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Although J. D. Bernal reached the heights of the academic establishment, he put forward a radical critique of its cherished assumptions and power structures.

John Desmond Bernal, Marxism, and the scientific revolution

Originally published: Jacobin Magazine (April 25, 2021)   | 

During the pandemic, scientists have become the new media celebrities. It is obvious they play a vital role, but they do not all perform it in the same way. Our epidemiologists, virologists, immunologists, and public health doctors constantly fill the airwaves. Some stick close to the facts, outlining statistics and repeating the current public health advice, while others range more widely into the fields of psychology, sociology, and political economy.In Ireland, the chief medical officer, Tony Holohan, has kept his focus tight and will not be drawn easily into wider terrain. In the United States, Anthony Fauci has been a lightning rod as political storms raged around the scientific effort. All over the world, the nexus between science and politics has been a high-stakes game, played out on many levels.

Scientists and politicians alike have had to stretch themselves in the direction of the other. While many were not up to the task, others rose to it superbly. The two leading figures in the World Health Organization’s pandemic response, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and Michael Ryan, have been especially impressive, because of the breadth of vision they have brought to bear, astutely moving from the details of viral replication and the effectiveness of vaccines to the global forces shaping inequality in health outcomes.

Politics and the Professors

Throughout its history, science has been intermeshed with politics in myriad ways, whether scientists themselves fully comprehended it or not. In Britain during the 1930s, there was a flourishing movement of scientists who did comprehend it, exploring that relationship as intellectuals and activists. As one of those figures, J. B. S. Haldane, declared:

Even if the professors leave politics alone, politics won’t leave the professors alone.

John Desmond Bernal was a giant presence in this milieu. Born in Ireland in 1901, Bernal was based in Britain during his professional life, while traveling the world as a scientist of international renown. He was nevertheless crucially shaped by his roots in Tipperary. Bernal grew keenly aware of the gulf in living standards between English landlords and Irish laborers and became a sharp critic of class and colonial exploitation. He supported the Easter Rising of 1916, which he witnessed as a teenager.

After graduating from Cambridge University, he became professor of physics at the University of London’s Birkbeck College and a fellow of the Royal Society. His intellectual interests ranged widely, from pioneering work in X-ray crystallography to sociohistorical studies of science–which he called the “science of science.”

Bernal was, by all accounts, a dazzling thinker and talker. His contemporaries called him “Sage,” as they considered him to be uncommonly wise. He was a Marxist in philosophy and a communist in politics. He led a complicated life, sitting on hundreds of committees and playing a leading role in many scientific and political organizations.

At the experimental level, Bernal tended to generate seminal ideas, while leaving the details to others. He mentored a number of groundbreaking scientists, including women such as Dorothy Hodgkin and Rosalind Franklin. He also led a somewhat unconventional domestic life of a notoriously non-monogamous nature.

Hessen’s Trumpet Blast

Although Bernal reached the heights of the academic establishment, he put forward a radical critique of its cherished assumptions and power structures. He was at the center of a radical science movement that thrived in the 1930s. A seminal event in the development of this movement came with the 1931 International Congress of the History of Science and Technology at the Science Museum in London.

Contrasting worldviews were in collision at the congress. A large Soviet delegation had unexpectedly arrived, creating a great stir in the British media. The leader of the delegation was one of the most senior Bolsheviks, Nikolai Bukharin. A paper delivered by the Soviet physicist Boris Hessen on the socioeconomic roots of Isaac Newton’s great work the Principia made the strongest impact. Joseph Needham described it as a “trumpet blast” that heralded an ideological analysis of science previously thought to be beyond ideology.

The majority of scientists present considered the Soviet viewpoint to be either a curiosity or an outrage. But there was a minority on whom it had a profound impact, crystallizing something that had already been stirring. It gave impetus to the development of a distinctive school of Marxist thought, along with a wider movement for social responsibility in science.

