Dropping a Left Bomb
By Anagha Rao
January 17, 2024
J. Robert Oppenheimer was a living, breathing unity of opposites. He brought expression to science, painting his research papers with overly abstract explanations. He built to destroy, whether it was the atomic bomb or his marriages. He was a communist squashing communism.
By the time Karl Marx was 30, he was hated by four countries. Every publication of his, down to the word, was an abomination.
Marx was never the popular kid, and he didn’t care to be. Educated by his father’s most leftist friend, he held radical beliefs in comparison to the conservative Prussian city he grew up in. This produced a particularly insufferable child: one that questioned the role of religion before he could multiply. And like every insufferable child, he grew up to attend a liberal arts college and never took another math class. Instead, he only spent time with his two vices: alcohol and socialism. Marx believed that philosophy on its own simply interpreted the world. He wanted to transform it, and that required transforming everything.
Marx scratched his plans to become a lawyer and spent his twenties writing. He bounced from paper to paper and wrote for three at once, determined to help the common man see the truth of their circumstances. And in 1848, his magnum opus was born: “The Communist Manifesto”. In twenty-three pages, he urged for progressive income taxes, free education for all, and more dauntingly radical policies. Marx took a systematic approach to writing, so it was easy for the average academic to understand him. In the months after publication, revolution erupted throughout France, Italy, and Austria. The Prussian government quickly took notice of the spread of these ideas and sought to halt it immediately.
At 27, Marx was exiled for the first time, but that didn’t stop him. At 27, he already knew what was at stake if it did.
To be hated by the government was no easy task to maintain, of course. Coming from a middle class upbringing, he initially found the working class crude. But it soon clicked how irrelevant idealism was. The revolutions that happened because of Marx were fiery but short-lived. The problem was that only academics could understand his work and think about what he proposed. They weren’t the most affected by the plights of capitalism; the working class was. Thinking is a privilege that the working class doesn’t have time for. They needed to be enraged at their realities, and Marx needed to break down why in simpler terms. Unlike his idealist peers, Marx found nothing too abstract to dissect, to critique, but this left him with little tools to concretize his theory. Everything must be cemented in reality. Everything is dynamic. Everything is related. He turned to an unlikely ally: physics.
The working class can’t win against bourgeois resources on a whim – revolution needs to be scientific. Physics was on the come up. We can see it in action; it’s understandable. The law of inertia states that once an object is in motion, it stays in motion. Everything is constantly moving: the earth around its axis, around the sun. Even atoms in the most solid objects are vibrating, itching to transform.
The mechanisms of physics and revolution appeared very similar. Marx believed that movement is contradictory – we can’t be both in one place and another at nearly the same instance. We live in a unity of opposites, and it’s the connection between them that drives change. In discovering subatomic particles, we found that the like charges of two protons should repel each other, but they don’t. They are bound by nuclear force. And it’s this discovery that founded nuclear energy.
Even if it was just an alignment of the time — physicists and social theorists were thinking alike. Marx used physics to describe the working man’s reality. The bourgeois binds the proletariat to their exploitative institutions, and their fight soon creates revolution. These connections were motivation. The proletariat were not powerless over their circumstances.
At the crux of his influence, Marx died broke and nationless. Only 11 people attended his funeral. His ideas might’ve faded into obscurity had it not inspired a certain Russian revolutionary who would go on to lead a certain communist state during World War II.
By the time J. Robert Oppenheimer was 30, he still hadn’t won a Nobel Prize. He was nominated three times, but his morality was always a concern.
To be fair, Oppenheimer was never a poster child for anything. A klutz in the lab, he was rejected from Cambridge’s experimental physics program.
Most students would just talk shit about their bad professors. Oppenheimer tried poisoning his.
He had an affinity for destruction from the start. He believed food was a distraction, consuming nothing but cigarettes to concentrate. He once became so insane from food deprivation that he strangled his friend.
Physics was more of a need than a companion, and they consumed each other. He was the kid that took over Socratic seminars and corrected his professors. But this only applied to physics. He didn’t care about anything else, so much so that he knowingly ignored the consequences of supporting communism during World War II..
Oppenheimer’s relationship with communism is a sore subject. To him, communism had personal ties. As a Jewish-American, Oppenheimer saw communism as a defense to the Nazi fascism that had taken hold of Germany, of his people. To him, it made sense. Why would he hide his involvement? But the purity of intellectual pursuit became tainted during World War II. In a whirlwind, his security clearance was delayed, and his life would forever be surveilled by the FBI for a few meetings and conversations.
Oppenheimer was tethered between his socialist and scientific interests. But he didn’t grasp the political turmoil of it all. Oppenheimer was notorious for his superiority complex. To him, the contradictions didn’t apply. He begged to lead the Manhattan Project despite the fact that its success would weaken his beliefs. He welcomed hypocrisy as he aided the US in taking down any attempt at communism.
Even Oppenheimer’s intelligence couldn’t foresee the impact his interests would have on each other and the destruction they would cause. It poses a question: would the atomic bomb have been necessary if communism had not made the Soviet Union into the powerhouse it was?
Marx would have hated what his ideology has transformed into. The very notion of a “communist state” was not the unity of opposites that he was looking for. But that doesn’t mean communism is fated to destroy. There is no fate at all; Marx believed that transformation stops with us. Our lives are in a constant cycle of change, good and bad. Marxism is a philosophy of cyclical action and reaction; ideas arise from our realities which cannot transform without initiative. Our first, most primal societies were communist. In a way, Marx believed that we’ll end right where we started but better. But who’s to say the last stop is communism? That’s just one belief.
Of course, it’ll take more than beliefs to transform. After all, theory only takes you so far. ■
Layout: Calla Bentsen
Photographer: Andrea Castellanos
Stylists: Vi Cao & Genevieve Hendrie
Set Stylist: Ashley Nguyen
HMUA: Mariela Mendoza & Angelynn Rivera
Model: Tyler Kubeka