Book Review: Ideas for Beginners (Marx for Beginners, Freud for Beginners, and Einstein for Beginners)

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Book Review: Ideas for Beginners (Marx for Beginners, Freud for Beginners, and Einstein for Beginners)

by Paul Thagard

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 13, No. 3, May-June 1981, p. 30 — 32

Paul Thagard teaches philosophy at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. He is a member of the Ann Arbor chapter of SftP. 

Marx for Beginners, by Rius, 1976. 

Freud For Beginners, by Richard Appignanensi and Oscar Zarate, 1979. 

Einstein for Beginners, by Joseph Schwartz and Michael McGuiness, 1979. 

Pantheon, New York, N.Y. 

In our society, science and philosophy are generally the province of an elite corps of intellectuals. Brandishing their Ph.D.’s and publications, scientists and other intellectuals often disdain public attempts to scrutinize such aspects of the practice of science as cancer research and recombinant DNA work. From the perspective of the scientific elite, the methods, ideas, and results of scientific work are beyond the ken of the public; hence assessment of the work of scientists ought to be left to the scientific experts themselves. 

This view would be justified if scientific ideas were in fact wholly inaccessible to the public and their representatives. Some knowledge of science is necessary if people are to evaluate the merits and social problems of scientific work. Otherwise, we end up with the sensationalist carping of the National Enquirer brand. However, what follows from this is not that scrutiny of science must be left solely to the experts, but that there is a serious social need for popular scientific education. Political decisions concerning scientific and technological matters cannot be both democratic and rational unless scientific knowledge is widespread. 

The problem goes deeper. Serious intellectual discussion presupposes a stock of fundamental ideas. The works of Marx, Mill, Freud, and other thinkers provide a conceptual background to contemporary debates. These debates often seem on the surface to surround concrete issues such as the ERA or the genetic basis of IQ, but inevitably a host of philosophical and scientific issues lurk in the background. Again, serious popular political discussion requires knowledge. 

In this context, the series of books inaugurated by Rius’ Marx for Beginners should be very welcome. Using a kind of comic book format, these books attempt to give a lively but accurate outline of the central ideas of influential thinkers. In addition to the works on Marx, Einstein, and Freud reviewed here, the “Beginners” series includes introductions to Mao, Lenin, and Trotsky, an anti-nuclear handbook, and, from Pathfinder Press, Rius’ Cuba for Beginners. Their ample illustrations and comic irreverence provide a pleasant contrast to the usual academic treatments of these subjects. Accordingly, one would hope to find in the series a valuable contribution to the obvious need for popular scientific and political education. 

However, these popularizations face inevitable dangers. Simplification is essential, but it may come at the price of loss of accuracy and intelligibility. Lightness of treatment is attractive but risks reducing the difficult subjects treated to triviality. A gloss on complex matters may engender an illusion of understanding which is politically debilitating as complete ignorance. Most seriously, concentration on exposition of ideas rather than criticism can lead to complacent acceptance rather than the sort of critical evaluation essential to political issues such as the place of science in society. Marx, Freud, and Einstein for Beginners all fall prey to some of these dangers. 

Rius’ Marx for Beginners was originally published in Spanish in Mexico, and later the first English version was produced by the Writers and Readers Publishing Cooperative in Britain. (That edition is republished by Pantheon, which explains why the workers are pictured making such utterances as “blimey” and “ell”.) Rius set out to provide a “digest” of Marx’s ideas, philosophical as well as economic. The attempt is noble, but the work has serious defects which limit its educational and political value. 

Suppose you had a friend who was curious about basic socialist ideas, perhaps in relation to the role of science in society. What would be the result of giving your friend Rius to read? He or she would spend an hour or two enjoying the lively illustrations and picking up an initial acquaintance with abstract terms like “dialectics”, “proletariat”, and “surplus value”. Ideally, your friend would then be stimulated to read more of Marx and think carefully about the applicability of Marx’s ideas to contemporary society. More likely, assuming your friend found Marx’s ideas somewhat appealing, he or she might start to acquire a point of view commonly called “orthodox” Marxism. This view, codified in the writings of Engels, sees Marxism as the culmination of philosophy, transforming it into a study of political economy in the interest of the working class. The resulting theory of historical materialism describes the inevitability of the supersession of capitalism by socialism and communism. 

