Marxism and Maoism and Modern Challenges


This is the classic iconic picture of Mao Tse-Tung hanging over the main gateway to the Forbidden City, the giant palace complex of the last two or three dynasties of Emperors of China. It is said that the Central Committee of the Communist Party planned to remove this picture at one point, but was overwhelmed by popular protest from the rural “red state” areas of China. Of course, the Forbidden City is forbidden no longer. Mao’s “little red book” can still be found all over the country, especially in the red states.



 Zhongnanhai: some people call this the “new Forbidden City.” This is a picture of the main entrance to that complex. On Google Earth, you can see this complex around the southern body of water just west of the Forbidden City. (I apologize for the unintended expression on my face here. We were quite exhausted after hours of wandering in the heat through the Forbidden City, just before this picture was taken. I did not mean to imitate one of those guardian dragons…)



Marxism and Maoism are not religions; however, like Christianity, Buddhism and Islam, they are very powerful streams of thought within the noosphere of humanity. Because these streams are especially important to current challenges in China and in Russia, I will discuss only the most critical fundamentals for now, before commenting on those challenges.




Marxism is a theory of how human history works, developed by Marx and by Engels, within the great German tradition of trying to understand how history works as a dynamical system. In effect, the goal was to try to develop a useful scientific model of how human society changes over time, grounded in empirical data (the evidence of history). The theory has four main elements:


  1. A commitment to classical materialism. (As defined here.)


  1. A commitment to economic determinism. Economic determinism claims that governments, laws, human rights, cultures and philosophies are all part of the superstructure of human society. They are the outcome of the changes that really determine everything else: changes in the modes of production, the underlying technology of production. There is an analogy here to a certain Hindu theory, in which everything which happens here on earth is determined as a byproduct of struggles in the astral plane or the mental plane – but here it is the plane of economic production which drives everything. There is also an analogy to ideas like the book Sociobiology (by E.O. Wilson) which describes how ecological niches shape the social behavior of organisms which evolve in those niches.


  1. A detailed analysis enumerating specific modes of production – most especially the “feudalistic” mode of production and the “capitalist” mode of production – and analyzing how the theory fits the data of history. Marx’s book Das Kapital represents many years of serious work trying to understand these patterns of history.


  1. An advocacy part, which argues that socialism and Communism (in that chronological order) are the wave of the future, because of ongoing changes in the economic substructure – and argues that people with foresight should ease, support and facilitate the inevitable future changes for the better.


Years later, many Americans argued that “capitalism” was the invention of Karl Marx, and that we should not feel obligated to live up to his stereotypes. The American Revolution was fought for freedom, which isn’t exactly the same thing as capitalism. Marx himself would disagree, but we do have a right to think separately about these two different variables in order to arrive at a more objective, scientific understanding.


Leninism or Marxist-Leninism is the modified version of Marxism which developed when Lenin took over Russia during World War I (in part because the Germans thought this would be a clever way to weaken their Russian enemy during that war.). Among the key elements of Leninism were:


    1. A purge of all Marxists who did not line up behind Lenin’s faction, the Bolsheviks.


    1. A large-scale organized effort to teach the detailed theories of Marx, as modified by Lenin.


    1. Some effort to continue the analytical study of history, in Marxist directions, but not the kind of unfettered scientific study which Marx himself attempted. In order to maintain control, the Bolsheviks essentially imitated the Orthodox Church in supporting “thought police” dedicated to eliminating “heresy” or “revisionism.”


    1. A commitment to centralized control by people properly trained in Marxism-Leninism, under the banner of “dictatorship of the proletariat” – until and unless fundamental economic changes occur which make possible a more advanced superstructure, the Communist mode of production.


    1. A concept of “agitation’ versus “propaganda.” The idea was that propaganda is the true teaching, leading to the inner circle of true historical understanding. “Agitation” is simplified (often oversimplified) communication aimed at generating progress by influencing the actions of those who are not intellectual or intelligent enough to understand the true theory. (Again, of course, there are obvious analogies to many churches.)


One should never underestimate the intellectual strength of the historic Marxist intelligentsia – or of the Jesuits. Nor should one underestimate the ability of either group to tie their minds up in knots, as they allow political biases to block their natural human abilities to think more scientifically about the bigger picture.


Maoism is not the same as Marxism and Leninism.

            Mao himself was a unique individual. He was far more charismatic than Marx or Lenin. He had a deep spiritual connection with the people of China. He had a kind of inner sensitivity to currents larger than China – but this was not always helpful to China.

