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24 Reviews

D. Barash, Sociobiology and Behaviour, Heinemann,
1979, £3.95 pb
T. Clutton-Brock & P. Harvey, Readings in Sociobiology, W.H.Freeman, 1979, £4.95 pb
W. Mackensie, Biological Issues in POlitics,
Manchester UP, 1978, £3.95 hc
M. Midgley, Beast and Man, Harvester, 1979,
£7.50 hc
M. Ruse, Sociobiology: Sense or Nonsense?

D. Reidel, 1978, no price
E.O.Wilson, On Human Nature, Harvard UP, 1978,
£7.85 hc
Given its current cachet, it is not surprising how
many books have been appearing on sociobiology.

This is a recent selection that either tackle it
directly or circle around it. Some are for, some
against, some dubious; some useful, some plain bad.

It is a common practice, when reviewing groups of
books, to make a few general comments and then to
look at the peculiarities of each in turn. I want to
reverse this procedure, situating each in turn before
I consider some issues common to them all.

Wilson r S book is Significant since it is the completion
of his ‘trology’, dealing first with insect societies
(his specialism), then with the general sociobiological thesis, and now finally with extrapolations
to human beings. Many commentators have already
noted how muted this third book is when compared
with the brash claims of ‘Sociobiology – the New
Synthesis’. Gone are the vast claims about evolutionary ethics (which always displayed more i~nor­
ance than ideology). Gone are the most explicit
assertions about the disappearance of other disciplines into sociobiology. But what remains is still

A glance at some of the chapter headings reveals
this: ‘Aggression’, ‘Altruism’, ‘Religion’. Curious
how ‘hot the controversy between group-selectionists
(ethologists) and individual selectionists (sociobiologists) is, since when it comes down to identifying main empirical issues, main units, and proximate causes, they look so much alike. For these are
exactly Lorenz’s concerns, for example.

In general, the arguments are really bad. Consider,
for example, Wilson’s reconstruction of the ‘origins
of homosexuality’. It is, of course, prima facie
paradoxical on their account, because reduced
chances of procreation should have meant that – if
genetically determined – gayness should have been
selected out millions of years ago. Ah no, says
E. 0., because ‘maybe’ homosexuals passed on their
genes by helping relatives with shared genes to
survive. This is a nice example of what various
people have called ‘Just -so’ stories tjlat make the
theory indefeasible. If Wilson’s case is to hold, he
must also make the following claims: first, that
historically gays did behave in this way (of which
there is no evidence); second, that the reasons for
this behaviour are biol~ically given. And the two

aspects must be genetically linked – to be gay must
be genetically associated with ‘helping gene -relatives’. But in that case, why the hell are gays not
determined to this behaviour today? No doubt an
‘answer’ will be constructed, and the Just-so story
will roll on.

David Barash’ s book is another popularisation
(something of which sociogiologists are very fond,
Dawkins, for example, writing a very crude account
of his own book in Vogue). As with Wilson’s book,
the gap between the careful recounting of animal
studies, and the last -chapter extrapolations to
human behaviour is incredibly wide. However, I
wouldn’t want to suggest a split such that animals
are left to the sociogiologists, while we hang on
desperately to the humans. For consider his handling of animal intelligence. He cites (p48) the
experimental evidence on the selective breeding of
maze -bright and maze -dull rats, as part of his
general evidence for a genetic component in the
quantity of intelligence. But then he notes the further
experiment in which maze -bright and maze -dull rats
were then tested on slightly different mazes, and all
difference in speed of learning disappeared. Barash
is perplexed: ‘the implications of this finding are
obscure’ (p49). But to me they are crystal-clear,
and a vital refutation of sociobiological ‘assumptions
and methods. Am I odd in finding them so obvious?

For doesn’t it show that what was being genetically
selected for was not maze -brightness at all, but
some accidental advantage for that particular maze?

Barash’s book is particularly interesting, in my
opinion, for its handling of the charges of ‘ideology’

against the sociobiologists. Right at the beginning
(p7), he agrees that past complaints against the
pOlitical uses of Darwinism have been quite justified
when one considers the way in which a notion of
‘natural competition’ became an ideological justification for laissez -faire capitalism.

But by the end of his book he gets very upset about
charges of racism against his fellow -theorisers
since he insists they are asserting the ‘unity of
mankind’. Yet less than 30 pages later, he is

Genetic relatedness often declines dramatically
beyond the boundaries of a social group and,
significantly, aggressiveness increases in turn.

Hostility towards outsiders is characteristic of
both human and non-human animals. PhYSical
Similarity is also a function of genetic relatedness,
and human racial prejudice, directed against
individuals that look different, could have its roots
in this tendency to distinguish in -group from outgroup …. Clearly, this suggestion of a possible
evolutionary basis for human racial prejudice is
not intended to legitimise it, just to indicate why
it may occur. (pp310-11)
It is very curious, and needs exploring, why the
sOciobiologists cannot see that this is exactly what
the critics see as racist in their theory: the ‘loca27


tion of a genetic encoding for xenophobia’. The fact
that they so commonly defend themselves against
any such charge by using a fact/value distinction,
I shall return to later.

Michael Ruse, a philosopher of biology, has written
a deeply disappointing book. To be fair, the first
third is very useful. It is a clear, careful exposition
of what sociobiology is all about. In particular, he
describes very well the range of writers to apply the
theory to human society, from the hardliners like
Alexander and Trivers, to the extremely cautious
Maynard Smith.

But then he passes to what is effectively a defence of
sociobiologyagainst ‘unfair criticisms’. And from
here on, its quality of exposition and arguments falls
dramatically. He maligns or misunderstands opponents, as when he cites as an aim of critics to stop
research in the field. And like the sociobiologists
themselves, he cannot understand the charge of
racism except as a claim that the theory must
covertly be caliming superiority/inferiority.

The key to the weakness of Ruse’s book is in his
claim that the meaning of the theory of evolution is
obvious. The only alternative way of applying it to
human beings that he can conceive is so naively put
that it must cast doubt on the whole book’s credentials. Having repeatedly referred to ‘cultural components’ as possible additions to genetic processes,
without ever asking what sort of explanation a
cultural account is, he asks:

Could one bring up humans to have absolutely no
aggressive tendencies, no interest in sex, no
feeling for children, and no willingness at all to
relate altruistically to others? This is what an
extreme culturalist position would seem to imply.

I don’t see why it has to imply this at all, even if we
accepted the alternative as ‘extreme culturalism’.

But be that as it may, when Ruse wants to enter
notes of caution about too easy an application of
genetic explanations, he himself falls back on just
such a view of culture, as the opposite of genetics:

… our genes might drive us towards maximising
our own individual reproduction, but this is not to
deny that through our culture we might decide to
limit reproduction for the good of the group.

But as many of us have been trying to point out, that
leaves a quite irresoluble dualism of genes and
culture. How is the culture supposed to establish
itself in opposition to the genetic drives that Ruse
describes? Overall, I don’t feel that his bo’ok takes
us any deeper into the theory, even in his defence
of it.

Mary Midgley’s book, however, is very important.

It seems to me to come from the heart of what is

best in British philosophy’s current attempts to
escape the restrictions of its immediate analytic
past. Without doubt it is going to be wide ly read and
used in teaching. For it is the best that liberal
philosophy is capable of producing on sociobiology
at the present time.

And in truth some bits are very good. She has a very
fine discussion of ‘beastliness’, the tendency to
regard animals as inherently brutal and dangerous.

