by Gary Werskey
for Bob Young
I want to understand, as a participant and observer, the history and prospects of the Marxist critique of capitalist science.
This perspective – and the politics which it supported — flourished briefly but notably in Britain, France, and the US in the 1930s and 1940s, only to be revived and transformed in the 1960s and 1970s. In both instances, socialist critics drew on their personal, professional, and political experiences – informed by the Marxisms of their day – to generate novel and challenging accounts of the history, philosophy, and politics of science. However, neither wave of Marxist commentary significantly informed the mainstream development of science and technology studies (STS) in the second half of the twentieth century. More importantly for these activists, their political movements utterly collapsed in the 1950s and 1980s, respectively.
Nevertheless, like some infernal ghost in the machine of STS scholarship, the influence of these Marxist critiques has lingered on in shadows, memories, and reading lists. At the height of the Cold War, Marx was the unannounced spirit that haunted the era’s classic accounts of the ‘scientific revolution’ of the seventeenth-century. Nor did the Marxisant survivors – most notably J.D. Bernal and Joseph Needham — entirely close up shop. A few of their younger adherents were then able to inspire a new generation of scholars, in a period of renewed political upheaval, to undertake more socially critical studies of scientific development. The students of this younger cohort who have chosen to stay on in the academy have, in turn, acted as a continuing link to this tradition.
On the other hand, my impression is that, since 1980, the influence of Marxist critiques on STS’s various disciplines and discourses has been virtually nil. The dominance of post-Kuhnian and postmodernist sociological accounts of science has strangely echoed the ‘internalist’ histories of the 1950s, merely shifting the emphasis from what scientists thought to what they did. It therefore strikes me as ironic – knowing as I have many of the mild-mannered and apolitical desperados who have fostered social constructivism in STS – that their central dogma has been seen in some quarters as integral to the efforts of an odd assortment of feminist and ‘radical’ professors to subvert scientific rationality. Of far greater concern is that, while the ‘science wars’ were focussing attention on epistemological disputes within STS, the social relations of science were being transformed and more closely yoked than ever to sustaining the power and profitability of global and, more specifically, American capitalism.
Still, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, there are signs of both profound public disenchantment with various aspects of capitalist ‘technoscience’ and some academic discomfort with the narrowness of recent inquiry into the historical and social studies of science. We may then ask:
Under what conditions might these tendencies generate a new scientific left? What form might it take, and where would it most likely flourish?
Could a Marxist perspective help us to understand the origins and fate of the scientific left’s first two moments? Might it even inform and enrich its third incarnation as well?
If history repeats itself — first as tragedy and then as comedy (if not farce) — then might this be a case of ‘third time lucky’?
These are the questions which my paper addresses.
Inevitably, constraints of time and knowledge will limit my inquiry.
I will focus far more on British than American developments, and hardly at all on France. Until the very end, I will ignore most of the rest of the world.
Within the field of STS, I shall stress the history of science over other sub-disciplines and Marxist perspectives more than any others.
Among competing Marxisms, I shall favour the eclectic libertarian Marxism associated with the Radical Science Journal of the 1970s.
While I will often dwell upon the circumstances of academic scientists and their social analysts, the animus of my inquiry is to encourage greater understanding of — and more effective challenges to — the totality of science’s social relations and the forms of social life they support.
This essay is inescapably autobiographical. I spent a decade of my brief scholarly life attempting to understand the personalities, actions, and social thought of the first British scientific left. After a gap of thirty years I have in the first part of this paper revisited The Visible College, recasting this material into what I hope is a more coherent Marxist framework. The second part deals with the radical science movement of the 1970s, in which I was both a scholarly and a political activist. My angle of vision here is necessarily partial and clearest where I was most closely involved, e.g. in the Radical Science Journal. The final section is purely speculative and based more on my hopes for – rather than any definitive knowledge of (or optimism about) – the emergence of new scientific lefts, Marxist or otherwise.
My final methodological apologia concerns the breadth (and length) of my paper. The two previous movements’ contributions to STS were inseparable from their political practices, which were in turn indissolubly linked to the prospects of science, capitalism, and socialism in periods of extraordinary global turmoil. Because, like Robert Boyle, these men and women were ‘so anxious of the want of good employment that they [took] the whole body of mankind for their care’, their theory as much as their practice need to be set in the contexts of both the far-reaching crises in social relations which precipitated them and the political and academic responses that led to their demise. Having understood and compared their trajectory and achievements, we can reflect on whether their history and ideas might, under certain conditions, help to foster new scientific lefts in the next decade. To that end, I shall conclude by asking what role science and technology studies (STS) could play in equipping both scientists and non-scientists with a more historical and critical understanding of contemporary science’s social relations.
Otherwise I want to thank Bob Young – the dedicatee of this piece – for making it available on his website. Bob and I were comrades and fellow travellers in the 1970s on what proved to be an exciting if often bumpy ride through the rediscovery and transformation of Marxist theories and practices. But he was also for me a role model and insightful critic. I valued his scholarly as well as his political passions, all of which helped to inform and drive my work and politics forward during this period. Some found Bob’s often dramatic personal and political choices alienating; I found them stimulating and inspiring. So this essay is a reminder to Bob and others of the leadership he showed, as well as the value of what he and others created in those very different times.
FIRST MOVEMENT: THE BRITISH SCIENTIFIC LEFT, 1931-1956 Allegro con brio
Let me begin by briefly describing the circumstances of global and British capitalism in the period just before and after the First World War — including the state of their technical-scientific resources — before moving on to the principal catalysts of the 1930s’ scientific left in Britain. I shall then outline this movement’s social composition and political allegiances, its characteristic practices, and its theoreticians’ contributions to the social and public understanding of science. My analysis concludes with a balance sheet of the movement’s postwar gains, losses, and legacies.
The first British scientific left arose, flourished, and collapsed during the most barbarous phase of what Eric Hobsbawm has described as ‘the most extraordinary and terrible century in human history’. It was a period which aroused in many ‘that typical twentieth-century passion, political commitment,’ and witnessed, partly in consequence, a global ‘Thirty Years War’, whose only saving grace were the postwar solutions which temporarily ended nearly half a century of catastrophic international economic instability and human carnage.
The sources of much of this turmoil were the growing pains of a capitalist world economy, in which there was, by 1914, no hegemonic power capable of maintaining international stability and orderly economic expansion. While still the world’s most powerful nation, Britain’s global hegemony had significantly waned in the face of sustained industrial and imperial challenges from Germany, France, and increasingly the US. An important manifestation of these imperialist rivalries from the third quarter of the nineteenth century onwards, was the greater importance of the State in protecting domestic markets and overseas colonies by strengthening tariff protection and the armed forces. Increased economic nationalism both stimulated the growth of modern, large-scale industries and international finance and restricted opportunities for realizing adequate economic returns on these investments. The resulting crises of ‘over-production’ encouraged greater protectionism, nationalism, and international tensions, on the one hand, and increased opposition from working class and socialist movements to the capitalist system that produced these crises, on the other. Ironically but inevitably, the politics of these oppositional movements, despite their avowed internationalism, was as resolutely nationalist and state-focussed as their ruling class opponents.
As an attempted resolution of these economic and political contradictions, the First World War was an unmitigated and murderous disaster. Fighting to achieve ‘total victory’, Britain, Germany, and France organized themselves into powerful ‘warfare states’, which mobilized and exposed both men at arms and civilian populations to the modern terrors of ‘total war’. Ultimately, this conflict ‘ruined both victors and vanquished’, driving ‘the defeated into revolution and the victors into bankruptcy and physical exhaustion.’ The one, relatively unscathed capitalist power that might have enforced greater postwar stability withdrew into steadfast isolation from the cares of ‘Old Europe’; only to precipitate, via the Wall Street crash, a global depression of unprecedented scale and the prospect of another world war. In the wake of such carnage and chaos, it is scarcely surprising that many people around the world, even the British intellectual aristocracy, found themselves disillusioned with their political masters and more open to collectivist (and authoritarian) alternatives to liberal capitalism and imperialism.
In the run-up to, as well as in the conduct and aftermath of ‘the Great War’, the technical-scientific capacities, organization, and direction of the great capitalist powers were significantly altered. This was the period in which imperialist states, most notably Britain, began to fund a great expansion in technical manpower, often drawn from lower middle class and professional families, who formed the new and increasingly self-conscious scientific and engineering professions. Most would find employment in either private industry – especially the so-called ‘science-based’ chemical, electrical, and pharmaceutical sectors – or government establishments – whether at home or in the empire as teachers, researchers, or administrators. A small minority remained in a handful of universities and research institutes where they pursued what was already known as ‘pure’ science and with great success, especially in the physical sciences. In all these aspects of the social relations of science, pre-war Germany was generally regarded as the strongest of the imperial powers, and this was the cause of some agitation in its British rival. Nevertheless, prior to 1914, concerns about national scientific prowess were not sufficient to inspire either research in what we would now call STS or a decline in scientific internationalism.
However, the First World War did provoke not only the European combatants to militarize and incorporate science and technology more fully in the service of capitalism and imperialism, but scientific workers into greater social and self-awareness as well. Once it was clear that the conflict would not end quickly, the British state swiftly mobilized the nation’s industrial and scientific resources, which it deployed for military purposes in both its own research establishments and factories and in private industry. Some academic scientists and technologists were directly engaged in – and none expressed qualms about — the production of scientific weaponry such as poisonous gases, aeroplanes, and munitions. Science also entered more directly into production through new regimes of Taylorist scientific management, on the one hand, and fatigue studies on the other. In the larger research and development organizations, many technical-scientific graduates found themselves working in teams under close supervision on problems dictated by others. These conditions encouraged a greater class and professional consciousness, one expression of which was the formation of a National Union of Scientific Workers (NUSW).
The legacy of the war for the British state and sections of industrial capital was to assign a greater role to technical-scientific knowledge, and occasionally the academic science establishment, in the advancement of their imperial and economic interests. During the interwar period, as David Edgerton has convincingly argued, a largely State-directed military-industrial complex was established, accounting for a third or more of all publicly funded R&D and facilitating increasingly important networks and research projects spanning academic, industrial, and state scientific bodies. This ‘warfare state’ also overhauled how scientific policy was made, and how its own civil research programmes were organized and more effectively linked to the needs of private industry and empire. Underpinning all of these initiatives was a further State-funded expansion of technical-scientific education, resulting in a trebling of the number of scientists to 28,000 by 1939.
University scientists also benefited directly from an expansion of research as well as teaching opportunities, retaining substantial autonomy from the State through their control of funding from government research councils and the Universities Grants Committee. The 1920s were an especially buoyant period for the most favoured institution, Cambridge, and its strongest research schools, the Cavendish Laboratory under Sir Ernest Rutherford and the Dunn Biochemical Institute led by Sir Frederick Gowland Hopkins. The excitement surrounding nuclear physics was even sufficient to repair the relations between German and British academics, following nearly a decade in which Germany had been virtually ostracized from international science.
Despite their relative prosperity and more widely perceived utility, the political/ ideological influence, cultural standing, and social status of British science and its commonly assumed offshoot, technology, were decidedly more ambiguous. Politically and ideologically, the greater identification of scientists with the horrors of chemical warfare and the prospects of technological unemployment led to calls from Bishops and other high-minded figures for a moratorium on new research and innovation. Probably the most overt ideological use of science in the 1920s was the support of biologists aligned to the Eugenics Society for both the sterilization of the unfit – a category that would soon embrace the unemployed – and the encouragement of bright, respectable people like themselves and their ruling class betters to breed more. Perhaps not surprisingly, the Labour Party failed to embrace science as an ideological comrade in the struggle for socialism. But this reluctance was probably linked culturally, at least in the minds of liberal scientific humanists associated with Sir Richard Gregory’s Nature, to the dominant culture’s at best partial embrace of science and its practitioners. A cause of both resentment and concern, its proposed cure was a national educational campaign to instate a new scientific humanism into schools and public life through the nascent discipline of the history of science. We now know through Anna-K. Mayer’s ground-breaking research that one of this new movement’s chief proponents was Charles Singer, who looked forward to the second International Congress of the History of Science and Technology in London in 1931, when he hoped to win over political and cultural opinion-makers to the claims of scientific liberalism. Until that date the most prominent engagement of science with contemporary culture were the efforts of Arthur Eddington, James Jeans, and John Scott Haldane to demonstrate how relativity theory and vitalist biology reconciled the claims of a less materialist science with those of Christianity.
Perhaps these ‘superstructural’ concerns of science’s advocates belied the new-found respect accorded to the scientific elite in the corridors of power and even some boardrooms. Certainly the Royal Society’s chief officers Sir Henry Dale and Sir A.V. Hill – forever paired as Hill and Dale – and their fellows FRSs were regularly sought as advisers both to key government departments and committees and, in Dale’s case, to most of the major pharmaceutical firms. These more co-opted members of the scientific establishment must have been in Bertrand Russell’s mind when he condemned in 1931 those ‘men of science who [had] become more and more determined supporters of the injustice and obscurantism upon which our social system is based.’ What you will certainly not find between the outbreaks of war and depression are any prominent scientists speaking out as socialist activists. As far as I know the youthful Lancelot Hogben was the only graduate scientist (apart from Russell) who was jailed as a conscientious objector during the First World War, and the only biologist to take on reactionary eugenicists and religiously inclined idealist scientists in the 1920s. Of the later, more prominent members of the scientific left, only Hyman Levy was seriously involved both in trade union organizing for the NUSW – which the liberal humanists deregistered as a trade union in 1928 — and in efforts to make the Labour Party’s socialism more scientific. Who then would have predicted, as late as 1931, that Britain would soon witness the formation of a significant oppositional movement of socialist scientists?
Oppositional social movements form out of a complex mix of hopes and discontents, both personal and societal, and seem to function best in the middle ground between euphoria and despair. However, these catalysts are unlikely to convert anyone to action – least of all British scientists to socialism — until respected figures are prepared to take risks and stands that create fruitful spaces for agitation. This pattern at least seems to have been at work in the making of the British scientific left in the Thirties. As a former Communist Party official who oversaw the activities of natural scientists later remarked, ‘it takes a lot to stir those people up.’
The global depression was the cause of many discontents for scientific workers, both in the UK and internationally. Domestically, rising unemployment was affecting not only many sections of the industrial working class but scientific and technical graduates as well. Following the euphoric expansion of opportunities in Britain during the 1920s, there were now cutbacks in government grants, studentships, and research budgets. Overseas, the rise of fascism, especially in Germany, signalled the incorporation of science into a military machine bent on global conquest and imbued with a thoroughly racist ideology, which soon led to the expulsion of leading German Jewish scientists. The unimaginative responses of Britain’s major political parties to these assorted crises – including their reduction in support for civil research — did not inspire confidence in either liberal capitalism or liberal democracy. Nor was the reputation of the technical-scientific professions, now more closely enmeshed in capitalist and imperial social relations, well served in the eyes of those who saw science as a cause of increased ‘technological unemployment’ and military savagery. Younger academic scientists would have felt particularly discontented, as their hopes of fully engaging with the anticipated great advances of physics and biology receded in the face of a coming European war.
This optimism about science’s future – and what it could do for advancing human welfare – was of course also a major source of hope and inspiration for the interwar generation of scientific workers. They had ‘the future in their bones’, as C. P. Snow once observed, partly because some of them at least were participating directly in its creation through the exciting work they were undertaking under the likes of Hopkins and Rutherford. Their broader outlook on science as a progressive historical force derived from intellectual traditions dating back to Francis Bacon and reinforced during their formative years by the writers of scientific textbooks and romances, notably H.G. Wells. While this ideology may have emboldened some to believe that they were better equipped than ‘unscientific’ politicians to direct human affairs, this self-confidence would have been hard to sustain in the absence of any real-life models confirming it.
That is why the example of the Soviet Union as the apparent quintessence of ‘scientific socialism’ had such a remarkable effect on some scientific intellectuals of the 1930s. As Loren Graham has demonstrated over four decades, a combination of faith in Marxism as a science and the brutal necessity of rapidly modernizing a largely agrarian society required the Soviet regime to become ‘the most enthusiastic supporter of science and technology of all contemporary governments.’ This dedication was expressed in Lenin’s early vow that ‘“No dark power [would be able to] withstand the union of the representatives of science, the proletariat and technique.”’ The USSR’s commitment to scientific socialism extended far beyond massive increases in its technical-scientific workers, research facilities, and heavy industry. It was also the first country to institutionalize what we would now call STS by establishing a dedicated research centre in the history of science and technology, which was closely linked to pioneering work in science planning and policy, all under the auspices of the Supreme Economic Council and first five-year plan. But none of this would have mattered to scientists or anyone else but for one overwhelming fact: the only nation that had decisively broken with liberal capitalism was also the only one that seemed immune from the ‘trauma of the Great Slump’. Between 1929 and 1940 Soviet industrial production more than trebled, accounting by 1938 for 18 per cent of world manufacturing output. ‘What was more, there was no unemployment.’