Bernal was struck by the unity of the Soviet delegation, their philosophical integrality, and their sense of social purpose. He contrasted this with the approach of his British colleagues, with their undisciplined array of ill-assorted individual philosophies and their remoteness from any social considerations.

There was a discernible shift to the left among scientists in Britain, some of whom were also figures of international renown, such as Haldane and Needham. They enthusiastically pursued a Marxist approach to the history and philosophy of science, highlighting its multifaceted social relationships and ruthlessly laying bare the ideological and sociopolitical assumptions that underpinned science in the past and present.

Science and Social Responsibility

A vigorous movement for social responsibility and the defense of science against all the forces threatening it took shape around them. The movement assumed many organizational forms, including the Cambridge Scientists Anti-War Group and a trade union called the Association of Scientific Workers.

There was also a polemical backlash from the right, which found its manifesto in John Baker’s “Counterblast to Bernalism” and its organizational form in the Society for Freedom in Science. This tendency defended the idea of “pure science” and resisted any form of social control of scientific research. But even this hostile reaction to the radical science movement testified to the strength of its impact.

Bernal saw science as a social activity that was integrally tied to the whole spectrum of other social activities–economic, political, cultural, and philosophical. His book The Social Function of Science, published in 1939, immediately became a classic in this field. It was based on a detailed analysis of the contrast between science under capitalism and under socialism–in particular, the differences Bernal identified between British science and Soviet science.

He argued that the frustration of science was an inescapable feature of the capitalist mode of production. According to Bernal, science could only achieve its full potential under a new, socialist order. Bernal saw the cause of science as being inextricably intertwined with the cause of socialism. He believed that science held the key to the future, and that the forces of socialism alone were capable of turning it.

For Bernal, the scientific method encompassed the whole of life. He considered science to be the starting point for Marxist philosophy, which was an extension of scientific method to a realm of greater scope and significance, supplying a comprehensive and ordered account of the whole range of phenomena, from nebulae to human society. In Bernal’s perspective, there was no sharp distinction between the natural sciences and the social sciences. He saw the scientific analysis of society as forming a continuum with the scientific analysis of nature.

Imagining the Future

Bernal’s vision of the kind of future science could make possible stood in total contrast to the dystopian pessimism of works like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. An early book by Bernal in 1929, The World, the Flesh and the Devil, set out a futuristic sketch, showing how scientific rationality could overcome obstacles in the physical, physiological, and psychological domains. The science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke described it as “perhaps the most remarkable attempt to predict the future of scientific possibility ever made, and certainly the most stimulating.”

Bernal predicted that full automation, nuclear energy, and cybernetics could bring about a fuller realization of human potential. Some of those predictions were borne out within Bernal’s own lifetime, such as his precise description of the first space flight, more than three decades before Yuri Gagarin left Earth’s atmosphere:

Apart from its mode of projection, the construction of the space vessel offers little difficulty since it is essentially the same problem as that of the submarine. Naturally the first space vessels will be extremely cramped and uncomfortable, but they will be manned only by enthusiasts. The problem of landing on any other planet or of returning to Earth is much more difficult, mainly because it requires such a nice control of acceleration. Probably the first journeys will be purely for exploration, without landing, and the travellers, if they return to Earth at all, will have to abandon their machine and descend in parachutes.

Others still belong in the realm of science fiction, such as the “Bernal spheres” that bear his name–permanent space habitats for thousands of people–or the transfer of human intelligence to computers that could be linked together to form a “compound mind,” capable of perception and understanding on a vastly higher level than any individual today. Bernal’s Promethean vision even stretched as far as transforming the universe itself, or at least extending its lifespan:

By intelligent organizing the life of the universe could probably be prolonged to many millions of millions of times what it would be without organization. Besides, we are still too close to the birth of the universe to be certain about its death.

Bernal’s knowledge of history was both detailed and sweeping, enabling him to place every particular aspect within an epochal grand narrative. He expressed this approach most fully in a four-volume project that bridged the gap between prehistoric times and the nuclear age, Science in History, published in 1954.