It is delightfully written, in sparkling prose. There


is also a particularly good discussion of the idea of
a direction to evolution, and of the concepts of
‘higher’ and ‘lower’. But it is remarkably thin on
alternative conceptions to sociobiology. And so,
even in the sort of descriptive clarification at which
her book is best, one is apt to come across nasty
little slides into theory, such as:

It is one of Lorenz’s more interesting suggestions
that only creatures capable of aggression towards
their own kind are capable of affection. (pp47 -48)
But this is not simply an ‘interesting suggestion’,
but a heavily charged hypothesis about the relation
between primary drives and their possible ritual
redirection. It is a central theoretical proposition
of both ethology and sociobiology.

Her book is mainly concerned to agree with the
fundamental demand of the sociobiologists that
humans be seen as continuous with other species;
we are animals. Much of her argument here is to
good effect. And indeed she is very good at demolishing the more absurd claims of Wilson et al. I
liked in particular her destruction (pp169 -72) of
Wilson’s claim that, come sociobiology’s full
development, subjects such as sociology etc would
all become branches of neurology. She puts her
obje ctions wittily and prettily.

But in a curious way she still concedes much ground
to them without admitting that she is dOing so. For
a start, in common with so many, she can conceive
of no alternatives other than some form of genetic
determination, or a ‘blank tablet’. Then in her
discussion of culture she can write: ‘How far
possessiveness and exclusiveness have innate, as
well as outer, sources is a factuaLquestion’ (p287).

Given the long debates, particularly on IQ, about
whether this way of phrasing the question is meaningful’ that is a remarkable unargued gift to those
she claims to evaluate. Indeed, the book is marred
repeatedly by such concessions so that when she
presents her own account – in so far as one can be
disentangled – it is very questionable. It is based on
a distinction between ‘open’ and’ closed’ instincts.

A closed instinct is one whose direction, object and
pattern of activity are closely prescribed genetically; an open instinct is closer to being generalised
‘interest’ and motivational source.

But why continue to call them instincts at all? Her
implicit answer seems to be based simply on the
need for continuity of account. Humans are, after
all, evolved animals. True – but that doesn’t prescribe what the continuity consists in. And using the
concept of an instinct carries an implication with it
– that all instinctual behaviour is moulded and governed by the requirements of ‘survival’. And
Midgley accepts this, if we can take as evidence
her tendency to describe human activities (eg p307)
as having ‘obvious survival value’ – as though that
were a sufficient explanation.

This is an important book, and in some respects a
good one. But it is careless, taking over ideas and
evidence uncriticaUy (see, for example, her use of
Shepher’s dubious evidence on incest from the
kibbutzim). And it is very weak in its theory of the
significance of biology. We need to do better.

The Clutton-Brock and Harvey ‘reader’ is a pretty
technical affair, bringing together some of the

crucial articles that began sociobiology as a distinctive reinterpretation of Darwinism. Despite its
technicalities, RP readers interested in the theory
ought to read it. For several reasons: first, it is
important that we avoid simplistic charges of ideology against these theorists. We must be clear that
sociobiology arose out of a theoretical controversy
within evolutionary biology. If we want to see it as
an ideological development – as I do – we need an
account of its ideological significance that can
encompass that fact.

Secondly, some of the key concepts of sociobiology
are here formulated very clearly and concisely. In
particular I would pick out Maynard Smith’s concept
of the Evolutionarily Stable Strategy (ESS), an
essential tool in the theory for modelling the interaction of individual gene strategies. To date, critics
of sociobiology, both inside and outside biology,
have tended to fire their guns at the theory in general. I believe that it is time we turned our attention
to some specific concepts of theirs – and the ESS
concept would be an excellent starting point. Its
similarities with Hobbes’ conception of politics as
the mediator of individual egoisms, and with Smith’s
‘hidden hand’ should be enough to get us worrying.

But we need biological, philosophical and mathematical investigations of it. For the concept depends on
the idea that in a society of animals there is a calculable balance of individual strategies (hawkish,
doveish, cheats, etc) which would be stable and
would result in the genetic maintenance of those
strategies; and I suspect very strongly that it will
only hold as long as arbitrary values can be aSSigned
to the advantages conferred by the various strategies.

Just as Lewontin has demonstrated that group
selection could only occur under specialised circumstances, so I suspect can an ESS.

Thirdly, of course, all such arguments are only
worthwhile if one is committed to Darwinism as a
general programme, and to the need to save Darwinism from the sociobiologists. I believe that we have
to be. But if RP readers are certain they are competent in this respect to withstand the sociobiologica1
claim that they are straightforward D~rwinists, I
suggest they test themselves on Hamilton’s
‘Geometry for the Selfish Herd’, or Trivers’ ‘The
Evolution of Reciprocal Altruism’, or Maynard
Smith’s ‘Evolution and the Theory of Games’.

Finally Mackenzie’s book, a published version of
some lectures he gave, is an odd, stimulating and
irritating set of pieces. At one level, it reeks of a
ce rtain sty le of le cturing: pat ronising, built on
quirks and personal reminiscences, loosely structured onto apparently random references. I find this
a pity when the lecture or essay, in the hands of
earlier thinkers, was a chance for tight argument
and the condensation of a thesis (see some of Kant’s
essays for brilliant uses of the form). This seems
in part rambling old man stuff.

At another level, however, it tempts. Mackenzie
breezily drops in a distinction between adaptiveness
and adaptability – which, when one thinks about it,
contains the germ of a real theoretical breakthrough.

For adaptability implies that an organism cannot be
defined by a repertoire of behaviours in relation to
some fairly fixed ‘natural environment’. You won’t
find this spelt out by Mackenzie who uses the dis-

tinction for different purposes:

A man might be adaptable individually, but his
conduct might not be for the species adaptive,
either genetically or socially. In other words,
the adaptable person may be a chameleon or
conformist, but social adaptivity is a matter not
of individual change but of social change, and that
depends, other things being equal, on the presence of an adequate supply of creative nonconformists. (p60)
And thus we pass from a biological concept into
some fairly trite political arguments. One senses
that Mackenzie would like to be regarded as one of
those non -conformists; and the effort to put his
individual touch and a particular form of ‘relevance’

into the lectures prevents real development of ideas.

This book won’t stay in print long, but a few people
will be sparked off – either by irritation, or by
spotting those old implicit ideas – to do something
a bit more thorough than this ‘speech-day’ stuff.

Looking back on my comments on the particular
books, I find I have been very critical of all of them.

Nor do I want to change that in retrospect. With the
exception of the Reader (which has other purposes,
and a specialised audience), I find it Significant that
they are all lazily theorised. And the issues are far
too important for that.

For a long time philosophy – especially in Britain has managed to talk about humans as though Darwin
had never written. The philosophy of biology has
been seen as one of those sidelines that philosophers
with odd interests might go off into .. When a theory
such as sociobiology emerges, and starts making
big claims about ethics, epistemology, mind and
behaviour (to name but a few), there is almost an
embarrassed silence. Some take over, or are taken
over by, the theory, accepting it with an incredible
degree of uncriticism. But once accepted, those
central concepts have a tendency to carry dangerous
implications which ought to be noted. Consider
Wilson, quite logically drawing a conclusion from
his version of the implications of Darwinism for
man: ‘ … the intellect was not constructed to
understand atoms or even to understand itself but
to promote the survival of human genes’ (p2). This
is a correct claim if sociobiology is a starter. Its
consequences are vast. We can’t allow them to pass

In exactly the same vein, we can’t allow to pass the
use – repeated with boring predictability in every
book that, is pro sociobiology – of a fact/value
distinction. There are a host of reasons for denying
this, and we will need to spell them out, and out
loud. There is the fact that organising concepts such
as ‘selfishness’ and ‘aggression’ are drawn originally from political and moral affairs, and can be
shown to carry still the tincture of that origin.

