Science and Marxism in England, 1930‑1945

Robert E. Filner
Dept. of History
San Diego State Univ.
California 92182

From June 29 to July 3, 1931, the Second International Congress of the History of Science and Technology was held in London. To the surprise of many, a large delegation from the Soviet Union attended—a delegation which included representatives from the very top of the "science and government" hierarchy. N. I. Bukharin, Director of the Industrial Research Department of the Supreme Economic Council presented a paper on "Theory and Practice from the Standpoint of Dialectical Materialism"; M. Rubinstein, Member of the Presidium of the State Planning Commission (GOSPLAN) discussed "Relations of Science, Technology and Economics under Capitalism and the Soviet Union"; and, probably the most provocative, B. Hessen lectured on "The Social and Economic Roots of Newton's 'Principia,'" in which he applied "the method of dialectical materialism and the conception of this historical process which Marx created to an analysis of the genesis and development of Newton's work in connection with the period in which he lived and worked." [1]. Within two weeks, in an amazing publishing feat, the papers appeared in English in a collection entitled Science at the Crossroads [London 1931].

These writings had a profound effect on many English intellectuals. Hessen's essay, particularly, challenged others to explore the relationship between the economic and social base of society and the intellectual and cultural superstructure. Robert Cohen has characterized it as “an act of liberation" [2]. Historians like Christopher Hill and Benjamin Farrington "took Hessen's essay as a pivot" and extended the Marxist analysis into such areas as the English Revolution and Greek science [3]. J. G. Crowther, a science journalist, immediately applied Hessen's method in writing British Scientists of the Nineteenth Century [London 1935].

Most important, perhaps, was the reaction of a group of young, left‑leaning scientists, already disturbed by the failure of capitalism indicated by the world economic crisis and favorably disposed to the new social, economic, and scientific order in the Soviet Union.

John Desmond Bernal, a thirty‑year‑old Cambridge crystallographer just beginning his legendary career, recalled later that the Soviet presentations had convincingly demonstrated "what a wealth of new ideas and points of view for understanding the history, the social function, and the working of science could be and were being produced by the application to science of Marxist theory" [4]. Hyman Levy, a Professor of Mathematics at the Imperial College of Science and Technology, called the International Congress

epoch‑making; for the standpoint consistently adopted by [the Soviet] delegates crystallized out in remarkable fashion what had been simmering in the minds of many for some time past. What became clear was not only the social conditioning of science and the vital need for planning, for anticipating the social effects of discovery, but the impossibility of carrying this through within the framework of chaotic capitalism. What emerged afterwards was the necessity nevertheless for demanding that this impossible task be undertaken, in order to educate the great body of scientific men in the reasons for its impossibility [5].

Thus began the development of a coherent intellectual and political movement, the Social Relations of Science (SRS) movement [6]. Marxist scientists—Bernal and Levy, whom I have already mentioned, the biologist J. B. S. Haldane, Lancelot Hogben and Joseph Needham—constituted the core of the movement, although they were aided by other scientists of the left such as Julian Huxley and physicist P. M. S. Blackett. Through their prolific writings, speeches, and organizational work—and in the context of economic depression, the rise of fascism, and then world war—these SRS scientists generated an intense ferment within the English scientific community. In the words of one historian, they "seemed almost to dominate the British scientific world between 1932 and 1945" [7]. The scientific world became "a criss-cross of social study groups" [8]: undergraduates and graduates, scientists in universities and research institutes all debated the social and political responsibility of the scientists in the face of domestic and international crises. They were less concerned, as another account has suggested,

with the theoretical implications of their work, or with trying to give it religious and philosophic significance, than with asking themselves what was the place of science in the social system. They were beginning at last to have a social conscience. A twentieth century system was developing, haphazardly and piecemeal; what form it would take and how England might fit into it was as much a scientist's business as anybody's" [9]. New organizations, like the Cambridge Scientists' Anti‑War Group, formed in response to the new concerns; older ones, like the British Association of Scientific Workers, engaged in new kinds of political activity: and the established Royal Society and British Association for the Advancement of Science increasingly manifested the new activism. (The latter, for example, established a Division for the Social and International Relations of Science in 1938.)

