Friday, April 8, 2022
Saturday, December 25, 2021
By Kamran Nayeri, December 23, 2021
|David Kubrin holding up a copy of Marxism & Witchcraft. Photo: San Franscico Examiner.|
David Kubrin, a historian of science who has closely studied Isaac Newton’s intellectual life and has been both a socialist activist and a practitioner of witchcraft, has written a 704-page book attempting to answer a number of questions that have been raised as a consequence of this unique background. The book is a wide-ranging narrative, mostly descriptive, which – though it comes up short theoretically, analytically, and politically - nonetheless contributes substantially to critical studies of the scientific revolution and the capitalist modernity that it helped to create.
The book is divided into three Parts: “A Marxist Theory of the Apocalypse & An Ecological Critique of Marxism,” “Tunneling Into the Future: Newton and the Ideological Roots of Modernity,” and “All in All, You’re a Brick in the Wall.” There is an “interlude” between the last two parts.
Part One is “an investigation into the meaning of ‘sacred’ in traditional cultures.” (p. 25) Part Two is about “the assaults against and redefinition of the ‘sacred’ several centuries ago as necessary foundation for the emergence of modern capitalism and industrialism.” (ibid.) Part Three “focuses on these broad issues for our times and how such matters lay at the heart of our ecological crises.” (ibid.)
On the sacred and the war against it
Kubrin locates the roots of the idea of “sacred” in the attitudes of indigenous peoples toward nature (“in land, in the landscape and the lifeforms it brought forth across the face of Mother Earth.” p. 25). As I will show, the sacred in Kubrin’s telling essentially boils down to the “vital force” which he claims infuses matter across the cosmos. Kubrin focuses on the peoples who became colonized by the European powers, in particular in the Americas, and on the European peasantry and plebeian masses, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, especially in England. He outlines in chapter 2 aspects of “a largely unknown war against indigenous healers and healing practices” by European colonizers in which shamans, the traditional healers who also acted as leaders, were targeted for eradication. Similarly, by focusing on the English civil war that broke out in 1642 and on the spiritual views of the dispossessed masses there, he shows a parallel process in Europe itself: “Understanding their thoughts about nature will allow us to comprehend the significance of the reaction against their view that exploded in the mid-1650s.”(p. 177) These were the Independents for whom “God was in nature, and not above and separate from it; as in pantheism, nature was everywhere infused with spirit, with deity, everywhere numinous; everything in some measure was sacred.” (p. 178, emphases in original)
“Many were the currents, large and small, contributing to the mighty river that magical/animist thinking had become…Ideas from Arabic and Hindu treatises, English folk magic, Rosicrucianism, astrology, the alchemical theories of Paracelsus (the 16th century German healer), cabala, the Hermetic doctrine espoused by Renaissance Neoplatonist like Ficino, Pico della Mirandola, and Giorando Bruno, and German mystical theology all had adherents, their own tributaries.” (ibid.)
Collectively, Kubrin calls these Rosicrucianism (Chapter 6). “Rosicrucian teachings are a combination of occultism and other religious beliefs and practice including Hermeticism, Jewish mysticism, and Christian gnosticism. The central feature of Rosicrucianism is the belief that its members possess secret wisdom that was handed down to them from ancient times.” (Encyclopedia Brittanica, accessed November 6, 2021).
European witch hunt
Kubrin places the European witch hunts of the seventeenth century in the context of this war against the sacred. There is no consensus on how many were put on trial and how many hanged or burned at the stake but estimates of those killed range from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands, mostly older women. Thus, Kubrin gives European witches the same status as shamans in the Americas who were targeted as the animist/pagan healers of the community in order to enforce the mechanical philosophy of nature (see below) that was opening the land up for mining and logging exploitation and the establishment of capitalism and colonial rule (Chapter 10).
The rise of mechanical philosophy
Kubrin then proceeds to discuss the rise of mechanical philosophy among natural philosophers, who “by the second half of the 17th century would take as their premise the utter passivity of the dead matter, the need to understanding all change as coming to any object from the outside—usually from the impact of another object.” (p. 185)
“Since in essence these hypothesized submicroscopic particles of the mechanical philosophy are themselves incapable of self-activity, according to the new views, matter is really dead. This implicit lesson was to have an incalculable impact on the subsequent history of our planet, for it made the actual delivery of death to woods, a brook, a grassland, or an estuary inconsequential, masking the desecration taking place nearly everywhere in the onrush to Progress that by late 18th century had been raised to a secular religion.” (p. 191)
In Kubrin’s view, this summarizes the ideological basis for the centuries-long assault on nature that has brought on the ecological crises we face today. I will return to this in the concluding section of this review.
Issac Newton and mechanical philosophy
In 1936, Gerard Wallop, a descendant of Isaac Newton Wallop and inheritor of his estate, decided to sell Newton’s non-scientific manuscripts at auction in order to meet death duties payable on the estate of his aunt as well as the costs of his impending divorce. The institutional buyers such as public libraries and universities stood out and the auction raised just over £9,000 (Dry, 2015). Included among the auctioned manuscripts were notebooks that revealed Newton’s alchemical studies, but these attracted wide scholarly attention only in the 1960s.