There is the fact that a theory of fundamental motivation is being suggested; and therefore we could
not have any reason to oppose the demands of our
genes. And there is the fact that in this approach
there is a project of proving behaviour innate; all
Significant human behaviour is swallowed up in this
project, leaving no basis from which we could
reject at the ‘value’ -level what is supposedly proven
at the factual level.


We also need to point out that the charge of implicit
racism against sociobiology is directed precisely
against its ’empirical’ claim that xenophobia is
empirically encoded. And we can’t do that without
challenging the claim to be empirical. In the same
way, Barash’ s claim that sociobiology is only sexist
‘if sexism is recognition of male -female differences;
however it does not imply that either sex is better’

(p283) needs meeting with proof that such an assertion of difference is not simply a matter of evidence.

It is a question of whether ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’ are meaningful concepts at a biological level,
and of the ideological derivation of the sociobiological definitions of these.

us philosophically to develop our conception of
Darwinism, a non-reductionist version. It
challenges us politically, through its renewed
scientific validation of racism (which the NF has
now taken up – see Spearhead this year), sexism
(which the women’s magazines have been taking up),
etc. And it challenges us to develop and work with
a view of ideology that actually can cope with the
diverse layers of sociobiology, on the one hand
within the abstractions of population genetics, and
on the other hand within the pOlitical discussion of
immigration, housework, and the market economy.

To date, I don’t think we have done very well in
answering these challenges.

All of which leaves an awful lot of work to be done.

Sociobiology is a big challenge to us. It challenges

Martin Barker

D. Lecourt, Proletarian Science? The Case of
Lysenko, New Left Books, 1977, £5.75
The history and signifi can ce of Lysenkoism has
rightly become the crucial test -bed for all attempts
at Marxist/Materialist accounts of science. The
scandal of Lysenko’s rise to power, the subsequent
suppression of research in genetics and related
fields, and impOSition of his preposterous agricultural methods throughout the Soviet Union, has
become a cautionary tale employed with Jreat
success by Western anti-communists: the philosophy
of Marxism and the practice of socialism are incompatible with scientific liberty and objectivity,
in short, with science itself.

For Marxists, apart from some tiny factions who
still, apparently, advocate and propagate Lysenkoism (1), the problem is a far mOre serious and
difficult one. That Lysenkoism was a catastrophic
aberration seems indisputable. That there are
themes, doctrines and aspirations in Lysenkoism
which are widely held by socialists who would share
this judgement is also not seriously disputable (not,
that is, by anyone who has taken the trouble to read
Lysenko). To what extent are those themes, doctrines and aspirations themselves implicated in the
Lysenko catastrophe? What remains of dialectical
materialism if the lessons of the Lysenko scandal
are taken to heart (and head)? How far was the
rise of Lysenko and the imposition of his doctrine
a function of economic, ideological and political
imperatives of the Soviet regime of the period, and
the doctrine itself a ‘Stalinist’ travesty of the dialec
tical materialist philosophical legacy? What are the
lessons of this episode for our understanding of the
relationships between scientific research and the
construction of socialism?

Lecourt’s text is one of a very small number of
serious attempts by Marxists to come to grips with
these problems. After a preliminary discussion of
the reception in France of Lysenko’s famous report
to the August 1948 Lenin Academy of Agricultural
Sciences, and some analysis of the doctrine expoun-·
ded in that report, Lecourt goes on to provide an
1 Some small Maoist groups mentioned in Bob Young, ‘Getting Started on
Lysenkoism’, Radical Science Journal 6/7, 1978, pp81-105


analysiS of the history of the development and consolidation of Lysenkoism in the USSR. In this
Lecourt relies largely, as he concedes, on materials derived from Medvedev, Joravsky, and
Graham (2). He divides the ‘pre -history’ of
Lysenkoism into three periods. The first period,
1927 -29, saw Lysenko becoming well-known as the
promUlgator of a small number of agricultural techniques. Most notable of these was the practice of
transforming winter into spring varieties of crop
plants by subjecting soaked seeds to low temperatures. ‘Ve rnalisation , , as the technique was called,
attracted immediate official attention and was
rapidly imposed on state farms over wide areas of
the USSR.

From 1929 to 1935 Lysenko advanced theoretical
explanations of and generalisations from his initial
techniques, as well as those of Michurin, the
revered Russian horticulturalist whose follower
Lysenko now claimed to be. Michurin’s work on
hybridisation, and on ‘vegetative crossing’ through
grafting became, together with the vernalisation
techniques, the basis for an alternative theory of
2 Z. A. Medvegev, Th~1!i_~and Fall of T. D. Lysenko, Anchor, ph.] 971
D.Joravsky, Th~_L’y~~n!l:0_~!fair, Cambridge, Mass., 1970
L.R.Graham, Scie_I)_~~_~~:PJ1i!os~Yi~_lh~_~~viet Union, London, 1971

heredity, one counterposed to the Mendelist genetics which predominated in the academic research
centres of the USSR. Central to this new notion of
‘heredity’ was the theory of the so-called ‘phasic
development’ of plants. Plant development takes
place in a series of phases, there being, proper to
each phase of development, a definite required constellation of environmental circumstances. If this
is present, then the plant develops into its next
phase. If, however, the plant is confronted with
conditions alien to its heredity requirements, it
will deviate from its normal course of development.

According to Lysenko this, together with hybridisation and other techniques, are methods of ‘destabilising’ the heredity of plants. The off -spring of
forms so treated are peculiarly malleable, and, if
produced under conditions to which adapted strains
are required for successive generations, their
heredity can be ‘fixed’ at will. The incompatibility
with the orthodox genetic ideas of the period, especially as distorted by Lysenko, is clear: ‘vegetable
hybridisation’ refutes any notion of a mysterious
heredity substance located in the sex-cells, and,
most important, the environmental induction of
d~rectional changes in organisms, which are then
transmitted to future generations, is asserted: the
‘inheritance of acquired characteristics’.

The third period in the rise of Lysenko (1935-48)
dates from the beginnings of the association between
Lysenko and 1.1. Prezent. Possibly under Prezent’ s
influence, Lysenko’s techniques and hypotheses
become organised and unified under the doctrine of
dialectical materialism. Lysenko’s Michurinist
theory of heredity is based on the practical experience
of plant and stock-breeders (as, in the favoured
version of Darwin’s theory, were the materialist
elements in Darwin), a science growing out of, and
contributing directly to practice, the agricultural
practice of the developing socialist society.

Dialectical and materialist in its philosophical
foundations, Lysenko’s Michurinist teachings constitute the emergence of a new, proletarian science,
irreconcilably opposed to the metaphysical (particulate heredity, independent of environment) and
idealist (immortality of the germ -plasm), in short,
bourgeois science of Mendelian genetics, whose
ideological solidarity with racism and imperialism
was undeniable. Once the link had been made
between this bourgeois science, with its complete
practical bankruptcy in the face of the Soviet agricultural crisis, and ‘Trotskyite and other DoubleDealers’ currently under notice of ‘liquidation’ by
Stalin, (3) the way towards the suppression of genetics and its researchers was clear. The suppression
gained momentum from 1936 until, when, in 1948,
Lysenko’s pOSitions were officially consecrated, the
few geneticists still prepared to fight for their positions at the sessions of the Lenin Academy either
recanted or submitted to give Lysenko’s report a
unanimous vote of support.

