The Role of Science in Capitalist Society and Social Change

Part 1 of 2

It was a deary day in Washington, D.C. The rain was pouring down and thousands of people were gathered in a huddled mass, listening to speakers tell about their scientific work or scientific innovations. Others uttered platitudes or nationalistic sayings, declaring the US should be “number one” in science above the rest of the world. This was the March for Science in D.C. this past Earth Day, one of the many actions across the world. The march and rally beforehand, like many of the other marches for environmentalism through the Obama years, likely will have no effect on policy or direction of the reactionary Trump Administration. With its Republican allies in Congress, the administration plans to cut scientific programs while feeding more fuel into the ravenous, murderous, and imperialistic war machine of the United States. Trump’s hate of scientists is clearly universal as demonstrated by the sanctioning of 271 Syrian scientists by the Treasury Department despite the fact these scientists have not engaged in any hostile acts aimed at the United States.

As for the demonstration, it was predictably anti-Trump, just like many actions since this past January. This action was sponsored by Big Green bourgeois environmental groups (“Gang Green”) like Defenders of Wildlife and Nature Conservancy, along with established scientific organizations and institutes, accompanied by the Hip Hop Caucus, providing the “funk” and “soul” music which permeated the rally in the rainy morning. However, it was partially inspiring to see tens of thousands of people in the rain advocating for science. I say that even though some grumbled about science becoming “political”/”politicized,” like this is a bad development, or the march whitewashing certain groups, with the demonstration itself encouraging me to begin writing this article the following day. ((Reading about this on April 22, I could only find only one article by Maggie Fox, titled “March for Science Demonstrators Say They’re the Real Patriots,” on NBC Politics, which gave a crowd estimate: “NBC News estimated that at least 10,000 turned out for a dreary Washington morning, and many thousands more showed up at satellite demonstrations.” There were reportedly 610 satellite demonstrations across the country. I heard some estimated the crowd at over 40,000. Being the most cynical, some may say marches like this are only the “flavor of the month” and are worthless, but this is a valid viewpoint.))

In this day and age, science is more important than ever. The Marxist Internet Archive, apart from having a page about Marxism and Natural Science, defines science as the

socially legitimated accumulation of knowledge, and the institutions and practices for observation, classification, experiment, verification, criticism, legitimation and dissemination of those practices and associated theory in a systematic whole…[it] is one of a number of means (artistic, religious, sensori-motor, etc.) of organising social activity, integral to which is the development of theoretical knowledge towards a unified and legitimate whole…The development of science is characterised by a separation out of scientific practice and scientific consciousness from other legitimate forms of social practice and consciousness, and consequently the establishment of institutions dedicated to scientific practice which in turn have come to be dominated by capital.

There is no doubt that climate change/global warming, or what should be more accurately called climate catastrophe, is happening. Science itself, whether in its social (“soft”) or natural (“hard”) realms, is not only vital to understanding social change, connecting with Marxist analysis, but important for the development of social science as a whole. As some have put it, rightly, human history is a continuation of natural history. As it stands now, nature and all things considered natural are “commonly glorified and the feats of the engineer…are considered meddlesome, if not dangerous” with this attitude reinforced by certain scientific interpretations, saying that “human beings must concede to nature” with some arguing that the “loss of faith in [scientific] progress…explains today’s loss of faith in science.” As Chilean Marxist Marta Harnecker put it in a recent interview, “the conscious technical application of science” has been applied to the general production process and used to exploit available soil.

But there is a more direct threat. It’s not the testing of genes, but the reactionary backlash against science, with the bourgeois media portraying it as a “debate” between climate scientists and deniers, when there is no debate at all. Some elements of capitalist class ultimately want a climate catastrophe as it will increase their profits, while others take weak steps to “stop” it, even though it is evident that with capitalism’s destruction of nature, human-induced climate change can only be mitigated by a broad socialist revolution and complete overhaul of the system, not just tinkering.

We are facing, in advanced capitalist society, at least, a dilemma. Many scientific projects are bourgeois in character, not proletarian, with corporate and military funding dominating their structures. This article aims to examine this dilemma in all its parts.