Nature and Dialectics

Bernal’s philosophy of science was in the tradition of Frederick Engels, as expressed in works such as Dialectics of Nature. The important thing about the concept of nature held by Engels was that he saw it as a whole and as a process. Bernal argued that the theories underlying the fields of relativity, quantum physics, biochemistry, and genetics might have been discovered sooner if the scientific world had been more familiar with Engels’s philosophy of science. He also believed that a knowledge of Engels would have freed those theories from the idealistic confusions under which they were suffering.

Bernal considered dialectical materialism to be the most powerful intellectual current of the time. In his opinion, it provided the basis not only for a revolutionary social movement, but also for the enhancement of science. It was a philosophy derived from science that could bring order and perspective to it and illuminate its onward path.

However, for Bernal, dialectical materialism was no substitute for science. The hard empirical work still had to be done. It was not a dogma that could be imposed on the findings of science from without. Rather, it was a method of coordinating the experimental results of science and pointing the way to new experiments–a method that had been developed in and through the development of science itself. Its role was to clarify and unify the different branches of science in relation to one another and to other human activities, and to suggest directions of thought that were likely to yield further results in the future.

In Bernal’s view, dialectical materialism was a science of the sciences–a means of overcoming excessive specialization and achieving the unity of science as a whole. It placed science within the entire context of evolution, both human and cosmic. Bernal saw the unity of science as being grounded in the unity of the universe itself. He affirmed the unity of the universe, not in a hollowly reductionist manner, but in a way that recognized the intricacy and complexity of matter, which had evolved in such a way that new qualities emerged at higher levels of organization.

He was extremely critical of alternative philosophies of science, including positivism and many forms of anti-positivism. He was unsympathetic to tendencies that equated science with positivism, but even more critical of tendencies that he believed to be so preoccupied with the critique of positivism that they undermined science. He thought of irrationalist and intuitionist currents as the backwaters and dead ends of human knowledge.

Bernal objected most of all to scientists who were bringing irrationality into the structure of science itself and making what science did not know, rather than what it did know, the basis for affirmations about the nature of the universe. Since Bernal’s time, these trends have multiplied, especially with the rise of postmodernist approaches to science studies.

Political Engagements

Bernal saw the Marxist approach to science as one that was still in the process of being formulated. He believed that a project initiated by Karl Marx and Engels was being developed further in the Soviet Union, in a lively and sometimes violent process. He was, on the whole, extraordinarily impressed by Soviet science and philosophy of science, at times more so than the situation warranted.

When he first visited the Soviet Union in 1931, he was struck by the overriding sense of purpose there and found the country to be “grim but great.” As time went on, he discovered things that must have disturbed him deeply, particularly regarding the fate of scientific colleagues during the purges of the 1930s and ’40s. Bernal privately interceded with the Soviet ambassador in London about the arrests of Soviet physicists, but he did not criticize the Soviet Union in public. Among those who perished was Boris Hessen, the author of that memorable paper on Newton at the 1931 congress.

Bernal knew about the clash in Soviet biology between Nikolai Vavilov and Trofim Lysenko but did not seem to realize the gravity of what was taking place in this sphere. He described it simply as a difference in emphasis over the importance of hereditary and environmental factors in evolution, without articulating how these intellectual debates had become caught up in a complicated and deadly struggle for power. When Vavilov began to criticize the work of Lysenko, whose rejection of Mendelian genetics had found favor with Stalin, he was arrested and later died in prison. Bernal himself was firmly committed to the science of genetics and was conducting experiments that aimed to discern the molecular structure of the gene.

During World War II, Bernal was a scientific adviser to Allied operations, serving in Louis Mountbatten’s so-called “department of wild talents.” In this capacity, he played a significant role in the planning for the Normandy landings in 1944, and he even landed on the Normandy beaches himself during the early stages of the operation. In the postwar period, he transferred his energies from war to peace and was active in the world peace movement.

