Science and socialists

The science factory

Malcolm Povey (1989)


Published in Socialist Worker Review issue 116, January 1989, pp26-27.

Transcribed by Jørn Andersen for Marxisme Online, 3 december 2001.



The development of the atomic bomb marked, to a large degree, the end of the scientist as the independent bourgeois individual. The Manhattan Project, which developed the bomb, was the first science factory. At its height 150,000 people were employed on it. The project was begun on the initiative of emigre European scientists – people like Szilard and Einstein, who fled from Hitler and fascism.

Szilard set up a front organisation called the Association for Scientific Advancement which he used to borrow money to get the bomb built, which he believed was necessary to defeat Hitler. He and Einstein wrote letters to Roosevelt asking for support in building the bomb.

Szilard prevented fascist scientists from working in his laboratory, an unprecedented and overtly political act for its time, prior to the outbreak of war. Here was a scientist in the mould of Newton, simultaneously scientist, philosopher and bourgeois politician.

Once convinced, Roosevelt and his generals used the gigantic resources available to the US state to build the bomb. The project gained a life and a purpose which engulfed the individual scientists involved.

The Manhattan Project introduced a division of labour into science on a massive scale and it became the model for scientific enterprise, especially as science itself required more and more expensive equipment. Since then we can look at scientists, in the context of late capitalism, as intellectual labourers. As a result philosophy is being removed from the activity of science.

Now science is managed on behalf of companies engaged in making a profit with scientists usually working in teams. The manager sees the whole picture but does not do the work. This leads to a poverty of philosophy because general ideas are separated from those doing the work – the result of the exploitation of intellectual labour, its exchange on the market and its consequent alienation.

Carlo Rubbio is an example of a scientific manager. He received the Nobel prize for the discovery of the W particle and is the boss of the European particle physics laboratory (CERN) overseeing hundreds of scientists. He received the Nobel prize for the work the scientists did.

Scientists today have much more in common with a worker, exploited by the system, than with the bourgeois individuals who are the archetypal model of scientists. For example, compare Alex Jeffries with James Watt.

Jeffries, of Leicester University, developed DNA fingerprinting, initially to unite an immigrant family. He saw it as a way of dealing with racist immigration laws.

This technique was intellectual property – it belonged to the Lister Institute who paid for the research. However, the idea was taken over by ICI who made it into a kit that the police could use.

The police are now using it to hunt down the IRA in Northern Ireland. Its use in immigration appeals has been banned because the government says it is unreliable, yet it is good enough to convict the state's enemies. The large profits from the discovery of genetic fingerprinting do not go to the scientist who discovered them, they go to ICI.

Watt, on the other hand, financed his own laboratory at Glasgow University out of the profits he made selling steam engines to coal owners. He made £8,000 a year, a fortune in the 18th century when Watt was working, and a fortune which enabled him to maintain his independence as a scientist.

An example of the rationale of science in late capitalism is the green revolution in India in the late sixties. A combination of the use of fertilisers, intensive use of land and new varieties of grain, in particular the replacement of millet by maize, made a fantastic increase in food production possible.

It is part of the reason for the massive growth of food production on a world wide scale today. But how did it work through in practice under capitalist relations of production?

The farmers discovered that if they used maize they could get four times the price on the world market compared to what they could get selling millet on the local market. Also, they didn't need anything like the same number of labourers. Hundreds of thousands of labourers became unemployed and the price of their food rocketed to the level of the world market. The result was one of the biggest famines that India has ever experienced.

But which was to blame, science or its capitalist organisation? There are a number of key questions we must consider to answer this.

Firstly, what exactly is science? The key lies in Lenin's definition of materialism. Materialism is the recognition of an objective reality existing beyond the consciousness of human beings. What Lenin meant was that things exist even if we cannot actually sense them. The materialist attempts to infer their nature from that part of reality we can sense. This enterprise amounts to philosophy. Science is materialistic. It probes beneath appearances to an underlying reality.