Lecourt, in attempting to reveal a ‘material base’

underlying the astonishing rise of Lysenko, and the
undiscriminating zeal with which the Soviet authorities seized upon, generalised and imposed his
recipes, challenges the claims of Medvedev and
J oravsky concerning the effectiveness of the
Lysenkoist -Michurinist techniques, as distingt
from the question of the truth or falsity of their
3 Lccollrt, p49

supposed theoretical explanation. Certainly Lecourt
is right to argue that it cannot be inferred from the
theoretical falsity of the Lysenkoist doctrine that
the techniques from which it was elaborated were
ineffective. But it is of the nature of the case that
there is little by way of direct, reliable and
checkable evidence as to the effectiveness of these
techniques in the Soviet Union during the earlier
period· of Lysenko’s rise (Lecourt concedes that
later on, caught up in the imperatives of the Stalinist pOlitical system, there was no alternative open
to Lysenko and his associates but extensive fraud
and fanciful invention of results). Lecourt’s view
that the early techniques, especially, were effective,
at least under the limited conditions of their initial
application, rests upon the groundS, first, that
Lysenko’s detractors themselves admit the effective·
ness of these techniques, but deny Lysenko’s originality, and, second, that the geneticists at the 1948
sessions do not challenge the results claimed by the
Lysenkoists, though they do not hesitate to be
scathing in other aspects of their critique of
Lysenkoism. Beyond these rather weak (though, per·
haps, the best available) arguments, Lecourt’s case
carries the rather circular source of its conviction
in the presumption that something must have
accounted for the immense enthusiasm for these
techniques and their promulgator, and ‘what else if
not their success?

But even the success of the techniques alone, if that
could be established, would not account for the haste
with which the authorities proceeded to impose the
Lysenko-Michurinist doctrine and practice after
1935. Lecourt’s answer to this questipn lies in an
analysis of the ‘economistic-technicist’ agricultural
policy of the Stalinist state. Collectivisation was
imposed forcibly as a way of increasing agricultural
production, and of exacting from the peasantry a
greater ‘tribute’ to the development of heavy industry.

Collectivisation would make possible new technological
developments and a vast expansion of agricultural
productivity. When the series of bad harvests in the
early thirties came to be analyses in this perspective
they could be seen only as the outcome of the contradiction between the socialisation of agriculture and
the continued use of agronomic theory and technology
derived from the capitalist countries. A new agronomic science and technical base, appropriate to
the new and revolutionary social relations of Soviet
agriculture, was required. In addition, the colossal
violence and repression of the collectivisation
relied, argues Lecourt, on the forthcoming technological revolution to bring about an ideological
revolution among the peasantry:

This was perhaps the ultimate hidden motor of
Lysenkoism, what gave it its strength and guaranteed its support: it had appeared at the right
moment in response to a problem and a demand
produced by a ‘technicist’ economic conception
and practice of the construction of socialism. (4)
But overdetermining the role of Lysenkoism as the
imaginary solution to the technical problems of
Soviet agriculture, was its role as the ‘ideological
cement’ of the social stratum of experts, administ·rators and technicians thrown up by the Stalinist
agricultural programme.

Most of the rest of Lecourt’s book is devoted


4 Lccollrt. p75


painstaking analysis of the main features of this
‘ideological cement’, in particular the logical articulation of Stalin’s version of ‘diamat’ with Lysenkoist biology, and its functionality in relation to the
imperatives of the Stalinist political system. It
would be impossible to convey in the short space of
a review the sophistication and !Jrilliance of
Lecourt’s analysis in these chapters (4 and 5), so a
rather crude and simplified outline must suffice.

Lecourt argues that the ‘Mendelism’ attacked by
Lysenko was a caricature. In fact, a reduction of
the work of Mendel and his successors to the work
of the 19th-century biologist August Weismann.

This reduction and critique was effected by Lysenko
in the name of Darwin. But Darwin’s work, too, is
subjected to a historical falsification. Darwin’s
work has a materialist, scientific core – the concep·
tion of evolution by selection – combined with an
idealist ideological element – the concept of a
struggle for existence – derived from Darwin’s
reading of the bourgeois ideologist Malthus. The
Weismann/Mendel/Morgan tradition in biology
elaborates the idealist, bourgeois side of Darwin’s
work, whilst the Michurinist/ Lysenkoist tradition
, inherits the true, scientific and rra terialist content
of Darwin’s work.

These systematic falsifications are, Lecourt agrees,
not independent of one another, but constitute a
theoretical web whereby finalist, teleological conceptions which Darwin’s conception of natural selection had replaced could be reintroduced into the
theory of nature and history. The very concept of
natural ‘selection’, which Darwin himself recognised to be metaphorical, is taken by Lysenko to
have a literal theoretical meaning. If organisms
can adapt to their environments, and pass this
adaptation to their offspring, and this is the mechanism of evolution, then it is Nature itself which
exercises real choices in effecting directional
organic development. Once the secret of this is
understood, then the mechanisms can be made
available for human selection, and hence voluntary
direction of organic life.

Lysenkoism as a biological doctrine is, then constituted by a finalist, te leologi cal philosophy of
nature. This finalism finds its systematic elaboration and rationalisation in the official philosophy of
the Soviet State – in dialectical materialism.

Lecourt attempts to show that Stalin’s ‘ontological’

version of diamat involves a commitment to a finalist theory of natural and human history, an evolutionism, which in its application to human history is
also ‘technicist’. It was Stalinist ‘technicism’in the
construction of socialism in agriculture which made
Lysenkoism necessary, and it was the finalist evolutionism of Stalin’s version of diamat which came
to provide the philosophical basis for Lysenkoism.

A further consonance between diamat and Lysenko’s
biology is in the notion of the interconnectedness of
nature and its processes: the idea of environmental
conditions affecting the ‘nature’ of an organism. The
Michurinist teaching is surely compatible with this
aspect of dialectics, in contrast to the geneticists’

alleged isolation of their ‘hereditary substance’

from environmental influences.

From this homogeneity it was but a short logical
step to the presentation of the new science of heredity as an application of dialectical materialism.


Further, since the latter philosophy is the worldoutlook of the proletariat, the biology which is
derived from it must be the first of a new category
of revolutionary theoretical innovations: a proletarian
science. The correlative judgement of the science of
genetics need not be spelled out. Its ‘administrative’

consequences are all too clear. From 1948, the
doctrine of the ‘two sciences’, bourgeois and proletarian, became the official doctrine of the Soviet
state, and under that banner was unleashed an
‘ideological class struggle’ against all forms ‘of
bourgeois objectivism and cosmopolitanism'(5)
which had consequences far beyond the boundaries
of academic research in genetics.

Was this, Lecourt asks, an inevitable, logicaloutcome of dialectical materialist theses? If so, why
were these conclusions drawn and these events unleashed now, in 1948, and not, say, ten years
previously, when Stalin’s Dialectical and Historical
Materialism appeared? Lecourt’s view is that the
implications of a philosophical system are not necessarily drawn from it immediately. What determines
when, and which of its possible implications are
derived from it, and given practical shape, is something external to a philosophical discourse, not its
own internal ‘dynamic’. In this case the external
determinants are the practices and requirements of
the Stalinist state system. 1948 marks the consecration of the amalgam of Lysenkoism, diamat, and the
‘theory’ of the two sciences as the Soviet state
ideological system: an ideological ensemble addressed
to a specific social stratum – the ‘intelligentsia’ which both participated in and served the power of
the authorities. The ‘ideological class struggle’ unleashed among this stratum was to mobilise it in the
interests of the domination of the state over the
masses of the people.

