [!] interests into a policy that might not be our best interest, should have been considered more seriously from the beginning.

One sees again and again that things have their own logic and overwhelm the ignorant even at the incipient stage of his interference with social processes. His essence as a commodity seller who makes himself a commodity is stronger than all his rationalizations and puts his personal fortune and personal interest above all other considerations (not the least his “moral” prestige), contrasting oddly with the scientists’ claim that their group is distinguished from other groups by a greater “detachment” from such low motives. From some glorious examples in the Renaissance, scientists have usurped the fame of men who pursued their search for cognition and truth in spite of persecution by the Powers That Be, regardless of the consequences for themselves. This stolen fame alone explains why one can read in Hall’s article quoted before:

The ethical [!] imperatives of their scientific faith were perceived by politicians to take precedence over all other moral obligations and demands for scientists. Scientists pursued their work in complete indifference to its social and ethical consequences.

It cannot be said to often: In bourgeois society everything stands on its head and the truth is the direct opposite of this perverted view in which scientists like to shine, though their “faith” is now compressed into the beautiful word gambling. Be it Leonardo da Vinci (who destroyed his design for a submarine) or Giordano Bruno (who was burned for his convictions) or Servet (who was “fried” to death in two hours of slow burning for his convictions) or men whose fate was less tragic — they were all deeply involved in social issues, they were all on the progressive side of the social process or stood in sharp conflict with the Powers That Be, and they all stuck to their scientific ideal just because of the ethical consequences it had for society. There was a man who earned his living as a lens-grinder and who rejected the better “position” of an academician in order to safeguard his independence as a thinker, recognizing not the slightest difference between his life and his philosophy, remaining a human being identical with himself. The name of this man, banished as a “heretic” from the community in which he lived, was Baruch Spinoza — one of the greatest thinkers of all time in spite of the arrogant treatment he receives as a philosopher from pygmies like Hans Reichenbach.[11] For him as for others, there existed no fetishization of profession or fear that a “position” would be weakened and broken, and instead of the alienation of science from its social purpose, the ethical imperatives of scientific faith had their living root precisely in its moral obligations and demands. It takes the complete decadence of both thinking and morals, together with the utmost fetishization and alienation, to reverse the original position of science and scientists and to place the so-called ethical imperatives above the obligations, so that the “imperatives” run on their own and imitate faithfully that production for the sake of production taking place in the “base” material sphere. The bad conscience and need for apology possessed by scientists induce them to favor this perversion, for if they are obliged to follow the “ethical” imperative of their isolated scientific faith, responsibility for the consequences belongs not to them but, first of all, to the public as the victim of a “faith” which is, after all, not superior to and not better founded than any other — superstition. The outcome of the superstition of scientists is gambling with the very existence of mankind, while reversal of the true relation also serves the scientists to hide their personal interests and the striving to keep their positions.

As for the ramifications of the superstition: One gets quite a picture of the ignorance and educational level of American senators (the implication is not that government members in other countries stand any higher) when they embrace the view of the scientists’ “complete indifference” instead of knowing: The men from whom today’s position-keepers borrow their prestige renounced their positions out of social obligations and threw their gloves in the faces of the Powers That Be rather than behave irresponsibly with regard to the social and ethical consequences of their work. In any case, on the ground of Hall’s information, one can appreciate the intellectual capacity of those who handle the people officially:

This view of scientists [as formulated in the quotation above] was expressed by Senator Johnson when he exclaimed: “Dr. Langmuir, how do you compose your two viewpoints? On the one hand you say that this country should appropriate $5,000,000,000 for scientific research; on the other hand you say that this country should destroy $5,000,000,000 worth [!] of the products of science. The scientists, according to your testimony, have made the world extremely insecure. Science has made, according to your statement just now, aggression inevitable and yet, at the same time, you say that we ought to keep pouring money into science.”
       When Langmuir argued: “Science is not a thing that we make; scientists don’t create science in that way,” Johnson retorted: “But, you create [!] atomic bombs, and now you want to go and throw them into the middle of the ocean because they have made the world insecure.”[12]

Johnson’s retort is a triumph of common sense over the sophisticated scientific spirit who tries to escape the natural conclusion that fidelity to the aims of science (i.e. the exploration of all the secrets of the atom) is something very different from fabrication of the atomic bomb, which any familiarity with science and any responsibility for it should strictly forbid. Langmuir stands on the same level as the Senator and is in the position of the sorcerer’s apprentice in trying to “explain” why the bombs should be thrown into the ocean:

In order to get security — in other words, we buy something by that. It is a price. [Observe the commercial language!] You cannot get security for yourself without giving it to other nations. We have no security now for the future, because we are now in stages one or two. We are now secure but we can foresee the case that this security is only temporary, that the time will come when not only we but no nation is secure, and we must do something about that. We must start now to do something about it, because otherwise disaster lies ahead, probably a worse disaster for us than for anyone else.