            Mao’s little red book is much easier to read than Das Kapital, but it lingers less in my memory. Mainly I recall how it calls for a union of peasants and workers, to eliminate foreign domination, both political and economic. It calls for demolishing the “four olds,” the old cultural traditions (like superstitions and the elaborate, submissive rules of Confucius) which were used in the past by homegrown Chinese overlords in the past to confuse, control and oppress most of the people.

            Mao certainly called himself a Communist. He allied himself with Stalin in the 1940’s in order to overthrow the Western-backed government of the time, called the KuoMinTang. Yet the Chinese Communists began as one wing of Sun Yat Sen’s earlier Nationalist movement. Many of Mao’s ideas flowed from that source (and from his personal experience) more than it did from Marx’s theories.


Intellectual Connections and Later Developments Before The Present


            If Mao had been a Soviet government official when he wrote his little red book, he probably would have been shot or sent to Siberia, for revisionism. Soviet agitation often glorified the unified efforts of workers and peasants, but Marxist theory clearly stated that peasants represent a more primitive (feudalistic) mode of production and are not a reliable source of progress even so far as capitalism, let alone the higher states of socialism or Communism. While paying lip service to the peasants, the Russian Marxists felt it was necessary to convert the peasants into true working class people, by converting farms into a kind of factory – the collective farm. (Many years later, Secretary Khrushchev of the Soviet Union noticed how giant farm combines in the US actually achieved this goal far more than collective farms ever did. He visited these farm combines in the US with very great interest.)

            Based on this ideology, core Soviets felt they simply could not trust Mao or his ideology. Many felt it was nothing but a path back to feudalism under another name. Stalin’s support of Mao was very spotty at crucial times. Yet at the same time, the Soviets felt they needed to make the best of the uncomfortable situation. They certainly wanted to encourage Marxist education and Soviet organization in China as much as they could. They wanted to exploit their alliance with China as much as possible to help them in the struggle against capitalism, which they viewed as their main enemy. Historic tensions between Russians and Chinese contributed to their planning as well.

            By the 1960’s, many of the original Russian predictions were becoming more and more plausible in China. Local “party officials” began to demonstrate more and more of the characteristics of feudal landlords, particularly in the rural areas. As in classical feudalism, the power of the central government was far less than Westerners imagined. Much of the public emphasis on central authority was a desperate effort to counter a powerful centrifugal reality. Mao’s Great Cultural Revolution, like Barry Goldwater’s Conservative Movement in the US, was an attempt to overthrow the trends back towards a world of masters and slaves which he saw all around him. Mao was just as afraid of a new class of technocrats emerging in the cities as he was by feudalism and corruption in the Communist Party itself. Nevertheless – as I lived through these experiences, I saw first hand a strong connection between Mao and Goldwater in the noosphere, just as I see a connection between religious fundamentalists in the US and in the Middle East today.

            Some of the Russian Marxists would have laughed at the use of the word “corruption” by Mao and by modern Americans. “Corruption,” they would say, runs contrary to Mao’s theories and George Washington’s theories about how to create a better government, but it does not contradict their theories. “Corruption,” they would say, is the natural tendency of the dominant modes of production to exercise control over the superstructures of government. In China, corruption merely expressed the inevitable tendency towards feudalistic government, in a nation resting on a feudalistic economic foundation. In the US, it enforces the rule of a dwindling handful of ever larger corporations.

            Many of Marx’s ideas about “modes of production” were somewhat fuzzy. For example, what is it concretely about certain kind of underlying economic technology which limit the freedom and prosperity of the majority of the people? At a certain point in the 1960’s, the idea emerged that scarcity rent is the economic basis of debilitating politics and culture. The Soviet space program acquired a special status as a key part of the pathway to a new kind of economy, advancing high technology as a way to overcome the scarcity of resources and production of the past.


Recent Developments


            In 1990, of course, things changed in Russia in a massive way. The old alliance between Russian Marxists and the Russian military broke down – with the military winning, hands down. Recently, however, efforts by international oil companies to manipulate Russian politics, and the power of homegrown oligarchs and even criminals, led to a massive counterreaction at all levels in Russia. Ironically, Russia itself is now facing a problem similar to what China once faced: how is it possible to build a more progressive or prosperous state, built upon an increasing rent-oriented (feudalistic) economy? Renationalizing the oil industry was Putin’s immediate answer – but what happens when the State itself simply becomes one big oil company?

            China has been moving along a very different path. Thanks to massive economic growth, China is no longer living entirely on a feudalistic base of production. Looking at the earthy reality… we can easily see THREE different modes of production existing on a massive scale, side by side, and making money by trading with each other. There is still a massive feudal system in China, which still threatens the future of the entire country. There is also a very massive Capitalist system – manufacturing based on massive numbers of low-wage workers, large enough to be the world’s main center for many important manufactured goods. There is also a growing and substantial information economy, based in great part on high-quality scientists who may have been trained in the US but are setting up stronger and stronger university and research systems within China itself.

