AAAS: Then and Now

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

AAAS: Then and Now

by Al Weinrub

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 7, No. 1, January 1975, p. 20 – 22

Boston, December 1969. “Activists disrupt science meeting … ” In newspapers throughout the country it was reported that wild radicals under the slogan “Science for the People” had laid waste to the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). 

Of course the press gave a pretty distorted account, but the activities organized in opposition to the AAAS meeting, including picketing, leafleting, petitioning, film showings, outright disruptions — a virtual onslaught of political fervor — struck like a lightning bolt at the bastions of establishment science. Not only was the direct participation of scientists in the suppression of the Vietnamese liberation struggle being attacked, but for the first time since the 1930’s, an assault was being mounted also on the systematic way in which science was being used to bolster U.S. imperialism and the capitalist system as a whole. 

The AAAS was caught off guard. Science for the People activists demanded that the Association take stands against the Indochina war, the brutal murder of Black Panthers in Chicago, the discrimination in science against women and Third World peoples. Sessions which featured apologists for the U.S. government or the status quo were barraged with leaflets and questions that exposed and criticized their political stance. So vociferous and forceful were the Science for the People activists at that meeting that the presence of the beloved U.S. astronauts went all but unnoticed. 

That was five years ago. But those five short years have witnessed dramatic changes in the level and kind of political struggle taking place in the U.S. The Vietnamese victory, and the more general breakdown of U.S. worldwide political hegemony, have ushered in new outbreaks of political activity here at home; Native Americans, Chicanos, prisoners, and women have taken up the struggle, and, as the economic crisis intensifies, workers are fighting to build and strengthen their unions. The contradictions of capitalism — unprecedented wealth and power amidst pervasive poverty and powerlessness, stagnating production amidst unmet needs, systematic waste amidst material deprivation, advanced technical intelligence amidst widespread popular ignorance, … (the list is endless) — these contradictions are becoming ever more apparent and are forcing the system closer to the breaking point. 

One of the most striking contradictions (and one of utmost importance for SftP) is that our society supports a vast scientific and technical apparatus while at the same time scientific and technical work is becoming increasingly divorced from the needs of the masses of people:

  • While people are struggling for liberation, science is mobilized to maintain their subjugation. From overt counterinsurgency weaponry to the most subtle behavior control technology (see SftP, vol. VI, no. 3, May 1974), from the battlefield to the streets to the prisons to the schools, science is being marshaled by the ruling class to maintain its political control. 
  • While people are dying from pollution, industrial hazards, U.S. bombs and bullets, slum conditions, and inadequate preventive medicine, millions of dollars are being spent in developing artificial organs, dangerous drugs, sophisticated medical machinery, and new strains of (potentially lethal) viruses. 
  • While people go hungry throughout the world because they are too poor to buy the food that exists or because their land has been turned over to cash crops which they cannot eat, science is called on to develop “miracle” seeds that require miracle fertilizers and miracle pesticides, miracle irrigation schemes and miracle agricultural machinery. By the same “miracle,” this Green Revolution has served to intensify capitalist control of agricultural production, but not to feed the poor.1

In instance after instance, scientific and technical work in the U.S. is becoming more divorced from the pressing realities and necessities of people’s lives. At best it diverts social resources into wasteful and unproductive activity. At worst it creates the knowledge and technique for the further oppression and exploitation of millions of people. Such is the nature of science in the age of monopoly capitalism. History shows that nothing short of a total transformation of society will put an end to this unprecedented misdirection of human resources. 

This is where the AAAS comes in. Its role historically has been to strengthen science within the present system, to maintain the status quo (see “A History of the AAAS,” SftP, Vol. II, no. 4, Dec. 1971). During the present period, when the contradictions outlined above have come into sharp focus, the role of the AAAS has become increasingly reactionary. Its foremost function is ideological — to maintain the myth that science is a purely progressive force, one above politics. By obfuscating the political relations of science, by clouding over the class interests served by science, it seeks to minimize in both scientists’ minds, and in the society at large, the gross contradictions of capitalism. Just take as the simplest example the theme of the January 1975 annual meeting — “The Quality of Life.” If anything stands out in the world and needs to be addressed it is rather “The Inequality of Life,” and, in particular, how science contributes to it. 

What this means is that the whole establishment of science and technology finds itself in an increasingly precarious position. Any progressive revolution will institute fundamental changes in the nature and extent of scientific and technical work. Much of this work will be eliminated altogether. Of course the managers of the scientific workforce (big professors, research directors, government administrators, etc.) hope to defend their present positions, and thus have a direct interest in maintaining the system as it is. Yet there are, in addition, several million people, from Ph.D. scientists, to computer programers, to laboratory bottle washers, to engineers, to school teachers, to health workers, who are also tied into the present scientific and technical establishment. Their livelihoods, as well as the few privileges they have in terms of salaries, status and work conditions, depend on the continued growth, or at least the maintenance, of the existing scientific and technical apparatus. This workforce is dependent for its existence on the continuance of the capitalist system and the capitalist class which it serves. In this sense, the scientific and technical workforce constitutes one of the more conservative sectors of U.S. society. 

During the last couple years, as the ideological position of the AAAS has become more untenable and as the liberal support of the anti-war movement has retreated from view, the AAAS has taken a harder line against those who challenge establishment ideas and practice. While arguing for “freedom of speech,” the AAAS has sought to relegate Science for the People to the remote comers of its meetings — arresting 8 people at the Washington meeting of December, 1972 for setting up literature tables, nearly having five others deported in June, 1973, in Mexico City, and harassing Science for the People for simply attempting to leaflet at the San Francisco meeting in March, 1974. 

The ability of the AAAS to get away with such repressive and undemocratic measures has been largely due to the fact that SftP has not put a great deal of effort into organizing AAAS actions in the last two years. The lack of interest in organizing around the AAAS is not only a reflection of a more widespread shift from confrontation tactics, but a recognition of the fact that the AAAS meeting no longer draws people who might support SftP politics. The meeting rooms, conferences and cocktail parties are populated with bureaucrats, administrators, careerists, and the more established scientific elite — all of whom have an interest in maintaining their present and future positions of privilege. They aren’t about to rock the boat.

Things are not going to change by appealing to those who have already been bought off by the system. Why, then, should we expend energy on the scientific managerial elite who come to the AAAS meeting to devise new strategems like the “congressional fellowship program” for coopting young scientists into government service? Why expend energy on the careerists who come to the AAAS meeting hoping to hop on the next research bandwagon out of Washington? Why expend energy on the reformists whose “public interest science,” by excluding any notion of democracy or popular political power, preserves for them their elite, privileged positions? The AAAS meeting warrants only a minimal organizing effort.

Instead, SftP should attempt to reach those who recognize in their own alienation and frustrations the oppresiveness and irrationality of science and technology under capitalism. We must work to formulate a political practice and program which responds to the anti-human nature of science in this society by engaging in the struggle for socialism. But this must be done honestly, without denying that, in the short run, socialism certainly means the dismantling of science as we know it. In the long run, however, it will draw on more scientific energy and creativity than the world has seen to date.

>> Back to Vol. 7, No. 1 <<

FOOTNOTES

  1. A Ford Foundation team of U.S. experts recently returning from China admitted that there was adequate agricultural production in China to feed the population, but advised that China should centralize its agricultural research in the manner of U.S. science. What they failed to understand was that starvation is not a technical problem, but a political one — one that the Chinese revolution solved without the use of capital intensive green revolution technology. For further information see China: Science Walks on Two Legs, a SftP report, Avon, 1974.