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THE RELEVANCE OF BERNAL'S QUESTIONS

Essay Review of Maurice Goldsmith, Sage: A Life of J. D. Bernal,

Hutchinson, 1980, Ł8.95, Pp. 256. ISBN 0 09 139550 X.

by Robert M. Young

Now is a good time to be thinking about J. D. Bernal. His generation of socially engaged scientists developed the terms of reference for thinking about the social relations of science which framed the debate until very recently. It was the sort of debate the structuralists savour, since it takes a lot of decoding. You have to read it in such a way as to discern its silences and evasions as much as the positions explicitly held by various protagonists.

We are now crossing the threshold into a period when the relations between science, technology and medicine on the one hand and social roles, spaces and priorities on the other are being fundamentally restructured. People are aware of this, to some extent, with respect to microelectronics and communications, less so with respect to bio-technology, medicine and behavioural control. Hence the timeliness of a biography of the man who was so highly regarded by his friends that they called him (without apparent irony) 'Sage'.

As this book tells us, Bernal was a member of a loose grouping of leftists who were greatly influenced by the appearance of the Soviet Delegation at the 1931 International Congress of the History of Science and Technology in London. They turned up unannounced and were led by Lenin's favourite, Nikolai Bukharin, who argues that 'the idea of the self-sufficient character of science is naive' and that science had to be seen in relation to the development of production. Another member of the delegation, Boris Hessen, applied this approach to the holy of holies and gave a detailed analysis of 'The Social and Economic Roots of Newton's "Principia"'. Their papers were met with uncomfortable silence from the delegates, while the younger non-specialists were inspired to relate their conceptions of science to their political beliefs in a more systematic way.

Attempts to conceptualise the relationship between science and society in terms of some sort of interaction were made by a number of writers of varying degrees of leftism. J. G. Crowther, the founder of science journalism in Britain, was science correspondent of The Guardian, science editor of the Clarendon Press, author of over thirty books including The Social Relations of Science and the official Science at War, and is still writing in his eighties. Joseph Needham went on to become a distinguished chemical embryologist, historian of Science and Civilisation in China and Master of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge. Others propagated muted versions of the close integration of science and socioeconomic forces, e.g. P. M. S. Blackett, Nobel Laureate and President of the Royal Society, and C. P. Snow, explorer in fiction of science in the Civil Service and Cassandra of 'The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution'. In the domain of science and government, Solly Zuckerman carried the issue of the significance of science into the heart of policy making so that a toned-down social-democratic version of these views turned up as 'the white heat of the technological revolution' in the 1964 Wilson Government's plans for retooling Britain.

Traces of the enthusiasm generated in the 1930s can even be found in the notes of the doctoral dissertation of the man who became the doyen of orthodox American functionalism in the sociology of science, Robert K. Merton (Science, Technology and Society in Seventeenth Century England). This dilution of Marxist ideas until they flow into the domesticated setting of the sociology of knowledge is analogous to Karl Mannheim's watering down (in Ideology and Utopia) of Georg Lukács' vision of the role of science in the capitalist mode of production (in History and Class Consciousness). To complete the convergence, these watered down, Western functionalist ideas are gaining increasing vogue in current Soviet sociology and science policy.

Bernal was by far the most enthusiastic and spell binding exponent of science as closely reflecting economic developments and, more significantly, as the model and guide to social policy. By all accounts he was an amazing, polymathic, inspiring, catalytic, charismatic, brilliant man. Not, I think (pace a recent review by Bernard Dixon) 'a colossus' or (as Maurice Goldsmith would have it) possessed of 'an originality of mind unique in his generation'. He had, rather, a genius for stirring things up and illuminating issues, refracting them in new lights so that his students could go on to do profound work. One student described him as 'spraying out ideas', but, he left it to others to pick them up and work them out. He liked to float around, throw out brilliant ideas, but he did not like to be cornered. Two of his pupils, Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin and Max Perutz, became Nobel Laureates. Perutz said of Bernal, 'When I was a student I wanted to solve a great problem in biochemistry. One day I set out from Vienna, my home town, to find the Great Sage of Cambridge... We really did call him Sage, because he knew everything, and I became his disciple.'