It is Lecourt’s provocative conclusion that this

integral relation between Lysenkoism, the Stalinist
state apparatus and the social structure it sustains
explains the persistence of Lysenkoist doctrine (and,
indeed, the revival of Lysenko’s personal fortunes)
well after Stalin’s death, as well as the official
silence of Soviet and orthodox communist philosophers
concerning the whole episode: their refusal to investigate and to analyse its causes. As Althusser puts it
in his laudatory introduction to the book: ‘The history
of the causes of Lysenkoism continues’. (6)
If some of Lecourt’s arguments seem tendentious,

if some of his explanations seem vague, schematic,
or insufficiently supported by evidence (and, to this
reader, some do), then this is readily conceded by
the author, and its reasons should be evident to the
reader. Despite these, perhaps unaVOidable, weaknesses we have a courageous, penetrating, and
serious analysis of one of the most challenging episodes in the history of socialism – challenging, that
is, to those who have committed themselves to playing whatever part they can in the future of that
history and who know that to do so they must understand and learn from its past.

Perhaps deliberately, Lecourt does not explicitly
answer the questions as to the implications of the
Lysenko disaster for present socialist practice
ID i ch I posed at the beginning of this review (in
5 Lecourt, pl14
6 Lecourt, p16

truth, he doesn’t explicitly pose them either, but a
concern with them is present in every page of the
book). To what extent was the rise of Lysenko and
the imposition of his doctrine a function of the economic (technical), ideological, and political imperatives of the Stalinist regime? Sometimes, at least
as regards the last phase, Lecourt seems to come
close to suggesting: ‘wholly so’. ‘[It] was for no
reason inside Lysenko’s theory’, we are told ‘that
it attained its universal destiny in 1948’. If one
wants to explain this whole complex process, ‘one
cannot pronounce in terms of error and truth’. (7)
It is almost as if the doctrinal content and epistemological status of Lysenkoism were irrelevant to its
appropriation by external forces to serve purposes
necessary to the Soviet state. This is a danger for
those who share Lecourt’s commitment to a ‘materialist’ (careful~ ) treatment of ideology as a reality,
inscribed in social practices and rituals. To analyse
historical processes, as Lecourt has done, with the
help of such a conception of ideology, to give due
weight to the determinants and effects of its reality,
as does Lecourt. is not necessarily to be committed
to the denial that this reality may be assessed as
true or false, nor yet that its truth or falsity may
be an essential question in the understanding of its
determinants and its effects.

To fail to recognise this would, in the case of the
present study, be to fail to pose the question of the
complicity of the orthodox Marxist philosophy,
dialectical materialism, as well as the biological
doctrines of Lysenko, in the whole tragic episode.

Not to connect Lysenkoism with the requirements of
the Soviet State and to reduce it to those requirements’ both, paradoxically, have the same effect:

they leave intact and unexamined the practice and
content of Marxist philosophy.

Fortunately Lecourt does not, in general, fall into
this error, some of his less qualified assertions
notwithstanding. The whole analytical procedure by
which Lecourt seeks to demonstrate the internal
connections of Lysenkoist biology, diamat, and
successive sets of requirements imposed by the
authorities would be irrelevant if that were his true
position. It nevertheless remains the case that, with
one qualification, Lecourt does not explicitly confront the questions: How far was Marxist philosophy
itself implicated? What remains of Marxist philosophy if we learn the lessons of Lysenkoism?, what
are the proper relations between philosophy and
science, and between these and politics in the
struggle for socialism?

The qualification concerns Lecourt’s attempt to contrast Lenin’s use of the dialectic with Stalin’s ‘ontological’ doctrine of dialectical materialism. The
argument is not entirely clear, but the point seems
to be that whereas Lenin (and Marx, and Mao – but
not always Engels~ ) used the principles of the
dialectic as so many instruments of ideological
struggle, means of opposing and dispersing dogmatism of one form or another, in Stalin dialectics
becomes transposed from its role as a guide to
thought into Nature itself, as its law and immanent
form of motion. The implication, never explicitly
stated, is that it is the ontologising of diamat that
bears the responsibility for the catastrophe o! the
7 Lecourt, p120

formation and availability of Lysenkoism for appropriation by the Soviet authorities. But this clearly
will not do. Diamat is a dialectical and materialist
philosophy. That is to say, it contains not only a
logic and epistemology but also a philosophical ontology: it is only this which marks it off as a ‘materialism’ at all. Lecourt’s apparent temptation, to
reduce diamat to a heuristic, the status of a list of
warnings for the thinker (a temptation shared, for
example, by Lewontin and Levins in their work on
Lysenko(8)) simply will not serve the purpose.

Either this heuristic has no rational foundation (it
is derived from authority, by revelation), in which
case it is no less dogmatic than its ontological
version, or it has a rational foundation. If the latter
is the case, then it is hard to see how ontological
presuppositions as to the nature of the world and the
real conditions of possibility of our knowing it can
fail to figure prominently in any such rational

Indeed, it is hard to see why Lecourt is so concerned
to demarcate Stalin’s ontological version of diamat
as the culprit, from the philosophical work of Marx,
Lenin and Mao, since he endorses the judgement
made, ten years previously, by Louis Althusser,
that ‘~arxist Philosophy … has still largely to be
constituted'(9). This goes, too, presumably, for
Marx, Lenin, Mao, and others as yet unmentionable,
even by Le court? It is clear, at any rate, that the
whole of the’ classical’ practice of Marxist philosophy has to be called into question – not just that
of Stalin. And an importantly relevant fact about that
tradition is that it takes as one of its central points
of departure, in Engels, a teleological evolutionary
biology – that of Haeckel. The essenfial features of
Lysenkoism as a biological doctrine, as distinct
from a set of techniques, is already present in the
tradition of diamat as constituted in Engels’ later
writings. There, too, in essence, is Lysenko’s
‘falsification’ of Darwinism, the replacement of
natural selection by the inheritance of acquired
characteristics, and evolution as an essentially
directional progress from lowerto higher forms (10).

But even this may not turn out to be the fundamental
question. At several points in his text Lecourt
recognises that liberal denunciations of two specific
‘external’ interventions have a point, but in each
case he hastens on, as if to suggest that the point ,
has only a conditional validity, or that it isn’t the
essential point. The ‘external’ interventions at issue
are: (1) the interventions of a specific philosophy,
dialectical materialism, as an instrument which
settles a debate in a specific scientific domain, the
theory of heredity, and (2) the intervention of a
specific political apparatus (Stalinist State) to
‘settle’ the disputes of biologists and philosophers
alike. To what extent is it legitimate for philosophy
(any philosophy) to declare itself arbiter on scientific questions (any scientific questions)? Lecourt
~eems to reject the legitimacy of this intervention
in the Lysenko episode, but in doing so he makes it
himself. ‘Finalism and science are incompatible’:

this is the philosophical premise of Lecourt’s
critique of Lysenkoism.

8 R. Lewontin and R. Lewin. ‘The Problem of Lvsenkoism’. in H. & S. Rose
(eds). The RadicaH~;ltionof~cience. London; 1976
9 Cited in Lecourt. pI 04
10 For a more extended ar~ument to this effed. see T. Benton. ‘Natural
Science and Cultural Stru~~le’, in J. Mepham & D. H. Ruben (eds), Issues
in Marxis.t_~hilos~, Vol. 11


And what of the legitimacy of the imposition of political requirements, not just in the funding and institutionalisation of scientific research, but in the v’ery
theoretical categories of scientific discourse itself?

As Lecourt himself recognises, but fails to analyse,
the recurring theme of Lysenko and his followers,
their proud boast, and their key argument against
the Mendelists, is the relation of their work to the
requirements of practice. The requirement that
nature must be transformed finds its illusory satisfaction in a theory which inscribes the satisfaction
of that requirement in organic nature itself (nature
can be transformed in accordance with human will).

Mendelism, which recognised mechanisms of heredity whose accessibility to human techniques of
directional transformation seemed negligible in the
relevant future, was claracterised as a doctrine of
fatalist passivity in the face of external nature.

