Science Fiction Studies

# 8 = Volume 3, Part 1 = March 1976

Charles Elkins

Isaac Asimov's FOUNDATION Novels: Historical Materialism Distorted into Cyclical Psycho-History

Among SF series, surely none has enjoyed such spectacular popularity as Isaac Asimov’s FOUNDATION stories. Asimov has been awarded a Hugo "for the best all time science fiction series," and many SF aficionados describe their first encounter with Asimov’s novels in religious terms. Alva Rogers’ response is typical: the FOUNDATION stories, he says, "are some of the greatest science fiction ever written, with a Sense of Wonder in the underlying concept that is truly out of this world."1 Moreover, despite some genuine questions which serious SF critics, such as Damon Knight, have raised with regard to the underlying concept of THE FOUNDATION TRILOGY, it continues to go through printing after printing.

1. It is difficult to put one’s fingeron precisely what element or elements so fascinate readers. From just about any formal perspective, THE FOUNDATION TRILOGY the foundation trilogy is seriously flawed. The characters are undifferentiated and one-dimensional. Stylistically, the novels are disasters, and Asimov’s ear for dialogue is simply atrocious. The characters speak with a monotonous rhythm and impoverished vocabulary characteristic of American teenagers’ popular reading in the Forties and Fifties; the few exceptions are no better—e.g. the Mule, who, in the disguise of the Clown, speaks a pseudo-archaic courtly dialect, or Lord Darwin, who speaks like Elmer Fudd, or the archetypal Jewish Mother who can say, "So shut your mouth, Pappa. Into you anybody could bump."2 The distinctive vocabulary traits are as a rule ludicrous: God! is replaced by Galaxy!, and when a character really wants to express his disgust or anger, he cries, "Son-of-a-Spacer!" or "I don’t care an electron!" (§1:5:1). To describe the characters’ annoyance, arrogance, or bitterness, Asimov uses again and again one favorite adjective and adverb, sardonic(ally): "Sutt’s eyes gleamed sardonically" (§1:5:1); "Mallow stared him down sardonically" (§1:5:4); "Riose looked sardonic" (§2:5); "[Devers] stared at the two with sardonic belligerence" (§2:5)"‘What; ’s wrong, trader?’ he asked sardonically" (§2:7); "The smooth lines of Pritcher’s dark face twitched sardonically" (§3:2); "But Anthor’s eyes opened, quite suddenly, and fixed themselves sardonically on Munn’s countenance" (§3:20). Evidently, all people in all time periods will be sardonic. In the 12,000th year after the founding of the First Galactic Empire, characters still use terms drawn from the "western"—e.g. "lynching party" (§2:7)—and slogans imported from the political slang of our times—e.g. "lickspittle clique of appeasers out of City Hall" (§1:3:2).

Nor is this merely a question of literary niceties. If language is both a symbolic screen through which we filter reality and an instrument by which we explore and change reality, then Asimov’s style is totally inappropriate. He has imported a watered-down idiom of his time—the banal, pseudo-factual style of the mass-circulation magazines—into a world twelve thousand years into the future, with no change at all! The consciousness of his characters, as it is objectified in speech, shows absolutely no historical development and hence fails to evoke in the reader any feeling for the future universe they inhabit.

The "Foundation" novels also fail by Asimov’s own definition of what he calls "social science fiction." In an essay written shortly after their publication, Asimov defined it as "that branch of literature which is concerned with the impact of scientific advance upon human beings."3 In another essay, entitled "When Aristotle Fails, Try Science Fiction," Asimov argued that SF "deals with the possible advances in science and with the potential changes—even those damned eternal verities—these may bring about in society."4 These precepts do not square with his novels. There is no indication in the FOUNDATION stories that scientific advances—e.g. traveling faster than light, developing atomic technology, predicting and controlling human events, controlling minds, etc.—have any effect on people. Man remains essentially the same; the springs of human action are unchanged.

