Professor Jekyll and Comrade Hyde

Issue: 115

Viren Swami

Andrew Brown, J D Bernal: The Sage of Science (Oxford University Press, 2007), £12.99

As a young reader of psychology, I was made to believe, through constant cajoling and the occasional threat of lost marks, that the consummate scientist was one who sought the truth in an objective and disinterested manner. Within this paradigm, science is pursued for the knowledge that it brings, and any emotion, political conviction or social belief serves only to sully the pristine waters of truth seeking. Of course, science and scientists are very rarely entirely disinterested in their work; nor has this penchant for objectivity always been held in such high regard. Following the First World War a movement emerged within British academia that stressed the social responsibility of scientists: science was pursued not merely for the knowledge it offered, but also for the uses to which that knowledge could be put for the betterment of society.

Most notable among this group were J D Bernal, J B S Haldane, Hyman Levy, Joseph Needham, and Lancelot Hogben. Through their academic work and political conviction—all were Marxists—they became known as leading intellectuals, and were conferred the highest accolades by the British scientific establishment. There has been much discussion of the contribution of this group to academia and society, most notably in Gary Werskey’s The Visible College: A Collective Biography of British Scientists and Socialists of the 1930s, but evaluating and understanding the legacy of its individual members has proved difficult. In 1980, for instance, Maurice Goldsmith published Sage: A Life of J D Bernal, but the short biography met with resistance from Bernal himself.

Fortunately, Goldsmith’s biography has now been supplanted by Andrew Brown’s J D Bernal: The Sage of Science, which is both an outstanding example of a scientific biography and a valuable work of scholarship in itself. Brown benefited not just from better cooperation from Bernal’s family and associates, but also from extensive use of the Bernal archives in Cambridge. His biography of Bernal is an elegant, comprehensive and thoroughly knowledgeable account of the scientific, political and personal aspects of Bernal’s life, and heaves with interviews with the scientist’s children, associates (a collection of individuals who range from Nobel laureates to lab technicians) and many, many lovers.

This interest in Bernal is not misplaced: he was one of the most extraordinary figures of 20th century British science, an inventive scientist whose intellectual energy and polymathic ability earned him the sobriquet “Sage” while he was still an undergraduate at Cambridge University. By all accounts, Bernal reached the heights of academe, particularly through his work on X-ray crystallography in the 1920s and 1930s, for which he narrowly missed receiving the Nobel Prize. Perhaps the most evident example of Bernal’s achievements was his influence on others: Francis Crick, for instance, described Bernal as his “scientific grandfather” and students of Bernal have gone on to become Nobel Prize laureates.

Where opinion often divides, however, is in relation to Bernal’s political convictions. While still at Cambridge, Bernal became a Marxist and in the late 1920s he signed up to the Communist Party with his wife, Eileen Sprague. He was one of a number of British scientists impressed by the unity, scientific vitality and social purpose of a Russian delegation, led by Nikolai Bukharin, to the 1931 International Congress of the History of Science in London. Bernal himself went on to develop an important Marxist analysis of past and present science, culminating in his influential monograph The Social Function of Science.

Bernal’s radical critique of traditional structures of power within academia, his analysis of science and society, his political activism and, most importantly, his Marxism are sometimes a source of bemusement for contemporary commentators. Just as some writers sought to divorce Stephen J Gould’s early political engagement with Marxism from his academic achievements, so some commentators have striven to explain away Bernal’s commitment to Marxism. In his review of Brown’s biography in Nature, for instance, Kenneth Holmes writes, “In the 1930s, Bernal became committed to Marxism. How a man with such a marvellous analytical mind could come to terms with dialectical materialism is still a subject of discussion—it seems to have been an act of faith, a substitute for Catholicism.”

Brown, in his biography of the Sage, is likewise condescending towards Bernal’s philosophy and politics. Certainly, Bernal’s steadfast support for the Soviet Union and Soviet science—particularly his defence of Trofim Lysenko, whose ideas on genetics were completely at odds with mainstream work—served to alienate him from many of his erstwhile colleagues, marginalising him within British science and politics in the 1950s and 1960s.

But to malign Bernal’s politics as somehow peculiar or irreverent is to forget that he came to Marxism consciously, intelligently and resolutely. In Marxism, Bernal found a philosophical framework that enabled his academic work, opening him up to new ideas, allowing him to combine academic life with political involvement. The suggestion, implicit in Brown’s biography, that Bernal’s Marxism served to constrict his intellectual capability is unfortunate.

Bernal considered his Marxist philosophy, particularly the tradition of dialectical materialism (which, incidentally, made possible his break with Catholicism, and which followed directly in the tradition of Frederick Engels), to be the most suitable philosophy for scientific endeavour. Marxist philosophy, Bernal believed, provided the basis not only for a revolutionary transformation of society, but also for the development of science. Bernal’s Marxism was no dogma, no scientific credo to hang on to come what may, but was rather a scientific method of “doing” science, a method that had itself been developed through scientific knowledge.

It was Bernal’s view (based on a detailed grasp of the history of science—a science of science) expounded in The Social Function of Science and later in Science in History, that science could only arrive at its full potential under socialism. The goals of capitalism, he believed, were not compatible with those of science, and thus generated a -distrust of science and academia that, if left unattended, resulted in a rebellion against scientific rationality itself. Only socialism could harness the intellectual and practical prowess necessary to fulfil the promise of science. And in doing so, socialism would ensure that scientists took a keen interest in social responsibility, using knowledge and learning to benefit not an elite (whether in academia, politics or wider society) but rather the working class.

In short, then, Brown’s insistence that Bernal’s true legacy lies in his academic achievements, and that his Marxism was at best a distraction, ensures that his biography fails to paint a complete picture of Bernal’s life. Of course, Brown’s book is much more than a biography—it attempts a social history of the first half of 20th century science, in which Bernal played a constituent part. But Brown’s failure to understand that Bernal’s political and philosophical convictions were an integral part of his scholarly work means that Bernal’s true legacy is not captured in this biography.

Science has come a long way since Bernal died in 1971, but in many ways his belief that capitalism would stunt the growth of science has since become all the more evident. As a researcher, I typically spend my days engaging in micro-debates with other researchers, picking at scraps of information, hoping that others believe I am as disinterested and objective as they believe they are, and in doing so, singularly failing to look at the way in which science affects wider society. Nor am I alone in this. Under capitalism, science has become reclusive, narrow and shallow, driven by market demand; universities are forced to operate as profit seekers; commercial need has outstripped any interest in searching for truths that can shape public interest.

There is, however, an antidote. Bernal’s Marxism, which he shared with other Marxist scientists of the first half of the 20th century, and which laid the basis for a later generation of scientists in the Marxist tradition (Richard Lewontin, Stephen J Gould, Richard Levins, Steven Rose, to name but a few), remains relevant for our times. The qualities that Bernal strived to incorporate in his life and work, the totality of his thinking and his socialist commitments, are exactly the qualities that contemporary science lacks.