Seen in this light, it is the anthropomorphic reduction
of the natural to the human practised by Lysenko,
not the scientific realism of the geneticists, which
most deserves the epithet ‘idealism’. It is an idealism born of the intervention of external requirements into the very constituting categories of a
‘scientific’ discourse. Such is generally the way
when .science is denied its conceptual and methodological autonomy from politics. No doubt many comrades will see in this the ‘theoreticism’ which Bob
Young, among others, wishes to see rejected among
the responses to the Lysenko episode (11). Against

this I would assert, though I have not the space to
argue for it, that only theoretical discourse constituted independently of external exigencies can adequately serve practical needs: science is not wishful
thinking, and wishful thinking never serves practice

This too, though, is a philosophical intervention
into scientific terrain. It stands against other such
philosophical interventions. Whilst philosophy
certainly stands in need of the ultimate credentials
it used to claim in relation to the special sciences,
it must also be conceded that science is by no
means always ‘alright as it is’. Perhaps the ‘liberalism’ of Mao’s ‘Let a hundred Flowers Bloom’,
banal though it is, is the only answer we have.

What at any rate should be clear is that although
there can be no certainty of a true outcome when
discourse confronts discourse, there can be certainty that when discourse confronts the inquisition,
the bonfire, the censor or the mental asylum, truth
will not be the outcome. It should not be supposed,
however, by those for whom the question of Stalinism is simply a matter of ethical abhorrence, that
in the construction of socialism under the conditions
faced by the Soviet people such a road would have
been easy to follow: while the Soviet people starved
and were slaughtered in war, the geneticists
studied – fruit flies. A demagogue’s paradise~
Ted Benton

11 Bob Young, op cit., pp93 -94

Richard E. Olsen, Karl Marx, Boston, Twayne,
1978, $10.95 hc
This book has the admirable aim of providing a
sympathetic interpretation of Marx’s work while
avoiding jumpting to premature conclusions or forcing Marx into a partisan framework. Although disagreement with such diverse figures as Marcuse and
Althusser is registered, the book is introductory
rather than innovatory. Each of the seven chapters
attempts to deal with isolatable general aspects of
Marx’s theories. They are arranged to facilitate a
progression from the more accessible to the more
complex of these aspects.

After a largefy biographical first chapter Olsen
moves on to Marx’s view of history. Drawing mainly
from the Grundrisse he argues that Marx sees hist0ry as a movement immanent in societies but does
not exclude the role of accident. This mixture of
immanent laws and ‘accidents’ or countervailing
factors is a main theme in the remaining chapters.

The attempt in this interpretation to make Marx
acceptable also weakens the challenge offered by
Marx’s theories.

The key chapter, on Marx’s methodology and dialectic, is unfortunately uneven. Olsen approaches
some of the main issues, for instance, the differing

interpretations of the concept of labour in Marx and
Begel, but fails to develop their Significance. A
discussion of the starting-points of analysis and
presentation in Marx’s work, especially in the context of the critique of political economy, would have
been helpful and would have brought out some of the
difficulties in Olsen’s own method of presentation.

This chapter is also marked by Olsen’s interpretation of Marx’s work as a ‘social science’ which is
only externally related to human purposiveness. In
Marx’s work, writes Olsen, ‘We simply have a
social world scientifically understood; purpose
enters into the picture only in terms of application
of this understanding.’

Nevertheless there are a number of useful introductions to some contentious issues; the problem of
periodisation in Marx’s view of history, the continuity of the concept of alienation, the transformation
of values into prices, the immiseration of the
proletariat, and the falling rate of profit. Anyone
already acquainted with Marx will find nothing new
in this book, though much that would have benefited
from a consideration of Rosdolsky’s work. It may,
however, serve as an introduction to Marx for anyone wishing to start with some of the more hotly
debated issues.

Pete Stirk

L. Laudan, Progress and its Problems, London,
Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1977, £ 5.95 hb

turn of the century; it has evolved and has been
modified over time.

This is an interesting and important book which
deserves to be widely read and discussed. It involves a sustained polemical assault on those philosophers who believe that rational progress in science
is achieved by accepting or rejecting theories by
appeals to the facts. According to Laudan it is not
factual adequacy. but problem -solving effectiveness
which is the prime motor of scientific growth.

The unit of appraisal in Laudan’ s scheme is the RT.

The strategy of appraisal is a mini -max one: to
progress, maximize the empirical problem-solving
adequacy of an RT, and minimize the conceptual and
anomalous problems with which it is confronted.

Anomalous problems are not simply unsolved problems. An RT can be confronted with a host of unsolved problems but these do little to impugn its
credentials unless or until they are solved by its
competitors. Thereupon they become anomalies for
the RT in question. An anomalous problem for a
particular RT is one which it has not solved, but
which has been solved by (one of) its competitors.

Laudan’s thesis is developed in part 1 of his book,
and applied to the history and sociology of ideas in
part 2. He makes many valuable points in the latter
section, particularly about rationality and the sociology of knowledge. However, in this review I shall
concentrate on describing and briefly criticising the
argument in part 1.

Problems are the focus of Laudan’ s philosophy, and
!:le identifies two broad classes of them: the empirical and the conceptual. An example of the former
would be why the leaves of trees are green .. a wellknown fact which only became a problem at a specific stage of scientific development. Conceptual
problems are more fundamental, and involve issues
like the possibility of there being action -at -a -distance,
whether or not matter is to be identified with space,
and if the universe reveals evidence of design by a
supreme intelligence.

Laudan rightly points out that philosophers have paid
far too little attention to the role of problems in
science. What is more, their empiricist leanings
have led them virtually to ignore conceptual problems. Yet if anything these have played a more
important role in the history of science than empirical problems. According to Laudan, if there is
continuity in the historical record it is at the level
of the latter. Discontinuities in conceptual arliculation and development are quite prevalent, however.

Moreover, whereas empirical inadequacy is routinely tolerated by the scientific community, perceived conceptual deficiency is not, and can readily
lead to outright theory rejection.

Reflecting this emphasis on conceptual change in
science, Laudan takes care to distingllish what he
calls research traditions (RTs) from scientific
theories. Marxism and the mechanical philosophy
are typical RTs. They specify what the world is
made of, how those entities interact, and what
methods should be used to study them. RTs sponsor
theories which are, however, separable from them.

The same theory can be accommodated within more
than one tradition and theories are far more easily
jettisoned than the global frameworks which underpin them.

Laudan’s concept of an RT obviously owes much to
Kuhn’s paradigms and to Lakatos’ research programmes. However, contra-Kuhn he believes that
its fundamentals are continually challenged. He also
argues that the hard core is softer than Lakatos
suggested, and that it undergoes historical deve.lopment. Typically, the ‘essence’ of contemporary
Marxism, says Laudan, is not what it was at the

That granted, the assessment of progress in
Laudan’s philosophy is essentially context -dependent
and temporal. It involves an evaluation of how a
problem -solving entity (an RT) has performed over
time, and by comparison with its rivals. His concept
of rationality is parasitic on this concept of progress:

it is rational to accept those RTs which are efficient
problem-solvers. The usual procedure of defining
progress in terms of rationality is thus inverted.

conventionally progress depends on reason, which
dispels the mists of prejudice and mystification.

Close attention to the facts allegedly ensures the
objectivity and rationality of our beliefs, and enables
us to draw nearer to the truth, i. e. to progress.

Laudan insists, however, that we have no way of
knowing whether or not science is true or even probable, or whether it is drawing closer to the truth.

The link between reason and truth is thus snapped.

Progress is now characterised pragmatically as
increasing problem -solving effectiveness, and
reason is defined in terms of it.

