J.D.Bernal: science and social development

by Brian Vickery

bernaljd (99K)

While at university I read a book published in 1939, The social function of science, by J.D.Bernal, and his writings and activities became and remained an important influence in my life.

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.

Bernal and science

Bernal was born in 1901 in Tipperary, Ireland. In his early ‘teens, he conceived the idea "to use science and apply it to war to liberate Ireland". Even before he knew much science, he saw it as his vocation, and also saw it as an agent of social change. In 1918 he went to Cambridge University, discovered socialism, and for the rest of his life was linked to socialist and communist activities. He worked as a scientist at the Royal Institution, at Cambridge University, and eventually at Birkbeck College London, and was elected Fellow of the Royal Society in 1937. He helped lay the foundation for what is now known as molecular biology. Throughout his busy life, apart from his many scientific papers he wrote articles and books expounding his general views about science and society. Most of the time he interpreted "science" as the natural sciences, though in later years he made a not altogether successful attempt to come to grips with the social sciences. He died in 1971.

Bernal’s recurrent theme was "what science does and what it could do". Science is now "doing" mightily: it has interpenetrated technical innovation so greatly that in some areas the two have merged; it has become "big science", with powerful equipment and large teams of workers absorbing large resources; it has become overwhelmingly financed – and some would say controlled – by industry and government. Yet despite – or perhaps because of – these achievements, there is much fear and distrust of science, and attacks on its very nature. Bernal’s faith and hope in "what science could do" in the service of man is no longer shared by many. His optimism was part and parcel of the Marxist optimism that humanity could take control of its future, could plan and act cooperatively to build a better way of life.

Marxism has traditionally approved of science – indeed, has taken pride in claiming itself to be a scientific analysis of social development. When the Marxist analysis was first formulated, natural science was contributing little to technical development. Only towards the end of the nineteenth century did science begin to permeate the older craft industries and agriculture, and give rise to major new industries – chemical and electrical – based upon it. What was the Marxist attitude to science?

Marx expected that eventually all the sciences would be pressed into the service of capital, and invention would become a business, with science applied directly to production. His critique of the application of science to production lay in this: that within the capitalist system "all means for the development of production [...] become a means for the domination and exploitation of the producers […] They alienate from the worker the intellectual potentialities of the labour process in the same proportion as science is incorporated in it as an independent power" (Capital). It was therefore the manner in which capitalism applied science to production – as a power that used workers as mere "appendages of the machine", minimising their intellectual input – that aroused his anger.

Yet this potential misuse of science seems to have been divorced in Marx’s mind from the activity of science itself. There is an interesting footnote in Capital: "Science, generally speaking, costs the capitalist nothing". Presumably, Marx envisaged science as produced by academics (or men of private means like Darwin) and published by scientific societies, thus being freely available to all who could make use of it, as was indeed true in the mid-nineteenth century. In itself therefore, for Marx, science, like all reliable knowledge, was good, even if the use made of it was perverted.

Marx, it seems, may have accepted what has been called "the Legend" (John Ziman, Real science, 2000). Scientists have generally seen themselves as a largely autonomous community of people dedicated to the disinterested search for understanding of nature, who give full recognition to the achievements of their predecessors and contemporaries, cumulatively building up the structure of scientific fact and theory, and whose reward for originality is prestige in that community. Scientific standards are maintained by prompt and full publication of all research, peer review, free and democratic discussion of it, mutual criticism, and the rejection of shoddy or biased work. There is plenty of fierce competition in science for recognition and prestige, but this intellectual clash is precisely the mechanism that maintains the standards of the community. Pure science has been summed up as being communal (freely sharing knowledge and skill), universal (equally open to all regardless of status or any other social difference), disinterested (not biased by personal or group interests) and original (giving highest credit to the creation of new knowledge). While science remained outside the control of government and industry, the reality was not too far from the ideals of the Legend – though individual scientists fell short of the ideal, collectively science adhered to it. Many scientists still cling to these principles. Even though their theories might at times be ideologically blinkered, they feel that their hearts are pure.