This conflict between Asimov’s precepts and practice is a consequence of contradictory notions he holds about the nature of historical change. Despite his contention that SF deals with change, and moreover that "scientific-economic change is master and political change is the servant" so that "technological changes lie at the root of political change"5—Asimov does not believe in significant change. More precisely, he does not believe that scientific advances will entail any changes in men’s mutual relationships: "Hate, love, fear, suspicion, passion, hunger, lust ... these will not change while mankind remains"; history repeats itself (in large outline at least) "with surprising specificity."6 Citing Toynbee’s cyclical theory of history as a basis for social theorizing and extrapolating from it into the future—a procedure which Toynbee explicitly rejected7—Asimov creates a future political structure modeled on the Roman and British empires. "In telling future history," he relates, "I always felt it wisest to be guided by past history. This was true of the ‘Foundation’ series too."8

That past history should serve as a guide for future history is a dubious assumption at best. It certainly undercuts any notion of significant change. Moreover, it is a fetter on the imaginative possibilities of the speculative novel. Instead of events growing out of the inner logic and premises of the narrative situation, the plot and characters are forced to conform to a predetermined template. Thus, not only is the concept itself questionable, but its use as a structuring and thematic device leads one to suspect a deficiency in imaginative vision. As a guiding framework for SF, it has as a rule disastrous consequences. Damon Knight rightly argues that it is not SF, "any more than the well known western with rayguns instead of sixshooters.... It’s of the essence of speculative fiction that an original problem be set up which the author is obliged to work out for himself; if the problem is an old one, and he has only to look the answers up in a book, there’s very little fun in it for anybody; moreover, the answers are certain to be wrong."9

2. Considering these problems,then, to what can one attribute the extraordinary success of THE FOUNDATION TRILOGY? I would suggest that the "Sense of Wonder in the underlying concept" which so captivates readers is a concept of history which is, in its grand sweep, similar to one of the main ingredients of Marxism—historical materialism—which had captured and is capturing the imagination of millions (although Asimov’s use of it, as I shall argue, is a crude caricature of this concept, a simplistic distortion similar to other varieties of "vulgar" Marxism of the period when the "Foundation" stories were being written). The perspective of historical materialism entails the assertion of overriding historical laws. In its cruder versions, it involves the old puzzle of historical inevitability (predestination) versus free will, which itself flows out of the often unsuccessful yet desperately necessary, and therefore always repeated, struggles of men to control their personal futures and the future of their societies. Consider this discussion of freedom versus necessity between the old, powerless patrician, Ducem Barr, who understands the implications of Seldon’s Plan, and the eager, ambitious and headstrong General of the Galactic Empire, Bel Riose:

[Barr] Without pretending to predict the actions of individual humans, it [Seldon’s Plan] formulated definite laws capable of mathematical analysis and extrapolation to govern and predict the mass action of human groups....

[Riose] You are trying to say that I am a silly robot following a predetermined course of destruction.

[Barr] No, I have already said that the science had nothing to do with individual actions. It is the vaster background that has been foreseen.

[Riose] Then we stand clasped tightly in the forcing hand of the Goddess of Historical Necessity.

[Barr] Of Psycho-Historical Necessity.

[Riose] And if I exercise my prerogative of freewill? If I choose to attack next year, or not to attack at all? How pliable is the Goddess? How resourceful?

[Barr) Do whatever you wish in your fullest exercise of freewill. You will still lose.

[Riose) Because of Hari Seldon’s dead hand?

[Barr] Because of the dead hand of the mathematics of human behavior that can neither be stopped, swerved, nor delayed. (§2:3)

The logic of history is equated with the logic of the natural sciences. Bayta, the woman who eventually thwarts the Mule’s efforts to locate the Second Foundation, says, "The laws of history are as absolute as the laws of physics, and if the probabilities of error are greater, it is only because history does not deal with as many humans as physics does atoms, so that individual variations count for more" (§2:11). From the Encyclopedia Galactica, one learns that Seldon’s Plan can be reduced to "The synthesis of the calculus of n-variables and of n-dimensional geometry" (§3:8). Using incredibly complex mathematics, Seldon’s Plan predicts the fall of the decadent First Galactic Empire (read Roman Empire), the rise of the Traders and Merchant Princes (read bourgeoisie and nationalism), the growth of the First Foundation (read postindustrial, bureaucratic-technological society), its interaction with the long hidden Second Foundation and the eventual creation of the Second Galactic Empire, a civilization based on "mental science" (read Asimov’s utopian vision?).

