JD Bernal


JD Bernal ( 1901-1971 )

John Desmond Bernal was a prominent international scientist, born in Nenagh, Co Tipperary, Ireland. He did pioneering work in X-ray crystallography. He was Professor of Physics at Birkbeck College, University of London and a Fellow of the Royal Society. He ranged widely in his intellectual interests and activities, also doing pioneering work in social studies of science or “science of science”. He was by all accounts a dazzling thinker and talker. His contemporaries called him “Sage”, as he was considered to be uncommonly wise. He was a marxist in philosophy and a communist in politics. He led a complicated life, sitting on hundreds of committees and playing a leading role in many scientific and political organisations. He also led a somewhat unconventional domestic life of a notoriously non-monogamous nature.
The following is an extract from my book Marxism and the Philosophy of Science: A Critical History Helena Sheehan Humanities Press International 1985 and 1993.

Other extracts on this website are on Caudwell, Haldane and Lysenko as well as the introduction to the 2nd edition dealing with the position of Marxism in the 1990s.

British Marxism: A Turning Point
1931 marked a turning point for British Marxists. In their history of Britain in the 1930s, Margot Heinemann and Noreen Branson called it a “watershed year,” a year in which the ordered society suddenly turn to be disordered, immoral, and dangerous. The Labour government fell and Mosley’s New Party was formed. Mussolini was already in power and Hitler was close to it. The choice seemed to be between fascism and communism. The middle ground was slipping away by the hour. John Strachey, after resigning in turn from the Labour Party and then the New Party and then allying himself with the Communist Party, saw the choice between communism on the side of the defence of culture, science, and civilisation itself, and fascism, representing “mental and moral suicide.” The title of his book, The Coming Struggle for Power, gave an indication of the prevailing mood.” Amidst this situation, the scientists were “at once the most fundamentally hopeful and the most frustrated.”

1931 was also the year in which British scientists gathered in the lecture hall of the Science Museum in South Kensington on a Saturday morning in July at the special session of the 2nd International Congress of the History of Science and Technology. The session had been organised for participants to hear their Soviet colleagues explain their approach to history and philosophy of science. Earlier in the week, the unexpected arrival of a large Soviet delegation had created a great stir in Britain. To the majority of scientists present, the Soviet viewpoint was something of a curiosity. To a minority, those in whom it crystallised something that had already been stirring, it had a profound impact. It was an experience that gave the initial impetus to the development of a distinctive school of Marxist thought in Britain.

The various participants have left most interesting accounts of the atmosphere at the session. The science journalist J.G. Crowther commented on the unprecedented enthusiasm for the history of science displayed by the Soviet delegation. The organisers of the congress had been modestly hoping to do a little to remove the neglect of their subject. Among the participants, a few were professional philosophers and historians of science, but most were amateurs or elderly scientists with an antiquarian interest in science, who discussed the subject in a leisurely way, as if a matter of secondary importance. They were truly astonished by the Russians, who discussed the history of science as if it were matter of unsurpassed importance. As Crowther saw it, the movement, of which Hessen’s paper was the most stimulating expression, transformed the history of science from a minor to a major subject.

The mathematician Hyman Levy recollected the discomfort of the audience. The ideas were too novel to be absorbed by the majority and the minority were temporarily tongue-tied at perceiving the width of the gap that had been opened between the speakers and their audience. The long and awkward silence following Hessen’s famous “trumphet blast” was finally broken by the young Cambridge student of mathematics David Guest, who stepped to the rostrum and expanded on the theme, drawing out the implications of Hessen’s remarks by analysing other British men of science, such as Karl Pearson and Bertrand Russell. Two British historians of science expressed opposition, but most refused to react.

Bernal later remarked that the probable consensus was that “anything so ungentlemanly and doctrinaire had best be politely ignored.” For himself, he was struck by the unity, philosophical integrality, and social purpose of the Soviet delegation in contrast to the British colleagues they encountered with their indisciplined array of ill-assorted individual philosophies and remoteness from any social considerations.

