MIA: Encyclopedia of Marxism: Glossary of People
Authors: Pavel Yudin and Mark Rosenthal
First published: 1954 in A Short Philosophical Dictionary, fifth edition
Translated:by Anton P.
Butlerov Alexander Mikhailovich (1828-1886) – the great Russian chemist, the creator of the theory of the chemical structure of molecules (1861), which is the result of all the previous development of chemistry and the theoretical basis of modern research of all classes of chemical compounds, their laboratory and industrial syntheses.
In developing this theory, Butlerov spontaneously proceeded from materialistic positions. He recognized the objective reality of atoms and the unlimited possibility of knowing their properties. Butlerov noted that all the individual properties of a substance are in a mutual causal relationship. He pointed out that chemical theories are a generalization of empirical facts, and especially emphasized that mastering a theory that generalizes empirical acts is necessary to subordinate the forces of nature and direct them to the services of human society. In the struggle against the agnostic views of Charles Frederic Gerhardt and August Kekule, Butlerov theoretically and experimentally proved that the chemical nature of a complex molecule is determined by the nature and number of atoms, its components, their mutual arrangement and interaction.
The study of chemical transformations, Butlerov proved, makes it possible to establish the mutual arrangement of atoms inside molecules, the order of their combination and the nature of their interaction. Butlerov especially noted the importance of studying the mutual influence of atoms in a molecule, both connected directly and through other atoms. The doctrine of the mutual influence of atoms in a molecule is an organic part of Butlerov’s theory. Butlerov paid main attention to the theoretical and experimental study of the dependence of the chemical properties of a molecule on its chemical structure. Butlerov theoretically explained the phenomenon of isomerism.
He considered chemical phenomena as manifestations of the movement of matter. In this regard, Butlerov pointed out that a molecule, contrary to the ideas of many Western chemists, is not something static, and its atoms are in continuous motion. This was a spontaneously dialectical view of the chemical structure of a molecule, on the basis of which Butlerov, in 1877, for the first time in the history of chemistry, explained the phenomenon of tautomerism, that is, mutual reversible transformations of molecules of certain substances that occur without any external influence. (Before that, in 1862, he discovered the first case of the phenomenon of tautomerism, and in 1863 he explained the “mechanism” of this particular case.) Butlerov emphasized that each molecule has only one structure and cannot combine two structures at the same time, as subsequently, some chemists tried to mystically explain tautomerism.
Butlerov experimentally substantiated his theory with a large number of syntheses and developed it further. Butlerov’s theory opened up wide possibilities for chemical synthesis, especially organic, being a powerful instrument of scientific foresight in laboratory and industry. With its help, the chemical structure of numerous natural compounds was deciphered, millions of chemical compounds that do not occur in nature were synthesized in the laboratory and industry. Confirmed by many years of practice, Butlerov’s theory has been enriched in recent decades with data from modern physics, primarily electronic representations based on quantum mechanics, which make it possible to deepen scientific views on the nature of chemical bonds, on the chemical interaction between atoms inside a molecule, and also on the “mechanism” of chemical reactions.
Soviet chemists play a leading role in confirming and developing Butlerov’s theory; they rely on this theory in their struggle against the idealistic theory of resonance. Butlerov’s theory and syntheses dealt a final blow to the idealistic concept of “life force”, supposedly acting in a living organism and being the only cause that can cause the synthesis of organic compounds. In general philosophical questions not related to chemistry, Butlerov was an idealist, a propagandist of spiritualism. However, the propaganda of spiritualism, which had a harmful effect on some circles of the intelligentsia, did not affect his chemical views, which were of a spontaneous materialistic nature.
Butlerov fought for the organized training of young Russian scientific personnel, for the strengthening of Russian scientific schools, for the progressive organization of higher education, including higher education for women. He himself created a school of Russian chemists. He led the progressive, patriotic Russian professors in their struggle against the reactionary policy of the Tsarist government in relation to science, against subservience to foreign countries. Butlerov’s works: On the chemical structure of substances (1861), The modern meaning of the theory of chemical structure (1879), Chemical structure and theory of substitution (1885), etc. (see A. M. Butlerov, Selected works on organic chemistry, 1951).