Bernal has at least four claims on our serious attention. First, there is his role in the crystallographic aspect of the foundations of molecular biology. Goldsmith discusses this, but he doesn't make use of the extensive secondary literature assessing different individuals' researches and ideas. Second, Bernal was at the centre of the scientific contributions to the Second World War effort. We have been regaled with R. V. Jones' Most Secret War (in which Bernal doesn't figure), but Crowther's official history lays great stress on Bernal's work, especially in Combined Operations in the planning of D-Day - by far the largest sea-borne invasion in history. Lord Zuckerman and Lord Mountbatten helped with this part of the book, and it was the one which I found most interesting. Bernal's war work certainly merits a detailed study on its own. Third, his writings on The Social Function of Science and his multi-volume Science in History remain - largely by default - the standard orthodox Marxist works on their topics and are badly in need of critical historical and political re-evaluations. Goldsmith gives us workmanlike expositions of these and Bernal's other writings about science and society - a topic to which I'll return below. The last aspect of Bernal's life which is of considerable interest is the living of it - his presence, the experience of him as a remarkable person, lover, man.

The biographical basics are clear enough: born in Ireland in 1901; father's family Sephardic Jews who settled there in 1644 to farm and became Catholics; American mother who was an early graduate of Stanford; minor public school in Bradford; Emmanuel College, Cambridge in 1919; introduced to marxism in the early 20s; then into everything - 'a sink of ubiquity', according to one friend. An Irish, Catholic, atheist, marxist, Bohemian. His wartime group was called Mountbatten's 'Department of Wild Talents'. On one occasion, Charles Goodeve, the Controller of Research at the Admiralty, arranged to meet Bernal outside the United Services Club. 'He found the doorman in violent discussion with a most shabbily dressed individual who was insisting that Goodeve was waiting for him. "He looked such a tramp", Goodeve said, "that I could not speak to him".'

Here we enter a morass which loomed large in the press reviews of the book, so let's deal with it before carrying on with more important issues. The fact is that access to the Bernal archives has been denied to some people who don't share his views on science and politics. But the problems of access Goldsmith raises are of a different kind.

The book begins with acknowledgements and a letter from 'The Author to Desmond Bernal' (which, I must say, struck me as running the gamut from ghoulishness to Uriah Heep). The acknowledgements refer to women in Bernal's life who gave friendly help 'before the order came to pull down the curtain on me'. The letter says, 'puzzlingly, those to whom you have entrusted your future have deep objections to my writing about you' and much more, ending: 'If you feel that I have failed, that I am too general in my approach, my excuse is that your "death perpetuators" have laid such obstacles in my way as to ensure that some essential layers of documentation have been withheld from me. Their incredible behaviour included the despatch of a warning letter to individuals who they know I would need to speak to, denying me access to the Bernal papers stored in the main University Library in Cambridge; and persuading C. P. Snow to urge me, at the very least, not to discuss your love life. Perhaps they fear that I may cause others different from them to sing about you.'

All very distastefully put, but the allegations are serious, so I made some enquiries. Here is how it looks to me: Maurice Goldsmith is a scientific journalist who also works in the social studies of science. He co-edited a book of essays in honour of Bernal, The Science of Science. He wanted to write Bernal's biography and got C. P. Snow to ask him about it when Bernal was still alive. Bernal said no. He knew Goldsmith well and had read his biographical and other work and did not think highly enough of it to entrust him with his official biography. So Goldsmith was actively discouraged. Two processes were then set in train. First, Goldsmith decided to go ahead and began talking to people who knew Bernal, in ways which some thought might lead to the mistaken idea that this was the official biography. Bernal's executors attempted to clarify the situation to the relevant people in the belief that this was consistent with his wishes about his biography. Second, the large collection of Bernal's papers was in a mess and needed sorting out before proper biographical research could be done on them. A professional archivist is now doing that. Dorothy Hodgkin is preparing the official biographical memoir for Notes & Records of the Royal Society and a collective biography is also going to appear with separate portions which focus on the various aspects of his life and work. Even so, some people have been given access to the papers.

