J. D. Bernal
J. D. Bernal; drawing by David Levine

The intellectuals of Ireland have done as much as anyone in the last one hundred years to keep the English-speaking world alive and awake. Throughout the whole Northcote-Trevelyan era, when England was siphoning off many of her most fertile and flexible minds into the Higher Civil Service, the Irish were (to put it euphemistically) “free of administrative cares”—more exactly, they were not their own masters. Instead, they ran rings around their self-appointed rulers. Once the Great Hunger had abated, Irishmen spread into the main body of English and American thought and literature, and took possession. From Shaw and Yeats up to Conor Cruise O’Brien, they have continued ever since to needle their “betters,” and to mock the transient certainties of Anglo-Saxon ideologues. Exuberant, versatile, inventive, and witty, they have been impossible to ignore. Though brushed aside in England either as licensed jesters or as immoralists—Shaw on the one count, Joyce on the other, Wilde on both—they have always returned to the attack, and by now they form as distinctive a breed as their mid-European counterparts, the Hungarians: a breed which is immediately recognizable wherever it appears.

I say “wherever it appears” advisedly. Understandably enough, when we think about Irish intellectuals our minds turn first to the great literary figures of twentieth-century Ireland; but in John Desmond Bernal they have produced also a man whom C. P. Snow can call “the most learned scientist of his time.” Not that the epithet “learned,” although well-deserved, is the first or most natural one to choose when describing Bernal: nothing so stodgy! For he has shared in full all the familiar characteristics of his kind—brilliance and verve, penetration and intellectual daring, balanced against that ultimate lack of doggedness and self-criticism which (in the last resort) mocked Shaw’s claim to equal Shakespeare, and kept Oscar Wilde several pegs below Chekhov, and even Maupassant.

In science as in literature, Bernal’s English contemporaries have proved peculiarly vulnerable to Irish charm, unpredictability, and humor. Since his student days in Cambridge in the Twenties, he has dazzled them with his capacity to jump between physics and politics, biochemistry and world history, throwing off a stream of dashing speculations and original ideas as he goes; and his English colleagues, drilled to more disciplined and pedestrian habits of thought, have plodded behind him, filled with either wonder or irritation. In the 1930s, indeed, Bernal became for a while a major intellectual influence. Though it was the poets of the Popular Front era (Auden, Spender, Day Lewis) who took the public eye, the real focus of radical thought in the Britain of the time was among the scientists of Cambridge, and the man at the center of it all was J. D. Bernal.

THE brilliant, passionate, and articulate young crystallographer could argue on equal terms about half-a-dozen fashionable fields of science, to say nothing of politics, economics, and theology—for he only gradually abandoned the Catholicism of his youth. As a result, he became a kind of Pied Piper: The phrase is one Snow himself uses in the biographical portrait which opens the useful Festschrift for Bernal, Society and Science. He made a particular impression on the youthful biochemists who formed the up-and-coming group in Cambridge at that time—for instance, C. H. Waddington, Joseph Needham, and Norman Pirie—though his influence spread further, to include such scientists as J. B. S. Haldane and C. P. Snow, and in due course the whole of “petty Bloomsbury.” In Bernal’s thought, liberal Marxism and bio-chemical materialism dovetailed to form a total system which was none the less attractive for appearing entirely “up-to-date.” More consistently than any other Marxist thinker since Engels, he expounded a view of the world in which Socialism was the political arm of Science—the view which he still propounds in his vast survey of Science in History, whose new and enlarged edition (the third) is over 1000 pages long.

As we begin to understand something of these forces [the “forces of history”] and the laws they must obey, the events of history will become the results of conscious planning and achievement. With the discovery of the science of society, as Engels said, the true history of mankind begins.

For a time, it looked as though Bernal’s outstanding scientific flair might produce important results. Before the Second World War, he had already made tentative forays into the crystallography of living structures (proteins and viruses) which might, if developed more fully, have led him to anticipate the molecular biology of the Fifties. But here the other side of his inheritance let him down. Snow puts the matter charitably:

He likes to start something, drop an idea, get the first foot in—and then leave it for someone else to produce the final finished work… He has suffered from a certain lack of the obsessiveness which most scientists possess and which makes them want to carry out a piece of creative work to the end. If Bernal had possessed such obsessiveness he would have polished off a great deal of modern molecular biology and [like his closest American counterpart, Linus Pauling] won Nobel Prizes several times over.