One of Laudan’s chief concerns is to develop a concept of reason which is sufficiently rich to assess as
rational (at least) certain key episodes in the history
of science. Typically, he suggests that by about
1800 it was rational to accept Newtonian mechanics
in preference to Aristotelian mechanics. Starting
from this ‘pre -analytic intuition’ we need to explore
the cluster of considerations which Newtonians advanced in favour of their views at that time. It will
emerge that their reasons for being Newtonians
embraced both empirical and conceptual considerations. ‘Internalist’ history focuses only on the
former. However, in England in the late 17th
century, Newtonians believed their theory had
solved empirical problems and that it was methodologically sound, as well as being an antidote to
atheism and to ‘left-wing’ political views. Methodologically speaking, such considerations must also
be built into our assessment of why it was rational
to adopt Newtonianism by about 1800. Laudan’ s
approach specifically makes allowance for this.

We are on treacherous ground here. Laudan proposes that, as a working hypothesis, we should
assume that the supporters of Newtonianism in 1800
were behaving rationally. We are, at least to begin
with, to take their reasons as good reasons for
accepting that world view. But were they? Was it
rational in or before 1800 to espouse a physical


theory partly because it fitted in with one’s ‘conservative’ religious and political views? This surely
needs to be argued for, not assumed. And usually
considerations of truth and justice are brought to
bear in such arguments, and form an integral part
of an assessment of the rationality or otherwise of
people’s behaviour. Laudan specifically eschews
this option: he stresses that determinations of truth
and falsity are irrelevant to the acceptability or the
persuitability (in their embryonic phase) of theories
and RTs. Having thus jettisoned truth (and, presumably, justice), he lands up espousing an essentially
technocratic concept of rationality as problemsolving effectiveness. This can, of course, be used
to justify the most heinous crimes.

Although I am most unhappy with Laudan’s proposal,
it would I think be churlish to end on so negative a
note. Laudan is struggling against an arrogant tradition in Western thought which takes our science and
the culture which has fostered it to be at the pinnacle
of human achievement. It is essential that this view
be fougJ.?t against, and one way of dOing so}s to point
out that there can be different conceptions of rationality from our own. However, no sooner is this done
than one tends to slide almost inexorably into (what
I take to be) the pitfalls of relativism. If I was
clearer in my own mind how to handle the issue of
relativism I dare say I could write a more trenchant
critique of Laudan’s position.

John Krige

Carol and Barry Smart (eds.), Women, Sexuality
and Social Control, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1978,
121pp, £2.95
Eileen M. Byrne, Women and Education, Tavistock,
1978, 285pp, £3.95
Both of these books discuss issues of vital importance to feminist theory, but are predominantly valuable for their presentation of specific examples of
how women’s subordination is ideologically reinforced.

This empirical approach is not, however, accompan·
ied by a serious discussion of the more interesting
theoretical questions that are raised. This is particularly unfortunate in the case of the Smarts’ collection of essays, where, for example (as the title
indicates), the editors fall pray to the amorphous
functionalist notion of ‘social control’, which seems
to imply an apparently agentless and mechanical
reproduction of power structures.

Two of the articles in this edition present a potentially useful approach to the means by which women
are forced into domestic labour. The Smarts distinguish between public and private spheres in claiming
that women’s oppression is maintained largely at the
private level, because, since the industrial revolution, domestic labour has appeared to lack the
surplus-value characteristic of more public forms
of commodity production. While admitting that
women are equally exploited in public life (by legislation, at work), they emph~size the specifically
covert forms of oppression which tend to ‘privatise’

and hence disguise the nature of domination, and
which make the victims themselves feel that their
problems lie in their own personal lives.

Tove Stang Dahl and Annika Snare’s ‘The Coercion
of Privacy’ tries to take this discussion beyond the
largely economistic boundaries which have prevailed
in the last decade of socialist feminist theory. They
argue that domestic labour is not compared with
‘free-market’ labour because the former has historically become ‘invisible’. The reproduction of labour
power occurs in a quasi -feudal framework, because
mutual rights and duties are presumed, i. e. work
for support and protection. The plight of the last
serfs is maintained by the ideology of the privatised
home as the ultimate refuge of non -competitive
virtues. The home is the man’s castle but the
woman’s prison, because for her such ‘privacy’ is
not a respite from the capitalist world but a means

of furtively denying the value of her labour.

Mary Mclntosh attacks the underlying assumption
often prevailing in empirical studies on male /
female differences, that men ‘demand’ sex and
women ‘supply’ it. She discusses three approaches
to sexual behaviour, but, in the middle of a plea for
cultural relativism in such explanations, she rather
arbitrarily opts for a Freudian perspective. She
thus fails to explain the relation of cultural differences to Oedipal development, and cannot account
for variations in the experience and expression of
sexuality in societies which are not patriarchal or
based on the nuclear family.

Julia and Herman Schwendinger’s account of their
own work on rape is interesting reading because it
tries to base theoretical analyses upon active participation in the Women’s Movement, using a Marxian
concept of praxis. The other articles in the book are
straightforward empirical studies, e. g. on rape
reports in the press, on working -class teenagers’

perception of sexuality etc, and are useful in showing the role of ideology in various specific fields.

Byrne’s book, at least, does not lack theoretical
clarity; the problem is rather that its assumptions
are those of 19th-century liberalism. She discusses
only the practical organisation of curricula and
claims that the problem of discriminatory education
would be solved if women and men received the
same training for all occupations. This requires
that ‘the leadership of education’ be ‘convinced’ that
‘male/female’ does not equal ‘vocational/ domestic’,
and that positive discrimination be introduced
through government intervention. Her book may be
useful in reminding teachers of their daily sexism,
but for those who seek to go beyond merely promoting women from the industrial reserve army to the
front line it has little to commend itself.

Christine Lattek

Richard Totman, The Social Causes of Illness,
Souvenir, 1979, £5.95 hc £4.25 pb
The concept of ‘mental illness’ has long been regarded
as problematic, and critics of orthodox psychiatry,
such as Szasz and Laing, have argued that the
‘medical’ model of what is known as mental illness
is both theoretically inadequate and socially oppressive.

‘Physical illness’, however, has generally been
regarded as relatively unproblematic, and it is this
which Richard Totman wants to question. He argues
that the deep-rooted idea that physical illness is
something which has purely physical causes, and can
be treated solely by methods such as surgery and
medication, is not a satisfactory one, and is, in a
sense, a modern aberration. (Theorists such as
Freud, who have suggested that bodily illnesses or
symptoms may have other than organic causes, have
been out of the mainstream of modern thought about
bodily illness.) It is this ‘medical’ model of illness,
Totman argues, which more than anything else has
been responsible for the depersonalization and alienation often involved in modern medical practice; for
the almost esoteric cult of the ‘expert’ in the medical
profession; and for the tendency to rely exclusiveJ.y
on surgical or physico-chemical treatments or

The idea that ‘stress’ may make people ill has
become a popular commonplace; but, Totman argues:

it is inadequate, and in any case it is rarely accorded more than lip-service in the medical profession.

He says that while in some cases ‘physical’ factors,
such as the presence of a virus in an epidemic, may
bear the predominant role in causing illness, it is
nevertheless possible to identify predispositions to
illness, including things like cancer, which are not
based on physical factors as normally understood,
but on the life situation of the person who is at risk.

Human beings, he says, live in a framework of
social meanings; of ‘structures’ of knowledge, and
sets of ‘rules’ which are the basis for selecting
actions. Within these rules and structures, we are
able to act purposefully, and receive confirmation
from those around us. He also uses cognitive dissonance theory to suggest that we I,ave a need and a

tendency to justify or rationalise whatever we do in
accordance with our predominant rules and structures. We have a need for purposeful action within an
acceptable framework, and for consistency within
that framework. Thus, he argues:

A person’s resistance to disease remains high
provided that his attitudes, beliefs and values
are sufficiently compromising, and providing
that he is continually involved.

