Published in Socialist Worker Review issue 113, October 1988, pp26-27.
Transcribed by Jørn Andersen for Marxisme Online, 3 december 2001.
Study history at school and you will soon learn that it isn't classes but individuals that shape society. On top of this the real motives and achievements of the individual are usually obscured in favour of some myth.
The treatment handed out to Newton by the historians is one of the best examples of this. Published in 1687, his Principia is one of the greatest works in the history of science. It contains a theory of mechanics that became the model of scientific method for two hundred years to come. Nevertheless, you could be forgiven for believing that it only took an apple falling on his head to inspire Newton to achieve this.
On the other hand there is the theory that the Principia was really God's idea rather than Newton's.
In either case we are left guessing why it is precisely in Newton's time that God, or a Granny Smith, should suddenly become the basis for a revolutionary theory of physics. Of course the real answer can only be had by looking at what was happening at the time Newton lived and worked, the middle and late 17th century.
Essentially these were the years of the decline of feudalism and the rise of capitalism. They witnessed the climax of a long period of growth in trade and exchange and the political ascendancy of the new, urban merchant class that had pioneered this growth. Reflecting these political and economic changes this was also a time of tremendous intellectual turmoil.
Crucially this meant the breakdown of the scholastic system which had dominated the intellectual world under feudalism. Scholasticism was overthrown by the likes of Francis Bacon, John Locke and the supporters of the scientific societies that appeared at the time the French Royal Academy, Italian Academia del Cimente and the British Royal Society (of which Newton was a member).
Where feudalism had rested on rigid class divisions that decided one's place in society once and for all, the scholastics thought that the same applied to the whole of nature. Each thing has its place in the scheme of things, so that if it does something that is because it is in its nature to do so.
While scholasticism relied on the interpretation and reinterpretation of Aristotle and the classics, the new experimentalists rejected authority in favour of independent observation. The mottos of their societies were aimed against the scholastics "nullia in verba" (nothing through words) and "provare et reprovare" (test and test again).
The main factor underlying these revolutionary changes was the technical progress required by mercantilism to keep up the pace of its expansion. This was especially important in the key areas of shipping (the basis for international trade), ballistics (for conquering new territory and then fighting off rivals) and mining (important both to the military, who needed copper for guns, and to produce gold and silver for currency).
The technical problems created by these demands are at the root of the scientific advances, and the scientific progress underpins the general upturn in intellectual life.
The main problems were those of mechanics. The need to cut new canals and mining galleries meant developing machines for lifting heavy loads. The ventilation of mines involves problems of aerostatics. Raising water from the mines and stabilising ever bigger ships meant solving problems to do with the properties of fluids.
The military needed to improve both the cannon's firing mechanism and the accuracy of its aim, in other words, problems of gas compression, air resistance, and the free fall of bodies.
The importance of his science lies in the way that it draws together the partial insights of his predecessors to create a universal theory of mechanics. It is "universal" because it applies as much to ship building or the humblest block and tackle as it does to the movement of the planets. At the time this represented an enormous breakthrough, enabling scientists to understand and investigate all sorts of phenomena that had been mysteries before then. Newtonian mechanics rapidly became the basis for most research in physics, and even the model of what it is to do science.
Nevertheless, the system in the Principia is still deeply flawed. In the same way that Newton himself was a man of his time, his theory reflects the period it was produced in. It has both a materialistic core based on the developing technology and an idealistic framework to fill the gaps imposed by the limits of that development.
While medieval scientists believed that God's constant intervention is responsible for making everything happen, Newton argued that, once it is moving, matter has a dynamic of its own that obeys natural laws. God is no longer needed to keep things going. This is the materialist core of his work.
However, though matter can move he believed that it didn't have to do so, so that we could imagine it at absolute rest. Motion isn't a spontaneous feature of things but is imposed from the outside. While this is better than the scholastic's picture it is still idealistic since it needs God to get matter moving in the first place. In fact, Newton used precisely this argument against people who said his work was atheistic.
This compromise between materialism and idealism reflects the politics of Newton's class. Just as they supported a constitutional monarchy rather than a republic, he describes a world which for all its materialism is still ruled by God, even if he now rules only in accordance with the rules Newton discovered.
Newton's idealism was made possible by the low level of development of technology, which was limited to the extent that it depended on the simple transfer of energy from one place to the next.
It is only with the appearance of the steam engine that you have a technology based not on the transfer of energy but on its tranformation from one form into another (heat into motion). And it is only when you understand the law of the conservation of energy throughout these transformations that you can have a materialism which treats motion as a necessary part of matter, inseparable from it.
This consistent materialism gets rid of God and the Spirit once and for all. It sees nature as matter in constant motion, arranging itself on ever higher levels of development mechanical, electrical, chemical, biological and even social.
Placing Newton in a historical context helps us to understand both the greatness and limitations of his work. Just as it was the development of capitalism that made his achievement possible, its further development means going beyond it. It is a society's need to improve its technology that lies behind all scientific progress. As Engels put it, "If society has a technical requirement, then this will advance science more than ten universities put together."
That doesn't mean that science simply reflects changes in the rest of society. Newtonian physics was not an irrelevant side-effect of the technology of the late 17th century. Once established it was used to develop technology further.
In other words, to understand Newton's work as a product of its time isn't to deny its impact in shaping history. Nor does it deny his genius. To say that his system reflects the state of technology doesn't at all mean that it was easy to create.
Finally, it is only once we can control nature to satisfy our needs that we can talk about building socialism. Capitalism has fulfilled this precondition by developing science to an extent undreamt of even by the leaders of the scientific revolution. This is because the drive to develop science is built right into the nature of capitalism, which is forced to keep raising the productivity of labour by improving technology.
The last major problem was raised by the need to determine the position of ships at sea so that they could sail across open water rather than make long and costly voyages following the coast. This meant pinpointing the position of the moon and stars, ie problems of celestial mechanics.
The great scientific figures from the 16th century onwards made their names through their work trying to solve these problems.
Newton was no exception. His work is very much a result of trying to get to grips with the problems posed by the development of the society he lived in.
Contrary to the image of him as living with his head in the clouds, too concerned with the world of ideas to notice events around him, Newton played an active part in contemporary affairs.
A son of the same rural middle class that produced Cromwell, he supported the Whig compromise with the aristocracy, even serving as Whig MP for Cambridge during the second revolution. Later he worked as Warden of the Royal Mint where he perfected the coining process and studied the values of gold and silver around Europe, important for regulating exchange.
In his scientific work he was inspired more by technology than any love of abstract thought for its own sake. He investigated the latest machines and techniques, including steering and navigation systems, the construction of forts, glass polishing, military tactics, anti-corrosion measures, metal stamping and so on.
Even his dabblings with alchemy were less to do with mysticism than with the need to find a new source of copper for the military at a time when natural supplies were scarce.
Just as his science was rooted more in contemporary technology than timeless speculation, it built on the work of other men rather than leaping fully formed from his brain. He recognised this himself. In fact it was Newton who said, "If I saw further than others it was because I stood on the shoulders of giants."
Therefore we can say that, as the founder of modern science, Newton played a part in inspiring and shaping one of the forces that makes socialism possible and that is a much better reason for remembering him than the story about the apple.
This article is one out of a short series on Science and socialists published in Socialist Worker Review issues 112 to 116 (September 1988 to January 1989):
Paul McGarr: Star wars (Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo)
Andy Wilson: The core of Newton
Mike Simons: Darwin's new dawn
Duncan Blackie: It's all relative (Einstein)
Malcolm Povey: The science factory (science and scientists in society)
Last updated 3.12.01