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A scientific socialist
JD Bernal: The Sage of Science
By Andrew Brown
Oxford University Press, 2006, £12-99
JOHN DESMOND Bernal (1901-1971) was one of the most inspirational, brilliant scientists of the 20th century. One of the star ‘red scientists’, JD Bernal’s pioneering work in the 1930s laid the basis for modern molecular biology. He was nicknamed ‘the sage’ by admirers for the breadth of his learning and depth and scope of his insight into natural and social phenomena.
A lifelong supporter of the British Communist Party, Bernal was a high-profile campaigner against fascism, atomic weapons, and for the struggles of the oppressed in the colonial world. A talented writer, Bernal popularised science and the relationship between the scientific world and society, through books like The Social Function of Science (1939) and Science in History (1954).
Andrew Brown’s new biography of Bernal is a very welcome introduction to this great scientist and polymath. It details Bernal’s early years growing up in Tipperary, Ireland, in a well-off family. At an early age, Bernal showed a precocious talent for science, devising his own laboratory tests. He also showed a taste for radical politics. The public school boy argued with his family in support of Sinn Fein members who, during the Irish ‘war of independence’, burnt down neighbouring landlords’ estates.
While an undergraduate at Cambridge University, Bernal’s first worked on crystallography, studying the mathematical theory of crystal symmetry. He also became a committed socialist while at college. After moving to London in the 1920s to work at the scientific Royal Institution, Bernal attended the 1917 Club to "rub shoulders with other young admirers of the Russian revolution". Along with other left intellectuals, Bernal took part in many street protests in the 1920s and 1930s. During an anti-fascist demonstration in London, he recorded how JBS Haldane, a fellow famous scientist, made a solitary charge at riot police and was beaten senseless.
Early in his career Bernal decided that x-ray crystallography would turn out to be the most likely tool to reveal details of the structure of matter. Bernal was fascinated by the work of WL Bragg and his father WH Bragg, (holders of the 1915 Nobel Prize for Physics), who pioneered the development of x-ray crystallography. Bernal followed WL Bragg's important research on the arrangement of atoms in crystals, and concentrated on the x-ray analysis of organic substances.
His first success came in 1924, when he worked out the structure of graphite. In 1927 Bernal took up the newly-created post in structural crystallography in Cambridge and worked on the structure of vitamin B1, pepsin, vitamin D2, the sterols, and the tobacco mosaic virus. Bernal possessed the ability to transmit his enthusiasm to others and to attract highly talented fellow scientists to work alongside him, including Dorothy Hodgkin, Max Pertz, Francis Crick and Rosalind Franklin.
In 1937, Bernal was appointed professor of physics at Birkbeck College, London. On the outbreak of war in 1939, he joined the Ministry of Home Security. With Solly Zuckerman, Bernal carried out an important analysis of the effects of bombing. Later in the war, he served as scientific adviser to Lord Mountbatten, the Chief of Combined Operations. Bernal researched the physical conditions of the Normandy beaches the Allies would land on in 1944, discovering many military maps were inaccurate. All this war-time work was done while Bernal was one of Britain’s best known Communist Party supporters.
Bernal was hugely influenced by the Soviet delegation at the 1931 International Congress of the History of Science and Technology in London, where the ‘Old Bolshevik’, Nikolai Bukharin, and others argued that science should be seen in relation to the development of production. This ran counter to ‘conventional’ belief in the self-sufficient character of science. Bernal developed these ideas in essays and books, arguing that science closely reflects economic development and that it should be a guide to social policy.
But Bernal’s view that a non-capitalist society could be guided by scientific rationality was severely tested in what he regarded as the ‘socialist’ Soviet Union under Stalin. While big advances were made under the planned economy in Russia, including scientific advances, this was despite the absence of workers’ democracy. Genuine scientific research and creativity was stifled or crushed under Stalinism, a narrow, bureaucratic system that abhorred any semblance of independent thought and initiative, particularly by the working class.
Bernal regarded science as an unequivocal progressive force. He did not openly criticise the treatment of science and scientists under Stalinism, or the false ideas of Trofim Denisovich Lysenko, who held powerful official scientific posts in the Soviet Union. In the 1920s, Lysenko made extravagant claims that by treating seeds with temperature, moisture and other simple techniques – so-called ‘vernalisation’ – he could dramatically alter the seasonal patterns of crops and their yields. He also claimed that the beneficial effects of these changes could be passed on to subsequent generations, in other words, that acquired characteristics could be inherited. Lysenko’s method, claims and theories flew in the face of the developing science of plant genetics.
As the experience of Stalinist Russia (and the capitalist west) showed, applying science to social questions also requires democratic decision-making and accountability about priorities, resources and needs. This can only be realised in a socialist society, with a planned economy under workers’ control and management.
Brown gives a brisk, straightforward account of Bernal’s scientific achievements, his colourful Bohemian life, and his political commitment. But the biographer, a radiation oncologist, is much better on science than on politics. Although Brown’s explanations of Bernal’s scientific work, and his disputes with other, usually conservative, pro-establishment scientists, are sometimes belaboured, the author covers the ground adequately, taking non-scientists along with him (most of the way). But Brown has no feel for the momentous political and social events that Bernal lived through, and fails to understand or explain the reasons for Bernal’s political trajectory.
Brown crudely equates Bernal’s Marxism with religion and concludes that, "having renounced the Catholic church… Bernal was eager for any alternative system of beliefs". The biographer also falsely brackets Marxism with Stalinism. But the revolutionary socialism of Lenin, Trotsky and the Bolsheviks was later crushed by a bureaucratic counter-revolution, headed by Stalin. The rise of the Stalin clique to power was due to the economic and cultural backwardness of Russia, which was compounded by the failure of the socialist revolution to spread to the more industrialised west.
All his adult life, Bernal was an unswerving follower of the Communist Party, even when friends left over the great purges in Russia, the Hitler-Stalin pact, or the crushing of the Hungarian uprising in 1956. While he appeared to have private misgivings about Soviet policy, Bernal never publicly aired any. The great contradiction of Bernal is that this dynamic, multi-fielded scientist, who brought a searching intelligence to his scientific endeavours, did not take the same critical approach to the many unprincipled, cynical twists and turns of the Kremlin, and its stooge Communist Party in Britain.
Like thousands of other CP supporters, Bernal remained loyal to a party and system whose leadership falsely claimed the ‘authority’ of 1917 and who were able, for decades, to point to the ‘concrete social gains’ of the Soviet Union. Bernal was feted by CP leaders and the Kremlin, keenly aware of his value to them as an eminent pro-Soviet scientist. He visited Russia and met Soviet leaders, including his ‘friend’ Nikita Khrushchev. After world war two, Bernal was a sort of international ambassador for science and Soviet Union-sponsored international campaigns. In his last years Bernal sat on many committees and frequently travelled across the world, including to Russia, China, Cuba and Eastern Europe.
From Brown’s biography we can see Bernal came to an arrangement with the leaders of the Communist Party and the ruling Stalinist elites in several countries. Despite his undoubted willingness to take part in street campaigns, Bernal had an abstract approach to class politics, and to vital questions like workers’ democracy in Russia and party democracy.
But Bernal’s rich life also shows that in the 20th century a generation of talented intellectuals broke with their privileged class backgrounds to side with the socialist revolution. As class struggle redevelops, and new mass workers’ parties grow, a new generation of scientists, writers, artists and other intellectuals, can be won to socialist ideas. The political life of Bernal will be highly instructive for the next generation of radicalised intellectuals, as it will also be for revolutionary workers.