Political Life in Science for the People? — A Discussion on the Lack of It

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 sftp.publishing@gmail.com

Political Life in Science for the People? — A Discussion on the Lack of It

By D.W. and the Interim Steering Committee of Boston SESPA

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 5, No. 3, May 1973, p. 30 — 37

DOES OUR PRACTICE STAND UP TO SCRUTINY? “Extraordinary competence is not a license to control and dominate others; instead, it confers the responsibility to show them the way you have already found.”

According to Margaret Mead [Science, vol. 179, pg. 164] we in SESPA “haven’t developed, … haven’t matured”. She also made the crack to me that we “were a bore.” Has SESPA/Science for the People indeed become boring? Have we failed to show any development over the last few years?

At the 1970 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Chicago we passed out the New University Conference analysis, People’s Science by Zimmerman et al [Science for the People, vol. III, no. 1, Feb. 1971]. Last year at the 1971 AAAS meeting in Philadelphia we passed out the pamphlet Censored1, which contains a more developed version. And more recently at the 1972 AAAS meeting in Washington, D.C. the “Science and Survival” section of the SESPA leaflet was a reprint of part of this same essay. Published in Liberation under the title “Science for the People” it remains the only proclamation which purports to represent the group. It would have been fruitful to analyze the essay. It lacks clarity and has other defects. To my mind, by not doing so, we lost the chance to reflect upon ourselves. The fact that this essay could be used in the 1972 AAAS pamphlet, with perfect agreement from those who oversaw publication (although others of us disagreed) attests to its continued relevance.

As defined by the essay, Science for the People has not changed. Yet, does that essay really define Science for the People? It is generally known that some of the Boston group (for instance) do not agree with it in every respect. I myself find that the “programs” at the end leave something to be desired, and that the political analysis is based on hidden assumptions, which I will explore later, but I don’t find much to disagree with fundamentally.

The answer is not ready to hand because of the lack of critical discussion of the essay. The general lack of criticism and political discussion has just begun to be remedied in the last few months and in the last two issues of Science for the People. My essay is meant as a continuation of that discussion.

Some of those opposed to the programatic statement by Zimmerman et al have asserted that SESPA is defined by its actions. What, in light of three years of actions does this actually mean? SESPA actions have several characteristics, and I shall criticize these and our performance in the past:

Direct Action. We do not seek to represent anyone but ourselves in our actions, nor do we permit others to represent SESP A, except in the role of sympathizer. This seems to be based upon a desire by many in the group to be their own agent in matters of politics. Yet, although we have maintained this course in the realm of practice, in the realm of theory many have been content to let Boston and certain leading individuals carry the ball. Is political theory, unlike political practice, the rightful property of a few? Certainly, the answer is no! Just as we assert that it is necessary to make the specialized knowledge of science widely available, so should we also make available the hidden assumptions of those do theoretical politics for Science for the People.

Systematic Political Analysis. When we hold that the Vietnam War, AAAS in Latin America, and the behaviour of war contractors are all of a piece, we are implying a class analysis — a fundamental concept in Marx. To what extent, then, is SESPA Marxist? We seem to use Marxist categories, we align ourselves with Marxist groups, and many of the leading individuals are Marxists, or at least some form of socialist revolutionary. Why do we not discuss this in SftP? We should heed Freire’s2 assertion about the dialogical nature of political education, the necessity for both reflection and action and the necessity for doers also to be thinkers as well as thinkers also doers. This would require us to clarify our politics, to develop a politics that everyone participates in both as activist and theorist. But this also requires us to bring to light and understand the basis of our political differences. That was the message of Mao Tse-tung in the Cultural Revolution in China “one divides into two” which is diametrically opposite Liu Shao-ch’i’s line, “two unite into one.” It is not possible to unite people by attempting to cover up political differences. People can only be united through ideological struggle and subsequent unification around common objectives.

Local Autonomy and Consensus Decisions. Our practice has not been consistent, and the cloudiness of our politics make local autonomy in matters of theory impossible. Before the writing of the AAAS 1972 pamphlet, the North Side Chicago collective was assigned the development of the “Science for Survival” section of the pamphlet. They wrote a piece that was much too long, and many members at the meeting in New York in December disagreed with it in substance as well. To· avoid a paralyzing discussion of the paper, I volunteered to take it and critical remarks from the others at the meeting back to Washington with me and write a shorter piece. This I did, and it was·criticized by other members of the Washington group. The final piece may or may not have had as many faults as the North Side Chicago piece, but it was certainly shorter and incorporated some of the same points as the longer piece. Yet at the last minute, others in the group rejected it unilaterally in favor of a repeat of Zimmerman et al. Local autonomy? Consensus decisions? No. Both actions were mistakes and ought to be criticized. Ideally the New York meeting should have phoned Chicago and requested a shorter rewrite embodying a few of the main criticisms, and this document should have been held to. Certainly the “Science for Survival” does not imply the Zimmerman et al essay as a necessary outcome. Other examples of inconsistency in this area can be· cited; we ought to be more careful. This is an important principle.

