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
Five Years of Science for the People: A Political Analysis
by Herb Fox
The following is a political analysis which views the history of Science for the People as a history of struggle. Consistent with this analysis, it stresses certain struggles as the most important and raises key questions. It combines information which is not generally available with personal recollections and anecdotal material. Others may have a different analysis or perspective and, thus, consider other struggles and questions more important. We strongly encourage our readers to think critically about these issues, and to send letters and articles in response. For the magazine to become a more vital and useful tool, this process is essential.
This issue, Vol. VII, No. 4, marks the fifth anniversary of Science for the People. Because continued publication over this period has been so important to many in the movement, and especially because several other organizations and publications have expired in the same period, a sum-up is in order. It is important, however, that the sum-up bring to light the important dynamics in Science for the People‘s history and not just be a glorified index. (The index itself, though, is impressive and was contained in Vol. V, No.5, with an update in Vol. VII, No. 1. It’s a compilation of all the articles, categorized, and can be obtained from the Boston office.)
In January 1969, when what is now Science for the People was formed 1, a mimeographed newsletter was initiated. Six issues came out of Stanford, Ca. that first year. No clear political line was expressed and the esoteric and somewhat utopian meanderings of academics characterized its contents — but it nevertheless gave a unique voice to anti-war, anti-pollution outrage within science. Most of the original contributors and producers of the newsletter have long since left the arena of radical left politics. But the first year it was important to have something that tied together the newly formed “nonorganization” (as it characterized itself).
When the key person in the production of the newsletter. found that he would not available to carry on in 1970, he requested the Boston group to take it over. Boston had seen the much publicized confrontations at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) at the end of 1969. As the most active chapter it was a good candidate for the newsletter responsibility. So it was that a much different newsletter came out of Boston in January of 1970. It was the publication of activists. It had slogans and analysis and it identified the “system” and the entrenched “science establishment” with “the Enemy”. And did it get responses! — for example, “I find your long winded, emotional puffery offensive. Please remove my name from the mailing list”.2From the disunity represented by the libertarian pluralism of the first year’s newsletters the Boston group tried to forge unity by struggling for an activist position characterized by the slogans: “End science mind-fuck!”, “Science is not neutral!”, “Scientists are workers!”, “Join with other workers to make science serve the people!”, and “Science for the People!” That the Boston activists were consciously initiating struggle to challenge the false and unprincipled unity that had prevailed is evidenced on the very first page of that first newsletter produced in Boston, the precursor of this magazine: “To SESPA MEMBERS: … This issue, you may say, looks and reads rather differently than previous ones. Right on! That’s because we, in Boston SESPA. have a different perspective on how to solve the problems that inspired the formation of our group.3
The militancy of the Boston activists had brought much publicity. A lot of people had been agitated and it was necessary to get them organized around the slogans that summarized the new line, the “Science for the People” line. The newsletter showed that a publication could serve this role; it could be a collective organizer and put forth propaganda, that is, a coherent view that connected all the apparently disconnected, rotten things that were happening. And it could also be an agitator, e.g., the first issue done in Boston had several muckraking pieces in it. As letters began to come in, a small core of people in Boston set up a network of contacts and encouraged people to form chapters. Correspondence developed and struggle ensued. One thing was clear: by putting forth a definite set of ideas the Boston group had started a process whereby a much more unified organization could be built. But it was also clear that all this couldn’t be done with just one issue. Boston itself had to get organized and regularly put out a first rate publication. This was found to be difficult.
As we collected material, solicited articles and pulled together an editorial group, our conception of the newletter changed. We saw the need for a stable publication with a distinct character of its own and with the capability to carry fairly extensive analytical articles. Thus the idea of a magazine developed. For the title we adopted the main slogan of the AAAS actions and the name that by that time people were calling us even though the actual name of the organization was SESPA (Scientists and Engineers for Social and Political Action). The fist and flask that had been the motif of our posters and on buttons we had worn and sold seemed most appropriate for the cover but this then dictated a two-color cover. We learned a lot in a short time about type-setting, layout and all the rest. Unselfconsciously we created a magazine in its form. Much more selfconsciously we pursued and extended the line that we had developed in struggle. “Scientist are workers” came through in several articles as did “Science is not neutral” and the other slogans. There was, however, no real analytical article; most of the material was agitatlonal or pointed towards organizing. Soliciting from our friends we raised the money to put out 4800 copies of that first 20 page magazine and learned about bookstores and vending at meetings. Even our enemies were impressed; Science magazine, official publication of the 150,000 member AAAS reprinted a muckraking article “Boston Museum of Science: Business as Usual”. The experience exhilirated and exhausted us. Three stayed ’til the end, working all day, typesetting until three in the morning, etc.; and then it occurred to us — for the magazine to be a collective organizer we had to do this every other month.
