Bouncing Back Against the Corruption of Science in Capitalist Society

Part 2 of a 2-part series: The Role of Science in Capitalist Society and Social Change

Continuing from the first part of this series, one critique that is missed in the talk about the March on Science is the fact that science has often failed the proletariat, used in their oppression, and as a form of destruction. Of course, this may be too much to expect of a bourgeois progressive and liberal crowd in Washington and across the world who are myopically focused on Trump but not on the bigger picture. This perception is reinforced by Neil deGrasse Tyson’s relatively recent iteration of Cosmos in 2014, titled Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, a documentary series intended to spread scientific knowledge to a broader audience, which was predictably endorsed by the US’s previous intellectual war criminal president, Barack Obama. The documentary series not only supported the “Great Man” theory of science, downplaying the proletarian aspect, but like the original Cosmos series in 1980, Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, presented by Carl Sagan, it supports the idea of science as a venue of discovery, but fits easily with the bourgeois conceptions of science, not with the idea that science can be tied to social change or be used by the capitalist class to enforce their will. The latter aspect calls for an overview of some of the times that science has been used to commit horrible crimes.

The corruption of science for malevolent ends

In August 1945, the United States committed a grave war crime on the world stage. On August 6 and 9th, two cities, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, were obliterated off the face of the Earth by two hideous weapons of war, atomic bombs, which exploded over the cities. With a flash, hundreds of thousands were dead, cities consisting only of ruins, with survivors seeing more death than they thought they would ever see in their lifetimes and thousands of maimed individuals inching toward available hospitals, while Japanese doctors didn’t know what radiation was or how to treat it.1

Infamously, after dropping the bomb on Hiroshima, Marvin Green, the pilot of the Enola Gay, wrote in his log, “My God, what have we done?,” with the bomb dropping immortalized in a 1980 antiwar song of Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (OMD) titled “Enola Gay.” Scientists such as Robert Oppenheimer in the US had fathered a “monster” originally to beat the Nazis, although it turned out that their nuclear program was not very developed. In what was a very masculine endeavor, the scientists thought that building the bomb showed that mankind could do anything, that it was a new era in history, a culmination of past discovery, with the “Soviet foe” quickly replacing the German one by the end of the war, creating a “living thing” as they called it, which would kill thousands.2

The dropping of the bomb was to be expected. Without going into the valid argument that the bomb dropping was trying to counter possible Soviet occupation of Japan in a postwar environment, the racist feelings were widespread among Allied POWs in Japan after numerous brutalities by the Japanese perpetrated upon them.3

Geoffrey C. Ward even admits, in a coffee table book that accompanies Ken Burns’s film on World War II, that the atomic bombing was preceded by thousands of other deaths. While the book has photographs of the devastation and affects on human life by the atomic bombs, they basically defend the use of them even as they admit that from 1944 to 1945, US aircraft bombed with napalm and burned over 60 “Japanese cities, killing at least 300,000 Japanese civilians, injuring 1.3 million, and leaving 8 million more without homes.”4 Even the war criminal of the Vietnam War, Robert McNamara, admitted in Errol Morris’s partially whitewashing documentary, The Fog of War, said him and General Curtis LeMay “were behaving as war criminals” although he would not say the same about his actions in Vietnam or destructive actions when he headed the World Bank.

Beyond the use of science on the battlefield, either to drop napalm, atomic bombs, use poison gas, or the like, it has been used against the masses. In Medical Apartheid, Harriet A. Washington, a Black female author, writes about the years of medical abuse the Black masses in the United States have suffered from medical experimentation on the plantation fields, during the Civil War, within the horrid Tuskegee Study, as part of eugenic control over their reproduction, and bioterrorism aimed at Black people.5

For his part, foreign policy critic William Blum writes in a similar vein, with multiple chapters on his book, Rogue State, focusing on use of chemical and biological weapons by the murderous US empire. There are many other books that focus on the dangers science can pose if exploited for horrible ends, from Helen Caldicott’s The New Nuclear Danger about nuclear weapons to Seth Schulman’s Threat at Home, focusing on contamination of environments across the US by the US military. Even Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein falls into the books that warn of the dangers of science and the “mad scientist” caricature.

