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The Revolutionary Legacy of Science for the People

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Earth Day of 2017 saw the first March for Science, the biggest coordinated demonstrations of scientists in history. But it wasn’t the first time in history that scientists found themselves taking to the streets. From 1969 to 1989, Science for the People fought for a socially and economically just science. It produced its own magazine, engaged in political and philosophical debates with other scientists, carried out direct action, and provided material assistance to poor communities and the neo-colonial world. While the March for Science was primarily focused on defending science from reactionary, anti-science views, Science for the People fought to defend science from its own misuse at the hands of big business and the military.

The recently published, Science for the People: Documents from America’s Movement of Radical Scientists, brings that movement to life. Edited by Sigrid Schmalzer, Daniel S. Chard, and Alyssa Botelho, the book compiles documents from Science for the People over the course of its twenty-year history. It includes articles from their magazine, excerpts from pamphlets they produced, and even FBI reports on their activities.

The collection includes material from many of the big-name leftist scientists, with contributions from Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Lewontin, Richard Levins, and Stephen Rose. But, true to its commitment to being “for the people” it also contains the works of lesser known professors, as well as students, engineers, and grade school teachers. In its pages we see an ideological critique of the penetration of capitalism into the scientific process. We see exposés of the misuse of science, through theories like sociobiology, to justify the status quo. We see campaigns against the military-industrial complex and high-school science teachers discussing ways to inject politics into their pedagogy. Science for the People didn’t adopt a specific ideology, but self-described Marxists made up its backbone. And its output comes from a long tradition of Marxist commentary on science and the philosophy of science.

For those activists newly politicized on scientific questions, the history, legacy, and lessons of Science for the People is of immense importance. Capitalism portrays science as a purely objective phenomenon and considers any attempt at understanding the political implications of science to be an intrusion of ideology into the sphere of objective, scientific neutrality. The March for Science forced scientists to get political when faced with the Trump administration’s anti-science attacks. But these were tentative steps, with many participants, and especially the organizers, limiting their political involvement to the defense of science itself. Nonetheless, science is inherently political, and the more scientists are confronted with this reality, the more the legacy of Science for the People will make itself felt.

Revolutionary Ferment

Science for the People didn’t arise in a vacuum. The late 1960s and early 1970s were a period of mass struggles and revolutionary ferment. The year before the founding of Science for the People had seen the French general strike, the Prague Spring, and the massive confrontation at the Democratic Convention in Chicago. The civil rights movement had inspired more radical movements like the Black Panthers, as well as the Young Lords in the Puerto Rican community. New struggles of other oppressed groups broke out, from the new women’s movement, to the Stonewall uprising and the rise of the gay liberation movement. Above all, the mass movement against the Vietnam War shook American society almost to its foundations.

The Vietnam War was particularly politicizing for scientists. Despite an ostensible claim to political neutrality, the scientific establishment was dependent on defense grants used to prop up the war. In 1967, University of California-Berkeley physicist Charles Schwartz responded with a proposal to amend the bylaws of the American Physical Society (APS) to allow the organization to formally oppose the war. This was voted down in 1968 but the ensuing debate revealed a massive polarization in the scientific community. And the struggle over the “Schwartz amendment” led to the formation of Science for the People. 

The book includes a letter from Schwartz to Physics Today defending his amendment. In it he made the case for the inseparability of science and politics:

“Such statements as, ‘We are concerned only with physics as physics,’ are simply nonsense. There exists a whole range of issues where the technical activity of physicists gets tied up with the political decision making. Our individual requests for government funds and the scientific appraisal of others’ proposals are the most obvious examples. . .  At present it too often happens that the ‘public opinion of physicists’ emerges from sources quite remote from the actual majority of our colleagues.”

At the February 3-6, 1969 meeting of the APS in New York, Schwartz co-founded Scientists for Social and Political Action, serving as a pole of attraction for those dissident scientists who supported his amendment. The first meeting attracted two hundred scientists. It soon expanded to include engineers, changing its name to Scientists and Engineers for Social and Political Action (SESPA). By the end of 1969 its name changed again, to Science for the People, and its newsletter became a bimonthly magazine of the same name. Organized chapters were soon set up across the country.

Science for the People was born out of a struggle for scientists to come to terms with the political ferment around them. Over its 20-year life, Science for the People went well beyond simply fighting against the Vietnam War. It integrated itself into all of the struggles that had broken out, from black liberation to women’s liberation, from defending the environment, to taking on big pharma. This required consciously butting heads with the idea of scientific neutrality and the scientific establishment that promoted that notion. Over the course of these fights, we saw a thorough-going challenge to the way science is conducted under capitalism.