Yet scientists live, as do we all, in a world in which they are subject to concentric spheres of influence: their immediate work environment (the laboratory or institution where they perform their research); their colleagues in the scientific field in which they specialise (as found, for example, in the meetings and publications of their professional society); the scientific community as a whole (of which they are aware through their education and their wider reading); the particular national community in which they live; and whatever of wider world culture they may have imbibed. Every sphere exerts its influence on the way that each scientist thinks and acts.

Scientific activity is open to influence at each stage of the research process. For example, the problem situations that a particular scientist recognises are those that occur in the limited areas of "nature" and human activity which he can observe or have brought to his attention, and are likely to be those that relate to his own area of expertise. His estimate of their "significance" to the development of his field of science will be influenced by his knowledge of the prevailing "state of the art" in that field, and in particular by the current interests of his laboratory or 'school of thought'. His idea of what is a "feasible" project will depend on what methods, techniques and tools he can employ. The kinds of explanatory concept that he puts forward may be limited to those that are currently conventional in his field or in science generally. The same factors apply to the process of public assessment: the journal editors and professional referees who consider a research report may assess the results, or even the whole project, to be "not significant", or "unsound" in methodology, or "unconvincing" in its explanations, and in this assessment can be influenced by their social contexts. At every stage, there is one material factor that influences what problems are selected for investigation: resources. If an individual scientist, or laboratory, or institution, or society, cannot or will not find the resources to fund the work time, the tools, the materials, the accommodation and so on needed to carry out a project, then it cannot be carried out.

For all these reasons, even if the Legend can be given credence, science can be distorted by social influences. With vast expansion in funds and human resources, scientists today have been able to mount grandiose cooperative projects involving large teams and expensive equipment, for example high-speed "colliders" to explore elementary particles, huge telescopes, the human genome project. As science has merged with innovation to become R&D, large product-oriented "missions" have been developed – starting with the Manhattan project to build an atomic bomb, going on into space exploration, communications satellites, pharmaceuticals development and so on. These missions are increasingly transdisciplinary – the teams involved are made up of specialists from many sciences and branches of technology. Research is now rarely the work of a "lonely seeker after truth". It is teamwork, with division of labour, technical support staff, instrument designers, software engineers and other specialists. All this specialised division of labour narrows the outlook of the individual specialist.

Compared to traditional academic science, the key difference in the situation today is that most scientists either work directly for an industrial or governmental organisation, or are funded by one. The "influence spheres" within which they live have altered: their immediate work environment is already shaped by its wider institutional setting. In contrast to the traditional principles of scientific activity (communal, universal, disinterested, original), Ziman sees the new social environment of science to be proprietary, local, authoritarian, commissioned and "expert". It often produces, not communal but proprietary knowledge that is not necessarily made public; it is often focussed on local technical problems rather than on general understanding; industrial and government researchers mostly act under managerial authority rather than as individuals; their research is commissioned to achieve practical goals, rather than in the "pursuit of knowledge"; they are employed as expert "problem-solvers", rather than for personal creativity and originality. In less than a generation, wrote Ziman in 2000, "we have witnessed a radical, irreversible, world-wide transformation in the way that science is organised, managed and performed".

The key problem is, who now sets the research agenda? Traditionally, science has assumed that research problems arise basically out of the internal development of science itself (though acknowledging that practical and social issues can stimulate development) and that therefore the agenda for research has been and should be set by scientists themselves. But in research controlled ultimately by industry and government, "problems" are defined in technological or social terms, to which science is expected to make a contribution, "on tap but not on top". In this situation, the research agenda is set basically by those who fund science, with scientists only able to act as "advisers".

When science could be regarded as primarily an autonomous self-organising social activity, as in the days of the Legend, there was no more reason for the rest of society to question its agenda than for society to question the agenda of artists or composers. But when science came under the financial patronage of the government (as, for example, astronomy did quite early), and still more when much research has come under the direct control of government and industry, then we may query: are the scientific problems now being addressed those which are most relevant to social needs?

This raises the more general issue: what do we want from science? What ends should be served by the scientific search for rational understanding? We need knowledge if we are to act successfully, but what actions do we value most? There are innumerable activities going on in the world to which scientific knowledge might contribute – how do we prioritise them? Which most deserve the expenditure of effort and resources to provide them with the knowledge that they need? Against what social values should we judge the current research agenda? We may well decide that some research carried out by scientists is of little social value - and indeed may result in social harm. These questions in turn raise the whole issue of our assessment of government and industry as arbiters of social values.