Anti-Elitism, Communalization of Resources and Skills. I feel that SESPA has a hidden elite in that some are adjudged to be more competent politically than others and that the political tools necessary for competent analysis are not communal property. Extraordinary competence is not a license to control and dominate others; instead, it confers the responsibility to show them the way you have already found. We consistently take an anti-elitist stance externally; certainly we ought to take the same stance within our group.

Consistent Critical Attitude. We have continued to be critical of this society and of AAAS and the “solution” it proposes. We must also continue to be critical of ourselves, and keep our objectives clear and our theory and practice in harmony. If we are working for a more humane society, in which all peoples are freed from the necessity to sell their souls to the Man in return for the privilege to live, then we must love those who are our comrades and realize that oppression has left its mark on all of us. We call these marks “faults”, but whose fault are they? Our own, just as the unemployed may be unemployed because of bad genes? Clearly, no. We have all been raised in a political system where oppression is the common mode of everyday life. We have been educated as tools of our oppressors, and we contradict that role. yet in true dialectical fashion we carry the wreckage of that role within us.

We need more work and more commitment from everybody. We cannot afford to rest on the financial and political backs of a few people. This is a big country with a complex populace, and our movement is just emerging. We must realize that we still have a long struggle ahead, and that what we oppose cannot be changed within the established political-economic system. We must rely on the people, in a concrete sense: 1) We must trust the people whom we arouse politically, for if we mistrust them, we too risk becoming an elite, and 2) We must continue to do our own politics, because we too are of the people in a concrete sense, and to separate ourselves from them is to extinguish ourselves.

I would urge a national or regional convention of SESPA and continued effort to spread the editing of the magazine to cities other than Boston. I would urge that we develop better projects, and more of them, and that we continue to share common experiences of success and failure, and analyze them. And I would hope we do not stagnate. While we may bore Margaret Mead, I would hope we don’t bore ourselves, for that would be fatal.


D.W.’s criticism of the lack of public discussion on a position paper which he knows is disagreed with by many active members of SESPA is, in our judgment, valid and necessary. We encourage all who are critical of the Zimmerman et al position to submit their criticisms and alternative analyses and programs to succeeding editorial collectives of the magazine. This would begin the necessary discussion.

WHO ARE WE? As part of the ongoing “discussion of the political orientation of SESPA” initiated in the January (May cover) 1973 issue, we are printing these excerpts from a draft flyer describing SESPA philosophy, political strategy, and history. The draft, put together by the Interim Steering Committee of Boston SESPA has been sent to local contacts for comment and appeared in a recent issue of the Boston area newsletter:


Science for the People means recognizing the political nature of science; it means access for all people to useful human knowledge. It means the organization of men and women in science as a basis for alliance with other communities aimed at fundamental social change. We are Science for the People. We are scientific workers brought together by the common experience of frustration in our attempts to be socially productive human beings. We see dehumanization and alientation as part of a social order of exploitation, racism, sexism and war. We seek to uncover the roots of this diseased social and economic order which fragments our work and our lives. Control by government and corporate bureaucracies serves only the few. You and we are the people science should be for.

Science in American society is not neutral. Who among scientific workers or the people science affects participate in setting directions? Science is not a free agent. What science, what scientist is independent of the social and economic system which funds them? Action for social change demands that we reassess both the way we view science and the way we relate to one another. As scientists and secretaries, technicians and teachers, we are taught that being responsible is akin to being efficient and that competition which perpetuates isolation and fragmentation is fundamental. Myth and jargon serve to intimidate those not in the “scientific community”, causing them to surrender their powers of reason and action to a “detached” aqd “dispassionate” scientific elite. Elitism provides the distance between knowledge and people essential for control by the system. Action to oppose that distance, to regain control of our lives, our values, our directions, is responded to by a science which provides a technology of crowd control and surveillance. Science for the People means knowledge for the people and through knowledge, action. Our actions serve as a common statement. We judge others by their practice, just as we expect to be judged by others.