More harshly one might say: He lacked the sheer concentrated doggedness of the absolutely first-rate scientist, which sniffs out the location where some deeply-significant truth lies buried and then rootles away, unswervingly and indefatigably, until the treasure is brought to light and its intellectual value demonstrated past challenge.


For one reason or another, then—and I myself believe that, in some respects, the Cambridge biochemists of the Thirties underestimated the magnitude of the structural problems involved—it was left to a more single-minded generation of biophysicists (Perutz and Kendrew, Crick and Watson) to disentangle the complexities of molecular biology and decipher the genetic “code.” Meanwhile, Bernal was being anything but single-minded. In 1937 he moved to London and, from the Chair of Physics at Birkbeck College, took over in person the symbolic leadership of Bloomsbury. As the shadows of war grew more threatening, he was hard at work on a twentieth-century Instauratio Magna—the Baconian gospel in which he set out his vision of a society based on the intelligent application of science and scientific methods of thought. Reaching the bookshops in January 1939, The Social Function of Science had no time to work its full effect, for it combined historical prophesy into Marxist ideology. While foreseeing in detail the administrative techniques by which any government could—if it chose—consciously exploit science and technology to reshape mens’ lives and environments (techniques which, by the mid 1950s most industrialized nations are putting into effect), Bernal took it for granted that, in fact, such a choice would be made only by a socialist government, in the context of a centrally planned state system. In the year of Prague and Danzig, the political tone of the book understandably caught most attention. There was room enough for one sharp clash between the socialist Bernal and the defenders of scientific autonomy, led by Michael Polanyi. But in August there came the Nazi-Soviet pact, followed almost at once by war.

AS A COMMUNIST Bernal at first felt able to engage only in Civil Defense. Until after the German invasion of Russia, he concerned himself with bomb-disposal and the design of air-raid shelters. Once the war had become respectably “anti-fascist,” however, he looked for some more adventurous occupation, and before long he was in fact installed in a post of the topmost secrecy, as scientific adviser to the Chief of Combined Operations. The memory of Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten, cousin to the King, collaborating with the communist crystallographer Bernal on new techniques and weapons for the grand assault on Normandy is one that still gives most Britons pleasure, but fills many Americans with alarm. (Even at the time, it occasionally provoked some ludicrous clashes with “Security.”)

The War over, Bernal went back to his scientific work. By the 1950s, his crystallographic studies were bearing delayed fruit, in the form of a brandnew understanding of the liquid state. Paradoxically, it had never hitherto been clearly explained how a matter composed of atoms comes to exist in three states, not just in solid and gaseous forms, nor why liquids have even the most obvious of the properties they do. The rigidity of solids, in which neighboring molecules presumably kept their relative positions unchanged, was intelligible enough: So was the chaos of gases, in which (collisions apart) all the molecules moved around at a high speed in total independence of one another. But fluidity represented a puzzling half-way house—any given liquid keeping a fixed volume, without the molecules becoming locked in definite positions. Now Bernal’s studies at last revealed something of the pentagon-like microstructures into which the molecules of liquids grouped themselves, keeping a certain general proximity without losing their relative mobility.

But once again politics proved more urgent. The explosion of the atomic bomb had shocked Bernal, both for reasons of common humanity—this was not the application of science to man’s welfare he had dreamed about—and for its ideological implications. If capitalism had been a threat before, capitalism armed with nuclear weapons was the same threat multiplied a thousand times. So he buckled on his armor, and became a charter member of the World Peace Movement. Since then, like a veteran Jesuit, he has known his moments of religious doubt, but his Marxist faith weathered even the Hungarian uprising; and now, at sixty-five, the old preacher—introducing the revised Science in History—is as firm as ever.

The archaic methods of control of production and consumption sanctified in the code of free enterprise capitalism, which has become in reality monopoly capitalism, will have to make way for planned production…. In simple words, science implies socialism.