The pressures of the Cold War in general and the Lysenko controversy in particular led to a decline in popularity and prestige for the radical science movement. Bernal went on the offensive against Cold War ideology, but he equivocated on the subject of Lysenkoism, which had now become official doctrine in the Soviet Union.

In his later years, Bernal suffered a series of disabling strokes before dying in London in 1971. His children include the author Martin Bernal, who became famous in his own right for a book with a controversial thesis about ancient Greece, Black Athena. The younger Bernal had dedicated that book to his father, “who taught me that things fit together, interestingly.”

The Condescension of Posterity

The many honors that came Bernal’s way in life continued after his death. There have been many citations and encyclopedia entries, several biographies, and a Bernal Institute at the University of Limerick (UL). While it is good to see a Marxist so well regarded by the academic world, that recognition has sometimes involved an erasure or minimalization of Bernal’s Marxism.

For example, the biography of Bernal on the website of UL’s Bernal Institute only mentions his support for world peace and makes no reference to anything so embarrassing as communism. It identifies the development of crystallography as a central tool across the sciences as his legacy.

Andrew Brown has published a widely reviewed biography, J. D. Bernal: The Sage of Science. This well-researched and valuable work is admiring of Bernal’s science, intrigued by his sex life, and condescending about his philosophy and politics. Brown’s reviewer in Nature took the argument one step further:

Bernal became committed to Marxism. How a man with such a marvelous analytical mind could come to terms with dialectical materialism is still a subject of discussion–it seems to have been an act of faith, a substitute for Catholicism.

In fact, Bernal came to Marxism in a serious and intelligent manner. He found in its philosophical framework a structure through which he could live, think, create, pursue science, act politically, and develop further. It opened him radically to the world, rather than closing him down or constricting him, as critics imply.

Science, philosophy, and politics were all tightly bound together in Bernal’s highly integrated mind. He took issue with those who believed that science could get along quite well without philosophy or politics, who refused to acknowledge the unexamined philosophical and political assumptions that were masked by this stance.

“Red as the Flames of Hell”

In 1939, a British government minister was queried about Bernal’s role in advising on the war effort, with reference to his radical views. He replied: “Even if he is as red as the flames of hell, I want him.” We should look to him today not in spite of his political commitments but precisely because of them.

There is a need for today’s Left to integrate science into its perspective and practice in continuity with Bernal’s vision. Bernal’s enduring legacy is his insistence that science is inextricably tied to philosophy and politics. For Bernal, this did not undermine the rationality and liberatory power of science–it affirmed it. Science today is better funded and more integrated into the structures of capitalism than it was in Bernal’s time. But its priorities and potential are even more skewed by that relationship.

The commercialization of science forms part of the overall commodification of knowledge, with the endorsement and inducement of the state. It has produced scientists who are obsessed with patents, promotions, prizes, and pay, while becoming increasingly distant from philosophical reflections and social commitments. The alliance of science and capital has patented genes and prioritized the development of designer drugs for the syndromes of the rich over cures for the diseases of the poor.

Until recently, vaccine research was an area that notably suffered from a lack of funding and development. Under the pressure of the global pandemic, there has been massive investment and activity in this area with dramatic results. This highlights the great potential of science, but also the parasitic nature of capitalism.

Despite having received massive public funding for their research, big pharmaceutical firms have acquired the patents and are refusing to release them in order to enable production in poorer countries. The wealthiest regions of the world scramble for the lion’s share of vaccines and treatments, as they do with everything else. Only the Left, by proceeding along paths forged by scientist-activists like Bernal, can clearly grasp the relationship of science to capitalism and show why addressing and transforming that relationship is more important than ever.

Monthly Review does not necessarily adhere to all of the views conveyed in articles republished at MR Online. Our goal is to share a variety of left perspectives that we think our readers will find interesting or useful. —Eds.

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