Science, technology, medicine and the socialist movement by The Radical Science Journal Collective


Science, Orthodoxy, and Socialist Historians



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Science, Orthodoxy, and Socialist Historians
Those passages might lead one to believe that our approach is the orthodox marxist one, but, of course, the opposite is the case. We are glad to say that our approach is gaining some respect and that others are thinking on similar lines.[10] The American marxist Stanley Aronowitz, for example, has independently taken a parallel path from considering science as ideology to recontextualising his approach in labour process terms:
’Science and technology appear to be autonomous forces rather than the outcome of the struggle between capital (itself a form of congealed labour under specific historical conditions) and living labour... Among the most significant ideological productions of the logic of capital is the notion of the autonomy of science and technology’ (pp. 133,134).
On the other hand, our approach and ones related to it have been subjected to a number of strong criticisms and polemical attacks.[11]
It is here that our approach intersects with the mainstream of marxist debates on a number of topics. The orthodox position has been consistently allied with the privileging of science. There are important differences in the details, but the treatment of science as an unequivocally progressive force, a model and a method to be followed, is almost the uniting theme among left positions which may vary on all sorts of other issues. Engels is, of course, the extreme case, although Marx is not entirely free from determinist scientism (see Thompson, Poverty, pp. 260­61). Engels ontologised the laws of the dialectic in Anti-Dühring and treated these as the most general laws of nature. This was the marxist text — either in full or as excerpted in Socialism: Utopian and Scientific — for an entire generation (Colletti on Bernstein). Second International marxism was a scientism in its generalisation of the domain of science to embrace history and culture. Scientism united Plekhanov and Kautsky (Arato). Even the founders of revisionism and Fabianism — Bernstein, the Webbs, Shaw — adhered to versions of evolutionary scientism (Lichtheim, Marxism). Finally, as a paper at a recent History Workshop showed, an uncritical approach to science has been characteristic of the Labour Party from its inception all the way to Harold Wilson's 'white heat of the technological revolution' (Ford). It is only now that a knitted brow has appeared on the face of Tony Benn (STSA).
Within orthodox marxism the role of scientism has been very important. It was united with economism, the theory of the productive forces and the base-superstructure metaphor to provide legitimacy for the Bolshevik model of development and, in particular, Stalinism and its international ramifications: Comintern, Cominform (Corrigan et al.; Harrison; Claudin). There has also been a tradition of searching critique of this orthodoxy and especially of Stalinism — the Lukács of History and Class Consciousness, Korsch, Gramsci, the Frankfurt School (Jay; Kellner) particularly Marcuse's analyses of Soviet Marxism and of scientific and technological rationality in One Dimensional Man, Sartre, Goldmann, the later Garaudy, Ollman.
Here, however, there is a parting of the ways. In Britain, unlike America and the Continent, the critiques of Stalinism, economism, the theory of the productive forces, technological determinism, and the base-superstructure metaphor were not connected with a critique of orthodoxy with respect to science. There have been critiques of all the branches of scientism but not of its root. For reasons which include its unsatisfactory analysis of class, the critical theory of the Frankfurt School made little headway in Britain. As a consequence, its searching analysis of science and technology was not influential here. According to critical theory, 'no phenomenon, nothing, escapes determination by social processes. Individuals, scientific theory, works of art, the state are all to be understood as part of a social process, moments of a social totality' (Kellner, pp. 139-40). The critique of science developed in one of the parent traditions, of critical theory, phenomenology, made even less impact (George; Piccone; Poster). If one thinks of the rejection of Stalinism, the growth of the New Left and the exciting writings of the late 1950s and early 1960s, there is a resounding silence about science and technology in the work of Raymond Williams, E. P. Thompson, and the New Left Review. When the NLR turned to science, it did so in praise of structuralism and then Althusser. Raymond Williams has had a great deal to say about 'Ideas of Nature' and then about 'Social Darwinism', but somehow missed out science in the middle. He has also written on Television but has not entered deeply into the social relations embodied in its technology. His one four-square sally into science is a review of Sebastiano Timpanaro's On Materialism, where Williams points out that, 'for a generation, now, there has been an unusual uneasiness between Marxism and the natural sciences' (NLR 109, p. 5)