The SRS movement did not, of course, go unchallenged—especially in the 1940s. Nor was it easy to advance such radical views in the later Cold War atmosphere. But still, the SRS movement had a marked effect on post‑World War II views concerning the relation of science to society, the role of the scientist in society, the proper extent of his or her involvement in politics, and the history of science. Neal Wood, far from a sympathizer with the SRS ideas, wrote of these English scientists that "with the exception, perhaps, of the Soviet Union, there was nowhere else a comparable movement among scientists, at least one so vigorous and influential" [10].

I want to deal here with only one aspect of this movement—the development and reception of a Marxist analysis of the historical and contemporary relationship between science and society. At the time when Hessen and the rest of the Russian delegation brought their revolutionary ideas to London, general English attitudes about the meaning of science were primarily shaped by Sir Arthur Eddington and Sir James Jeans. Best sellers like Jeans' The Mysterious Universe (1930) and Eddington's The Nature of the Physical World (1928) not only explained contemporary scientific achievements in an understandable form but incorporated them into an all‑embracing philosophy.

The recent quantum mechanics revolution in physics, according to Eddington, revealed that "all was vanity, that unreason lay at the very basis of reality—in the quanta of action and the behavior of electrons" [11]. Science had made determinism untenable [12] and had placed "free will" back at center stage. Mind, not matter, was primary. Jeans asserted that "the universe begins to took more like a great thought than like a great machine." Mind is no longer "an accidental intruder," but "the creator and governor of the realm of matter" [13].

This philosophy of a meaningless, fickle universe existing only as a symbol in the Mind was unacceptable to those scientists who were listening to Hessen so attentively and who were looking to science to solve the pressing economic problems of society. They saw in such a philosophy a "flight from reality," a search for "a purely personal satisfaction in the world of emotional ideas" [14]. As Levy wrote, the philosophies of Jeans and Eddington were not "contributions to a reasoned understanding of the forces of Nature; they were not efforts, at a critical moment in world history, to concentrate the mind and brainpower of men on the vital problems the solution of which is so urgent that every ounce of thought should be directed to their analysis" [15]. Thus Levy, Bernal, Haldane and the others set out to provide a materialist philosophy for a socially relevant and activist science—in a form which was as acceptable and understandable to other scientists and the general public as was the philosophy of Jeans and Eddington. Or as they put it, they wanted to demonstrate that “science is not something mysterious but a weapon" for control over nature which "should be a mental and material possession of the common man" [16].

In 1932, in The Universe of Science, the first of his many books, Levy argued that the heresies of Jeans and Eddington were caused by a fundamental misunderstanding of scientific methodology. [17]. According to Levy, science was a search for and study of “isolated systems," or useful bits of the universe. One of the primary tasks of experiment was to determine the minimal amount of the surrounding environment which must be included to keep the "isolate" neutral and therefore capable of scientific study. While there were no perfectly neutral systems in the universe, scientists tried to find or devise situations in which they were nearly so. "Properties" of the isolate were assigned which could be regarded as unchanging as long as certain parts of the environment were ignored.

Philosophers like Jeans and Eddington went astray, Levy argued, when they regarded scientific isolates as knowledge itself rather than as paths to knowledge. They forgot the assumptions which allowed treatment as neutral systems and endowed the isolates with lives of their own. The numbers assigned for convenience became the reality. The universe then appeared "fickle," "mysterious," "meaningless," or just a mathematical figment of the scientist's imagination; volition, it seemed had replaced the previously sought mechanical causes.

Levy went further—after having used the conception of "isolates" to elucidate the internal relations of science, he applied it also to the external relations of science, to "its connections and its roots in society of which it is an isolate" [17, p. 174]. Science could be properly understood, he claimed, only when the scientific isolate was viewed within a wider framework.