Kubrin won a Guggenheim fellowship to research Newton’s papers, which became a central focus of his narrative in Marxism & Witchcraft. He argues that Newton’s crucial contributions to the rise of mechanical philosophy - his Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, 1687) and Opticks or A Treatise of the Reflections, Refractions, Inflections & Colors of Light (1704) in fact concealed Newton’s belief that all things in the cosmos “were really magical, alchemically-charged agents, serving as a kind of cosmic regenerative force, able ‘to nourish & vivify all nature.’” (p. 269)
The death of nature
While it is commonly agreed that Newton himself finally gave up this view of nature in favor of the mechanical philosophy, Kubrin maintains Newton never really gave up his alchemical beliefs. He asserts that Newton’s 1693 nervous breakdown provides the key to Newton’s advocacy of the mechanical philosophy. The breakdown itself Kubrin attributes to a failed love affair involving Newton with Fatio de Duillier, a young man from Switzerland with alchemical interests who befriend Newton soon after the publication of Principia. In Kubrin’s telling, the breakdown was precipitated by a visit to Fatio, who had moved to London to be with another benefactor who was also practicing alchemy. This unnamed man “not only healed Fatio—and reportedly thousands of others—of his illness for free, but was a true adept, capable of creating the legendary Philosophers Stone that was, as Newton put it… ‘fit for magical uses.’” (p. 284)
Kubrin goes on:
“Newton, in my view, succumbed, more vulnerable by far to dangers surrounding him as a result of the emotionally wrenching blow he suffered as Fatio’s attention gravitated elsewhere, essentially abandoning him for another, conceivably at the conclusion of their chemical working.… The Newton who finally emerges some months later, having regained his composure, was a man in the process of reorienting his life and rethinking some of the fundamentals of his worldview.” (p. 287). “Though alchemy remained an active passion for him, in effect his own laboratory work was nearly over.” (p. 286-87)
Kubrin concludes in a somewhat convoluted summation:
“Newton began to abandon mechanical explanations altogether, favoring spiritual agencies to carry the strange attractive power. In doing so, however, Newton simultaneously adopted one of the key tenets of mechanical philosophy, the idea that all bodies had certain ‘essential’ or primary qualities (such as extension, inertia, and impenetrability) that they can never, even in theory, lose. Accordingly, though nature to Newton still ‘delighted’ in transformations, as he had once written, now only those that were of the body’s secondary qualities (that is, an object’s colors, smells, and shapes, those aspects can actually perceived) were transformable. These secondary qualities are now (as with other mechanical philosophers) seemingly to be explained on the basis of ‘matter and motion,’ the reigning slogan of the new philosophy. The experiential world now had a second-class status, ontologically inferior to the mathematical abstractions of a hypothetical invisible particles. This was an epochal watershed for Newton to have crossed, eventually taking, as he did, the whole of the modern world along with him.” (p. 288)
Dr. Thomas Pellet, from the Royal Society, who examined Newton’s unpublished manuscripts after his death wrote on many of them, “Not fit to be printed.” (p. 291)
“Thus, within a generation at most, the Newton that the world learns about became fixed as Newton the mechanist.” (p. 291)
Kubrin goes on:
“Whatever else the scientific revolution accomplished and however the mechanical philosophy may have served to establish a network for systematic ‘scientific’ thinking in the 18th and 19th centuries, one major achievement, and the scientific revolution whose emblem it became, was its systematic assault on the idea of a living Mother Earth. (p. 292)
“The mechanical philosophy thus cut the ground from the valuation, in sacred terms, of the natural order, the Earth.” (p. 293)
This in bare outlines is Kubrin’s explanation for the ideological basis of the ecological crises engulfing the world.
The point of no return?
In the “Interlude” Kubrin takes up the question of the magnitude of the present ecological threat. While Kubrin asserts “the survival of life on Earth is not in question” (p. 316), he sounds the alarms for possible human extinction. He cites a number of threats as especially severe for the future of humanity. The first is the human-made element plutonium, which in “sufficiently high concentrations, it is possible it may act as a total dis-enabler of DNA function.” (p. 322) He also cites chemical pollution involving substances such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), diethylstilbestrol (DES), and dioxins, all human-made. Among other life-threatening effects of these toxins, what worries Kubrin most is a “catastrophic decline in human sperm production, motility, and function.” (p. 324) Assuming a linear 1% annual decline, Kubrin predicts “viable human sperm essentially disappear by about 2040.” (p. 326)
In Part Three, Kubrin proceeds to examine these threats in greater detail. He also discusses an array of issues from the impact of mechanical philosophy of nature on music and dance (harmony and rhythm) and conception of time (cyclic time and linear time), to high tech and information industries, to the failures of public education. Some of these chapters are his reflections on his own work experiences and do not seem well connected to the main arguments of the book (Kubrin worked as industrial designer in Silicon Valley and math and science teacher in San Francisco public schools).
What is odd is that Kubrin does not mention let alone discuss catastrophic climate change and recurring pandemics (Covid-19) as these have been front and center in public view. He does not discuss the Sixth Extinction but does worry about biodiversity loss.
Kubrin’s critique of Marx
The reader might wonder: whatever happened to the Marxism part of Marxism & Witchcraft? In fact, Kubrin devotes only two short chapters and a portion of his concluding chapter – out of a book with 34 chapters – to his critique of Marx and Marxism. Chapter 3 offers Kubrin’s critique of Marx’s view on religion. Chapter 15 is Kubrin’s critique of Marx’s and Engels’s alleged mechanical philosophy. Finally, in concluding chapter 34, Kubrin takes issues with aspects of the materialist conception of history and faults the socialist movement for what turn out to be mostly problems of Stalinism. While Kubrin has some valid criticism both of Marx and Engels as well as the socialist movement since, I would argue that he is mostly mistaken in his judgement. It falls outside of the scope of this review to address in detail the problems with all aspects of Kubrin’s criticism. I limit myself to offering some details in debunking his criticism of Marx on religion because I think that is most relevant to his own interests and the theme of the book. Other criticisms have little to do with the book’s focus on “witchcraft.”