Edward Thompson adhered to a position which expressed the strengths and the weaknesses of the British empiricist tradition, and we want to dwell on it in the hope that comradely criticism will shed light on the broader issues we are attempting to illuminate in this article. In the debate between Thompson and Perry Anderson science played a small but revealing role. Both of them attempted to make a sharp distinction between science and ideology, even to the extent that Thompson painted Darwin as pure scientist, contrasted with T. H. Huxley as pure ideologue. Both Thompson and Anderson underestimated the social character of natural science, and Thompson conveyed no sense of Darwin's place in the intellectual traditions and ideological debates of the period with respect to the philosophies of 'nature, man and society'. He focused instead on Darwin as the patient gatherer of facts. As he would later do over Althusser, he forced the reader into an uncomfortable dichotomy. In the case of ‘The Peculiarities of the English', he defended the empirical mode against Anderson and Nairn's sweeping generalisations. One wanted to side with him in this, only to find that it was the philosophy of empiricism which he was defending. This position led him to make a remarkably blinkered observation about the impact of Darwin's On the Origin of Species:
’There should have been more crisis than there was, more a parting of the ideological heavens. The intellectuals should have signalled their commitments; signed manifestos; identified their allegiances in the reviews. The fact that there was comparatively little of this may be accounted for by the fact that Darwin addressed a Protestant and post-Baconian public, which had long assumed that if God was at issue with a respectable Fact (or if a dogma was at odds with a man's conscience) it was the former which must give way’ (Poverty, p. 62).
The fact is, on the contrary, that everything Thompson denied in that passage took place, and there is a vast literature about it, while the confrontation between Huxley and Wilberforce at the British Association meeting at Oxford in 1860 is a familiar epitome of the crisis, the parting of the heavens, the manifestos and the allegiances declared in the reviews which it takes one student of the debate fifteen pages to list.[12] Over a decade later, he remains unrepentant about his conception of Darwin, suggests that his critics have not read The Origin and notices only Anderson's objections to his position (Poverty, pp. 255-6). There is no point in going further into criticisms of Thompson's views on Darwin, especially since a critique of this aspect of the Thompson-Anderson debate has appeared elsewhere (Young, Historiographic, pp. 421-26; Evolutionary Biology, pp. 192-3). The point, rather, is to shed light on views of science among distinguished marxist intellectuals, revealing an inattentiveness which is surprising in the work of such meticulous scholars.
In Thompson's The Poverty of Theory the reader is forced into a false choice. While agreeing wholeheartedly with his rejection of theoreticism, we find ourselves in danger of assenting to his false claim that theory is inherently impoverished. In the domains of historiography and philosophy of science, Thompson's empiricism often endangers his marxism. This is the case with respect to the concept of fact, as Gregor McLennan has argued (p. 155). In drawing us away from the theoreticism of Althusser and the English version by Hindess and Hirst which abrogates historical research (see also Corrigan and Sayer), Thompson invites us too close to the positivist's conception of fact: 'The very givenness of facts, the determinate properties which they present. to the practitioner, constitutes one half of the dialogue...' (p. 219). '...Facts are there, inscribed in the historical record' (p. 220). These assertions strike us as examples of what Thompson himself calls 'the dignity and special clarity of italics' (p. 273) and culminate in the extreme claim that the facts 'are determining' (p. 222) and are 'the immediate object of historical knowledge' (p. 231). Thompson seems determined to root the empirical aspect of his marxism in an empiricist/positivist notion of fact. He forcefully rejects a wide consensus shared by progressive and more conventional historians and philosophers of science, as well as by historiographers and students of the sociology and anthropology of science, in expressing three levels of astonishment at Laclau, who 'tells us that "modern epistemology asserts" (!!!) that "the 'concrete facts' are produced by the theory or problematic itself' (p. 395, n. 148). The excesses of some French intellectuals notwithstanding, some version of that thesis is what modern epistemology asserts, and it would be difficult to find anyone to make a stand for the 'givenness of facts'. In lumping together all work which takes seriously the social construction of knowledge, Thompson is in danger of mislabelling and banishing important marxist writings. For example, one might (mistakenly) characterise Karl Figlio's paper on the social construction of the somatic illness chlorosis as 'Althusserian', because it treated a disease as constituted by historical forces (Figlio, Chlorosis).
