Anarchism and Science

By Errico Malatesta (1926)

Entry 9734


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(1853 - 1932)

Italian, Anarchist Intellectual, Anti-Capitalist, and Anti-Fascist

: There have almost certainly been better anarchist writers, more skilled anarchist organizers, anarchists who have sacrificed more for their beliefs. Perhaps though, Malatesta is celebrated because he combined all of these so well, exemplifying thought expressed in deed... (From: Cunningham Bio.)
• "...the State is incapable of good. In the field of international as well as of individual relations it can only combat aggression by making itself the aggressor; it can only hinder crime by organizing and committing still greater crime." (From: "Pro-Government Anarchists," by Errico Malatesta, ....)
• "...the oppressed are always in a state of legitimate self-defense, and have always the right to attack the oppressors." (From: "Anarchists Have Forgotten Their Principles," by E....)
• "Our task then is to make, and to help others make, the revolution by taking advantage of every opportunity and all available forces: advancing the revolution as much as possible in its constructive as well as destructive role, and always remaining opposed to the formation of any government, either ignoring it or combating it to the limits of our capacities." (From: "The Anarchist Revolution," by Errico Malatesta.)

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Anarchism and Science

Science is a weapon which can be used for good or bad ends; but science ignores completely the idea of good and evil. We are therefore anarchists not because science tells us to be but because, among other reasons, we want everybody to be in a position to enjoy the advantages and pleasures which science procures.[67]

In science, theories are always hypothetical and provisional and are a convenient method for grouping and linking known facts, as well as a useful instrument for research, for the discovery and interpretation of new facts; but they are not the truth. In life—I mean social life—theories are for some people only the scientific guise in which they clothe their desires and their wills. The scientism (I am not saying science) which was prevalent in the second half of the 19th century produced that tendency to consider as scientific truth (namely, natural laws and therefore necessary and predestined) that which was no more than the concept, corresponding to different interests and to the various aspirations that each individual created for himself, of justice, progress, etc. “Scientific socialism,” as well as “scientific anarchism,” were derived from this concept and, though professed by the most eminent among us, have always seemed to me grotesque concepts, a mixing up of things and concepts which are by their very nature quite distinct.

I may be right or wrong, but in any case I am pleased that I avoided the fashion of the period, and was therefore free of dogmatism and of any pretension of possessing the absolute “social truth.”[68]

I do not believe in the infallibility of Science, neither in its ability to explain everything nor in its mission of regulating the conduct of Man, just as I do not believe in the infallibility of the Pope, in revealed Morality and the divine origins of the Holy Scriptures.

I only believe those things which can be proved; but I know full well that proofs are relative and can be, and are in fact, continually superseded and canceled out by other proved facts; and therefore I believe that doubt should be the mental approach of all who aspire to get ever closer to the truth, or at least to that much of truth that it is possible to establish….

To the will to believe, which cannot be other than the desire to invalidate one’s own reason, I oppose the will to know, which leaves the immense field of research and discovery open to us. As I have already stated, I admit only that which can be proved in a way that satisfies my reason—and I admit it only provisionally, relatively, always in the expectation of new truths which are more true than those so far discovered. No faith then, in the religious sense of the word.

I sometimes say that faith is needed, or that in the struggle for the good, men of sure faith are needed. And there is even an anarchist newspaper which, presumably inspired by this need, bears the title Fede! (Faith). But in these cases the word is used in the sense of determination, great hopes, and has nothing in common with the blind belief in things which appear to be either incomprehensible or absurd.

But how, then, do I reconcile this incredulity in religion, and this, what I would call systematic doubt in the definitive results of science, with a moral rule and the determined will and hope of achieving my ideal of freedom, justice and human brotherhood? The fact is that I do not introduce science where science does not belong. The function of science is to discover and to state the fact and the conditions under which fact invariably is produced and is repeated; that is, to state that which is and which inevitably must be, and not that which men desire and want.

Science stops where inevitability ends and freedom begins. It serves man because it prevents him from getting lost in fanciful conceptions, and also supplies him with the means to increase the time available for the exercise of free will: a capacity of willing which distinguishes men, and perhaps to a different degree all animals, from inert matter and unconscious forces.

And it is in this ability to exercise willpower that one must seek for the sources of morality and the rules of behavior.[69]

I protest against the charge of dogmatism, because, though I am unflinching and definite as to what I want, I am always doubtful about what I know, and I think that, in spite of all the efforts made to understand and explain the Universe, we have so far achieved neither certainty nor even the probability of certainty—and I wonder whether human intelligence will ever get there.

On the other hand to be told that I have a scientific mind does not displease me at all; I would be glad to deserve the term; for the scientific mind is one which seeks the truth by using positive, rational and experimental methods; which never cherishes illusions of having found the absolute Truth and is content with painstakingly approaching it, discovering partial truths, which it considers always as provisional and revisable. In my opinion, the scientist is he who examines facts and draws from them logical conclusions whatever they may be, as opposed to those who form a system for themselves and then seek confirmation in facts, and in so doing unconsciously select the facts which fit into their system and overlook the others; and perhaps even force and distort the facts to squeeze them into the framework of their concepts. The scientist makes use of hypotheses to work on, that is to say he makes certain assumptions which serve him as a guide and as a spur in his research, but he is not the victim of his imagination, nor does he allow familiarity with his assumptions to be hardened into a demonstrated truth, raising to a law, with arbitrary induction, every individual fact which serves his thesis.