With all this protest and apparent protectiveness, one might expect some spicy passages. There are none. One page (236) refers to his (highly gregarious and widely commented upon) sexual activities and the three households which he set up at various times and to his ability to remain on good terms with women after the relationship had changed. If anything, Goldsmith's reticence is bewildering. We don't even get the bare facts. A wife appears on the day after graduation from Cambridge, a new companion turns up thirty pages later; then the wife reappears at a reception some years after that and is not mentioned until his long and poignant final illness when she shared his care with his devoted assistant. There is also a family tree of his children and their mothers, but nothing about family life. It would have been better to have said much more or rather less.

The same is true of some serious allegations about Bernal's character which are retailed but not assessed at all, for example, reference to 'a hurting, yet non-deliberate blindness about key work done by members of his staff' and 'his unreliability'. We are told 'Crowther has no doubts that in public affairs Bernal's "weaknesses were catastrophic. In ordinary social and political management, he was less than normally intelligent"'. Stephen Spender is quoted: 'not answering is, in fact, part of Bernal's repertoire ... On the whole he simply ignores all subjective questions, only answering objective ones about things such as the world's population, education, and science and the like.' Crowther worked with Bernal for many years in the association of Scientific Workers and other activities. His opinion is one thing, while Stephen Spender's (of the Congress of Cultural Freedom) is another. Crowther may indeed have been badly let down by Bernal, while Spender might have been treated to silence in reply to Red-baiting. I am guessing, of course. The point is that a biographer should ponder, contextualise and render some sort of balanced judgement.

Returning now to the content of Bernal's social and political writings, one finds that two generations separate him from the approach of many current radical scientists. Bernal was a man of the Old Left. The original New Left of the early 1960s (i.e. ex-communists from 1956 and the group of younger students who gathered around them) attempted to reject Stalinism without engaging in a serious critique of science or of elitism. To someone politicised in the second wave of the New Left of 1968 and beyond, Bernal's belief in science as the beacon lighting the way to communism, as well as the motor of progress, seems strikingly naive. He believed in an aristocracy of scientific intelligence and argued that we would be in good hands as the world was more and more run by scientific experts - 'an enlightened technocracy'. He thought industry should be based on a scientifically directed and controlled production system, and the same approach should be applied to other spheres, especially ‘scientific government'. All of this is worrying enough and might have - indeed has - been said by Daniel Bell, Harvard sociologist, author of The End of Ideology, and Chairman of the American President's Commission for the Year 2000. But Bernal coupled his unbounded faith in scientific rationality with the belief that the vision was becoming reality in the Soviet Union, which he saw as 'the nearest practical embodiment of the ideals for which scientists worked'. Capitalism was acting as a fetter on scientific development, while socialism struck him as something like the perfect granting agency: 'The socialist State will be the first to give the scientist the full material and organizational possibilities for his work.'

It would be unhistorical to ignore the widespread enthusiasm about the USSR among leftists in the 1920s and early 1930s or the wartime alliance. When Bernal was Red-baited in 1940 by John Baker and Michael Polanyi, who went on to found a Society for Freedom in Science, it was a right-wing liberal protest against centralised planning and in favour of the traditional view of academic freedom. But when he was chucked off the Council of the British Association in 1949, we are talking about a new political situation. The Red-baiters' role was unchanged, but Bernal's defence of the union of the ideals of science and the situation in the Soviet Union was, to say the least, rather out of date. He was enthusiastically praising Soviet science and condemning the West from a platform in Moscow. His indictment of Western Cold Warriors was difficult to attend to in the context of the straightforward suppression of all genetics and much of biology as a result of Stalin's enthronement of T. D. Lysenko the previous year.

This is a stark example of a problem which has increasingly bedevilled the socioeconomic analysis of science since the 1940s. Since the questions were first raised in the context of the Soviet Union, it is easy to force the issues onto the history of that country as the test case. 'What about Lysenko?' is a convenient way of shouting the issues off the agenda. But the problem is surely to look at Lysenkoism and soviet centralised planning as one form in which the issues appear, while military research, customer contract relations, research councils and the activities of private foundations such as the Rockefeller Foundation and the Wellcome Trust provide the Western form of the shaping of research by large-scale political, economic, and ideological forces.