The dilettante-sorcerers should have known in advance what they foresee “now,” but they were blinded by their eagerness to show their “power” and thus jumped absolutely unprepared into that realm of politics which they otherwise gladly leave to the care of — somebody else. The “something” which they propose “we” must now do in order to prevent a disaster is of the same quality as the work which evoked the disaster, for they expect this miraculous something to be put into effect by men as blind as the sorcerer himself. Neither the Senator, who delivers his trash about money, nor the sorcerer, who wants to catch the ghost he has released, are to be taken seriously. As soon as the talk is over, illusion produces the next disaster: Since “something” cannot be done about it, the government appropriates more money for “science” and the sorcerers who must at least do “something” for it deliver a bigger monster, to wit the hydrogen bomb and similar articles created as a consequence of the ethical imperatives of scientific faith. There is in some strange sense, deep truth and, at the same time, bitter irony in it when Senator Johnson

persisted in his conviction that all scientists wanted to do was to go on with their work under the financial support of the government with no concern for the social consequences of their research.[13] He declared again: "It looks to me as though you scientists have made the world extremely insecure, and now you are coming to the politicians and asking us to go about and make the world secure again by some sort of political agreement. At the same time, you are asking that the scientists who have made the world insecure be given further appropriations to discover still another and more destructive element than atomic energy.”

Naturally, this is all a family quarrel among equally guilty culprits, though it must be strongly emphasized: Our “sectarian” scientists with their “aloof and isolated nature,” living “withdrawn from the usual social relations and indifferent to concerns of ordinary [!] people” and who, as M.L. Cooke testified, “with few exceptions, feel no responsibility whatever [!] for the life of the community” (which they therefore lightmindedly poison) — these ethereal “non-political” creatures voluntarily misused their findings and voluntarily entered the arena of political action. Consequently: When these perfect ignoramuses outside of their narrow field met the ignoramuses of the Senate (that they had to do so was their own fault) the spectacle was simply — spectacular. Writes Hall:

As Senator Tydings candidly admitted to Dr. Szilard in 1945 during the hearings of the Special Senate Committee on Atomic Energy: “Doctor, if in 1939 we had been conducting a hearing like the one we are conducting today and men like yourself had come before our committee and projected the possible development of the bomb up to now with reasonable accuracy, I imagine they would have been called a lot of crackpots [which they really are in politics and when projecting bombs!] and . . . visionaries who were playing with theories. I certainly would not have had the receptivity [!] that I have today to say the least.”
       The atomic bomb changed this situation completely. . . . It demonstrated as never before the destructive possibilities of science. But, what was far more important, detonation of the bomb drove into people’s consciousness the realization, hitherto understood by only a few laymen, that science was a major social [!] force. Moreover, their preoccupation with the complex problems brought about by atomic energy necessarily involved Congressmen with scientists, even had the latter not voluntarily [!] entered the arena of political action. . . . Whether Congressmen liked it or not, they had to take note of the crucial role of science and scientists in the atomic age.

And here are two fine samples of how they did it:

When the scientists tried to explain their orientation to abstract and remote symbols, it was clear that politicians did not understand — not even Senator Fulbright, who had an academic background himself. Thus, Dr. Wilson and Oppenheimer tried to explain the difference between fundamental and applied research as they conceived it.

To do the poor Senators justice: Wilson’s and Oppenheimer’s “explanations” are such beauties that one has only to consider their effect on the laymen present:

When Wilson tried to continue with “I think we can say that since 1940—” the listening Senators interrupted to express their bewilderment and incomprehension. Magnuson said: “Dr. Fulbright would understand that”; but it was clear he did not for when Fulbright started to say: “That was a fine explanation—” he, in turn, was interrupted by Magnuson who commented: “He doesn’t understand you either.”

Well, that settles that. Sample two:

After Alvin Weinberg had told Senator Johnson he was wrong in believing that resistance to forward motion in water increased with the depth of the water, Tydings remarked rather bitterly: “Apparently that is one of those scientific facts we are supposed to accept and not ask why.” [Indeed, science is a revolting thing for — officers!]
       Senator Thye [at another occasion] exclaimed: “That is where you have always got us as scientists because you can get into that technical field and we are left behind in a daze: we are not sure whether we dare challenge you or not . . .”

As for the moral of it all:

Politicians were not only frustrated by their inability to challenge scientists but also by their dependence on scientists in the new atomic age. Whether Congressmen liked it or not, their survival depended to a large extent upon trusting scientists and admitting them to the public policymaking [!] process.

The scientists’ role in the public policymaking process, into which they were not only “admitted” but had pushed themselves — that is the essential point to be kept in mind in all discussions around the question of responsibility for the new dangers.