The engineer, for example, could determine the speed at which a rotating shaft flies apart—but in a wider setting, he must look at other properties, like its function in a turbine. He must ask still other questions when the previously neglected social environment is added: "What is the social function of the shaft or turbine?. . . In what way does it operate in production? Which individual, which class, which nation, which race will it serve?" [17, p. 219]. Thus, only as an internal isolate did an object of scientific inquiry have neutral properties. Once the external environment was taken into account, said Levy, science showed itself to be "a definite instrument serving the ends for which production is carried out" [17, p. 220]. "All attempts to isolate any aspect of it," he warned, “be it even the purest mathematics, from the social movement of which it is an integral part, can lead to nothing but false and dangerous conclusions" [17, p. vii] .

Levy and the other members of the SRS movement had a special message for their scientific colleagues—who, they argued, had a unique role in bringing about revolutionary changes in society. The scientist, wrote Levy, would link scientific and social processes by producing the basic knowledge for any new social organization, and by working actively and politically with his colleagues to ensure the practical success of the new movement [18]. In the first instance, he found truth by bringing physical laws to light; in the second, he made truth by bringing social laws into being. The scientists, then, had to abandon his traditional position in the scientific laboratory and enter "the social laboratory where politics is practiced and history is made" [19].

The significance of Levy's discussion—the materialist conception of science, the dialectical view of the relation between science and society, the responsibility of the scientist for political action—was immediately recognized in England. One observer, moderate in his politics, asserted that Levy's views "should assist many scientific workers to think out their own position in relation to the changes which are being produced by the mutual reactions of science and society" [20]. Joseph Needham proclaimed that Levy's ideas, along with Hogben's Nature of Living Matter (1930), marked "the origin of an English neo‑Marxian school of scientific method . . . a movement at least as important as that idealistic reaction of nineteenth century naturalism, of which [it is] the antithesis" [21]. Levy's later works, wrote one more reviewer, outlined "what must be the world outlook of science in the next period of its growth . . . [That] new outlook is not mechanistic, but dialectical" [22].

J. B. S. Haldane, the famous biologist and geneticist, also came to believe that the times required that "socialists learn science and scientists learn socialism" [23]. As the world economic crisis, the rise of Hitler, and finally the Spanish Civil War changed Haldane to a committed Marxist, he too contributed to the developing Marxist analysis of science and society. As he once wrote, "I don't believe in the absolute truth of Marxism in the way that some people believe in religious dogmas. I only believe it is near enough to the truth to make it worth while betting my life on it as against any rival theories" [24].

A series of lectures delivered by Haldane in 1938, published as The Marxist Philosophy  and  the Sciences, became one of the SRS movement's most comprehensive and influential statements on the application of dialectical principles to science, a study called for by Engels in the Preface to his Anti‑Dühring. "The importance of Professor Haldane's book, " wrote a sympathetic commentator, "is indicated by the fact that at last after more than a half‑a‑century a leading scientist in England has taken up this essential task." And, he continued, Haldane did the job well—"he has not only mastered the essentials of the marxist method, but he has been successful in applying this great weapon so as to make a positive contribution to the marxist interpretation of modern scientific knowledge" [25].

Marxism, asserted Haldane in his introductory exposition of its principles, threw new light on science because it viewed science "as a human activity depending both on contemporary social and economic conditions and also on certain very general laws of human thought" [26]. More modest here in his claims for the value of dialectical materialism in actual scientific research than in his writings for the Daily Worker (he wrote a weekly scientific column for the Communist Party newspaper for thirteen years and served as chairman of its editorial board in the 1940s), Haldane applied Marxist principles to mathematics and cosmology, quantum theory and chemistry, biology, psychology, sociology, and the history of science.

The reception to Haldane's book clearly demonstrated that the SRS movement was effective in getting scientists and others to examine Marxism as a legitimate set of beliefs. A reviewer in Nature, the English scientific newsweekly, while not conceding that an "explicit philosophy" was absolutely necessary for scientists, thought that Marxism, in its stress on science, was far more stimulating than positivism [27]. Another reviewer thought that Haldane had proven that dialectical materialism was

an extraordinarily powerful instrument for the interpretation of nature and the control of natural phenomena for human ends . . . . It is surprising to observe how, by deliberately substituting for metaphysical concepts, the constant give‑and‑take of opposing forces within a field of study, such abstractions as Time and Space, matter, energy, mass, the cell and the organism, body and soul, lose their power to confuse and become the operating elements in an unending dialectical process [28].