It’s a fascinating concept. Moreover, at least on a superficial level, the conceptual parallels with classical Marxism are clear. Donald Wollheim, despite his crude caricature of Marxism, is correct in his "conjecture that Asimov took the basic premise of Marx and Engels, said to himself that there was a point there [i.e. in Marxism]—that the movements of human mass must be subject to the laws of motion and interaction, and that a science could be developed based upon mathematics and utilizing all the known data..."10 Is not Seldon’s discovery precisely that which Marxists claim to have made? In his speech at Marx’s funeral, Frederick Engels asserted that "just as Darwin discovered the law of evolution in organic nature, so Marx discovered the law of evolution in human history.... Marx also discovered the special law of motion governing the present day capitalist method of production and the bourgeois society that this method of production has created."11 Similarly, just as Seldon concentrates not on the individual but the masses, so—as Lenin says—"historical materialism made it possible for the first time to study with scientific accuracy the social conditions of the life of the masses and the changes in these conditions.... Marxism indicated the way to one all-embracing and comprehensive study of the processes of the rise, development, and decline of socio-economic systems.... Marx drew attention and indicated the way to a scientific study of history as a simple process which, with all its immense variety and contradictions, is governed by definite laws."12

It is this concept, that history has "definite laws" which cannot only be made intelligible but can give insight into the course of future historical events, which so intrigues both the readers of the FOUNDATION novels and those who study Marxism. Moreover, whether embodied in Seldon’s Plan or the concept of historical materialism, this idea is the very stuff of drama, for it inevitably raises the question of human free will versus historical determinism, a problem fraught with dramatic tension from Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex through the present.

In the 1930’s, the mechanistic conception of Marxism was founded on such works as Plekhanov’s The Role of the Individual in History (1898), Kautsky’s The Class Struggle (1910), Bukharin’s Historical Materialism (1921), and Stalin’s Leninism (1924). Bukharin, for example, asserted that "society and its evolution are as much subject to natural law as is everything else in this universe... Socialism will come inevitably because it is inevitable that men, definite classes of men, will stand for its realization, and they will do so under circumstances that will make their victory certain."13 It was precisely this crude conception of historical inevitability culminating in Stalin’s widely propagated writings, that dominated the thinking of a large majority of American radicals and concerned social activists throughout the Thirties and into the Fifties, in and out of the Communist Party. (Much of Marx’s and Engels’ writing was still untranslated; the German Marxists’ and Antonio Gramsci’s works were unknown; most George Lukács’ essays were unavailable. What Marxist theory Americans received was basically what was filtered through the USSR under Stalin.) Obviously, this was an interpretation of history containing built-in contradictions and producing psychological as well as political tensions. On the one hand, it created an impression that there was an inevitability to history which would run its course without any need for action. On the other hand, it encouraged a feeling that intense activity was necessary to bring about the fulfillment of the inevitable end.

This dilemma—given a predetermined outcome, to act or not to act—is exactly what Asimov’s characters experience. It generates the dramatic tension in his novels. If Seldon’s Plan is correct, the correct interpretation of history, what actions should the characters take when faced with the necessity of making crucial decisions? The hero of the First Foundation, Salvor Hardin, decides to wait until the "crisis" itself (an attack by another planet) limits his choice to one and only one course of action. He argues that 

the future isn’t nebulous. It’s been calculated out by Seldon and charted. Each successive crisis in our history is mapped and each depends in a measure on the successful conclusion of the ones previous.... at each crisis our freedom of action would become circumscribed to the point where only one course of action was possible.... as long as more than one course of action is possible, the crisis has not been reached. We must let things drift so long as they possibly can.... (§1:3:2)

Hardin is content to follow the logic of Seldon’s Plan; he will do "one hundred percent of nothing." By contrast, other characters, such as Bel Riose and Dr. Darell, resist the implications of the Plan and of historical inevitability: "he (Darell) knew that he could live only by fighting that vague and fearful enemy that deprived him of the dignity of manhood by controlling his destiny; that made life a miserable struggle against a foreordained end; that made all the universe a hateful and deadly chess game" (§3:14). Ultimately, resistance is futile; all actions merely confirm the inevitability of Seldon’s Plan.