News of these momentous achievements – and their basis in the USSR’s unprecedented support for technical-scientific research, including the historical and social studies of science – reached London in July, 1931, courtesy of a Soviet delegation to the International Congress of the History of Science and Technology. The group consisted of leading researchers from Moscow University’s History of Science Institute, headed by Nicholai Bukharin and accompanied by a minder from ‘the Party’. The political background and reactions to the Soviet papers, published within a week as Science at the Cross Roads, have been well described elsewhere. What needs emphasizing here are Bukharin’s masterful overview of a Marxist sociology of science and the Soviet practice of planned science; and his colleague Boris Hessen’s iconoclastic essay on ‘The Social and Economic Roots of Newton’s “Principia”’. The latter of course is something of a landmark in the historiography of science which: 1) argued how the history of science could be written as a dialectical movement between a society’s economic base and its ideological superstructure; 2) distinguished between a science’s cognitive value and the social conditions which inspired it; and 3) highlighted the social and political significance of the history of science. However, what both Bukharin and Hessen were keenest to contrast was the pessimism of a capitalist society unable to make use of its productive forces, including science, and the optimism of a socialist society where ‘Science is reaching the summit of its social self-recognition.’
While the Soviet invasion dashed Charles Singer’s original hope that the Congress would favourably promote scientific humanism and the history of science to a wider public, it positively electrified some of the Congress’s younger organizers and participants – J.D. Bernal, Lancelot Hogben, Hyman Levy, and Joseph Needham. Along with the journalist J. G. Crowther, they entertained the Soviets, helped them translate and publish their papers, supported their truncated presentations at the Congress, and afterwards publicized these new Marxist perspectives both in the press and to their colleagues. ‘The most important meeting of ideas since the Revolution’ was Bernal’s enthusiastic verdict on the Congress. No wonder the local TASS correspondent telegrammed back to Moscow that, while the Soviet delegates were generally disappointed with the Congress, ‘“they were impressed … by [a] minority of younger delegates, particularly Hogben, Needham, [and David] Guest”.’ The hopeful conclusion? ‘“Possibly scientific congress become historic in sense that it … provided tremendous impetus [to the] study [of] dialectical materialism especially England among growing generation scientific workers”.’ This was journalistic insight bordering on prophecy.
These thirty-something scientists, including J. B. S. Haldane and P. M. S. Blackett, would informally constitute the scientific left’s leadership in the 1930s and 1940s, its ‘Visible College’. Their social backgrounds ranged from impoverished working class to the liberal intellectual aristocracy. All were deeply influenced and disillusioned by the First World War, whether as serving officers, a government researcher or conscientious objector, or as students encountering returning veterans at Cambridge after the war. Religious faith was a common casualty; aside from Hogben’s casual Quakerism and Needham’s idiosyncratic Anglo-Catholicism, they were now atheists. All but Haldane converted to socialism as undergraduates, but they were largely politically inactive in the 1920s. Whatever remained of their youthful idealism and passion they invested, not in politics, but in the pursuit of scientific excitement, whether in nuclear physics, genetics, or the borderlands between biology, chemistry, and x-ray crystallography. Certainly for Bernal ‘his faith in science can best be described as [a] religious devotion’ which shines through the pages of his extraordinary tract of 1929, The World, the Flesh and the Devil. Aside from the absorbing pleasures of laboratory life, many of these gifted scientists felt free to let their intellectual curiosity extend not only to the ‘“philosophy of nature”, before specialization and fragmentation had finally conquered science’, but to Freudianism and unconventional marriages and lifestyles as well. Some, like Blackett and Levy, were more focused in their science and more conventional in their private lives. But they were all very much children of the disillusioned and modernist Twenties.
What soon overlay these ‘mentalities’ of the 1920s were the Marxist ideologies of the 1930s. With the notable exception of Lancelot Hogben, these men shifted to the far left, whether in the Labour or Communist Parties. Regardless of party affiliation, communism was especially attractive to progressively minded scientists in this era. They saw the USSR as a powerful exemplar of scientific socialism both in theory and practice – and these impressions, first formed at the 1931 Congress, were soon reinforced through their visits to the Soviet Union. The Comintern (the Communist International) represented itself as a movement for all humanity, espousing an internationalism that echoed scientific ideals of global cooperation. Closer to home, British Communists were perceived as the most dedicated, effective, and hardened opponents of fascism and war – a party and people who organized themselves to do doing something practical both for the unemployed and in opposition to the National Government’s ineffectual policies.
It is, of course, significant that the scientists’ political re-awakening coincided with the Comintern’s deeply divisive and ineffectual line of ‘class versus class’, in which social democratic parties and their affiliated trade union movements were vilified as ‘social fascist’ enemies of the working class. One very specific and negative effect of this black and white world-view was that it irrevocably embedded the belief – certainly in Bernal’s mind — that individual values and intellectual freedoms were either illusory or expendable in the struggle to overthrow capitalism and defend the USSR. On the other hand, the message that the world was quickly dividing into two camps and plunging towards a global catastrophe was highly galvanizing. Certainly this was the message that P. M. S. Blackett communicated to his fellow scientists in a BBC broadcast of March, 1934:
I believe that there are only two ways to go, and the way we now seem to be starting leads to Fascism; with it come restrictions of output, a lowering of the standard of life of the working classes, and a renunciation of scientific progress. I believe that the only other way is complete Socialism. Socialism will want all the science it can get to produce the greatest possible wealth. Scientists have not perhaps very long to make up their minds on which side they stand.
Described as possibly ‘the “reddest” talk ever transmitted from … Broadcasting House’, Blackett made it abundantly clear that a militant left-wing presence was making itself felt in the scientific community.
Through their radio broadcasts, newspaper articles, and popular books, the Visible College became the public face of the scientific left for the next twenty years. But there were three other equally, if not more important dimensions to their leadership. They were tireless, behind-the-scenes organizers, as active in the wider Left as they were among scientists – not least Bernal, ‘that sink of ubiquity’, in Hyman Levy’s famous phrase. The leading left scientists also found time to produce an extraordinary body of political and social thought about the social relations of science, pioneering work on nearly every aspect of what we now call STS. Yet the key to their prominence, effectiveness, and persuasiveness among their students and peers was how they modelled the role of a successful scientist-activist. For they combined high scientific status and achievement with a willingness to risk their reputations as ‘sound’ men, in order to expand opportunities for scientific workers – both as citizens and experts — to do good work and benefit society. Levy aside, they all were to become Fellows of the Royal Society. Even in the early Thirties, Blackett – a future Nobel laureate – and Bernal – the widely acknowledged godfather of postwar molecular biology – were, along with Haldane, regarded as scientists of the first order, possibly geniuses. Their professional reputations added hugely to the weight of their political opinions, at least in some academic quarters and even with the general public.
Of course, in taking such highly public and controversial stands on the role and prospects of science in capitalist, fascist, and socialist societies, the Visible College risked great reputational damage. Rutherford loathed Bernal, though probably as much for his haircut and sexual promiscuity as his communism. An even greater cost was that time expended in political agitation was time irrevocably lost from the pursuit of what they held most dear – advancing the leading edges of their respective fields. As Needham would later ruefully acknowledge, ‘I tried to keep to my own field, but politics would keep breaking in.’ Why then did they sacrifice at least some of the fun, excitement, achievement, and rewards they would have enjoyed had they not chosen to become more politically active? For Bernal at least, the answer was supplied by his admirable friend, the French physicist and communist Paul Langevin, who observed that ‘“The scientific work which I can do, can be done, and will be done, by others, possibly soon, possibly not for some years; but unless the political work is done there will be no science at all.”’
The social location and strength of the British scientific left is easily summarized. Its locus was Cambridge, home to by far the strongest student left of the 1930s. Scientific support for left-wing causes came overwhelmingly (and not coincidentally) from its largest and most lustrous research centres: the Cavendish Laboratory – where both Blackett and Bernal were based until their departures for Birkbeck College, London, in 1933 and 1937, respectively; and the Dunn Biochemical Institute, where Needham and, until 1932, Haldane were located. The core of the scientific left were predominantly postgraduate students, with women proportionately overrepresented and quite active in all the major activities and campaigns, bar the writing of – in W. H. Auden’s memorable phrase — ‘the flat, ephemeral pamphlet’. Largely the sons and daughters of the professional-managerial class, they showed up in the struggle, partly because their Professors were tolerant of their extra-curricular activities, while a clear professional and political line was drawn which encouraged them to stay focused on the path to becoming an accomplished scientist. They were drawn to scientific socialism for reasons similar to their favoured role-models, from whom they drew encouragement, strength, and direction. Apart from younger historians, it was the nuclear physicists, x-ray crystallographers, and biochemists who were most conspicuously represented on the left.
The negative of this snapshot is that the left was not very much in evidence in other British universities, certainly not in scientific fields. Nor even at Cambridge did it attract more than a thousand undergraduates (20 per cent), of whom perhaps a hundred were members of the Communist Party. Hence, as Noel Annan later observed, ‘For all their ardour the left did not capture my generation – even though for a time they captured the history of the thirties. They were too innocent, unsophisticated and puritanical.’ But it is also a commonplace, originating in the acknowledgement of another, even more distinguished Kings’ man – John Maynard Keynes – that those whom the left did attract were far and away the brightest youth of the Thirties; as many of their subsequent careers as scientists, historians, and, yes, Soviet spies amply confirmed.
The Visible College and its Cambridge-based followers divided their political energies between general campaigns and those aimed more specifically at either other scientific workers or issues in which scientific expertise loomed large. The frustrating ‘class vs. class’ phase of Left politics gave way to the ‘Popular Front’ era of 1935-1939, in which Labour, Communist, and eventually liberal forces combined, initially to oppose fascism and war, and ultimately to support a war against fascism.. Their efforts crystallized around the need, first, to defeat Franco in the Spanish civil war, and then to rearm and create a united front with the Soviet Union against Hitler. Bernal was at the forefront of putting a scientific spin on these struggles through the formation of a Cambridge Scientists’ Anti-War group that mixed local agitation with research and experiments criticizing the Government’s air defence schemes. Support for the victims of fascism came in the form of organizations like For Intellectual Liberty, which championed the cause of academic refugees, and sustained attacks on the pseudo-scientific racism of the Nazis and the Eugenics Society, which decisively marginalized the latter’s influence.
Otherwise, the scientific Left worked on three fronts of its own to raise the consciousness of other scientists about their economic status and the role and prospects of science in this troubled era. First, led by Bernal and Blackett, they transformed the NUSW back into a trade union, the Association of Scientific Workers. The AScW now succeeded both in organizing scientists and technicians in government and private sector research establishments and in becoming a prominent propagandist for an expansion and redirection of publicly funded R&D. Second, now that the scientific Left had a more robust national organization, it could exert greater pressure on Nature’s liberal humanists to respond more robustly to concerns about the state of British and international science. What emerged was a scientists’ popular front – also known as the ‘Social Relations of Science’ movement — which led in 1938 to the establishment of a Division for the Social and International Relations of Science within the venerable British Association for the Advancement of Science. As the title of the new Division implied, the third dimension of the scientific Left’s engagement with professional scientists was international in scope. By far its most significant and enduring point of contact was with the French scientific Left, whose leading figures included Langevin, Jean Perrin, and Frederic Joliot-Curie. Allied to a more powerful indigenous Communist Party and, more briefly, a Popular Front government, the French movement actually achieved more concrete gains in the pre-war period than their British counterparts. Contacts with American left scientists were more ad hoc, but did include the Visible College’s editorial support for the founding of Science and Society, the US’s leading Marxist journal. While the British scientific left’s influence certainly extended to The Netherlands, it did not connect with scientific movements in colonial and less developed societies (apart from the USSR).
By the end of the 1930s, the Visible College’s presence and influence within their own society were extending in two quite different directions. On the one hand, as the threat of war increased, their advice was sought from within the State both on technical matters and on more general questions relating to the effective organization of scientists in wartime. Blackett was called as early as 1935 to advise the Air Ministry on the development of radar. By the late Thirties, Bernal, Needham, Hogben, Blackett, and Levy were regularly mixing with government and scientific insiders in Solly Zuckerman’s London-based Tots & Quots Club. On the other hand, these leaders of the scientific Left were also well on their way to becoming certified public intellectuals, speaking and writing with great authority about the role of science in society, and what shape a more scientifically reformed Britain could and should take. Apart from their presence in the mass media – Haldane’s weekly column in the CP’s Daily Worker was a model of lucidity — they also undertook lecture tours promoting their texts on the social relations of science. Hogben’s Mathematics for the Million (1936), followed in 1938 by Science for the Citizen, were both outstanding best-sellers, written and promoted as ‘self-educators’ that would equip their readers with sufficient knowledge to become effective citizens in a scientific age. Bernal’s landmark treatise on The Social Function of Science followed in 1939, underscoring the arrival of these scientists as serious commentators on the state of British science, culture, and society. In this respect, they inherited and continued the British tradition of ‘amateur’ civic inquiry previously dominated by more liberally-minded literary and scientific humanists. What then was their distinctive contribution to this tradition – and to Marxism?
The Soviet Marxism of their era unquestionably influenced the Visible College’s social thought, political practice, and, to a lesser and more variable extent, their scientific practice. Styled as ‘dialectical materialism’, it was – whatever its intellectual and cognitive value – a state ideology that clearly reflected both its Stalinist political origins and the practical imperatives of rapid industrialization. As Stalin himself defined it:
Dialectical materialism is the world outlook of the Marxist-Leninist party. It is called dialectical materialism because its approach to the phenomena of nature, its method of studying them, is dialectical, while its interpretation of the phenomena of nature … its theory, is materialistic. Historical materialism is … an application of the principles of dialectical materialism to the phenomena of the life of society….
This construction of the Marxist heritage brought Engels’ writings on science and the dialectics of nature to the fore, emphasized the primacy of dialectical laws in guiding social development, and elevated the natural sciences to a position of profound ideological, historical, and practical importance. (For example, Bukharin’s exposition of this doctrine to the 1931 Congress notably extolled the role of science both in Marxism and as a productive force.) ‘Dia-Mat’ also provided Stalin and ‘the Party’ with a conveniently scientific justification and gloss of their authority and decisions. As for the Soviet version of ‘historical materialism’, it was inevitably ‘economistic’ – though not necessarily ‘vulgar’ — in its depiction of social development as a dialectic between a society’s ‘economic base’ and its ‘ideological superstructure’, propelled by various ‘contradictions’ within the base between the ‘forces’ and ‘relations’ of production. The test of Soviet theory’s utility and robustness would, of course, be its contribution to the building of a socialist society through Lenin’s alliance of science, the proletariat, and technique, which was now firmly under Stalin’s custodianship.
This brand of Marxism was now overlaid on and sieved through the Visible College’s pre-existing understandings and experience of science – their ‘mentalities’ – much of it not all that different from the scientific humanists of the 1920s. The result was, overwhelmingly in Bernal’s case, an identification of Marxism and socialism with science. As he most famously declared in The Social Function of Science: ‘Already we have in the practice of science the prototype for all human common action. The task which the scientists have undertaken – the understanding and control of nature and of man himself – is merely the conscious expression of human society. … In its endeavour, science is communism.’ Whether ‘Bernalism’, as I have defined it elsewhere, is seen as just a radical variant of scientific humanism or a distinctive form of ‘Anglo-Marxism’ is a matter of some debate. What I think it does most certainly represent is an idealization and ideology of scientific practice commonly known as ‘scientism’. If the obverse of Bernal’s mantra is true, then communism also becomes a science, and this has enormous significance not only for Bernal’s and most of the Visible College’s social thought but for their politics as well. Chris Freeman, one of Bernal’s greatest admirers, explains:
[Bernal] idealized science not just as knowledge but in a political sense too, believing that the management of human affairs could also be more scientific by virtue of being socialist. He was thus particularly inclined to accept the claims of Soviet Marxism to represent science in general, and to accord it the same degree of respect.
Although Freeman is right to cite Bernal’s scientific (and political) idealism as ‘the central weakness’ of his social thought, it was equally the inspiration for the Visible College’s efforts to understand the social relations of science in almost all their manifestations.
The synoptic work of the scientific Left was unquestionably Bernal’s The Social Function of Science, in which ‘Bernal was the first to see “science” clearly as a social subsystem, … to define and measure its boundaries as a whole, and to relate all this to the wider social system in its historical development and possible future.’ In Part I (‘What Science Does’), Social Function combines a breathless review of science’s social history with a critical analysis of its current organization and approach to scientific education, the efficiency with which research is conducted and applied to civil and military uses, and the state of international science. Part II (‘What Science Could Do’) offers a rational and comprehensive social – not to say socialist – reconstruction of science’s social relations, beginning with the training of scientists and extending not only to the reorganization of research, scientific communication, and finance but to a new strategy for scientific advance ‘in the service of man’ and social transformation as well. Social Function‘s breadth and arguments are still audacious and challenging. However, these are very much paper plans and dreamings: the book offers no political strategy for their achievement. In line with his scientistic ideology, Bernal identifies science as the engine of technological and social transformation. All progress derives from the application of science and scientific method. Once science is adequately funded, organized, and staffed, all else will follow. This vision also placed scientific workers at the heart of a new society and its centres of power, not least as planners of scientific socialism’s advance.
The Visible College’s forays into dialectical materialism as a useful philosophical framework for and comprehensive philosophy of science have impressed others more qualified than I. Bernal, Haldane, and Levy produced the leading commentaries on ‘Dia-Mat’s’ general principles and their usefulness to scientific workers. The connections between dialectical materialism’s emphasis on processes and relationships as ways of organizing and perceiving natural phenomena – including the relationship of observer to observed in scientific research – may well have assisted: Bernal in his speculations about the origin of life; Needham in formulating his evolutionary philosophy of ‘integrative levels’; and both Bernal and Needham in their pre-war efforts to grasp the outlines of a new molecular biology. As far as I know, only Haldane made specific claims about applying dialectical materialism directly to the design of his experiments.