Kubrin’s critique of Marx’s view of religion
In chapter 3, Kubrin criticizes Marx’s and Engels’s views of what he calls popular spiritual beliefs of “hunters, peasants, miners, seamen, people in general who work in and with natural forces and who thus have an ongoing relationship with nature in its various manifestations… as simply ‘man’s childish attitude towards nature,’ these various false conceptions of nature, of man’s own being, of spirits, magic force, etc.’” (pp. 65-66) He focuses on Marx’s statement - often quoted out of context - that “religion is the opiate of the people.” (p. 66, emphasis in original) Kubrin argues that while this statement may have been pertinent to the German context at the time but does not necessarily apply to “the rest of the world.” (p. 66).
Kubrin then offers his view of such “religions” as “animism, based partly on such traditions as shamanism, totemism, witchcraft, etc.” (p. 67) The rest of the chapter is entirely Kubrin’s own views couched in “Marxist” jargon. One section is devoted to “The political economy of magic in hunting/gathering & early agricultural societies: calendars, healing, & reproduction,” and another to “The shaman & productive labor.”
I will return to animism and totemism in the concluding section of this review. But for the moment it is important to note flaws in Kubrin’s critique. While he gives lip service to placing Marx’s statements and arguments in context, he actually does not. For example, in the “Introduction” to A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, (1843) Marx writes:
“The foundation of irreligious criticism is: Man makes religion, religion does not make man. Religion is, indeed, the self-consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not yet won through to himself, or has already lost himself again. But man is no abstract being squatting outside the world. Man is the world of man – state, society. This state and this society produce religion, which is an inverted consciousness of the world, because they are an inverted world. Religion is the general theory of this world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, and its universal basis of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realization of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality. The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion.
“Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.
“The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.” (Marx, 1843, emphases in original)
The reader will note that the religion Marx is discussing is organized religion as he tied it to civil society and the state. It is not the “religions” Kubrin hold close to his heart such as paganism and animism. It is also clear Marx’s view of religion is far more nuanced than Kubrin makes it out to be.
Kubrin also fails to acknowledge soon after these early analyses of religion, that is, by 1845, Marx and Engels arrived at their materialist conception of history which grounded their view of religion further in the modes of production and reproduction of society. Thus, Marx wrote in his Theses on Feuerbach:
“Feuerbach starts off from the fact of religious estrangement [Selbstentfremdung], of the duplication of the world into a religious, imaginary world, and a secular [wetliche] one. His work consists in resolving the religious world into its secular basis. He overlooks the fact that after completing this work, the chief thing still remains to be done. For the fact that the secular basis lifts off from itself and establishes itself in the clouds as an independent realm can only be explained by the inner strife and intrinsic contradictoriness of this secular basis. The latter must itself be understood in its contradiction and then, by the removal of the contradiction, revolutionised. Thus, for instance, once the earthly family is discovered to be the secret of the holy family, the former must itself be annihilated [vernichtet] theoretically and practically.” (Thesis 4)
And in Theses 6 and 7 , Marx writes:
“Feuerbach resolves the religious essence into the human essence. But the human essence is no abstraction inherent in each single individual.
“In its reality it is the ensemble of the social relations.
“Feuerbach, who does not enter upon a criticism of this real essence, is consequently compelled:
“1. To abstract from the historical process and to fix the religious sentiment as something by itself and to presuppose an abstract – isolated – human individual.”
“2. Essence, therefore, can be comprehended only as ’genus’, as an internal, dumb generality which naturally unites the many individuals.
“Feuerbach, consequently, does not see that the 'religious sentiment‘ is itself a social product, and that the abstract individual whom he analyses belongs to a particular form of society.”
In Capital (Volume 1, 1867/1977), Marx offers a similar view:
“The religious reflections of the real world can, in any case, vanish only when the practical relations of everyday life between man and man, and man and nature, generally present themselves to him in a transparent and rational form. The veil is not removed from the countenance of the social life-process, i.e., the process of material production, until it becomes production by freely associated men, and stands under their conscious and planned control. This, however, requires that society possess a material foundation, or a series of material conditions of existence, which in their turn are the natural and spontaneous product of a long and tormented historical development.” (Marx, 1867/1977, p. 173)
Thus, Kubrin falls short of understanding Marx’s and Engels’s discussion of religion because he simply disregards their theory of history, historical materialism. This is particularly odd for someone who was trained professionally as a historian.
Kubrin’s critique of Marx’s and Engels’s alleged mechanical philosophy
In Chapter 15, Kubrin criticizes Marx and Engels for ignoring occult ideas and practices that were embraced by some of their own communist associates and in movements of their time, and for focusing instead on the industrial working class as the social agency for the coming socialist revolution.
“In the late-18th and early 19th centuries, radical politics and revolutionary agitation were frequently to be found in the various secretive Freemason lodges, whose members were drawn to these fonts of Enlightenment ideology and Freemason occultism, where class distinction did not matter.” (p. 311)
He argues that this was true of the League of the Just, “the core of which went on to become the Communist League.” (ibid.).
