‘A Condition for Survival’

by Jeroen Bouterse

John Desmond Bernal

“For many years now a division has been established in our universities between the sciences and the humanities. This division is probably more absolute now than it has ever been before.”[1] Thus complains, in 1946, the British Marxist scientist John Desmond Bernal.

It is a worry that seems to anticipate C.P. Snow’s later famous cri de coeur about the ‘two cultures’. Indeed, the two scientists knew and respected each other; Snow called Bernal “quite obviously and with no fuss about it, a great man”.[2] More interesting than the question of priority, however, is the question why Bernal made this observation when he did, and with this sense of urgency.

Bernal was a radically left-wing thinker, especially interested in the role science could play in social progress. In his twenties, he wondered whether scientists should take a leading role in a progressive society or whether such leadership would not always come at the risk of class distinction – the risk that scientists would, in the end, be loyal to ‘science’ itself, instead of to humanity.

For such a class-conscious thinker, Marxism provided a fitting intellectual home; and indeed, when a Russian delegation led by Nikolai Bukharin visited London in 1931 to participate in an international conference on history of science, Bernal was favorably impressed by the ideologically Marxist perspective it provided on science. “Is it better”, he wondered in a review, “to be intellectually free but socially totally ineffective or to become part of a system where knowledge and action are joined for one common purpose?”[3]

Bernal would not be the only left-wing thinker of his time to see the Soviet Union as a shining example, offering a better response to economic crises than capitalism ever could.

Liberal economists such as John Maynard Keynes or Bertil Ohlin were well aware that as they were working to cure the free market, totalitarian alternatives to it looked all too tempting to some. In a treatise on employment stabilization, Ohlin wrote that “our system of society seems to be on trial”:

“[…] There are other types of society in the world today which seem to me, personally, to offer less freedom and opportunity to individuals, but perhaps more security in other respects. This is a challenge to all of us, to all of those who want to defend a system of individual liberty, to help to work out solutions of these problems, and to see to it that those solutions are tried out in practice. I feel certain that only in a society which provides a reasonable degree of economic stability and security will liberty be maintained.”[4]

Likewise Keynes:

“The authoritarian state systems of to-day seem to solve the problem of  unemployment at the expense of efficiency and freedom. It is certain that the world will not much longer tolerate the unemployment which, apart from brief intervals of excitement, is associated – and, in my opinion, inevitably associated – with present-day capitalistic individualism. But it may be possible by a right analysis of the problem to cure the disease whilst preserving efficiency and freedom.”[5]

To Ohlin and Keynes, liberalism was something worth saving. Bernal, meanwhile, was excited about the Stalinist alternative of a planned economy.

During the second World War, Bernal substantially contributed to the British war effort. Among else, he was responsible for collecting data about the French coastline in preparation for D-Day. He took the work extremely seriously. Noting that recent photos and maps were not accurate enough – “Do you realize that no one knows where France is?”,[6] Snow remembered him say – he consulted proceedings of the Linnean Society of Caen (all of them, starting from 1840) as well as a 12th-century chronicle in order to fill in the gaps. He volunteered to be present at the landing, because he wanted to make sure that he had gotten everything right.[7]

During the war, Bernal saw his intuitions on the viability of a planned economy confirmed. These intuitions informed the lecture, in 1946, during which he tackled the problem of the ‘great division of human culture’: the gap between the sciences and humanities was such a problem to Bernal, precisely because it stood in the way of the planned economy whose rise he saw as both desirable and necessary.

“We are as citizens now engaged in an attempt to supersede the chaotic and inhuman competition of earlier days by a democratically planned community. This makes it all the more necessary to have among those who will administer and direct this transformation men and women whose knowledge of the universe is comprehensive and not one-sided. For this reason the separation of the training of these men and women into water-tight compartments is not only deplorable but dangerous, and it is one of the most serious and urgent problems of the universities to look for ways of ending it.”

In the rest of his lecture, Bernal traces this compartmentalization through the ages, painting it with confident and elegant Marxist strokes. The separation between sciences and humanities is a natural result of the ancient distinction between doing and thinking, and therefore of the class distinction between workers and rulers. The renaissance and the rise of modern natural science almost changed this, but then Descartes brought us all back to square one by his “face saving distinction” between matter and spirit.

Overcoming the division between science and humanities, then, is tantamount to providing a synthesis to the dialectical relationship between working and thinking classes. No wonder, therefore, that it requires Marxists to achieve this. As the proto-Marxist founder of a ‘scientific humanism’ Bernal identifies Giambattista Vico. Its actual founder is, of course, Marx, “himself a humanist turned scientist”.

At the same time that the gap between the sciences and humanities is a deep metaphysical and political problem, it is, to Bernal, a practical problem: scientists, with their specialized training, simply have less time to turn a critical eye towards culture and society. Therefore, the solution to the problem is in reforming the institutions of higher education, decreasing the workload of individual courses so that the student has more time for broadening and deepening her or his knowledge. It is a testament to Bernal’s sanguine character: overcoming a division that according to himself has such deep roots in Western philosophy and economics, it turns out, starts with the mundane step of teaching a little more arts to the science students, a little more science to the arts students:

“To the science courses, so cut down, we would want to add enough of the humanities, particularly history and philosophy, to understand the importance and significance of science in human culture; to the arts courses, a corresponding amount of basic science. At first this would be very difficult to do. The absolute gap of ignorance between these fields of learning is so great that there are very few competent either to teach humanities to science students or science to arts students.”

The reason for all this us that, though Bernal foresees the rise of a planned economy, what that means to him is not an authoritarian system, but a system of conscious co-ordination where everybody bears responsibility for the actions of the whole. Putting aside Bernal’s naive belief that the Soviet Union in 1946 has already, “for nearly thirty years”, been living that democratic and co-operative dream, we may commend his views on the planned economy for its consistency at the very least. In the end, he believes there should be no one class that gives the orders (let alone one person, as in Nazism). For that reason, every citizen has to have as full and balanced an understanding of his or her place in the world as possible. Bernal’s argument on education turns out to be a plea to make sure that the citizens of the world are educated in such a way that they can be good citizens, appreciating the material as well as the social conditions of their society. “It is for that reason”, he sums up the argument, “that the union of science and the humanities is for us a condition of survival.”


[1] John Desmond Bernal, ‘Science and the Humanities’ (lecture at Birkbeck College, 1946). Full text available on https://www.marxists.org/archive/bernal/works/1940s/humsci.htm

[2] C.P. Snow, ‘J.D. Bernal, A Personal Portrait’ in: Maurice Goldsmith, Alan Mackay ed., The Science of Science. Souvenir Press: London, 1964, 19-29’: 19.

[3] Andrew Brown, J.D. Bernal: The Sage of Science. Oxford University Press: 2005. 107.

[4] Bertil Ohlin, The Problem of Employment Stabilization. Columbia University Press: New York 1952 [1949]. 108-109.

[5] John Maynard Keynes, The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money. Harvest/Harcourt: San Diego 1964 [1936] 381.

[6] Snow, ‘Personal Portrait’, 28.

[7] Brown, Sage of science, 240ff.