Does Conner write a history of proletarian science?

Clifford D. Conner, a teacher and social historian, claims to write a history of proletarian science in his tome, A People’s History of Science. He says that his book will tell how “ordinary humans participated in creating science in profound ways” to demonstrate the contribution of the masses, whether they were peoples in Mesopotamia, whalers in the Gulf Stream, or indigenous peoples in the Americas, to scientific discoveries, even as he says he still believes that the “familiar Great Men of science” are important. ((Clifford D. Conner, A People’s History of Science: Miners, Midwives, and “Low Mechanicks” (New York: Nation Books, 2005), 1-4, 7, 9, 18, 22.)) However, problems with his work are apparent. For one, he uses the broad term “the people” rejecting terms like “the masses, the working class, and the proletariat,” saying that these are associated with the “discredited ideology of the Stalinist period,” making him sound like a traitorous Trotskyist. Even with this worrying prospect, he does say that science should be broad, inclusionary, and does not have an easy definition, with differences in methodology between biology, ecology, and astrophysics, lets say, even as science and technology are interconnected, not separated. ((Ibid, 11-13, 17.))

From here, Mr. Conner begins to examine hunter-gatherers, or what some have called gatherer-hunters. He dismisses those who say that such people were of low intelligence, highlighting Friedrich Engels’s argument that the development of labor was important in human development. ((Ibid, 27-28, 31-32, 34-38.)) He goes on to say that such people were relatively intelligent, based on anthropological data, saying that these foragers conducted science, beyond the abilities of those in European capitalist societies, without a professional group of intellectuals present. The abilities of indigenous people, from the Aborigines in Australia to Polynesians in the Pacific islands, later met by English captain James Cook, and native Tahitians, ranged. He notes how Polynesians had developed their own forms of astronomy, geography, navigational learning, knowledge of ocean swells, and a “sidereal compass” coming from their comprehensive knowledge of the positions of stars in the sky. ((Ibid, 43, 46, 48-49, 53-54.))

Mr. Conner goes on to talk about indigenous navigation on land, their cartography, which was stolen by White European colonists for imperialist purposes, and recordkeeping differing in each of their respective environments, with some developing  alphabetic writing. There was also development of advanced agriculture, coupled with astronomy by African peoples, expanded botanical knowledge, creation of quinine before it was stolen for European use, different natural anesthetics, forms of inoculation, along with methods tried by working people in still-developing capitalist countries like England. ((Ibid, 84, 89, 93, 95, 97, 101, 106.)) Clearly, the indigenous peoples of the world were not only ahead of Europeans scientifically in many leaps and bounds, but their ideas were so effective that they were stolen by Whites for selfish purposes, and, hence, these peoples should be recognized for their contributions.

After covering the contribution of indigenous peoples, Mr. Conner moves onto the Greeks. He notes that many White European scholars see science as originating with them, with an idea of a “Greek miracle” in science despite the fact that developed science was present in ancient Egypt and the Greeks recognized that their civilization’s wisdom was rooted in previous societies. ((Ibid, 120-123, 125.)) This reality was disregarded in European academic circles, as everything “worthwhile” in the past was claimed to be, the “achievement” of the White race. Clearly, “racial science” was not on the fringe, but was the mainstream of White European science, used to reinforce colonialism and imperialism. Greek science, as he writes, was not one single event or historic occurrence but was a development over time, over thousands of years. This included the Ionian Greeks, with developments of “democratic republics” to favor the Plebians in their societies, with Pythagoras’s famed theorem actually dating back to Babylonian mathematicians, Plato’s elitism leaving a mark on science but somewhat moderated by Aristotle, creating an idea of elitism in the discipline, and development of the Hippocratic oath. ((Ibid, 132, 134-135, 138, 143, 145, 148, 151.)) He then writes about “elite science” after Aristotle, Roman science, science in the Islamic world, and within traditional China, saying the rise of capitalism created the social pre-conditions for a “scientific revolution” to come.