Meanwhile, academic studies in the history, philosophy and social studies of science have carried on, eloquently silent about the historical specificity of the mutual constitutiveness of science and society. Bernal's position has been ignored or rejected. (I never heard his work referred to in an academic lecture or seminar in the fifteen years I worked as a professional historian of science in Britain.) His specific identification of science and communism was exquisitely vulnerable to historical refutation. Bukharin was executed in 1938; the scientists were persecuted along with everyone else. Lysenkoism was a terrible travesty of Bernal's claims, but Bernal defended it and let himself off the hook gradually in the 1950s, though he remained loyal to orthodox communism. Even though he lamented Hungary and Czechoslovakia, he never spoke out publicly against orthodoxy. This is in sharp contrast with his erstwhile comrades, J. B. S. Haldane and Christopher Hill and younger people such as E. P. Thompson, who left the Communist Party over Stalinism.

The upshot of all this is that the Old Left and the original New Left simply don't know what to say about science. Raymond Williams was quite candid about this in a recent article: 'For a generation now, there has been an unusual uneasiness between Marxism and the natural sciences' (New Left Review 109, p.5). Given silence from both Left intellectuals and academics working inside the consensus of university disciplines, the deeper questions about how societies constitute their knowledge have been kept inside rather safe boundaries. One result, in my view, is that the history of science is in decline (departments closing, posts unfilled, student numbers falling), the philosophy of science is becoming increasingly esoteric and moving into the position of a subspecialty of philosophy, and the social studies of science are moving more and more towards becoming incorporated into sociology and anthropology.

In recent years the issues raised by the 1930s debate are being raised anew by post-1968 radicals, but this renaissance is in danger of being co-opted by incorporation into a whole new range of ventures in 'science, technology and society' (funded by the Exxon Foundation ... ), ‘bioethics', 'medical ethics', 'science policy', 'technology assessment', ‘economics of innovation'. I warn of co-option advisedly, since the terms of reference of these ventures tend to edge out questions of politics and political economy and to concentrate on more traditional questions in ethics, social policy and economics. The proposed new British Centre for the Analysis of Technological Change (or whatever its name is finally to be) has the CATCH that its parameters -'science, technology, industry and policy' (Times Higher Education Supplement 13.6.80, p. 14) - don't include consideration of consumer interests, pressure groups or public debate. Similarly, when the Royal Society recently held a meeting on science and society the range of positions considered was so narrow and so skewed to the right that some of its own Fellows were dismayed. Liberal and radical groups concerned with the impact of science and technology didn't get a look in, e.g. Friends of the Earth, British Society for Social Responsibility in Science, Centre for Alternative Industrial and Technological Systems, even the Council for Science and Society - which includes Sir Michael Swarm, F.R.S. and Professor John Ziman, F.R.S. among its luminaries. So much for how the academic community has managed to keep clear of the searching questions posed by the relations between social forces and science, technology and medicine.

I began by saying that now is a good time to think about Bernal. Science and its fruits are now pervading the office, the shop floor, the home, school, shops and communications. A recent official report says that biotechnology will transform a wide range of industries and be 'as characteristic of the twenty-first century as those based on physics and chemistry have been of the twentieth century'. These and new developments in medicine have not yet struck the public's awareness as forcibly as chips have, but changes are on capitalism's agenda (and in progress) which are likely to affect us in intimate ways transforming the meanings of conception, gestation, birth, parenthood, identity, self-recognition, repair and death. Alterations in the laws and processes of biological inheritance, for example, will force us to reconstruct the laws of civil and property inheritance. These roles for science are neither wholly new nor are they inevitable, but they certainly are part of a new capitalist offensive.

As a recent television dramatisation of the issues raised by genetic engineering put it, we need a new contract between science and humanity. We could do worse than return to the questions Bernal & Co posed in the 1930s. We have the inestimable benefit of knowing that their answers were dead wrong. Applying science itself to the problems of social organisation only begs the questions if the political and evaluative issues are abrogated or left implicit. Problems of social values, priorities and accountability have to be asked on their own terms and not handed over to a new mandarinate of metascientists and assessors. Science and technology need to be seen as part of culture - where values are tested and husbanded - not above the battle.