There are many different approaches to science and technology today. Both have vastly expanded during the twentieth century, and closely interpenetrated each other. Many of the millions of research and development scientists and engineers in the world today are well satisfied with their sphere of work. It gives them employment, it is often very interesting, and they feel that in general it is of service to humanity. But among people in general, opposing views are often held. Some may see science as exciting, pure "natural magic", a cornucopia of new gifts for mankind, but to others it may be seen as incomprehensible, and even as a waste of time and resources – who needs all this vastly expensive study of a "big bang" universe, of invisibly small elementary particles? To some, genetic science even seems sacrilegious – tampering with a human essence that should be sacrosanct. Views of science are often coloured by views of the technology with which it is now so closely coupled. To some, technology is providing ever new and delightful gadgets, ever more cures for disease, but to others it seems irresponsible, doing more harm than good with the pollution that it spreads, the weapons that it fosters, and the dehumanisation of work and loss of jobs that ever-increasing automation brings about. There are ill-defined fears of the scientists, or the computers, taking over our lives.

Among intellectuals, there are many varieties of "anti-scientism". The so-called "postmodernists" are disillusioned with the very idea of honest inquiry, of truth-seeking. Views are expressed that truth should cease to be a primary aim of science, and even that talk of truth may make no sense; that truth is just what can survive all conversational objections; that truth is neither intrinsically nor instrumentally valuable, and that a belief is justified if it supports whatever the believer values; that "good scholarship" just means being able to convince your funders to continue their support.

A more subtle attack has been mounted by so-called "radical science" (this is a politico-philosophical stance, not one within science). It is argued that we live under capitalism, so we have capitalist science. Modern science and modern capitalism arose from a single worldview in which fact and value are separated and upon which modern society and its scientistic foundations were erected as a single edifice. This, the "radicals" maintain, will have to be dismantled, brick by brick, including and especially those metaphysical foundations which generated the ideas of truth, objectivity, progress, rationality and human nature with which science has operated. Bernal is criticised as "positivistic" and "scientistic", naïve in his view that science – as it has developed through ancient, medieval and capitalist societies – has built up knowledge which, though always provisional, is a reliable foundation for action; that scientific knowledge is, indeed, the essential foundation for action. Capitalist science, so the critics claim, can only benefit capitalists.

What is undoubtedly true in all this, as already noted, is that scientists can only investigate matters for which they can get funding, which is now largely controlled by industry and government, so that "capitalist science" may indeed be failing to investigate matters relevant to human needs. But knowledge that is unreliable is of no more use to the capitalist than to anyone else, so the science that does get done is potentially of use and benefit to all, even though capitalism may be misapplying it. As Bronowski put it (in Identity of man), "the findings of science are ethically neutral, the activities of scientists are not". We may accept science as reliable knowledge, and at the same time criticise and even condemn the activities of those scientists who work on projects harmful to society.

Bernal’s central message was this: The world as currently organised is not meeting human needs. Technically, with the aid of science, it could do so. "With the knowledge and experience already at our command we could build a world that would provide for every single person in it". What is required is a great human effort to achieve the cooperation and collaboration in the application of science and technology that will ensure a better world. "The only alternatives now are world domination by force or world cooperative organisation. The setting up of a working productive organisation, consciously directed to the satisfaction of human needs, is the primary social aim of this time. It implies first of all the negative work of crushing all social forces that tend to check the development of the new productive forces or to divert them to destructive or limited ends. On the positive side it implies the actual planning and putting into operation of a vast interrelated set of schemes for raising productivity to new levels, and for directing that productivity at every stage so as to satisfy human needs and enlarge human capacities."

"Man must now for the first time accept the responsibility for running his world in a sensible way. It is especially the scientist’s responsibility because he is the first to see what can be done, but it is none the less everyone’s responsibility. We have now one world: we must see how to run it. The world won’t run itself any more. It is for us to think out afresh what kind of a world we want and how we are going to get it [...] The running of the world in a conscious way is going to be such an enormous and complicated job that we shall need to make use of every scrap of intelligence, every scrap of goodwill, every scrap of initiative that every person in the world possesses".