From here, Mr. Conner focuses on sailors and navigational sciences. After noting that Prince Henry of Portugal never was a navigator, even though he became a “Great Man” of history, he notes that sailors did not “hug” shores but rather sailed across vast bodies of water for thousands of years before the Europeans and after. ((Ibid, 191, 193, 195-196.)) Even with winds and currents, Europeans, starting with a Greek sailor named Hippalos, opened the Indian Ocean as a trade route, with the same done by Benjamin Franklin, building on the knowledge of whalers who had used the Gulf Stream, when he published his navigational chart on the subject. Blue-water sailors could venture on the high seas, assisted by geography, cartography, astronomy, and accumulated climatic knowledge. ((Ibid, 206, 210, 215, 217, 220, 223, 226, 228. The most advanced sailors in the world came from China by the end of the fourteenth century. These sailors were also helped with the establishment of latitude and longitude delineations, the magnetic compass of course, and oceanography. With such sea travel there was a side-effect: the advent of kidnapping on the high seas.))

At long last, Mr. Conner gets to the scientific “revolutionaries.” He notes that there is no historical agreement on the “Scientific Revolution,” a concept that originated in the 1930s, that hundreds of types of craftspeople engaged in contributions to science, and that nature began to be “mathematized” for the benefit of merchants, miners, sailors, architects, and the like. ((Ibid, 248-249, 251, 253-254.)) By the sixteenth century, instrument makers changed surveying with creation of textbooks, Renaissance painters established perspective, philosophy became more of a discipline, and social divisions between scholars and craftsmen were more acute. Francis Bacon, Nicolas of Cusa, Jan Luis Vives, and Martin Luther recognized the wisdom that could be gained from those in workshops and the streets for their high-flying intellectual endeavors, engaging in systematic exploitation of the ideas of the proletariat for their own benefit. ((Ibid, 283.)) Even Galileo Galilei benefited from interactions with artisans, with the development of artisan-authors, including Robert Norman, with the printing press changing distribution of scientific knowledge dramatically. Others depended on interactions with the working class like Paraclesus or Johannes Kepler, as science and medicine advanced, even though it was still relatively “primitive” as some would say today.

Then, Mr. Conner moves onto the “winners” of the so-called “scientific revolution.” He argued that the new scientific elite benefited while artisans, tradesmen, and other laborers who “revolutionized science” were worse off, with creation of experimental academies, the Royal Society’s inception, the idea of “value-free” science, and attempts to discredit traditional learning. ((Ibid, 349-350, 352-353, 355, 357, 362.)) There was also the use of patriarchal imaging of non-human nature, hunting of those dubbed “witches,” and medical science becoming more elite, while those of modest origins among the proletariat, such as Johann Rudolph Glauber, advancing forward. If this wasn’t enough, protection of commercial secrets made it hard for those in the proletariat to disclose their discoveries. ((Ibid, 373, 377-378, 380. Isaac Newton is credited for “pure intellectual activity” in founding gravity even though he built on the discoveries of others, a timepiece by skilled watchmaker solved the problem with longitude not his theories, and his philosophy of nature providing support for “unemotional rationalism.”)) Mr. Conner goes to note how elite science fueled the fires of the French Revolution. The revolution destroyed the Royal Academy of Science even as a “professional elite” still dominated the scientific field, a battle between artisans and academics within France, science becoming, on the streets, connected with “radical social thought,” and pushes for “people’s science” in France without success by the end of the revolution. With the dust settled, a new social order was established across the world, with science’s further development clearly subordinated to capitalist interests. ((Ibid, 412.))

We then get to the nineteenth century when, as Mr. Conner puts it, there is a “Union of Capital and Science” but not between equals. With this union the dominance of “Big Science” began to come more into view, with knowledge and nature commodified, with craftsmen and engineers making discoveries in the “Industrial Revolution” but their ideas exploited by an elite, such as Abraham Darby, for ironworks, Thomas Savery, for the steam-powered pump, or Joseph Black, with his theory of latent heat which helped distillers produce beer. ((Ibid, 423, 425-427, 429.)) While many of the accomplishments of artisans and engineers were “recorded and publicized,” their ideas were exploited for use in metallurgy, certain institutes, the theory of species evolution later expanded  by famed English naturalist Charles Darwin. From there was the development of Darwinism with his theory tolerable to the scientific elite and anti-socialists, even as Karl Marx used it effectively. Social Darwinism was pushed forward to support the growing capitalist system, with a Malthusian flavor, which connected with the notion of eugenics, founded by Darwin’s first cousin, Francis Galton. ((Ibid, 441, 443-445.))