Kubrin here seems to engage in a convoluted criticism of Marx’s and Engels’s materialist conception of history. He begins by characterizing the Romantic movement in Europe, especially England and Germany, as resistance to the advancing mechanical philosophy of nature. He then briefly notes the development of Naturphilosophen in Germany, which “sought to find the reality behind phenomena, something more basic than mere perception, though intimately embedded in experience and sensations. In some of Naturphilosophen, this was some kind of ineffable soul of nature an ultimate reality or ‘Absolute’.” (p. 302) Kubrin cites Hegel approvingly for “evoking the agency of an “Absolute Spirit,” “a force moving through history as well as through nature, and encompassing the divine and human minds” (p. 304),
Kubrin criticizes Marx and Engels for breaking with Hegel and Young Hegelian idealism to develop their materialist conception of history. Thus he challenges the view that consciousness “is only a consequence of the more fundamental material substratum within which it arose.” (p. 307) “Though they later qualified this formulation and conceived of the relationship less mechanically than is generally interpreted, still, in the main, the ideas of a given society, they asserted, are determined by its relations of production of means of life.” (ibid.)
Let me note that this is not an immanent critique of Marx and Engels. Rather, it is an assertion of the superiority of Kubrin’s own idealist views. It is also superficial. Both the idea of class struggle and the idea of progressive stages in historical development of society were present in the intellectual history and theory in Europe long before Marx and Engels. The notion of class struggle dates back at least to Giovanni Battista Vico (1668–1744) a Professor of Rhetoric at the University of Naples. The idea of stages of development in history dates back to at least the eighteenth century. (Nayeri, 2021; see section on “Historical materialism and anthropocentrism”). Thus, the materialist conception of history was not just a “reaction” to Utopian Socialism. It was as I will argue later a paradigm shift in historiography which previously focused largely on the role of prominent individuals or new ideas as the motor force of history. Kubrin still uses a pre-Marxian theory of history when he identifies the mechanical philosophy of nature as the primary ideological driver of ecological crisis.
As such, Kubrin leaves his reader with a number of questions. What then have been the “real aspirations, real pains, real victories and defeats and real goals” of the mass struggles since the rise of the capitalist civilization? To stop the march of the mechanical philosophy of nature? Why have so many of these mass struggles been waged under the banner of socialism and not under the banner of occultism?
Also, Kubrin seems to be uninterested or unaware of textual evidence of Marx’s and Engels’s insight into the “dialectics” of nature. Kubrin does not discuss Engels’s Dialectics of Nature (1883), or recent textual studies that demonstrates Marx’s “ecological insights” (Foster, 2000), or the contributions of dialectical biologists Richard Levins and Richard Lewontin (1985). A further work by John Bellamy Foster on socialist contributions to the study of ecosystem and ecology was published in 2020.
Kubrin’s critique of dogmatism
In the concluding Chapter 34, Kubrin takes on Marxist “dogmatism.” To better understand Kubrin’s discussion it is useful to recall what “Marxism” means to him. In the 1970s, Kubrin cofounded a Maoist group in the San Francisco Bay Area which did not last long. In the 1980s, as he explains in the same chapter, he joined an anti-nuclear movement led by practitioners of witchcraft. These life experiences may explain why Kubrin still admires Mao Zedong and Hồ Chí Minh, both trained in the Stalinist Communist International. (see, endnote 1)
While I find validity in some of the criticism Kubrin makes of Marx and Engels as well as of the early Communist International before the rise of Stalinism, there is no doubt that Kubrin’s critique is not immanent, that is, criticism leveled from on the basis of Marx’s and Engels’s own theories. In fact, his critique is from an idealist frame of reference of his own rather than a materialist one.
Kubrin on science
Kubrin’s valuable criticism of the scientific revolution and the mechanical philosophy of nature begs the question of what alternative he proposes in its place. He asks this question himself: “[A]m I proposing (supposing it were even possible) an abandonment of Western science? Certainly, the sum of all I have discussed so far might seem to point to such a conclusion.” (p. 555) He immediately adds: “The answer must be a simple and emphatic no. Such an abolishment is neither desirable nor possible.” (ibid. emphasis in original)
Instead, Kubrin proposes three reforms. First, to make “explicit where possible, some of the implicit worldviews that have generally been carefully hidden…. This is what historians of science do, mining correspondence, memoirs, lab books, and the like to get a larger picture of the scientific work.” (ibid.)
Second is to acknowledge that “all matter in the cosmos is essentially (as Newton wanted to believe) capable of self-organization, and responsiveness…. How this is so may, indeed, still be a mystery, but at least a premise of a vitality in all matter renders life’s shocking existence less a violation of the cosmic order, less of a surprise.” (ibid. emphasis in original)
Third, to proclaim that “science is not the truth, it is a truth.” (p, 558, emphases in original)
Let me note that Kubrin’s first “reform” has been under way ever since Auguste Comte proposed that there should be a specific discipline to deal with the history of science. The Course in Positive Philosophy, a series of texts Comte published between 1830 and 1842, dealt with the physical sciences. These texts were followed by the 1848 work, A General View of Positivism (published in English in 1865), in which he took up the social sciences. History of science is an ongoing field of study.
Second, the idea that all matter is capable of self-organization is also widely accepted in science today. Witness the field of biochemistry and molecular biology where all aspects of what makes for life and how life is sustained are seen as ways in which various molecules, cells, DNA, and RNA behave. However, biochemistry’s study of self-organization of matter does not postulate that all matter in the universe is alive, as Kubrin does. That assumption is neither necessary nor testable. Why Kubrin requires it is as part of his science is unclear to me except as way to stress his belief in magic, as he asserts that “lifefulness of nature” has been a “a primary principle of all magical belief.” (p. 151) Yet, as we know, despite the search for life elsewhere in the cosmos and the discovery of many planets capable of harboring life, none has been found so far. Life as far as we know exists on the Earth alone and science has a fair idea of how it might have evolved.
