John Desmond Bernal

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John Desmond Bernal (May 10, 1901September 15, 1971) was an Irish-born scientist known for pioneering X-ray crystallography in molecular biology, and considered one of the United Kingdom's most well-known and controversial scientists.


  • If Engels had not been the constant companion in arms of Marx in the revolutionary struggles of the 19th century, there is no doubt that he would be remembered chiefly as one of the foremost scientist-philosophers of the century. It was an ironical tribute paid to the correctness of his views as to the relations between politics and ideology that he suffered complete neglect from the scientists of the Victorian age. But time now has taken its revenge, and Engels’ contemporary views on 19th century science seem to us now in the 20th far more fresh and filled with understanding than those of the professional philosophers of science of his day, who for the most part are completely forgotten, while the few that linger on, such as Lange and Herbert Spencer, are only quoted as examples of the limitations of their times.
    • Bernal (1930s) "Labour Monthly Pamphlets, No. 6" (No date). Online (here) on Marxists Internet Archive (2008).
  • One of the questions on which clarity of thinking is now most necessary is that of the relation between the methods of science and of Marxist philosophy. Although much has already been written on the subject, yet there is still an enormous amount of confusion and contradictory statement.
    • J.D. Bernal (1937) "Dialectical Materialism and Modern Science" in: Science and Society, Volume II, No. 1, Winter 1937; Online (here) on Marxists Internet Archive (2002).
  • In the decade after the war Freud’s theories dominated the narrow circles of British intellectuals. His psycho-analysis was accepted warmly for many reasons. It was new and exciting, it was shocking, it debunked religion and morals, it promised an internal liberation from all restraints. Nevertheless, it was essentially a creed of escape into an inner world of complexes and repressions and away from social and economic realities.
    • Bernal (1937) "Psycho-Analysis and Marxism" in: The Labour Monthly, Vol. 19, July 1937, No. 7, pp. 435-437. Online here on Marxists Internet Archive (2010).
  • No one, who knows what the difficulties are, now believes that the crisis of physics is likely to be resolved by any simple trick or modification of existing theories. Something radical is needed, and it will have to go far wider than physics. A new world outlook is being forged, but much experiment and argument will be needed before it can take a definitive form. It must be coherent, it must include and illuminate the new knowledge of fundamental particles and their complex fields, it must resolve the paradoxes of wave and particle, it must make the world inside the atom and the wide spaces of the universe equally intelligible. It must have a different dimension from all previous world views, and include in itself an explanation of development and the origin of new things. In this it will fall naturally in line with the converging tendencies of the biological and social sciences in which a regular pattern blends with their evolutionary history.
  • But if capitalism had built up science as a productive force, the very character of the new mode of production was serving to make capitalism itself unnecessary.
    • J.D. Bernal (1959) Marx and Science. p. 39
  • Life is a partial, continuous, progressive, multiform and conditionally interactive self-realization of the potentialities of atomic electron states.
    • Bernal (1967) The Origin of Life, p. xv. Preface
  • The central industry of modern civilisation, tending, because of its control over materials, to spread into and ultimately incorporate older industries such as mining, smelting, oil- refining, textiles, rubber, building, and even agriculture in respect to fertilizers and food processing.
    • Bernal (1969) Science in History. Vol 3. p. 823
  • If science were communism, was it also not possible that communism could itself become a science?
    • Attributed to Bernal in: Gary Werskey (1978) The visible college. p. 137

The world, the flesh & the devil (1929) (1969)[edit]

J.D. Bernal (1929) The world, the flesh & the devil: an enquiry into the future of the three enemies of the rational soul.
  • There are two futures, the future of desire and the future of fate, and man's reason has never learnt to separate them. Desire, the strongest thing in the world, is itself all future, and it is not for nothing that in all the religions the motive is always forwards to an endless futurity of bliss or annihilation. Now that religion gives place to science the paradiscial future of the soul fades before the Utopian future of the species, and still the future rules. But always there is, on the other side, destiny, that which inevitably will happen, a future here concerned not as the other was with man and his desires, but blindly and inexorably with the whole universe of space and time. The Buddhist seeks to escape from the Wheel of Life and Death, the Christian passes through them in the faith of another world to come, the modern reformer, as unrealistic but less imaginative, demands his chosen future in this world of men.
    • p. 3. Intro of part I. The Future (online)
  • The problem [ of specialization ] is essentially that of communications to an army in action. After a rapid advance communications become disorganized, and there is a temporary halting until they are again in working order.
    • p. 48 as cited in: C. K. Ogden (1995) Psyche. 10. 1929/30 p. 116
  • As the scene of life would be more the cold emptiness of space than the warm, dense atmosphere of planets, the advantage of containing no organic material at all, so as to be independent of both these conditions, would be increasingly felt.
    • p. 63
  • The psychology of a complex mind must differ almost as much from that of a simple, mechanized mind as its psychology would from ours; because something that must underlie and perhaps be even greater than sex is involved.
    • p. 66
  • The present aristocracy of western culture, at the very moment when it most clearly dominates the world, is being imitated rapidly and successfully in every eastern country.
    • p. 68