The whole thing could not, however, be politely ignored. Within a few days, Science at the Crossroads, a book containing the Soviet papers, was published. It had been produced in a flurry in accord with a decision taken earlier in the week (a project described by the Guardian as the “Five Days Plan,” which had transformed the Soviet embassy in London into a makeshift publishing house for the occasion. Philosophers and scientists rushed around in rolled-up sleeves and translators and printers worked all through the night). After the book came the stream of reviews and more discussion of the embarrassing and unusual ideas of the exotic foreigners. The reviewer in Nature expressed his concern over the possible effect dialectical materialism could have on the direction of research in the Soviet Union. He repudiated the concept of “bourgeois science” and affirmed his belief that the “laws of nature are the same for all of us.” The review in the Times Literary Supplement expressed unmitigated hostility.

The reviews were the least of it. In their lasting impact on the core of left-wing scientists present, the Soviet delegation had, in Gary Werskey’s turn of phrase, “performed a five-day wonder.” Bernal, Needham, Hogben, Levy, Crowther, and others all testified to the crucial influence of this event on their future thought and activity. The Soviet delegation might go away, but those they left behind would not. The British establishment would have them on their hands for a long time to come.

In the highest gatherings of British science, there was from then on a core of exceedingly able left wing scientists enthusiastically pursuing a Marxist approach to the history and philosophy of science and highlighting the multi-faceted social relationships of science. The ideological and socio-political assumptions of past and present science were being ruthlessly laid bare. The very raising of such questions aroused considerable discomfort, for, as Bernal realised, the secret of the strength of the spirit of bourgeois science lay in its avoidance of explicit statement.

Nor did the new phenomenon in British science confine itself to the level of discussion and discomfort, for these men were not the sort to be “lecturing on navigation while the ship is going down.” Around them emerged a vigorous movement for the defence of science against all forces threatening it and for social responsibility in all areas of scientific endeavour.

The movement took many organisational forms, such as the Cambridge Scientists Anti-War group and the revived Association of Scientific Workers* (*The Association of Scientific Workers was a trade union, successor to the National Union of Scientific Workers founded in 1918. The A.Sc.W. later amalgamated to form ASTMS and then MSF) and even in due course the Division for Social and International Relations of Science within the hallowed British Association. It was a broad front in which there was room for a very wide spectrum of opinion and for varying degrees of commitment.

Not everyone who participated embraced all the tenets of what became known as “Bernalism,” but they did know they stood with the movement for social responsibility in science and not with the movement that sprang up in opposition to it. Its manifesto was in John Baker’s “Counterblast to Bernalism” and its organisational form was the Society for Freedom in Science set up by a few scientists such as Baker and by the philosopher of science, Michael Polanyi, which devoted itself to the defence of “pure science” and the absence of any form of social control of science. Even the hostile reaction to the radical science movement testified to the power of its impact.

Science and the Popular Front
This shift to the left among scientists, at a time when the left was virtually identified with the communist parties, was considerably enhanced by a radical policy shift within the communist movement itself. The 7th (and last) World Congress of the Comintem was held in July-August 1935 and marked the inauguration of the period of the Popular Front. No longer was “class against class” to be the rallying cry nor was there the blurring of the line between fascism and social democracy. The call, signaled clearly and decisively in Dimitrov’s key address, was for a united front against fascism. The new policy proved extraordinarily successful and the ranks of the communist parties began to swell, not to speak of the broad organisations that grew up around them. On Bastille Day in Paris, the communist Marcel Cachin embraced the socialist (until then “social fascist”) Léon Blum, while the crowd cheered and sang the Marseillaise followed by the Internationale. In the elections of February 1936, the Popular Front came to power in Spain, and those of May in the same year brought the same in France. In Germany, communists and social democrats only came together again in exile and in Hitler’s prisons and concentration camps in a belated, but very real, anti-fascist unity. Comintern agent Willi Munzenberg was once again in his element, directing from his Paris exile a staggering number of organisations and projects that summoned the energies of everyone from communist party apparatchiks to English duchesses.

In Britain, the Popular Front spirit permeated a number of old and new organisations of the left. The Left Book Club, launched in May 1936, elicited massive support and specialists groups were soon formed among doctors, teachers, poets, scientists, and others. Bernal, a prototypical Popular Front intellectual, was on some sixty committees at one time. He, in accord with many other left-wing scientists, pointed to the Popular Front as the most powerful force for the defence of science.

