When Science Met Socialism

Frustrated by the conservatism of Britain's scientific establishment – and the growing popularity of eugenics – a group of radicals led by J. D. Bernal set out to harness science's capacities for social transformation.

In 1929, Irish molecular biologist J. D. Bernal published an essay entitled ‘The World, The Flesh and The Devil’ (recently republished by Verso). The document outlines a belief in the power of the combined forces of blind evolution and human agency. For Bernal, ‘The World’ represented the material forces which science helped overcome, and he made dizzying predictions, including on the possible future of space travel. ‘The Flesh’ represented physiological advances, from basic medicine to speculation about the mechanical preservation of the brain beyond the death of the body.

Bernal’s conception of ‘The Devil’ is, however, the key to the text. Bernal believed that the only thing that stood between mankind and unlimited scientific advancement was its own inhibitions. Turning arguments about the fixity of human nature on their head, Bernal suggested that human desires and ambitions expanded with the scope of scientific discovery in a mutually reinforcing progress. However, Bernal’s far-reaching ambitions for the discipline were not reflective of the wider scientific community.

In 1931, the British Association of Scientists was celebrating its centenary in an atmosphere of apprehension. The failure of modern science to prevent—and possibly even its role in causing—the First World War and the Great Depression ‘had led to rising public demand for a moratorium on scientific research, to give social organisation and ethics ‘time to catch up’.’ Debates raged in Nature about the appropriate response to the social breakdown and how—or if—scientists should play a role in fixing it. Motions calling for greater cooperation between the scientific community and the state were written up and rejected, with the mainstay of the scientific establishment hoping to avoid national politics. The Times even went so far as to warn of the threat of ‘scientific fascism’ posed by full-blown technocracy.

This political paralysis contrasted with developments in the Soviet Union. While the capitalist and fascist scientific establishments were delving further into eugenics, the Soviets had rejected the field as reactionary by 1931. Public science had been reorganised in such a way that high-performing scientists were ‘liberated’ from teaching duties at universities and placed into lavishly funded research laboratories. Although their research took place under much more direct governmental supervision, the prestige, access to resources, and proximity to policy makers enjoyed by Soviet scientists was magnified.

This elevation goes a long way towards explaining the complicity of high-profile intellectuals in Stalinist structures, despite the danger associated with such prominence. It also helps to explain the admiration that radical British scientists often had for the Communist system, especially those who felt their own profession had abandoned society for the safety of the ivory tower. Later critics, however, pointed to the embarrassing spectacle of the Lysenko affair, in which Stalin’s political patronage led to the persecution of scientists and teachers who objected to the falsities at the heart of Trofim Lysenko’s theories of genetics.

In 1931, Bernal found himself at the Second International Congress of the History of Science and Technology, held at The Science Museum in South Kensington. Immediately prior to the start of the conference, a Soviet delegation, comprised of a number of eminent scientists and a high-ranking politician, Nikolai Bukharin, arrived almost unannounced. The Soviet scientists presented a series of papers on their outlook on important fields, with a particular focus on the interaction between science and society. According to Russian historian Alexei Kojevnikov, the delegation

presented an unprepared audience with a different discourse on science, which to some of the attendees sounded like a Martian language and to others like a revelation. According to the Soviet view, science, past and present, was not just the intellectual pursuit of a few selected great minds but an intelligent answer to social and economic problems and a method of solving them.

The impact on Bernal—and several other prominent British scientists—was extraordinary. After a speedily arranged trip to Russia alongside celebrity brothers Julian and Aldous Huxley, Bernal and the Huxleys joined the chorus of voices condemning the underutilisation of scientific workers in depression-struck Britain.

Bernal was, however, no utopian: he contrasted a Soviet state ‘fighting with poor material and mental equipment against centuries of enforced stupidity and misery’ with a Britain in which minds and machines lay idle, ‘watching the crumbling away of a civilisation of which we were once proud’. If Russia could do so much with so little, why must Britain do so little with so much? The belief that science could and should be harnessed for the benefit of all led Bernal, the Huxleys and many other prominent scientists to form the Social Relations of Science (SRS) Movement.

The SRS Movement was an informal network which sought to pressure the British establishment into a more progessive outlook on the relationship between science and society. It did not involve the majority of the scientific profession, but rather a highly politicised vanguard. The network included Communist Party members like Bernal and J.B.S. Haldane, Labour Party-aligned scientists like Patrick Blackett, and left-wingers of no fixed allegiance like Julian Huxley. The moderates, like Nature editor Sir Richard Gregory, merely wished for greater inclusion of scientists in public affairs, while the radicals, like Bernal, believed that only socialist planning could effectively utilise the sciences for social good.

Facing the combined menace of depression, fascism, and war, these disparate outlooks were bound together in coalition against the prevailing isolationist attitudes widespread among the scientific establishment. The radicals were aided by Manchester Guardian scientific correspondent J.G. Crowther, one of the founders of scientific journalism. Crowther travelled to the Soviet Union no less than seven times and described the functioning of scientific institutions in a huge variety of locations and fields, from physics labs in the Urals to the Institute of Fertilisers in Moscow.

The group also had help from BBC Radio’s science producer, a former Communist named Mary Adams, who was responsible for giving many left-wing scientists their first access to a mass audience. The group filled scientific journals, newspapers and political weeklies with articles, letters and reviews relating to their work and the overall position of science in society.

They left behind them a whole catalogue of books on science and society, the most influential of which was Bernal’s The Social Function of Science, which a 2014 retrospective in Nature described as so widely accepted that the ideas contained in it are ‘now part of the fabric of science-policy debates across the political spectrum’. Like many Communist-aligned figures in British public life, the scientists involved in the SRS Movement were some of the first to take up the cause of anti-fascism. The radical wing of the movement helped drive eugenics out of British scientific thinking, correctly identifying it with the Nazis.

In 1937, on behalf of the Parliamentary Science Committee, Bernal proposed a reorganisation and funding programme for British science to prepare for the impending war. A 1938 article in Nature, anonymously penned by Bernal, repeated the demands more urgently. Although his memorandum was initially rejected, he was nonetheless employed in scientific war service after 1939, and many of his Soviet-inspired ideas about the central planning and funding of research were adopted out of pure practical necessity.

However, under the improved conditions offered to scientific workers by the British state during and after the Second World War, the radicalism of Bernal’s fellow travellers began to fade, and he was left an isolated figure by the 1950s. The war had catalysed the state’s realisation of the advantages of planning and funding scientific research for social ends; it was Bernal and his socialism, though, that provided the ideological basis for that transformation.