The Social Function of Science (1939)[edit]

MIT Press paperback ed., March 1967. Routledge, 1946; digitized 2007
  • At different stages in the educational process different changes are required. In schools the chief need is for a general change in the attitude towards science, which should be from the beginning an integral part and not a mere addition, often an optional addition, to the curriculum. Science should be taught not merely as a subject but should come into all subjects. Its importance in history and in modern life should be pointed out and illustrated. The old contrast, often amounting to hostility, between scientific and humane subjects need to be broken down and replaced by a scientific humanism. At the same time, the teaching of science proper requires to be humanized. The dry and factual presentation requires to be transformed, not by any appeal to mystical theory, but by emphasizing the living and dramatic character of scientific advance itself. Here the teaching of the history of science, not isolated as at present, but in close relation to general history teaching, would serve to correct the existing atmosphere of scientific dogmatism. It would show at the same time how secure are the conquests of science in the control they give over natural processes and how insecure and provisional, however necessary, are the rational interpretations, the theories and hypotheses put forward at each stage. Past history by itself is not enough, the latest developments of science should not be excluded because they have not yet passed the test of time. It is absolutely necessary to emphasize the fact that science not only has changed but is continually changing, that it is an activity and not merely a body of facts. Throughout, the social implications of science, the powers that it puts into men's hands, the uses they could make of them and those which they in fact do, should be brought out and made real by a reference to immediate experience of ordinary life.
    • p. 246 : How such a method of teaching could become an integral part of general education is sketched by H. G. Wells' British Association address, "The Informative Content of Education," reprinted in World Brain (Mathuen, 1938).
  • Hogben's Science for the Citizen would be an admirable text-book for such teaching.
    • p. 260
  • [The goal of efficiency was] a system in which all relevant information would be available to each research worker in an amplitude proportional to its degree of relevance.
    • p. 249
  • The problem of the re-organization of science will not be solved by administrative or financial changes. It will also be necessary to reorganise in a most comprehensive way the whole apparatus of scientific communication.
    • p. 292
  • World Encyclopaedia. -- Behind these lies another prospect of greater and more permanent importance; that of an attempt at a comprehensive and continually revised presentation of the whole of science in its social context, an idea most persuasively put forward by H. G. Wells in his appeal for a World Encyclopaedia of which he has already given us a foretaste in his celebrated outlines. The encyclopaedic movement was a great rallying point of the liberal revolution of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The real encyclopaedia should not be what the Encyclopaedia Britannica has degenerated into, a mere mass of unrelated knowledge sold by high-pressure salesmanship, but a coherent expression of the living and changing body of thought; it should sum up what is for the moment the spirit of the age...
    The original French Encyclopaedia which did attempt these things was, however, made in the period of relative quiet when the forces of liberation were gathering ready to break their bonds. We have already entered the second period of revolutionary struggle and the quiet thought necessary to make such an effort will not be easy to find, but some effort is worth making because the combined assault on science and humanity by the forces of barbarism has against it, as yet, no general and coherent statement on the part of those who believe in democracy and the need for the people of the world to take over the active control of production and administration for their own safety and welfare.
    • p. 306-307. Chapter SCIENTIFIC COMMUNICATION. The Function of Scientific Publication. See also World Brain
  • In science men have learned consciously to subordinate themselves to a common purpose without losing the individuality of their achievements. Each one knows that his work depends on that of his predecessors and colleagues, and that it can only reach its fruition through the work of his successors. In science men collaborate not because they are forced to by superior authority or because they blindly follow some chosen leader, but because they realize that only in this willing collaboration can each man find his goal.
    • p. 415-416. Chapter XVI. THE SOCIAL FUNCTION OF SCIENCE. The Transformation of Science

Science in History (1954)[edit]