If we set out to work our way through the heritage of debate on these questions, Goldsmith's biography is of little use. Gary Werskey's The Visible College (Allen Lane, 1978) is a better guide, as other reviewers of Sage have said. It is collective biography of five members of Bernals's generation and considers the strengths and weaknesses of their political ideas in their historical context and in the light of more recent formulations of the issues. In particular, it draws attention to that generation's failure to question the role of an elite stratum of experts. The question 'Who decides if it's progress?' has to take the debates over social priorities back to the process of origination of new investigations in scientific labs, R&D departments and medical centres. This is a new focus on the problem - one which is necessitated by the bewildering number and range of new facts, artefacts and procedures which come on stream before we have any chance to evaluate them and their potential role in our human relations. Peer review, research councils, select committees and CATCH won't solve it. A novel social process is needed for deciding which values and priorities and social relations should be embodied in our science, technology and medicine. New points of access and new opportunities for public initiatives are needed, and we have hardly begun to ask what that might entail.

Goldsmith simply ignores the opportunity to assess the current relevance of Bernal's views on the social relations of science or to place his work in the context of a wider academic and political debate. There is little reference to the historical, philosophical, social, political or cultural writings which bear on the period and the issues in this country or the Soviet Union. The book succeeds neither as an intellectual nor a social nor a political nor a personal biography. It tantalises the reader by raising issues and leaving them so that all the analytical and reflective work remains to be done. It is a book of surfaces. In the end I do not understand the man or the forces which he embodied. I have no sense of the balance of sage , blarney, gadfly, butterfly, restless genius, dupe, Stalinist sycophant, visionary. How did he inspire and retain such intense personal loyalities? I have no insight into his character, his imagination, his foibles. What was Des Bernal like? Has anyone else received both Russia and America's highest civilian honours: the Stalin (later tactfully changed to Lenin) Prize and the US. Medal of Freedom with Palme?

I am left cross and confused by Bernal and this representation of him. The Social Function of Science is, I'm sure, fundamentally wrong-headed but a classic in its questions and its influence. Science in History is formidable, but whenever I look up anything in it I am struck by his superficial pronouncements on the matters I know a bit about and want to know more. At another level I end up, once again, tantalised. I have an intuition that a sensitive biographer could have made much more of the ambivalences and layers and psychological denials in Bernal's character if he had concentrated on the themes in his first book, The World, the Flesh and the Devil: an Enquiry into the Future of the Three Enemies of the Rational Soul (1929). The priest's version is, 'Grant that they may have power and strength to have victory, and to triumph, against the devil, the world, and the flesh'. Bernal's vision was of a planned society in which the introduction of the scientific method into all areas would defeat the world - the forces of nature; the flesh - the human body and its physical limitations; and the Devil - human passions, stupidity, and ignorance.

The content of his ideas is impressive in its rationalism and scientism. It is the relation between this and the other side of him, and of the political perspective which he defended, which poses the most interesting and important problems. He would never have survived the 1930s if he had actually lived in the Soviet Union. Think of him in The First Circle; think of Zhores Medvedev in biology or Andrei Sakharov in physics. Even now they land hard on deviants and rebels. It is only a year or two since one of the original 1931 Soviet Delegation, E. Kolman, slipped over the border into Finland. Another, the biologist N. I. Vavilov, perished in 1940 as a result of his persecution by the authorities.

In some ways, Bernal's optimism reminds me of that of another utopian - a Protestant one who also believed in a programmed society but in this case from an American neo-conservative point of view. I have the same chilly feeling when I read B. F. Skinner's Walden Two or Beyond Freedom and Dignity that I do when reading Bernal or when dealing with people of his political persuasion. They don't see that the problem is not what science and technology can or can't do or what's the correct line. The problem is who programs the programmers. Neither the orthodox left nor the orthodox right has seen that this is a profoundly unscientific - though not antiscientific - question.

Reprinted from Radical Science Journal No. 10: 85-94,1980.

Copyright: The Author

Address for correspondence: 26 Freegrove Road, London N7 9RQ
robert@rmy1.demon.co.uk


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