This great effort will require political action, social and ethical decisions as well as technical ones. Some of the technical decisions will prove faulty – the new technology may have unwanted consequences – and will have to be corrected, but this is an inevitable feature of life. The essential underpinning to give us the technical tools to do the job is continued support for science.

His message rested on the profound conviction that the data, the facts, relations and laws of science, cumulated over the centuries, are at any one moment the most reliable guide to what human action can achieve. All attempts to denigrate the methods of science only hold back our use of science for human betterment, and our improvement of scientific knowledge. Knowledge (data, facts, laws) about the natural world, about man-made artefacts, about technological processes, and about people and their needs and activities, is a necessity if we are to take any action. "In so far as we do not know, we also cannot do, and any freedom we have is illusory".

He was also profoundly convinced that what man can achieve, man will achieve: since we now have the science and technology to build a better world, we will find a way to create that world. His was a philosophy of hope. "That hope is not a mystical one, nor one founded on belief in any 'automatic deliverance'. Hope is based on experience: the experience of man’s years of bitter, often defeated, but ever more successful struggle for a better life".

He did not ask people to accept unquestioned each proposal that the technologists make, whether about the disposal of radioactive waste, genetically modified crops, or any other potentially hazardous enterprise. He wanted everyone to have his and her say. But he hoped people would base their views on scientifically established facts, not on opinion and prejudice. In his day, his attack on the distortions of science was usually directed against its militarisation. He paid little attention to environmental pollution, or to what has been called "the degradation of work" (books calling attention to this last – such as Braverman’s Labour and monopoly capital, and Terkel’s Working – were not published until 1974).

There was a danger that he did not foresee. As already noted, the merging of much of science and technology to become R&D funded by government and industry means that much research now contributes directly to large product-oriented missions. These "missions" - for example, "Star wars", genetic crop modification, energy resources - are concerned with very much more than scientific results. They have wide and often unforeseen and unintended technical, environmental and social consequences. Because the driving forces behind the missions are industrial profit or governmental policy, inadequate attention and research may be directed to these consequences. The answer to this is not less science, but more - the scientific study of the technical, environmental and social consequences of the application of science.

Bernal was not a practical politician. When considering how "the great transformation" to a better world was to be made, he rarely said more than "the conscious organised effort of the people themselves". He envisaged that leadership would come from socialist movements. He lived during the period of the "Cold War" between the Soviet Union and "the West", and retained a hope that the two sides would find it to their mutual interest to cooperate. He also retained the belief – or was it just a hope he could not relinquish? – that the USSR, despite everything, was still moving towards the kind of society he wished for. The collapse of the Soviet state has put paid to any such hopes.

But the slowly rising tide of protest at global capitalism and the campaign to end world poverty provide a new hope. In that campaign we need Bernal’s vision that, through science and its application, the hope is realistic, the end attainable, a better world achievable. Bernal was critical of Utopian writings, yet in many ways his own work was Utopian. I think perhaps he would have agreed with Oscar Wilde: "A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realisation of Utopias" (The soul of man under socialism).

In World without war, Bernal has a chapter on "the limits of the foreseeable future". In it, he asked, once food, clothing and shelter is generously available for all, how would people live, what would they do? The next goal to be aimed at would be the ending of all hard and monotonous work. With industry so transformed, he envisaged that "nearly all work would be an adventure or a research – there is not very much difference between them [...] The society in which everybody can be effective all their lives would be a really good society. Some readers may feel that the picture I draw is a purely material one [...] they are afraid , and rightly so, of an ordered world in which fantasy and irregularity have no place. There is absolutely no need for this to happen [...] We want more and more people to enjoy life and make it more worth enjoying". So say all of us.

Bernal and the development of society

In 2005 Andrew Brown published a biography of J.D.Bernal, based not only on what has already been published by and about him, but also on the Bernal archive in Cambridge University Library, other academic archives, and interviews with such colleagues and friends as were still alive. The result is a detailed and rewarding account of Bernal's work in natural science, which also pays due attention to his many public and political activities. But it does not seriously address his view of society, the Marxism to which he adhered for the whole of his adult life.