The engrossment, the "Sense of Wonder" evoked by the FOUNDATION TRILOGY, lies in the readers’ discovery of this fact. Over and over again the question is raised (by the characters and the readers): is Seldon’s Plan still operational? Has the Mule’s interference negated the Plan? And time and again, just as Oedipus and Sophocles’ audience come to understand the power of Apollo over man’s destiny, Asimov’s characters and readers come to comprehend the full implications of "Psycho-Historical Necessity." This understanding evokes a mixture of futility and awe.

Wollheim is on the right track in pointing out the probable Marxian "influence" on Asimov. Asimov must have been aware of Soviet Marxism: his parents immigrated from Russia in 1923, six years after the October Revolution. Moreover, 1939, the year Asimov began writing his future history, was the year of the Soviet-Nazi Pact, and he has recalled how he was caught up in the events unfolding in Europe.14 Further, if Asimov was at all aware of the all-pervading political and intellectual milieu of the New Deal decade, he would have been exposed to the clamorous controversies between the Left and the Right as well as within the Left of the time (e.g. the passionate debates generated by the disillusionment of many prominent intellectuals with the Stalinist brand of Marxism and the American Communist Party’s submission to the Soviet dogma).15 While Asimov does not mention any involvement in radical politics, Sam Moskowitz credits him with helping to found the Futurian Science Literary Society in 1938, a society which James Blish says "was formed exclusively for those who were either actual members of the Communist Party or espoused the Party’s policies." The members "did endorse the Marxist view of change, or whatever version of it the American CP was wedded to at the time."16 To what degree Asimov was acquainted with Marxism at first hand is not of great import. He was certainly aware both of some of its slogans and of its power to arouse allegiance among intellectuals and crucially alter the tempo of world history.

3. However, awareness is one thing,understanding another. What Asimov accepted as the "underlying concept" of the FOUNDATION TRILOGY is the vulgar, mechanical, debased version of Marxism promulgated in the Thirties—and still accepted by many today. Indeed he takes this brand of Marxism to its logical end; human actions and the history they create become as predictable as physical events in nature. Furthermore, just as those scientific elites in our world who comprehend nature’s laws manipulate nature to their advantage, so too the guardians and the First Speaker, who alone understand Seldon’s Plan, manipulate individuals and control the course of history. "Psycho-history is," as Wollheim quaintly puts it, "the science that Marxism never became"17 (a point to which I will return in the final section). With the proviso that neither Wollheim nor Asimov has understood Marxism, and that one should substitute "mechanical pseudo-Marxism" for their mentions of it, it is precisely this treatment of history as a "science" above men, which accounts for the FOUNDATION TRILOGY's ideological fascination and evocativeness as well as for its ultimate intellectual and artistic bankruptcy.

Reading the FOUNDATION novels, one experiences an overriding sense of the inevitable, of a pervading fatalism. Everything in the universe is predetermined. Unable to change the pre-ordained course of events, man becomes, instead of the agent of history, an object, a "pawn" (using Asimov’s chess metaphor)18 in the grip of historical necessity—i.e. of the actualization of Hari Seldon’s calculations.

Except for the Mule, a non-human, only those who understand Seldon’s Plan—the First Speaker and the twelve guardians—are free. They, the elite, are the only ones free to determine history, to make certain that Seldon’s Plan is realized; so that in 600 years the Second Foundation produces an elite group of psychologists "ready to assume leadership" and create the Second Galactic Empire. The ignorant masses (those with whom Seldon’s mathematics is supposed to deal) would resent "a ruling class of psychologists" because "only an insignificant minority ... are inherently able to lead Man through the greater involvement of Mental Science" (§3:8). Hence, it is absolutely imperative that the Plan be kept secret. No psychologist is permitted on the First Foundation. Seldon "worked with mobs, populations of whole planets, and only blind mobs who do not possess any foreknowledge of the results of their actions.... Interference due to foresight would have knocked the Plan out of kilter" (§1:3:2). Throughout the FOUNDATION TRILOGY, the masses are held in supreme contempt. They are described as "the fanatic hordes," "the featureless ... mob"; their primary quality seems to be "incoherence" (§2:14). The masses must be governed by a higher authority; they are not fit to rule themselves. This is the First Speaker’s job: "For twenty-five years, he, and his administration, had been trying to force a Galaxy of stubborn and stupid human beings back to the path—It was a terrible task" (§3:8).