And one observer evaluated Haldane's more general purpose. Haldane, he stated,

does not write for readers in their capacity of consumers willing to fill a leisure hour with scientific gossip but rather as producers into whose labours science has already entered at every point. He creates a synthesis between the theories of scientists and the actions of workers, miners, chemical manufacturers, barmen, who are applied scientists by virtue of economic necessity. . . . Implicit here is the doctrine that the duty of a scientist is not to explain the world but to alter the world, and implicit on every page of [his books] is the author's belief that his duty as an educator is not to help his readers simply to understand the phenomena but to become the primum mobile of their evolution [29].

The historian and philosopher of science, Stephen Toulmin, has written that "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" [30].

John Desmond Bernal was the cutting edge of the SRS movement. As an X‑ray crystallographer and pioneer in the field of molecular biology, he was universally recognized as a brilliant scientist. No one could neglect his far reaching proposals for an effective organization of science in Britain, his Marxist interpretation of science and society, his view of science as an instrument for socialist revolution. His book, The Social Function of Science, which was written in 1939 and climaxed a decade of thinking by the SRS movement, became a symbol of the movement to adherents and opponents alike. His volume, Science in History (first edition, 1954), epitomized the Marxist approach to the history of science.

These major works stemmed from Bernal's attempts to create what he called "a science of science"—"a new field of study" to analyze science in its interaction with the social environment [31]. Or, in other words, a more systematic treatment of the areas he, Levy, Haldane and other members of the SRS movement had been exploring for almost ten years. For Bernal, this "science of science" rested on two major inquiries. First, an historical basis for the relation of science to society—in Bernal's words, "an aspect of history which has as yet scarcely been touched" [32]—would have to be established. The work of Farrington, Childe, Crowther, Haldane, and preliminary writings by Bernal in this field had already proven the "revolutionary importance" of the history of science because, in the words of one contemporary commentator [33], it disclosed "the fact that science has always been institutionally tied up with social, economic, and political events, whose irrationalities have retarded and frustrated the possibilities of its unrestricted use for human welfare." Bernal would turn his full attention to this in the 1950s.

In addition to the historical base for a "science of science," hard facts on the status of scientific research and teaching had to be collected, analyzed, and presented in a coherent fashion. Specific questions had to be answered: "How many scientific workers are there? How are they financed? What do they do? How is their work coordinated and directed? How is it linked with the satisfaction of human needs and the removal of human evils?" [34]. Bernal undertook this second task in his monumental work of 1939, The Social Function of Science.

The Social Function analyzed both the existing position of science in contemporary capitalist society and the resulting benefits for science and society should the whole scientific enterprise be reorganized—or, in Bernal's words, "What Science Does" and "What Science Could Do." A short list of just some of tile chapter titles will give an indication of the enormous scope of the work: "The Existing Organization of Scientific Research in Britain"; "Science in Education"; "The Efficiency of Scientific Research"; "Science and War"; "Scientific Communication"; "The Finance of Science"; "The Strategy of Scientific 'Advance"; "Science and Social Transformation." The book will have served its purpose, wrote Bernal, "if it succeeds in showing that there is a problem and that on the proper relation of science and society depends the welfare of both" [35].

The book became the pivot for much debate in the 1940s. As it summarized and climaxed a decade of thinking and writing on the social relations of science, it was both a Bible for SRS advocates and the chief target for a newly aroused anti‑Marxist, anti‑SRS group of scientists.

On the one side was the opinion that "no one [had] ever before provided so comprehensive an analysis of the actual working of science" and its connections with social and economic developments [36]. As a contemporary observer put it, with the appearance of Haldane's Marxist Philosophy and the Sciences in 1938 and Bernal's Social Function in 1939, "Marxism definitely becomes a major influence in our thinking on the role of science in society" [37].

Not everyone's thinking, of course. "During the 'thirties,'" John R. Baker wrote to me a few years ago, "I was gradually getting more and more wound up by all the Marxist propaganda until finally I exploded" in a "Counterblast to Bernalism" [38]. Here is how Baker, an Oxford biologist, reacted to The Social Function of Science:

Bernalism is the doctrine of those who profess that the only proper objects of scientific research are to feed people and protect them from the elements, that research workers should be organized in gangs and told what to discover, and that the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake has the same value as the solution of crossword puzzles. . . . What a scientist ought to do is an ethical concern for the judgment of his own conscience. Those to whom one listens with respect when they speak of verifiable matters (e.g., in crystallography) compel attention much less inevitably when they try to lay down the law on moral issues [39].

