Roots of Radicalism

Biological Marxism: the impossible synthesis?

A RECENT edition of the British sociological periodical New Society (October 1980) ran a feature article by a certain Peter Fuller on the "biological Marxism" of the Italian Communist theorist Sebastiano Timpanaro.

New Society is the 'on-going' Bible of Marxist social workers and others of that ilk. The mass revelation of Timpanaro's views in such circles ought to explode like a bombshell, but that assumes that Marxists are open-minded which they most certainly are not.

Although Timpanaro still claims to be a Marxist, the faltering steps which he has taken spell death for orthodox Marxism. As devastating to the Marxist cause as his views are, however, they may yet come to nought. Like all the great messianic religions which have devolved from Judaism, Marxism is based on blind assumptions maintained with unreasoning fervour. Marxists are afraid to debate with their opponents: they block their ears and attack.

Marxism is an ideological house of cards built up on the basis of a sterile scholasticism without reference to external reality. In no way is it scientific.

Fuller commences his review by outlining the character of prevailing Marxist orthodoxy in Western Europe, but his description is applicable to the orientation of Marxism as a whole:

"Men are described as if they were mere effects, or shadows, of a structure outside themselves. Any emphasis on human agency is spurned as "humanism". Men and women are treated as if they only came into being with ideology. Their biological and physical existence is ignored. Inevitably, ethics and aesthetics are dissolved into ideology, too ... The validity of empirical observation of the objective world, of nature, is denied."

Timpanaro's publishers, New Left Books, proclaim that his work "will be one of the central focuses of cultural and intellectual controversy within and beyond Marxism in the next decade." (Our emphasis.)

Timpanaro exposes the central contradiction of Marxist theory which claims to be pre-eminently materialist, but closes its eyes to physical reality. Marx is silent about heredity and the other aspects of the natural environment.

Timpanaro points out "the very long time which supervened before life appeared on earth, and between the origin of life and the origin of man." He posits an acknowledgement of "the physical level over the biological level, and of the biological level over the socio-economic and cultural level . . ."

This view is more akin to Racial-Nationalism than Marxism. Racial-Nationalists recognize the process of natural selection in response to the environment influencing biology over a long period, and of resulting biological characteristics determining 'culture'. Marxists recognize merely a colourless, restricted and absolute socio-economic determinism.

The Judaeo-Christian Millennarianism which is the root of Marxist utopianism promised a life without death. Marxism cannot. Even if Communism were achieved, man would still be subject to illness, old age and death. The recognition of these elementary facts of life put the claims of Marxist utopianism into a more realistic perspective.

With regard to aesthetics, Marxists have tried to "explain" works of art as projections of social and ideological attitudes, but have failed to account for our appreciation of works of art whose social and ideological determinants we are unaware of. Timpanaro gives a biological explanation:

"Man, as a biological being, has remained essentially unchanged from the beginnings of civilization to the present; and those sentiments and representations which are closest to the biological facts of human existence have changed little."

Timpanaro's flirtation with Sociobiology opens what is for Marxists a Pandora's Box, at the bottom of which is a recognition of individual and racial variation and inequality, hierarchy, territoriality and ethnocentricism.

Every concession to biology is a negation of Marxism, and there must come a point when such 'Marxism' ceases to be Marxist. While Timpanaro goes "within and beyond Marxism" he nevertheless still clings to the description of being a "Marxist". This desire reflects a deep attachment to the 'Messiah', and is but an indication of the irrational religious nature of Marxism to which, in spite of everything, Timpanaro still adheres.

The attempt by Timpanaro to reconcile Marxism with biological reality and the development of our understanding of it in the form of the new interdisciplinary science of Sociobiology, parallels the attempts made by Christian theologians to reject the 'literal truth' of such Biblical fairy tales as the Creation, and to come to terms with modern science.

Timpanaro may be ignored, but if he is not then time alone will tell whether his form of revisionism will give Marxism a new lease of life, or whether it is such a big concession to reality that its pursuit must ultimately undermine the entire edifice of Marxist belief.