The Black Panther Party (BPP), a revolutionary socialist group distorted by Deray McKesson for his own personal gain as a black bourgeois figure serving White power, among others, recognized that science could be destructive. In their weekly newsletter, The Black Panther, they focused on many diseases. Starting in March 1971, they began focusing on sickle cell anemia. This hereditary disease, originating in West and Central Africa, was (and is) in the blood of the Black masses. The US government was doing nothing to help eradicate this “genocide,” as they argued, with no testing at the time. So, the BPP set up free health clinics to test individuals, screening 100,000 people, reportedly, by August 1972, Bobby Seale and Dr. Bert Small at the forefront, despite phony groups conspiring with the racist police.6

They clearly had no trust in the medical establishment to move forward on these fronts, so they took action on their own accord, whereas nowadays too many would go through the “established channels” to gain quick fixes. The BPP not only recognized the diseases facing the Black community, whether it was lead paint or something else, coming out of the “degrading, dehumanizing conditions” that Black people lived in, but they had people’s community survival programs ranging from a research foundation on sickle cell anemia (with free testing and attempts to fight the disease) tied to the free medical clinic, a free dental program, and a range of other services to help the Black community.7  By 1972, the BPP’s platform had changed from its first platform to be more inclusive and cut across ethnic lines in solidarity with other oppressed peoples in the United States. This platform included a plank saying that:

We believe that the government must provide, free of charge, for the people, health facilities which will not only treat our illnesses, most of which have come about as a result of our oppression, but will also develop preventative medical programs to guarantee our future survival. We believe that the mass health education and research programs must be developed to give all Black and oppressed people access to advanced scientific and medical information, so we may provide ourselves with proper medical attention and care.8

The BPP were not the only ones who recognized this. While they challenged the American Medical Association, pointing out their racism and elitism, there was the Boston Women’s Health Collective, which published a huge book, Our Bodies Ourselves: A Book By And For Women, numbering 751 pages in the 1992 edition, expanded from the first edition in 1984.9 [9]

Can science bounce back?

With science helping capitalist class bend to horrible ends, it can still be used for positive human development. There has been a detailed analysis of humans and non-human animals and assertions that science and socialism easily intersect. This is not beyond the realm of belief, but are justified assertions.

Karl Marx himself was deeply interested in science, using it to argue that there is a rift between capitalist society and nature, with intense study of science by himself and his colleague Friedrich Engels to inform their socioeconomic theories. Furthermore, Marx used the concept of humans changing their internal nature as “societies interact with their external environment” so he could understand “the plight of workers at the dawn of industrial capitalism,” which has also been used to talk about the social relations of space travel, among other topics. The interest of Marx in science is unquestionable. The study of natural sciences influenced his theorizing, even in the idea of social relations of production, a concept extrapolated from Marx’s writings, with him not using those exact words, and even influencing the idea that humans need to study historical events and transformations to “discover our human nature.”10

Many of the doctrines of Marx and Engels are called scientific (i.e. scientific socialism). Within Marx’s early works in the 1840s, he argues that science can only be universal when it is “no longer an individual affair but becomes a social one,” that science (along with religion) as part of human’s theoretical existence should be an object of criticism as much the reality of human existence.11 That’s not all. He goes on to say that once Jews and Christians see their religions as “nothing more than different stages in the development of the human spirit” they will no longer be in religious opposition but in a “purely critical and scientific…human relationship” with science serving as “their unity”!12 This strikes at the heart of those who say that science and religion can’t mix. Marx adds to this, saying, in his theorizing about species-being, that humans, like non-human animals, live from “inorganic nature” but since humans are more universal they live in more inorganic nature than non-human animals.