* * *

It would, however, be foolish to believe that scientists were not as dependent on politicians as the latter were on the former. The illusion with which the ignorant scientists rushed into political action, namely that in demonstrating their “power” they would get a “free hand,” was utterly destroyed by the behavior of the politicians. Thus the summary of the consequences of ignorance and ideological illusions, as given by Norbert Wiener in Moral Reflections of a Mathematician, cannot fail to yield testimony:

The qualms of the scientists who knew the most about what the bomb could do, and who had the clearest basis to estimate the possibilities of future bombs, were utterly ignored, and the suggestion to invite Japanese authorities to an experimental exhibition of the bomb in the South Pacific was flatly rejected.[14]

Weighing the danger to their position should they “rebel” against the decisions of the politicians, the scientists demonstrated their dependence on them and capitulated like the Pollards as one man. Since the acts count and not the words, the “qualms” of the scientists were no more than an attempt to secure for themselves a “moral” alibi which becomes still more worthless if one takes into account their later work on H-bombs. Yet still darker aspects of the summary are in store:

Behind all this I sensed the desires of the gadgeteers to see the wheels go round. Moreover, the whole idea of push-button warfare has an enormous temptation for those who are confident of their power of invention and have a deep distrust of human beings [which they themselves are decidedly not!]. I have seen such people and have a very good idea of what makes them tick. It is unfortunate in more than one way that the war and the subsequent uneasy peace have brought them to the fore.

And what makes these people tick? Wiener’s weakness is that he recognizes the symptoms of a consuming disease yet never its cause. The problem is not that war brings such people to the fore (they are always there), but that the capitalist system breeds them by the thousands with the same inevitability with which night follows day. Crises, fascism, war are only special outbreaks of the disease which provide the people in question with the opportunity of making the wheels go round in a special and more open way than under ordinary conditions. Wiener does not see how he himself reifies the symptoms — indeed, he fetishizes his own profession to such an extent that he can declare:

One of the strong points and at the same time one of the burdens of the creative scholar is that he [!] must stand alone. I wished — oh how I wished! — that I could be in a position to take what was happening passively, with a sincere acceptance of the wisdom of the policy-makers [with scientists as their pace-makers!] and with an abdication of all personal judgment. The fact is, however, that I had no reason to believe that the judgment of these men on the larger issues of the situation was any superior to my own, whatever their technical information might be. I knew that more than one of the high officials of science had not one tenth my contact with the scientists of other countries and of other standpoints and was in nowhere nearly as good a position to assess the world reaction to the bomb. I knew, moreover, that I had been in the habit of considering the history of science and of invention from a more or less philosophic point of view, and I did not believe that those who made the decisions could do this any better than I must. The sincere scientist must back his bets and guesses, even when he is a Cassandra and no one believes him. I had behind me many years of lonely work in science where I had finally proved to be in the right. This inability to trust the Powers That Be was a source of no particular satisfaction to me, but there it was, and it had to be faced.

The judgment is doubtlessly to the point, but why is only the creative scholar singled out as the one who must stand alone? And why must only the sincere scientist back his bets and guesses? “Must” not everybody who knows what is going on do so? Is the problem not precisely that only too many people act against their better insight and conviction? After all, scientists are not the only ones who know of other standpoints. There are other human beings who have plenty of contacts in the world with all kinds of learned men, not only with the particular and humanly often inferior brand called nuclear scientist. There are other men who do not trust the Powers That Be in any respect, who look at them and science and everything else from a philosophic point of view (and know more about philosophy than Wiener), who are far less one-sided than scientists and who have far better judgment on the larger issues than Wiener himself, who appears limited and helpless when it comes to the large issues of our social existence. Rare as men of character are in today’s world: There were men who stood up for their convictions, who did not remain silent (in contrast to all scientists) in the face of official propaganda, who resisted every attempt to “take them in” in a situation where positions were open not only to atomic scientists but to everyone who had any capacity and was ready to sell his soul, provided he had one. These men did not for one moment believe that Stalin (a monster by “profession”!), Churchill and Roosevelt, who congratulated Hitler, were morally in any way superior to their competitor and would not blindly and exclusively follow their narrow economic and political interests. Alone or not, they, too, had many years of work (without reward but many sacrifices) behind them and were proven to be in the right in more respects than all nuclear scientists together. They backed a little more than their “bets and guesses,” for they took it upon themselves to predict clearly and as publicly as possible the social and political result that would be produced with certainty by the Powers That Be conducting an allegedly “anti-fascist” war. If, finally, they had to be Cassandras and stand alone, they did so, preferring to starve rather than join those who, stupidly or corruptly, joined the camp of deception, crime and baseness. Yet they did not fetishize their isolation and lament about their loneliness — they knew that isolation could be overcome sooner or later and that experience would speak for them if they did not compromise in matters of principle, kept cognition intact and prepared the future by preparing consciousness.