It is not too much to say that Brown simply regards this as an unfortunate mental aberration. In his summarising "Postscript", he quotes with approval the physicist Appleton's statement that there are "two Professor Bernals: one is the brilliant natural philosopher of worldwide renown, the other is a fervid convert to an extreme political theory". To explain this, Brown quotes the journalist Kingsley Martin: "Bernal was not the man to do without a religion. His romantic temperament demanded an ideal […] Only communism satisfied his needs, since he thought it alone had the proper attitude towards science". So Bernal's belief in communism is explained as a "romantic" religious substitute for his former catholicism, not to be taken as a serious intellectual commitment.

Brown nowhere discusses Marxism as such - he equates it with the practice of the twentieth-century Soviet state, which he wholly condemns. It must be admitted that Bernal's refusal to make any public criticism of Soviet practice helps to make such an equation plausible. But Bernal's views on society did not derive from that practice, but from a wide-ranging knowledge of world history informed by the ideas of Marx and Engels. These thinkers can no more be held responsible for the acts of Stalin or Mao than Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot or Condorcet can be held responsible for French revolutionary terror and the acts of Napoleon. Marx has an honoured place in the histories of philosophy and of social science, and Bernal's views in these fields deserve to be discussed in that light, and not only in terms of his misplaced belief that the USSR was heading towards socialism. This belief was, after all, shared by our capitalist rulers (what else was the Cold War about?). My aim in this essay is not to criticise Andrew Brown, but to look at what Bernal wrote about the development of society, and at the historical and contemporary reasons behind his views.

The great transformation

Bernal discovered the ideas of socialism in his first term at Cambridge University ( November 1918). During the next twenty years he took part in a variety of experiences and activities that are well described by Brown. Endless student discussions, absorption in the study of crystal symmetries, marriage, graduating and moving to the Royal Institution in London, working with communists in support of striking coal miners, moving back to Cambridge as a lecturer and researcher, and in 1929 publishing his first book, The world, the flesh and the devil, an essay on a possible future for man. In this he predicted the building of permanent space stations, and the modification of the human body by what we now think of as "genetic engineering" and "cyborg" surgery. By 1937, he was a member of the Cambridge Scientists Anti-War Group that investigated and published a book on The protection of the public from aerial attack. For all the scientific work completed during these years, Bernal was elected Fellow of the Royal Society in 1937, and in 1938 was appointed professor at Birkbeck College London. In 1939 he published The social function of science (SFS), which had a wide impact. In this he demonstrated his great knowledge of science and technology, of their organisation, and of their future possibilities. He argued that science within capitalism was distorted by being used for military and commercial purposes, from which it would be freed under socialism.

In none of this work did Bernal directly address the issue of social development. He was primarily concerned, then as indeed later, with the ways in which changes in society affect science, and how science could increasingly have an impact on society. But in SFS he was beginning to write about "the great transformation". He saw human social development as having taken place in three stages: the emergence of social man from animal existence; the emergence of civilisation based on agriculture and cities; and now, the use of science and technology to transform society. "Science implies a unified and coordinated and, above all, conscious control of the whole of social life […] Henceforth society is subject only to the limitations it imposes on itself. The mere knowledge of this possibility is enough to drive man on until he has achieved it […] We are in the middle of one of the major transition periods of human history. Our most immediate problem is to ensure that the transition is accomplished as rapidly as possible, with the minimum of material, human and cultural destruction". The transformation will involve the elimination of "preventible evils" - starvation, disease, slavery, war - but even more, "the production of new good things, better, more active and more harmonious ways of living, individually and socially".

In 1941, with the war against fascism well under way, Bernal sat down to work out "a total reaction to the world situation". His reflections - an essay of over 60 pages - were published in 1942, and reprinted in 1949 in the collection The freedom of necessity (FN). Once again he took up the theme of "the great transformation".