Of greater interest to an historian are the Visible College’s contributions to the history of science. They understood, courtesy of Boris Hessen, that embedding scientific practices into a greater historical understanding of how capitalism arose and reproduced itself was of great political significance. And, like Hessen, they were not afraid to use history for overtly political ends. Unfortunately, Hessen aside, the British left’s historian-scientists were unaware of mainly European contributions to what, in retrospect, still looks like the ‘classical’ period for the social history of science. By comparison with the methodological sophistication of, say, Benjamin Farrington and Edgar Zilsel, the efforts of Bernal and Crowther to follow on from Hessen seem fairly crude and economistic, missing out altogether Hessen’s efforts to relate scientific theories to their ideological settings. Jerry Ravetz’s description of the historical sections of Social Function and Bernal’s later Science in History as ‘externalist Whig’ history is probably just.
But Joseph Needham’s contributions to the history of science in this period and subsequently cannot be so easily categorized or dismissed. Needham already entered the Thirties as an encyclopaedically minded historical scholar, under the tutelage of Charles Singer. His interest in the young discipline then deepened in several ways. He connected his earlier work on the history of embryology to the new requirements of a post-Hessen historiography of science. Needham also saw both the historical and agitational value of writing a popular account for the Left Book Club of the connections between capitalism, radical Puritanism, and natural philosophy in the seventeenth century. Finally, he attempted, along with Walter Pagel, to institutionalize the teaching of the history of science at Cambridge in 1936 as an integral part of natural scientists’ education. Despite these accomplishments, Needham remained wedded at this time to some very characteristic assumptions of traditional historians of science (and the scientific left), e.g.: their view of technology as ‘applied science’; and their Eurocentric belief that the origins and, more specifically, the ‘birth’ of ‘modern science’ could be localized in the practices of natural philosophers in seventeenth-century Europe. This latter assumption was partially challenged in the life-changing visit to Cambridge of three Chinese biochemists in 1937 – who planted in Needham’s mind the seeds of what would eventually become the greatest achievement in twentieth-century history of science.
By the end of the Thirties the Visible College had established a promising body of theory — based on a reading of the historical and social relations of science that blended Soviet Marxism with scientific humanism — which provided the intellectual underpinnings for a politically vigorous scientific left that appeared to be growing in strength and confidence. This mood of cultural ascendancy was vividly captured in C.H. Waddington’s The Scientific Attitude of 1941:
The rational economic system, at whose birth pangs we are already assisting, can only be fully utilised if it is infused by a culture whose method of approach is also rational, intelligent and empirical. Prim science has so far neglected to confess to the world that he has begotten such an offspring on the harlot Humanities; but the infant culture is beginning to peep already – in its bastard vigour lies the only hope for an heir worthy of the civilisations of the past.
This was scientific humanism with teeth. Nothing seemed capable of halting the onward march to scientific socialism in Britain; not even troubling news from the Soviet Union, whether of Stalin’s purges – which resulted in the judicial murders of Bukharin, Hessen, and thousands more – or, of more direct concern to the scientific Left, T. D. Lysenko’s initial attacks on the science and power of Soviet geneticists. But these developments did alarm a few scientists, and not just those on the political right.
Opposition from Right to Left
On the eve of the Second World War an oppositional group to the scientific left – the Society for Freedom in Science (SFS) — began to form around the Oxford zoologist, John R. Baker, and an émigré from Nazi Germany, the physical chemist Michael Polanyi. Both men shared a deep fear and loathing of the Soviet Union and held unfashionably reactionary views about eugenics and race (in Baker’s case) and economics (Polanyi was a member of Friedrich von Hayek’s inner circle). However, these deeper political motivations were largely suppressed until the end of the Second World War, in favour of public attacks on Bernalist views of science’s social function and the need for ‘planned science’. Baker and Polanyi saw Bernalism as both denigrating ‘pure science’ — as a mere handmaiden to grosser human needs like food, shelter, and clothing — and endangering the freedom of individual scientists to decide which research problems, methodologies, and conclusions they should pursue in their research. Not surprisingly, given a definition of science divorced from practical applications and base political or commercial motives, the SFS attracted a largely academic membership, mainly of scientists, but also most of Britain’s leading historians of science. Indeed, the Society’s five propositions about scientific freedom were so anodyne that even Joseph Needham felt able to join it.
One scientist who refused to join the SFS was the Royal Society’s Secretary, Sir A.V. Hill. Hill was no friend of the scientific left. As far back as 1933 in Hill’s Huxley Memorial Lecture, he ‘rejoiced’ in his English freedom – ‘We cannot imagine it otherwise, in spite of all our young communists and fascists’ – and warned younger scientists about the dangers of meddling in politics. Nor would his opinion of the Visible College have improved as he witnessed its growing influence at Cambridge and in the media. Nevertheless, he felt that there were more effective ways of containing the Bernalists than publicly opposing them. As he wrote to an SFS supporter in 1941:
‘Haldane and Blackett, for all their queer political notions, are useful and co-operative members of [the Royal Society’s] Council: I am sure that Bernal and Hogben will be the same when their turn comes to serve, for they have always been most helpful whenever we have called for their advice on scientific matters. We can keep them in order better by co-operating with them in scientific affairs than by formally setting up to oppose their political ideas in the name of science.”
Hill’s colleague Sir Henry Dale agreed and gently reminded Baker and Polanyi that, at a time when the USSR was fighting off Hitler (and saving Britain), it would be counter-productive for the Royal Society to be seen supporting what was a transparently, albeit muted anti-Soviet and anti-communist organization.
But concern about Stalinist repression and the uncritical embrace by communist scientists of Soviet-style industrialized science could also be heard within the scientific Left. Lancelot Hogben was the member of the Visible College least enchanted with Soviet Marxism. He had long ago rejected dialectical materialism as philosophically incoherent and useless for scientists. The murder of Bukharin also deeply distressed him, but he was even more concerned with the Soviet Union’s and Bernal’s championing of what he saw as capitalist values in the spheres of both production and consumption. Like so-called ‘utopian’ socialists of an earlier generation, Hogben believed that human needs could not be assessed in terms of ‘consumer choice’, nor did their satisfaction require the destruction of the earth, in order to create Bernal’s highly urbanized ‘chemist’s paradise’. However, Hogben realized that his vision of a ‘greener’ and leaner socialist society would have little appeal until there was ‘a far-reaching reformation in the content of education to endow the pursuit of knowledge with a new sense of social relevance.’ In this respect at least, he joined hands with the scientific humanists of the 1920s.
Joseph Needham shared more of Bernal’s world-view than Hogben, but his concern about the impact of what he called ‘scientific opium’ on the outlook and actions of Soviet Marxists and Bernalists was, if anything, even more profound. Needham saw the two components of this heady drug to be ‘ruthlessness’ in the face of deviation and imperfection, and ‘blindness’ to the ‘numinous’ aspects of human experience. He feared that this mentality could ‘too easily be applied to human misfits and deviationists in the socialist world order.’ More generally, he asked:
Shall we substitute for the opium of religion an opium of science? It has always been the tacit conviction of the social reformer and the person occupied with the practical application of scientific knowledge that by man’s own efforts, not merely minor evils, but the major evils of existence may be overcome. This is expressed in that great sentence of Marx: “Philosophers have talked about the universe long enough; the time has come to change it.” But the problem of evil is not capable of so simple a resolution.
Nevertheless, Needham still affirmed (at least in 1935) that ‘communism provides the moral theology appropriate for our time’.
The scientistic aspects of Bernalism, especially their conflation with Marxism, also alarmed the communist classicist and historian of science, Benjamin Farrington. Farrington’s Marxism had been formed in far-away Cape Town, long before he returned to Britain in the mid-1930s. There he was exposed to a number of Marxist trends and traditions, not just those deriving from the Soviet Union. So, when he returned to London, he was surprised that
… at least half the Marxists whom I met were scientists. But … their Marxism was of a peculiar brand. They seemed to be under the impression that Marxism had originated from … the physical sciences, and not to be so much aware of the social and philosophical background. … I found a complete optimism about Marxism [as] … the theory which gave science its opportunity…. And it seemed as if science and Marxism had absolutely been married to one another — that they were the same kind of thing.
This narrowing of sources and perspectives made it harder for those whose Marxism was largely Soviet-inspired to engage in a critical debate as socialists about alternative views and promising new frameworks. For example, exposure to Gramsci’s writings on the nature and effects of capitalist hegemony – the values and world-view of the dominant culture inside as well as beyond science – would have invited a more self-critical appreciation of both the scientific left’s own theory and practice and especially the critiques offered by Hogben, Needham, and Farrington of the values it projected. However, even if such alternative traditions had been more readily accessible, the scientific left would not have had the energy or impetus to confront them following the outbreak of the Second World War.
A ‘good’ war?
For the Visible College and its followers it was generally a ‘good war’. Personally, a number of them made distinguished contributions to the war effort. Bernal and Blackett, for example, enjoyed extraordinary success and recognition for their work in the new field of operations research at the Admiralty and in Mountbatten’s Combined Operations, respectively. Needham established the Sino-British Science Cooperation Office in Chunking, an experience that not only cemented his ‘love affair’ with Chinese civilization but later inspired him to lobby successfully for a broader and more progressive brand of scientific internationalism within the newly formed UNESCO as well. Even Hogben, the former conscientious objector, ended up as a colonel in charge of reorganizing the British Army’s medical statistics organization. Whatever their duties – none of which involved weapons development – they made good collective use of their experience by lobbying the government through the Tots and Quots and the AScW for the more effective use of science and scientific advisors in wartime. Then, as the end of the war approached, they set to work ensuring that neither politicians nor the public could ignore the lessons of the ‘scientists’ war’.
Whatever their triumphs and satisfactions with the war’s conduct and results, it was a bittersweet experience for all concerned. The opportunity to move from futile anti-fascist protests to purposive action against Hitler was of course satisfying, as was the opportunity to put into practice some of their ideas about scientific planning and planned science. On the other hand, as Bernal later noted, ‘The only time I could get my ideas translated in any way into action in the real world was in the service of war. And, although it was a war which I felt then, and still feel had to be won, its destructive character clouded and spoiled for me the pleasure of being an effective human being.’ Likewise, the political satisfaction of seeing the anti-scientific Nazis defeated by the Red Army of scientific socialism had to be balanced against the creation and use of that bitter fruit of nuclear physics and military engineering, the atomic bomb. The scientists may not have ‘known sin’ in the wake of Hiroshima, but even Bernal – that most incurable of scientific optimists — was shocked by this ‘“wretched discovery”.’ The bomb of course heralded a pivotal moment in the social and international relations of science – and the political fortunes of the scientific left.
The ‘thirty years’ war’ of the twentieth century characteristically ended in a massive slaughter of civilians which was also a spectacular triumph of technoscientific ingenuity. But it also ushered in even more momentous historical shifts. These have been variously described as: 1) the long-delayed realization of the hopes of the Revolutions of 1848 to reform capitalism and achieve national liberation; 2) the dawning of a ‘golden age’ of global capitalism under American hegemony, a ‘long boom’ that lasted until the early 1970s; and, ultimately, 3) ‘the end of the seven or eight millennia of human history that began with the invention of agriculture in the stone age’, given that – by century’s end — a majority of the earth’s population no longer lived by growing food and herding animals’. For the Visible College, these transformations proved to be very much mixed blessings, which they experienced between 1945 and 1956 as a series of interconnected and often dramatic political, scientific, intellectual, personal, and historical reckonings.
Politically, there was at first much encouragement for European socialists, whether social democrats or communists. Liberal democracy prevailed over fascism in Western Europe. The core capitalist economies were reformed through widespread acceptance of the need for State economic planning and policies for full employment. While the economic nationalism that had so plagued the world-economy in the previous half-century was still very much present, its effects were substantially moderated by the US’s support for the economic reconstruction of ‘the West’ (including Japan). The result of these enlightened domestic and international policies was an unprecedented long wave of economic growth. This prosperity underwrote – but did not inspire — the creation of ‘welfare states’ which sponsored greater social mobility and strengthened social services on both sides of the Atlantic. Much of the credit for these advances was due to the left’s resurgence in the early postwar period, notably in France, Italy and, of course, Britain, where the Attlee Labour Government came to power in 1945 with an overwhelming mandate for its social democratic programme. Further East, communists and fellow travellers could at least take heart from the Soviet Union’s new status as a superpower, the accession of socialists and communists to government in Eastern European, and, most spectacularly, the success of the Chinese communist revolution in 1949. This was also the era in which the dissolution of the great European colonial empires began in earnest.
Encouraging as these developments were to the European Left, they were accompanied by the much less welcomed advent of the Cold War. The American response to what it perceived to be a significant Soviet (and then Sino-Soviet) threat quickly took shape in the period 1947-1950, with the formation of the NATO military alliance, the Marshall Plan, and a series of cultural initiatives that ultimately came under the umbrella of the Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF) – and the purse-strings of the CIA. These US programmes were intended to act as buffers against not only ‘the world communist conspiracy’ but social unrest, socialism, and anti-American nationalism in its client-states as well. Meanwhile, Stalin moved equally swiftly and far more brutally to assert control over his Eastern European ‘satellites’ through the Warsaw Pact, as well as enforcing even greater political repression back in the USSR. The Soviet Union’s detonation of an atomic bomb in 1949 was an inevitable response to the US’s greater economic and militarily power. Both the capitalist and communist superpowers – and their respective camp followers – were now firmly entrenched in warfare states and committed to a costly and dangerous nuclear arms race.
One of the Cold War’s first casualties was the European left: its communist wing quickly marginalized as Stalinist sympathizers, spies, and subversives; its social democrats both irrevocably disillusioned with Soviet communism and forced to the right for fear of being branded as ‘soft’ on communism. In the black and white period of ‘Two Camps, Two Cultures’, European communists paid the price for their loyal support of Stalin and the Soviet Union, by ceasing to be a major political force for decades. Their loyalty was then swiftly eroded in 1956, when Nikita Khrushchev revealed, in some detail, Stalin’s crimes and the Party’s complicity in them – a revelation that completely gutted British communists.
These cross-cutting politico-economic developments fully informed and constituted post-war shifts in the social relations of British science – and with equally mixed results for the scientific left. On the positive side of the balance sheet, ‘Britain [now] saw itself as a scientific nation, and the arguments for more science in national life, associated particularly with the scientific left, became truisms.’ Central government began funding an enormous expansion of university places, especially in science, technology, and medicine (STM), along with corresponding increases in ‘basic’ and ‘applied’ scientific research. Civil research flourished both in ‘big science’ projects based on public-private partnerships and in the better established technoscientific industries like pharmaceuticals. There were some spectacular intellectual breakthroughs in academic laboratories, not least by Bernal’s former students in molecular biology. This new expansive understanding of ‘science’s’ strategic role in a socially reformed capitalist society enjoyed bipartisan support in Parliament, but came especially easy to the Labour Party both immediately after the war and in the ‘white heat’ of Harold Wilson’s governments of the 1960s. (The latter’s reaffirmation of a technocratically driven social democracy owed something to the lobbying efforts of Bernal and Blackett.) With governments’ greater attention to and funding of STM came a greater political role and influence for senior scientific advisers and the ‘science lobby’.
The cultural effect of all this national attention and largesse was to legitimate even more strongly scientific intellectuals as respected commentators about the condition and direction of British society, on something like equal terms with literary figures and liberal humanists. Members of the Visible College were only too glad to fill this role on the BBC. Indeed, they also were beginning to take their place at the forefront of promising moves to establish more progressive forms of scientific internationalism. At UNESCO, Joseph Needham was promoting ambitious plans both to assist third world countries in building up their scientific capacities and to sponsor research into the social history of global science. Meanwhile, an Anglo-French alliance, led by Bernal, Blackett, and Joliot-Curie, established in 1946 a World Federation of Scientific Workers (WFSW) dedicated to the promotion of peace and the peaceful uses of science.
The Cold War counterpoint to and nemesis of these advances was the increasing militarization and secrecy of science, the revelations of Lysenko’s complete takeover of Soviet biology, and the total breakdown of the pre-war scientists’ popular front both in the UK and internationally. The growth of the British warfare state meant that, by the mid-Fifties, 60 per cent of total British ‘R&D’ — a more instrumental and accurate rendering of the spread of technoscientific activities previously encompassed by the term ‘science’ – was devoted to military purposes. Quite apart from the absorption of manpower, resources, and strategic focus, the increasing use of technical expertise for defence (and commercial purposes) also entailed unprecedented restrictions on most scientific workers’ freedom of publication, movement, and speech. Concerns about national security also justified the British atomic bomb project – the most spectacular postwar expression of planned capitalist science.
Whatever political gains the scientific left might have made from growing fears of a nuclear war were largely nullified by its association with Britain’s former ally and overnight enemy, the Soviet Union, and more particularly the effects of ‘totalitarianism’ on the freedom of science. The final triumph of Lysenkoism in 1948 could not have come at a worse time, especially for the communist members of the Visible College who attempted to understand and defend – especially in the context of growing anti-communist hysteria – the indefensible suppression of orthodox genetics. At this stage Baker, Polanyi, and the SFS were free to take their gloves off and lay into what had always been the Achilles heel of Bernalism: its fateful and now fatal equation of planned science under socialism with whatever was happening in the USSR. More moderate elements in the pre-war scientists’ popular front now began to draw away from their previous entanglements with the scientific left. Public criticisms of British government policy, especially its sponsorship of the bomb and its greater militarization of R&D, sharply reduced. Why, after all, rock the boat? As a postwar science barons later candidly acknowledged, this was the period ‘when we decided there should be an enormous lift in the finances available for research in universities – a difference by an order of ten times. This gave the scientists a honeymoon, and, of course, when you’re on a honeymoon, you don’t start political protests.’