* * *

Wiener’s line of presentation has strange implications. Assuming that he resisted publicly and did everything which the creative scholar and sincere scientist must do, it follows not only that he was the only sincere scientist but also the only creative scholar. As for sincerity, one does not need to discuss it, because here deeds are decisive and not those words which the man standing alone speaks to himself inside the four walls of his room or in a closed circle. Creativeness, however, is another matter and cannot be denied to such men as Einstein, Szilard, Fermi, Niels Bohr, Oppenheimer and others who defended “our national policy” and were instrumental in the development of the bomb. Wiener does not see that what remains, then, is the fact that the process of alienation can completely separate sincerity from creativeness — a fact which is liable to influence the consciousness of those who ignore it. Due to this influence, Wiener is not aware of what he is doing when, singling himself out and assuming a unique role, he reveals:

We had voluntarily [!] accepted a measure of secrecy and had given up much of our liberty of action for the sake of the war, even though — for that very purpose, as many of us thought — more secrecy than the optimum was imposed, and this at times had hampered our international communications more than the information-gathering service of the enemy. We had hoped that this unfamiliar self-discipline would be a temporary thing, and we had expected that after this war — as, after all, before — we should return to the free spirit of communication, intranational and international, which is the very life of science. Now we found that, whether we wished it or not, we were to be the custodians of secrets on which the whole national life might depend.[15] At no time in the foreseeable future could we again do our research as free men. Those who had gained rank and power over us during the war were most loath to relinquish any part of the prestige they obtained. Since many of us possessed secrets which could be captured by the enemy and could be used to our national disadvantage, we were obviously doomed to live in an atmosphere of suspicion forever after, and the police scrutiny on our political opinions [self-introduced and, objectively speaking, well-deserved!] which began in the war showed no signs of future remission.

The repeated use of the words “we” and “us” makes it clear that Wiener himself was involved in all this and that his strong point was in reality an illusion, for everybody can “stand alone” with his opinion and nevertheless work on the very project about whose dangers he knows so much. The strong point must be asserted in a real stand (if necessary made alone!) — everybody can tell the world post festum what he knew or sensed or foresaw, but he must not (useful as his tale may be) present it as a special case of his profession if he marched in line, did nothing about the bad weather and nursed in fact only an illusion about the creative scholar. If this is so (and there is no proof at all to the contrary), Wiener presents himself in too rosy a light because his practical attitude is in essentials not different from those of other scientists, who also had “qualms” (that unavoidable by-product!) and went into business with them exactly like Wiener, voluntarily accepting secrecy and whatever was involved in the business. Still more: The hope Wiener shared with others for the return of “normal” conditions and his present discovery of himself as “custodian” show him as a big failure, as but another sorcerer’s apprentice with basically no more knowledge (actually with an unbelievable trust in the Powers That Be) about the larger issues of the situation than those whom he helped through cooperation to gain power and rank over him and — the public. No wonder, then, that the strange aspect of his summary increases with the concluding paragraphs:

The public liked the atomic bomb as little as we did, and there were many who were quick to see the signs of future danger and to develop a profound consciousness of guilt. Such a consciousness looks for a scapegoat. Who could constitute a better scapegoat than the scientists themselves? They had unquestionably developed the potentialities which had led to the bomb. The man in the street, who knew little of scientists and found them a strange and self-contained race [ah, “we” scientists! — it sounds familiar, doesn’t it?], was quick to accuse them of a desire for the power of destruction manifested by the bomb. What made this both more plausible and more dangerous was the fact that, while the working scientists felt very little personal power and had very little desire for it, there was a group of administrative gadget workers who were quite sensible of the fact that they now had a new ace in the hole in the struggle for power.
       At any rate, it was perfectly clear to me at the very beginning that we scientists were from now on to be faced by an ambivalent attitude. For the public, who regarded us as medicine men and magicians [there we go again!], was likely to consider us an acceptable sacrifice to the gods as other, more primitive publics do. In that very day of the atomic bomb the whole pattern of the witch hunt of the last eight years became clear, and what we are living through is nothing but the transfer into action of what was then written in the heavens.

This mixture of bad conscience and apology has to be dealt with in several points:

a) The public, behind whose back everything was and still is arranged, liked the bomb as little as the scientists did. — The public is right, but the scientists get the answer: In 1914, after the declaration of war, Emperor Wilhelm II pronounced the memorable words: “I have not willed this!” The public was very quick to ask (and in public, mind you): “Why, then, did you do it?” It asks the scientists the same question and is a thousand times right not to care a bit for their assurances (always post festum!) that they did not like it.

b) Whoever constituted the many to develop a profound consciousness of guilt: The public, for its part, had no reason at all to feel guilty but very good reason to hold those responsible who, behind its back, had engendered the future dangers. To call them scapegoats is misleading, for even if they did not know what they were doing or had been misled themselves (which is far from being the case), the rule under which the public suffers at every turn and point applies: Ignorance does not deter punishment and the receiver is as bad as the thief. Yet the public is not as bloodthirsty, tricky and partial as the law. On the contrary, it has a fine sense of justice and is quick to forgive. Moreover, it always has admired and always will admire upright men who frankly admit their errors and faults and decide to correct them. The most disgusting and morally paralyzing factor in public life is the characterlessness of its “leaders” in every sphere.

c) It is misleading to accent the development of the potentialities which led to the bomb. The truth to be stressed is: Scientists instigated the production of the bomb and voluntarily developed the bomb itself, regardless of how many technical workers helped them.