Of course, that depends on one’s definition of “life.” One scientific definition holds that life is a “self-sustaining chemical system capable of Darwinian evolution.” (Brenner, 2010) Kubrin denies scientific status to Darwin’s theory (more in a moment) and offers no alternative theory of how life has evolved on Earth. The reader will search in vain to find a clear definition of life in Kubrin’s account. The reason I suspect is that any definition of life is connected to a particular theory of biology. Kubrin’s notion of life is based on the magical principle that all matter is infused with a vital force. That is no definition of life but simply an assertion that this “vital force” has created life.
Kubrin’s third proposed reform is to consider science “a truth” not “the truth.” But that is also commonly accepted by scientists. Science’s scope is the physical world as it exists. Anything outside the physical world including religious and supernatural beliefs is considered outside of science. Science cannot and does not reject or accept such views. Thus, there are many scientists who are also religious and even - in Kubrin’s own case - occultist.
In sum, all three reforms Kubrin demands have already been met. Even his critique of the reductionism of mechanical philosophy of science is not total, as we have seen. He accepts the premise that to understand physical phenomena one can and often must study its constituent parts. The “reductionist” methodology also requires the scientist to reconstitute the whole after understanding all of its component parts to better understand what it is and how it functions. Kubrin’s complaint is that often scientists do not do this. But that criticism is not of the methodology itself, at best it is a valid criticism of how some scientists conduct themselves.
Kubrin on Darwinism
Kubrin attempts to discredit Darwin’s theory of evolution by means of natural selection on the grounds that it is not scientific (pp. 559-565) In fact, he argues that Creationists “might well have a point” (p. 564) in claiming that natural selection as a “sole motor force” of evolution “is a leap of faith.” In effect, Kubrin sides with the Creationists by upholding a form of “intelligent design:” “It is time for the scientific community to face up to considerable evidence…that nature is not a mere automata of cams and gears, or causal chains in space and time and in ways we do not understand a self-actualizing being into—whatever that means.”(p. 565; for a rebuttal of Creationism, see Rennie, 2002) Kubrin appeals to Karl Popper’s Falsification Principle, which holds that any theory that cannot be falsified is not scientific (p. 563), He also attempts to paint controversies about natural selection as a sign of its weakness or uselessness (p. 564).
But the scientific community has decidedly supported Darwinian theory even as scientists have debated and improved it since Darwin’s
“scientific study of evolution includes concepts of variation, inheritance, and (starting with Darwin) selection; fossils and the ancient sediments in which they are embedded; patterns of geographic variation and biogeography; species and higher taxa in the framework of systematics (the study of patterns of relationships among species and the classification of life); ecology, developmental biology, and comparative anatomy; and, most recently molecular biology.” (Eldredge, 2007)
In brief, Kubrin would have done better to consider contributions by Darwin and Marx in light of Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962): a fundamental change in the basic concepts and experimental practices of a scientific discipline. I will return to this below.
When I listened to David Kubrin’s interview on the Against the Grain program (KPFA) discussing his book, I was delighted to find someone who argued for the vitality of nature and against the “mechanical philosophy,” including criticisms of the founders of “Scientific Socialism” and the socialist movement in their approach to nature. I immediately ordered the book and set all else aside to read it and learn from it.
Not far into the book, I came across a passage where Kubrin relates an episode of hiking on Mount Tamalpais with his son Yarrow, who also practiced magic. As Yarrow begins a pagan chant and Kubrin joins in they reach “receptive spiritual states.” (p. 112) “Yarrow pointed to a distinctive madrone tree…” Kubrin relates: “The tree had taken on an exceedingly clear pattern where its bark had unevenly worn away, of a bird goddess.” (ibid.) They sat by the tree to experience “its fantastic power and image.” “All who passed by felt something about the tree, noticed it is some way.” (ibid. emphasis in original)
|A dead tree trunk I see on my walk that appears as an standing eagle. Photo: Kamran Nayeri.|
I too go for walks, and I have come to see interesting patterns and shapes in living and dead trees. Although I find these interesting, I have never felt they represented something magical. To me the trees themselves are magical, not the scars on them. I guess one finds what one is looking for. In the final months of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the U.S. backed dictator in Iran who was overthrown in February 1979, some followers of Ayatollah Khomeini claimed to have seen the ayatollah’s image on the moon. It made them believe that Khomeini was someone sent by God (Allah) to save them. No harm is done when folks like Kubrin and Yarrow view patterns in a madrone tree and take it to be magical (of supernatural significance). But those who took Ayatollah Khomeini as a Godsend eased the way for him to replace the pro-imperialist dictatorship with a Shiite Islamic theocracy. At least three generations of Iranians have paid for such religious illusions of a significant portion of the people who made the 1979 revolution (for my own experience with magic and occult, see the Appendix).
On philosophical materialism, objectivity, and grand narratives
Kubin holds a philosophical idealist view of the world in which he asserts a nature animated by a “vital force” as the prime mover. While Kubrin never defines what he means by “life,” he assumes all matter in the cosmos is infused by a vital force which self-actualizes it. Thus, he triumphantly claims his approach does away with the problem of the origin of life on Earth! Kubrin view is rooted in his belief in magic: “Life itself, of course, is a dance, and in magic the mystery of the life process is the central metaphor for everything else on Earth, for the whole of the cosmos.” (p. 91) Let me note that this is a highly anthropocentric epistemological position. After all, there is no evidence so far that there is life anywhere else in the cosmos but only on Earth and that as far as we know there is just one species, ourselves, that ponders on the question of life.