A person is at risk, however, if his life situation
changes in such a way that he is disoriented, unable
to pursue accustomed goals, with the old ‘rules’ no
longer applicable; and he is more likely to be at risk
if his attitudes are rigid, or his previous goals too
narrowly limited to a single framework of action.

Thus, in certain circumstances, bereavement,
retirement, change of job or life style etc may put
a person at risk.

Totman recognizes that it is not possible to prove a
thesis of this sort by any sort of conclusive empirical test, but the evidence that he presents for the
relation between illness and life situation is cumulatively impressive, and the critique of the depersonalization of medicine very welcome. His book stops
short of asking, however, whether there may not be
certain types of ‘life situation’ built into the very
nature of current industrial capitalism, which tend
to put people at risk. Although Totman’s view of
human needs incorporates both the need for commitment and involvement and the need for flexibility,
adjustment and compromise, I think that he tends to
stress the latter rather more than the ·former. It
may well be, however, that the possibilities of
serious and purposeful involvement are chronically
restricted for many people, given the current nature
of much industrial work, for example, or attitudes
towards ‘housework’ and the role of women. And it
may be that flexibility and adjustment have limits
which are not due merely to personal rigidity or inadequacy. While it is obviously true that one needs
to help individuals in their current Situation, and
they cannot wait for social change, it is a pity if talk
of adjustment, compromise and flexibility blur the
more general sorts of social question that need

Jean Grimshaw

B. Goodwin, Social Science and Utopia, Harvester,
1978, £11. 50 hc
This is a book with an important theme trying to get
out. Its aim is to explore the structure of the ideal
societies proposed by the 19th -century utopians.

Centrally, Goodwin tackles Godwin, Owen, Fourier
and Saint -Simon, and tries to identify their common
starting-points and their subsequent divergences.

This is a good project, since so many studies have
viewed these thinkers only historically, and then in
a narrow sense of their being pre cursors of us
wonderful people who came later.

The sad thing, to my mind, is that in the end

Barbara Goodwin is limited in this important project
by the very tradition she has sought to escape. I’ll
try to illustrate what I mean. Goodwin traces the
structure of their thought via their conception of the
evils to be removed, via questions of agency, and so
on. She examines their fundamental assumptions
about human nature, the derived methods of control
and cohesion, and the central values to be realised.

These are all the right questions to ask, in my

But she answers them in an oddly thin way, such
that interesting conclusions are completely missed.

Take, for example, her discussion of reason (pp4854). She notes that the utopians draw on a tradition

in which’ reason is triumphant’. After a brief description of the way reason is the ultimate test for all
these thinkers, she throws up against them a distinc~
tion between logical and critical rationality, and
charges them with conflating the two. She then
counterposes to them what she calls a social scientific (Durkheimian) view that ‘reason bears an essent.ially socialising character’. Quite apart from my
doubts about this source and validity of that distinction’ and my suspicions about what the Durkheimian
view of reason implies, it does seem to me that her
‘rush to judgement’ has caused her to miss such a

In two main ways. First, she isn’t historical enough.

The concept of reason with which Godwin and Owen
operated derived from the classic empiricist tradition’ within which there is a problematic relation
between reason and the passions. In Hume, for
example, it was crucial to his theory of knowledge
and society (expressed, for example, in his essay
‘Of The Original Contract’) that ‘reason is, and
ought only to be, the slave of the passions’. In
Bentham ‘s optimisti c utilitarianism, reason is the
capacity that resolves an otherwise impossible
tension between pain and pleasure determining what
we do, and determining what we ought to do. A use
of the historical context of this sort could have
revealed so much about botp the theoretical and the
practical characters of their concept of reason.

Instead, Goodwin blames them for conflating teaching and preaching in their idea of reason. But she
doesn’t tell us how or why they did it.

Secondly, she isn’t conceptual enough. She has a
tendency to take on trust, without argument, certain current trends of thought, and counterpose them
to the utopians. Thus the already mentioned separation of teaching and preaching. But since she is
eager, rightly, to show the practical consequences
of the utopians’ central concepts, she ought to be
willing at least to raise the question of the implications of her own counterposed views.

She doesn’t. In fact the book is marred by the use of
organising concepts which are conceptually and politically naive. Thus: ‘Malleability is a second order
human characteristic, vacuous in itself’ (p60). Tell
that to B. F. Skinner. Or: ‘Philosophical psychology
identifies need and greed as two constituents of
human nature which set limits to the form which an
ideal society can take.’ (p70). Just whose philosophical psychology is that?

More systematically, this weakness reveals itself
in her final judgement that either a view of society
is to derived from a theory of human nature, or
‘humane social values’ (p195) will have to mediate
between the individual and social forms. But it is
only on certain very specific theories of human
nature that derivations can be based. For good or
bad, a construction of an utopian project from the
writings of the early Marx would not produce a
derived blueprint. But the theory of human nature
would still be essential to the shaping of the new

What I’m arguing is that Goodwin has set herself a
really interesting task, but denied herself the tools
to complete it. She discusses, for example, the
centrality of ‘work’ in their accounts of human

nature, and dares to ask the big question: ‘whether
the utopians’ designation of work as the central
social activity represents a capitulation to the
incipient capitalist work ethic’ (p118). But she
doesn’t even attempt to answer it.

There are at least two ways in which this might have
been done. First, one must consider the evidence of
the influence of these writers; but Goodwin, fairly
enough, is trying not to repeat the work done on the
radical uses of the utopians. Or, one could examine
the place of the concept of ‘work’ in their systematic
structure. Given the nature of her book, I had hoped
for this. But Goodwin explicitly disavows this possibility; she argues at the end that the use of a notion
of human nature ‘detracts from scientificity’ since
all one can do is look for consistency, and then
examine the basic assumptions.

I don’t agree at all. I think the Significance of the
utopians’ use of ‘work’ is that, in the best of them,
it is made an end-in-itself, and therefore becomes
a measure against which society can be judged.

(On the same grounds, John Locke must be considered historically more Significant than Thomas
Hobbes. Hobbes sees work as a consequence of the
problems of men’s selfishness and insecurity.

Locke poses work as man’s essential property. It’s
true that thereby Locke makes himself far more
internally inconsistent as a theorist, but those very
inconsistencies are revealing of the real political
problems of liberalism. Therefore, it is not just a
question of consistency. )
But quite apart from my personal.reaction that one
can go much further, I am left with the embarras c~
sing question: if using ‘human nature’ as a data-base
is so objectionable, why write the book? Especially
since, she concludes:

The now controversial principle of basing social
theory on ideas of human nature, with the resulting intrusion of subjectivism, will not itself be
challenged, as that was their chosen method, and
a common one at the time. (p186)
This reveals, I think, all the problems. Despite her
disclaimers, she has treated the utopians primarily
as ‘precursors to our better achievements’. On her
premises, they are not very interesting precursors.

And they are judged to have failed by a conception of
science that is itself not opened to question. (See

Her book contains a ‘book’ that is fascinating, and
some of the material she draws together begins the
job to be done, despite her method. Regularly,
though, she seems to me to fall at the fence. A final
example of it, that may indeed be the most important: without doubt, a prime point of conta ct between
the structure of the utopians’ theories and political
practice is in the ‘problem of the educators’. Who
embodies ‘reason triumphant’, and how do they
intervene? Given the fact that Marx’s famous quotation was in large measure directed at Owen, it has
some significance. But Goodwin, although mentioning it in several places, never explores the real
impact of this problem either for their theories or
for their historical significance.

What a pity.

Martin Barker

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