Science under socialism: part II

Jonas Salk, pioneer of the polio vaccine, who released it free of charge.

In this follow-up to “Science under Capitalism” published in the June issue of The Spark, laboratory technician and Workers Party member Josh Glue considers the possibilities for scientific progress in a future run along socialist lines.

Socialism is the period of movement toward a classless stateless society run through democratic workers control of the means of production, distribution and exchange, coupled with a high level of democratic involvement from all people in decision making at a community level. Science has been driven, efficiently but single-mindedly, by the capitalist system since that system’s beginnings in the wake of the French revolution and the industrial revolution throughout Europe.

We live in a world where poor Indian people die because they can’t afford treatment for the under-studied black fever disease. We live in a world where the millions of sub-saharan Africans with HIV-AIDS can’t afford the life-saving HAART medicine available in the West. We live in a world where a pesticide company’s plant vented toxic gas over a Bhopal slum, killing thousands and leaving thousands more with lung cancer and those victims can’t even get chemotherapy.

But what if profit didn’t motivate scientific research? What if new avenues of research were funded by a free society, without a ruling class to exploit their wealth and with the knowledge that the profits of that research would benefit all equally in that society?

Kenyans protest for life-saving retroviral treatment funding.

The possibilities are boundless. There are around a dozen little heard-of and little researched diseases that affect the poorest countries of Sub-Saharan Africa, Asia and South and Central America. These diseases, such as guinea worm, river blindness, leprosy and elephantiasis, together cause as much misery and death as malaria or tuberculosis in Africa. In addition they make other diseases like HIV-AIDS far worse for those infected, assaulting their compromised immune systems. It would cost less than a billion dollars a year to treat all these diseases and yield an inestimable improvement in millions of lives. But it still hasn’t happened. Under a planned socialist economy the value created by workers could get through to where it’s needed. With the money the NZ government wasted on ruling class tax cuts we could have funded it all ourselves.

Until we change to a system where people truly rule, we can’t expect the glories and potential of science and technology to be anything but handicapped in its ability to enrich human life.  The great socialist scientist Nikola Tesla, inventor of alternating current and pioneer of hydro-electric power dreamed of harnessing the electromagnetic field of the earth to create endless electricity for everybody. Tesla once said “Science is but a perversion of itself unless it has as its ultimate goal the betterment of humanity.”

In Soviet Russia, science was freed to advance in all areas, but particularly in ‘pure’ or theoretical science. Even under the limitations of the corrupted regime, the element of workers ownership in that system allowed science to be funded with a view to benefit all. More recently people’s lives have been transformed through the socialistic policies of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela. In tens of thousands of workplaces around the country co-operative workers control is replacing private capitalist ownership. From tomato sauce to tiles to sugar, much of the productive economy and even the service sector are run cooperatively in Venezuela. The potential efficiency of this form of workers control is staggering. If you have a great idea but an unreceptive boss, the idea dies. But in a cooperative the workers make the decisions, the workers decide to act to make great ideas into reality, and thus can make their work easier and more efficient.

Automation could be used to reduce the workload, yet real wages in the West have declined while hours have increased.

 Automation in the productive sphere has increased the efficiency of human labour massively over the last 40 years, yet real wages have gone down in the west, while hours have increased. This strange dichotomy stems from the exploitation of that labour by capitalist owners and their managerial servants, and is made worse by the tendency of capitalism to go through regular crises, which destabilise the economy and put competitive pressure on capitalists to cut margins. The efficiencies gained through automation haven’t meant less unpleasant work, less hours, more pay and better working conditions for all working people, they have simply meant that under-paid over-worked staff can produce even more profit for their employer in the same period of time.

And the workers that automation eliminates the need for? Rather than the reduced work being shared amongst all of them, those who aren’t needed are made redundant, left on the economic scrapheap to search for another job in which to be hyper-exploited.

Science fiction writers used to imagine that in the future everyone would work a few hours a week, that onerous work would be completed by machines and that leisure time would be abundant. They dreamed that the technological marvels humanity had created and will create would benefit the world and make life sweeter and fairer. That future is still possible. We just have fight to make that dream a reality.


  1. Alec Morgan says:

    Science sometimes proceeds seemingly independently of ideology, following its own independent experimental and evidence based trajectory. But in the end ownership, control and political manipulation (via research funding and capitalist appropriation of the results) usually prevails.

    The ‘degenerate workers state’ the USSR became, did indeed produce talented physicists etc. I agree with Josh’s last para in particular. No ‘sky car’ gently tethered floating outside my place yet. The early 21st century has turned out more a gritty futurist race to the end, can the atomised working class, degraded (lumpen) peoples and their potential allies in other strata be organised in time?

    Marxist Leninist Internationalists must say yes.

  2. The relationship between science and forms of social organisation (such as capitalism, or socialism) is a fascinating field of inquiry.

    I largely agree with the thrust of this article, as far as it goes. But the “perversion” of science is not just about the uses to which it is put. It’s not just about who enjoys the “glories” of science, or the way that the profit motive drives research priorities.

    Capitalism’s perversion of science, as a method of acquiring valid human knowledge of the world by a trained “scientific community”, goes deeper. I wouldn’t say that only scientists who are Marxists can discover truth. But science as practiced within the capitalist social order is actually prevented from arriving at fundamental understanding of reality.

    The link below is a good example of what I am talking about. One of those rare creatures — a scientist who is a world leader in his field, as well as being a Marxist activist — explains how capitalist ideology distorts theories of evolutionary biology:

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