This essay is reproduced here as it appeared in the print edition of the original Science for the People magazine. These web-formatted archives are preserved complete with typographical errors and available for reference and educational and activist use. Scanned PDFs of the back issues can be browsed by headline at the website for the 2014 SftP conference held at UMass-Amherst. For more information or to support the project, email firstname.lastname@example.org
Open Letter – AAAS Philadelphia 1971
Brothers & Sisters,
Many of us in SESPA who are doing or have done scientific and engineering work, feel a deep sense of frustration and exasperation about the use of that work. We teach, we do experiments, we design new things—and for what? To enable those who direct this society to better exploit and oppress the great majority of us? To provide the Rockefellers with guns and helicopters with which to savagely crush the struggles of our brothers in Attica? To place the technological reins of power in the hands of those who plunder its people for imperialistic ends? No, those aren’t the ends toward which we work, but in this screwed-up society that’s what our work comes to. Every new advance merely signals the advent of new horrors as yet unimagined.
But we know that science and technology could provide the tools for people’s liberation. We can envision a society in which our work would free people from want and provide the productive know-how which would enable people to reach the fullest of their human potential. But that is a very different society from the one in which we live. It is a society that won’t just happen. We must work to make it happen.
And yet every day we enter that classroom or laboratory or office we are contributing to and supporting the present social and economic order. Much as we are repulsed by that order, and those who direct it, we still accept its criteria for success and its standards of behavoir. We feel we have to have that degree, so we dehumanize ourselves to get it. We feel we have to publish, so we push aside other things in order to publish.
How can we resolve this ambiguity between our attempt to build a better society and our everyday contribution to the maintenance of the present one? How can we liberate ourselves from this chronic social schizophrenia? The answer lies only in struggle — in using every means available to us to subvert the present system and build a new one, in exposing and destroying the ideology which makes us pawns of the ruling class, in demonstrating the value of alternative structures and social relationships. Our liberation comes in the unity of thought and action. Without action we have no principles; we have only empty rhetoric.
And that brings me to the AAAS actions. The AAAS represents everything we are fighting against. This organization is the propaganda organ of bourgeois science. By this I mean that it serves to extend and perpetuate an ideology and set of mental attitudes, both within and without the scientific community, which are in direct opposition to the struggle for social change.
For example, the AAAS, throughout its history, has acted solely on the basis of the narrow self-interest of science. It has assumed that science is, in itself, a desirable end, irrespective of the social context of technological advance. (To question that assumption is to question the existence of the organization.) But what attitude could better serve reactionary forces than that of the unwitting scientist who justifies his work solely on the basis of the work itself. Who could better serve the needs of an oppressive state than the technocrat who refuses to question the social function of his work?
But while this assumption is the basis of its actions (see Science for the People, Dec. 1970), the stated concerns of the AAAS are with social problems. And what is the approach to solving social problems? Why, technology, of course. More and better technology from the same people who have provided the present technology. Technology for population control, pollution control, urban redevelopment, law enforcement, and social manipulation. Merely skim over the AAAS meeting program. These nationally publicized forums feature the scientists grappling with the great problems of our time. The socially concerned experts are shown (on nation-wide T.V.) applying their scientific and technical expertise to solving political problems, problems too difficult, of course, for common people to understand. However, the main upshot of these performances is that most scientists and engineers have themselves bought the product. They fail to perceive the essential political nature of social problems, and hence their actions are doomed to merely aggravate the situation: medical technology for a corrupt medical-industrial complex, pollution control technology for a system of production based on waste and progit, computer and anti-riot technology for a political system which can’t even begin to meet the needs of its people. The technical panacea is a cure more deadly than the disease itself.
Moreover, underlying this technological mind-fuck is a deeply engrained elitism. Not only are scientists portrayed as the only ones capable of solving society’s problems, but in its very structure and organization, the AAAS and the annual meeting are highly undemocratic. The sessions, for example, are structured so that the all-knowing luminaries of science can belch forth to a passive audience the ideas and the attitudes which help enslave the bulk of humanity.
Can we allow these mandarins and their ideology to go unchallenged? Can we call ourselves radical scientists without exposing the political content of the assumptions and programs put forward? Can we permit this discussion of science and social issues to ignore the political realities of this society? Can we as scientists allow this obfuscation and mystification to continue? Out obligations to ourselves and to those with whom we struggle are clear.
To counter the idea of neutrality, the technocratic mentality, and elitism requires a lot of work. It requires us to first of all understand the fundamental premises of the ideas that are being expressed and the armed with this understanding to challenge these premises at every opportunity. In terms of the AAAS meeting, our objective must be to attend every session, to analyze what is being done, to raise the appropriate political issues, and to challenge the underlying ideology. The extent to which this can be done will determine how successful the AAAS actions will be.
We shouldn’t get the impression that this is a static process. In fact, our experience has been that these efforts have served to develop our political understanding and increase the sophistication of our arguments. By bringing together large numbers of radical scientists we can create an atmosphere of sharing and learning from one another.
This brings me back to a point I mentioned earlier. While part of our struggle is to expose and destroy the ideology which makes us tools of oppression, the other part is to create programs of action which follow from our political understanding. How in our classrooms, laboratories, and offices can we begin to put our vision into practice? This question is crucial and the answer can only come out of our conective experience. By drawing our colleagues from Berkeley, Chicago, Washington, New York, New England, etc., the AAAS meeting provides the focus for this important radical activity. Many people will be coming to the AAAS meeting this year not to hear the apologists on stage, but because they know important political activity will be taking place. There is growing interest in SESPA all over the country. Momentum is building. We cannot let this movement down.
SCIENCE FOR THE PEOPLE !!