He also says that philosophy is alien to natural science, which had transformed human life, with industry serving as the “real historical relationship to nature” as history becomes part of natural history and nature becomes part of man. Furthermore, he says that with “science of man” subsuming natural science, creating one science, with humans as the immediate object of natural science, he adds that humans and non-human animals have some common characteristics, noting that Hegel perceives science, even non-philosophical science like natural science and political science, as absolute.13 His most obvious indication he is inspired by science is when he writes the preface to his A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy in 1859:

In studying such [economic and social] transformations it always necessary to distinguish between the material transformation of economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the provision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, artistic, or philosophic – in short the ideological forms in which men become conscious of conflict and fight it out..Mankind thus inevitably sets itself only such tasks as it is able to solve, since closer examination will always show that the problem itself arise only when the material conditions for ts solution are already present or at least in the course of formation.14

While reading Marx can sometimes be fraught with difficulty, there is no doubt that scientific discipline informed and influenced his works, for which we should all be grateful. Hence, the ideas within this discipline can and should influence those working for a better, alternative world beyond the machinations of the brutal capitalist system which uses science to oppress others rather than for the benefit of the masses.

There is strong evidence that science can be on the side of social justice and social change. Worried atomic scientists, especially physicists, protested atomic warfare, with groups forming, such as the Federation of Atomic Scientists (later the Federation of American Scientists), leading the struggle for “civilian control of atomic energy” and against war as a whole, from 1945 until 1960.15 As Lawrence S. Wittner argued in his article where he painted the DPRK and US as “erratic” and “reckless,” although the US imperialists are really the reckless, erratic ones, in the 1980s, organizations in the West and across the world “were able to engage millions of people in protest against the nuclear recklessness of the U.S. and Soviet governments―protest that played a key role in curbing the nuclear arms race and preventing nuclear war,” whereas this dynamic is not the case today.

Hope on the horizon

With new studies saying that “artificially sweetened soft drink consumption [is]…associated with a higher risk of stroke and dementia,” basically showing that the soft drink industry is poisoning us as science writers like Michael Moss (Sugar, Salt, and Fat) have noted, and more than “1 in 4 deaths of children under 5 years of age are attributable to unhealthy environments” as announced by the World Health Organization, clearly, science is still important in society as a whole. But the type of science is important. There is no need for science like that portrayed in the HBO version of Rebecca Skloot’s book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. The story of Henreitta Lacks, a young Black woman in Baltimore, is, in short, that she thought that Johns Hopkins Hospital, a major institution in the city, was treating her for cancer in her body, but they actually stole her cells, later called HeLa, without her written or oral permission (i.e. informed consent), just like their snatchings of Black people off the streets of Baltimore for many years as part of their experiments. As years passed on, the HeLa cells were used in all sorts of scientific breakthroughs, such as Salk’s polio vaccine and AIDs drugs, with millions of the cells in people’s blood, with the family not getting a dime.

Any sort of senseless exploitation of that type, including but not limited to sterilization of Puerto Rican and other “socially inadequate” women starting in the 1930s, showing that reproductive rights haven’t been honored by the medical establishment, with the horrendous practice ending by the 1970s. Even today, those in oppressed minorities suffer from science which dehumanizes them and makes them subject to experiments. Any sort of corporate-funded or military-funded science should be rejected as fraudulent and worthless.16 There have been gains, but there are still bridges to cross and rivers to fjord.

Science that accumulates knowledge, and engages in related practices to benefit the masses, should be encouraged. Recently, it was discovered that the brain fills in gaps in hearing without you realizing it, and that maybe we can grow potatoes on Mars, just like Matt Damon in The Martian, influencing the possibility of Elon Musk’s colony of wealthy capitalists, if it even succeeds at all without mass death or starvation, or even a socialist colony as those on the SpaceCommunism subreddit envision. There have also been studies showing that you actually don’t need eight glasses of water a day, with the amount of water for each person depending on the physical makeup of someone’s fluids and body as a whole, that surgeons in China transplanted an ear from a patient’s arm to their head, one of the 500 regenerated ears they create each year, and the health crisis caused by the obesity “epidemic” in the United States.

All of these scientific successes may seem individualized, but it relates to social change. It helps us recognize how knowledge comes into being, that it comes into one’s head based on their social conditions, the distribution of water fairly and justly, not under the control of the capitalist class but rather the public, with water use a right, not a privilege for every person on the planet. As for the transplant of ears, this can help people in the future gain back their hearing if they are injured in a workplace accident, become temporarily deaf, or something like that. On the obesity “epidemic,” it is clear that having healthy, full diets, is important for all societies, while in socialist societies it may be easier to ban fast food restaurants (and junk food industries) outright, not allowing them to poison the masses with their garbage, and create alternatives that are available to all, not just bourgeois individuals.