Science is also a human activity, not just carried out by individuals but as a social activity and thus it has a history. Scientific objectivity can only be achieved as part of the collective labour of human beings, through the process of production. So in the end it is only Marxism that can fully explain science.

In Greek society, philosophers theorised about the idea that there was a limit beyond which matter could no longer be subdivided – the basis for an atomic theory of matter. But this in itself did not constitute scientific activity, it was philosophy. Demokritus's ideas lost out, initially because they did not fit in the subsequent feudal society.

The early bourgeois scientists, in coming to grips with a feudal society in the midst of revolution, were forced to reconsider the old ideas and find new ones suited to the emerging society. Although they represented a minority class, they were forced to develop a scientific approach which was in the interests of humanity as a whole.

Ultimately, social being determines social consciousness but there is not a mechanical relationship between the two. Although Demokritus's ideas did not fit feudal society, the existence of that speculation, the existence of Greek philosophy, influenced those who wished to challenge the old ideas.

It was the development of industry that made the challenge of science unstoppable. Industry provided the tools necessary to test scientific hypotheses. The synthesis of ideas and experiment help revolutionise industry and expand its productive capacity immensely, so providing science with even better means to test its theories. Science is, in short, a synthesis of philosophy and human labour.

So how does science fit into the world capitalist order? Since the early seventies the world economy has experienced a period of long drawn out crisis. The features of this crisis include a falling rate of profit, an increasing role for the state, an increasing concentration and internationalisation of capital and increasingly ferocious competition. This has an impact on science.

From the end of the war until 1972 the production of scientific papers grew substantially. From 1972 to 1981 the total number of papers being produced only increased by 1 percent.

In Britain from 1981 to 1985, with its economy described as the sick man of Europe and a rate of profit lower than the world average, scientific paper production declined by 10 percent. Clearly the activity of science is part of the overall economic activity of capitalism. Science should be seen as part of the forces of production, with investment in science no different to investment in the forces of production.

The cost of science has dramatically increased. The only way the British state can engage in the development of particle physics, for instance, is by collaborating with other European countries. Yet the cost of even sharing the work is becoming so immense that there is debate about withdrawing from collaboration.

Who controls science? Between 50 and 80 percent of all spending on research is funded by the state. A MORI poll two years ago showed that 70 percent of those interviewed were in favour of a dramatic cut in military spending and a similar proportion were in favour of a very large rise in spending on health.

Despite this, in 1981, 48 percent of all expenditure went on military research and this has risen this year to 51 percent. Industrial research has risen from 3.3 percent to 4 percent. Spending on space has risen from 2 to 2.6 percent and spending on health has fallen from 4 to 3 percent. Clearly, the role of the state as a defender of capitalism takes precedence over human need.

Necessarily, this prioritising of specific areas shapes the development of science. Marx thought that a period of revolution, of generalised crisis, would be characterised by the relations of production becoming fetters on the forces of production. That clearly applies to scientific advance.

However, capitalists do have an interest in maintaining the objectivity and development of the natural sciences. If they get the laws of physics wrong, for example, the products of their factories will not work whilst those of their competitors who understand physics will.

As we have seen, science under capitalism is often applied to questions which are hardly concerned with satisfying human need, the development of the atomic bomb is a prime example. This is because those who control the forces of production and hence scientific activity are a tiny minority in society.

So despite the fact that scientific advancement is often misused by those who control it, science should be defended. It is an ally in the liberation of humanity, from the tyranny of both the natural world, and that of capital.

Malcolm Povey



This article is one out of a short series on Science and socialists published in Socialist Worker Review issues 112 to 116 (September 1988 to January 1989):
Paul McGarr: Star wars (Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo)
Andy Wilson: The core of Newton
Mike Simons: Darwin's new dawn
Duncan Blackie: It's all relative (Einstein)
Malcolm Povey: The science factory (science and scientists in society)



Last updated 3.12.01