  • It was my purpose to emphasize... to what extent the advance of natural science has helped to determine that of society... not only in economic changes... by the application of scientific discoveries, but... by the effect of the general frame of thought... [N]othing less would be adequate than a complete reevaluation of the reciprocal relations of science and society.
    • Preface
  • It would be as one-sided to assess the effects of science on society as of society on science.
    • Preface
  • [T]o seek to discover how the advance of science had altered the whole frame of human thought, it would... be necessary to go back through the great controversies of the Renaissance about the Nature of the heavens, and... to the Ancients, without whose theories the controversies would have no meaning.
    There was nothing... but to attempt to trace the whole story from the... origins of human society. This involved a parallel study of all social and economic history in relation to the history of science... [T]here seemed some excuse for making a first attempt to sketch out the field, if only to stimulate, through... omissions and errors, others more leisured and qualified... No attempt is made here to present a chronologically uniform picture.
    • Preface
  • [S]cience has so changed its nature over... human history that no definition could be made to fit.
    • Preface
  • [T]he centre of interest... lies in natural science and technology because... the sciences of society were first embodied in tradition and ritual and only took shape under the influence and on the model of the natural sciences.
    • Preface
  • The theme which constantly recurs is the complex interaction between techniques, science, and philosophy. Science stands as a middle term between the established and transmitted practice of men who work for a living, and the pattern of ideas and traditions which assure the continuity of society and the rights and privileges of the classes that make it up.
    • Preface
  • Science, in one aspect, is ordered technique; in another, it is rationalized mythology. Because it started as a hardly distinguishable aspect of the mystery of the craftsman and the lore of the priest... science was long in establishing any independent existence in society. Even when it did find its own... adepts in medicine, astrology, and alchemy, these formed, for many ages a small group parasitic on wealthy princes, clerics, and merchants. It is only in the last three centuries that science has become traditionally established as a profession in its own right, with its specific education, literature, and fellowship.
    • Preface
  • The progress in science has been anything but uniform in time and place. ...In the course of time the centres of scientific activity have been continually displaced, usually following rather than leading the migration of the centres of commercial and industrial activity. Babylonia, Egypt, and India have all been the foci of ancient science. Greece became their common heir, and there the rational basis... was first worked out. There was little place for science in Rome and none in the barbarian kingdoms of western Europe. The heritage of Greece returned to the East from whence it had come. In Syria, Persia, and India, even in... China, new breaths... came... in a brilliant synthesis under the banner of Islam. There they underwent a development which... was to give rise to... modern science.
    • Preface
  • [T]radition links us with the revolutionary science of the Renaissance... we can distinguish... four major periods of advance. [1] [C]entred in Italy... the renewal of mechanics, anatomy, and astronomy with Leonardo, Vesalius, and Copernicus, destroying the authority of the Ancients in their central doctrines of man and the world. [2] [S]preading to the Low Countries, France, and Britain, beginning with Bacon, Galileo, and Descartes, and ending in Newton, hammered out a new mathematical mechanical model of the world. [3] [C]entred in industrial Britain and revolutionary Paris, opened... areas of experience... as... electricity... It was then that science could help... with power, machinery, and chemicals, to transform production and transport. [4] [T]he scientific revolution of our own time. ...[T]he beginning of a world science, transforming old and creating new industries, permeating every aspect of human life. ...[N]ow... we find science directly involved in the violent and terrible drama of wars and social revolution.
    • Preface

Quotes about John Desmond Bernal[edit]

  • Never had Frederick Engels' famous notion of 'scientific socialism' been treated so literally.
    • Gary Werskey (1978) The visible college. p. 137: Talking about Bernal's ideas about science and communism
  • 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.
  • The extent of his faith in science can best be described as religious devotion. He comments himself: 'The same type of mind that would now make a physicist would in the Middle Ages have made a scholastic theologian.'
    • Christopher Freeman (1992) The economics of hope: essays on technical change, economic growth, and the environment. p. 25
  • He idealized science not just as knowledge but in a political sense too, believing that the management of human affairs could also be more scientific by virtue of being socialist. He was thus particularly inclined to accept the claims of Soviet Marxism to represent science in general, and to accord it the same degree of respect.
    • Christopher Freeman in: J. D. Bernal: A Life in Science and Politics Brenda Swann, Francis Aprahamian ed. p. 125
  • I remember excitedly buying a boxed set of 4 books, Science in History by John D. Bernal (Pelican, 1965), when I was an undergraduate. At the time I was an amateur Marxist and Bernal’s work was an encyclopaedic analysis of science and society from a Marxist point of view. I was delighted to learn that Bernal was an Irishman who had spent a brilliant career at the leading edge of UK science, making many notable contributions.
  • John Desmond Bernal (1901-1971) was undoubtedly the most important of the "Western" scientists who, during the twentieth century, accepted the Marxist view of social development. He did more than "accept" it: he tried to sketch the whole history of science from a Marxist viewpoint; he wrote a number of articles explicitly expounding his view of the relation of Marxism to science; and from his student days he played an active role in Communist politics. He has been criticised: during his lifetime, for too readily accepting official Soviet policy, whether relating to society or to science; since his death, for having been too ready to hope that his vision of the use of science for human ends could be implemented by capitalist societies; and at all times, for an allegedly simplistic faith in science as the salvation of mankind.

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