SftP’s varied activities demonstrate different tactical approaches for confronting how science and technology are used for control and profit; however, there is considerable underlying agreement in strategy. Thus anti-elitism is an important foundation of SftP politics and, in practice, this means relying on the activities, skills and organization of large numbers of people rather than seeking favors from those who hold power. Concretely, SftP focuses on communicating with our peers — people we meet or work with — rather than, for example, lobbying in Washington or otherwise attempting to push legislation.

Through meeting, discussing and publishing, we try to interject important ideas into, and Ft involved in, people’s daily concerns and struggles. In contrast, some organizations of scientists and engineers primarily pursue legislative influence, like through expert testimony, for their impact.

Since where we work is a major part of our political environment — in industry, education or government — one component of SftP strategy is to develop collective approaches to dealing with problems people face in these jobs, and, in the process, define in increasingly broad terms what these problems derive from. Another emphasis in SftP is applying, whenever possible, people’s specific skills directly to the problems of people oppressed by the system as a whole — including ourselves and the movement in general — as in the Science for Vietnam Project or the Science Teaching Group. Again, in contrast, are individuals who attempt to play a progressive role by working upward “within” the system, behaving themselves, hoping that one day their credentials will make their ideas more acceptible to policy makers.

There are also organizations which do detailed muckraking research of a technical nature which, while useful, miss the broader implications of their efforts. In Science for the People, we think it’s important to go beyond describing how things are, to explain why they are, and what obstacles stand in the way of change. Further, we believe that through collective participation in a broad-based organization, the required analysis is accessible for everyone, not just the “experts.” Thus Science for the People is able to develop analyses and materials that are relevant and useful in our political work: in our jobs. at professional meetings, and in general agitation actions and publishing.


SESPA/Science for the People is presently a loosely-structured organization of national scope . . . Although there is an underlying broad agreement about the misdirection of science and technology, the real definition and goals of SESPA/Science for the People are determined by the actions of its chapters and project groups.

[This section continues with a general description of activities and a listing of project groups (see, for examples the chapter reports in this issue). There is then a paragraph on the magazine.]


The group now known as SESPA/Science for the People originated at the January 1969 meeting of the American Physical Society (APS). Anti-war sentiment was very high at that time, and some activist members of the APS had been trying for two years to get the Society to declare itself against the Indochina War. Finding the APS official structure unresponsive to their efforts, some members formed a new group, Scientists for Social and Political Action, and initiated a newsletter to express their political views. As industrial and other scientific workers joined the group, its name was changed to Scientists and Engineers for Social and Political Action (SESPA).

Shortly after the founding of SESPA, members of the group became involved in the historic March 4th Research Stoppage at MIT (1969). Conceived originally by a handful of MIT graduate students and faculty, and still principally anti-war in thrust, March 4 grew to symbolize an increasing political awareness among scientific workers in the U.S. (Appropriately, the button read, “March 4 is a movement, not a day.”)

Still later in 1969 Boston SESPA joined with a group of graduate students who were putting together a radical critique of science for a session in that year’s meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Together they organized 100-150 people who participated in activities critical of establishment science at the AAAS meeting. That occasion signified the transition of SESPA from being a primarily anti-war group to being a more radical, anti-capitalist group, as symbolized by the fist and flask and the slogan, “Science for the People.” Growing out of this AAAS meeting was a strengthened Boston group called SESPA/Science for the People. As a result of this growth, Science for the People magazine was first issued in August 1970 to provide a means for more thoughtful and lengthy analysis than the SESPA newsletter could handle.

Again in 1970 the meeting of the AAAS, this time in Chicago, was attended by SESPA people and by an active group of local radical scientists. That meeting was studded with guerrilla theatre, leafletting campaigns, and sharp questioning in sessions. Afterward, new SESPA/Science for the People groups popped up all over the country.

The continued growth of SESPA/Science for the People has encompassed more than “hard” scientists. Teachers, technicians, students, secretaries, psychologists, sociologists, computer programmers, and other people who recognize the importance of working toward a science for the people now comprise our ranks. With this change in constituency has come a broader critique of scientific practice — of elitism, racism, and other forms of discrimination. and an attempt to develop a new and challenging practice of radical science.

We feel that certain comradely criticisms are needed. In particular, political philosophy and history interact dialectically, and any attempt to discuss one of these separately from the other is misleading. We should approach our own history with the same radical critique which we attempt to apply to our historical analysis of the larger society. The above draft tends to give a static description of the organization, which implies a problem-free homogeneity. It suggests a coherence and contentment with ourselves to which it invites readers to subscribe, rather than welcoming them to struggle with the ongoing process which is Science for the People. The following is an editorial contribution to the group writing the flyer. We feel it provides an honest and interpretive indication of who we really are’ — a picture of Science for the People, in motion. In addition to learning of significant events from our past and of the context in which they occupied, readers should get some idea of how we see ourselves now — the problems, attitudes and different people that we are. But hopefully readers will also find, or be stimulated to develop, action approaches to the social and political problems with which they are confronted. Then feeling part of us, part of our motion, they will join in the discussion and the actions that answer the questions of “Where do we go from here?”