At the same time that Thompson is uncritical about science itself, he is eloquent and convincing in his critique of scientism. His attack on some tendencies within marxism for their pretensions to the status of science agrees closely with our own approach:
’It is in the very notion of marxism as ”Science” that we find the authentic trade-mark of obscuranticism, and of an obscuranticism borrowed, like so much else, from a bourgeois ideology of great longevity. Utilitarians, Malthusians, Positivists, Fabians, and the structural-functionalists, all suppose(d) themselves to be practising a ”science”, and the most unabashed academic centre of brutalised capitalist ideology in contemporary England acclaims itself as a School of Economics and Political Science ’ (p.360).
We agree with him that 'the project of Socialism is guaranteed BY NOTHING - certainly not by "Science", or by Marxism-Leninism' (p. 363). In the particular case of theoreticism, 'Theoretical practice, in its spurious pretensions to Science, is seeking to validate the bad faith of the Marxist tradition, and is reproducing as ideology the central vacancy of Stalinism' (p. 369). Elsewhere, he points out an appalling consequence: 'It was the total absence of even a language to discuss morality and values which was the distinguishing character of Stalinism. So that when it was finally admitted that the entire flower of the Revolution, as well as about everyone else, had been butchered, orthodox Communists had no word for it except "mistake"' (Radical History Review, p. 76). It is in this light that one should view the absurd scientistic rhetoric of theoreticism, for example, in the editorial of the first number of its British journal, Theoretical Practice: '...theoretical political deviations, deviations from Scientific Socialism, necessarily lead to an incorrect and unscientific politics, and therefore an ineffective politics, which is objectively reactionary' (April 1971, p. 1).
We find it bewildering that Thompson has so effectively criticised Althusserian ahistoricism and various forms of scientism while at the same time adhering to empiricist and near-positivist views with respect to natural science, the philosophy of science and its consequences for historiography. There is a considerable irony in the fact that we have drawn much of our own critique of science from the analyses of vulgar marxism, economism and scientism by Raymond Williams and Edward Thompson, while they and other cultural marxists have exempted science from their critical scrutiny. This lacuna has also had, in our view, a more directly historical consequence. It has contributed to an overwhelming concentration on social history at the expense of a full account of the contradictory unity of the forces and relations of production. The familiar injunction to 'dig where you stand', which has evoked so much interesting historical work, has tended to underemphasize the history of the forces of production and the ways in which the history of technology, science and medicine are part of the history of class struggle. It would be ridiculous to lay all this at Edward Thompson's door, but since so many socialist historians have been profoundly influenced by his magnificent The Making of the English Working Class, it is tempting to let his example carry the entire weight of inspiration and emphasis of recent socialist social history.
Whatever the factors explaining it, it is undeniable that marxist historians have concentrated on economic, social and cultural history at the expense of the histories of science, technology and medicine. A related under emphasis is in an area where Thompson contributed a seminal paper, 'Time, Work Discipline and Industrial Capitalism'. But if we compare British with American historians, there is surprisingly little work on the history of capital's attempts to reify the relations of production and convert them into forces of production, i.e., the more recent history of attempts to 'make machines of men as cannot err', as Wedgwood set out to do early in the industrial revolution (McKendrick; Pollard). Taylorism and its more recent progeny, job enrichment and socio-technical systems theory, are under-represented in British socialist writing.[13] More generally, the role of science in work, and the role of politics in structuring the technology and the labour process, seem to escape the gaze of British marxists. The craft tradition and class fractions such as the labour aristocracy seem to catch their eye instead (e.g., Foster, McClelland). The overall range of topics covered by the work of the History Workshops and the journal, and other publications which have resulted, give the same impression. Science, technology and medicine are under-represented; there is a wariness of theory (and a curious restriction in the range of theory when it is addressed) and a preference for narrative accounts and social history themes.