The difficulty was that no organization existed. It was a matter of principle, based on the general libertarian line, laid out at its founding by disenchanted, anti-war academic physicists, that SESPA was a “non-organization”. Those of us who put forth the militant “Science for the People” line did not, at the same time, repudiate this anarchist position on organization; and as a result could not field the organization needed to carry out much of its program consistently. Hence those who, in fact, set out to establish what today is the magazine Science for the People were a group formed around a self-appointed core who drew the others in on the basis of their interest in producing a magazine. That is, there was not a systematic attempt to unite people around the line that it was necessary and desireable to set up the means to regularly produce a magazine that would be a collective organizer, propaganda journal, and agitator on pressing struggles.
This error led to an intense struggle after the production of the first magazine. After putting forth an essentially anarchist position on organization, namely, that each issue should be produced by a new and independent editorial collective, the core who guided production of the first issue found themselves confronted by a faction who were not responsive to the imperatives of timely publication. The fruits of having failed to struggle initially for a clear line on the importance of the magazine, and of not repudiating the non-organization concept was a schism on the editorial collective. Three of the eight opted for no October issue and when the struggle was joined and a meeting of the whole Boston Science for the People was called, the whole question of whether or not we should have a magazine (“who decided that this should be a priority project?”) was raised. The magazine did not win out. The editorial collective split. One faction decided to pull together what they had for a December issue with no plans for beyond that and the remaining five saw that a continuing magazine was absolutely essential as a collective organizer. The “collective organizers” put out an eight-page “free” issue for October with a whole page calling people to actions at the upcoming Chicago meetings of the AAAS, continued to build the network and organized to stabilize and regularize publishing beyond the December issue. Again, consistent political struggle was not carried out but rather this group organized “around” the others. This way of not struggling would never have worked had it not been for the AAAS meetings in December. The organizing bore fruit. The magazine was demonstrated as the key link in building a strong organization around a definite program. All 6000 copies were sold. By the time that the February 1971 issue was being prepared, the anti-magazine line had been defeated on a pragmatic basis. But the failure to raise the entire struggle to the level of line created deep resentments and left everyone without a clear understanding of what the magazine should be. To some extent this persists today.
The stabilizing of the publishing of the magazine did not stabilize its politics. Consequently the magazine has gone through repeated crises during which organizational solutions have been devised for its basic political problems (which it shares with the organization as a whole). Today it has a much more stable organizational structure but still the basic political questions have not been resolved. The concept of a publication being a collective organizer was first put forth by V.I. Lenin in the last chapter of What Is To Be Done? Some of the ways in which it can be a collective organizer are structural: a center is established, a network of contacts is formed, a means is provided for raising money, etc. But most important is the political sense in which a publication builds a unified organization. Properly used, it establishes a “line” which Lenin likens to the line used by brick-layers so that the wall they all work on individually or in small groups and at a distance from one another will come out straight and true and strong and will in fact be one wall. A more thorough article on this subject would be useful, because so much of what we are is based on our taking care of the structural aspects without paying attention to the political aspects of organizing. For example, chapters or sub-groups organized around one magazine or principal article are often in contradiction to those organized around another. For example, the pamphlet “Hard Times”4 is wholly consistent with the line that “Scientists are Workers” as put forward in many issues of the magazine, but it is contrary to the line that scientists are part of the new petit bourgeoisie, also present (in fewer places, such as the Mayday ’73 issue). Another example is the global description of imperialism as a total system that comes through in such articles as the one on the E.N.A.C.T. conference in the October ’70 issue 5 or in the article on racism and busing in the March ’75 6, versus the view that it is simply a system of overseas economic piracy, that comes through in many other articles.
We should be proud of our five years of publication. That we have sustained publication over that period is good and has advanced the struggle. We should also learn from the weaknesses that have become evident over these five years. Among those by far the most important, and the one which has had the greatest consequences, is the failure to consolidate the magazine (and thus the organization) around clear consistent politics. This should be our goal for the coming period.
- For a historical article, see Mayday 1973 issue, p. 35.
- Vol. II, No. 2, Aug. 1970, p. 19 .
- SESPA News, early 1970, undated. Out of print.
- For example, ” … our jobs are becoming the scientific and technical equivalent of wage labor”, p. 18 of “Employment, Unemployment and Professionalism in the Sciences”, a SftP pamphlet prepared by N.Y.C. chapter. Available for $1.00 from the Boston office.
- “Science for the People at Ann Arbor E.N.A.C.T. Conference,” Vol. II, No. 2, p. 3.
- Vol. VII, No. 2, p. 32.