The scientific left’s international initiatives fared no better. Needham and his ambitious plans for UNESCO were increasingly marginalized and then shelved, largely as a result of American pressure. The WFSW never succeeded in expanding out from its Anglo-French base, until it was belatedly backed in the early 1950s by the Soviets, thus ensuring its stigmatization as a communist ‘front’ organization of only peripheral influence. Meanwhile, the scientific right was also going global, as Michael Polanyi – backed by the redoubtable intellectual cold warrior and American minder of the British cultural scene, Edward Shils – established the Committee for Science and Freedom at Hamburg in 1953. The CSF affiliated to the Congress for Cultural Freedom which, in turn, funded the establishment of the anti-communist scientists’ most famous product, the international journal Minerva.
For STS scholars, one of the most fascinating aspects of the cultural Cold War was how our various sub-disciplines were formed in and constituted by the political struggles of the day. Once again, from the standpoint of the British scientific left, the institutional and intellectual outcomes were a mixed blessing. The history of science, first at Cambridge and then more widely, was established on an explicitly anti-Marxist and ‘internalist’ historiography. The historian Herbert Butterfield, whose chief pastime was described by Noel Annan as ‘academic intrigue’, masterminded this transformation. As the postwar leader of a militant conservatism that was ‘radical, reverent towards Christianity, irreverent towards liberals and scornful of socialists’, Butterfield hijacked the Cambridge History of Science Committee during the war and stacked it with historians of science sympathetic to the Society for Freedom in Science. He was also keen to exclude scientists from this enterprise, because, in his view, they would never understand history. His takeover was well timed, given that the Cambridge science faculty had at last decided to make the history of science a compulsory subject in the Natural Sciences tripos. His next move was to exclude from the curriculum any options other than those that focused on the history of science as an intellectual movement driven by the achievements of isolated, aristocratic geniuses. He even supplied an iconic textbook that focussed attention for the next half century on The decidedly English scientific revolution of the seventeenth century. To solidify the discipline on these terms required, on the one hand, the protection of the nascent British Society for the History of Science from the malign influence of scientists and Marxist-inclined historians, on the one hand, and the appointment of a trusted protégé to carry on Butterfield’s counter-revolution. The latter requirement was satisfied with the appointment of his student Rupert Hall to the first official Cambridge lectureship in the history of science. Hall more than fulfilled Butterfield’s expectations with the publication of his PhD thesis on seventeenth century ballistics – which denied the influence of military needs (a la Hessen) on Galileo and his peers. Meanwhile, promising Marxist historians of science like Sam Lilley and Stephen Mason failed to find any suitable posts. Not surprisingly, by 1962 Hall was able to crow that, clearly, ‘“externalist explanations of the history of science have lost their interest as well as their interpretive capacity.”’
Other aspects of the scientific left’s work on the social relations of science would survive and begin to flourish, but not until the 1960s. In the UK, the revival of Bernalist perspectives on science policy and education during the Wilson era led to the establishment of what were intended to be technocratically-minded centres of ‘science studies’ – the Science Policy Research Unit at Sussex, Edinburgh University’s Science Studies Unit, and Manchester’s Liberal Studies in Science Department. In this sense at least, Bernal’s Social Function can be credited as the intellectual godfather of the social studies of science movement in Britain. Bernal’s belated influence also made itself felt in the Soviet Union around the same time, when some Soviet science policymakers were growing concerned about the USSR’s lagging scientific performance. Exploiting Bernal’s prestige as a long-time champion of Soviet communism, they staged major conferences based on his Science in History and, more particularly, his ideas about the nature of the postwar ‘scientific-technical revolution’. In this way, the ideas of Bukharin and Hessen – banned for over thirty years in the USSR – were able to find their way back into the society that had originally inspired them.
As we would now expect, the personal reckonings for members of the Visible College in this period finely balanced honour and dishonour, courage and ostracism, and continuities and redirections with a persistent attachment to their various brands of scientific socialism. It was, as Hobsbawm has recollected, ‘a bad time to be a communist in the intellectual professions.’ For a start, their postwar academic status rarely ended up matching their scientific achievements. The fact that Birkbeck College – the lowliest institution within London University – was an important refuge at critical points in the careers of Hogben, Blackett, Bernal, and later David Bohm was one indication of this mismatch. There was also a swift and hard fall from political grace and influence from 1948 onwards, not least for Bernal and Blackett, who – despite the American government’s award to them of its highest civilian honours — would soon be denied entry into the US as dangerous subversives. These were some of the rewards for their courage (or folly, if you like) in voicing unpopular ideas about the conduct of Cold War science, which resulted not only in their political marginalization within British science but in some fairly vicious press campaigns against some of them as well. One at least indirect effect of these vicissitudes were some interesting career discontinuities: Blackett’s abandonment of nuclear physics for geophysics; Needham’s switch from biochemistry to the history of Chinese science; and Haldane’s passage to India, where he lived out his days as head of the Indian Statistical Unit. As these journeys indicate, the members of the Visible College did become far more interested in the role of science in fostering Third World development. But there were also continuities with their pre-war interests in the history of science, the role of warfare in scientific development, and, more generally, the contribution which scientific workers could make to the advancement of social welfare. Most importantly, as Joseph Needham told me in May 1968, ‘I should think that all those in the thirties who believed that the natural sciences could only come to their most perfect fruition in a socialist society probably still think so now.’
Having surveyed the scientific left’s trajectory and achievements – its triumphs and its tragedies – what are we to make of its historical, political, and intellectual legacies and significance? Undoubtedly, their greatest historical legacy was their encouragement of science’s greater incorporation into the economic, political, and cultural life of British capitalism. Through their successful organizing of scientific workers, their pioneering analysis of science’s social relations, their iconic contributions to the war effort, and their active lobbying of government, the scientific left created arguments and conditions which reinforced other trends favourable to the growth of science dating back to the First World War. In consequence, technical-scientific resources were expanded, the political power and cultural standing of elite scientists increased, and the need to understand the social relations of science finally led to the institutionalization and professionalization of STS.
This was, of course, even within its own terms, ‘an ambiguous and problematic legacy’. The economic returns from the postwar investment in the scientific-technical revolution proved to be disappointing, partly because of its one-dimensional ‘science-push’ model of innovation, and partly because of the discovery that improved returns could also be achieved through non-scientific improvements in, for example, the quality of management. Furthermore, the closer integration of academic science into public policy was not an unalloyed blessing, especially for those like Bernal and Polanyi whose scientific mentalities had been formed in the more free-ranging atmosphere of x-ray crystallography in the 1920s. Surprisingly united in their postwar disenchantment with the effects of government and commercial secrecy on the freedom of scientific exchange, these old antagonists found common cause in their separate calls for an end to the militarization of science and the reform of patent laws to encourage freer flows of scientific information and the more rapid advancement of knowledge. However, neither of them was as publicly outspoken as Lancelot Hogben, who condemned the increasingly authoritarian nature of scientific education and the stifling intellectual climate of most university laboratories.
The political legacy flowing from the creation of a planned capitalist science, particularly one flourishing in the context of a warfare state, was, if anything, even more troubling for future socialists. As Patrick Petitjean has observed, ‘Bernalism had triumphed with capitalism. His analysis of the social function of science did not contradict capitalism. … But what then of socialism?’ For a start, as a greater proportion of scientific workers found employment outside the elite centres of academic science, the odds of their engaging in socialist struggles receded. This became the AScW’s fate. As a result of its greatly increased membership in industrial and government organizations – principally among technicians rather than science graduates — its political focus became increasingly centrist, until its assimilation in 1968 into an even more mainstream union. The closer identification of technical-scientific activities with nuclear warfare, in particular, also permanently tarnished the Bernalist image of science as an inherently progressive force, marking the end of a very old tradition. ‘With [Bernal], a line of prophets extending back through Huxley and Condorcet to Bacon, come to an end’; hence Jerry Ravetz’s judgment of Bernal as a ‘tragic figure’ in the history of science. By the 1960s the politics of socialist scientists was based solely on a ‘use/abuse’ model of science, which ultimately viewed science as a socially innocent form of knowledge, without interests or values, a chaste victim of other’s ‘misuse’.
This image of a socially ‘pure’ science was of course not all that different from the one peddled in the dominant STS traditions of the 1950s and 1960s. The new science studies centres inherited an essentially technocratic conception of science as an object of policy and application – gutted of its critical function or Marxist trappings – while the internalist historians of science continued to shrink the scientific enterprise down to its most immaterial and idealistic essence. One of the most trenchant critics of internalism remained Joseph Needham, a scholar who had taken much abuse from this camp and whose achievements in Science and Civilisation in China so overshadowed it. Needham took great delight in chiding the internalists as Manicheans who ‘do not like to admit that scientists have bodies, eat and drink, and live social lives among their fellow-men, whose practical problems cannot remain unknown to them; nor are the internalists willing to credit their scientific subjects with subconscious minds.’ More seriously, he took them to task for their rejection of a more socially oriented historiography of science, which left them unable to explain why modern science originated in seventeenth-century Europe and not elsewhere – other than as the result of either pure chance or on the racist assumption that only European genius was up to the task. What Needham did not challenge was the externalist/internalist (E/I) distinction, which was to inform the practice of historians of science for the next quarter century. As Steven Shapin has rightly argued, this discourse papered over a great incoherence of theories and concepts which, unsurfaced and unresolved, led the discipline into a number of blind allies and fruitless debates. What Shapin has perhaps understated is how Marxist historians during the Cold War were forced to adopt this rhetoric – rather than ignoring it and fashioning their own explicitly post-Hessen anti-E/I historiography – simply as a strategy for being heard or published at all. Even this gambit was not enough to save them, as anything remotely ‘externalist’ was invariably exposed as ‘Marxist’.
This then was the troubled legacy of the British scientific left which the radical science movement of the 1970s would soon inherit and transform. The old left’s support for key aspects of the postwar reshaping of British science ensured that the new left would be obliged to break with its predecessors, as it confronted new challenges and struggled to evolve fresh perspectives. In doing so, the next movement would look more to Needham than Bernal to help it along its way.
SECOND MOVEMENT: RADICAL SCIENCE, 1968-1988 Allegretto scherzando
The mood and methodology of what follows will be very different from my treatment of the left scientists of the 1930s. In musical terms it will be a contrast between an allegro con brio – like the opening movement of Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’ symphony – and an allegretto scherzando – think of the brief, quirky second movement of Beethoven’s eighth, or, more historically and musically apt, Paul Simon’s darkly funny song from the 1970s in praise of ‘Kodachrome’. This shift reflects substantial differences in the themes, harmonies, duration, and sheer weight of the old and new scientific lefts. The key to their contrasting moods lies in the very different mix of hopes, discontents, and catalysts that inspired these very distinctive generations and their equally divergent critiques of science. But this generational divide was also the product of the first movement’s problematic role in abetting the greater incorporation of technical-scientific activities into postwar British capitalism, which inevitably shifted the objects and terrain of later political struggles in relation to ‘science’. Equally, if the first movement was a story of triumph and tragedy in equal measure, its successor’s narrative was based on – if you have an ironic sense of humour – a comic mismatch between its political ambitions and historical fate. What may still redeem this episode from the realms of farce is that, in my view, our answers to the first scientific left’s still critical questions about the sciences’ historical function and social reformation were: more useful and searching than theirs; more theoretically coherent and politically challenging than STS’s dominant discourses; and still relevant to politics and scholarship in knowledge societies so notably bereft today of history, purpose, and hope.
The methodological mix will also be different. For a start, I shall be working off a much less secure scholarly base – there is less solid ground to stand on and, what has been well established is less familiar to me. I shall therefore have to rely, too often for my liking, on others’ judgments of institutional trends and intellectual traditions which I have not sufficiently mastered myself. My angle of vision has also changed. Instead of scholar-observer of the scientific left, my approach to the radical science movement will be that of a former scholar-activist, albeit one who was closely involved with only a fraction of its organizations and interventions. However, despite the differences in evidence and perspective, I will be adopting a similar role and purpose. For my aim, as an inter-generational link and critic, is to recover, understand, and advocate – where I think it is merited — the continuing relevance of the intellectual and political legacies of both scientific lefts. Part of this understanding will take the form of some direct comparisons between the 30s’ and 70s’ movements, from which we can then extract some historical insights about politics and STS. But part of the success of this effort to understand the two generations must inevitably rest on good old verstehen – an empathetic but still critical (and self-critical) attempt to understand the actors’, including my own, points of view, in their historical settings. It is hardly a prerequisite for an historian to have participated directly in a social movement, in order to comprehend it. But, based on the noted failures of recent biographers of Bernal and Blackett even to approximate an empathetic understanding of their subjects’ political world-views and commitments, I hope my previous history as a radical science activist will be seen as, on balance, an advantage. Certainly the time is ripe for revisiting the more recent of these movements. We are today as far from 1968, when I first interviewed the likes of Hogben, Levy, and Needham, as I was then from the 1931 Congress.
I shall begin with an overview of the American roots of British radical science. After reviewing the catalysts of 1968 for the radicalization of some scientific workers and STS scholars, I shall outline the radical science movement’s trajectory and achievements, particularly highlighting the contributions of its ‘Bernal’, Bob Young. As in the previous section, I shall conclude by reviewing the impact of global and British politico-economic, technical-scientific, and ‘postmodernist’ cultural developments, on the outlooks and fortunes of radical scientists and their more conventional STS peers.
The American roots of British radical science
The exercise of US hegemonic power in the 1950s and 1960s, not least through its technical-scientific dominance, shaped much of the historical context in which the second British radical science movement would form after 1968. America’s global leadership in science and technology was expressed in the political ideologies and organizational models that underpinned its expansion; in its leading edge achievements in academically-, militarily- and commercially-driven R&D; and – most significantly for our story – in its intellectual and institutional innovations in the new fields of the history, sociology, and politics of science and (later) technology. Not all US scientists and STS scholars were entirely happy with the political drift of the times, nor its impact on their fields. Some of these deviants went so far as to emigrate to the UK, where they discovered more tolerant and stimulating environments in which to evolve their own critiques of scientific and historical orthodoxies. Even the events of 1968, including the British and European responses to them, would bear a very strong US imprint. So we need to understand the nature and influence of these distinctively American roots of British radical science.
The story of US science’s postwar success begins and ends in powerful and connected ideological myths. The founding ideology – based on the symbolic transformation of the atomic bomb project from a triumph of technoscientific organization into a discovery of pure science – fostered the myth of science as an ‘endless frontier’. Its heroes were dedicated, individualistic scientific pioneers who made breakthrough discoveries which ultimately benefited all mankind. However, cautioned the myth’s creators, Vannevar Bush and James Conant, it would only work its magic under two conditions. First, government needed to fund what they called ‘basic research’ as a long-term investment in elite university-based scientists, who would be free to decide what priorities and which researchers should be funded. Second, a cadre of scientifically-minded policy- and decision-makers needed to master the strategy and tactics of ‘mission-oriented’ R&D, in order to harness the process of scientific discovery to the nation’s military and commercial requirements. Both dimensions of their myth were unhesitatingly embraced in the US and copied overseas. American universities prospered and expanded as never before. Record numbers of scientists, engineers, and technologists were trained in world-class facilities which attracted many of the best and the brightest from Europe and around the world — and encouraged British and other universities to do the same.
Impressive as this growth in academic science may have been, it was actually funded in part by the far more massive research budgets and technological projects of the military and America’s transnational corporations. So the US was also setting the pace, scale, and style for how technical-scientific resources should be utilized in the production of commercial and military innovations. This faith in the endless frontier seemed vindicated in the prosperous years of the 1950s, when both Ronald Reagan reassured millions of Americans weekly on television that, at General Electric, ‘progress is our most important product’, and Dupont busied itself producing ‘better things for better living through chemistry’. It should also have been a high point in the cultural Cold War, contrasting the free advance of science and technology in the US with the scientific backwardness of Soviet communism. Unfortunately, the launch of Sputnik I in October, 1957, sparked a momentary moral panic in the US, to which the redoubtable Conant responded with a report calling for an even greater investment in scientific education and research. One year later Congress passed the appropriately named ‘National Defense Education Act’ to just that effect.
In this climate of near-national euphoria about the benefits of investing in science, there were few who either challenged the endless frontier’s rationale or feared its consequences for American democracy. One who did was the left-wing sociologist C. Wright Mills, who called for the dismantling of the US’s ‘“science machine,” the mechanical execution of military orders, albeit by means of intellectually stimulating forms of research.’ He even denied ‘the public importance of the “science race” between the United States and the USSR, well before it had gotten into full swing. A far more unlikely doubter of the dangers posed by science’s rapid elevation in status and power was President Dwight Eisenhower. In his now famous farewell address Eisenhower warned of the dangers of what had become a massive military-scientific-industrial complex.
‘In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence … of the military-industrial complex. … The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present – and to be gravely regarded. Yet in holding scientific research and discovery, in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.’
