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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 11, March 11, 2023

Metaphor In Orbit (Science is Not All Social Relations) | Hilary Rose & Stephen Rose

Saturday 11 March 2023


by Hilary Rose & Stephen Rose

This is an abridged version of an article which appeared in Science Bulletin 22, 1979, a communist science and technology journal published in the United Kingdom.

In November 1976, we published an edited collection of articles (in two volumes: The Political Economy of Science and The Radicalisation of Science, Macmillan) attempting to define some of the theoretical issues relevant to a Marxist understanding of science under capitalism, as they had developed out of several years of practice within the radical science movement. This analysis represents a decisive break with that of the old left; hitherto unproblematic beliefs and theories, such as of the inherently progressive nature and objectivity of natural science and the Dialectics of Nature have been the subjects of critical reworking. Meanwhile, over the past few years the core group of the collective associated with Radical Science Journal has developed a very different line on these issues. We feel that the trend represented by the RSJ core group needs critical examination. We therefore offer here our discussion of two earlier articles in RSJ, by Bob Young and Gary Werskey, as well as comments on the article by Levidow in RS 6, which forms a polemic against the chapter in The Political Economy of Science entitled "Scientific Racism and Ideology: The IQ Racket from Galton to Jensen."

Young and Social Relations

Young’s article in RSJ 5, "Science is Social Relations," asserts that science is, or may be reduced to, social relations. Despite science’s claims to be concerned with an understanding of the natural world, such claims can only represent a series of social constructs reflective of the social order.

In making this assertion, which is the antithesis of the traditional Marxist position, Young owes a considerable philosophical debt to the anarchist Feyerabend (particularly his book Against Method) and the Marxist Sohn‑Rethel. Sohn‑Rethel traces the emergence of physical science to the development of abstract thinking. This was itself a product of the formation of commodity exchange relationships and the separation of mental and manual labor in above all, ancient Greece. Sohn‑Rethel thus points to the social origins of science. But he never claims that the existence of social determinants of a phenomenon dissolve the phenomenon itself, and this, as we shall see, is the extraordinary enterprise to which Young sets himself.

Humanity, for Marx, but not for Young, is part of a nature whose existence precedes and will postdate it. This nature is being continuously transformed by human intervention, but only in accord with its own laws. Marx’s analysis of commodity fetishism (whether one agrees with it or not) is developed out of an analysis of capitalist relations of production and exchange, and cannot be transferred wholesale into the analysis of the status of scientific discourse, which has its own particular conditions of production.

Young even claims that "the economy and the factory are known by socialists to be social relations." By extension, commodities are social relations; as scientific facts "are" commodities, they too are social relations. Once again Young has turned a mediation into an identity, and this allows him to ignore the multiple forces at play within the factory and the lab. A factory is at the same moment part of social relations and objectively real. Its material reality does not cease because it is part of social reality. Similarly its products, and the skills of the workers embodied in those products, are both real and part of social relations; they are not coterminous with social relations.

Young makes three errors in his argument. First, he replaces materialism by idealism—only take thought, change our social relationships, and the factory will become transformed, the state wither and the millenium arrive. Young upends Marx and rediscovers a new Hegelianism. We look later at the implications of this retreat from materialism.

The second mistake derives from Young’s understanding of the term "social relations." For him the concept is synonymous with interpersonal relations—relations between individuals, as, for instance, of dominance and subservience. He transforms the slogan of ’68 "the personal is the political" into its converse "the political is the personal."

His third mistake is to confuse the social determinants of a phenomenon for the phenomenon itself. It is not the social relations of the Hebden Bridge asbestos factory which penetrated the lungs of the workers, but the asbestos fibres. The asbestosis and the premature death of the workers are not merely social relations either.

The use of an object is separable from its structure. But the object itself has certain inherent properties that cannot be modified. Science is the understanding of those properties. Science, of course, involves social relations but that does not nullify the fact that it also has a field. To confuse the field with the organization of the work of investigation is a fatal error. It can only lead to the rejection of investigation for improving life. As Marx argues in his Critique of the Gotha Programme, nature has an infinite number of ways in which it can be studied and used, but the way in which we do so is separate from the properties of the particular phenomenon concerned. What is important is the dialectic that exists between the field and the organization by which it is used. A failure to make that distinction means that nothing in nature can ever be transformed, and understanding is impossible.

It is because Young fails to make this distinction that he can claim that "science reifies nature" and that it is reification to treat "the relations between things as though they were relations between things" (sic). Unless he aspires to some form of panpsychism, he must see that the natural world is a world of objects, composed of other objects and themselves composing yet others. Bourgeois science ignores the fact that objects have relationships and histories and are capable of transformation. It is this mechanical materialist reductionism which constitutes the dominant ideology of today’s bourgeois science. By contrast, Young’s idealist ideology pretends that objects do not exist at all, but are merely manifestations of "social," i.e. interpersonal, relations.