d) Vox populi, vox dei! If the famous “man in the street” (scientists walk somewhere else!) really had a opportunity “to accuse,” he would once again be right in asking: And what motive can be given for construction of the bomb other than the “desire for the power of destruction”? Perhaps the desire for a new sort of love-making? A little while ago Wiener told us that “the whole idea of push-button warfare has an enormous temptation for those who are confident of their power of invention.” Who, then, are the men possessing that power? Perhaps our puzzled senators or other second-rate figures in the affair? The decisive inventions belong to the scientists who have succumbed all along the line to the temptation of push-button warfare. And it alters nothing if we with Wiener add: Whether they liked it or not!

e) The same question must be asked concerning those scientists who felt very little (well, at least “some”!) personal power and had very little (well, at least “some”!) desire for it. Above, we learned from Wiener that the personal fortunes and interests of those involved in the development of the bomb (they feared that their position would be weakened and broken) were at stake in exploding the bomb (and it was the “position of the high administrators of nuclear research”). Now, there is no power worthy of the name without high position, and since we don’t exactly know what the words “working scientists,” “administrative gadget workers,” and “high administrators of nuclear research” mean, the question is: Are, for instance, Oppenheimer (who directed the development of the bomb) and Pollard (as executive director of the Oak Ridge Institute of Nuclear Research) working scientists, administrative gadget workers or high administrators of nuclear research? If they are not working scientists, then they must belong to the gadget workers or high administrators who, holding high positions, did not want to weaken them and were thus quite aware of the fact that they had a new ace in the hole in the struggle for power. If they are working scientists, then they are again scientists holding high positions and had the same ace in the hole as the administrators. No one can escape the laws of society: Position is power and power is position — here, too, it matters not in the least whether those who have gained both “desired” them or not.

f) The public, to which we belong, flatly rejects any suspicion that it is likely to consider scientists an acceptable sacrifice to the gods. It is by far not as primitive as scientists who spread such nonsense and declares sharply that it is adding insult to injury when Wiener brings the public into any connection with the pattern of the witch hunt. Scientists themselves initiated police scrutiny of political opinions when they rushed into political action, gave up their liberty of action as scientists and voluntarily accepted secrecy. With that nefarious act they gave the Powers That Be a wonderful pretext for extending police scrutiny of political opinions to the entire population, following the world trend towards reaction and fascism after the model of Stalin.

All in all: Scientists are not regarded as medicine men and magicians (except in a deeply ironical sense often as true “medicine” men) but as men who, outside of their special field, almost invariably exhibit no great thinking power and who regularly break down when it comes to social and philosophical matters. It is fantastic to see how Wiener, struggling with the social problems of The Automatic Factory, relies for their solution on such Powers That Be as Walter Reuther of the UAW (whose “more universal union statesmanship” must necessarily be of the worst because unions belong to the extremely dangerous disguised Powers That Be), high management authorities (among them an executive of Remington Rand, Inc.) and the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. All his “trust” lies within the present incurable system — he has not even an inkling that there would be no problem at all with his automatic factory under a different social set-up. It is, if possible, still more fantastic to read in I.I. Rabi’s aforementioned article, after his lamentation about the scientist who is regarded as a commodity:

In the field of the utilization of atomic energy, it became clear at this conference [in Geneva] that atomic energy was the only [!] hope of a long-term continuance of our industrial civilization. . . . Atomic energy is here to stay. It will be developed even if it is not initially economical because of the necessities [!] of the immediate or intermediate range of the future. . . . Fortunately, if we survive the atom at all [indeed, if we!], power will remain plentiful for generations to come. It will not necessarily be cheap, or cheaper than at present. The important thing is that it will be available at all.

This is not the place to dwell upon the problem of energy, which can be solved without atoms as the “only” hope. Suffice it to say that the incredible ignorance and prejudice shown by Rabi and the entire Geneva conference concerning that problem merits the comment: Such trash is what perfect dilettanti or prize-fighters — unable to see beyond the tips of their noses, yet winners of the Nobel prize and makers of opinion and policy — mean by getting “security” for us or doing “something” about it. For no sooner has the energy problem been “solved” (if we survive the poison at all!) than we get from the same Rabi the reverse side of the coin:

The world-wide utilization of atomic energy which will certainly develop brings with it a host [!] of problems of the most somber [!] kind. A nuclear power installation necessarily produces material out of which bombs can be made. The technology of bomb manufacture, which is now so secret [isn’t it?], will gradually be rediscovered in many other countries. The world-wide use of nuclear energy therefore means the possibility of world-wide possession of atomic weapons [which world-wide scientists will develop!].
       It is my belief that the use of nuclear energy will spread so quickly that we have only a short time to devise an international control agency, before it becomes too late. Atomic energy would then become an eternal hazard to peace, which would tend to destroy all its hopeful [in reality: radically poisonous!] and beneficial [in reality: enslaving!] features. The very fact that nuclear power means added military power will cause most countries to develop nuclear power despite [!] economic arguments, for the prestige and security alone.