But Eisenhower and Mills were both well outside mainstream US opinion: this was a time not to be doubting but celebrating the apex of the American century, in which the triumph of capitalism, democracy, and science were inextricably linked and destined to prevail far into the future. This level of confidence was well expressed in ‘the end of ideology’, itself an ideology that perfectly complemented the ‘endless frontier’ with its projection of a deep social and political consensus, in which science could now be extended from nature to society in the form of apolitical solutions to a whole range of social problems, including the ‘modernization’ of the Third World on terms congenial to the growth of a global capitalist economy under the US’s benign hegemony. This was an apotheosis of capitalist science not all that far removed from J.D. Bernal’s vision of scientific socialism – except that it was in the service of a very different (if equally idealized) set of values and interests.
The increasing density and importance of technical scientific-activities in American capitalism’s golden age were reflected not only in its science-centred ideologies but also in the creation of a new niche in the social and intellectual division of labour: the professional analyst of science’s history and social relations. In the early postwar years, the most significant role of STS specialists – as new members of a ‘professional-managerial class’ largely dedicated to ‘the reproduction of capitalist culture and capitalist social relations’ — was to serve as teachers and interpreters rather than as scholars and researchers. Whether their audience consisted of science students requiring a wider perspective on their chosen profession – or non-scientists needing to make sense of how scientific discoveries were shaping their society – those who taught the history or sociology of science were very clear about the nature and significance of their social mission. This soon translated into an emerging professional consciousness, one based on STS academics’ claims that their specialist expertise better equipped them to act as science’s cultural interpreters than generalist historians, social scientists, or even natural scientists, however eminent they might be in their own fields. Echoing Herbert Butterfield’s lament about scientific workers’ ‘whiggish’ and unhistorical understanding, American STS professionals asserted, in effect, that the interpretation of science was too important to society to be left to scientists. By the middle of the 1950s, this apologia had already been extended to the demand for greater recognition and funding of original research in the historical and social studies of science, and its publication in specialist journals.
Whatever the validity of these claims to deeper insights and knowledge, the consensus that emerged from STS courses and publications during the Fifties bore a striking resemblance to the Cold War ideology of science – indeed it strikingly reinforced it. As David Hollinger has eloquently observed, historians and sociologists of science both shared in and expressed: Americans’ mid-century faith in ‘the unique importance of secular inquiry to the making of a good society’; their belief that ‘natural science set the standard for secular inquiry’; and, ultimately, their hope that science would also prove to be ‘a vehicle for a certain cluster of liberal, democratic values they thought appropriate for American society as a whole’. Certainly the focus of STS historians – as in the ‘endless frontier’ mythology – was overwhelmingly on academic ‘pure’ science, especially as it was practiced in the US’s elite universities.
Within the sub-disciplines of STS there was a fairly clear division of labour which followed the contours of the dominant ‘externalist-internalist’ (E/I) discourse. Historians of science monopolized the internalist side of the equation, with their pedagogy and research firmly focused on science as an intellectual movement, a body of ideas, and a study of genius. The historical discipline’s initial strongholds were internalist Harvard – which nurtured the field primarily to service Conant’s vision of a General Education programme that prepared non-scientists for leadership roles in business and government in an increasingly scientific world — and externalist Cornell – where Henry Guerlac’s department provided service teaching for engineering and science students that emphasized the social context of their professions.
The sociology of science’s American founder, Robert Merton, had already made a series of pioneering contributions to his field. Originally influenced by Hessen and the British scientific left’s historical and political thought, Merton soon shifted rightwards to: 1) introduce the E/I distinction into STS discourse; 2) put forward his influential concept of the scientific ethos and its compatibility with liberal democracy; and 3) exclude from the sociology of science any claims to offering a sociology of scientific knowledge. While Merton’s ‘externalist’ construction of his discipline proved highly influential, he doubted that his field would ‘take off’ until science became a source of major social problems for US society. Of course, his Columbia colleague, C. Wright Mills, believed that this had already happened, but Merton was not about to be drawn into a damaging political skirmish. This kind of Cold War ruction had already destabilized the philosophy of science and destroyed what was left of the pre-war Unity of Science movement.
No, the politics of science (and STS) were best left in the safe hands of Harvard’s Don Price — a former senior science bureaucrat in the Truman administration — who established the new sub-discipline of science policy as a compact between scientists and government that preserved their autonomy. What united Price’s field with other STS disciplines was their shared E/I discourse and its underlying assumptions; namely, that science was a value-neutral and ideology-free intellectual pursuit that stood apart from the wider society which supported it. This was very much the era of ‘science andsociety’.
The first wave of American STS reached its apogee between 1962 and 1965 with the publication of major studies by, among others, Joseph Ben-David, Derek Price, Don Price, and Warren Hagstrom. However, without question, the outstanding work of this period was Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Kuhn offered a powerful synthesis of E/I thinking, on terms that privileged the internalists’ insistence on scientific knowledge’s insularity from wider societal influences. He brought together the externalist sociology of Merton with the writings of philosophers like Michael Polanyi and Stephen Toulmin to highlight the role of scientific ‘communities’ in maintaining the integrity of their disciplinary ‘paradigms’. As an outgrowth of his relationship with Conant and the Harvard General Education NatSci 4 course on the ‘Tactics and Strategy of Science’, Kuhn’s work provided a fitting philosophical justification for the ‘laissez-faire communitarianism’ and peer review systems at the heart of postwar US science policy. It is true that his emphasis on the routine and ordinariness of ‘normal science’ did reduce most scientists to the status of William H. Whyte’s highly socialized ‘organization men’ and ‘team players’ – conformists incapable of exercising the kind of critical responses which both Whyte and Karl Popper felt were essential to the practice of science. However, this was, tellingly, the dimension of Kuhn’s work which seemed to ring most true for many contemporary scientists. (Kuhn himself saw normal science as a still heroic and challenging activity.) What Kuhn could not publicly admit was that, after Hiroshima, science could no longer be practiced as the self-determining form of inquiry projected in Structure. Whether or not this was a ‘Platonic double-truth’ to justify scientists’ relative autonomy in receiving and disbursing public funding, Kuhn now offered the STS ‘community’ its own paradigm for a more coherent and ambitious programme of ‘normal’ E/I research – and not just in the US. Following a presentation of his model of scientific change to an Oxford conference in 1961, many British historians and social analysts of science would also embrace the Kuhnian revolution.
Not all Americans who found their way into the history of science in the 1950s and early 1960s completely accepted the prevailing scholarly consensus, or, more broadly, the celebratory ideologies of science and society. Everett Mendelsohn and Jerry Ravetz were both Marxist-influenced undergraduates who gravitated in the Fifties from biology and mathematics, respectively, to embark on their distinguished careers as activist-historians. Both men found much inspiration in – and equally much opposition to – their readings of Hessen and the historical writings of both the pre-war British scientific left and postwar Marxist historians like Lilley, Mason, and Dirk Struik. Mendelsohn eventually based himself at Harvard where he carved out a considerable reputation (but also a lonely position) as an inspiring teacher and professional advocate of the social history of science. Ravetz emigrated to the UK where he went on to establish the ‘Leeds School’ — including Ted McGuire, Piyo Rattansi, and Charles Webster – which pioneered a new social historiography of science. Jerry himself was highly critical of Kuhn’s work, whose ‘Platonic double-truth’ he proceeded to demolish in Scientific Knowledge and Its Social Problems. During the 1960s still more young American historians followed Ravetz to Britain. Two former medical students, Robert Young from Yale and Rochester and Roy MacLeod from Harvard, both made their way to Cambridge, where Young (and Rattansi) set up in 1968 the influential King’s seminars in science and history. Meanwhile, Gary Werskey from Harvard and Steven Shapin from Penn arrived to pursue their doctoral research into, respectively, the pre-war scientific left and the Royal Society of Edinburgh (where they eventually converged at the newly established Science Studies Unit). Together, these younger Yanks were now well and truly ‘over there’ and ready to make their scholarly mark on the British academic scene.
What was still not evident, even in 1968, was whether this mildly left-liberal assortment of transplanted American historians of science would be drawn into the new radical politics of this era. Whatever their cultural and political discontents with the US, they had grown to maturity in what was, certainly for younger intellectuals, one of the most stimulating and optimistic periods in American history. Apart from the ferment in and fecundity of STS scholarship in the late Fifties and early Sixties, this was also the era of Kennedy’s ‘Camelot’, in which the young King actively courted and encouraged elite liberal scholars to get involved in a new American cultural and political renaissance. However, the young President’s assassination prematurely pricked this romantic bubble of intellectual expectation, especially for younger scholars who increasingly experienced, in Hollinger’s words, ‘an honest frustration with the inability of the received wisdom to deal more effectively with deep injustices within American society and with outrageous iniquities in the conduct of the United States in the world.’ Of course, some of these iniquities — as we knew from Tom Lehrer’s songs and films like ‘Strangelove’ and ‘Fail-Safe’ — came straight out of the laboratory. Nevertheless, expectations of a worthwhile academic career in a still expanding university system (both in the US and the UK) were running high, as was the continuing excitement of deepening our own social imagination and historical comprehension of modern science. So, like Joseph Needham and his peers in the early 1930s, we were still trying to keep to our own work – before politics decisively broke into at least some of our lives.
In some respects, the ‘events’ of 1968 more closely resemble the revolutions of 1848 than the Popular Front politics of the 1930s. As in 1848, we are dealing with a world-wide revolt – spontaneous, unplanned, and disconnected – against a powerful counter-revolution (led by the US), in support of the liberating ideals of a failed revolution (the USSR – or even the New Deal). Both 1848 and 1968 were short-lived outbursts which achieved few immediate gains. With hindsight we now understand that the 1848 revolts did succeed in transforming European politics by inspiring the subsequent institutionalization of anti-capitalist and/or pro-nationalist movements dedicated to the eventual seizure of state power. A century later the dreams of 1848 appeared to be realized through social democratic reforms of advanced capitalist societies, the modernization programmes of Communist China and the Soviet Union, and the successful liberation of previously colonized nations. However, by 1968, the lustre of these accomplishments had considerably dulled in the eyes of many. Fuelled by mounting disappointments with all established regimes — whether capitalist or communist — ‘les événements’ swiftly accumulated into a global ‘cri de coeur against the evils of the world-system and a fundamental questioning of the strategy of the old left opposition to the world-system.’
The opposition of radical movements in 1968 to the very organizations that had been so prominent in the politics of the 1930s is one very evident generational difference between these two eras. While the pre-war period was dominated by a global economic depression and the rise of fascism, the radicals of ’68 (certainly in OECD countries) were living and prospering like no other generation in human history. The mixture of hopes and discontents that fed the old and new lefts was accordingly very different, as was the nature and scale of their support. In the Thirties more widely shared concerns about economic and international security led to fairly broadly-based mass movements focused on the achievement of state power. The grievances of the ’68ers – a much higher proportion of whom were younger, more middle class, and more highly educated dissidents – were more about grievances against the state and redress for the injustices suffered by marginalized status groups. Instead of relying on the mass parties of the old Left, the young radicals resorted to the more diffuse practices of mass demonstrations and community organizing. Self-consciously anti-authoritarian and anti-hierarchical in their style and attitudes, the movements and happenings of 1968 produced no obvious ‘leaders’; only Third World iconic heroes like Mao, Che, and Ho Chi Minh.
Ironically, the one country whose actions could unite those in otherwise disparate opposition all around the world also produced its own radical generation, whose politics and culture were widely emulated In Europe and elsewhere. Originating in the civil rights protests of the early 1960s, the US movement quickly coalesced around and helped to generate widespread opposition to the Vietnam War. Growth in radical politics – which ultimately embraced feminism, gay rights, and environmentalism — was paralleled by the rise of what seemed an equally oppositional ‘counter-culture’ based on a heady mixture – not just of sex, drugs, and rock & roll – but of alternative lifestyles and communities that rejected bourgeois lifestyles and consumerist values. While European oppositional movements often took on some of their American counterparts’ causes and trappings, they likewise adapted them to their very different cultural and political settings. Opposition to Vietnam helped to revive in Britain and elsewhere an anti-American nationalism that had remained latent for much of the Cold War. The more ideologically and intellectually diffuse brands of radical American thought were also sieved through the more familiar and stringent European oppositional traditions of socialism and Marxism. There was correspondingly far less influence from Europe on American radicals’ theories and practices.
Most importantly for our purpose, there was one final point of generational contrast: the differing role which science and the Soviet Union played in their respective politics. For the old left – not least the old scientific left – science and socialism had been indivisibly linked as the great hope of their generation’s future. The ‘frustration of science’ was to give way to an era of planned scientific and social progress, as exemplified in the Soviet Union. However, by the 1960s, Soviet-style scientific socialism did not seem to offer much hope even to those whom it directly ruled, let alone the affluent West. More critically, the greater incorporation of technical-scientific expertise and knowledge into the fabric of postwar capitalist production, military power, and culture rendered ‘science’ a far more politically ambiguous resource and symbol for the radicals of ’68. Of course, it was easy enough to condemn the use and abuse of scientific knowledge in the desecrations of Vietnam’s countryside and people, the ‘silent spring’ which corporate pesticides wreaked on the environment, and the socio-biological justifications for the subordination of blacks and women. But what if these were artefacts, not of abuse, but of values infused into the very core of science’s social relations, knowledge, and privileged position in postwar society? Certainly, for that odd mix of Frankfurt Marxists and counter-cultural gurus, the conviction was growing that – down at the lab – ‘scientific domination is our most important product’.
Radical science, radicalized STS
By now, it should come as no surprise that radical/left scientists in the US provided organizational models and campaigning inspiration for the British radical science movement. Beginning in the mid-Sixties, as part of the ever-widening campus unrest, damaging information of the breadth and extent of American academic scientists’ involvement in developing weapons of mass destruction began to come to light. With protests against the Vietnam War reaching their height, the Union of Concerned Scientists, Scientists and Engineers for Social and Political Action (SESPA), and more revolutionary group joined forces to stage a research strike at MIT in March 1969, which then spread to other universities. It was this focus on military applications of science which inspired similar exposures in the UK, beginning in 1967-68 with conferences protesting the British government’s support for CBW (chemical-biological warfare) research. However, unlike the US, Britain’s military R&D was largely conducted in government research centres, not universities, thereby reducing the visibility of this kind of work as a target for radical agitation.
Nevertheless, the organizers of these first forays into radical science were sufficiently encouraged to bring together an informal coalition of old left, liberal, and more radical scientists to form the British Society for Social Responsibility in Science (BSSRS). The Society’s inaugural meeting was held in April 1969 at the Royal Society, no less, and numbered among its honoured guests and supporters Bernal – by now totally incapacitated from multiple strokes – Levy, and Needham. Initially, BSSRS was intended to be a classically non-political platform from which a broad front of (often eminent) scientists could highlight their concerns about the use and abuse of science. Probably its greatest PR success came in 1970, when it staged a large and wide-ranging conference on the ‘Social Impact of Modern Biology’. But already there were signs of discomfort between the Society’s more establishment elements and its younger, more radical members – including a number of non-scientists (like Bob Young), who had been admitted to BSSRS (apparently as an act of scientific noblesse oblige). These tensions manifested themselves in arguments about not only how militant a stance to take on the use of, say, rubber bullets and CS gas in Northern Ireland but also how far BSSRS should concern itself with laboratory hierarchies – to which it devoted a pathbreaking conference on Self-Management in Science in 1972. A characteristic response to this impasse were resignations – two of BSSRS’s key founders, Hilary Rose and Steven Rose soon left, because the organization was insufficiently ‘socialist’ – while liberal elite scientists like Michael Swann and John Ziman, who found the organization too radical, departed to found the more congenial and exclusive Council for Science and Society. ‘Splitting’ of course was one of the more prevalent pastimes of the Seventies.
The early years of BSSRS highlighted a number of challenges which would preoccupy the radical science movement for the next decade. The generational split was resolved, simply because older scientists chose not to involve themselves in the Society. While not focussed on attracting large numbers of members, BSSRS nevertheless had over a thousand scientists and non-scientists in its ranks, almost all of whom were university-based staff or students. These included younger STS teachers and scholars, who of course were licensed to get science and engineering students thinking about both the social dimensions of their work and their professional responsibilities. The broader movement always seemed London-based, but there were local BSSRS chapters set up at, for example, Cambridge, Edinburgh, Leeds, and Manchester. So interest in radical science was not lacking in academia, but the question — for both the movement and its supporters — was how to channel and sustain it. A balance had to be struck at and between three levels of practice. First, within radical science itself, how much effort needed to go into the development of theoretical understanding of capitalist science and agitational struggles focused on specific scientific practices, and how could these be most fruitfully related? Second, how could the sum total of radical science activities coexist with and be linked to other forms of left politics, by now a highly fractured warren of political parties and sects, bisected by a huge number of issues-based campaigns, and overlaid with a myriad of Marxisms? Third, how and where did the sum total of these activities sit within the context of all our other life-commitments? More pointedly, could, should, and would our politics and lives prefigure the kind of socialist values we professed – and, if so, how and to what extent? It was sometimes easier to split than to sleep in the Seventies.