            Crudely speaking (but more precise than traditional Marxist theory), we may describe these three modes of production as follows.

The feudalistic mode is basically an economy which is dominated by rent. This could be the scarcity rent which comes from the control of land. It could the scarcity rent which comes from the control of highly limited natural resources like oil. According to free market economic theory, the rise in world oil prices has been a very good thing, because it is rational and because it provides an incentive for better technologies – in the economic sphere. But in the political sphere, it has been strengthening the hands of feudalistic forces, which are very threatening to progress, to human rights and to the future. Now that PetroChina is the second largest corporation in the world, with tremendous power both in China and outside of China, China’s ability to stay on a progressive path is very much endangered – but they have a decade or two to try to weaken those negative forces before they are overwhelmed by them. (But is it too late for Russia? I do not know. Then again, I also worry whether it is too late for the human species as a whole. Russia faces a unique mix of risks and opportunities, but a certain need for discretion as well. I may eventually say more on the Christianity page.)  

For the moment, the new Chinese manufacturing economy is the most visible force. This traditional capitalist production is based on a more benevolent kind of scarcity. It still requires great care in pricing scarce goods, which fit the classic model of “private goods” in Western theories of efficient market equilibrium. Better understanding of Western economic equilibrium theory will be essential to competent management of that sector of the society. In October 2007, the central committee of China, meeting in Zhongnanhai, overrode the will of President Hu by appointing a new heir apparent from Shanghai – the center of the new Chinese capitalism. Russian Marxists would view this as a clear expression of the new dominant economic modes of production in China – but it clearly demonstrates more and more hope that the government of China might succeed in its plan to reinvigorate the struggle to eliminate feudalism in the countryside, by restoring universal education and health care and family planning.

But what about the more advanced modes of production? No nation on earth has fully adapted to the new information economy. Information does not fit the classic model of a scarce private good. It can be reproduced and disseminated at almost no cost. The expression “next year on the internet” became very common a few years ago in China. The information economy and scientific creativity will be essential to the changes in the technology of production necessary to continued economic progress in China. Yet it is unclear how China will relate to these changes. On the one hand, there is a very strong respect for the scientific approach, announced by President Hu himself. China has benefited hugely from its existing information economy, and has much to gain in the future. And yet, it is only natural that the old political forces based on a command economy feel threatened by the information economy. Scientific productivity does not require a growth in the use of scarce resources, but it has very important requirements of its own. Above all, it requires full support for the scientific method, including a full and open “free market of ideas” embracing all of the society, not just an esoteric elite.

In China, as in the US, a major question is as follows: will society really support the kinds of breakthroughs needed to change the underlying technology of production, in a way which permits a sustainable and prosperous future for the entire world? Or will vested interests get in the way there as here (and even more in Russia)?

            Likewise – though Mao was quite right to complain about historic religions as the “opiate of the masses,” one should not simply ignore qi and the noosphere, any more than one should ignore money itself. The more the world moves towards an information economy, the more important it will become to come to terms with the noosphere in a progressive but open manner. China should remember the traumas of its past – but should learn to revisit its historic memories, both good and bad, and assimilate them into a new more unified worldview, encompassing more and more of the larger realities.

            Of course, my web page on “What is Mind” addresses the foundations of what an information network really does, at a fundamental level. It does have relevance to economic organization… particularly in the management of electric power grids, for now.


Assorted Commentaries


1. A Curious Coincidence Leading to Lenin’s Thoughts


The day after I posted the web page above – as usual, some additional information came to me by “coincidence.”

            Marx is only one of many major, important thinkers in the great German tradition. The psychoanalyst Jung and the philosopher Emmanuel Kant also have essential points to make, to round out our understanding of what is going on. Jung, for example, offers a kind of practical understanding of many aspects of the noosphere and how it works. This includes the concept of “synchronicity,” the occurrence of “coincidences” which, taken together, would seem quite improbable. Classical materialists would argue that these must be just a kind of illusion – but many of us disagree. Many years ago, when I first independently developed the idea of “Bayesian networks” (in 1969, in Ann Arbor), I quickly learned that: (1) they were very useful in disentangling some complicated things going on in politics at that time; and (2) they did not really fit my own personal life. I soon realized how completely my own personal life deviates from what one would expect from the laws of probability and classical materialism. (The laws of probability are fine; it is the classical materialism that fails.) And so, I have learned to expect and work with  incessant “coincidences” in my everyday life. Like the following example.