This is obviously not the place to attempt a critique of orthodox Marxism. I raise the issue to indicate that the Marx of Rius’ book is very much the Marx of Engels’ Socialism: Utopian and Scientific and Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy. Overwhelmed by the horrible task of summarizing Marx’s diverse and difficult writings, Rius has resorted to giving us a digest of Engels’ digest. Although Engels was Marx’s close friend and longtime collaborator, it is debatable whether the view of Marx’s thought promulgated by Engels is the most useful today. 

Still, perhaps Rius is not to be faulted for his orthodoxy, since having a synopsis of orthodox Marxism is valuable too. But consider the effect that Rius’ book might have on your inquisitive, socially concerned friend. Rius’ orthodoxy comes through not only in the strictness of the historical materialist line, but in the tone of the survey. Marxism is presented as a solid, worked out, and historically confirmed theory of history. Your friend ought to be greatly impressed by the explanatory power and philosophical richness of Marx’s basic ideas, but not at the cost of abandoning critical reflection about social theory. While Rius’ exposition encourages one to look critically at capitalist societies, it discourages looking critically at societies which proclaim themselves to be inspired by Marxist ideas. Rius gives no hint of any possibility of need for revision or even development of these basic ideas. 

This is most striking in Rius’ account of philosophy. He spends twenty pages romping through the history of philosophy, from Xenophanes to Hegel. Marx then arrives as the philosopher who, by trying to change the world rather than merely interpret it, clears away the metaphysical rubbish of two thousand years. The magic words “historical materialism” solve all the old confused problems. What actually happened was that Marx, who passed from youthful philosophical essays to the overwhelming task of developing his theory of capital, never found time to write a philosophical treatise. Engels took up the task to some extent, but all we have from him are polemics such as Anti-Duhring and rough notes such as Dialectics of Nature. Dialectical materialism has largely existed as Engels’ sketches and Soviet textbooks derived from them. My objection to Rius is not so much that he presents Marxist philosophy as the supersession of all previous philosophy, but that he falls into the stultifying intellectual attitude that the basic philosophical ideas have all been worked out. Marx’s economic ideas, on surplus value and the development of capitalism, are treated with similar reverence. Even a comic book on Marx should hint that it would be amazing if Marx got everything right. Part of education at every level should be the encouragement of critical evaluation of theories and authorities. Rius’ dogmatism does even more than his orthodoxy to flaw Marx for Beginners as an educational and political tool. You would be doing your friend a disfavor to present Marxism as a creed rather than as a set of powerful but revisable scientific and philosophical theories. 

Freud for Beginners and Einstein for Beginners are very different from Rius’ book, since their subject matter is not explicitly political. Both give intelligible and entertaining accounts of the leading ideas of their subjects. Both are highly inventive in using amusing illustrations and humorous asides to lead the beginners through difficult concepts, from the Oedipus complex through the theory of relativity. From a political point of view, the interest of these books lies in the general importance of the ideas of Freud and Einstein for intellectual background, and also in the attempt to locate their thought in its social and political context. Freud is placed in antisemitic Vienna and Einstein’s work is related to the rise of electrical industries and the later development of the atomic bomb. Such placements are useful in reminding the reader that ideas do not develop in isolation from their surroundings. But the books do not develop the social connections in a substantial way, so they will likely prove disappointing to anyone who wants to use them as a basis for discussion of the role of science in society. 

Freud for Beginners, like Marx, regrettably lacks a critical attitude. The authors seem to expect that the reader will absorb the content in a big chunk, not pausing for questions, let alone criticisms. Such an attitude is almost justified in the case of Einstein for Beginners, since relativity theory has passed difficult tests and remains virtually unchallenged. But the much more open-ended and contentious nature of the ideas of Marx and Freud obligates the authors to include at least a few hints to stimulate the reader to go from asking “Do I understand it?” to “Is it true?” 

I hope that my harping will not be taken as implying a general judgement on the idea of introducing complex ideas in a popular format. On the contrary, I would like to see further books in the series, perhaps “Genetic Engineering for Beginners” (well, a different title could be found), or “Darwin for Beginners”. The latter would be a wonderful opportunity to make some of the connections between science and society which the books on Freud and Einstein only allude to. Darwin’s notion of natural selection was inspired in part by the political ideas of Malthus, and subsequently had an enormous influence on capitalist ideology, still surviving in the more sophisticated form of sociobiology. I would hope that such a book would also surpass the volumes on Marx and Freud by encouraging the reader to go beyond beguiling pictures and clear expositions to consider the ideas reflectively and critically. Only then can the popular education which the Beginners series promises be viewed as helping to meet the real political need for greater public access to science and philosophy. 

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