"A great social transformation has been maturing in the past four hundred years. For the first time human beings are beginning to control the conditions of their lives - the whole human environment - consciously through the use of science. An enormous mechanical apparatus of material production and distribution is already in being. But it has been built up in the framework of the old civilisation, the pillars of which were private property and state authority, [which] has visibly failed to provide for the extent of cooperative planning that is required for the working of the modern productive machine […] Men must work all together if they are not to spend their lives and strength killing each other […] The only alternatives now are world domination by force or world cooperative organisation".

Bernal spelt out his view of the development of human society in a little more detail. "Mankind came into existence when, through social cooperation, they were able to exploit nature collectively […] But with the introduction of agriculture man, controlling through his understanding certain plants and animals, was able by his crops and herds to secure a more thorough exploitation of the primary resources of land and water […] The industrial (scientific or mechanical) revolution went one step further - the control and exploitation of inorganic natural forces and materials […] This third stage makes far greater demands on human understanding, and these are not limited but progressively increase as the scale of exploitation of natural powers increases. Rational and scientific analysis takes the place of traditional thought. There is a transformation of human mind and human society no less than of the material basis of life".

"The difficult birth and the struggling youth of the scientific and technical conquest of the material environment occurred - and could only occur - under conditions of capitalism, but it does not at all follow that capitalism is necessarily and permanently associated with these transformations. In fact, [the world today] demonstrates that this is not the case […] Capitalism has been like the wizard's apprentice in the fairy story, who knew the spell to make the spirits work but after conjuring them up could not control them […] Marx characterised capitalism as an increasing organisation and socialisation [cooperative action] in the production of goods, unaccompanied by the socialisation [cooperative distribution] of the products. Since Marx's time, the degree of organisation of production has increased enormously. It is now apparent to most intelligent people in the world that this organisation could be used effectively for general benefit if we could solve the human and social problems involved in the transition from serving the vested interests of the few to serving the common interests of all […] We are realising that our productive powers will be of no use to humanity unless the whole of human effort on a world scale is consciously organised and integrated".

"The general object of human society", Bernal maintained, "which can be realised only by our becoming conscious of it, is the establishment of the best possible biological and social environment for every man, woman and child. A good biological environment means, for human beings, what for years past it has meant for domestic animals - plenty of good and agreeable food, freedom from excessive heat and cold, a pleasant atmosphere to live, work and play in, security from attack of all avoidable diseases, and medical treatment for all unavoidable ones […] A good social environment implies a positive consciousness in all men and women of working together for the common good, a fundamental combination of freedom and cooperation".

" The only way of securing a good biological and social environment for all is by setting up a well organised productive and distributive mechanism […] This implies the negative work of crushing all social forces that would check the development of the productive forces or divert them to destructive or limited ends. Positively, it implies the planning and putting into operation of a vast interrelated set of schemes for raising human productivity to new levels, and for directing that productivity at every stage so as to satisfy human needs and enlarge human capacities […] Under present-day conditions, no great enterprise can be carried out to ultimate success unless it has the willing and conscious collaboration of innumerable groups of human beings working together. The technique of working together in small groups, for purposes that extend beyond the interests of the individual, is the essence of democracy".

"The ideals for which the great struggles of the last three hundred years have been fought were summed up in the three great rights of man in the French revolution - liberty , equality and fraternity […] They may still stand as necessary conditions for an effective productive mechanism […] The society of the future cannot admit any type of imposed inequality, because in doing so it would defeat its own ends, the achievement of a good human environment […] Liberty will come to mean the fullest use of the capacities of every individual […] Fraternity is the most important of the three rights […] it is not an ideal virtue to be obtained in the future: it is a practical necessity for working together now to make a tolerable world".

Assessment

There is much more in Bernal's essay than I have been able to summarise here. Andrew Brown spent a page or so commenting on it. Scornfully, he writes that Bernal "adopted the tone of a secular prophet". "It appeared to him that the whole world was becoming Marxist because in wartime we are coming naturally to think and act in terms of directed economic and social organisation ". Many statements in the essay showed that "his faith in the Soviet system as a model for the post-war world was unshakeable". It is true that Bernal did see the use of science and planning in the USSR as a potential model. But the thrust of his argument was about the present state and possible future of the world as a whole. I am truly sorry for Andrew Brown if all he saw in this essay was the fervid exposition of an extreme political theory. On the contrary, it was clearly and calmly reasoned, and grounded in the Enlightenment principles to which we still pay lip service. [In his 2005 inaugural address, President Bush mentioned "free" or "freedom" 34 times, and "liberty" 15 times. Equality and fraternity, however, did not rate a mention.]

