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:
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
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
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
[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
[Barr] Because of the dead hand of
the mathematics of human behavior that can neither be stopped, swerved, nor
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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),
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
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
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
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
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