YET, if Bernals role had been only that of the preacher and ideologue he would never have had so much influence. Once mounted on his political hobby-horse, he can look pretty silly. Any suggestion that countries outside the Soviet bloc have moved a significant distance away from a Dickensian state is, on his account, a sham. The economics of J. M. Keynes provides “an intellectual camouflage for capitalism,” and “the success of the theory with the bi-partisan leaders of Western Democracy” illustrates simply “the use of a social science as a cloak for class domination.” Nowhere will he acknowledge that the countries of the West could already be operating mixed economies, which conform in their patterns neither to pure “capitalism” nor to pure “socialism,” as the nineteenth century defined those terms. Meanwhile, his sanguine hopes for Russia are presented as straight predictions:


Operational research [using] the newly developed computers…has not found very much use yet in the capitalist world, owing to the fact that most business executives do not understand it… In the Soviet Union, however, there is no such inhibition; as computational methods improve they will be universally adopted.

Likewise for Bernal’s other special care, the under-developed countries:

With the end of political colonialism…the whole population of the world will come to achieve the high standard of living of the formerly privileged fifth.

(If only this were clearly so! The basic dilemma facing those countries is that Nkrumah’s policy of “seeking the political kingdom first” too often threatens to delay this global leveling-up, instead of speeding it.)

The tiresome thing is that, for so much of the time, Bernal’s vision is clear, his grip firm, his breadth of view impressive. When free of ideological pressures, he can write better and more broadly-based sense about the development of scientific thought, in its social and institutional context, than many professional historians of science. True, his account sometimes lapses into the fantasies of the Zeitgeist-merchants—

The theory of natural selection and the struggle for existence of Darwinian evolution…was a reflection of the free competition of the full capitalist era

—but even his extravaganzas are worth thinking about, since they frequently spring from the over-elaboration of a genuine truth.

Still, it would not be enough to characterize Bernal simply as a brilliant scientist of Communist politics with a profitable sideline in the history of science. For this, too, would be to overlook the essential inter-relatedness of the the different elements that combine in his mind. In an age when many scientists are content to achieve technical mastery of a single sub-discipline, it is Bernal’s very Marxism that has given him an all-embracing view, and led him to look at the whole scientific enterprise in its historical and sociological matrix. This same socio-historical approach has also been responsible for the one major achievement which nobody, in the U.S.A. any more than in the U.S.S.R., can now deny him. For, if anybody may be said to have been the first begetter of the “science of science”—the application to scientific activity itself of intellectual methods drawn from sociometrics, economics, statistics, and political theory—it is J. D. Bernal; and the founding-document of the new discipline is The Social Function of Science. During the 300 years from 1650 to 1950, science had turned its critical attention onto all other aspects of the world: stars, atoms, living creatures, primitive tribes, social structures, mental disorders. But the idea that scientists should also treat themselves as objects of study had barely occurred to them; and, if it did, had generally been dismissed as a kind of lèse-raison. Yet why (Bernal implied) should we not make the scientists own professional activity, and its impact on the rest of society, an object of scientific study in its own right? Why should we not link together social statistics, the history of science and technology, economic theory, and the sociology of knowledge to yield an integrated account of scientific growth and change? Temporarily eclipsed by World War II, Bernal’s book has emerged twenty-five years later as an accurate forecast of the new world into which we are all moving, and his new discipline is in rapid development.

IN RETROSPECT, the post-war success of this, Bernal’s most significant scientific brain-child, has done as much as anything to cast doubt on the continued relevance of his ideological position. In 1939, there was a sharp division of opinion about the politics of science between left-wing scientists like Bernal, who called for the conscious use of political power to direct science towards social ends, and the conservatives, with Michael Polanyi as their spokesman, who argued that such a policy would be doubly disastrous—since the deliberate direction of science by a central government would inevitably frustrate both the natural growth of scientific thought itself, and also (in consequence) the social benefits which might otherwise have been its by-products. Experience during and after the War has blurred the differences between these positions. On the one hand, Bernal praises the present administrative arrangements in Russia as ensuring that very “autonomy of science” which Polanyi used to defend:

This system leaves the direction of science to scientists, the only people who are intrinsically competent to do it… Contrary to what is often asserted, the scientific plan in the Soviet Union is not made for scientists but by scientists.

On the other hand, the leading Western quarterly on science policy questions, Minerva—edited under the godfatherly eye of Polanyi himself—takes it for granted that scientists must be drawn into the debate about national policies, and concentrates simply on asking how their contributions can best be made. Meanwhile, Bernal’s “science of science” is being pressed forward quite as actively in American Universities (such as Yale, Harvard, and MIT) as it is in Sweden, in Czechoslovakia, or in Russia itself; while the government agencies in Washington responsible for the formulation of science policies and for the allocation of Federal research support—whether the National Science Foundation at the Office of Science and Technology, or the Bureau of the Budget itself—look to the development of Bernal’s new discipline for the better understanding they need of the manifold parts played by scientific research and technological innovation in the running of a modern society.