Capitalism, Science and Ideology

While Science for the People arose out of the radical struggles of the 1960s, it inherited the legacy of previous generations of Marxist scientists and Marxist commentary on science. In particular, the movement took inspiration from British Marxist scientists like J.D. Bernal and J.B.S. Haldane, during the 1930s, as well as Soviet figures like Boris Hessen, who flourished before Stalinism began its purge of scientists. These scientists developed the Marxist philosophy of dialectical materialism in the field of science, challenging the reductionist and positivist ideas that dominated scientific thought. Bernal and Hessen in particular brought a politicized approach to the history of science, pointing to the social forces that shaped scientific thought. They pointed out the positive role capitalism played, especially during the times of the bourgeois revolutions, in the development of modern science, while drawing attention to the way that capitalism, especially in the modern day, acts as a fetter to wider scientific progress.

The ideological work of Science for the People developed this Marxist critique of science under capitalism. An early booklet by the group “Toward a Science for the People”, excerpted in the collection, outlined the scientific process as it takes place under capitalism. It pointed to the use of scientific research as the basis for improving productivity of profitable enterprises and reasserting imperialist dominance. This need determines what research gets conducted, how that research is carried out, and what sort of education takes place. Thus, while science studies objective reality, the pretense of science as an objective search for truth serves to reinforce the status quo.

Of course the deforming influence of capitalism on science does not negate the enormous accomplishments of science under capitalism including for example the theory of human evolution as well as general relativity and quantum mechanics. Most of the scientists who made the breakthroughs did not of course subscribe to dialectics even if in practice they had to use elements of a dialectical approach.

The collection also includes a number of articles from Science for the People elaborating on how scientific concepts themselves can be subject to social influence. An article from 1976 by Norman Diamond looked at the way personal choices, with the possibility of political bias, appear in every step of the scientific method, from analyzing data, to formulating hypotheses, to conducting experiments to test these hypotheses. Another article by Steven Rose from 1984 looked at the political and material limits to scientific achievement that, while rejecting anti-science calls to halt the “tampering with nature”, challenged the linear view of scientific progress put forward by many ideologies. And a speech from Richard Levins in 2014 looked at the dual role of scientists as both exploited workers and as ostensible spokespeople for capitalist conceptions of science. 

One of the more interesting articles in the collection is the 1983 piece “Toxic Waste and Citizen Action” by public health scientists J. Larry Brown and Deborah Allen. This was written in the wake of the Woburn, Times Beach, and Love Canal scandals, where pollution and toxic waste poisoned communities. These scandals spurred a revival in the environmental movement and posed unique problems for scientists.

Brown and Allen go into some detail outlining the problems scientists faced in responding to these crises. Most of the scientists in the appropriate field of expertise were employed by, or dependent on research grants from, the very companies responsible for the pollution. This prevented most researchers from being able to even look into the problems. If someone was able to do research into the impacts of pollution and toxic waste, it would have to be voluntary labor in addition to their day job, because no capitalist would willingly pay them to expose big business. Beyond that, communities could be exposed to dozens of pollutants interacting in different ways, over the course of an extended period of time, which limited the ability to conduct a properly controlled experiment. This gave big business a way to pass the blame elsewhere. In the end, it was community activism, and not the good will of scientists, that brought about change.

While Science for the People rejected the purely “objective” conceptions of much of modern science, they were still scientists, and didn’t adopt the crude anti-science ideas that occasionally appear on the left. The group criticized the way technological advances wreaked havoc on the environment, enhanced militarism, and destroyed jobs. But they didn’t take a crude Luddite position, and were clear about the positive potential that scientific and technological advances could play. This occasionally put them at odds with others within the environmental movement, who blamed humanity, rather than capitalism, for environmental destruction.

This aspect of Science for the People is relevant for modern political struggle. Anti-science ideas, such as climate change denial and transphobic biological determinism, have been embraced by the right and provoked pro-science struggles. But anti-science ideas still exist on the left. This includes fringe ideas like conspiracy theories about vaccines and fluoride. More seriously, the rise of postmodernist ideas on the left tends to view science as just another “grand meta-narrative” to deconstruct. The March for Science faced hostility from some on the left who argued that science was a bourgeois ideology or a racist ideology. Marxists defend the scientific method and adopt a scientific approach to struggle. But we link this to the struggle for socialist revolution, which includes challenging the bourgeois and racist forces that shape science under capitalism.