Michael Polanyi, then a physical chemist at the University of Manchester, did admit that the SRS spokesmen "dazzlingly illuminated . . . the various connections of science with society, the motives for which science is undertaken, the materials which feed it, as well as the effects—good and bad—which result from it." However, they left the "very life of science" in the dark by claiming that "the ideals of a disinterested search for truth and of the cultivation of science for its own sake are unsocial and futile" [40]. And, he asked Bernal, "how can science, if it has to submit to adjustment of its social function at the hands of society, maintain its essence, the spirit of free inquiry?" [41].

Even as Polanyi was writing these words, the social function of science was in fact being adjusted to meet the demands of world war. Bernal became Scientific Advisor to the Chief of Combined Operations and helped the D day landing in 1944 by providing detailed beach maps of Normandy. Haldane was a trusted advisor to the Service Chiefs, working with the Army, Navy, and Air Force on such secret projects as anti-invasion preparations and midget submarines. (This produced the unlikely situation of the chairman of the editorial board of the Daily Worker working for the government at the same time his paper was suppressed by the government for hampering the war effort!) World War thus brought many of the SRS group "inside"; Cold War forced them, once more, into "outsider" politics, as they continued to develop ideas first crystallized by that History of Science Congress of 1931.

I have above painted just the barest sketch of the SRS movement. Basing their analysis on Marxism, these scientists were remarkably successful in developing an all‑embracing philosophy, history, and sociology of science which also bridged scientific thought and political action. Their effect on contemporaries may have been best put by Hyman Levy: "It has not been easy to be a socialist in academic circles," he wrote in 1945. Scientists "have been slow to appreciate. . . that science has social implications and that certain aspects of science have to be viewed in this context. Most of them never troubled to look at Marxism as seriously as they would examine the most trivial of their scientific problems. . . . The change in outlook in the past ten years amounts almost to a revolution in thought" [42].

But their significance did not, in my opinion, end in 1945. The domestic organizations that they established or to which they gave new direction are the direct ancestors of current groups concerned with the social responsibility of science. On the international scene, they played a major role in founding the World Federation of Scientific Workers, which is still active today, and some of them were involved in setting up the still continuing Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs. And as the magnitude of their intellectual achievement emerges from the clouds of the Cold War, a recent evaluation of Bernal's Social Function might be applied to the whole Social Relations of Science Movement: It "forced new thinking on us. It challenged us to see. After twenty‑five years we recognize that its challenge has broadened our minds and helped to change the seemingly unchangeable" [43].


1.  B. Hessen, The Social Roots of Newton's 'Principia' (New York 1971) p. 2.

2.  Robert Cohen, Introduction to Ref. [1], p. ix.

3.  Ref. [1], p.  vi.

4.  J. D. Bernal, The Social Function of Science (London 1939; reprint ed., Cambridge, Mass. 1967), p. 393.

5.  Hyman Levy, Modern Science: A Study of Physical Science in the World Today (New York 1939), p. 97.

6.  See also Robert E. Filner, "The Roots of Political Activism in British Science", Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 32 (Jan.): 25‑29, 1976.

7.  Neal Wood, Communism and British Intellectuals (New York 1959), p. 121.

8.  Ref. [5], p. 97.

9.  Robert Graves and Alan Hodge, The Long Week‑End: A Social History of Great Britain, 1918‑1939 (New York 1963), p. 393.

10.  Ref. [1], p. 121.

11.  V. J. McGill, "Philosophy and Reality", Nation 146: 392, 1938. A review of Hyman Levy's A Philosophy for a Modern Man (London 1938).

12.  "It is a consequence of the advent of quantum theory that physics is no longer pledged to a scheme of deterministic law." Sir Arthur Eddington, The Nature of the Physical World (New York 1929), p. 294.