            After I posted the web page above on Sunday, I turned to a completely different task on Monday: setting up review panels for a major new funding initiative at the National Science Foundation. This initiative has no link at all to Marxism or Maoism, as you can see from its web page. It addresses the question “What is Mind?” from a highly scientific viewpoint. One of the related topics is vision – image processing by brains and machines. As I searched my mind to try to find suitable reviewers, I remembered a researcher I had spoken to in 1995, at a major German government conference in Munich on artificial intelligence, neural networks and biological approaches. In order to learn about his recent work, and see whether he might fit with our needs, I did a google on: Hartmann image symmetry Kant. (At least, that’s my best memory of what I googled on.) Why Kant? Because Kant’s ideas about “how we know things” turn out to be crucial to the practical task of building computer systems which can learn to handle great complexity, as required in image processing.

            From this google, I did learn about Hartmann’s recent work, but on the first click on the google results I found myself staring at something rather amazing and unexpected: a detailed technical paper by V.I. Lenin. Those of you who really want to learn about Lenin’s thoughts should click on that paper, and on the web site which hosts it. By the way, this specific paper addresses the issue of materialism in physics. Ironically, I would probably agree with what Lenin says in this paper, even though most physicists today do not. The “phenomenalism” he argues against is now the mainstream approach credited to Heisenberg, which I disagree with. (For details, see my physics page.) I have of course searched for leading physicists who might be willing to follow up on the reality-based approach, and I have probed many physics centers in Russia; however, I have yet to locate a serious physicist in Russia today who would seriously consider the possibility that Lenin was right on this point. I hope this will change.

            As a side comment – I do not interpret this coincidence as a signal from God that we should all study Lenin in more detail (or even that I should). That’s not how it works. Rather, the noosphere is normally very accommodating to us (since it is us, essentially). If we ask a question, with the right kind of feeling, then answers or relevant information or reflections of the question will naturally come to us. As with google, it is then up to us to decide whether and how they fit. Clearly, the asking of questions is an essential part of this process.

            By the way, when I repeated that same google tonight at home, to locate the paper by Lenin – it didn’t work at all this time. It took several minutes of intense googling to find the same paper (which was quite memorable to me).


2. Red States and Blue States


So far as I know, I was the first person to refer to parts of China as the “red states.” Thus I owe you an explanation.

            When I first visited China in 1992 – it was a great learning experience, but China was still a poor nation and economically weak, as I expected. Even central Beijing was mainly a realm of bicycles. The one freeway I rode on was nearly empty.

            Before my second visit, in 2005, I had heard about major changes in China, from many Chinese friends. But when I saw it first hand, it was still a big surprise in many ways. What surprised me more than anything else was the familiarity of everything. It was now much more similar to the United States than I had expected. I went first to Chengdu and Chongqing, far-off places in Sichuan province… and found myself amid broad boulevards. The roads reminded me in some ways of high school parking lots in the US; very broad and very full of cars – but full of many people still learning to drive.

            In the rural countryside, many people had little plastic statues of Mao, very similar to the plastic Jesus one sees in the rural US. I still remember the first typical little open-air sales table I saw in rural Sichuan – statues for sale, Buddha next to Mao next to the ancient fisher-king of the Shu dynasty, with a pile of little red books next to it. A modern Chinese friend later said: they are not really worshipping Mao; it’s just that they think his image brings good luck. But in traditional China, “just luck” is not a small thing.

            In the US, people connected to Congress often ask: ‘How can we trust a nation that believes in all those radical things that it says in that little red book? The people who run China represent that way of thinking.” In 2005, I responded: “Consider all the radical things that Jesus says in the New Testament. Actually, Jesus is even more radical in many ways. The ‘red states’ of the US (dominated by rural and fundamentalist cultures) revere the Bible, and the Administration was elected to represent the red states in the US. Now I ask you: are you afraid of those Red State Congressmen, because of the radical things it actually says in the New Testament?” The reaction was a kind of sheepish, embarrassed no. In 2005, the cosmopolitan “blue states” of China (like the area of Shanghai, the “New York of China) really had much more effective power in China than the red states. Since 2005, Hu had worked hard to prevent extreme imbalances due to excessive blue state power… but, again, the leader of the Shanghai power is now on course to be Hu’s successor. The underlying economic forces are asserting themselves. By the way, people seemed to be driving a lot more safely in 2007…

            While China and the US are struggling to create better balance and understanding between their red states, the earth as a whole has even more severe problems. By this “color” picture – the Islamic world as a whole is almost entirely red states, or moving in that direction, while Europe is almost entirely dominated by blue.