Somber as these problems are, there are more somber ones, and the problem of how to handle the waste-products is not even mentioned. The point of interest with regard to the problem of consciousness is: Rabi, like all those who stick their noses into the politics and economy within range of their noses, is a colossal logician from some Reichenbach-school where “symbols” are used instead of thinking. First he told us that most countries needed atomic energy for economic reasons. It was then the only hope for the long-term continuance of our society and it would be developed because of the necessities of the immediate or intermediate range of the future. He told us also that “almost no country will fail to enter this field, which all feel to be in the stream of progress, regardless of expense” (emphasis added). Now we have learned that problems of the most somber kind are the decisive motive: Most countries will develop the beneficial stuff despite economic arguments, for prestige and security alone.

Did anybody expect that after such patent (though highly “beneficial”) balderdash anything but patent balderdash of the code-type would follow? It would be a spurious expectation — the vacuum of consciousness has to be filled with nonsense and the inevitable balderdash reads:

“We can all only [only!] urge our statesmen to press forward to devise ways to prevent this new hope for a better life for masses of mankind from becoming a curse involving misery and destruction.” As if a better life for masses of mankind were under capitalism not the most patent nonsense ever produced by ignoramuses and conscious deceivers; as if a better life for all, including scientists, were not in reach without that deadly poison called atomic energy and the scientific balderdash around it; as if this poison had not been a curse involving misery, destruction, reaction and so on from the very beginning and would not always remain a curse leading eventually to the extermination of life on our cursed planet. Statesmen, scientists and businessmen have tortured this planet to no end, but the last word of wisdom Rabi has to offer is: “Let us hope that the spirit which was generated by the Geneva conference will have its effect on the future.”

* * *

“Hope for a better life” and “Let us hope” — the infallible recipe of men in between! To borrow from Wiener: What makes all these people tick? On the ground of the material presented here the answer should be obvious: It is the ace which they have in the hole, whatever hole it may be. In this introduction only a few cases concerning the influence of our social existence on consciousness could be examined, but any further case one might single out among all possible cases will positively or negatively, on the highest or the lowest level, confirm the contentions on which everything that has been said rests. To summarize these contentions:

a) In bourgeois society, social consciousness can be acquired only by individuals. It constitutes a minority-problem and excludes the existence of a “public mind” in whatever way distinguished from the consciousness of this minority. Even if the public or masses or peoples had an organ to speak with, their mind or opinion or consciousness would be nothing else than the sum total of that of the multicolored multitude of individuals who actually can speak. Mass-psychology is for this reason an impossibility — discernible is only a political behavior of the masses consisting exclusively in their, for better or worse, passive or active reaction to inevitabilities arising out of the social process.

b) Social consciousness being a minority-problem, it follows that responsibility for the social process belongs always to individuals, never to the public, the masses or peoples.

c) There can be no full consciousness of our social existence without knowledge of dialectics.

d) Even scientists, who more than anybody else should know what they are doing, suffer heavily from lack of an adequate philosophical training and, as Horkheimer says, their autonomy as individuals, their power of imagination and their independent judgment appear to be (often greatly) reduced.

With a positive turn concerning the contentions (c) and (d): It is anything but accidental that such outstanding thinkers as Horkheimer, Adorno and other members of the Institute of Social Research [the “Frankfort School”] the are trained dialecticians and rank in knowledge of the social process far above any of their contemporary colleagues. Their greatest weakness is that they never severed their ties with officialdom and remained scholars in spite of their own insight. Since nobody can escape, they paid intellectually for this weakness and brought themselves occasionally even down to the level of ordinary official propaganda.[16] In other words: They, too, have an ace in the official hole, and as long as this is the case their thinking, too, will at one point or another move in a vicious circle, i.e. be determined by the law of ignorance and the dwindling force of cognition.

We are thus back at the fundamental contradictions of bourgeois society, which account for the crisis in thinking in general, for the theoretical jumble in science in particular, and for the flight of scientists and philosophers into mysticism, agnosticism, idealism or religion. It has been shown that scientists expose themselves as ideologists, namely as apologists of a social system which can be freed from its internal contradictions by nothing short of transforming it into a higher social order. The more urgent this transformation becomes and the more the fundaments of the capitalist system are shaken, the less interest has the bourgeoisie and its army of servants in considering its future scientifically. This future, even in times of a “boom,” has nothing attractive to offer — neither cheap energy nor the assurance of surviving the atom. It is full of fears, doubts, insecurity, problems and troubles to which the ideologists give vent. In the clear light of philosophical and scientific cognition, the bourgeoisie would see that the capitalist system must lead mankind to doom. The courage to face this sober fact is lacking — the bourgeoisie refuses to recognize the future and prefers to live on unfounded hopes and the elements of God’s judgment. As a class which abhors the sight of its own future, it feels the urgent need of “convincing” itself and its victims that it does not pay to worry about it (see Pollard), that nothing can be discerned in it anyway, yea, that future events cannot be foreseen at all. Translated into philosophical terms, this means that theoretical insight cannot grasp the lawfulness in nature and society. The next claim is that this “inability” of science, theory and intellect to tell us something with “certainty” is not accidental, not of a temporary or historically conditioned nature, but a principled one. To put it differently: The very historical conditions in which the bourgeoisie finds itself force it to go so far as to proclaim the complete renunciation of its former faith in the power of scientific cognition and thinking. It is at this point that scientists and philosophers close the circle of blindness with numerous idealistic, agnostic, positivist, pragmatic and so-called “scientific” philosophies (always utterly ignorant of dialectics or hostile to it) — it is at this point that we meet the basic contradiction in contemporary bourgeois ideology in general.