When the group now known as Scientists and Engineers for Social and Political Action, SESPA/Science for the People, was formed in January 1969 by a group of dissident physicists at the annual meeting of the American Physical Society (APS), most of the social groupings and ideologies that presently are represented in SESPA had already appeared. One group, who were the principal organizers of Scientists for Social and Political Action (SSPA), as it was then called, were academic physicists who were morally outraged at the Indochina war and the complicity of their colleagues. They represented a substantial movement* that had been developing since 1967 out of the struggle over a proposal to the APS that would have enabled a vote of the membership to commit the society on public issues. Having already confronted the undemocratic power-wielding of the older establishment physicists and their rigid organization, the founders of SSP A emphasized the participation of all, a loose structure, and the absence of a binding political manifesto.

Students constituted another thread in the fabric of the new organization. At MIT they had been organizing since November 1968 for a massive “Research Stoppage” to take place on March 4th. Although primarily antiwar m thrust, the March 4th activities brought out the differences between the radical, systemic and uncompromising critique of the students, vs. the position of many of the MIT faculty, who favored seeking legislative reform and offering themselves to the government as expert scientific advisors. Consequently, at about the same time SSPA was emerging, radical students of science formed Science Action Coordinating Committee (SACC) at MIT and similar groups at Harvard, Cornell, Yale and elsewhere, while legislative reform (lobbying) oriented academic scientists formed the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) at MIT and revitalized the Federation of American Scientists elsewhere.3

Many among the students recognized not only that the reformist approach of the UCS couldn’t stop the war machine of itself but also that they themselves couldn’t — that it was necessary for working people in America’s industries to take action. Groups of industrially employed scientists, engineers and technicians had already met with SACC organizers by the time of the founding of SSP A. The best organized of these, a workplace radical study group of technicians, engineers, secretaries and scientists, was represented at the SSPA founding meeting and became the nucleus of Boston SESP A. It tended to provide another important thread in the fabric of the emerging organization: anti-capitalist, working class orientation. But, though industrially employed and working class oriented, these were not production workers, a group from which SESPA has still today virtually no members.

Beginning with the APS meeting, then March 4th, 1969 saw many actions across the U.S. with the diversity to be expected from such a diverse membership. Boston SESPA worked closely with SACC and UCS while trying to increase its membership among the industrially employed. Anti-ABM activities were the focus of most of the chapters and much of it elitist and reformist (offering scientific expertise to middle-class citizen’s groups, senators and congressmen). But a strong alliance was being formed in Boston between SESPA and a group of graduate students from Harvard and MIT who were putting together a radical critique of science for a session of the December meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). This alliance resulted in a more militant and radical group as symbolized by the fist and the flask and the slogan “Science for the People.” It also marked the beginning of the withdrawal from SESPA of those whose program was better represented by UCS or FAS.4

There were no women evident at the founding of SSPA and none of the students preparing to speak at the AAAS were women, although there were women secretaries and programmers in Boston SESPA. But women joined and played a major role in the AAAS actions.5 They made the men aware of the danger of carrying the sexism of the establishment science and of society as a whole into their organization. Since then anti-sexism has been a major point in the program of SESPA and women have participated in, initiated and led many activities. Chicago erupted at the January 1970 meeting of the APS. Fist and flask were everywhere, unemployment was a major issue and student participation was strong. By December the Chicago chapter of SESPA/Science for the People hosted persons from all over the U.S. in militant radical actions at the meeting of the AAAS. The distribution of a position paper on “People’s Science”* and organizing work in -the newly forming Science for Vietnam activities represented the introduction of another major thread in the fabric of SESPA-the program to develop a science for the people.

The final leaflet of the Chicago actions promised that no scientific meeting would be allowed to ignore the social and political context in which the work discussed at the meeting was being done. Many meetings did hear from SESPA in 1971. In most cases the actions were the public manifestations of more basic political work. For example, the bi-monthly magazine Science for the People (begun in August of 1970 as an upgrading of the mimeographed newsletter in existence since February 1969) was becoming an important organizing tool. Correspondents offering to become contacts soon had several chapters going and important ideas were being discussed in the pages of the magazine.

