San Francisco, 1978—SftP: West Coast Conference

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San Francisco, 1978—SftP: West Coast Conference

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 10, No. 2, March/April 1978, p. 32–36

The first west coast conference of SftP since 1971 was held in San Francisco on Jan. 14. By all accounts it was a great success. 65 people attended from all over California, even two stalwarts from Seattle,Diane and David Westman. There were strong contingents from Davis-Sacramento, Riverside, Santa Cruz, S.F., and Berkeley-Oakland. It all happened at the “Farm”, a reconverted warehouse turned into a cozy community organizing and research center complete with chickens, cats, and organic gardens; nestled beneath a nightmare freeway offramp. The cast iron stove pipes in the meeting hall rattled all day with the welcome sound of pouring rain while unity reigned inside. 

The day’s agenda was agreed on without objection and the meeting began, more or less on schedule with a brief rap by Charlie Schwartz on the history of SftP followed by the keynote address by conference spark Jim Tobias. The issue workshops then began, most with 10 to 14 participants. Each group made a valiant effort to reach a consensus on the issue discussed for two hours while exchanging information and preparing a brief report. Discussion continued over lunch fueled by 80 big delicious burritos hauled in from the nearby Mission district. The conference redivided in the afternoon into recomposed small discussion groups to deal with political and organizing questions. 

This format proved to be a good arrangement at least for this first coast-wide meeting. We didn’t expect too much to come out of such a tightly packed schedule in the way of position papers or principles of unity. But people got acquainted, enthusiasm was created, and it was a beginning- hopefully, the beginning of a new phase of coordinated action on the west coast in SftP. 

The formal conference concluded at 5:30 with a foot stomping resolution full of whereases, calling for another conference in six months to assess where we are and eat more burritos. We recoa/esced later that night for a wild disco party- gyrating to the music of Chuck the Disco King.


9:00 am
Welcome. History of SftP by Charlie Schwartz. Keynote talk by Jim Tobias.

10:00 am to noon
Issue-oriented workshops on topics such as nuclear power, science education, etc., discussing the following questions:
-What is the political economy of this topic?
-Is it appropriate for SftP?
-What are our objectives and how do we get there?
-What ideologies are implicit in our different positions?
-What is the nature of the reforms proposed in this issue?
-Do they help us continue the political struggle, or not?

Lunch, and Berkeley SftP skit, “Uncle Samburger”

1:00-2:00 pm
Review of morning workshops and further general discussion.

Small group discussion on political organizational issues:
1) Problems in SftP of elitism, sexism, racism, both under- and overassertiveness.
2) Politics: how does science fit into a broader political and economic picture? What general political analyses and goals can we agree on? How can we best continue our political development, i.e., Marxist study groups, etc.
3) Priorities: based on our political views, where do we put the energies of the organization?
5) Practice: recruitment, chapter building, outreach, coalitions.
6) National issues: how do we deal with Boston, the magazine.
7) Nuts and bolts: next steps, staying in touch.

Supper, Party

Informal discussion, especially about the magazine coverage of this conference.


I’d like to read an excerpt from the January newsletter of the Boston Chapter. It’s a description of a discussion they had a few weeks ago, about the political development of the organization:

“Several people felt that the struggle with the Unity Caucus (a strongly Marxist-Leninist faction) had left a bad taste in people’s mouths about theoretical political discussion and in reaction people concentrated on their specific issue-oriented work. Over the months, however, it has become clear that we need to fatten the trunk of the organization as well as its branches. This means recruiting more people, more concentration on the magazine, more support of the steering committee, etc. But it also means more discussion around our political strategies and goals. 

“People expressed frustration about the lack of political discussion (and thus growth of the organization), but this is a rut we have fallen into: complaining about it without being able to change it. Political discussion does not fall from the sky, nor will it begin because someone rails about ‘We need more political discussion!’ It seems to me that it begins with careful, critical evaluation of our concrete practice in light of our long and short-range goals. Which means you first have to have some kind of overview about why you do what you do and an idea of how to do what you can realistically hope to accomplish. For example, we need to decide who we want to speak to—other professionals, science and technical workers, students, the general public, the “working class,” all or none of the above. We need to look at what we do—publish a magazine, give mini-courses and workshops, publish papers—and evaluate how effective that is in light of what our goals are—making a revolution, stopping recombinant DNA, popularizing science, providing support for radical professionals.

“We need to learn to be critical of ourselves without debasing our work for being bourgeois, middle-class professionals. It’s about time we got beyond our guilt and defensiveness so that we can criticize our activities in such a way that we learn and grow.”

That brings up an interesting point. A lot of people say one of our strong points is “we don’t take a line” or we’re not dogmatic. People can read the magazine and not be put off by a lot of rhetoric. That’s fine, you don’t have to hit people over the head to show them what’s clearly going on all around them.