In advanced capitalist societies such diets may be harder to promote without adequate organization. In the United States, junk food is easily accessible with the predominance of food deserts in many poorer areas, making the eating of such food easily habitual. As Morgan Spurlock demonstrated years ago in Supersize Me, it is an addiction which is hard to kick. If you are barely scraping by and have little knowledge of cooking healthy meals rather than meat-heavy, dairy-dependent, sweetened ones that are promoted by the Federal government, working in tandem with the sugar, fast-food, dairy, meat, and other big food industries, it is hard to resist the mainstream desires. Vegetarianism and veganism, which go against this trend, sometimes connected with pushes for animal rights, serve as an alternative, and is gaining steam among young people within the global core. However, those in the semi-periphery and periphery do not always have much of a choice when it comes to food options, as food (along with plastics and other Western consumer goods) is dumped on their countries by Western capitalists without their consent, and taken from their country to feed those in the core, a vicious cycle of exploitation of the highest degree.

It is clear that science is important but we must reject bourgeois science in all its manifestations, the forms of which oppressed people of the world know all too well, some of which are mentioned in this article, others which are not.17

As the Workers World Party (WWP) put it recently:

[With the Trump administration,] the needs of socially responsible scientists and the needs of the masses of workers and oppressed are in sync. Our enemy is the same. Scientists belong with the struggle against capitalism that is openly taking root today, especially among the young and the most oppressed who see no future under this system.

Adding to the words of the WWP, there should be a promotion and support of science which benefits the masses, a proletarian science, which need not come from high-flying scientific institutes or ivory towers, but from people, themselves. There need not be another science march for this to be the case, but rather we should recognize that science has and always will be political. It will be used by certain groups for partisan ends and others to buttress their exploitative agendas, so we should cut through this, supporting and engaging in science that assists in making another world possible, whether that is in general social change or building genuine revolutionary organizations that stand for an overthrow of the capitalist system.