The scientism which I reject and which, provoked and encouraged by the enthusiasm which followed the really marvelous discoveries made at that time in the fields of physical-chemistry and of natural history, dominated minds in the second half of the last century, is the belief that science is everything and is capable of everything; it is the acceptance as definitive truths, as dogmas, every partial discovery; it is the confusion of Science with Morals; of Force, in the mechanical sense of the word, with Thought; of natural Law with Will. Scientism logically leads to fatalism, that is, to the denial of free will and of freedom.[70]

In his attempt to fix the “place of Anarchism in Modern Science” Kropotkin finds that “Anarchism is a concept of the universe based on the mechanical interpretation of the phenomena which embrace all nature, not excluding the life of society.”

This is philosophy, more or less acceptable, but it is certainly neither science nor Anarchism.

Science is the collection and systematization of what we know or believe we know: it states the fact and seeks to discover the law of the fact, that is the conditions in which the fact inevitably occurs and repeats itself. It satisfies certain intellectual needs and is at the same time a most valid instrument of power. While, on the one hand, it indicates the limits of human power over natural laws, on the other it adds to the effective freedom of Man by giving him the means to turn these laws to his advantage. Science does not discriminate between men, and serves for good or evil, to liberate as well as to oppress.

Philosophy can be a hypothetical explanation of what is known, or an attempt to guess what is not known. It poses questions which, so far at least, go beyond the competence of science, and suggests answers which, in the present state of our knowledge, cannot be subjected to proof. Thus different philosophers offer divergent, and contradictory solutions. When philosophy is not simply a play on words and an illusionist’s trick, it can be a spur and a guide to science, but it is not science.

Anarchy instead, is a human aspiration, which is not founded on any real or imagined natural necessity, but which can be achieved through the exercise of the human will. It takes advantage of the means that science offers to Man in his struggle against nature and between contrasting wills; it can profit from advances in philosophic thought when they serve to teach men to develop their reasoning powers and distinguish more clearly between reality and fantasy; but one leaves oneself open to ridicule by trying to confuse Anarchy with science or any given philosophical system. But let us see if “the mechanical conception of the universe” really explains known facts.

We will then see if it can at least be reconciled, and logically co-exist with anarchism or with any aspiration towards a state of things different from that which exists today.

The fundamental principle of mechanics is the conservation of energy: nothing is created and nothing can be destroyed.

A body cannot give up heat to another without cooling by a similar amount; one form of energy cannot be transformed into another (transference of heat, heat into electric current or vice versa, etc.) without that which is acquired in one way being lost by the other. Indeed, in all physical nature, the very common fact is verified that if someone has ten coppers and spends five, he is left with exactly five, neither more nor less.

Instead, if one has an idea it can be communicated to a million people without losing anything, and the more the idea is propagated the more it gains in strength and effectiveness. A teacher transmits to others what he knows, and does not, as a result become less knowledgeable; on the contrary in teaching others he learns new things and enriches his own mind. If a lead pellet released by a murderous hand cuts short the life of a man of genius, science may be able to explain what happens to all the material elements, (the physical energy of the man of genius when he was killed) and demonstrate that nothing remains of his physical characteristics once his corpse has decomposed, but that at the same time nothing has been lost materially because every atom of that corpse can be traced with all its energy in other combinations. But the ideas which that genius gave to the world, his inventions, remain and grow and can become a potent force; whereas, on the other hand, those ideas which were still developing in him and could have come to fruition, had he not been killed, are lost and cannot ever be found again.

Can mechanics explain this power, this specific quality of the products of the mind?

Please, do not ask me to explain in another way the fact which mechanics does not manage to explain.

I am not a philosopher; but one does not need to be a philosopher in order to see certain problems which more or less torment all thinking minds. And the fact of not knowing how to solve a problem does not oblige one to accept unconvincing solutions … the more so since the solutions the philosophers offer are so numerous as well as mutually contradictory.

And now let us see if “mechanicism” can be reconciled with anarchism.

In the mechanical concept (as, after all, in the theistic concept) everything is determined, inevitable, nothing can be other than what it is. Indeed if nothing is created and nothing is destroyed, if matter and energy (whatever they may be) are fixed quantities, subjected to mechanical laws, all phenomena are inalterably related.

Kropotkin says: Since man is a part of nature, since his personal and social life is also a phenomenon of nature—in the same way as in the growth of a flower, or in the evolution of life in the community of ants and bees—there is no reason why in passing from the flower to Man and from a colony of beavers to a human city, we should abandon the system which had hitherto served us so well, to seek another in the arsenal of metaphysics. And already at the end of the 18th century the great mathematician Laplace had said, “Given the forces animating nature and the respective situations of the beings that compose it, a sufficiently broad human intelligence would be able to know the past and the future as well as the present.”