It is over 60 years since the essay was written. Was Bernal right in claiming that capitalism "has visibly failed to provide for the extent of cooperative planning that is required for the working of the modern productive machine"? Take the longest historical view. In 1400, the domestic products per head of population in Europe and in China were approximately equal, and there was still no great difference between them in the eighteenth century. Since 1400, the figure for Europe and its "offshoots" such as the USA has multiplied by over 30 times; the figure for China by only 5 times (Beaud, History of capitalism, 2001). It would seem that the productive machine has been triumphantly successful for the industrialised "West", and - it might be argued - when China and the rest of the world industrialise, their productivity will catch up. Nevertheless, the fact remains that the world today is one of gross economic inequality: divide the world population into five equal groups based on income, and look at the results in the following table (Beaud):

Group1965197019801990
Poorest 20%2.32.21.71.4
Second 20%2.92.82.21.8
Third 20% 4.2 3.9 3.5 2.1
Fourth 20% 21.2 21.3 18.311.3
Richest 20% 69.5 70.0 75.4 83.4

The richest 20% in 1965 received 69.5% of the world's income. During the next 25 years, this share increased to 83.4%, and is higher today (Dicken puts the figure at 86%), while everybody else has grown relatively poorer. Under capitalism in its "global" phase economic inequality is still vast, and it is growing wider, in spite of all the alleged "governance" of the world economy by the World Trade Organisation, the World Bank, and so on. Even in the industrialised countries, economists are beginning to ask "where will the jobs come from?" (Dicken, Global shift, 2003).

"Imagine a wondrous machine, strong and supple, a machine that reaps as it destroys. It is huge and mobile, something like the machines of modern agriculture but vastly more complicated and powerful. Think of this awesome machine running over the terrain and ignoring familiar boundaries. It plows across fields and fences and houses with a fierce momentum that is exhilarating to behold and also frightening. As it goes, the machine throws off enormous mows of wealth and bounty, while it leaves behind great furrows of wreckage. Now imagine that though there are skilful hands on board, no one is at the wheel. In fact, the machine has no steering wheel nor any internal governor to control its speed and direction. It is sustained by its own forward motion, guided mainly by its own appetites. And it is accelerating. The machine is modern capitalism driven by the imperatives of global industrial revolution […] As the global system has extended its reach, the ancient paradox of poverty amidst plenty becomes more acute and obvious because, even though many prosper, the extremes between wealth and the unfilled human needs grow wider. Capitalism's enduring barbarism is: Why must so many human beings suffer from scarcity when the world is awash in abundance? […] Capitalism, for all its wondrous creativity and wealth, has not found a way to clothe the poor and feed the hungry unless they can pay for it" (Greider, One world, ready or not, 1997).

The global capitalist machine is indeed not controlled by any one agent at the wheel - in principle, its activity is anarchic, the outcome of a struggle among many competing forces. But the most powerful players in the game are transnational firms and national governments (Dicken).

For those who accept this analysis of the world today, which corresponds to Bernal's view, there are three alternatives. First, there are those who play the capitalist game, climb aboard the machine and use their skills to get as much of the "wealth and bounty" for themselves as they can. There are many individuals, businesses, associations and governments who act in this way. Second, there are those who regard the machine as unstoppable, its continued forward motion as inevitable, but nevertheless seek to lessen the impact of the wreckage it causes, by national and international regulations, by "social safety nets", by charitable donations, by "development aid". There are individuals, associations, governments and even businesses who act in this way. Third, there are those who refuse to accept that humanity is incapable of living a humane life, and work for the time when the peoples of the world take democratic control of the production machine and build a better future. There are individuals and associations, but no businesses or governments, who act in this way.