The sense of fatality and futility evoked in the "Foundation" novels is a consequence of the reader’s recognition that not only will Seldon’s Plan remain hidden but even those who preserve it are almost overwhelmed by its complexity. A few will be free; the rest will be under the thumb of those who can understand the Plan.

The First Speaker (and clearly Asimov himself, along with many other SF writers such as Robert Heinlein) envisions a society organized not according to the principles of equality but according to a hierarchy of merit. It is a society similar to the one urged by Saint-Simon, the French utopian thinker; he also argued for a society governed by savants (mathematicians, chemists, engineers, painters, writers, etc.), who would form a Council of Newton and, because they were men of genius, would have the right to determine human destiny.19 In the FOUNDATION TRILOGY, the masses merely follow. Unable either to discover or comprehend the Plan’s "synthesis of the calculus of n-variables and n-dimensional geometry," the great majority of mankind is at the mercy of complex forces which they can neither understand nor control, and surrender their freedom to a techno-bureaucratic elite. Asimov thus expresses a modern version of Saint-Simon’s ideology of the expert, making for the rule by such an elite.

The realization that Seldon’s Plan and the Second Foundation will remain a mystery and that the Second Galactic Empire will come to pass despite the actions of the great mass of humanity, gives Asimov’s FOUNDATION TRILOGY its aura of fatalism. Que sera, sera. It seems to me that this attitude is one of the major reasons for the endurance of the FOUNDATION novels, just as it is one of the fascinations inherent in a crude reading of Marxism. In many ways, fatalism is an attractive way of coming to terms with one’s world. It implies and evokes a certain passivity. It is, in essence, a frame of adjustment which cautions man to submit to the inevitable. At its worst, this attitude encourages a slavish submission to circumstances. At its best, fatalism and its assumptions have been the basis for the tragic hero’s confrontation with Fate and his sublime but ultimately futile struggle to control and overcome it. But Asimov’s characters are not tragic heroes. They are nondescript pawns, unable to take their destiny into their own hands. There is no fear or pity to evoke a tragic catharsis. Instead there is complacency. The Foundation Trilogy ends on a note of one-upmanship. After all that has happened, history is still on its course and Hari Seldon wins again.

4. Thus, the similarities of the underlying concept of the FOUNDATION novels with even a vulgar Marxist version of historical materialism sheds some new light on their fascination and staying power. However, one must also conclude that Asimov’s failure to grasp the complexities of historical materialism and the humanistic emphasis of Marxism constitutes their major intellectual and artistic deficiency. This needs to be emphasized because at least one influential critic, Donald Wollheim, juxtaposes the "Foundation" novels with certain tenets of Marxism and argues that the validity of the "underlying concept" and the strengths of the novels lie in their deviation from Marxism. In so doing, he continues to propagate a thoroughly distorted view of Marxism and produces a misleading evaluation of Asimov’s achievements.

For example, Wollheim’s argument that Asimov’s psychohistory is the exact science that "Marxism thought it was and never could be"20 entails a doubly preposterous comparison. To take Marxism first, Marx and Engels never claimed for their theories the status of "exact science." They were always careful to describe the "laws" of historical development as "tendencies." Marx warns that his theory of the capitalist mode of production assumes "that the laws of the capitalist mode of production develop in pure form. In reality there is always an approximation."21 Similarly, Engels writes that no economic law "has any reality except as approximation, tendency, average, and not immediate reality. This is partly due to the fact that their action clashes with the simultaneous action of other laws, but partly due to their nature as cancepts."22 So much for Wollheim’s assertion that Marxism claimed to be an exact science.

Second, to focus now on psychohistory, Wollheim fails to point out that those who articulate Seldon’s Plan consistently confuse determinable and determined. Note that Ducem Barr (quoted above in section 2) says that Seldon’s mathematics can simultaneously "predict" and "govern" the action of large groups. (He doesn’t say how this happens.) Seldon’s Plan is designed not only to predict future galactic history but to prevent the anarchy which would follow the collapse of the First Galactic Empire. Its power to control rests on the ability of the elite who guard the Plan to calculate all the possible variations, to keep the Plan secret from the rest of humanity, and to intervene, if necessary, to keep the Plan operational. To those who do not understand Seldon’s "little algebra of humanity" (§3:8), man’s destiny appears fixed and inevitable. Man is seen merely as an object of history rather than, dialectically, as a subject and object in the making of history.

