Vol. XLIII No. 07 February 17, 2019

EMS Smrithi 2018: Science, Technology and Marxism

Prabir Purkayastha

EMS Smrithi 2018 this year was without its founder and driving spirit, Chandradutt; or Duttmash, as he was fondly called. He passed away on March 20 from the recurrence of cancer that he had fought for the last 22 years. Even though he was not present at the final event, his was the plan for this edition of the series. It was he who pushed for the focus to be on Marxism, Science and Technology, and guided us in selecting the speakers. For all of us, this year’s EMS Smrithi was our tribute to Duttmash. And our privilege to have his wife Padmavathi with us.

The 20th Conference of EMS Smrithi sought to relate the emancipatory vision of Marxism to the current crisis of society; not simply a crisis of capitalism, but a civilisational and an ecological crisis. The increasing of our productive capacities as a society, means greater knowledge of nature and development of new technologies. In this process, we have also enslaved large sections of our society, poisoned our waters and air, and created a dangerous world. The conference sought to address how we should look at the advances in knowledge and technology and its implications for society. Can we stop development? Or can we think of our development goals differently, locating it within an emancipatory vision? How can we think of advances in knowledge and technology within such a vision? These are some of the questions that this conference raised.

The second set of issues is to look at science and history, especially as they are currently under attack by irrational ideologies. Today, science, and a scientific examination of our past is being rejected by Hindutva forces in favour of outrageous claims about ancient times. Even the ministers, including prime minister propagate that in ancient times, we had knowledge of genetics, nuclear weapons, and inter planetary travel. This manufactured and false nationalism, is as much about a glorious Hindu past, as hate filled propaganda about the so-called destruction of this past by the Muslims.

Addressing some of these issues, MA Baby, in his inaugural speech talked about how the enormous advances that science and technology has made, are not helping the people. It is going to the pockets of a few. Technological advances such as artificial intelligence is catapulting the majority of the workers into the abyss of unemployment. A Marxist vision of growth and development has to preserve the symbiotic relationship between humanity and nature, and ensuring that the fruits of such growth and development are accessible to all. Only in a just socialist society, the science and technological advances will benefit all of society. Otherwise, they would be used by capital to only exploit the people and maximise their profits.

Baby noted that we, as Marxists, also need to address questions regarding the socialist path. Why did Soviet Union, after leapfrogging from a backward nation to one of the most advanced ones, fall behind? Why did Soviet science allow a Lysenko to control biology and attack genetics? A symbiotic relationship between humanity and nature also demands that we look at ecological and environmental issues scientifically. He hoped that EMS Smrithi 2018 would address some of these issues and help us advance the Marxist vision.

Prakash Karat, in his keynote address on the session commemorating the birth centenary of Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya, began with EMS Namboodiripad’s evaluation of the immense contribution in philosophy and history by Debiprasad. EMS had written, “He (Debiprasad) became the pioneer and so far the unrivalled proponent of Marxism in Indian philosophy.” It was through his path breaking work, Lokayata: A study in Ancient Indian Materialism, that Chattopadhyaya excavated the materialist philosophy of the common people that was in existence in ancient times. Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya, through his books on Indian philosophy and history of science and technology, provided a magisterial view of the struggle between idealism and materialism. It was this dominance of idealist philosophies that impacted the development of science and technology. Chattopadhyaya showed, how the establishment of lordly power of the Kshatriyas and holy power of the Brahmins, led to an anti-science outlook and retardation of the growth of science and technology. EMS wrote further, “The essence of the contributions made by Chattopadhayaya, through all his works, is to forge a powerful weapon in the struggle against superstition, obscurantism, communalism etc.”

Prakash Karat pointed out that Chattopadhyaya’s works continue today to be a powerful weapon against the dark forces of the Hindutva movement. The Hindutva ideology of the BJP-RSS combine, and the methods adopted by them to enforce it, are an assault on reason. Any rational discourse or reasoned debate would lead to the rejection of the politics of hatred and sectarian strife. That is why the attack on those who stand for rationalism and reason; they are to be suppressed and even subjected to violence. It is not an accident that those who were targeted for killing amongst the intellectuals, were precisely those who stood for rationalism and secularism: Dabholkar, Pansare, Kalburgi and Gauri Lankesh. The re-writing of history, the attempts to straight-jacket the contents of higher education, and to impose Hindutva values on culture, are all a part of this assault on reason.

Karat continued by noting that the rise of the Hindutva forces today, coincide with the onset of neoliberal face of the capitalist development in India. The development of science and technology cannot but be effected by these twin currents: neoliberalism and the rise of the Hindutva communal forces. Neoliberalism has struck at the roots of developing self reliance and science and research and development.

He concluded, “It is in this situation that we have to defend science, scientific temper and the method of rational enquiry. Even before the aggressive Hindutva onslaught, there were philosophical currents and ideologies which questioned the science and scientific endeavours. Cultural relativism, post modernism, indigenous-ism have all gained around in the decade since the 90’s. While we defend science and scientific temper, we must also assert that Marxism provides the framework and methodology to counter anti-science and pseudo-science ideology. It is Marxism with its materialist dialectics that counters idealist philosophy, irrationality and unreason. Marxism is not concerned with history and social sciences alone, but also the natural sciences. Marxism constitutes a comprehensive and all embracing view of the world, of which human society and its development is only a part.”     

The conference noted the major development of contemporary capitalism. Neville Singham, who is with the Peoples Education Project in the US, showed that digital monopolies such as Apple, Google and Facebook, have now overtaken older monopolies, for instance, oil companies and banks.  The potential of democratising knowledge, education and communications that, for example, the internet had, is giving away to a concentration of capital and a scale of inequality that we have never witnessed before. Continuing on this, political commentator and historian Vijay Prasad, and P Sainath, the well-known journalist and founder of Peoples Archive of Rural India (PARI) talked about the enormous concentration of the power of big business over media. This fusion of media with big business means that big, corporate media today does not cover the struggles of the people. Instead, they focus on the interests of their owners. The media is unwilling to do anything that will spoil the cosy relationship that the owners have with the ruling party, the BJP.  This is crony capitalism or crony media. Prasad showed, through an example, how the government’s line is to frame all struggles, be it in Kashmir, or in Tuticorin, as a law and order issue. The task for us socialists in the media is to change this framing through our stories.

A short piece cannot cover the richness of the papers that were presented; or the discussions that took place. Professor Jayaraman, Professor Satyajit Rath, Professor Ramkrishna Bhattacharjee, brought out the importance of science not only in combating unreason, but also to understand its significance for the future of society. Dr Amit Sengupta, Professor Anita Rampal, and Dr Ekbal presented the significance of science and knowledge being in the public domain, or with public institutions. Vijoo Krishnan showed how the government is helping agribusiness control research, seeds and the market. D Raghunandan and Professor Tejal Kanitkar discussed the challenge of climate change, not only in terms of global and national equity, but also from the point of view of the workers in the energy industries today.

Duttmash was the main mover of EMS Series since 1998, the year in which Comrade EMS Namboodiripad died. A book, by his friends and colleagues in his memory, was released at the conference. The entire team that had worked from the beginning with Chandradutt felt happy that they could carry on the tasks of the conference that he had planned and bring it to a success. Even though he was not there with us, his presence was felt throughout.