Stephen Hawking, Science & Socialism

Posted by Pete on 14th Mar 2019

The great Stephen Hawking - who died one year ago today - was a man of the left. Perhaps there's something about looking out at the stars which motivates us to want to protect our world?

People who believe in socialism arrive there by all manner of intellectual roads.

Some come to it through the collectivist values central to a life of playing team sports, like CLR James and Brian Clough. Others meet socialism, as Oscar Wilde did, when they are hit by the anti-creative pressures the free market puts on those trying to make it as authors.

Stephen Hawking, on the other hand, met socialism through science.

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The history of the scientific left 

It’s often forgotten, but most of the great physicists of the last century were passionate leftists.

Albert Einstein was a lifelong and outspoken progressive, writing articles like “Why Socialism?” (1949) and giving himself, body and soul, to the mid-century struggle against fascism.

Likewise, J. Robert Oppenheimer (of Manhattan Project fame) was a devout leftist, donating funds to the Spanish Republicans in their fight against Franco and leading the post-WWII struggle for nuclear disarmament.

The youngest of these three, Hawking was a committed socialist right up to his death at the beginning of last year.

He was a lifelong campaigner against nuclear weapons; argued vigorously for the NHS; publicly denounced the Iraq War as a “war crime”; presented climate change as an existential threat to humanity; exhibited indomitable solidarity with occupied Palestinians; and, deeply offended by the level of economic inequality under modern capitalism, always advocated for a radical redistribution of wealth.

What was it that led Hawking and these other great physicists to embrace such leftist positions?

It can't have been their intelligence alone - Robert McNamara was surely one of the smartest men in 1960s America, but that didn’t stop him overseeing years of the US government’s brutal invasion of Vietnam.

Perhaps physicists like Stephen Hawking have been led to socialism by the nature of their work.

Do science and socialism go hand in hand? 

Journeying out to the stars, whether in a space shuttle or through a telescope, has always made people look back on Earth in a new way.

There is something about seeing our planet as it is, free of the imaginary borders we have invented between nations, that seems to bring strong feelings of peace and solidarity. Carl Sagan, the US astrophysicist and peace campaigner, always found colourful ways to express this unique perspective of his profession.

Physicists’ work also tends to give them a fundamental understanding of the existential threat which humanity faces from its own destructive technology.

That’s why, for example, so many of the scientists behind the World War II Manhattan Project quickly became the most impassioned advocates for nuclear disarmament – because they understood the reality of atomic explosions infinitely better than the politicians who controlled the Bomb.

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Leo Szilard - the Hungarian-born physicist who co-wrote Einstein’s 1939 letter to President Roosevelt advising him to develop an A-bomb before Hitler - published a powerful short story after the Second World War called “My Trial as a War Criminal” (1949), in which he imagined himself tried for crimes against humanity in the wake of a cataclysmic nuclear war, due to his part in inventing the weapon which enabled it. Szilard took the side of his own prosecution.

Stephen Hawking continued this tradition of physicists opposing nuclear arms, joining a public campaign against Tony Blair’s 2007 decision to renew Britain’s Trident nuclear submarines.

As Hawking said at the time:

"Nuclear war remains the greatest danger to the survival of the human race. To replace Trident would make it more difficult to get arms reduction and increase the risk."

Stephen Hawking: an intellectual icon with a lot of wisdom 

Of course, Hawking didn’t become a socialist just because he was a physicist.

There was also the influence of his politically-minded mum, Isobel, who took him on CND marches to Aldermaston when he was a kid. And Hawking always held a deep seated gratitude to Nye Bevan’s National Health Service which was so important to supporting him throughout his life of struggle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).

Hawking’s socialism was woven through every part of his being, from his science to his family. No story about him makes sense – or does justice – without it.

At a time when the political right is represented mainly by blithering fools like Trump and Jacob Rees-Mogg, it would do us well to remember in contrast that the late 20th century’s ‘Smartest Man in the World’ was also a man of the left.

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