For Marxists, however, history is neither determinable nor determined by a set of abstract equations. History is people acting. Moreover, people come to understand historical "laws" because in their action they simultaneously change history—each other and their social institutions—and are changed by it. Marx came to the conclusion that "the logic of history was thoroughly objective and communicable. It could be grasped by the intellect, and at the same time—since it was the history of man—it was capable of modification as soon as men understood the nature and process in which they were involved: a process whereby their own creations had assumed an aspect of seemingly internal and inevitable laws [Seldon’s Plan!—note CE]. History therefore culminated not in the intellectual contemplation of the past, but in a deliberate shaping of the future."23

For Marx and Engels, the choices people make about their lives, their morals, their praxis (creative action) and their knowledge of their particular situation—all of these are included in the "laws" of social development. Marx believed that capitalism would be replaced by socialism because it not only had fatal economic limitations but also because those limitations would lead the great mass of humanity—not merely an elite—to adopt his theory as a guide to action. Marx did not relieve men of moral responsibility: "Underlying the whole of his work, providing the ethical impulse that guided his hopes and his studies, was a vision and theory of human freedom, of man as master of himself, of nature and of history."24

Behind Seldon’s psychohistory lies the assumption—shared by Asimov—that mankind will not fundamentally change, that basic human drives are universal and eternal. Marx disagrees. His optimism is based on a rejection of this cyclical view of history. History sometimes may, but as a rule does not—and certainly does not have to—repeat itself. This rejection may help explain why some critics acquainted with Marxism are so exasperated by what they see as the essentially conservative nature of much contemporary SF. For example, Franz Rottensteiner charges that "present day science fiction, far from being the literature of change, is as a rule very conservative in its method as well as content. While paying lip service to change and offering some background slightly changed in relation to the author’s environment, it actually comforts the reader with the palliative that nothing will ever really change, that we’ll always be again what we have been before, in this world or the next; as below, so above; as on earth, so in the after life, Amen."25

For Marxists, however, technological change inevitably leads to changes in consciousness. If technological change, then change in the means of production; if change in the means of production, then change in the relations of production; if change in the human relations accompanying production, then changes in the superstructure (art, religion, philosophy, politics, etc.); if change in the superstructure, then change in human consciousness. Moreover, this dialectic is reversible; at given epochs—such as our own—human consciousness itself intervenes powerfully in changing the basic substructure of society (its materials and relations of production).26 Marxism not only posits significant social change as men make their history, but Marx insists that man himself, literally his physical senses, is subject to alteration. In his intercourse with nature, man changes nature and himself. Marx writes, "The development of the five senses is the labor of the whole previous history of the world."27 The revolution which brings communism will constitute "a universal act of human self-change."28 Men will literally be different from what they have been in the past.

By contrast, these relationships are not explored in the FOUNDATION TRILOGY. Areas of social reality, such as interdependence of political power, ideology, technological development and the evolution of specific economic structures appear as separate autonomous sectors. While Seldon recognizes that economic cycles are variables which his Plan must take into account (§1:1:4), and while Asimov depicts the economic power of the First Foundation supplanting the political rule of the Empire (as if they were two entirely separate conditions), the relationships between economic and political power are not clear (§2:10). The Machiavellian power struggles that constitute the essential plot of the Foundation Trilogy are expressed almost exclusively in psychological terms. Politics and political savvy are equated with psychology (§1:2:3); the Mule gains supremacy by controlling his enemies’ emotions; the ultimate goal of the guardians of Seldon’s Plan is establishing the Second Galactic Empire, which is described as a society ruled by psychologists skilled in "Mental Science" (§3:8). (It could be a "science" because Seldon assumes, as does Asimov, that "human reaction to stimuli would remain constant" [§2:251.) Human misery is not the result of external political, social, or economic oppression; rather it is the consequence of man’s failure to communicate (§3:8). Furthermore, this failure is not a result of social, political or economic differences but of the failure of language itself! Things would be fine if man could get along without human speech. Even here, however, Asimov never attempts to make the connections between these elements (i.e. the social, psychological, political, linguistic, economic, etc.) clear.