This is the purely mechanical concept; all that has been had to be, all that will be, must be perforce, inevitably, in every minute detail of time, place, and degree.

In such a concept, what meaning can the words “will, freedom, responsibility” have? And of what use would education, propaganda, revolt be? One can no more transform the predestined course of human affairs than one can change the course of the stars. What then?

What has Anarchy to do with this?[71]

Our desk is cluttered with manuscripts from good comrades who want to give “a scientific basis” to anarchism … and whose confused writings are accompanied by notes apologizing for not being able to do better because … they have not had the opportunity to study.

But why then bother with the things one doesn’t know about instead of doing good propaganda, based on needs and on human aspirations?

It is certainly not necessary to be a doctor to be a good and effective anarchist—indeed sometimes it is a disadvantage. But when it comes to talking about science perhaps it would not be a bad idea to know something about the subject!

And let no one accuse us, as one comrade did recently, of holding science in scant regard. On the contrary, we know what a beautiful, great, powerful and useful thing is science; we know how much it serves the emancipation of thought and the triumph of man in the struggle against adverse forces of nature, and for these reasons wish we all had the possibility of obtaining a general idea of Science as well as probing more deeply at least one of its innumerable branches.

In our program it says not only “bread for all” but also “science for all.” But it seems to us that to discuss science usefully it is first necessary to have clear ideas as to its scope and function. Science, like bread is not a free gift of Nature. It must be won by effort, and we struggle to create the conditions whereby all are in a position to make that effort.[72]

The aim of scientific research is to study nature, to discover the facts and the “laws” that govern it, that is the conditions in which the fact invariably occurs and invariably recurs. A science is established when it can foretell what will happen, whether it can or not explain why; if the prediction does not materialize, it means that there was error and it is needful to proceed further and do more thorough research. Chance, free-will, the exception, are concepts alien to science, which seeks that which is predestined, that which cannot be otherwise, that which is determined. That determination which interlinks in time and space all natural phenomena, and which it is the task of science to investigate and discover, does it embrace all that happens in the Universe, including psychic and social phenomena? The mechanists say it does, and think that everything is subjected to the same mechanical laws, everything is predetermined by physico-chemical antecedents: from the course of the stars, and the opening of a flower, to the heart throb of a lover and the unfolding of human history. And I concur willingly that the system appears grandiose and beautiful, and if it could be demonstrated to be true, would completely satisfy the spirit. But then, in spite of all the pseudo-logical efforts of the determinists to reconcile the System with life and moral sentiment, there just is no room, either conditioned or unconditioned, for will and for freedom. Our lives and the life of human society would all be predestined and foreseeable, ab eterno and for eternity, in each and every minute detail just as is every mechanical fact, and our will would be simply an illusion as in the case of the stone Spinoza talks about which when it falls is conscious of descent and believes that it falls because it wants to.

If this is admitted, which mechanists, cannot but admit without contradicting themselves, it becomes an absurdity to want to regulate one’s own life, to want to educate oneself and others, to want to change, in one way or another, social organization. All this bustle and activity to secure a better future, then, becomes the sterile fruit of an illusion, and could not last once one had discovered that it was an illusion. It is true that illusion and absurdity would be determined products of the mechanical functioning of the brain, and as such would be part of the system. But, once again, we ask what place is left for will and for freedom, for the effectiveness of human action on life and on the future of mankind? If Man is to have confidence, or at least the possibility of useful action, one must admit a creative force, a first cause, or first causes, independent of the physical world and the mechanical laws, and this force is what is called will.

To admit the existence of such a force, means of course, denying the general application of the principle of causality, and our logic is in difficulty. But is this not always the case when we try to seek the origins of things? We do not know what will is; but do we perhaps know what matter, or energy are? We know the facts, but not the reason for them, and however much we try we always arrive at an effect without a cause, to a first cause—and if to explain facts we need first causes to be ever present and ever active, we will accept their existence as a necessary, or at least convenient, hypothesis.

Viewed in this light, the function of science is to discover that which is determined (natural laws) and establish the limits where inevitability ends and freedom begins; and its great usefulness consists in freeing Man from the illusion of believing that he can do anything he likes and can always extend the radius of his effective freedom. So long as the forces which subject all bodies to the laws of gravitation were not known, Man might have thought it possible to fly at will, but remained on the ground; when science discovered the conditions required to float and to move in the atmosphere Man really acquired the freedom to fly.

In conclusion, all I am maintaining is that the existence of wills capable of producing new effects, independent of mechanical laws of nature, is a necessary presupposition for those who believe in the possibility of changing society.[73]

[67] Volontà, December 27, 1913

[68] Umanità Nova, April 27, 1922

[69] Pensiero e Volontà, September 15, 1924

[70] Pensiero e Volontà, November 1, 1924

[71] Pensiero e Volontà, July 1, 1925

[72] Pensiero e Volontà, November 16, 1925

[73] Pensiero e Volontà, February 1, 1926

(Source: Text from Life and Ideas: The Anarchist Writings of Errico Malatesta, 2015 Edition, edited and translated by Vernon Richards, published by PM Press -- please support the publisher!)

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