Scientific definitions of “life” are field dependent. For example, from a biological perspective, life is a self-sustaining chemical system capable of undergoing Darwinian evolution. All living organisms share several key characteristics or functions: order, sensitivity or response to the environment, reproduction, growth and development, regulation, homeostasis, and energy processing. When viewed together, these characteristics serve to define life. Kubrin complains that there is still some controversy in science about what is life and how it originated on Earth. Scientific disputes are part of the process of scientific enterprise. In fact, science is best defined by the scientific method, the process of observing, asking questions, and seeking answers through tests and experiments. Scientists begin with admitting they do not know but try to learn though the application of the scientific method.
Kubrin’s criticism of philosophical materialism seems to be based on a mistaken understanding as he asserts it views “things as belonging either to the material or to the mental realms, as if these were adequate and exclusive categories.” (p. 89) The same error creeps in when Kubrin discusses Marxian notions of “base” and “superstructure.” Elsewhere in the book, he seems to correct this misunderstanding somewhat when he discusses the materialist understanding of “consciousness.” But being an idealist, Kubrin rejects that the material world is “the prime mover of everything else.” (p. 89)
Similarly, Kubrin throughout rails against “objectivity” because, he argues, everything is known through subjective personal sense experience. But the problem of subjectivity is more complicated. To be sure, there are “intentional states,” which refers to mental states with intentionality, such that a subjective fact about some item x may be defined as a fact that obtains in virtue of someone’s intentional state regarding x. But there are also mental states with “aboutness”: they are about objects, features and/or states of affairs. And there are objective facts. So an objective fact about x may be defined as one that does not obtain by virtue of anyone’s intentional state regarding x. (Francescotti,2017) Thus, one cannot dispose of “objectivity” as Kubrin tries to do.
If our entire consciousness was “subjective” in the sense Kubrin uses it, then how could there ever be science or scientific laws verifiable by experimentation? One example is Einstein’s famous equation E = mc2 in his theory of special relativity, which expresses the fact that mass and energy are the same physical entity and can be changed into each other. In the equation, the increased relativistic mass (m) of a body times the speed of light squared (c2) is equal to the total energy (E) that body contains. Einstein’s equation has been both theoretically and empirically verified.
There are undeniable objective truths about nature and society. It is also undeniable that consciousness itself arises from a certain emergent property of living material beings. Not all living beings have consciousness, and those that do can also lose that quality if their biological organization is undermined in certain states due to accident, illness, or of course death.
Kubrin’s claims of a vital force and self-consciousness in all matter are "first principles,” a priori terms and arguments – in contrast to a posteriori terms, reasoning or arguments - in that the former are simply assumed and exist prior to the reasoning process, while the latter are deduced or inferred after the initial reasoning process.
Kubrin also criticizes grand narratives, particularly Marx’s theory of history and Darwin’s theory of evolution by means of natural selection. Kubrin rejects these on the ground of Karl Popper’s demand for empirical testability. However, Kubrin (who does reference (pp. 38-39) Thomas Kuhn’s The Copernican Revolution (1957) to point to relativism in science) fails to consider Marx’s and Darwin’s theories in light of Kuhn’s thesis in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), which argues that science progresses through paradigm shifts, or revolutions in the disciplinary matrix of key theories, instruments, values and metaphysical assumptions. Such paradigm shifts occur as a consequence of the accumulation of new knowledge during preceding periods of “normal science.” Marx and Darwin are among the most influential thinkers who revolutionized the fields of human history and biology respectively.
Kubrin’s key contribution in Marxism & Witchcraft is centered on his discussion of Newton’s intellectual development, his integration of the role played by the Enthusiasts and Rosicrucianism in the English Civil War, and an alternative explanation for the European witch hunt as a way to pave the way for the mechanical philosophy to open up nature for the expropriation of wealth - in particular by the extractive industries - and how parallel trends operated in European colonies through campaigns to root out indigenous cultures. In these passages, Kubrin adds to our understanding of what is considered primitive or primary accumulation in Marxian historiography.
In this context, it seems to me that the singular emphasis on the mechanical philosophy of nature as the primary cause of the ecological crises we are facing today is misplaced and exaggerated. Kubrin unfortunately sidelines the main drivers: commercial expansion and increased monetization driving colonial conquest for what in Marx makes for primitive accumulation; and the increase in the rate of technological change due to the advance of science and technology; and - once the capitalist mode of production becomes dominant - ongoing capitalist accumulation in search of profit as science and technology became increasingly integrated into the structure of large capitalist firms and the state, resulting in sustained acceleration on the pace of technical change. These have been integrated into Marxian historiography as the transition to capitalist civilization and its history.
Moreover, only an intellectual elite, the scientific community and higher echelons of power might have been influenced by the mechanical conception of nature. The bulk of humanity even in the twenty-first century does not consciously think in terms of any philosophy of nature let alone subscribe to a mechanical philosophy. It is their attitude as much as the attitude of the elite towards nature that matters.
An alternative animistic materialist theory of the ecological crisis
Marxism & Witchcraft ignores that ecological crises did not begin with the ascendency of the mechanical philosophy of nature, although in some places Kubrin admits that the problem is rooted in early history (p. 30). Many civilizations beginning with Sumer, the first, succumbed to ecological and social crises. A malevolent attitude towards nature can be found in all civilizations beginning with Sumer as illustrated in the epic of Gilgamesh, the first known long literary writing. (Nayeri, November 2018)
It may have escaped Kubrin that Marx’s theoretical concerns are centered on human alienation from nature and social alienation. Marx’s theory of socialism aims to achieve human emancipation through a process of de-alienation, which he theorized and analyzed using the materialist conception of history, providing a labor theory of alienation under capitalism mode of production (Meszaros, 1970).