            In Brazil, in 2004, I saw a more graphical demonstrations of “blue” versus “red.” I was invited to a small Brazilian national meeting of the Transhumanist Society, in a beautiful café in Sao Paolo. The leader of this meeting was Dr. Jose Cordeiro of Venezuela. The transhumanist society is as blue as you can get – a society excited by ideas like achieving immortality by downloading ourselves into robots and computers, or achieving greater collective intelligence or consciousness by inserting two-way implants into human brains and linking them by new more powerful forms of artificial intelligence. Why would they invite me to their meeting? Well, Jose knows that my new mathematics is crucial to any chance of creating really serious artificial intelligence, and he knows that I have fought hard for more advanced technologies in space and in energy. And we know each other form ‘way back.

            Still, Jose decided that he ought to invite a couple of other key people in the futurist meeting occurring that week in Brazil. Thus he invited Ismail Al-Shatti, a very strong representative of the core thinking of the Islamic world, and Rosa Alegria, from the Brazilian futurist movement.

            When Jose presented his pure blue state vision… and asked for feedback, Ismail was the first to speak. I forget what words he used… but “perfect evil and a gross violation of the laws of God” is how I encoded them in my memory. And then Rosa spoke about the need for another path, something a lot more human and alive than robots or shariya, something that relies more on the deep wellsprings of human intuition and nature. Rosa and I looked at each other… and for a few days at least, the resonance at the spiritual level was very clear and very strong. Beyond the pure blue and the pure red… perhaps we need more “green states,” places where people really stand up for real life (and not just the ersatz versions beloved of television preachers and corrupt politicians, east and west).


3. Charismatic Leaders


When I call Mao a “charismatic leader,” what did I really mean?

            I explained it a little above, but I only scratched the surface.

            The concept of “charismatic leader” is discussed in some detail by Max Weber, a German student of the laws of history who in my view was far more thorough and more objective than Karl Marx. Weber is often called “the father of sociology” (the effort to study social classes and groups as scientifically as possible), but he is more than that. He had many crucial insights beyond what Marx had – but even so, it is possible to develop more well-defined, more mathematical versions of many of his ideas. And they, like Marx’s ideas, have fuzzy aspects.

            Weber notes how history has seen many charismatic leaders – though most did not go so far as Mao did. But as Weber notes, it is common for charismatic governments – held up by the sheer power of charisma, of focused mental energy and idealism – to gradually decay, through a process he calls “routinization of charisma.” One might interpret this to mean that human cultures can “defy gravity” for a few decades (as China has done), but that they will regress in time to the kind of culture and society which fits their actual means of production. But life is actually more complicated than that. For example, the psychological and spiritual sides of human life never disappear. Many of the current problems in the US are in fact related to a deep cultural divide – along blue state and red state lines – due to the lack of a unified vision or understanding of different aspects of life. Perhaps China needs to worry about regressing towards that kind of split at least as much as regressing to feudalism or to rule by oil companies. (One of the goals of my web page as a whole is to present a kind of coherent third path, a worldview which is just as crisp in its way as the  pure blue state and red state ideologies, but more consistent with continued growth.)

            But again, Mao is not the only truly remarkable charismatic leader in human history. For example, Adolf Hitler was also a charismatic leader in my view. Mencius and Jesus Christ also shaped history to a great extent through the action of their charisma, in my view. These are the clearest cases out there, in my view. Having a spiritual connection to the noosphere and to one’s people confers a certain kind of enlightenment, but it certainly does not confer infallibility. All of us on earth have a lot to learn. If we imagine otherwise, we are at great risk. (And indeed the earth is at risk at this moment!) In The Spirit of Chinese Philosophy, Fung Yu-Lan quotes excerpts from Mencius which make it clear that he understood and worked with higher levels of qi, in order to help the progress in China and make possible the peaceful successful Han dynasty, in ways that even the later higher Taoists did not fully understand. In a way, it is a shame that the thinking of his time required him to give more credit to Confucius than Confucius himself deserved. (Conversely, the “Six Schools” piece by Sima Tan of the Han dynasty is a uniquely clear example of religion as an explicitly designed “opiate for the masses.”)

            In my view, the spiritual energy of people like Quakers and Freemasons and their allies was important for centuries in helping the United States “defy gravity.” But will it continue to do so? There is reason to worry, because the crushing force of the blue states and red states has been very harmful to the living green wood caught between the two. And the pressure of corruption has become much worse in many ways in just the past few years.

            One of Max Weber’s famous books is the Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Weber points out that an efficient market economy simply cannot work on the basis of greed alone. For example, if Congressmen are cynically bought and sold on the free market, even according to well-known legal rules, one can expect laws and incentives to be created that tend to suppress competition and favor a few entrenched vested interests. This is an example of what Von Neumann warned about, where a Nash equilibrium (the result of solipsistic policies) can be far inferior to a Pareto optimum – meaning that everyone suffers if we do not take advantage of our intelligence to come up with a better kind of policy. The growing availability of oil company money in China may present challenges there as well, challenges which they are not yet fully prepared to deal with on a long-term basis.