Having set their faces against technological determinism, they have deprived themselves of a vantage point from which to scrutinise the social relations embodied in the means of production. Rejection of technological determinism should, in our view, have the opposite effect — that is, encouraging socialists to dismantle and reconstitute the forces of production and their interrelations with the relations of production. In terms of marxist theory the argument can be compressed into the following expression: the anatomy of dead labour, and the boundary between dead and living labour at any point and in any instrument, is the resolution of class forces at that site of class struggle, no matter how unobvious the relationship may be. The forces of production invite the same subtle and sensitive dissection as has been devoted to customs, laws, unions, songs, poems, paintings, films, television programmes, bikers, quarrymen, mothering, and so on. The story — from Falcon's loom, the self-acting mule, the flying shuttle, the moving assembly line, automation, the vacuum cleaner to electronic news gathering and pay tv — awaits newly-focused examination. The ultracentrifuge, fibre optics, the microprocessor, the body scanner, and the spliced gene also belong in that list of forces awaiting reconversion into relations.
These silences in historical studies echo others. The 1956 political break with Stalinism was not followed through intellectually, in the domain of theory and practice. Capital is about to make us pay a high price for failing to get to the bottom of Stalinism as a world view. Leftist scientists didn't bring politics to work, and even the New Left made no change in its understanding of how the forces of production are constituted — this remaining a major lacuna. There has also been a failure to contest the effects of capital's restructuring as it affects the unions, with the result that 'technology agreements' are becoming commonplace — as if technologies were simply bearers of an enlarged cake to be divided up, rather than weapons in the class struggle. Finally, there has been a failure to struggle for socialist forms of social relations in the Left's own organisations and relations among 'comrades' — a failure often justified, ironically, by representing the organisational tasks as simply the dissemination of a ready-made, inherited marxism. Given these hiatuses in theory and practice. it becomes an urgent priority to re-think the problems of legitimacy and organisation.
Generations of Marxist Scientists
It is in the light of this situation among marxist historians and other writers that we want to turn to the problem of how marxist scientists have interpreted science. Our point so far is that there is in this country no tradition of critiques of science within marxism. Indeed, orthodox marxists were eloquent in emphasizing that science was an unequivocally progressive force unless distorted by capitalism. What was needed was more and more of it, and science should serve as the model for social and economic planning. This perspective was applied to the history, philosophy and sociology of science in a dramatic appearance by a Soviet delegation at the Second International Congress of the History of Science and Technology in London in 1931. There is no need here to spell out the events of the congress and its influence, since there have been a number of accounts and interpretations of it, and Gary Werskey has made special studies of it in his Introduction to a reprint of the Soviet papers, Science at the Cross Roads (Bukharin et al.). He has also written a collective biography of five British socialist scientists flourishing in the 1930s in which the Congress looms large. His Visible College includes Hyman Levy, J. B. S. Haldane, Lancelot Hogben, J. D. Bernal and Joseph Needham. (P. M. S. Blackett, who went on to become President of the Royal Society and a Nobel Laureate, was a prominent non-Communist leftist who was also influenced by the Congress.) The overall effect of the Soviet intervention — and especially of Boris Hessen's dazzling paper on 'The Social and Economic Roots of Newton's "Principia"' — was to engender euphoria. Science was brought into the orbit of social priorities, and as long as it was in progressive hands (as it was thought to be in the Soviet Union), only good could result. Put crudely, good science is good marxism (Young, in Head and Hand; RSJ 10).