Science for the People advocated, first of all, for a conscious political approach among scientists and, second of all, for politicized scientists to work closely with other political struggles. Special research groups were set up where they could apply their specific scientific expertise to various political questions that popped up. This included providing alternate science curricula that could bring politics into high school biology classes. It included assistance to healthcare provision in oppressed communities. And it included direct responses to attempts to use science for reactionary ends.

The Fight Against “Sociobiology”

One of the biggest ideological battles waged by Science for the People was against the distortion of biology to justify the evils of capitalism, from war and poverty, to racism and sexism. This misuse of biology goes back to the “social Darwinists” of Marx and Engels’s time. But it became a renewed feature of political reaction in the 1970s, with the development of “sociobiology”, popularized in E. O. Wilson’s 1975 book Sociobiology: The New Synthesis. “Sociobiology” was an attempt to look at the social structures of various species of animals and to use that to come up with biological evolutionary explanations for the structure of human society.

Sociobiology was little more than an attempt to present modern capitalist society as “natural” and hence unalterable. The caste divisions in ant and bee colonies was used to justify the eternal nature of class divisions in human society. Examples of violent behavior among animals was used to explain war as a natural consequence of biologically conditioned aggression. Territorial behavior was used to justify private property. Biological explanations were given to explain criminal behavior and income inequality. 

Among its more reactionary advocates, racial and sexual inequality was explained by natural biological divisions between races and sexes. While Wilson distanced himself from that open racism, he nonetheless attributed the existence of racism to a biological predisposition to xenophobia. Meanwhile Marxist views, which sought to understand society in terms of the process of production, were dismissed as unscientific because they didn’t rely on genetics as the explanation of human behavior. Any attempt at critiquing sociobiology was attacked as “advocacy” interfering with Wilson’s “objective” science.

Science for the People responded to the publication of Wilson’s book with an open letter, entitled “Against ‘Sociobiology’”, signed by several contributors, and published in the New York Review of Books. Unabashed about their politics, they nonetheless debunked Wilson’s arguments with the knowledge of serious scientific researchers. They pointed to Wilson asserting the existence of “genes favoring spite” as well as “creativity, entrepreneurship, drive and mental stamina” without evidence. They pointed to his tendency to use concepts from human society, like “slavery” and “caste”, as metaphors for biological concepts that didn’t actually correspond to their sociological namesakes, and using that confusion to conflate the two. And they pointed out that, in spite of Wilson’s claim to “objectivity”, he was fully engaging in the advocacy that he accused the opponents of “sociobiology” of engaging in.

Beyond that letter to the New York Review of Books, the Boston branch of Science for the People set up a Sociobiology Study Group to look at the issues raised by the “sociobiology” fad in greater detail. A year after Wilson’s book came out, a prominent incident of racism broke out at Harvard Medical School when the physician, geneticist, and “sociobiology” advocate Bernard Davis attacked the school’s affirmative action program for endangering public safety by allegedly allowing unqualified minorities to become doctors. The publicity of Davis’s racist comments led to a number of incidents in the Boston area of white patients refusing to be seen by black doctors.

Science for the People responded by actively fighting alongside black medical students, and used the Sociobiology Study Group to respond to Davis’s own arguments. Davis never actually presented any data to back the existence of unqualified minorities getting medical degrees. Instead, he used the arguments of “sociobiology” to claim that, if people had difficulty getting into Harvard Medical School, there must be a biological explanation for it, data be damned. 

Even before the publication of Wilson’s book, Science for the People set up the Genetic Engineering Group which looked into the controversies around research into the XYY genotype. This is a condition where someone is born with a third sex chromosome, resulting in one X-chromosome and two Y-chromosomes. Since the Y-chromosome is associated with masculinity, many assumed that an XYY genotype would result in hypermasculinity and could serve as a genetic explanation for antisocial behavior.

Of particular interest in this collection is Doug Futuyama’s 1980 article “Is There a Gay Gene? Does It Matter?” which addressed issues related to biology and the LGBTQ community. While the biological determinist ideas of “sociobiology” were generally used to clearly reactionary ends of propping up racism and sexism, it got a bit of following among a layer of gay rights advocates, who saw the idea of a “gay gene” as a counter to the reactionary claims that homosexuality was a personal choice. Wilson explicitly used this as a means of giving a progressive spin to his otherwise reactionary views. Futuyama was gay himself, but made the case that, while sexuality may involve an interplay of nature and nurture, there was little to no evidence for the existence of a “gay gene”. Moreover, he pointed out support for LGBTQ rights shouldn’t be contingent on the existence of a genetic explanation. This discussion has particular relevance for today as the fight against transphobia has become more prominent, and biological determinist arguments in favor of gay rights are often used to justify transphobia.