History offers many other examples. Marx’s cynical views about the nature of capitalism have become a major barrier to Russia in catching up with other nations in those sectors where a freer, more competitive market would work better. In the heyday of Russian belief in capitalism a few years ago, when gangster capitalists started to proliferate, many western commentators said that we should not worry too much. “This is just a phase.” They said. “The US went through a phase of money barons too.” True – but if Teddy Roosevelt and others had not stood up and cleaned house, every twenty years or so, the US would never have reached the economic golden age it later experienced. And if we don’t clean up a bit now – at the high levels where it matters – the recent downturns might become ever more serious. 


5. Marx Versus Hegel and Beyond.


At least when I went to school, everyone understood that you cannot really understand Marx unless you also study Hegel. In many ways, Marx’s “materialist” theory of history arose as a reaction against Hegel’s “idealist” theory of history. I discuss Hegel very briefly on the Christianity page, and should probably say more… eventually, if I have time. Perhaps Hegel himself would be wise enough to say that he presented a great thesis, that Marx presented an antithesis, and that the line of progress is to move ahead to a synthesis which transcends both. But do we really need to study both?

            In essence, the debate is about: “What causes human societies to develop and sometimes progress as they do? Is it because of economics (money) or is it because of ideas? Which one is it?”

            Many engineers would consider the debate between Marx and Hegel as a wonderful example of how social scientists lose touch with reality so easily. “For example, what causes a car to work? Is it because of the engine, or is it because of the wheels? Or is it because of the drive train?” In actuality, I have seen engineers in government also lose touch with reality in a grossly silly way. My favorite (true but long and sensitive) story involves a NASA aviation project, where it turned into a fight between people who wanted to develop an engine without a body and people who wanted to develop a body without an engine.

            Even a child should be able to see that you need wheels AND an engine AND a drive train (and a steering wheel and brakes) to have a car which works. Even a child should be able to see that money and ideas both have a major impact on human history. The first really serious puzzle is how it can be that the most intelligent people on earth (and billions of followers) can be oblivious to such obvious and essential facts of life. I have in fact thought quite a bit about that puzzle; see What is Mind?.

            Many social scientists have deplored “single factor” or “single cause” theories of history. Many of the respected texts on sociology today enumerate all the many factors which can cause results on human society. But most of those texts tend to be remarkably boring and empty. After lots of correct statements, saying that everything affects everything somehow, one ends up with a feeling that the vivid but imperfect theories of Marx and Hegel really had more to say. The question arises: can one learn something substantive and interesting, without falling into extremes?

            The truth is that I was interested in filling in this gap myself, when I was at Harvard and perhaps a year or two after. But certain obstacles got in the way. First, social science and history are ultimately about the behavior of human beings. A better understanding of the human mind is a prerequisite. As of now… some of us do have enough of that prerequisite to better understand what is going on, but not enough time to work through all the various gatekeepers and constraints of modern social science. A second problem is that much of the relevant mathematics is not well-known as yet in the social sciences. And of course, sheer complexity is a major part of the work in trying to understand human societies.

            At this moment, I have about five minutes to say just a few obvious basics about how we could better understand the dynamics of history. First, if I have time, I would want to say a lot more about Spengler, about Toynbee, about Weber, about Germany in the 30’s as an example, about Stafford (Sam Beer), about Karl Deutsch, about Freud, and about John Von Neumann and the use of game theory to make deeper qualitative sense of all this. Second – as in proving a theorem in mathematics, or in good Bayesian inference (ala Raiffa not AI), we always need to be conscious of what sources of information we are ultimately relying on, and how to make the most of them. Key resources include EMPIRICAL DATA (i.e. global history, not just raw numbers, but some use of econometric style data), more rigorous understanding from related domains (as in what is mind and even sociobiology), and empathy and respected for other intelligence and for “reflexive phenomena” (as per Soros’s books).

Third – the human process is essentially a coupling of three strong “intelligent systems,” strong optimizing distributed systems – the noosphere, the market, and the underlying laws of physics – and three weakly partially intelligent systems, emergent human collective intelligence (ala E.O. Wilson’s Sociobiology, modified to fit new concepts of mind) and possibly emergent intelligence in global cybersystems like the brain-like intelligent grid. How can one understand the coupling of these systems, and at least track them and diagnose them if not predict them?


5.   The Laws of History from the Viewpoint of Intelligent Systems Mathematics


Let me explain just a few key points from that last paragraph above. (A full explanation would require an entire book or more.)