But let’s face it, we have political differences among us and covering that up turns our strong point into a weak point. Instead of providing honest political dialogue, we look for unity in everything, to avoid arguments and keep tensions down. This can make us unclear as to our goals, ineffective, and stagnant. Now, we don’t need to go to the opposite extreme, and attack people because they put Mao on a third row of their bookcase and we put him on the first, but how can a political organization be political without politics? If we don’t know what we want, how are we going to get it? Well, it’s obvious that we’re not going to agree on a full platform today. But we should make the effort to begin to discuss the politics of science among ourselves. Not in a divisive way, but in a clarifying way, for mutual education.

—Jim Tobias

Morning Groups-Issue Workshops


The discussion centered around the social aspects (regulations & guidelines) rather than around the possible environmental effect of DNA research. The point most stressed was the lack of public input in establishing the regulations so far. The NIH guidelines are very inadequate. They were arrived at by an elite NIH committee with vested interests in the research. ‘Self-regulation’ with minimal public input just doesn’t work. A few discussion participants are working on legislation at the Calif. state level. Calif. state action is now in suspension waiting for federal action. If there is no federal action a Calif. bill will be repushed. In the meantime we should push for universal application of the NIH guidelines and also more public input in the process: open meetings, lay membership on the panels, etc. The desirability of putting recombinant organisms under public domain was also agreed on to eliminate profit. Finally, the issue of local regulations was discussed. It is a good issue for raising consciousness about the control and politics of science but their effectiveness was questioned because of the mobility of private research.


The tactics of both the weapons and energy struggles were discussed. It was agreed that they are both important and related struggles which SftP should be in the thick of but 1 that mass mobilizing is more likely 1 around the energy issue at present because the goals seem more realistically attainable without a total overhaul of the system. The following points came out of the discussion:
-The crucial issue is not technology, but who controls it.
-We should be part of environmentalist broad coalition movements in order to secure the goals of that movement, and radicalize the environmentalists. The two main objectives of the energy struggle should be to limit nuclear fission plants and to seek decentralized solar power. These are the most fruitful demands right now.


This workshop revealed much enthusiasm for strengthening West Coast SftP participation in OHS issues because OHS relates to the direct needs of working people. At the same time, many participants voiced concern that our input into OHS issues be directed at structural change rather than simply reform. We discussed taking advocacy positions and/or researching issues for labor unions. The problem is, how to do this in a political context. It serves little purpose to duplicate the efforts of many liberal research consultants already working in the OSH field. We must also contribute our political analysis. Organizing laboratory workers was discussed (1/3 of the discussion group was lab workers) but no specific decisions were made. Another possibility that the group agreed to look into was sponsoring alternative forums at industrial hygiene conferences (similar to the involvement of SftP in AAAS conventions).


First we asked what everybody in the workshop was already doing. This included lecturing on food, studying intensive farming, researching the social impact of farm mechanization, working on food slide shows, working in peoples food distribution systems, and working with government and consumer groups on a Calif. food policy. It was the consensus that food and agriculture present good political issues which people can relate to easily, and good illustrations of the irrationality within the capitalist mode of production. Food cannot be treated just like any other commodity because it is a basic necessity. Agriculture is the “soft underbelly of the system.” These are also good issues to organize rural as well as urban people around. The farmers strike for parity was discussed as well as the difficulties of establishing urban-rural alliances against the big corporate interests. Even small Calif. farms are big business to salaried city workers. The trend toward increasing concentration of food growing and distribution into fewer and fewer hands was agreed on as the most important reality in US agriculture today, with Calif. leading the way. The question is what to do about it. Is the issue big vs small? Should we push for the breakup of corporate farms into smaller units andjor push for greater regulation of agribusiness moving toward socialization of agriculture with more democratic control over food production and processing?
The farmworker coop movement was discussed as a refreshing, if small, counter to the growth of agribusiness. Also discussed were the ways that coops are constrained by the market economy of agribusiness.
As a first step in coordinating our activities statewide we agreed to write a collective article for the magazine on California agriculture. The topic was divided between the five chapters as follows:
Santa Cruz—Social consequences of mechanization
Davis- Nutrition Riverside—environmental, pest control
Berkeley /SF—Political economy of corporate agriculture
Berkeley /Davis- Land use
The group concluded its discussion by agreeing to keep a closer eye on political developments in Sacramento concerning the Calif. food policy plan in the hopes of making some input.


This group discussed the techniques of social engineering and their use in different social systems. (No written statement was prepared.)