With the addition of this approach from within the community of scientists and analysts of its social relations, a formidable chorus sings an uncritical hymn to science: the self-conception of the scientific community, the official line of the Soviet Union, the British Communist Party, and this eminent group of researchers, popularisers and historians, some of whom became Communists. That position (with variations) was propagated in several influential popular and scholarly works: J. G. Crowther’s The Social Relations of Science (published 1941 but well along before Bernal's work was announced): Joseph Needham's essays, particularly Time: The Refreshing River (1943) and History is on Our Side (1945), followed much later by his monumental Science and Civilization in China (1954- ); J. B. S. Haldane's The Inequality of Man (1932), The Marxist Philosophy and the Sciences (1938); Lancelot Hogben's Science for the Citizen (1938); Hyman Levy's A Philosophy for a Modern Man (Left Book Club, 1938). They were also very active as lecturers and in the periodical press. Crowther actually founded the profession of science journalism, and was science editor of Oxford University Press. Haldane wrote much-read articles in the Daily Worker. But the most influential single work in this tradition was J. D. Bernal's The Social Function of Science (1939), followed by a spate of books, the most relevant of which are The Freedom of Necessity (1949) and the three-volume Science in History (1954; 3rd ed. 1969). Bernal's influence was celebrated in The Science of Science (1964) and Needham's in Changing Perspectives in the History of Science (1973) (see also Goldsmith, Sage; Young in RSJ 10).
Lest it be thought that we have represented the view of science of this group as more sanguine than it actually was, here is a sample from The Social Function of Science:
’Already we have in the practice of science the prototype for all human common action. The task which the scientists have undertaken — the understanding and control of nature and of man himself — is merely the conscious expression of the task of human society. The methods by which this task is attempted, however imperfectly they are realized, are the methods by which humanity is most likely to secure its own future. In its endeavour, science is communism' (p. 414, cf. pp. 410, 412).
It was in this spirit that the marxist scientists threw themselves into World War II, fighting for freedom against the enemies of Britain and the Soviet Union, contributing to radar, bomb damage assessment, combined operations, intelligence, operational research, communications, cyphers and a number of other significant boffins' endeavours. The War did not dim Bernal's scientism. In 1949 he wrote,
’Science, by accepting corporate opinion and reason as its criterion, is itself a democracy; one always open to conviction but not accepting any dictum until it has been convinced. In so far as science infuses government, it enhances all the democratic elements in it’ (quoted in Werskey, Invisible College, p. 274).
We suppose that other marxist intellectuals, including the historians, were likely to be influenced by the writings of the marxist scientists, perhaps including Christopher Caudwell, whose work combines a critique of the mechanical materialism which masqueraded as marxism, with an exploration of scientific categories, but not a critique of them (Caudwell; Thompson, 'Caudwell'). Nothing we have seen in the historical writings of Maurice Dobb, Christopher Hill or Eric Hobsbawm disturbs this deferential way of treating science, although Hill's work on the seventeenth century resonates with an approach in the history of science which we also find congenial in the work of Charles Webster and Piyo Rattansi. The tradition of British empiricism seemed compatible with the version of marxism to which those generations of scholars adhered, whatever their differences on other issues.
The unequivocal view of science among scientists could not, however, outlast Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Too many thorny issues were thrown up by the atomic bomb, nuclear diplomacy (Alperovitz) and the debate over the hydrogen bomb, as the origins of The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and the Pugwash Conferences soon made clear. British Russophile scientists also got into deep trouble over 'the Lysenko affair', a story which has yet to be told from the British side (G. Jones; Symonds). Haldane and Bernal, in particular, were compromised by it, while Western anti-Communist ideologues such as Conway Zirkle and Julian and Andrew Huxley continued to make capital out of it (see Young in RSJ 6/7). The perfect fit between marxism and science — whether experimentally successful or not — was no longer easy to maintain.
The result of these developments was a move to an equivocal position from which it was argued that capitalist or other ideological forces could abuse, distort or incorporate scientific research. The job of socialists was, then, to fight to purify science and to promote its use for progressive purposes and fight its abuse for reactionary ends. A great deal of important agitational work was done within this framework: Ban the Bomb, opposition to chemical and biological warfare, fighting the use of defoliants in VietNam, race and IQ campaigns (Rose, Chemical; Roses, Science in Society).
The issues united the Old Left with the first generation of the New Left. Indeed, it was in the Bernal Peace Library that a conference was held on chemical and biological warfare in the late 1960s. This conference led to the founding of a new organisation whose founder members included eminent members of the Old Left scientific marxists: Bernal, Lancelot Hogben, Hyman Levy, Joseph Needham. All were professors as well as Fellows of the Royal Society (Werskey, Invisible College, p. 325).


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