The movement among left-wing scientists had the dual effect of bringing scientists to the left and bringing the left to science. Nowhere, at least nowhere outside the Soviet Union, did the left so thoroughly integrate science into its political perspective as in Britain. The right wing of British science might balk at the steady drift to Bernalism, but the CPGB did not. Rajani Palme Dutt, in his report to the 16th National Congress of the party in 1943, clearly stated: “The Communist Party stands with modern science.” Although the party was not totally immune from the workerism of the British labour movement, the party only intermittently indulged it.*

* The same Palme Dutt, in an article “Intellectuals and Communism”, wrote: “First and foremost, he should forget that he is an intellectual….” (The Communist, Sept. 1932). It is interesting to note that workerist anti-intellectualism didn’t always come from the “honest worker”. It came from demagogic party leaders, themselves intellectuals, like Zinoviev and Palme Dutt, when it suited their purposes.

The party was proud of its intellectuals and believed it was an essential duty of its scientists to be good scientists, even in the eyes of Nature and the Royal Society, and it took a dim view of any tendencies of its intellectuals to “drop out” and assimilate themselves into the lifestyle of the workers and do only routine party work. While many of the party intellectuals were extremely energetic on the ground in all aspects of party work, they were reminded of the crucial importance of their distinctive work of bringing Marxism to bear in their own special fields.

At the center of the new movement was John Desmond Bernal. His contemporaries of diverse shades of opinion spoke of him in the most glowing terms, coming forth with superlatives not characteristic of the English. Julian Huxley thought him the wisest man in Britain and most who knew him concurred in thinking him very wise. Indeed, the name by which his friends called him was “Sage.” A fascinating fictional portrait of him was drawn by C.P. Snow in his early novel The Search, in which Bernal figured as the unusual young scientist Constantine, the bearer of a sort of dazzling and global brilliance. Snow’s non-fictional portrait of Bernal, written many years later, is even more fascinating. For Snow, he was “perhaps the last of whom it could be said, with meaning, that ‘he knew science.’ ” Joseph Needham describes him as one of the best minds of their generation.

By the mid-1930s (and his mid-30s), Bernal was already a Fellow of the Royal Society and professor of physics at Birkbeck College of the University of London, with important work in X-ray crystallography already behind him at Cambridge’s famous Cavendish Laboratory. By the late 1920s, he had become a militant atheist and a communist.*

*Bernal was a member of the CPGB only until 1933. After that, it was thought best for him to pursue his broad work outside the party. Whatever the reason, his lack of a party card was only a technicality. He was in every way a conununist and not a “fellow traveller.”

He had come a long way from Tipperary. Born in Ireland and Jesuit-educated, he had, as a schoolboy, combined piety and defiance in an adolescent mixture, organising a Society for Perpetual Adoration and fervently supporting the Easter Rising.

He had from first to last an intensely philosophical frame of mind and an extraordinary sensitive social conscience. It was his voluminous knowledge, his breadth of vision, and his conscientious activism that most singled him out, rather than his laboratory results. At the level of experiment, he had a tendency to generate seminal ideas and to leave to others the opportunity to pursue the detailed further research.

Bernal did pioneering work, not only in such sciences as X-ray crystallography and molecular biology. He was founder of an altogether new discipline, the “science of science.” His book, The Social Function of Science, quickly came to be regarded as a classic in this field.

Based on a detailed analysis of science, both under capitalism and under socialism, and comparing in particular the state of British science with that of Soviet science, Bernal’s dominant theme was that the frustration of science was an inescapable feature of the capitalist mode of production and that science could achieve its full potential only under a new socialist order. According to Bernal, science was a powerful force in human history, and was destined to become more powerful still. Formidable obstacles were obstructing it, however, in the fulfillment of its destiny. It was outgrowing capitalism. Capitalism was losing its ability to cope with it. British science was severely underfinanced, particularly under the impact of economic crisis. German science had been overcome by barbarity.

As the bourgeoisie was losing its ability to use science as it had during its rise and as it lost its ability to rule in the old way, it was inclined to turn on science. Rather than admit the cause of social disorder to be the capitalist system, the ruling class generated a distrust of science that in its most extreme form turned into rebellion against scientific rationality itself. Even in the most unlikely quarters, notably the British Association for the Advancement of Science, voices were being raised calling for the suppression of science. Science itself was in danger and its only hope was in socialism.