The basic contradiction consists in the fact that, for the reasons given above, bourgeois thinking is forced to admit the power of science and at the same time to deny it. It is, on the one side, taken for granted that science is a true reflection of the objective world. Even Pollard, however ignorant he became in learning more of science, must thoroughly rely on the technical power of science while directing nuclear studies in Oak Ridge. He knows only too well that the economic, political and military strength of the bourgeoisie in whose service he stands depends on the reliability of science and technique. So far then, he behaves very rationally. Yet on the other side he sees the deep internal contradictions in capitalist society: mass-misery, insecurity, wars, nationalism, social upheavals and so on amidst enormous riches and still greater possibilities for welfare and culture. He sees this and the tremendous waste and is forced by such crying contradictions to assume a skeptical attitude towards the essential point in all science. Hence the intelligentsia, while not doubting the practical and technical exactness and importance of science, is simultaneously eager to manifest in endless variations the gravest doubts about the theoretical fertility of science and, more exactly, its ability to grasp reality in its objectivity, above all in the laws determining its development. To acknowledge the theoretical power of science would oblige the intelligentsia to draw “grave” conclusions. For if scientific theories express real laws of development in nature and society, it becomes unavoidable to ask what their content is, what consequences they bear, what they achieve. And then comes the question about their underlying driving forces, the tendencies of their immediate and further development and their ultimate outcome. It is clear that the theoretical boldness and the urge for knowledge of the modern bourgeoisie fades before such incriminating problems. The limits of its historical mission are the limits of its force of cognition — the latter depends psychologically on the stability of the situation in which a ruling class finds itself in each given period, and it is strong in periods of ascent, it gets weaker and finally dies out in periods of decadence.

Yet if the bourgeoisie in our time has lost interest in cognition, it cannot simply ignore it but is forced to give ideological explanations and justifications. Hence the attempts to elevate its doubts about the future to the heights of methodological principles of “objective” validity. This can only be achieved by denying not this or that science and its specific methodology, but by denying the power of scientific cognition itself. The scientific view and scientific method as such become the objects of criticism (they are at the end but “gambling”) and the task is to discredit the main instruments of scientific cognition, namely intellect and dialectical reason. The concepts resulting from such endeavors will be examined in the study, but for the present it is important to say a few words about materialism and idealism as the two basic attitudes possible.

1. By philosophical idealism nothing more is meant than that in it, in contradistinction to materialism, either spirit or an idea or God or some other force outside of the universe is considered as the latter’s creator, mover, primary cause, origin and so on. In other words: The controversy between philosophical idealism and materialism revolves around the question whether it was spirit in one form or another out of which arose matter, or matter out of which arose spirit.

2. Beyond this fundamental difference in the two concepts it must be clearly recognized that there are no “pure” phenomena, neither in nature nor society, neither in economy nor philosophy. Every form of idealism contains many elements of materialism (even Berkeley’s solipsism cannot be constructed without them), every form of materialism embraces elements of imagination, arbitrariness and idealism.

As for all philosophical positions “in between” materialism and idealism, it can be said that they are proclamations of inconsistency in principle. Together with subjective idealism, they play the most important role in the “solution” of the basic contradiction dealt with above, for they make it possible to accept all dialectical-materialist results obtained by the natural sciences, without being obliged to renounce mysticism and religion in whose arms the bourgeoisie seeks refuge in this period of capitalist decay. They also suit scientists who want to be natural scientists and mystics at the same time without getting into a most glaring contradiction with themselves. Hume’s agnosticism particularly, proclaiming “neutrality” in the question of whether the cause of our sensations is God, an idea, the real world, nothing or something and so on, leaves the way open for those who need it to choose among all thinkable possibilities that of God.