            How could I describe the underlying laws of physics as a “strong intelligent system”? I am not asserting that the universe has a mind. (Maybe it does, but I see no evidence as yet that it does.) Rather -- I am referring to a species of mathematics. In my view, true intelligent systems are build on the basis of the mathematics of optimization with foresight. According to classical field theory – the kind of mathematical physics that Lenin supported – the laws of physics tell us that the universe maximizes a certain measure of “energy” across a time, a measure called the “Lagrangian.” Heisenberg invented quantum mechanics as a way to express his idea that the universe really does have a mind. OK, I am oversimplifying here; see my recent paper on optimization in the brain and in physics for a more complete story. According to classical field theory, the universe performs an exact “maximization”; thus it does the same thing that our usual intelligent systems do, but more completely and exactly.

            I was oversimplifying just now… but it is exactly true that physics pays very special attention to a vector called “conjugate momentum.” This vector is labeled π by physics, but it is really the same thing as a vector called λ in other fields. Physical reality is certainly very important in defining the options available to the world economy, and to evolving organisms. 

            Free market economics and microeconomic theory analyze how the economic system can sometimes act as a kind of true intelligent system. It is not possible to understand “modes of production” or money without including some understanding of microeconomics as one of the key ingredients. First-year economics courses are sometimes ideologically biased, and sometimes make it sound as if the free market is some kind of omnipotent god unto itself; however, competent mathematical economics studies what the conditions are which are necessary for efficient markets, and what the common modes of failure are for such systems.

Micro-economics mainly focuses on the price system. Introductory economics classes often start with a simplified model in which there is only one good being produced (usually called a “widget”); they discuss how the market can find the right price p so that the quantity of widgets produced q is exactly the same as the quantity of widgets that people would want to buy at that price. Second year courses discuss a model in which the economy produces N different types of product; they discuss how the set of prices p1, p2 … pN can reach a proper level to put the entire economy in balance. More advanced economics texts, such as the mainstream text by Kenneth Arrow, show how prices can reach the values λ1, λ2, … λN which really solve a certain kind of optimization problem. For purposes of mathematical analysis and thinking, it is far more convenient to analyze sets of numbers λ1, λ2, … λN . In mathematics, the set of prices for all N goods is not actually called a “set;” it is called a “vector. The vector of prices is called λ. Here I have not been oversimplifying – but Ken Arrow and John von Neumann would have very different views of what this all means. Many people have spent many years in working out the implications of this approach. Sometimes the optimal price vector λ which optimizes the entire economy as a distributed system is different from the actual prices p; in that case, calculations of quantities λi are called “shadow prices.” In the management of electric power grids, they are sometimes called “locational marginal costs.”

The letter “p” in economics stands for “price.” “q” standard for quantity. The Greek letter λ stands for “Lagrange multiplier.” The French mathematician Lagrange was the first person, after Newton, to develop important general-purpose mathematical methods for optimization. Many of the latest and most powerful methods could be viewed as extensions of the ideas of Newton and Lagrange.

How could we extend the models of microeconomics, to include the intelligence of individual human actors? The obvious way is to assume that individual humans have “utility” or “happiness” functions of the form U(q1,…qN,x1,…xm), where the q variables are the goods we consume and the x variables are the other variables of interest to us in our lives. Of course, m>>N.

The economic system only gets to see the “marginal utilities of goods,” the derivatives of U with respect to the qi variables; these drive the demand for goods, which is part of what drives prices. In our more modern models of intelligence, it would be more accurate to say that the demand for goods is driven by the secondary utility function J(q, x) discussed in our papers on adaptive critics. The evolution of human culture and of the noosphere – through thought and through biological evolution – play the central role in deciding how the J functions of individual humans change over time. In essence, the relation between human minds and a proper efficient economic system is a master-slave arrangement, where humans are the masters, similar to the relation between the upper centers of the brain and the movement coordination system based in the cerebellum.

            The noosphere, in my view (based on more experience than I choose to discuss here and now), is also a strong intelligent system, much stronger than a perfect market economy, but much weaker than the physical universe itself. See “credo” for a brief statement of my views, with links to more details. In this view, individual human “souls” receive λ signals directly from the noosphere as a whole, which are added to local λU signals calculated by various motivational centers in the brain. The total λU signal is what really drives the learning process, not a scalar (one-variable) utility function. The local λU signals are partly easy to measure (like the signals from the hypothalamus which respond to blood sugar and hunger) and partly a topic for future research (like the signals which respond to the well-being and the smiles and frowns of other humans). Notice a corollary: the “economy” of the noosphere is even more “harsh” and tightly “managed” than a perfect competitive free market – though it does have more room in it for creativity. Nodes which merely parrot back their inputs contribute little or no value-added, and may well be on the path to bankruptcy. Nodes which do well in the short-term may go bankrupt later, if they do not understand and keep up with the larger “market.” Political, economic, religious or cultural systems which repress the natural growth dynamic of the noosphere naturally generate an array of λ signals which destabilize them; in Chinese tradition, this is called “losing the mandate of heaven,” and it contributed significantly to the change in Mao’s political station after the great earthquake in Shantung in the late 1970’s.