At the time, critics of “sociobiology” were often accused of bringing political biases into science. Since then, Wilson’s ideas have lost support in science. In particular his attempts to identify human social structure with eusocial insects like ants and bees is now generally understood to have no scientific basis. But, even today, ideas along these lines make their way into public consciousness through pop science. Jordan Peterson’s ruminations on lobsters and Charles Murray’s attempts to link race to IQ are pale, almost farcical, imitations of Wilson’s work, but they maintain a certain popular following. In fighting Wilson, Science for the People took on a far worthier and more serious foe than Peterson and Murray. And modern activists stand only to gain by studying that fight.

What is to be Done?

While Science for the People engaged in extensive commentary on science and the philosophy of science the intent, from the start was to be an activist organization. After all, Karl Marx famously remarked “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” This posed a question of what scientists should actually do to engage in activism.

In the early days of the movement, from its founding in 1969 until 1973, Science for the People directed its energies against the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the world’s largest scientific society. Of the various documents collected in this book, ten are devoted to documenting Science for the People’s direct actions disrupting AAAS meetings, exposing their complicity in defending militarism, racism, sexism, and capitalism. These direct actions drew the attention of the FBI, and two of the documents are FBI reports from their investigations.

The exact content of the direct actions provoked some debate within the organization. The book documents one debate surrounding their actions at the 1970 AAAS annual meeting in Chicago. When Edward Teller, “the father of the H-bomb” spoke at a presentation on “Is there a Generation Gap in Science”, Science for the People activists interrupted his presentation with humorous placards and gave him a mock award entitled the “Second Annual Dr. Strangelove Award”.

This action drew criticism from a group of Science for the People activists in Boston called the Boston Travellers who argued that the action was overly theatrical, devoid of substance, and “substituted moralistic rhetoric and ridicule for a critical discussion of how and why our society makes men like Teller tools of a moribund and destructive capitalist system”. Instead, they pointed to a different direct action at the same AAAS conference, against a panel on “Crime, Violence and Social Control”. This was a more politicized action, with activists in the audience interrupting particular problematic points coming from the panel.

As the Boston Travellers explained, “At first those who spoke up from the audience were our people, but soon a beautiful thing happened: persons, obviously unaccustomed to speaking up, rose to speak. One man, perhaps in his seventies, spoke of the violence of Chicago housing conditions first explaining how he had never before spoken up. Women spoke of institutionalized violence to them. The panelists were challenged; there was every evidence that having a response was more meaningful to them than the usual sterile reading of a paper.”

One problem facing Science for the People when it came to its activist work was its highly decentralized character. This was motivated by a desire to prevent any particular ideology from claiming a monopoly on science. Given the history of Stalinist promotion of pseudo-scientific ideas like Lysenkoism, this was an understandable concern. But this decentralization also extended to their direct actions. While debates could be held as to what types of actions were more effective than others, the insistence on decentralism meant that any tactic, even bad tactics, remained on the table. This caused problems when Science for the People had to respond to the Sterling Hall bombing. 

Sterling Hall used to be the mathematics building on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus. It housed the Army Mathematics Research Center (AMRC), which did computerized mathematical modeling research that was being used in the Vietnam War. On August 24, 1970, a truck bomb went off outside the building set by an anti-war group called the “New Year’s Gang”, accidentally killing a postdoc physicist unaffiliated with the AMRC. Beyond the completely senseless death, the bombing only served to strengthen state repression and turn public sentiment against the anti-war movement. The New Year’s Gang was unaffiliated to Science for the People. But the fight against the AMRC was a big part of Science for the People’s campaign work in Madison.

In 1973, the Madison chapter of Science for the People produced a 119-page book exposing the activities of AMRC at the UW-Madison, excerpts of which are reprinted in this book. They actively campaigned for the center to be shut down and came up with concrete proposals for how the computerized mathematical modeling done at the center could be re-harnessed towards peaceful ends. But the desire for decentralism within Science for the People meant they refused to condemn the bombing, even on a tactical level.

As the Vietnam War ended, the direct actions carried out by Science for the People began to wane. The disruptions of the AAAS stopped, and activism tended to be confined to isolated local struggles without any national coordination by Science for the People. The magazine itself continued into the 1980s, albeit with more focus on theoretical questions. These theoretical contributions are still immensely useful to socialists looking for a better understanding of the social forces impacting science. But it’s unfortunate that Science for the People never coalesced into a more unified activist force.

Science and Socialism

While U.S. imperialism waged imperialist slaughter in the neo-colonial world, activists with Science for the People made solidarity visits to Cuba, North Vietnam, China, and Nicaragua. The visits to North Vietnam took place in the midst of the Vietnam war, and the visits to Nicaragua occurred while the Reagan administration was actively funding the right-wing contras in an armed insurgency against the Sandinista government. These visits served to provide material assistance to countries resisting imperialism. But they also served as opportunities to see how science could operate outside of capitalism.