Marx and Engels stressed that their initial formulation of the material conception of history in The German Ideology (1845) put the question of nature to one side as they pointed up the necessity to reintegrate it in further elaborations. Given the existential ecological crises of our time, it is absolutely necessary to carry out such recommendations. I have engaged in this effort in light of the knowledge we have gained since the nineteenth century in various relevant fields of study. (Nayeri, 2021)
Since the latter part of the 1970s, social and environmental scientists and those in science and technology studies among others have broadened their field of vision to include multiple agencies in society and history by calling for new materialisms. For example, Wadham asserts:
“Critical Theory pioneered the theorization of human-animal relations, helping establish that agency extends beyond the human world. Nonhuman agency is now widely accepted within the ‘new materialisms’ and beyond but there are growing calls for more critical approaches that consider why and how such agency is mobilized. These calls effectively bring together the concerns of ‘old’ and ‘new’ materialisms.” (Wadham, 2020)
This sort of materialism is already in the making. Donna Haraway draws attention to the work of Brazilian anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro and his notion of multinaturalism and perspectivism: “Working with Brazilian Amerindian hunters, with whom he learned to theorize the radical conceptual realignment he called multinaturalism and perspectivism, Eduardo Viveiros de Castro wrote, ‘Animism is the only sensible version of materialism.” (Haraway , 2016, p. 88)
Instead of assuming, as Kubrin does, a vital force to explain “self-actualization” of matter, it is possible and indeed consistent with scientific knowledge to postulate that agency lies in the interrelationships among beings. On a molecular and cellular levels, this has been confirmed as emergent properties by molecular biology and biochemistry respectively. Emergent properties are also used to explain abiogenesis, the origin of life on Earth.
On this basis, I have argued that alienation from nature arose concurrently with the transition from the hunting and gathering mode of subsistence to the farming mode of production beginning 12,000 years ago. This process that took thousands of years to unfold and transformed the animistic worldview of hunter-gatherers to some form of anthropocentric worldview (Nayeri, October 2013). I have also argued that anthropocentrism has been pervasive in all civilizations, organized religions, in particular, the Judeo-Christian tradition, and in bourgeois modernity and socialist theory and practice (Nayeri, July 2021). Anthropocentrism is the key concept in environmental ethics, a discipline in philosophy that studies the moral relationship of human beings to, and also the value and moral status of, the environment and its non-human contents (Brennan and Yeuk-Sze, 2021; Padwe, 2019). Finally, I have argued in favor of some form of new materialism as the basis for a more robust materialist conception of history.
The resulting philosophy, theory, and praxis I have called Ecocentric Socialism, which I have detailed somewhat elsewhere (see, for example, Nayeri 2018)
Kubrin (2020) and before him Carolyn Merchant (1980) and Morris Berman (1981) have provided us with a convincing argument that the scientific revolution provided both an ideological basis for modernity in the idea of human progress as well as a vast technological matrix by which to expropriate wealth from nature through exploitation of the working people, giving rise to the anthropocentric industrial capitalist civilization. This has led to what geologists call the Anthropocene (The Age of Humankind), fed by the arrival of mass consumption capitalism in the post-World War II period. Existential crises have followed as have many lesser ecological disasters.
Thus, human survival will depend on our ability to transcend the anthropocentric industrial capitalist civilization in the direction of an Ecocentric Socialist society; a much smaller humanity with a culture of being instead of a culture of having, which will produce and consume differently and less, with the ethos of doing-no-harm to nature. Science and technology, as Merchant has argued, are means of subordination and exploitation of nature throughout civilization. But nature is the ultimate reality and ultimate beauty. Human emancipation and happiness will depend on the health and happiness of Mother Earth.
Finally, it must be said that Marxism & Witchcraft is a poorly written book that barely appears to have been edited. It offers a collage of papers of varying quality that Kubrin wrote over the course of several decades. For example, a section starting on page 489 appears to have been penned in 2013. Thus, the reader is hard pressed to find a well-articulated logic that binds its disparate threads. Kubrin himself calls it a wide-ranging book. It is not clear who its audience is supposed to be.
1. In a footnote on page 627 Kubrin indicates further that he “is greatly indebted to Fernando Claudin’s” The Communist Movement: From Comintern to Cominform (1975). As a youth in Spain, Claudin was recruited to the Juventudes Comunistas, the youth section of the Stalinist Communist Party of Spain and eventually became a leader of that party which followed Stalin’s disastrous policies in the Spanish Civil War (1936–39). After the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1956, which admitted to some of the crimes of Stalinism (but portrayed them as Stalin’s fault), Claudin increasingly distanced himself from the official party line which overwhelmingly supported Soviet anti-working class policies at home and abroad. He was expelled from the party in 1965 for his open disagreement with official policy. He eventually became a supporter of Eurocommunism, a Social Democratic current that emerged out of the mass Stalinist Communist parties in Western Europe. In 1988, he joined the Spanish Socialist Workers' Party (Partido Socialista Obrero Español , PSOE), a Social Democratic party. Thus, Claudin’s conception of socialism and its history are colored by his misunderstanding of Stalinism as Marxism.
I am deeply grateful to Fred Murphy who carefully edited the essay and provided insightful comments to singficantly improve text. Of course, I alone bear the responsibility for any errors and the agruments presented in this essay.