The group discussed the level at which sociobiological theory should be criticized, the historical relationship between sociobiology and other genetic deterministic explanations, and future applications of genetic explanations of behavior. It was voiced that sociobiology is another form of genetic determinism that must be exposed methodologically as pseudoscientific and speculative at best, and politically serving ruling class interests. If female/male differences in behavior are explainable at the genetic level, then it is not unreasonable to assign race and class differences to a genetic basis. Current genetic deterministic theories such as sociobiology are being used to explain the apparent failure of groups to gain equality in an era of increasing and unprecedented social and political “opportunities.” One clear example of this that was brought up is the Dec. 1977 annual meeting of the American Economics Association in N.Y. in which an entire section was devoted to Economics and Biology: Evolution, Selection and the Economic Principle. Papers presented were “The Economy of the Body” (Ghiselin), “The Bio-Economics of the Family” (Trivers), and “Cooperation, Conflict, and Competition in Economics and Biology” (Hishleifer). I Another example of institutional support of sociobiopolitics that has surfaced since the conference: Stanford Univ. Center for the Advanced Study of Behavioral Sciences in sponsoring a six week summer institute on Biological Differences and Social Equality: “Minority scholars, and young scholars (under 35) with a doctoral degree, or scholars in a wide range who are affiliated with four year colleges, colleges and universities predominantly for the Black, or regional universities are eligible to apply.” (N.B. This same center invited a noted sociobiologist to spend the current 77-78 academic year there.) The group also stressed the necessity of getting wider distribution for the SftP publications on sociobiology and genetic determinism, especially the Ann Arbor book Biology as a Social Weapon.


The participants all felt that it was important for SftP on the West coast to begin working around science education in an organized way. For any groups that form to deal with this area, an important initial discussion about the politics of science education is necessary. This discussion should cover the questions such as: Who does science education serve? How does it work (i.e. tracking, etc.) How are racism and sexism built into the science education? How is the mystique of science perpetuated? Unity around these questions should not just be assumed. Projects discussed:
1) Analyzing curricula materials and textbooks.
2) Analyzing media coverage of scientific events as well as developing our own programs for public TV & radio.
3) Developing resource materials and curricula on science topics for different school levels.
4) Coordinating science education projects throughout SftP.
Another area discussed was the question of continuing education for science and technical workers. A question that remains unanswered is who is going to organize work in this area for SftP on the West coast. The workshop participants were not a group that could begin this effort.

Afternoon Sessions — Larger Questions
Here are some of the impressions from the afternoon workshops, which focused on political and organizational questions:


People were divided on the question of whether or not elitism, sexism, and racism were indeed problems in the organization. The small representation of third world people at the conference was indicative of part of the problem. Science education is elitist in nature, and usually the preserve of white males, and this carried over into SftP. Articles and mini-courses designed for non-scientists were seen as important correctives—a possible means of outreach to nonscientists, women, third world people, etc.

One by-product of the structure of scientific work in this country is the isolation that occurs among scientists, and the mystification that occurs between scientists and lay people. Many feel awed by those they consider experts, both in science and in politics. Many political science issues do require expertise, but this can’t be permitted to encourage superiority feelings. We must emphasize we are not an organization of scientists, but an organization of people concerned with the politics of science.


Debate occurred in almost every workshop over reform vs. revolution, and the role of SftP. We need more political discussion—lack of political consensus causes our outreach to be by convenience or default, because we have no clear view of where to look for allies. It was generally agreed upon that we need to identify with other groups to create a “larger movement.” A wide range of anti-capitalist views were represented. Marxism was seen as an analytical tool or starting point, not a complete analysis. An open political position was seen as good in the absence of true unity of principles. SftP should have definite agreement on specific issues, but must remain flexible and progressive in general political views. People were concerned about the problem of communicating a political message without scaring people off with “rhetoric.”

A partial list of suggestions for the future:
1. Small chapters should serve as spotters, to signal the rest of the organization when issues come up.
2. Political economy of science study groups
3. Organizing lab workers, working with unions
4. AAAS meetings—agitation and alternative forums, etc.
5. Legislative lobbying
6. More magazine articles. The magazine is very useful and should be used more by West coast people 7. Using mass media, radio, newspapers, school resource materials, etc.

Tactics discussed for coordinating the western chapters:
1. All groups discussed keeping in touch by some sort of newsletter. In the end it was decided Santa Cruz would bear first responsibility for assembling and mailing one.
2. Bay Area chapters should get together every few months
3. More regional conferences
4. Revive the Internal Discussion Bulletin
5. More internal discussion of articles and more active participation in the magazine through letters and articles.
Different theories on chapter building were presented: attracting political people by general approach or attracting people by an issue approach, developing politics later: attracting people by events. Problems with chapter building in the past have led to exploration of better ways to integrate new people.

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