Whilst the unification of natural and human history remains the goal of a socialist science, the two are not identical; nature is not coterminous with humanity. The business of science, to quote Luke Hodgkin in the same issue of RSJ, is "working on knowledges to produce new ones" about our world. Newton’s laws or Einsteinian relativity theory are ways of attempting to understand, define and predict the behaviour of the natural world. The method we must use to understand the historiographic question of the social determinants of Newtonian or Einsteinian cosmology is not the same as the method we must use to judge the "truth" of their description of the natural world. This is not to divorce fact from value. Nor is it to claim that science is the only way of experiencing and knowing the world. Writing, painting, meditation and the direct sensuous practice of human labour, are also valid ways of experiencing, knowing and communication about the world.

The natural world exists with or without Young shutting his eyes, and with or without science. Natural relations, like those between the sun and the moon, are not social relations. Furthermore, all forms of knowledge have their own rules and criteria for validation, which have their own social relations. In Young’s world, how can we say that one brick wall is better built than another, let alone one theory or experiment? Young denies the achievements of human labour whether in bricklaying, cooking or scientific experimentation, as well as the autonomy of separate knowledges, and the problems of discriminating between and within them. Thus struggles within fields of knowledge reduce solely to "social" relations, a stance of such monolithic reductionism that paradoxically it enters into complicity with the crudest of economic determinism.

Young’s account of science omits the history of science as a social formation and any sense that social formations contain contradictions. Instead we have an ahistorical, unidimensional view of science as inevitably oppressive. By contrast, we insist that, like capitalism in its emergence from feudalism, bourgeois science was a progressive force; that like capitalism, science has become largely oppressive; but that bourgeois science contains within itself the contradictions on which the struggle for a socialist science depends. Science becomes a battleground between progressive and reactionary forces, which express themselves with varying strengths in the different fields of knowledge depending upon both internal and external factors to the science itself.

At the present time, the most significant way in which large areas of bourgeois science have become reactionary is in their complete capture by a reductionist mechanical materialism. just as socialism, which is the contradiction of capitalism, is (will be) a better form of society, so a socialist science will be a better form of science.

It is the complexity of these contradictions and the struggles within science that Young ignores. In doing so, he effectively denies not merely the possibility of combating particular theories within capitalist science but the possibility of creating a socialist science at all.

Levidow and the IQ Question

Levidow’s review of the chapter "Scientific Racism and Ideology: the IQ Racket from Galton to Jensen" is non‑materialist and apolitical. Before confronting Levidow’s claims, a word on the history of the IQ chapter itself. The first version was produced as an immediate weapon in the conflict with emergent scientific racism in this country. It was published as a chapter in The Socialist Register and as a pamphlet by the Campaign on Racism, IQ and the Class Society. A later version was prepared for a direct confrontation with Jensen at a meeting of the Institute of Biology. The version in The Political Economy of Science takes into account these earlier drafts and the many comments and criticisms from our years of campaigning with CRIQCS. It is an embattled chapter which has emerged from, and hopefully contributed to, a struggle which most people in the movement see as a central campaign area.

Levidow has abandoned the entire terrain of biology and psychology to the class enemy. He has depoliticised this issue by translating it from a vital political concern that sharply affects all oppressed classes in everyday life, into some timeless Marxological controversy.

In order to write his review, Levidow has had to traduce the arguments of the chapter, to ignore those that are dealt with in other chapters of the book (like the more general questions of ideology), and to forget that it was developed in the course of a specific political struggle. He can then charge it with narrow professionalism or an attempt to defend existing science from politics. Levidow is in orbit.

Why should he want to do this? Levidow wants to use the IQ question as a test case for the Young thesis that scientific facts reduce to commodities and are "social" relations. This strategy absolves social relations in orbit from any necessity to touch down and confront the particular knowledge. All you have to prove is that your enemy is nasty, and therefore has nasty ideas, nasty social relations and hence invents nasty scientific facts. While biological reductionists consistently reduce social phenomena to biological ones, Levidow reduces knowledge about the biological to knowledge about the social world, as if, thereby, the biological ceased to exist except as a social manifestation.

The chapter he reviews tried to do three things: critically examine the knowledge claims made by the protagonists of IQ: make clear the ideological world view within which such claims are made; and delineate their social determinants. Levidow wishes to merge these categories. At the end of that road lies nothing but idealistic confusion.

To emphasize the main points: socialists must argue that knowledge of the natural world is possible and that its field cannot be dissolved into its social determinants. Not only (as Young rightly claims) can we have prefigurative social relations in a capitalist world; we can also have prefigurative natural science. Socialist biologists are likely to know the natural world better than the Eysencks and the Jensens, just as Marxists understand the social world better than bourgeois economists. This is our strength; let us not turn it into our weakness.

Bob Young’s answer to his own question: "Is there a socialist science?" is "No—no more than there is a socialist society." Although he rightly affirms the need to move on, to create an alternative world view, to struggle to relate to one another in just and equal ways, his preoccupation with "social" relations denies the possibility that work within different sciences can be allied to political struggle. Yet a social movement which sees "social" relations as its main theoretical and practical objective is doomed to sterility. Not only must the movement foster new ways of relating to one another within the movement which oppose the individualism, sexism, and racism of a class society, it must work on and make over existing knowledges in the service of human liberation.

(Source: Rose, Hilary & Stephen. “Metaphor In Orbit (Science is Not All Social Relations),” in: Working Papers on Marxism and Science (New York: Science Task Force, New York Marxist School, Winter 1981), pp. 82-86.)

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