Then there is Mr. Conner’s last chapter about the “scientific-industrial complex” in the twentieth century and beyond that point. With the confidence in the goodness of science at the beginning of the twentieth century seeming limitless, this was changed with the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, even as “Big Science” was glorified by chemical companies, as some, even on the Left, appealed to eugenics, to support their ideological agendas, even as such ideas were shown to be horrific after World War II and the end of the Holocaust. ((Ibid, 449-451.)) The experiments by the Germans on those in their concentration camps were against common human decency but are not unprecedented with the US military in the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and at the illegally occupied Guantanamo Bay military base, engaging in horrid experimentation. With Social Darwinism not having as many open supporters, it shifted to sociobiology and evolutionary psychology, with applications in Frederick W. Taylor’s management system (“Taylorism”), and people’s science within the Soviet Union as argued an international conference of scientists. ((Ibid, 453, 456, 458.)) It is at this point that Mr. Conner’s book starts going into anti-Soviet and anti-communist diatribes, claiming that Trofim Denisovich Lysenko’s science was “wrong,” claiming that Stalin opposed “proletarian science” even as he criticizes the Green Revolution, makes a convincing argument about Rachel Carson’s role in environmentalism, notes the importance of feminism in criticizing medical science, and talks about the consolidation of science within big companies even with information becoming widely available on the Internet.

Mr. Conner seems to corrupt his work by not consulting varying viewpoints on Mr. Lysenko’s work. Evidently, Mr. Lysenko’s criticism of “orthodox genetics” has some value at least, as he based some of his ideas on Darwin and Engels, rejected Malthusian ideas, along with many other aspects. Also, he argued, in 1941, that in the Soviet Union, a “land of victorious Socialism” as he called it, there was a possibility to “give a real explanation of real biological facts such as species.” While he was a person working in the field of Soviet agriculture, engaging in soil cultivation, some sneer at him still, rejecting “Lysenkoism” as wrong, especially when he entered the field of genetics, while others say it as some part of “dictatorship” even as it was admitted that Mr. Lysenko was never a member of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. The fact that Mr. Conner never considered or used these sources in any way, shape, or form, shows he is engaging in intellectual laziness.

All in all, while Mr. Conner’s book is a competent history, it is still replete with bourgeois ideas, especially falling in line with the criticisms of the Soviet Union by Trotskyists and other deluded anti-revolutionary individuals. His conclusion is not very strong either, not with an uplifting note or even saying that science should be used for social change. Instead, he attacks the proponents of Deep Ecology including those in Earth First!, saying that he chooses to “defend a humanist ideology” than argue that “Big Science, Big Technology, and Big Industry are inherently anti-social enterprises” saying that people should be first, not the Earth, along with, horribly, scowling at the Soviet Union when Joseph Stalin was General Secretary of the Communist Party’s Central Committee (1922-1952) and China when Mao Zedong was chairman of the Communist Party’s Central Committee (1945-1976). ((Ibid, 497-498.)) Ultimately this means that Mr. Conner did not put together a history of proletarian science as it is separate from Marxist ideals and is woefully incomplete. There was no investigation of science within the Soviet Union or China of any depth, it was generally superficial, with a stronger book connecting Marxist ideas with the history of science not to make it a polemic but to make it more relevant to the present. All of this is no surprise since Mr. Conner’s book was published by Nation Books, the publishing house of the bourgeois progressive magazine, The Nation, so radical ideas are easily eschewed.

Leftist Critic is an independent radical, writer, and angry citizen who can be reached at or on twitter @leftistcritic. They write, on and elsewhere, about topics such as U$ imperialism, global capitalism, the reigning capitalocene, nations in the capitalist crosshairs, history of past socialist/revolutionary action, and the contorted U$ political landscape while criticizing the capitalist-conditioned Western "left." Read other articles by Leftist.