The struggle for democratic control of the economy has been and will continue to be long and difficult. "The blunt truth is that the political power arrayed against reform visions is overwhelming, while the people who support new directions are quite weak. The inertial momentum of the status quo - the insecurity of political leaders, intimidated as they are by the overbearing influence of business and finance - makes it quite difficult, if not impossible, to imagine that the alternative path will receive rational consideration and timely response […] I would estimate that the global system will probably experience a series of wrenching calamities (economic or social or environmental) before common sense can prevail" (Greider).

What must occur for the peoples of the world to win effective democratic control of the productive machine? They must become sufficiently aware of the ills from which the world is suffering; sufficiently agreed that the root cause of these ills is the capitalist mode of production; sufficiently imaginative to conceive of an alternative mode of production - indeed, mode of life - to which they can aspire; sufficiently convinced of the kinds of action that must be taken to bring about this change; and sufficiently organised to actually make - indeed, enforce - the change. Here I want to consider only the third of these conditions - conceiving an alternative mode of life.

What are the key features of the global capitalism within which we now all live? (1) Most of the facilities for producing the goods and services on which we depend are owned and controlled by private corporations. The corporations differ greatly in size, from one-man firms to giant transnationals, and it is the latter who have the most power and influence in the competition between them. Most people work for wages, directly or indirectly, for a corporation of one kind or another. (2) These corporations exist - and can only exist - by selling their goods and services for profit on local or world markets to those people who have purchasing resources. They cannot avoid making profitability, and staying ahead of the competition, their over-riding objective. (3) People with insufficient resources can obtain goods and services only through governmental welfare or charity. (4) In actual current fact, the distribution of resources among people - both in the world as a whole and within each nation state - is grossly unequal, so that there is widespread poverty, with its attendant disease and misery. Despite the growth of pockets of increased affluence in one part of the world, increased distress in another, the overall inequality is increasing. (5) This inequality, poverty and misery is the root cause of the social unrest and violence in so many parts of the world (in both the have and the have-not nations), which in turn leads to the use of force by governments to "maintain order". (6) The working of the "wondrous" capitalist machine does not provide in itself any mechanisms for ending this state of affairs other than the market, government welfare and charity - mechanisms which have already shown their inability to cope with the situation.

What kind of alternative world can we visualise? The most obvious answer is put into words by the campaigns to "end world poverty". People everywhere want a world which has got rid of the grinding poverty that afflicts so many, a world in which resources are far more equally distributed. They want a world in which inequality does not drive people to violent acts against others, in which scarce resources are peacably shared. They want to live in a world that does not inevitably generate self-seeking, greed, and indifference to the plight of others. Most people, even if they are trapped in the capitalist rat-race, will agree that "all men are brothers". These hopes are not novel - they have been expressed by every religion and social reform movement that ever existed. But we must go beyond general aspirations. What alternative mode of providing goods and services can we visualise, that will achieve our wished-for conditions? Can we imagine a world in which the driving force of production is not profit, but human need? Can we envisage a "market" that provides an equitable distribution of goods and services? Can we devise an economic system based on cooperation, not competition?

Does this sound dangerously like Bernal's view of socialism? "There is today a social and moral crisis, a crisis of the beliefs and assumptions on which modern society has been founded since the early eighteenth century - the rationalist and humanist assumptions, shared by liberal capitalism and communism […] It is not a crisis of one form of organizing societies, but of all forms. The strange calls for an otherwise unidentified 'civil society', for 'community', are the voice of lost and drifting generations […] It has for the first time become possible to see what a world may be like in which the past has lost its role, in which the maps and charts which guided human beings, singly and collectively, through life no longer represent the landscape through which we move, the sea on which we sail. In which we do not know where our journey is taking us, or even ought to take us" (Hobsbawm, The age of extremes, 1994). If this is indeed our situation, then we need to examine and assess anew all proposals for a way forward, whatever their origin, no matter by what names they are labelled.

Whatever misplaced faith in the USSR may have distorted Bernal's view of the world, the basic direction of his thinking and his actions was "on the side of the angels". The only alternatives are still "world domination by force or world cooperative organisation". Bernal deserves praise, not condemnation, for his tireless work towards a cooperative future.

A recent paper on Bernal by A.L.Mackay ('J.D.Bernal in perspective') was available in July 2005 as http://www.ias.ac.in/jbiosci/sep2003/539.pdf.

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