            What do smiles and frowns have to do with Darwin? Maybe later… for now, time is limited.

            As for emergent cyberintelligence… there is a possibility of using Dual Heuristic Programming, one of the main adaptive critic designs, for management of entire electric power grids, a challenge as large in scale as controlling an entire economy. DHP systems also output a λ vector, for use in managing distributed automated actors and for interfacing with the price system and humans. It is optimal under more general conditions than those which apply to Arrow’s theorems.


6.   Is Inevitable Progress Part of the Laws of History?


Marx and Hegel did agree on one point: that the laws of history will lead us inevitably to progress. If we acknowledge that the noosphere exists, and that it drives towards ever greater growth and understanding, then progress sounds even more inevitable. Teilhard de Chardin’s famous books about the Phenomenon of Man and the Activation of Human Energy inspired great optimism back in the 1960’s; they inspired John F. Kennedy, and, with him, contributed greatly to fast rise in productivity in the US in the 1960’s – the fastest rise on record in the time-series data I used to work with. Positive thinking and positive visualization can have great benefits in and of themselves – within certain boundaries.

            But a true scientific approach does not work that way. At the height of the Cold War, there were high officials in Russia who insisted that continued progress would be inevitable even through a World War that would kill 80% of the world’s people immediately (and more, maybe all, later). Was that a scientific approach, or was it really just a new kind of religion? Even if we agree with Teilhard de Chardin that humanity possesses a kind of “perfect” higher intelligence, striving towards growth and progress with energy and intelligence far beyond what we see on the surface of life.. even so, we need to remember that intelligent systems do sometimes die in nature. In fact – a newborn fish is also intelligent, full of instincts and powers which, when released, will really maximize its chances of survival. Without exercising these faculties, it has little chance of survival. But even if does unleash all of its faculties – its chances of survival to adulthood are still less than 1%. The path of nature is to strive hard and intelligently as much as one can, and never give up on the core of life, even when the odds are less than 1%. So far as I can tell, the present situation of humanity as a whole is somewhat similar.

            In Marx’s writings, the parts about feudalism and capitalism and earlier modes of production were relatively scientific in spirit. Certainly he could see the difference between a share-cropping farmer and a factory worker, as he studied the experience of history. But the parts about the communist mode of production were essentially just wishful fantasy grafted onto the previous more empirical stuff. They did not have the kind of connection to material or cybernetic reality that would have allowed those dreams to become realities. The fuzzy kind of positive thinking often breaks down very badly, for many reasons. A more sapient or scientific way of thinking starts out by accepting that legitimate hopes and legitimate fears will always be with us, and will continue to demand a very fundamental evolution and adaptation in our thinking for centuries to come or more. We need to look a lot more clearly and intensely (and creatively) both at the fears and at the hopes, in order to maximize our chances.

            When I think about my best hopes for my own life and for humanity as a whole… I used to think about Archimedes’ old saying: “Give me a place to stand, and I will move the world.” As I pictured that idea in my mind… I said to myself: “What I really want is a firm place to plant my feet, and freedom of motion for my hands.” Stability for the feet, and freedom for the hands and the mind. Humans have often sought more stability for their feet (more “order”) and have often sought more freedom (which some view as chaos), but none of the social systems on the earth today are truly stable. None of the social systems on earth have fully come to terms with the material reality of earth – the limits on energy, population and other resources required for sustainability.  In fact, “systems” alone cannot do the job; it requires a lot more intelligence and consciousness than I see in any of the governments or corporations of this planet today. There is plenty of room for growth and for diversity within those limits – but if we do not jump across certain basic barriers we face in the coming century or two, everything else will wash away like castles in the sand. Faith alone – whether in Marx or in Mao or in Allah or in Jesus or in Jehovah – simply won’t get the job done.

            To conclude – the discussion here is only a picture of the surface. If I ever have time enough to say more about Hegel or Spengler or game theory or modeling methodology or leftism in other regions, I will do so on new web pages, maybe added as links here, maybe not. (I already say more about sociobiology in the more science-oriented web pages, but there are other connections to discuss.) I hope to say more very soon about the more immediate crises of humanity – the political and cultural dimensions – but will insert that onto the web page on Islam.