I can do little more in this paper than outline the extraordinary range of agitational and theoretical work that the radical science movement sponsored between the Sixties and the Eighties. One of its major campaigns was to expose in a series of increasingly sophisticated analyses the damaging effects of the technology of political oppression in Northern Ireland and other imperialist civil wars. On the industrial front, BSSRS’s Hazards group highlighted a whole range of dangerous occupational health and safety practices, as well as the employer-biased science which supported them. Probably the outstanding science-based trade union struggle of the 1970s was the effort of Lucas Aerospace workers – led by the charismatic Mike Cooley – to fight redundancies by offering their own corporate plan for abandoning the manufacture of weaponry in favour of socially useful products. Anti-racist critiques of the work of leading psychologists and biologists were applied to improving teaching practices in inner London schools. A Women in Science group was formed to bring feminist perspective to bear on scientific theories and professional practices, as well as the science and politics of abortion. Other radical initiatives started up around food safety and production, health, and even a Radical Statistics Group, which issued bulletins and handbooks to help workers, consumers, and community activists make sense of and challenge the ‘scientific’ justifications offered for whatever status quo they were attempting to change. The more counter-cultural alternative technology movement went on with its own mix of social ecology and technical inventiveness, as reported in the journal Undercurrents. BSSRS’s own magazine, Science for People, tried to keep up with and report on the efforts and achievements of the radical science movement as a whole.
The movement’s unofficial theoretical organ was the Radical Science Journal. Initially the inspiration of David Dickson, Jonathan Rosenhead, and Bob Young, RSJ formed around an editorial ‘collective’ in 1971, but only published its first issue in January 1974. In addition to covering at one point or another all the issues just mentioned, the journal published many articles on the social constitution and implications of big science and advanced technologies like nuclear power, information and communications technology, and biotechnology. It also encouraged accounts of practicing scientists about the view from below of how their labs were run and directed. ‘Science’ meant the social as well as the natural sciences, with a special emphasis on psychoanalysis, which eventually spawned its own journal, Free Associations. We also offered commentary on both our predecessors in the old scientific left and our own movement. This kind of political analysis, as well as our more general theoretical work, often arose in reaction to the published work of Hilary Rose and Steven Rose, who increasingly operated on the movement’s fringes. Since the 1980s, RSJ has morphed into the still radical but less theoretically engaged Science as Culture.
As a member of this collective for over ten years, let me say something briefly about RSJ’s ‘mode of conception’ and our labour process. Producing a serious intellectual journal on a regular basis in the way we did was sometimes frustrating, often inspiring, and always arduous. We were a group of fairly demanding intellectuals, diverse in our backgrounds, expertise, and political views, and with a healthy level of ego. The collective had to find a way not only of working together but also, and even more daunting, of educating ourselves to a greater breadth and depth of theoretical understanding, not least about both classical and contemporary Marxist texts. This required, in addition to regular editorial meetings, our participation in a series of stimulating but highly demanding reading groups running over several years. Our editorial process was no less recondite. Submitted essays had to run the gauntlet of several external referees, as well as the scrutiny of never less than four members of the collective. Collectively written and scrutinized theoretical articles taxed our wits and good will even more. On the production side, we worked closely with another socialist collective dedicated to typesetting and printing left publications. Les Levidow and Bob Young – who quickly became and remained the journal’s stalwarts – also put in a vast number of hours setting up and running with other left magazines a radical distribution co-op, to get RSJ to its readers. Eventually, this involvement with the materialist aspects of intellectual production led Bob and Les to establish their own publishing house, Free Association Books. While the journal and individual members of the collective actively worked to maintain our contact with the movement’s agitational struggles, we also sought to extend our intellectual understanding and connections through close involvement with like-minded radical ventures like the Conference of Socialist Economists. Given this mighty effort, what then did we contribute to a Marxist understanding of the historical and social relations of capitalist science?
Bob Young – Radical Science’s ‘Bernal’
Radical science’s most important theoretical contributions derived from Bob Young and the work he inspired through the RSJ collective. He was in fact, in some respects, our movement’s ‘Bernal’.
This may seem an odd juxtaposition, but the many parallels in their lives are striking. The Irish Bernal and American Young both viewed British and, more specifically, English society as outsiders. Their families operated at the fringe of the landed gentry – Bob in fact grew up in genteel poverty in the wealthy suburb featured in the TV series ‘Dallas’. Each was the strong object of his doting mother’s affections. Religion was a strong feature of their childhoods, while science/medicine offered them a way out of their provincial backgrounds. Attendance at elite universities – Bob went to Yale on a swimming scholarship – allowed them to shed their religious faith in favour of more progressive philosophical and political outlooks. Both men were strongly drawn to the ideas of Freud and the attractions of psychoanalysis – to the point, in Young’s case, of wanting to become a psychotherapist (and eventually doing just that). Perhaps not coincidentally, Bernal and Young attracted and loved a number of attractive, lovely, and gifted women with whom they set up a succession of households and had children over a thirty-year period. Each man made his academic mark at Cambridge, and both were expected to become leaders in their fields. Neither Bernal nor Young anticipated or led the way in their radicalization; they were, however, already primed to shift rapidly with their times. For a mixture of professional and political reasons, both decamped to London at the high point of radical political activities, where they also found themselves operating either at or (in Young’s case) beyond the bounds of academic respectability. From that point they both exerted influence on their respective movements through their example and charisma, as well as their theoretical work. Of course, there were importance differences of time, place, profession, culture – music was Young’s medium; Bernal was tone-deaf – and, of course, politics. Nonetheless Young was to demonstrate, like Bernal, the kind of courage and sacrifice which marked them both out as leading figures in their movements – and which would, in less congenial times, lead to their political and intellectual marginalization. One final similarity: later setbacks would not stop them from continuing their work and pushing forward in new directions.
Since his arrival in Britain in 1960 Young’s career has moved through three iterations. In his first incarnation, he became a highly regarded Cambridge historian of science and Fellow of King’s College. Bob’s ‘meticulous scholarship’ – one of his favourite accolades for others’ work – was well displayed in his pioneering work on both nineteenth-century psychology and the intellectual context of Darwin’s evolutionary theory and its many philosophical and political offshoots. Young was also an academic entrepreneur, as marked by his success in establishing not only the King’s seminars mentioned earlier but the Cambridge Wellcome Unit for the History of Medicine. Through these activities he was able to attract and inspire a whole generation of historians of science – one of his most lasting influences on the field. Finally, in the earliest phase of his own radicalization, he set out to act as a catalyst — or even evangelist – as he attempted to wake up his peers to the political implications of their work and the promising new perspectives that were just opening up to them. Then, disenchanted with local academic politics and seized with the urgency of devoting himself more fully to political struggles, Young abandoned Cambridge and academic life in 1975 to become a full-time independent scholar-activist. In doing so, he risked his finances, career, and growing reputation as something of a rising media star, as well as a scholar. For the next decade most of his waking life revolved around RSJ and the activities associated with it. With the political hopes of the Seventies utterly exhausted, Young progressively withdrew from the radical science movement, retrained as a psychotherapist, and then emerged in the Nineties as a Professor of Psychotherapy and Psychiatric Studies at the University of Sheffield and, inevitably, a leading dissident commentator on his new field.
Before examining Young’s Marxist perspectives on capitalist science, I want to consider briefly the phases, sources, and style of his social thought. Between the 1960s and 1980s, he passed through three fairly distinct stages in the evolution of his thinking. The first (roughly 1969-1973) was an ‘exploratory’ period, in which Young laced the final phases of his Darwin researches with increasingly searching and wide-ranging commentaries about the potential of Marxist theory to enlarge or even possibly explode the paradigms of his fellow historians. The second phase was a decidedly more ‘libertarian’ break from his liberal past — extending roughly between 1973 and 1977 – in which he emphasized the need for radical scientists and STS scholars to adopt more prefigurative approaches to all aspects of our lives, not just our politics. Between 1978 and the early Eighties, Young and the rest of the RSJ collective adopted and adapted a ‘labour process’ perspective to ground and deepen radical science’s theory and practice. Throughout these periods, the sources of Bob’s thinking were well and truly on display in his copious footnotes and detailed bibliographies. They ranged from the classical texts and dissident voices of Marxism (and the RSJ collective) to a wide range of historical scholarship and social theory, especially related to psychology. He was a voracious reader and intellectual omnivore, getting through more books and data than anyone I have ever known. Given the richness of these inputs, his theoretical output could not be easily dismissed. As a thinker and writer on often highly abstruse subjects, Young had the gift of being clear and entertaining enough to keep you hard at work trying to follow him. He could, by turns, also be disarming or – to some – intrusive in his personal revelations of weakness or confusion, or confronting when enjoining his readers to ‘move on’ with him. However, the deeper hallmark of his style was that of a perpetual dialogue between, himself, his material, and his audience about how we might make more sense of the world/ourselves, in order to change the world/ourselves for the better. Young’s texts are nearly always presented as unfinished, open-ended, and – while not inconclusive – never at rest. For those looking for definitive answers and certain foundations, his approach was bound to frustrate. But he could not be more encouraging of the need for others to criticize and join him in thinking important subjects through to better conclusions, however interim.
Despite all these caveats, it is still possible to generalize about what Young – in his own right and as part of the RSJ collective — criticized and abandoned, and what he subsequently advocated and embraced in his social theory of capitalist science, technology, and medicine (STM). His greatest concerns related to the retooling of capital through its restructuring of STM, and the corresponding ideology of scientific expertise used to nullify democratic opposition to these changes. Certainly by 1981 it was evident within RSJ that microelectronics and communication technologies, biotechnology, and reproductive and reparative medicine were being developed to transform social relations and redraw boundaries in all areas of life. The aim of such technologically-aided reconstruction was partly to increase surveillance, pacing, deskilling, real subordination, and redundancies in the workplace. Both government- and commercially-funded academic research was also being more strictly controlled and redirected to work on the science underpinning these new technologies. Among the conclusions which the RSJ collective drew from these restructurings were the following:
If ‘science was ever “relatively autonomous”, it is getting dramatically less so. There are fewer links in the chain of mediations, or – to put it another way – capital sets narrower and narrower limits to the areas of relative academic freedom.’ What foxed the scientific community ten years ago [in 1971] – the customer-contractor principle – is now readily accepted.
The site of class struggle must move on to contest capital’s ability to build its own rules of the game into new technologies, especially microelectronics.
The novelty of this phase is the extent of capital’s penetration into science and technology – and the potential of these new forces to strengthen capitalist domination.
In attempting to understand and combat these developments, what Young and his colleagues did not find helpful were the use/abuse model, the externalist/internalist discourse, the science/ideology distinction, or endless epistemological battles about the ‘truthfulness’ or ‘objectivity’ of scientific knowledge. On the one hand, Young argued, this means that ‘a number of distinctions on which the false self-consciousness of science depends are seen as permeable and interactive, for example, the distinction between: fact and value; substance and context; science and society; [and] the context of origination and the context of justification.’ Why? Because, to simplify, ‘all facts are theory-laden’, all theories are value-laden, and all values are derived from world-views or ideologies which permeate and constitute what count as facts, theories, priorities and acceptable scientific discoveries. On the other, it was never Young’s position that either the inadequacy of the bourgeois ideology of a value-neutral science or the need to see STM as constituted by capitalist values and social relations implied a ‘relativist’ epistemology. ‘We never doubted that the findings and theories of science were true and efficacious’, was the RSJ collective’s disarmingly straightforward position. What Young and Co. sought instead was to treat ‘the substance of knowledge, its social relations and the social relations it mediates … as part of a single account.’
The basis and starting point of this account was Young’s/RSJ’s framework, whose main components were: 1) the classical Marxist view of capitalism’s historical development; 2) augmented by a neo-Marxist theory of mediations within and between different sets of social relations, including our relationship to nature; 3) an extension of Marx’s labour process perspective to unpack the practices of all forms of STM and the values they embody; 4) the injunction to live a connected life that prefigured and hastened the creation of a socialist society; and 5) an agenda, derived from this framework, that could guide critical theoretical and practical work for the next decade. It is only possible here to observe briefly what each of these components meant for Young and RSJ.
‘The defining feature of Marxist approaches to the history of science’, Young argued in 1990, ‘is that the history of scientific ideas, of research priorities, of concepts of nature and of the parameters of discoveries are all rooted in historical forces which are, in the last instance, socio-economic.’ This view of history is rooted in Marx’s ontology ‘in which persons … and labour … are the most basic concepts, along with class, mode of production, and the historicity of concepts themselves. Its most basic definition of reality, that is, focuses on human endeavour. Labour is neither nature nor history, but their matrix.’ From this ontology, it follows that:
History is the motor of technology.
Technology is the embodiment of values in artefacts.
Nature is an historical category.
Natural science is also an historical category, a human relation, as is objectivity.
This framework, Young continues, ‘does not set up a dichotomy between science and technology, between pure and applied, between academic and industrial. It treats them as merely differing degrees of mediation, of how societies prioritise and carry out their purposes in R&D. It’s always been true that these are very closely linked.’ STM progresses not through ‘discoveries’ of what is there in nature but through ‘creations’ of and ‘inventions’ for human labour, whose origination, prioritisation, and application are conditioned by and mediate the prevailing social relations and forces – the dominant values — of their times. ‘The sciences of matter, mind, life, animal behaviour and society’ can therefore be seen as ‘moments in the naturalisation of value-systems.’
The Marxist concept of the labour process – reintroduced into Anglo-American Marxism by the work of Harry Braverman — then allowed Young and his colleagues to ‘talk more systematically about the structuring of social relations, in and out of scientific practice.’ For a start the practices of STM can be viewed as value-laden labour processes.
Like other labour processes, scientific practices are constituted by (1) raw materials, (2) means of production, (3) purposive activity, all organised in the creation of some use value…. The raw materials can be chemicals or information or blood; the means can be ultracentrifuges or computers or kidney machines; the purposive activity can be analysing sequences of amino acids or calculating airframe stresses or directing the bodily circulation through external filtration; and the use values can be establishing the structure of insulin, or producing a minimum cost airframe or keeping someone alive. The use values are embodied, respectively, in a molecular model and a scientific paper, a ‘computer-aided’ design, and a flow of purified blood. In cases such as these, the labour process approach accepts that values are internal to the practice and intrinsic to its organisation and products.
Once STM’s labour processes have been uncovered and understood, they can then be connected more easily to the social relations in which they are embedded and which they serve.
We think this is the most intellectually rigorous of all the available ways of interpreting science within history and has the broadest agitational potential. [Labour process analyses demand] a detailed concrete examination of the relations of production in capitalist society. The centrality that sciences occupy in the forces of production of monopoly capitalism needs to be accounted for…. Why are forms of mental labour so central in current capitalism? …. When pursued seriously, the question leads … to the conclusion that conceptual production as a dominant mode implies new relations of production within the general forms of capitalism.
At the same time, the labour process perspective can be applied to the production of STM’s concepts and theories.
What we think is now possible, within a general framework of labour process theory, is a thoroughgoing historical and materialist approach to the production of theoretical concepts – corresponding, at a general level, to the Marxist analysis of ‘production in general’…. The production of knowledge is paralleled in, and proceeds through, a process of producing physical phenomena. …. Through this apparatus, conceptual objects are transformed into conceptual products…. What needs to be understood is how this production is materially constituted by the location of a practice in the division of labour, by physical means of production, by wage-labour, by commodity-secrecy (patents, confidentiality), by the book as commodity. …. Practices are the foundation of a Marxist analytical route around the pitfall of epistemology.
The existential implications of Young’s brand of libertarian Marxism were first spelled out in ‘Science Is Social Relations’, possibly his most outrageous piece of writing. He began with this call to arms:
It is time to move on both in theory and in practice. … It is time that our theories and our lives expressed struggle towards socialism and prefigured that social order in the process. We have had (or at least proclaimed) our counter-culture and our alternative technology. We now need to embark on the construction of a counter-reality and an alternative cosmology. Only socialist theory based on attempts to move toward socialist lives as a way to a socialist society, can produce socialist science.
In case anyone was in doubt about what these demands implied, Bob concluded:
Until what we read, organised, etc., is referred back into the most intimate aspects of life, until we move with that mixture of fear and exhilaration which marks real change, we’re just posturing and farting. It becomes essential to take binding steps which cut off one’s line of retreat…. In the end we have to fix it so they wouldn’t have us back even if we wanted to come.
For anyone up to this challenge, there was little danger of stepping back into a conventional lifestyle and career. With hindsight, it is clear that the art and sustainable practice of prefigurative politics depended not only on flexibility and judgment about when to back off from unbearable pressures arising from the fissures in one’s life but on clarity about what aspects of which life-commitments were ripe for restructuring and what needed to be left alone. On the latter score at least, the labour process perspective could well have been a useful analytical framework for developing the strategy and tactics of evolving a more socialist life and praxis — had the radical science movement not been overwhelmed by other events in the early Eighties. However, what was never negotiable for Young and all who served with him on the RSJ collective was that our intellectual work was overtly driven by partisanship and ideology, with the intent of advancing socialism, not our careers. Of course, we ended up doing neither. But equally, I think, there was some justifiable pride that our output was no less intellectually rigorous (or more ideological) than conventional scholars. In accepting the inseparability of our ‘science’ and out politics/ideology, we were happy for the truth and usefulness of our contributions to be judged on the cogency of our reasoning, the meticulousness of our scholarship, and the historical, social, and political insights which could be derived from our theory-driven work.
Arising out of this increasingly self-confident theoretical perspective, Young had reason to feel excited about both the intellectual and agitational uses to which it could be put. A clear research methodology had emerged which emphasized the need to ‘root explanations in labour and the labour process, treat concepts historically, investigate connections and articulations as fully as possible and constantly bear in mind that the arrow of causality moves from being to consciousness.’ Apart from the ongoing need to refine theoretical concepts, especially the need to develop subtler understandings of social and intellectual mediations, Young hoped in 1977 to see more effort put into:
Further detailed research in the history of science that laid bear science as social relations, from the seventeenth century onwards;
Reconceptualizing the history of technology as a history of choices and social practices, not just a history of gears and mules and jennys.