This should not seem so paradoxical. For it is no longer true to declare (as Bernal does at the very beginning of his survey) that “the two camps into which the world is now divided exemplify different objectives in the use of science.” On the contrary, the science-policy plank in the current party platform of the Bolshevik Party of the Soviet Union reads—as Stevan Dedijer has pointed out—like a word-for-word translation of the corresponding plank in the platform of the U.S. Republican Party. In science policy as in economic organizations, social realities are by now carrying us all beyond ideological oppositions, into a common world of technological planning and mixed economies. In this new world, the practical consequences of Bernal’s social-minded utilitarianism (which goes back to Francis Bacon) are becoming indistinguishable from those of Polanyi’s laisser-faire individualism (inspired by Newton). It is no accident that the new Festschrift—first published in England to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of The Social Function of Science, under the title The Science of Science—gathers into a single volume contributions from Britain, Eastern Europe (Kapitsa and Korach), and the U.S.A. (Gerard Piel and Derek Price). Here as elsewhere, the time for rodomontade is over. Ideology no longer carries conviction. What we need is not a gospel, but a science of science; and this is something that Bernal himself, when undistracted by the demands of political propaganda, has done as much as anyone to create.

SO WE ARE left with one last question: Why, throughout these last forty years, Bernal has been so susceptible to ideological passions and enthusiasms. It is not enough to say, as Snow does, that

he was a good man. He could be irritatingly self-centered, and yet was far from the concerns of self, as we were not; he was pathologically generous, tender-hearted to all; one could not be with him for long without knowing that he craved, with an intensity not given to many men, for the happiness of his fellow human-beings.

A humane compassion in the face of exploitation, poverty, and colonial oppression has drawn many less intelligent men to communism, and has cast them out of it again. But Bernal’s Marxism is made of tougher, more intellectual stuff, compatible at times with a certain uncompromising callousness:

It may even be…that with the new possibilities [of electronic brains], we are reaching up to a new step in cosmic evolution away from the individual organisms or the society of such organisms towards an organismal electronic complex which will transcend it and may ultimately make its organismal originator [i.e., Man] superfluous.

It has also been a Marxism of a peculiarly personal (or Irish?) eclecticism, compatible nowadays with a brand-new sympathy—surprising, at first blush—for “that imaginative thinker, Teilhard de Chardin.” Yet to lump J. D. Bernal with George Bernard Shaw as a wild Irish socialist on the rampage, filled with unreasoning optimism about the potentialities of the Soviet Union, would again be to miss the core of his position.

My own guess is that the new sympathy for Teilhard has, in fact, a deeper significance. Bernal lapsed from Catholicism in the Twenties (Snow tells us), “not because he found its theology unacceptable so much as its social teaching”; and a Catholicism revamped in the direction of Teilhard’s heterodoxies—so as to incorporate an optimistic interpretation of “cosmic-progress”—can be reconciled more easily with Marx and Engels than the sterner Augustinian Catholicism of earlier centuries. (The same thought has occurred recently to Communist ideologists in France.) So perhaps Bernal’s individual combination of Marxism, biophysics, and the history of science needs to be seen as an intellectual substitute for the lost religion of his upbringing: an historically based faith, just as much as Christianity, but one in which the cosmology is properly astronomical, while the Incarnation of the Good is not a man but a society.

With this cosmic ideal before him, it is no wonder that the problem of work-incentives, which outside observers regard as the gravest difficulty facing the Soviet countries, appears no problem to Bernal:

The future communist state is felt to be something worth working for here and now. It is no longer a distant Utopia, but a visibly obtainable arrangement of society, the way to which can be charted with ever-increasing precision. It gives to all the peoples of the Soviet Union something to work for that satisfies not only their material needs, but also their sense of justice and human dignity…. The more closely they approach their goal, the higher their effective standard of material and cultural life, the more certain it is that they will not be alone.

The Imitatio Muscovi should provide all the incentive Progressive Man requires: Ergo, it does.

This Issue

March 3, 1966