These opportunities were limited however, as none of the countries in question could serve as a genuine model of socialism. Cuba, North Vietnam, and China had all overthrown capitalism and established planned economies. But they were deformed workers’ states, run by a dictatorial bureaucratic elite without any workers’ democracy. Moreover, they all existed in a global economy still dominated by capitalism, which perpetually threatened to overturn the gains of their revolutions. This threat was particularly strong in the case of Nicaragua where, despite the left government of the Sandinistas, large parts of the economy remained in private hands.

The existence of a planned economy provided a tangible benefit compared to science under capitalism. This is especially clear in the account of molecular biologist Mark Ptashne of his 1971 visit to Hanoi. He reports that, even in the midst of imperialist bombardment, the North Vietnamese government was able to implement a public health program that brought the country’s infant mortality rate to that of the U.S. The public health program included mass-scale vaccinations and vaccination research. This was combined with public works programs to improve hygiene, and a medical training program that allowed people to become trained in important medical treatment without having to undergo several years in expensive western medical schools.

This shows how science, when liberated from the fetters of capitalism, can make important advances. But the fetters of Stalinist bureaucracy aren’t sufficiently addressed in Science for the People’s work. Excerpts from the 1974 Science for the People book China: Science Walks on Two Legs looks at the achievements of science under Mao and contrasts it with numerous problems in capitalist science. When the book points to the capitalist contradiction between “fabulous developments in medical science” and the difficulty in getting emergency care, it’s clear that the Chinese revolution was able to resolve this contradiction. But when the book contrasts the development of industry with the fact that “industry pollutes and degrades the environment around us and work remains repetitive and dehumanizing”, it’s describing contradictions that exist under Stalinism just as much as under capitalism.

Achieving socialism requires a planned economy, but it also requires the active democratic control of society by the working class, something that was lacking in Cuba, Vietnam, China, and Nicaragua. Democratic planning on a global scale would unleash the ability for a massive revolution in science, dwarfing what has been achieved under capitalism. The solidarity visits of Science for the People offered glimpses of what could be achieved. But they remained glimpses.

Marching for Science

Science for the People formally dissolved in 1990 due to tax troubles. However, the publication of this collection also coincides with the relaunch of Science for the People, which held a convention in Ann Arbor, Michigan at the beginning of February 2018. A new blog was launched two months later. In July 2018 a special online issue of the magazine was published dealing with the science and politics of geoengineering. And in Spring of 2019, the print publication was renewed under the headline “The Return of Radical Science”. It featured articles on such topics as climate change, tech worker organizing, and fighting sexual harassment in STEM..

The renewed interest in Science for the People comes as the global working class is returning to struggle, raising the consciousness that had been set back with the collapse of Stalinism. And this has seen a revival of political discussion and activism around science. As people grappled with the strengths and limitations of movements like the March for Science, it was entirely understandable that people would look to Science for the People for inspiration. 

The current state of science also poses new issues that radical scientists will have to deal with. Science for the People predated the Internet revolution, as well as the widespread knowledge of the environmental impact of man-made climate change. Donald Trump’s attacks on climate science reveal the need to defend science from reactionary anti-science views, even while fighting the capitalist distortions of science. And the increasing adjunctification of academia has proletarianized a large number of scientists, pointing to a potential rise of labor struggles among working-class scientists.

On the other hand, many of the problems with capitalist science that Science for the People took on still remain. The reliance on corporations and military grants for research funding remains and has gotten worse. The biological determinism of sociobiology has come under some fire in mainstream scientific circles, but has been embraced wholeheartedly by the “alt-right”. And the pressure on scientists to abstain from politics in order to remain “objective” remains, even when Trump’s attacks force scientists to take to the streets. 

Meanwhile the real accomplishments of modern science overwhelmingly and dramatically confirm the ideas of dialectical materialism including the rejection of fixed categories and a “gradualist” theory of change. Instead these breakthroughs confirm that change is constant and that quantitative change leads at crucial points to qualitative transformation. This confirmation of the correctness of dialectical materialism is real even if these ideas are very, very rarely acknowledged or even understood by most scientists including those who have made key breakthroughs. But it in no way diminishes the need to fight for a clear theoretical understanding and to show how science can’t be “neutral” but should be allied to the movement for a socialist future.

For scientists going into the struggle, the legacy of Science for the People, and the documents collected in this book, serve as an important historical resource.

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