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
Thoughts on Long-Term Membership in SftP
by Pat Brennan
A few months ago, a member of the Science for the People magazine editorial committee asked me to write an account of my experiences as a member of the organization for the past five years. One reason I was asked is because I am a woman and there’s an effort being made to encourage more female contributors to the magazine. Another reason concerns the fact that an attempt is being made to print contributions of a more personal nature.
Part of my dissatisfaction stemmed from a sense of moral indignation at the inequalities that surrounded me. And in retrospect, this isn’t surprising since religion had been a very important aspect of my upbringing. Indeed, many years of Catholic religious training at home and in school had left me with a rigid and perhaps overly moralistic view of the world. For me there was right and wrong and no in between. Before entering SftP I had spent some time questioning this rigidity. However, I had not questioned the basically religious attitude that societal problems are due to individuals with corrupted moral values. I believed that the individual held complete control over her own destiny and that success or failure was almost completely attributable to special personal qualities and good hard work. I even accepted the idea that for a female to be successful she just had to strive twice as hard as a male and all would turn out well. Failure was due to personal inadequacy.
I first came to Science for the People in 1971 because of my dissatisfaction with teaching science outside of the social context. In the classroom I was dealing with science as if it were entirely separate from the real world of my everyday life and certainly not connected to the war and the dissent that was raging outside against it. At that time, I really didn’t think about things from any well-defined political perspective of the Left. I did however have a strong sense of dissatisfaction and was quite elated to find a group of people with similar problems, concerns, and questions.
At first I was rather awed by some members who seemed not only to have thought about more fundamental questions than I had, but who had even developed analyses to provide some answers. However, despite my insecurities, I was drawn to these people since I felt that they shared my frustrated and angry feelings. I started to come to meetings and in a short time became involved in the activities of an action-oriented subgroup, the Science Teaching Group. I felt comfortable in this group because it had an atmosphere of acceptance and a supportive toleration of people whose ideas were different or not yet sharply defined.
Today, I am still a member of the Science Teaching Group although over the course of five years I have worked with several other subgroups—some that were spawned by the Science Teaching Group and some that were not. I have been a participant with the Nutrition Group, a Guerrilla Theater Group, a Women’s Group, the Steering Committee, and for a time, I was the paid Office Coordinator for the organization. All of these activities have contributed to the many positive changes I’ve experienced during this time.
In the course of planning conferences, developing alternative science curricula, demonstrating at scientific meetings and talking with other SftP people, I learned a great deal and slowly became politicized. I came to understand more clearly the class nature of this society and how my life and almost everyone else’s is controlled by a miniscule percent of the population—those with the wealth and power. I learned that the many problems of this society are not due to just a few evil-hearted and greedy people, but to the broader systematic problems of capitalism. I also learned how science reflects the values of that system: that it is political, not pure and neutral: that it is male, white, and generally applied to benefit the few and not the many.
Perhaps the most important aspect of my growth in SftP has been learning to work collectively in small groups. It is through this work that I have gained confidence in myself and my ideas and in the knowledge that people working together in supportive ways can indeed effect change. Through this work I have felt empowered.
Not all of my learning in SftP has occurred in supportive and painless ways. My exposure to Marxist jargon was not always pleasant. After I had joined the organization, over time, words like ruling class, dialectical materialism, imperialism, and bourgeoisie crept into my vocabulary. At first I didn’t understand much at all and was often quite angry at people who always spoke about organizing the common people but who spoke in words that I, a common person, couldn’t understand. How could anyone expect to organize people if they spoke a foreign language? It seemed as if under these circumstances, there was no atmosphere of dialogue and friendship, but a caste system of those who ‘knew’ and those who didn’t. As an example, consider the term ‘political consciousness’. This is one of a whole slew of political phrases or catch words which I think have been seriously abused at times by members of our organization. For instance, I have heard the words ‘political consciousness’ used in a manner which serves to label people. If you hear that someone has a ‘low’ political consciousness, the tendency is often to write them off, dismiss them, or not listen to what they have to say. The result of such behavior seems to me to be the duplication of the elitism and hierarchical social attitudes which we are supposedly trying to fight.
There were times when I did not speak out for fear of being labeled something like ‘not working-class enough’, ‘too individualistic’, ‘counterrevolutionary’ or worst of all—’incorrect’. In fact, sometimes I wondered if I wasn’t replacing one kind of rigid dogmatism (Roman Catholicism) with another (Marxist-Leninism). As I observed persons who probably came from families far richer than mine talk in adorational terms of the worker, I often wondered how it would be if I brought my Uncle John, the railroad worker, to a SftP meeting. How could he relate? Would his politics ever be ‘correct’ enough?
Despite the fact that it has been some time now since I have felt personally alienated as a result of the use of ‘labeling’, ‘jargon’, ‘correct lining’, or competitive overintellectualization within the organization, some of my fears remain. I am still concerned about its existence and the role it plays in keeping people especially women—either out of the organization altogether or out of leadership positions within the organization.
Nowadays I perceive a reliance on political rhetoric to communicate ideas as a barrier which prevents people from dealing with one another at a personal and feeling level—ways of communicating which I believe women are strong in. Accordingly, verbal intimidation can be viewed as a means by which white middle-class males can continue to control and dominate many meetings, as well as the organization as a whole.
Despite my concerns and misgivings about language and how people in SftP relate to, and learn from each other, my commitment to the organization and its work remains strong. For me the positive aspects of my experience in the organization have been great. I have learned a great deal, I have grown and I have made a whole lot of good friends. So I intend to continue my work in SftP with the hope that we can learn to build a strong organization in which members can communicate, criticize, share and struggle together in humane and caring ways.