13. Sir James Jeans, The Mysterious Universe (New York 1930), p. 158.

14.  P. M. S. Blackett, in Ref. [19], p. 196. J. G. Crowther saw Jeans and Eddington as representatives of "a worldwide outburst of animistic thinking, which has strengthened reactionary philosophy nearly everywhere", New Republic 94: 173, 1938, a review of Levy's A Philosophy for a Modern Man (London 1938).

15.  Hyman Levy, Science—Curse or Blessing? (London 1940), p. 6.

16.  Nature 143: 224,1939. A review of Ref. [17].

17. Hyman Levy, The Universe of Science (London 1932), There were also editions in 1938 and 1947.

18.  Hyman Levy, Science in an Irrational Society (London 1934), p. 62.

19.  Hyman Levy, The Web of Thought and Action (London 1934), p, 238.

20.  Rainald Brightman, "Science and Everyday Life", Nature 134: 890, 1934, A review of Ref. [18].

21.  "Science, Philosophy, and the Economic Background", New Statesman and Nation 4: 801, 1932. A review of Ref. [17].

22.  B. Woolf, "Intelligibility and Physics", New Statesman and Nation 17: 1000, 1939. A review of Ref. [5].

23.  J. B. S. Haldane, Science and Human Life (New York 1933), p. 126.

24.  Ref. [23], p. 282. Also see Robert E. Filner, "The Social Relations of Science Movement and J. B. S. Haldane", Science and Society 41 (Fall): 303‑316, 1977.

25.  Clemens Dutt, "Vindicating Marxism", Labour Monthly 21: 184, 1939. A review of Ref. [26].

26.  J. B. S. Haldane, Marxist Philosophy and the Sciences (London 1938), pp. 14‑15.

27.  A. D. R., "An Exposition of Marxism", Nature 143: 97, 1939. A review of Ref. [26].

28.  Harold Ward, "Science and Marxism", New Republic 101: 148, 1939. A review of Ref. [26].

29.  John Langdon‑Davies, "Science for a New Audience", Nature 145: 201‑202, 1940. A review of Haldane's Science and Everyday Life.

30.  Stephen Toulmin, "Progressive Man", New York Review of Books 6: 20, 1966. A review of Bernal's Science in History and of Ref. [43].

31. J. D. Bernal, "Social Relations of Science", Nature 141: 736, 1938.

32.  Ref. [31], p. 736.

33.  Herman Hausheer, "Science and Society", The Christian Century 56: 1208, 1939.

34.  Ref. [31], p. 736.

35.  Ref. [4], p. xv.

36.  Solly Zuckerman, "Science and Society", New Statesman and Nation 17: 298, 1939.

37.  Ref. [28], p. 148.

38.  Personal communication, 2 Aug. 1970.

39.  John R. Baker, "A Counterblast to Bernalism", New Statesman and Nation 18: 174‑175, 1939.

40.  Michael Polanyi, "The Growth of Thought in Society", Economica 8: 428, 1941.

41.  Michael Polanyi, "Rights and Duties of Science", in Contempt of Freedom: The Russian Experiment and After (London 1940), p. 13.

42.  Hyman Levy, Social Thinking (London 1945), p. 10.

43.  Maurice Goldsmith and Alan MacKay, eds., Society and Science (New York 1964), p. 17.

Science and Social Change

Science appears as a slave to social forces foreign to itself; it appears as an external and uncomprehended force, useful but dangerous, holding a position in society like that of a captive workman at the court of some savage monarch. To a large extent this does represent the position of science in modern capitalist society, but if this were all we should have little to hope for either from science or from society. Fortunately, science has [another] and more important function. It is the chief agent of change in society; at first, unconsciously as technical change, paving the way to economic and social changes, and, latterly, as a more conscious and direct motive for social change itself . . . The obstacles to the solution of the problem are not any longer mainly physical or biological problems; they are social obstacles.

— J. D. Bernal, Social Function of Science, p. 383.

SOURCE: Filner, Robert E. "Science and Marxism in England, 1930‑1945," Science and Nature, no. 3 (1980), pp. 60-69.

Science and Nature, Table of Contents, issues #1-10 (1978-1989)

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