• Read Part One here

  1. John Hershey, Hiroshima (New York: Random House, 1985, reprint), 2, 5, 15, 24, 26, 46,60-61, 72, 145-146; George Weller, First Into Nagasaki: The Censored Eyewitness Dispatches on Post-Atomic Japan and Its Prisoners of War (ed. Anthony Weller, New York: Crown Publishers, 2006), 25, 27, 37-39, 43, 133. []
  2. Brian Easlea, Fathering the Unthinkable: Masculinity, Scientists and the Nuclear Arms Race (London: Pluto Press, 1983), 83-84, 86, 88, 91, 93, 99, 111. []
  3. Weller, 28, 35, 41, 50-54, 60-61, 73-76, 78-83; Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States: 1492 – Present (Fifth Edition, New York, HarperPerennial, 2003), 422-424. As bourgeois scholars Robert Jay Lifton and Richard Falk note in Indefensible Weapon: The Political and Psychological Case Against Nuclearism, Stalin was told about a “powerful weapon” about to be used on the Japanese by Truman, but was not told in full detail what the atomic bombs entailed, for which he undoubtedly would have opposed it. []
  4. Geoffrey C. Ward, The War: An Intimate History 1941-1945 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007), 409, 412-418. []
  5. Other than Tuskegee’s Truths edited by Susan Reverby, the Black Panther Party made a broad and correct declaration about the study after it was revealed. They argued that thanks to rape and plunder as part of European imperialism, the disease spread across the world, but noted that 600 poor Black men were tested upon, 400 of which had syphilis, 200 of which were treated, 200 of which were not, with 500 of those men dying as a result, quoting a large part of the transcript of a taped interview, showing them that the only solution, apart from legal battles, is to “guarantee our futures, our very survival with people’s health care, people’s control of technology, control by Black and Poor people of all the institutions in our communities”. (“Germ Warfare Declared Against Blacks!,” The Black Panther, August 5, 1972, p. 2, 5-6). []
  6. “Sickle Cell Anemia: From Despair to Hope,” The Black Panther Intercommunal News Service, April 1, 1972, pages C and G; “Phoney Sickle Cell Group Conspires with Police in Panther Arrests!,” The Black Panther, August 19, 1972, p. 3, 9, 10; “The Sickle Cell “Game”: Phoney Foundations Try to Sabotage Black Panther’s Party Sickle Cell Program,” The Black Panther, May 17, 1972, p. 10-13; “Black Genocide: Sickle Cell Anemia,” The Black Panther, April 10, 1971, p. 10-11; “The Black Panther Party is Giving Free Sickle Cell Anemia Tests in These Areas,” The Black Panther, June 12, 1971, p. 16; “Free Sickle Cell Anemia Tests,” The Black Panther, July 19, 1971, p. 17; “Twenty-five doctors have not helped sickle cell victim,” The Black Panther, August 14, 1971, p. 4; “So, he has sickle cell anemia,” The Black Panther, September 25, 1971, p. 13. []
  7. New York State Chapter of the Black Panther Party, “Silent Epidemic,” The Black Panther, October 13, 1971, p. 8; “The People’s Community Survival Programs,” The Black Panther, October 9, 1971, p. 9; “A Program for Survival,” The Black Panther Intercommunal News Service, November 23, 1972, page D; Black Panther Party, “You can help destroy one of the attempts to commit Black genocide-fight sickle cell anemia!,” The Black Panther, May 1, 1971, p. 12. Reprinted in May 15, 22, and 29 newsletters; Elizabeth Short, “Letter from Sickle Cell Victim’s Mother,” The Black Panther, May 15, 1971, p. 9. Reprinted in May 15 and 22 newsletters; Black Panther Party, “People’s Fight Against Sickle Cell Anemia Begins,” The Black Panther, May 11, 1971, p. 10; Black Panther Party, “Fight Sickle Cell Anemia,” The Black Panther, June 5, 1971, p. 7. Reprinted in June 12 and 20 newsletter; “America’s Racist Negligence in Sickle Cell Research Exposed by its Victims,” The Black Panther, June 19, 1971, p. 2; “Fight Sickle Cell Anemia,” The Black Panther, August 12, 1971, p. 6. Reprinted in August 21, September 18, and September 25 newsletters. []
  8. “The Black Panther Party Program March 29, 1972 platform,” The Black Panther Intercommunal News Service, May 13, 1972, page B. []
  9. “Protest the American Medical Association,” The Black Panther, June 17, 1972, p. 8, 15, 17. []
  10. Lucio Colletti, “Introduction” within Karl Marx, Early Writings (New York: Vintage Books, 1975), 10, 56; Richard Schmitt, Introduction to Marx and Engels: A Critical Reconstruction (Boulder: Westview Press, 1987), 26-28, 40-41, 47, 57-58, 89, 166-167. []
  11. Karl Marx, Early Writings (New York: Vintage Books, 1975), 128, 207, []
  12. Ibid, 213. Comes from “On the Jewish Question” published in 1843. []
  13. Ibid, 213, 327-328, 354-356, 360, 381, 386, 394. []
  14. Ibid, 426. []
  15. Lawrence Wittner, Rebels Against War: The American Peace Movement, 1941-1960 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1969), 144-150, 165-166, 188-189, 221, 241, 251. []
  16. Some could say that the science of Marion King Hubbert, a Shell geoscientist, was useful in proposing the idea of “peak oil” with the “Hubbert’s Peak” in 1956, but this is highly debated, as some deny that such a phenomenon exists, while others embrace it. []
  17. For instance, I did not cover the relation of science to the non-binary, often called LGBTQ+, community. Michael Bronski writes about this in A Queer History of the United States, noting that after the “Enlightenment” in Europe, some tried to use “science” to “prove” biological inequality, with science later embraced in the place of theology while science was liberating for some homosexuals and lesbians in the early 20th century, but not for others (see pages 26, 56, 78-79, 95-99, 105, 114-116, 123, 150, 160). []

Leftist Critic is an independent radical, writer, and angry citizen and can be reached at leftistcritic@linuxmail.org or on twitter, @leftistcritic, where they tweet frequently about issues of importance relating to American empire, the environment, people of color, and criticism of the "left," whether radical or non-radical. Read other articles by Leftist.