Berman, Morris. The Reechantment of the World. 1981.
Brennan, Andrew and Yeuk-Sze Lo, "Environmental Ethics," The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2021 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)
Dry, Sarah, “The Strange Tale of Newton’s Papers.” The New Atlantis, Winter 2015.
Eldredge, Niles. “Hierarchies and the Sloshing Bucket: Toward the Unification of Evolutionary Biology.” Evolution Education Outreach, 2008.
Engels, Frederick. Dialectics of Nature, 1873-1886.
Foster, John Bellamy. Marx’s Ecology. 2000.
————————-. The Return of Nature. 2020.
Francescotti, Robert. “Subjectivity.” Routhledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2017.
Haraway, Donna. Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. 2016.
Levins, Richard, and Richard Lewontin. The Dialectical Biologist. 1985.
Marx. Karl. A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. 1843.
—————-. Theses on Feurubach. 1845.
—————-. Capital volume 1. Vintage Books edition. 1867/1977.
Marx, Karl and Fredrick Engels. The German Ideology. 1845.
Merchant, Carolyn. The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology and the Scientific Revolution. 1980.
Meszaros, Istvan. Marx’s Theory of Alienation. 1970.
Nayeri, Kamran. “Economics, Socialism, and Ecology: A Critical Outline, Part 2.”
Philosophers for Change, October 29, 2013. Republished in Our Place in the World: A Journal of Ecosocialism.
—————————. “Culture and Nature in The Epic of Gilgamesh.” Our Place in the World: A Journal of Ecosocialism. November 2018.
—————————. “The Case for Ecocentric Socialism.”Our Place in the World: A Journal of Ecosocialism. July 2021.
Padwe, Jonathan. "Anthropocentrism," Oxford Bibliographies, 2019.
Rennie, John. “15 Answers to Creationist Nonsense.” Scientific American, July 2002. Reprinted in Our Place in the World: A Journal of Ecosocialism.
Wadham, Helen. “Relations of Power and Nonhuman Agency: Critical Theory, Clever Hans, and Other Stories of Horses and Humans.” Sociological Perspectives, July 14, 2020.
My experiences with magic
I was born in Tehran, Iran, in 1950. When I was a toddler, my parents gradually built our house from brick and mortar in an as yet undeveloped and very sparsely populated region of northeast Tehran. There was no tap water and no electricity. My paternal grandmother, Monavar, was a devout Muslim who told me many stories about magical beings like Jenn (Genie), Pari, Ghoul, Div (Demon), and Simorğ (a benevolent mythical bird). These stories were delivered as if they were the true state of the world. So until my adolescent whenever I stepped in darkness I recited as my grandmother instructed “be-essme-allah” (in the name of God) which presumably drove away evil spirits and invited the noble ones. People did not go to the public bath at night, fearing they would be visited by the mischievous Jenn. My grandmother also told me stories that betrayed her own fears in the past and for the future. One was a story of how when she was a little girl in Kurdistan, in Western Iran, one night when she was alone in the house a ghoul or monster threw boulders at the house until sunrise. Another of her stories was about how during the first night in the grave spirits would come to visit the dead to comfort or torment them, depending on their lifetime deeds. In these stories the dead seemed to be alive but buried under ground, unable to move and helpless.
Certain friends of my parents practiced magic, which I understood as rituals accompanied by spells to affect the course of events. A certain Mr. Tabatabai, a thin, tall, balding man with rimmed prescription glasses that made his eyes look big, conducted astrological chart reading, palm readings and so on. When I was a little child it was common for kids to have intestinal parasites, diarrhea, and fever, due to poor sanitation and water quality. My aunt Farah who read cards and palms would come to help a sick child through a ritual. This included wrapping an egg in a piece of cloth. She would hold it in her hand and after some prayers she would name people who had seen the sick child recently and press her thumb on the egg until it broke. To my aunt, this would reveal the person who had cast an evil eye causing the child’s illness. She would then offer prayers to cast off the spell. There were even people, none that I met personally, who were "jen-gir" (exorcist).
In brief, Iranians in the 1950s were awash in “magical thinking.” Alas, none of the magic I saw ever seemed to work. In fact, most of the problems children faced soon began to disappear as potable water and electricity became more available and vegetables were washed in permanganate solution, an oxidizing agent that killed bacteria. Vaccination campaigns and use of antibiotics helped as well. Science, not magic, helped us to live a healthier life. Of course, arrival of Western public health and medicine was concurrent with the arrival of DDT to kill insects and plastic bags to replace canvas bags for shopping, etc. Thus just as public health and preventative medicine helped to deal with infectious diseases, the industrialization of life prepared for the onslaught of the ecological crises that ensued.
Magical thinking did not seem to have any positive effect on our relationship with nature either. For three years, we lived in Borazjan, a town of 15,000 near the Persian Gulf, which was even more in the thrall of magical thinking. My local friends’ pastime was to pour gasoline into snake holes to set them on fire, or to block the alleyways at night to beat with sticks the feral dogs that came to town to find scraps to eat. There was no kindness to nonhumans at all. And a mechanical philosophy of nature had nothing to do with such malevolent attitudes toward nature.
Thus, I am not convinced based on my own life experiences of the rosy picture Kubrin offers of the European peasantry and plebeian masses as defenders of wild nature. While it is reasonable to expect the peasantry who lived in a direct relationship of dependence on the bounty of nature to care for its health and wellbeing, they could not have been as animistic as hunter-gatherers were. Their care for nature was much more instrumentalist.