Thus, on the one hand, there is in Marxism a sense of almost unlimited possibility, of hope, of freedom; on the other hand, there is in the FOUNDATION novels a sense of predestination, of remorseless logic, a pervading fatalism. Except for the elite who understand Seldon’s Plan, the rest of mankind are ignorant counters in the grip of an idea which stands over against them as universal, immutable, external law. From a Marxian perspective, this is the very essence of slavery. Unable to comprehend the laws of nature or historical development, man is a slave to these laws, just as any animal is a slave to external circumstances. Uncognized laws are manifested as "blind" Necessity. Man’s freedom is determined by his ability to understand himself and to make his world comprehensible. Once understood, previously mysterious events lose their transcendent nature, their "fetishistic" quality as Marx would say; they become demystified and lose their power to move men through mystery. In striking contrast to Asimov’s depiction of Seldon’s Plan, it is the possibility that all men can ultimately comprehend those hidden and complex forces at work on them that gives Marxism its vision of hope. It is this comprehension which creates the conditions for freedom.

By the same token, it is the reader’s recognition that Seldon’s Plan and the Second Foundation will remain a mystery and that the Second Galactic Empire will come to pass regardless of any actions by the mass of humanity which gives the Foundation Trilogy its aura of fatalism and complacency.

Yet why not? From a Marxian perspective, Asimov’s depiction of the particular future embodied in the "Foundation" stories is an accurate reflection of the material and historical situation out of which these works arose: the alienation of men and women in modern bourgeois society. For Marxists, alienation describes a situation in which the creations of people’s minds and hands—whether they be goods or complex social systems—stand over against and dominate their creators. Alienation is a consequence of man’s impotence before the forces of nature and society, and of his ignorance of their operations. Alienation abates to the extent that man’s knowledge and powers over nature and his social relations are increased. Thus, in one sense, Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy endures because of its fatalistic perspective. It accurately sizes up the modern situation. Reading these novels, the reader experiences this fatalism which, in a Marxist analysis, flows from his own alienation in society and his sense of impotence in facing problems he can no longer understand, the solutions of which he puts in the hands of a techno-bureaucratic elite.


1. Alva Rogers, A Requiem for Astounding (Chicago 1964), p. 107.

2. Isaac Asimov, THE FOUNDATION TRILOGY (3 volumes in 1, NY ca. 1964, frequently reprinted); references are to volume chapter or (for Volume 1) volume: part: chapter. Volume 1, Foundation (1951); Volume 2, Foundation and Empire (1952); Volume 3, Second Foundation (1953), each frequently reprinted. The stories that make up the three "novels" first appeared as a series in Astounding 1942-1949.

3. Isaac Asimov, "Social Science Fiction," in Science Fiction: The Future, ed. Dick Allen (NY 1971), p. 272; reprinted from Modern Science Fiction, ed. Reginald Bretnor (NY 1953).

4. Isaac Asimov, "When Aristotle Fails, Try Science Fiction," in Speculations, ed. Thomas E. Sanders (NY 1973), p. 586; reprinted from Intellectual Digest (1971).

5. "Social Science Fiction" (see Note 3), p. 268.

6. Ibid., pp. 277, 279.

7. Cf. Arnold Toynbee, "The Disintegration of Civilizations " from Chapter XXI of A Study of History: Abridgement of Volumes I-VI by D.C. Somervell (Oxford 1946), reprinted in Theories of History, ed. Patrick Gardiner (Glencoe 1959), p. 204. The publishing dates for A Study of History: Volumes I-III, 1934; Volumes IV-VI, 1939; Volumes XII-X, 1954. In his essay "Social Science Fiction" (see Note 3), p. 279, Asimov cites the first six volumes of Toynbee’s work.