Re-sieving the best of conventional STS and other scholarship for theoretical insights and agitational use; and
Closer scrutiny of all radical critiques, not least RSJ’s – lest, like Braverman’s work, they ossify into new scientistic orthodoxies.
Once again, the later labour process perspective would have added other topics to this list, including a more careful examination of science’s cultural use-values. It also promised to offer insight into how the radical science movement could get ahead in the agitational game, not just through struggles against the application of socially destructive and controlling technologies, but by challenging these innovations at their point of origination.
Obviously, the new scientific left’s agitational and theoretical work – of which RSJ formed only a small part — needs to be understood and evaluated in its historical context. While some of the movement’s ideas and projects – stripped of their theoretical moorings and political critique — have since moved into the mainstream of STS and science policymakers, they were rarely seen on scholarly and political agendas twenty-five years ago. It is also important to acknowledge that the RSJ programme was only a prolegomena to a more adequately theorized and rigorously applied framework for theoretical and agitational work, which never materialized. So what most needs understanding is why this movement came so precipitately to such a crushing halt in the 1980s.
The radical science movement – like the rest of the Left in Britain – was thrown into total disarray by a global tsunami of momentous geo-political, economic, and cultural changes, as harshly refracted through the political prism of Thatcherism in the 1980s. These shifts in the capitalist world-economy both powerfully shaped and were, in equal measure, powered by technical-scientific expertise and innovations. The impact of this restructuring on academic science and STS proved to be a mixed blessing, even giving rise in the US to the ‘science wars’, in which some British historians and sociologists of science featured prominently. It was more than a little ironic that the seismic changes in capitalist science anticipated by the RSJ collective would now assist in its dissolution.
The contrast between the golden age’s relative stability prior to 1968 and its increasing instability since that time – despite the US’s continuing international hegemony — is truly remarkable. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 has led to far greater political uncertainty and increasing nationalist struggles in many parts of the world. China’s transformation into a ‘socialist market economy’ has accelerated global economic integration, shifted the locus of power toward Asia, and ended the era of ‘actually existing socialism’. International capital, led by US transnational firms, has restructured the international division of labour, production and, distribution, along with the labour processes underpinning them. Banking and finance systems, both private and public, have also globalized, assisting in the further integration of the world economy. The rules of globalization – representing both the resurgence of neo-liberalism in the US and the UK and the needs of capitalism’s most powerful sectors – have freed up capital flows, but at the expense of both national sovereignty and, of equal concern, economic stability. The increasingly rapid global transformation of material production, widening class and regional inequalities, and greater uncertainty about the future have also served to destabilize many established forms of social reproduction once thought essential to the maintenance of order and legitimacy in capitalist societies. These included the family, established religions, and even a belief in science and progress. The latter ‘postmodernist’ tendency represented, for Eric Hobsbawm,
a crisis of … the rationalist and humanist assumptions, shared by liberal capitalism and communism, and which made possible their brief but decisive alliance against fascism, which rejected them. … Paradoxically, an era whose only claim to have benefited humanity rested on the enormous triumphs of a material progress based on science and technology ended in a rejection of these by substantial bodies of public opinion and people claiming to be thinkers in the West.
It would seem that – as Marx and Engels had predicted in the ‘Communist Manifesto’ – global capitalism was now playing with even greater intensity its revolutionary role in dissolving all fixed convictions and values, even those which it had once so passionately embraced and possibly still required.
One cluster of beliefs now under threat was the Cold War ideology of science’s value-neutrality and social autonomy. However, this apparent crisis of confidence in science, far from being a ruling class conspiracy, was clearly an unintended consequence – or ‘contradiction’ – arising from the far more thoroughgoing subordination of STM to the production of exchange-value, its greater presence as an unmediated ‘productive force’, and its consequent and increasingly overt politicization. This questioning of scientific authority – whether in the form of creationist challenges to the teaching of evolution or environmentalists’ and farmers’ fears of GM food production – rightly troubled many of STM’s leaders, who often saw these protests as examples of the public’s lack of respect for and understanding of what ‘good’ science was. Some may have even hoped that, in the campaign to re-educate citizens about the values and benefits of scientific knowledge and research, they could count on the support and expert advice of STS scholars. However, what scientists found instead was that, certainly among European sociologists and some historians of science, there was a large body of respected work that cast considerable doubt on the validity of Kuhn’s and their view of science as a socially autonomous form of inquiry. The conviction grew in some that, far from being allies in the fight against ‘higher superstition’, STS ‘social constructionists’ had joined hands with an academic left made up of feminist scholars and postmodernist English professors in an unholy conspiracy to undermine the legitimacy and authority of science. What most interests me about the resulting ‘science wars’ is how this debate diverted so much attention away from the deeper causes of contemporary STM’s tarnished image and weakened authority. Instead of blaming the public’s ignorance or STS experts’ learned ‘distortions’ of science, aggrieved scientists might have done better to consider how much more thoroughly enmeshed in capitalist social relations their science and profession had become both during and after the ‘golden age’ – and therefore why critical non-scientists had become that much more sceptical about STM’s political and value-neutrality. Kuhn’s Platonic double-truth could no longer be sustained in the face of science’s increasingly aggressive and brash social reconstruction.
Of course, in the 1980s, no one could have been brasher or more aggressive in her assertions of the need for a thorough shake-up of most social institutions, including STM, than Britain’s Margaret Thatcher. In Lord Annan’s mournful view, she rejected ‘Our [Age’s] vision of life’. Although doubts had begun growing — even in the Wilson years — about Whitehall’s post-war consensus on a science-led economic and cultural renaissance, Thatcher broke decisively with this tradition.
[She] was deeply sceptical of ‘social engineering’ and of the professions, including medicine. Her denationalisation of industry – a mixture of privatisation and liberalisation — went along with a further denationalisation of research. Her advisors were hostile to the planning of science, yet paradoxically the Thatcher years saw a radical centralisation of control over the universities, and a strengthening of central control of state-funded research. The aim was to cut expenditure and to change culture, and in this she succeeded. The old certainties of public service and state-led development gave way to a cult of entrepreneurs, managers and management-consultants, which has continued to the present in the public sector as well as the private. State funding for University research remained vital, and the popularity of the NHS protected it from major moves towards private insurance, but cumbersome external assessment mechanisms were imposed on universities and ‘internal markets’ introduced to the NHS.
Since Thatcher, these trends have been accelerated rather than reversed in Britain where, ‘more than in most of Europe, privatisation, marketisation, liberalisation, internationalisation, and globalisation have substantially modified the structures and processes of science, technology and medicine’. The effects of scientific reconstruction were nowhere more in evidence than at Bernal’s and Young’s old university. Cambridge is now, enthused the Financial Times in 2000, filled with ‘science parks’ and engrossed in business negotiations with global entrepreneurs: ‘“Cambridge’s spires dream not of academe but of profit”.’
If the object of STS – technical-scientific activities in all their manifestations – was so transformed and politicized, what became of STS itself in these turbulent times? A profound lack of knowledge makes me extremely hesitant to offer any opinions, second-hand or otherwise, especially about the scholarship of my former peers. I know that my former colleagues at Edinburgh (Barry Barnes, David Bloor, John Law, Steven Shapin, and Brian Wynne) and Bath (Harry Collins and Trevor Pinch) have become major figures in their sub-disciplines, as have my former students David Edgerton and Donald MacKenzie. A common criticism of much of the historical and especially the sociological output of the field – variously voiced by Steve Fuller, Robert Proctor, Simon Schaffer, and Bob Young – is that, while rich in detail and illuminating of how science and technology are actually produced in different times and cultures, STS scholars have generally excluded political analysis or commentary from their work. Proctor acknowledges that the work of Barnes, Shapin, et al. has led to a wider recognition that ‘science serves interests, that science is rarely neutral insofar as it touches the vital affairs of humanity … but participates in their fulfillment or frustration.’ On the other hand, he argues that such ‘realism’ or ‘naturalism’ does not go nearly far enough.
In the face of unprecedented environmental destruction and the militarization of science, the relations of science and society are not epistemological or historical niceties but pivotal issues in the well-being of humans on the planet. The point, in other words, is not to chronicle our madness but to escape it. Neutral sociological “realism” in this case may blind itself to a deeper issue – that science is at least part of the problem, and that alternatives must be sought in the theory and practice of science itself.
Shapin himself has acknowledged that he and his generation, in their desire to transcend the ideological nature of the 1950s’ E/I dialogue – and, I believe, avoid getting caught up in the turmoil of 1968 and all that as well – did opt for a politically ‘purified’ disciplinary discourse. However, as he also noted in 1993, the price of purity could be not only academic irrelevance but also an inability to interact with other actors who still take the E/I view of science seriously. Written on the brink of the ‘science wars’, Shapin’s commentary was positively prophetic. Nevertheless, the shapers of the current ‘wave’ of science studies are confident that another is on its way, and have already positioned themselves to catch it.
STS scholarship in Britain may have successfully survived Thatcherism; the same could not be said of the British left, and not just in Britain. ‘After the 1980s the defeat of the traditional left, both political and intellectual, was undeniable’, writes Hobsbawm. It was a failure of the entire socialist spectrum, as well as the movements which congregated around it – a resoundingly negative verdict on our strategies and tactics, but also – at least in the short run — some of our deepest assumptions as to why we had thought that history was on our side. Radical science could be no exception to this debacle. As Bob Young confessed as early as 1985, ‘The … promise of a reflective and critically self-conscious radical science movement that was apparent in the British Society for Social Responsibility in Science conference on the Social Impact of Modern Biology in 1970 has not been fulfilled.’ There were many reasons why we failed. Along with most of our comrades on the left, we had lost touch with a wider social base, and so failed to understand just how widespread the disenchantment with the Labour Party and trade union movement (though not the welfare state) was, and what implications this had for the kind of strategies and struggles in which we engaged from the mid-Seventies onwards. Within the radical science movement, we were unable to connect its agitational and organizational wings consistently and effectively. Unfortunately, knowing that the social division of labour deprived us of access to the totality was not enough to overcome it. Perhaps more of us needed to put greater effort into making BSSRS a better clearing house and meeting ground for the movement. On the other hand, however much self-criticism we might generate, the truth is that we were overwhelmed by how quickly and sharply the historical ground had shifted against us.
The demise of radical science also buried our agitational and intellectual legacy. Despite what came afterwards, a number of the movement’s campaigns did raise awareness and led to worthwhile, if sometimes short-lived gains. Though nearly forgotten, they embodied a wealth of information, organizational nous, and insight into the labour processes of running effective scientific and community struggles. Possibly even more hidden from history is radical science’s theoretical output and tradition. In preparing this paper I have been struck by the almost total absence of references to RSJ articles in either contemporary or more recent STS literature. In the case of members of the editorial collective who were already established scholars (like Bob Young and myself), an informal rule seemed to operate that limited citations to our pre- or non-RSJ publications. Our choice to operate outside scholarly conventions was one factor inhibiting other STS specialists from using our material (if they read it at all). Another was simply that a discourse that affirmed the inseparability of science and politics could never be accommodated to a paradigm that denied this nexus. If anyone thought our frameworks or analysis were rubbish, they certainly did not feel the need to say so in print. As you might expect, I think this was a loss to the field; a point to which I shall return shortly.
In the meantime, the personal consequences of our collective defeat were a predictable working out of our grief. As Bob Young observed even in 1980:
I don’t know a single Marxist intellectual who is not in distress. All are suffering acutely their lived contradictions among and within their commitments – to job, relationships, political groups, self-education, child care, writing, international solidarity, need for privacy. This is occurring in a period when Thatcherism and a worsening world recession are pressing harder and harder on socialist struggles. How are we to manage – much less make headway – “in and against the state”?’
Eventually, we all picked ourselves up and went on to fashion new lives and careers – many of them far removed from the academic roles for which we had prepared ourselves. I suppose we are all now ‘over it’. Still, as people who, like Marlon Brando in ‘On the Waterfront’, could have been ‘contenders’ for some of the glittering prizes, there would always be some regret of lost opportunities and recognition. Bob Young once wryly wondered ‘if the world is full of middle-aged people still waiting for their peers to take in the full range, depth, subtlety, and profundity of their work.’ At least in Bob’s case – and those of my former comrades in the radical science movement – I hope my paper will encourage others to reconsider his and our legacy. But we are not done with radical science yet.
THIRD MOVEMENT: PLAY IT AGAIN, SAM? Rondo: tema con variazione
Following its precipitate demise in the UK and elsewhere a quarter of a century ago, how likely is it that a third scientific left will emerge anywhere, any time soon? If it does, who or what will be the ‘Sam’ who insists we must remember the leading themes of earlier Marxist critiques? I have styled this section of the paper as a ‘Rondo’, variations on a recurring theme about these possibilities. There is actually a little known contemporary work – George Tsontakis’s fittingly entitled ‘Ghost Variations’ of 1991 – that captures my sceptical and speculative mood perfectly. Let me first sketch what historical lessons we might draw from our tale of two movements about politics and STS. With those themes playing in the background, I want us to consider whether contemporary stirrings in politics and scholarship might presage a renewed political critique – Marxist or otherwise — of capitalist technoscience. Finally, I shall speculate about the conditions in which – following our earlier tragic and tragi-comic episodes – a third movement might strike it lucky, and assist in the creation of a more just and stable global society, underpinned by a more socially conscious STM and a more coherent and critical discourse within STS.
Historical lessons (1): politics
The political lessons of our swift excursion through the ‘short twentieth century’ are, I think, of interest to both the politically and historically-minded.
We note, first, that actions taken in one century – like the revolutions of 1848 – may require a hundred years to come to something like their intended fruition. Even these long-sought victories are far from irreversible, unless they are continuously defended and extended. Equally, we cannot write off yet the political aspirations of 1968, which are still reverberating.
It is also obvious that a global perspective is increasingly required to understand the origins and fates even of largely local political struggles, which can also in turn have a world-wide influence. For example, neither the first nor second scientific lefts in Britain would have occurred – certainly not in the form they took – without the influence of bothprewar Soviet communism and postwar American capitalism.
Another striking feature of the previous century – its profound instability, nervousness, and uncertainty (with the partial exception of the ‘long boom’) – was likewise reflected in the sudden rises and collapses of both the pre-war scientific left and post-’68 radical science. The latter, in fact, was even deprived of having the equivalent of a ‘good war’ in which to prove the value of its outlook. Moreover, the morale and goal-posts of these oppositional movements kept shifting, partly because of the impact of earlier gains (and subsequent disappointments), but mainly because of much more significant and abrupt shifts in the wider political scene. After 1945, it took only two years for erstwhile allies to become bitter cold war enemies. Not much more time elapsed between the celebration in the UK of a postwar consensus about the welfare state and its replacement – rhetorically at least — by Margaret Thatcher’s beloved Victorian values, buttressed by neo-liberal ‘Reagonomics’ and enforced through new regimes of globalization.
An important theme was the role of hope in catalysing and sustaining the two movements. They relied on not only clear and powerful aspirations for better lives and societies but also a strong belief that these could be realized through the left’s canniness, struggles, and good fortune. Of course, given the first movement’s identification with Stalinism, it became more obvious that greater care and foresight would be required about where these hopes were invested. If, however, you came to share Yehudi Menuhin’s view that the twentieth century ‘raised the greatest hopes ever conceived by humanity, [but] destroyed all illusions and ideals,’ then a belief in the very possibility of social progress is now at risk. Certainly, it is no coincidence that the left, which so strongly embodied this ‘modernist’ faith, collapsed in the 1980s and has still to recover anything like its former influence. Perhaps two corollaries of this momentary abandonment of changing society through mass struggle have been the rise – by default – of, on the one hand, movements and political parties focused on saving the environment and, on the other, the global cult of ‘leadership’ – in which hopes of producing ‘transformational change’ in government, business, and ‘the community’ come to rest entirely on the broad shoulders of exceptional individuals (often in white hats, with or without horses).
The exhaustion of the Anglo-European-Communist left — and the hopes of progressive social change which sustained it — also coincided with and were closely related to the greater incorporation of technoscientific activities into capitalism, not just as a material force but as a significant component of the dominant culture. This was a momentous ‘tipping point’ for socialism as well as for science. Previously, socialist and other secular movements had identified science as an ally and fellow ‘agent of cosmopolitan liberation’. Indeed this identification was the very basis of Bernalism and the hopes of the pre-war scientific left. However, after postwar American and British capitalism had erected their own anti-communist ideologies of scientism — backed by substantial public and private investments in academic research and industrial R&D – science became, for the first time in the left’s long history, a problematic cultural resource rather than a political rallying cry. Indeed, following Gramsci, it was now evident to the second radical science movement that the advent of socialism would require not only the right material conditions (as Marx had stressed) but the undermining of capitalism’s new scientific hegemony as well.
The two scientific lefts also served to illustrate some perennial challenges of anti-capitalist social movements. Each had to make strategic choices which exposed it to the perils of either being co-opted or marginalized. Both required organizational nous to unite theoretical and agitational work and connect their activities to wider political struggles. (The pre-war scientific left was notably more successful in these regards, largely because of the far greater cohesiveness of socialist politics in that era.) The capacity to connect with and listen to a wide range of audiences and opinions was also essential. Neither movement proved to be especially effective in sustaining their connections with like-minded comrades overseas, broader currents of opinion in the UK, or those with dissident or minority views – e.g., Hogben, Orwell, and Needham, or Jerry Ravetz, for that matter. Effective contacts with and use of the mass media have also grown in importance over the decades; and, once again, the pre-war left did rather better than its successor, especially through the efforts of Haldane and Hogben to offer the wider public clear and engaging prose and viewpoints about politics and science. On the other hand, the post-68 movement – especially the RSJ collective – did foster much greater openness to criticism and self-criticism and took more seriously than their prewar counterparts the need to walk the talk of their socialism.