A particularly important meeting in 1971 was the March meeting of the National Science Teacher’s Association (NSTA) in Washington, D.C. Science teaching has been one of the prime means through which the ideology of the neutrality of science and the scientification of sexism, racism, and hierarchical structure has been infused into the minds of the youth of the U.S. It was there that the Science Teachers Group first publicized its critique.6 Since then the critique of science teaching and the struggle for alternatives has become a strong identifiable component of SESPA’s program, evident again in the 1972 NSTA Meeting and the basis for the March 1973 conference in New England organized by the group.

By 1971 SESPA’s activities were sufficiently diverse, dispersed and numerous that even the magazine was inadequate to keep members in the organization aware of the extent of the mostly local actions. Additional publications were made available, including a few local newsletters and a regular national newsletter out of Chicago on Science for Vietnam. Cooperation with other organizations, a pattern from SESPA’s beginnings, was extended. In San Francisco, SESPA joined in COMBAT, a local alliance against Ethnic Weapons7, and at the Spring Joint Computer Conference (SJCC), SESPA’s presence was joined with Computer People for Peace (CPP) and the Committee for Social Responsibility in Engineering (CSRE) in Atlantic City.

Several groups joined with SESPA’s actions at the December, 1971 AAAS Meeting in Philadelphia where one of the more prominent actions was a joint march and rally with the Vietnam Veterans Against the War (WAW). Philadelphia also saw a strong thrust by SESPA and others against institutional racism8, again the manifestation in action of many less public activities. Although opposition to white racism had been a strong component of SESPA’s program from the beginning and there have been several coordinated actions with black groups, there are still few minority persons in the organization.

SESPA’s activities in 1972 continued in the pattern already established: occasional public confrontations and a great deal of diligent local activity, from workplace organizing to radical research. The arrest of SESPA people for maintaining a literature table in a conspicuous place at the (Washington, D.C.) December meeting of the AAAS emphasized the repression that was already evident in firings at livermore, Honeywell and elsewhere. For some members it raised the question of whether the structurelessness of SESPA was suited to the discipline and coordination required under repressive conditions.

Questions about SESPA’s internal structure and program were very much under discussion for much of 1972. With its growth SESP A had developed the strains to be expected in such a diverse group. These were more evident in the Boston chapter since there more than any other place the diverse membership and ideologies were present. Animated meetings addressed questions as fundamental as whether the lack of homogeneity is a weakness or a virtue. Boston, still unsettled, now has almost regular monthly meetings, an interim steering committee and a paid office coordinator. Madison, organized as a collective, now has two paid staff, and discussions of a possible first national conference of SESP A are now going on.

Paradoxically the non-centralized nature of SESPA has proceeded along with a growth in internationalism. Present from the beginning, SESPA’s non-U.S. membership has grown as has its internationalist activities. At this writing there is a delegation visiting China, and plans and materials are being prepared for the AAAS meeting in Mexico City in July 1973.

It has often been the pattern in the history of the U.S. Left that a well defined group coming into existence under a strong manifesto has subsequently experienced fractionating forces. SESPA, a not-so-well defined group came into existence without a strong manifesto and has considerable centrifugal forces. Will it end up being the kind of cohesive organization that can play an unambiguously constructive role towards the next American revolution? Will it be able to link up with, and subject itself to the leadership of, the most oppressed classes — black and white, women and men, workers who have never experienced the privileges which the overwhelming majority of SESPA’s members already enjoy?


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  1. This pamphlet, which represents one of the political positions within SESPA/Science for the People, is now out of print, but will be available soon as Towards a Science for the People.
  2. Paolo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Herder & Herder (1971), reviewed in Science for the People, voi. IV, no. 6, Nov. 1972.
  3. UCS became part of FAS in 1971. FAS has members of Jason (technical consultants to the Pentagon, see Science Against the People, available from SESPA Berkeley or Boston) on its board and has become a registered lobbying group for the interests of elite scientists, “Science’s voice on Capitol Hill.”
  4. This drifting away of liberal academics took about a year. Some have continued to work hard for reforms in the APS or joined FAS, etc.
  5. In addition to the draft resolution, “Equality for Women in Science” (Science for the People, Vol. 2, No. 2) their activity was far from restricted to feminist issues. They were and remain active in far greater numbers than their numbers employed in science would indicate.
  6. Available as “Science Teaching: Towards an Alternative.”
  7. See Science for the People, Vol. III, No. 5.
  8. See Science for the People, Vol. IV, No. 1 and Vol. IV, No. 2.