8. Isaac Asimov, The Early Asimov, Book One (Fawcett_Crest pb 1972), p. 155.

9. Damon Knight, In Search of Wonder (2nd edn, Chicago 1967), p. 91.

10. Donald Wollheim, The Universe Makers (NY 1971), p. 41.

11. Frederick Engels, "The Funeral of Karl Marx," in When Karl Marx Died, ed. Philip Foner (NY 1973), p. 39.

12. V.I. Lenin, "Karl Marx: A Brief Biographical Sketch with an Exposition of Marxism," Selected Works (NY 1967), 1:13.

13. Nikolai Bukharin, Historical Materialism (1925; rpt NY 1965), pp. 46, 41; Cf George Plekhanov, The Role of the Individual in History (NY 1960); Karl Kautsky, The Class Struggle (Chicago 1910); Joseph Stalin, Leninism (L 1928; also pbd as Foundations of Leninism, NY 1932, and Questions of Leninism, NY 1934)~

14. The Early Asimov: Book One (see Note 8), p. 196.

15. Cf Daniel Aaron, Writers on the Left (NY 1965), pp. 325_407, and Charles Eisinger, Fiction of the Forties (Chicago 1963), pp. 87_94.

16. James Blish, "A Reply to Mr. Rottensteiner," SFS 1(1973):87; see also Sam Moskowitz, The Immortal Storm (1954; rpt Westport 1974), pp. 183, 210, et passim. In discussing this group, however, Moskowitz does not mention its political nature.

17. Wollheim (see Nate 10), p. 40.

18. "Social Science Fiction" (see Note 3), pp. 277_79.

19. For a concise summary of Saint-Simon’s life and views on this matter, see Edmund Wilson, To the Finland Station (1940; rpt Anchor ph 1953), pp. 79_85, and for a longer survey Frank E. Manuel, The New World of Henri Saint-Simon (Cambridge MA 1956).

20. Wollheim (see Note 10), p. 41. For a discussion of the "assumptions"—including Marxist—which provide the basis for "future history," see James Gunn, "Science Fiction and the Mainstream," in Science Fiction, Today and Tomorrow, ed. Reginald Bretnor (1974; rpt Penguin ph 1975), pp. 190_92. Recently another critic, John J. Alderson, in "The Foundation on Sands," The Alien Critic #11 (Nov 1974): 23_28, rpt from Chao #13 (June 1973), has made comparisons between the "Foundation" series and "Marxian ‘economic determinism,’" but his clear misunderstanding of Marxism and of the complexities of history and fiction rules out the possibility of serious critical debate.

21. Franz Marek, Philosophy of World Revolution (NY 1969), p. 41.

22. Ibid., p. 42.

23. George Lichtheim, Marxism (NY 1961), p. 40.

24. Eugene Kamenka, Marxism and Ethics (NY 1969), p. 9.

25. Franz Rottensteiner, "Playing Around With Creation: Philip José Farmer," SFS 1 (1973): 97.

26. For a recent discussion of this point, see Raymond Williams, "Base and Super-Structure in Marxist Cultural Theory," New Left Review, #82 (Nov-Dec 1973): 309.

27. Writings of the Young Marx on Philosophy and Society, ed. & tr. Lloyd Easton and Kurt Guddat (Anchor pb 1967), p. 309.

28. For a full discussion of this aspect of Marx’s thought, see Robert Tucker, Philosophy and Myth in Karl Marx (NY 1961).



This essay speculates on what elements in the Foundation stories of Asimov have so fascinated readers. The characters are undifferentiated and one-dimensional. Stylistically, the novels are disasters: Asimov’s ear for dialogue is atrocious. To describe characters’ annoyance, arrogance or bitterness, Asimov uses again and again one favorite adjective and adverb, "sardonic[ally]." Evidently, all people in all time periods will be sardonic. Asimov imports a watered-down idiom of his own time into a world twelve-thousand years into the future, with no change at all. This essay argues that what Asimov accepted as the "underlying concept" of the Foundation trilogy is the vulgar, mechanical, debased version of Marxism promulgated during the 1930s—and still accepted by many today. Indeed he takes this brand of Marxism to its logical end: human actions and the history they create become as predictable as physical events in nature. Everything in the universe is preordained. Reading these novels, readers experience a fatalism that (in a Marxist analysis) actually flows from their own sense of alienation and impotence in the face of problems they no longer even understand. Asimov’s answer to this modern problem of alienation is also the source of his popular appeal: he envisions humanity in the capable hands of a techno-bureaucratic elite.

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