On a broader political note, I would not have written this paper in the way that I have, if I did not still believe in the continuing value of historical studies that are as sceptical and critical as they are wide-ranging. Certainly this would be the view of my two main travelling companions on this particular journey, Eric Hobsbawm and Bob Young. In a world inundated by ‘Orwellian words and images … designed to deceive, conceal and delude, including those who produce it’, the need for all citizens to be able just to decode the news media critically and historically – and the corporate and government press releases which they gloss – has never been greater. Unfortunately, the kind of historical imagination we require is currently endangered, not so much by intellectual hacks proclaiming ‘the end of history’ but by a kind of media-induced historical amnesia. At the last century’s end, Hobsbawm could declare that:
it has for the first time become possible to see what a world may be like in which the past, including the past in the present, has lost its role, in which the old maps and charts which guided human beings, singly and collectively, through life no longer represent the landscape through which we move, the sea on which we sail. In which we do not know where our journey is taking us, or even ought to take us.
I already see this mentality in my wonderful children, and wonder how they will be able to offer any kind of historical guidance to help our equally precious grandchildren make sense of who they are and where our global society is headed. Of course, histories per se do not make us wise, unless they strive to reveal the deeper economic, political, and cultural forces that are driving the world on its merry way, while daring to offer sceptical and open-minded critiques of the values that underlie their society’s achievements and disgraces. As my own efforts show, these are high ideals which historians can, at best, only approximate.
Historical lessons (2): STS
The history of the two British scientific lefts – both of which affirmed the political significance of historical and social studies of science – inevitably intersected the history of STS, but often in unacknowledged and unsatisfactory ways. But the impact of developments in postwar capitalism, technoscience, and culture on Britain’s and the US’s professional analysts of science has been even more profound.
Let us start by now acknowledging that Marxism is a principal root of all of STS’s sub-disciplines. Karl Marx has some claims to being the intellectual godfather of the entire field. The Soviet Union established, as much out of ideological conviction as practical necessity, the first significant institutions in the world devoted to the history of science and scientific-technical policy and planning. Soviet Marxism’s influence was extended through the theoretical work of the pre-war British scientific left and eventually led – in the ‘white heat’ of Harold Wilson’s would-be technological revolution — to the establishment of the UK’s first centres of science studies teaching and research. Throughout the short twentieth century (1914-1990), successions of Soviet, British, Central European, and American Marxists have made distinguished contributions to science’s historical and sociological study. Moreover these were undertaken from the standpoint of different Marxisms – classical, Soviet, Frankfurt, structuralist, libertarian, etc. – with varying degrees of vulgarity and subtlety. Technical-scientific activities and ideas have been variously assigned to the economic base, ideological superstructure, and, dialectically, all the points in, around, and between. Its most recent synthesis, centred on the Radical Science Journal‘s labour process perspective, is promising but still untested. Altogether this is a rich and complex heritage that is still available to STS students and scholars – and a new generation of local/global eco-activists.
On the other hand, STS’s other main roots – its first institutional forms and intellectual foundations – lie very much in the postwar expansion of American and British capitalism and technoscience, as well as in anti-communist ideologies that strongly (and somewhat contradictorily) celebrated the association between the free pursuit of value-neutral science and the values of (idealized) liberal democratic societies. The social function of STS for much of the long boom was to ensure that scientists understood their roles and the contexts in which they would be working, while non-scientists (at least in elite universities) knew enough about the practice and methods of science to make informed decisions about its use in business and government. Meanwhile, in a period of exceptional and sustained prosperity, STS professionals began to form their own associations, journals, and research programmes. This resulted in a distinguished flow of publications in the history, sociology, politics, and economics of science, including Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. The field was held together not by any overarching theories, but by an externalist-internalist (E/I) discourse that served as a compact both validating the need for scientists’ autonomy from society and allocating specific aspects of this discourse to different sub-disciplines. The separation of ‘science’ and ‘society’ was of course being validated and proclaimed in a period when these two incoherently defined entities had never been more inseparable.
A field that had its roots in both Marxist and anti-Marxist perspectives on science – especially one that emerged in the crucible of the Cold War – was bound to be at war not only with itself but — if it were not sufficiently aware of the political context which sustained it — with other, more powerful interests as well. The first science war in which STS became embroiled arose out of the wartime conflict in Britain between the scientific left and the Society for Freedom in Science. While Bernalist perspectives were reflected in the postwar direction of British science policy, they were decisively rejected by Butterfield and his supporters in the history of science. By the 1950s history of science in the UK was already set in its internalist denial that external factors were of any interest or consequence in understanding what was defined as scientific development. Self-conscious anti-communism also strongly motivated Conant’s efforts in the US to establish the pre-eminence of American science and its wise direction on the basis of Harvard’s General Education programme in natural science. His embrace of the Platonic double-truth of science’s autonomy in a social context which increasingly denied it was later registered in Kuhn’s great work, which also disguised – even to himself and his fellow STS practitioners – the political function and ideological nature of their field. Nevertheless, its embrace of the same discourse which elite scientists used to justify the expansion (and their control) of academic research – and social scientists/ideologues employed to celebrate and justify postwar capitalism’s scientific hegemony – was an indispensable political basis for STS’s establishment in its own relatively secure and honoured niche in both US and British universities by the end of the 1960s.
There were some political continuities between the first wave of science and technology studies in the 1950s and 1960s and STS’s second wave (extending from the mid-Seventies to the mid-Nineties). Once again, mainstream STS scholars largely ignored the revival of Marxist historical and social studies of science and technology. There was also an equally clear and far more explicit rationale – closely following the post-1968 period of academic turmoil – as to why political and socially critical commentary was to be excluded from STS scholarship. However, beginning with the path-breaking work of the Edinburgh school’s Barry Barnes, David Bloor, and Steven Shapin, more scholars in the field sought to ‘purify’ their scholarship from the theoretical incoherence and ideological trappings of the first wave’s E/I discourse. This methodological divergence – and other departures from past practice, including Bruno Latour’s contributions — produced an avalanche of new case studies and intense theoretical development. But the overall-effect of post-Kuhnian history and sociology of science – sometimes described as ‘social constructivism’ – was to deprive scientific theories and knowledge of their formerly privileged epistemological status. While leading proponents of the second wave neither saw nor were interested in the political implications of their framework, others were. Alarm at how some on the ‘academic left’ in the US were using social constructivist writing to bolster a ‘relativist’ attack on scientific theories and practices soon led to the first skirmishes of the second and more familiar ‘science wars’. It was more than a little ironic (and enervating) that a group of academic theorists who wanted to have nothing to do with politics should now find themselves in the thick of such ideological battles.
The period of the second science wars revealed a growing political vulnerability not only in STS but in academic technoscientific circles as well. In the former’s case, this had something to do with a form of political amnesia – a collective forgetting of what brought the field into being and gave it social purpose. Even in the UK’s ideologically calmer atmosphere, the President of the British Society for the History of Science was prepared to concede in 1997 that, as a result of ‘our scholarly sophistication and relative institutional security we have perhaps lost sight of the rationale(s) for pursuing our subject. If many of us remain committed to the history of science in the belief that it has an important role to play in benefiting humanity, we have increasing difficulty in articulating such beliefs to others outside the field, perhaps even to ourselves.’ The inability of leading STS practitioners to justify themselves convincingly to a wider public, especially crucial patrons like elite scientists and government decision-makers, was clearly a problem. For academic research managers and leaders, the sources of vulnerability were to be found in their declining public esteem, political power, and freedom to direct R&D funding. In these circumstances, scientific leaders were more inclined to blame their plight on lack of public understanding – or even the support of STS for ‘anti-science’ positions — than to revisit the historical forces and political choices that put them in this difficult position.
This leads us back to Marxism. With the greatest respect to both leading scientists and STS scholars, they will only begin to understand the causes of both the science wars and their current vulnerabilities when they change their angle of vision about the nature and drivers of their activities. To adapt the wisdom of the 1992 Clinton campaign, ‘it’s society, stupid’! Less glibly, neither the vulgar ideologies of Cold War scientism, nor the E/I discourse’s evasive distinctions, nor the apolitical sophistication of social constructivism are in any way adequate for those who want seriously to get to grips with these and other, more serious manifestations of technoscience’s and STS’s position in contemporary capitalist societies. Nor will the Kuhnian-induced nostrums that pervade all the hype about knowledge societies, knowledge workers, and knowledge management. Indeed the dissolving of science into an undifferentiated pool of ‘knowledge’ is one of the reasons why natural scientists are losing grounds to MBA’ed managers and management consultants in the control and direction of all the institutions which underpin the technoscientific enterprise, including universities.
Would it not therefore be preferable to seek an alternative position on these matters that:
- a) affirmed a (relatively) non-relativist position about the status of well tested scientific theories and knowledge;
- b) nonetheless frankly embraced not only the inseparability of science and politics but their interconnection with other, even more power social forces as well;
- c) encouraged meticulous scholarship into the social constitution and use of technical-scientific practices; and, on the basis of such work,
- d) offered an integrated historical and critical account of technical-scientific development that equipped all citizens – whatever their vantage point — to understand and influence to better effect the key determinants of their societies’ and the planet’s future?
While, unfortunately, I do not have a ‘cunning plan’ to achieve that outcome, I do know of some of the places where we might start. One of them would be the recovery of some of the Marxist understandings of science and its history, and their incorporation into both new oppositional movements and a reconstructed STS.
Stirrings and possibilities
Finally, let us consider some contemporary stirrings in politics and STS and what possibilities they might suggest for reviving the fortunes of both the left and the radical critique of science.
Politically, there are some hopeful signs. The resurgence of the South American left reminds us that the material and cultural basis for generating a socialist politics still exist in countries where colonial memories still run strong and shifts in the global division of labour recreate new sites of class struggle. In the north, I am encouraged by the efforts of younger radicals to experiment with new sites and methods of struggle. Naomi Klein’s No Logo is a clear embodiment of the Gramscian imperative to engage in counter-hegemonic battles in the capitalist heartland, which – as any reader of the Harvard Business Review will tell you – certainly includes the power of global brands, and the not very attractive values which sustain them materially and culturally. Another Canadian at the leading edge of these media-savvy assaults on the more troubling aspects of global capitalism is an eBay founder who now has the billions required to bankroll independent ‘message’ films, which are slickly tied in to web-based international political campaigns. George Soros is another billionaire – a radical Popperian at that – who has been willing to fund oppositional movements in the hope of reinvesting ‘critical’ politics into new and old democracies. Even old-fashioned agitprop has made a comeback, as Mike Moore’s shambling figure and knockabout docos testify.
Things are also stirrings in STS. Robert Proctor’s lonely call in 1991 for greater political engagement on the part of historians of science and others in the field is beginning to be answered. Steve Fuller’s historically and philosophically informed critique of the origins and effects of Kuhn’s work is one such response. Another is a thoughtful recent article in Social Studies of Science about the need to achieve a rapprochement between the activist and academic wings of STS. Indeed, probably the only significant growth area in the field during the past decade has been the political sociology of science, in its application to vexed policy issues like GM technology, bio-ethics, and democratic participation in these kinds of debates. Equally encouraging have been recent attempts to generate more comprehensive overviews of science’s historical and contemporary social relations. John Pickstone’s Ways of Knowing and his sponsorship of ‘Big Picture’ workshops have fruitfully revived interest in new synoptic treatments of scientific history, with important critical contributions from Francesca Bray, David Edgerton, and Simon Schaffer. Edgerton and Donald MacKenzie have also put politics back into the history of military technology (and v.v.), through their respective treatments of the British ‘warfare state’ and nuclear weapons systems. The latest work of Michael Gibbons, Helga Nowotny, and Peter Scott – whom I like to think of as ‘The Mode Squad’ – recapitulates and updates much of the view of contemporary science which the RSJ collective first advanced twenty-five years ago. I am also glad to report that Everett Mendelsohn continues to enlighten Harvard undergraduates about the social context of science; that Jerry Ravetz has just produced a very punchy ‘no-nonsense guide’ to science; and that Les Levidow soldiers on at Science as Culture.
Impressive as these developments in STS are, they by no means suggest that a third wave of radical science is in the offing. For a start, none of them is rooted in a theoretical understanding capable of treating – to repeat Bob Young’s refrain – ‘the substance of knowledge, its social relations and the social relations it mediates … as part of a single account.’ The Mode Squad, to take one example, are quite disarming in their acknowledgement that ‘our account of social change can be criticized for paying insufficient attention to power’, and equally blasé about saying anything more about the matter. Nor are there signs of any movement attending to the techno-scientific dimensions across a broad range of struggles. Neither does Naomi Klein’s and the other media warriors’ critiques extend to an awareness of how the technologies and labour processes underpinning global corporations and their brands embody, express, and reinforce the capitalist values against which she and they so righteously and effectively rail.
So we are still left to ponder what mix of discontents, hopes, and leadership might reanimate a politically radical critique of science. The most obvious constellation of discontents with the power to mobilize many groups, and not just those on the left, revolve around global climate change. Environmental problems abound world wide outcropping as both local tragedies and potentially global disasters. They have clearly arisen and been intensified in response to the restructuring and growth of the capitalist world-economy. Some of the most potent political and cultural oppositional, if not anti-capitalist responses have been linked to the ecological damage attending globalization, including the formation and growth of often radical Green political parties, and the rise of the slow food movement. The opposition of the US to the Kyoto treaty has focused attention not only on the overriding anti-environmental priorities of the world’s greatest capitalist power but also on how the science of climate change has been politicized. These then are the ingredients for at least an ecologically-oriented scientific left – perhaps an international federation of ‘Scientists without Borders’ – to act as a clearing house and resource for local and national groups in their environmental struggles with governments and companies. Nevertheless, opposition to environmental destruction – important as it is – will not lead to mass movements calling for social change, unless linked to wider and more immediately pressing discontents. Again, the less developed south may offer more possibilities than the over-developed north.
But, as we learned earlier, oppositional movements are catalysed and coalesce around not just present discontents, but profound hopes of a better life – especially the hope that, through struggle, these aspirations may be realized. I do not believe that postmodernist gloom about science, progress, etc. is as pervasive, persuasive, or irreversible as it appears from Paris. (Whether viewed as a sensibility or interpretive framework, it appears to me as superficial as its optimistic cousin, modernization theory.) In any event, the view from Caracas, La Paz, Santiago, and Rio – ordem e progresso — must look rather different. On the other hand, there is no doubt that a more chastened and critical form of modernist faith needs to be reinstated, in an effort to buoy up our residual hopes of a better life for our children and the planet. This reinvigorated modernism would need to combine a rigorous critique of capitalism – the inability of the global marketplace to realize the hopes of most of the earth’s inhabitants — and a clear vision of a post-capitalist society.
Central to this account would be a detailed understanding of how capitalist social relations have morphed technoscience into some of its currently more oppressive manifestations – think of the billions going into new-generation weapons of mass destruction – and how technical-scientific activity could be reconstituted for more liberating purposes in a post-capitalist society. We need, in fact, a work as comprehensive as Bernal’s – perhaps a cross between Science in History and The Social Function of Science. But it would also have to have the ‘common touch’ and democratic impulse of Hogben’s Science for the Citizen. Ideally, it would be written with Haldane’s clarity and wit, Needham’s breadth of vision, and Young’s passion. In this endeavour I believe STS scholars and activists would have an important, honoured, and satisfying a role. I believe John Pickstone at least shares my vision.
Science, technology and medicine are now central to our economies and cultures; the politics of STM will be central to our futures. The public and private investments in commerce-led technoscience are now enormous. For that reason, we also need to invest critical intelligence and financial and political resources to ensure that public interests will be served as well as commercial interests. Understanding the history of STM is one way by which its products and processes can be opened to scrutiny and control by citizens and consumers.
An important practical as well as theoretical starting point for this new self-critical modernism would be for STS practitioners to join with our scientific colleagues in resisting the further privatization of knowledge and ownership of the elements and processes that sustain the life of our planet.
This kind of activism would require risks and courage, two components of the kind of leadership which we know is also required to catalyse radical political engagement and intellectual advances. Where might our future leaders originate? I think some already have, especially in the developing world – inspiring women like the Indian novelist and environmental activist Arundhati Roy and Chile’s new President, Michelle Bachelet. But beyond the catalysts of widely shared discontents, hopes for a better life, and leaders who can help inspire and organize mass movements, there is also the need for what can never be predicted or guaranteed, and that is good fortune. Helena Sheehan, at the socialist left’s lowest ebb in 1989, recalled the lines of this poem from Bertolt Brecht’s ‘To a Waverer’:
Are we just left over,
thrown out of the living stream?
Shall we remain behind?
Understanding no one
And understood by none?
Or have we just got to be lucky?
This you ask.
Expect no other answer than your own.
In creating the conditions which may allow them to take advantage of whatever good fortune comes their way, I hope younger scholars and activists may draw some insight and inspiration from the ‘ghosts’ of last century’s scientific lefts – and that our successors are able to fashion better variations – and results — from the themes we introduced during the last seventy-five years. Above all, may they be lucky enough to realize our hopes and theirs.