The cause of science was, for Bernal, inextricably intertwined with the cause of socialism. As he put it in an autobiographical essay, from an early age he saw science as holding the key to the future and the forces of socialism alone as gathering to turn it. By the time he wrote The Social Function of Science, he had come to believe that: “In its endeavour, science is communism.” Needless to say, Bernal saw science as a social activity, integrally tied to the whole spectrum of other social activities, economic, social and political.

Science was absolutely central both to Bernal’s social thinking and to his philosophical thinking. The scientific method encompassed the whole of life. In considering the relationship between Marxist philosophy and scientific method, Bernal thought that it could not be described simply as scientific method. Nor could it be said to be in any sense an alternative method. It was an extension of scientific method. On the basis of current science, it gave a comprehensive and ordered account of the whole range of phenomena, from nebulae to human society. In Bernal’s view: “Marxism transforms science and gives it greater scope and significance”.

As Bernal conceived the relation between philosophy and science, science was the starting point for philosophy; it was the very basis of philosophy. Marxist social theory emerged within this process. There was no sharp distinction between the natural sciences and the social sciences for Bernal, and the scientific analysis of society was an enterprise continuous with the scientific analysis of nature. For Bernal, there was no philosophy, no social theory, no knowledge independent of science. Science was the foundation of it all.

As Werskey has remarked of Bernal: “Never had Frederick Engels’ famous notion of ‘scientific socialism’ been treated so literally.” For Bernal the humanistic and the scientific dimensions were one. His vision of the sort of future that science could make possible for mankind was in total contrast to that of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Full automation, nuclear energy, and cybernetics could bring a fuller realisation of human potential. His futuristic sketches grew increasingly better grounded as his Marxism matured, making the society of the future set out in The Social Function of Science far more plausible than the one set out in his earlier work, The World, the Flesh and the Devil. His sense of history was sweeping, stretching back into the ancient past and shooting forward into the coming future.

As Bernal saw the transition to the future, scientific and socialist philosophical thinking played a key role. He took issue quite sharply with those, especially those in England, who thought that both science and politics could get on quite well without philosophy. Science, philosophy, and politics were all tightly bound together in Bernal’s highly integrated mind. There could be no coherence, no far-seeing vision, without a world view. There could be no adequate and plausible world view not grounded in science. There could be no point in having a scientific world view without living by it and acting on it. The new age was bringing the need for new ideas, new values, new movements. The whole vast body of knowledge accumulated through the ages had to be worked over and revalued. It was a time of profound transformation, bringing deep moral and emotional changes as well as intellectual ones.

Bernal’s philosophy of science was in the tradition of Engels. It was time, he thought, for Engels to come into his own in Britain, where he had lived and worked and formulated his exceedingly brilliant and suggestive ideas about the dialectics of nature. Although Engels had suffered complete neglect at the hands of the philosophers and scientists of Victorian England, time was to take its revenge. Whereas the professional philosophers of science of his day were already for the most part completely forgotten, Engels would be remembered if Bernal were to have his way. And he was for a time. Engels would be the inspiration of a new wave of fresh thinking in the philosophy of science.

The important thing about Engels’s concept of nature, as Bernal saw it, was that he saw it as a whole and as a process. Engels’s work could still be of value to scientists in that it was important to carry forward this sort of all-embracing and historical approach to science and to use his methods in pushing forward the solution of further problems. Significant steps that had been taken by science, such as relativity and quantum theory, biochemistry and genetics, confirmed the validity of Engels’s approach and made continuing work along the same lines necessary. Engels was a radical thinker. His way of questioning fundamentals was the kind that many years later led to the formulation of quantum theory and relativity theory. In fact, in Bernal’s opinion, if Engels’s philosophy of science had been more widely known in the scientific world, these theories would probably have been discovered sooner and would be free from the idealistic confusions under which they were still suffering. Engels was in every way a compelling figure for someone like Bernal who saw him as scientist, philosopher, and revolutionary, all in one.