9. Impossible not to quote the following excellent passages from Horkheimer’s Eclipse of Reason: “The pigeon-hole into which a man is shoved circumscribes his fate. As soon as a thought or a word becomes a tool, one can dispense with actually ‘thinking’ it, that is, with going through the logical acts involved in verbal formulation of it. As has been pointed out, often and correctly, the advantage of mathematics — the model of all neo-positivistic thinking — lies in just this ‘intellectual economy.’ Complicated logical operations are carried out without actual performance of all the intellectual acts upon which the mathematical and logical symbols are based. Such mechanization is indeed essential to the expansion of industry; but if it becomes the characteristic feature of minds, if reason itself is instrumentalized, it takes on a kind of materiality and blindness, becomes a fetish, a magic entity that is accepted rather than intellectually experienced.” — “Concepts have become ‘streamlined,’ rationalized, labor-saving devices. It is as if thinking itself had been reduced to the level of industrial processes, subjected to a close schedule — in short, made part and parcel of production.”

10. Contrary to reality, scientists like to foster the legend that their “group” neglects material interests in favor of realizing its goals. Senator Millikin asked Compton: “Do you believe this is a correct statement that probably of all the professions in the world, the scientist is less interested in monetary gain — I am speaking of the pure [!] scientist?” Compton’s reply: “I don’t know of any other group that has less interest in monetary gain.” Yet business is — another matter, and the “continuing readiness of scientists to leave their countries of origin for more favorable conditions elsewhere was demonstrated to politicians by Dr. Schade’s testimony.” “There is an astonishingly prevalent interest among the people of that kind that you talk to in the direction of wanting to come over here and work for us. Many of them feel that the future of Germany is nonexistent, or not very pleasant from their point of view, which is, of course [!], the truth. I think perhaps that is one of the reasons why such people have been astonishingly cooperative with people such as myself and my organization over there who went over there to find out what we could from the technical point of view as to what went on during the war that might be of interest to the Navy. . . . The Germans were most cooperative and I suppose it was because many [!] of them hoped to get a job over here some day.” The “dignity” of the scientists thus consists of being “most cooperative” when a job is at stake, and it is the same hunt for a better job whether it takes place in Germany or at a meeting of scientists in New York. (All quotations from Scientists and Politicians by Harry S. Hall in Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, February 1956.)

11. For Wilson: Spinoza’s immensely dialectical Determinatio est negatio alone would make him stand head and shoulders above any positivist, agnostic, “scientific,” anti-dialectic, etc., philosopher.

12. One gets the impression that Langmuir uses the “symbolic logic” which Reichenbach recommends. First he says, “Science is not a thing that we make.” Thus it runs on its own and “we” follow only the imperative of our faith. Then he says, “scientists don’t create science in that way.” Thus “we” don’t make but “create” it, only not in that way, yet in a way God alone knows what way it is and which contains perhaps an element of His judgment.

13. Johnson is right with “no concern for the social consequences,” but wrong with “research.” Research is necessary, while the social consequences stem from misuse by irresponsible scientists.

14. This alone is proof that the bomb was wantonly used. Since then the world has learned: Peace was available with Japan without this deadly weapon (for which a proving ground was needed) and that the pretext for employing it (saving American lives) was just — a pretext. Nevertheless: Forgetting this and his own statement, Wiener offers us the official propaganda version in writing: “Of course I was gratified when the Japanese war ended without the heavy casualties on our part that a frontal attack on the mainland would have involved.” If Wiener was deceived at the time, he should not uphold the deception now.

15. For Wilson: This is true dialectics! Men first introduce secrecy and seem to “manage” the thing, but the thing turns into its opposite, gets out of hand and manages our men, who are now custodians of their own creation. Voluntarily as they acted, they deserve their debasing fate: Voluntariness has turned into compulsion. (Besides: It is a nice euphemism to call the self-imposed obedience to the Powers That Be “self-discipline”!)

16. A characteristic case in point is Franz Neumann’s much-praised Behemoth, about which a separate study will be published later.


Second and final part of Josef Weber’s “The Problem of Social Consciousness in Our Time.” [Back to Part 1]

This article appeared in Contemporary Issues: A Magazine for a Democracy of Content #31 (London/New York, October 1957). It was subtitled “An introduction to a study on philosophical and economic questions,” but Weber died a couple years later and the projected study was never completed. The article was originally written in German and the CI translation is a bit awkward and stodgy in places, but except for correcting a few obvious typos and adding an occasional comma for clarity, I have reproduced it exactly as it appeared.

Considering the length and density of this text, I suggest that you first read my article Josef Weber and Contemporary Issues and Weber’s The Great Utopia, which served as a preliminary outline of the CI group’s perspectives. Those two pieces should help give you a sense of what Weber is doing in the present text, where in his amusingly cantankerous manner he delves into a whole range of issues — history and philosophy, science and psychology, dialectics and revolution, capitalism and war, nuclear power and environmental degradation, and above all the complicitous role of the “intelligentsia.” The text itself is a superlative example of dialectical critical analysis of the sort that has rarely been matched by anyone since Marx and Engels (I can think of only a few works by Lukács, Korsch, and Debord that are equally pithy). Dense though it may sometimes be, I think that if you read it carefully you will find a wealth of insights into some of the most prevalent and most subtle forms of the false consciousness that camouflages and reinforces the existing system.

For another, more “literary” article by Weber, see Appeal for an English Edition of Diderot’s Jack the Fatalist.

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