For Bernal, dialectical materialism was the most powerful intellectual current of the time. It provided the basis not only for a revolutionary social movement, but also for the enhancement of science. It was a philosophy derived from science that brought order and perspective to science and illuminated the onward path of science. It was no substitute for science. It was no royal road to knowledge. Induction and proof remained what they were and the hard work still had to be done. It was not a dogma imposed on the findings of science from without, but a method of co-ordinating the experimental results of science and of pointing the way to new experiments, a method that had been developed in and through the development of science itself. Its role was to clarify and to unify the different branches of science in relation to one another and to other human activities and to suggest directions of thought that were likely to yield further results in the future.

It was a science of the sciences. It was a means of overcoming overspecialisation and of achieving the unity of science. It placed science within the context of the whole of human and cosmic evolution. Its starting point was the material universe, its central idea was the process of transformation, and its scope was the whole range of human experience.

A resolute monist, Bernal saw the unity of science as grounded in the unity of the universe itself. He affirmed the unity of the universe, not in a hollowly reductionist way, but in a way that recognised the intricacy and complexity of matter that had evolved in such a way that new qualities emerged at higher levels of organisation. The origin of the new, however, had to be seen against the ongoing process, so as to avoid the two extremes in which the immediate apprehension of quality was made the basis of mystical speculation on the one hand or mechanically denied altogether on the other.

Bernal’s position on the dialectics of nature was quite definite. Any sort of dualism between nature and history was quite foreign to him, as was any tendency to radically historicise nature. There were in the external world processes involving oppositions of actual forces that were constantly giving rise to new and higher syntheses. Dialectical development was not confined to human society or even to living things, but occurred at all stages of the organisation of matter, completely independent of human thought.

His position here, inspired by Engels, had precisely the same flaws as that of Engels: a huge gap yawning between particular examples of dialectical processes and the assertion of the universality of dialectics, a tendency to use the word dialectical equivocally, sometimes simply as synonymous with developmental and other times as development through contradictions.

Close to the very latest developments in the natural sciences, Bernal saw that science itself was providing the most effective refutation of positivism. Although the work of such writers as Lukács, Korsch, and Gramsci were not known in Britain before the war, Bernal would have been quite unsympathetic to their tendencies either to equate science with positivism or to be so preoccupied with the critique of a discredited positivism as not to see that science itself was under attack. The defence of science and the full incorporation of the history of science into the history of Marxism were of the very essence to Bernal.

Nor was he inclined to put such heavy stress on the Hegelian origins of Marxism. He was not anti-Hegelian and he did acknowledge the role that Hegel had played for Marx and Engels, but he was more inclined to emphasise the continuity of Marxism with the whole development of scientific and historical knowledge. The emergence of Marxism laid the foundations for a whole new way of understanding and changing the universe. Marx was seeking the origins of origins and the new philosophy was inspired less by Hegelianism than by such dramatic developments of time as Darwinism, developments that were giving a new sort of account of the origins of the world and all phenomena in it. With regard to the sources of Marxism, Bernal argued: “True, Marx studied Hegel, but the dialectic of Marx, which neither Hege1 nor the Hegelians would accept for a moment, is derived far more from his wide knowledge of the universe, and comes directly from the concrete experience of the economic and political struggles of the nineteenth century than from the philosophy of his youth.”

Such remarks reveal far more about Bernal than about Marx. Although historically inaccurate with regard to Marx, it was a legitimate enough position for later Marxists.

This did not, incidentally, keep Bernal from being attacked as overly Hegelian and unscientific. The Oxford philosopher, E.F. Carritt, associated dialectical materialism with the imposition of triadic patterns as a priori laws of nature. Hegelian pedantry, he said, did not become more digestible when it was called dialectical matter rather than dialectical idea. The mind tended to feign symmetrical patterns in nature, whose works were often singular. Patient investigation of one’s subject matter could not be avoided by any dialectical shortcuts.

Bernal replied that Carritt had a rather perverse view of the Marxist dialectic. Carritt’s view, Bernal argued, was actually the Aristotelian derivation of the mean coming to life again in the name of Marxism. Dialectical development was not a matter of swinging between two extremes and settling down to a middle course. The synthesis was not a mean, but something qualitatively new and different. Marxists imposed no patterns on nature, but discerned them there.

While Bernal did not explicitly take on the neo-Hegelian trend within Marxism, he did address himself to some of the trends outside of Marxism that inspired it. He thought the various irrationalist and intuitionist currents of the late 19th and early 20th century represented the backwaters and dead ends of human knowledge. He considered the revolt against reason, embodied in such writers as Sorel and Bergson, to be deeply reactionary.

He objected most, however, to those who were scientists and were seeking to bring irrationality into the structure of science itself. Scientists such as Jeans, Eddington, Whitehead, and J. S. Haldane were making science into a modern ally of ancient superstition and trying to create a new scientific mystical religion. Gone were the days filled with talk of the warfare between science and religion. Now, the Archbishop of Canterbury benignly presided over Royal Society dinners, for science had become suave, more respectable, and less materialistic. Jeans and Eddington had assured the bishops and everyone else that real science and real religion were the same thing.

Bernal argued that it was a highly objectionable procedure to make what science could not know, or at least did not know, rather than what it could and did know, the basis for affirmations about the nature of the universe. The fact that the new physics was supposed to have destroyed the older materialism was taken as an excuse for holding any opinion whatsoever.

Their technique was to conclude from the fact that science had not demonstrated how the universe had come to be, that it must have been made by an intelligent creator; to go from the circumstance that science had not synthesised life to the assertion that the origin of life was a miracle; to make the uncertainty relation in quantum mechanics into an argument for human free will. Such books as Jeans’s The Mysterious Universe, ostensibly based on science, were negations of science. Jeans’s world was a mythological abstraction from science, an arbitrary reduction of all the concrete universe to a number of abstract categories.

Bernal did realise that such anti-scientific philosophies did not spring up out of sheer perversity or willfulness on the part of their exponents, but were symptomatic of a widespread and pervasive confusion. Science was in deep crisis, not only because of external events, such as the economic slump, the rise of fascism, wars, and preparation for wars, but because of the impact of internal forces as well, for many of the traditional assumptions of the scientific enterprise were being undermined from within. Materialism had grown so rapidly that it was temporarily losing its language, but it was acquiring a new one through the connecting of the biophysics of sensation with the ultimate wave mechanics picture of the universe.

These new discoveries called for fresh thinking and it seemed to Bernal that only Marxists were doing it in a way that made sense, for only dialectical materialism had the capacity to encompass them without betraying science itself.

The Marxist approach to the philosophy of science was seen by Bernal as still being in the process of being formulated. Marx and Engels and Lenin had only sketched the outlines of it. It was being further developed in the Soviet Union in a lively and sometimes violent process. He was aware of the main outlines of the Soviet debates and saw Soviet science as finding its philosophy in the very course of its revolutionary development. But it was, he remarked, complicated at times by the fact that the older scientists were often hostile to new philosophical ideas, while the younger ones, who were most receptive, often lacked sufficient scientific knowledge. He knew of the clash between Vavilov and Lysenko, but did not seem to realise the gravity of what was taking place in this sphere, seeing it in 1939 as a difference in emphasis rather than a revival of the Weissmann-Lamarck controversy. As he far too sanguinely characterised the debate:

“Geneticists were criticised for attributing inherited characters to specific unitary factors in the chromosome, and neglecting cytoplastic and environmental factors, whose importance was probably exaggerated by their critics.”

Bernal himself was firmly committed to the science of genetics and was conducting experiments aimed at discerning the molecular structure of the gene.

(for the section of my book dealing with Lysenko and Lysenkoism, click here)

He was, on the whole, extraordinarily impressed by Soviet science and philosophy of science, at times more so than the situation warranted. When he had first visited the Soviet Union in 1931, he was struck by the overriding sense of purpose there and found the country “grim but great.”

As time went on, Bernal discovered things that must have disturbed him deeply, particularly things relating to the fate of scientific colleagues in the Soviet Union. He is known to have interceded with the Soviet ambassador in London, Ivan Maisky, in relation to the arrests of the physicists Weissberg and Houtermanns. But in public he said nothing. The great failing of Bernal was in his reluctance to take a critical attitude to the tradition he embraced.

References for this text can be found in the end-of-chapter notes on pages 424-425 of Marxism and the Philosophy of Science: A Critical History (Humanities Press International 1985 and 1993) by Helena Sheehan. This book covers only the period to 1945.

Bernal’s productive career continued for several decades, during which he published a four volume work Science in History.





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