The biologist Max Perutz, who received a Nobel Prize for his pioneering studies on the structure of proteins, was once asked how it felt to be a young scientist in Cambridge during the 1930s. Perutz had come to Cambridge to work in the laboratory of JD Bernal, a world expert in protein structure. His first day in the lab was a traumatic experience. The first question Perutz was asked was, 'Are you a Communist?' It turned out that half the lab were, including Bernal himself, and the rest were sympathetic to socialist ideas.
How did socialist ideas come to be so rife among the scientific community and in Cambridge of all places? Scientists are not generally viewed as particularly radical. Science itself is usually presented as unaffected by social or ideological influence and scientists are expected to be interested solely in the pursuit of scientific truth and 'above politics'.
The rise of the scientific left was due to two main factors. First was the economic crisis of the 1930s. Scientists who had believed that their work could make the world a better place could only watch as world slump destroyed the industrial fruits of their scientific endeavours. In Britain science research funds were cut. In Germany the Nazis appeared to be launching a frontal attack against scientific rationality itself.
The second vital factor was the presence of the growing Communist Party. The CP seized the opportunities the crisis offered and was both able to grow substantially and sink roots deep into the working class movement. The CP built a base in the National Unemployed Workers' Movement. In industry party members were able to lay the basis for effective rank and file organisation within the trade unions. The CP also distinguished itself by its struggle against the growing British fascist movement. Linking all this together was the CP's newspaper the Daily Worker. In 1932 the paper was selling 20,000 copies on a weekday and 46,000 of the special weekend edition.
The growth of socialist ideas among workers undoubtedly helped the left in the universities. The spark that ignited the scientific left was the growth of fascism. Horrified by Hitler's victory in 1933 and the rising influence of Mosley's British Union of Fascists, many young scientists began to participate in anti-fascist marches and demonstrations. The scientific left's leaflets and publications highlighted not only how fascism represented a threat to scientific rationality but also the way the Nazis used pseudo-scientific theories to back up their racist ideas.
The most celebrated addition to the scientific left was undoubtedly the geneticist JBS Haldane, who in 1938 declared himself a Marxist and a supporter of the CP. Haldane was an unlikely convert to socialism. Born into an aristocratic and privileged family and educated at Eton and Oxford, he had been a captain in the Black Watch regiment and later admitted to enjoying the First World War.
Haldane had been on the fringes of the Labour left since the 1920s. What convinced him to throw in his lot with the CP was a growing disenchantment with the unwillingness of the ruling class and the ability of the Labour Party to resist fascism. This disenchantment reached a height during the Spanish Civil War, in which it became clear to Haldane that the policies of the Labour opposition as well as those of the Tory government favoured Franco's fascists.
He was a well known and charismatic speaker. Whether it was the Albert Hall or Trafalgar Square, Haldane could pack them in. He turned up to speak at one meeting on the Spanish Civil War wearing a beret, having come straight from the Spanish front itself. Even on the obscure subject of 'A Dialectical Approach to Biology', Haldane could still draw a substantial crowd.
Haldane's personal observation of air raid attacks in Spain was to be of great importance in the next major campaign the scientific left became involved in. This was the demand for proper air raid protection in the event of war, an issue which gained some immediacy as the Second World War loomed. The scientific left were able to make use of their scientific knowledge in a daring series of 'experiments' with gas and explosives which tested the government's air raid protection procedures and found them sadly wanting. Their work and Haldane's book ARP were to be of great importance in the CP's eventually successful campaign to get proper public provision of air raid shelters.
Another important focus for the scientific left was building trade union membership among scientists. Most scientists at the beginning of the 1930s still saw themselves primarily as 'professionals' and looked to individual advancement rather than collective struggle. Continued cuts in scientific funding began to challenge this complacency. But equally important was a growing awareness among many young scientists, based on their experience of the anti-fascist movement, of the power of the collective.
As important as all these practical interventions were, the scientific left could never have been built through activity alone. Ideological struggle was an equally vital component of their success. They argued that science is a product of society and that the nature of society affects science too. The beginnings of such an approach had been laid early in the decade in the unlikely surroundings of the Second International Congress of the History of Science and Technology, held in London in 1931. This normally dull event was transformed by the unexpected arrival of a large delegation from the Soviet Union, led by the Bolshevik leader Nikolai Bukharin.
Bukharin and his colleagues put forward a Marxist analysis of science. Boris Hessen, a Russian physicist, demonstrated how Newton's Principa was shaped by the social contradictions which followed the English Revolution of 1649. Bukharin challenged the very notion of what we understand as science. He argued that science is primarily a social activity and one of the major forces for human progress. But its potential for transforming the world is held back under capitalism.
The handful of left wing scientists present listened with delight. They later expanded and developed the Marxist analysis of science, culminating in Bernal's The Social Function of Science which appeared in 1939. The success of their endeavour can be judged by the fact that by the end of the decade society's influence on science was accepted not only by the scientific left but by such classic liberals as the biologist Julian Huxley.
Nowadays, the popularisation of science is not seen as a particularly radical activity in itself. Most newspapers have a regular science column and there are programmes on radio and television about science and the dozens of popular science books published every year. At the start of the 1930s, however, popular accounts of science were rare. Those scientists who did popularise their work were judged severely by the scientific establishment, which believed that such activities showed a lack of respect for the 'purity' of the scientific endeavour. On the other hand, an ability to understand science was thought to be beyond the capabilities of ordinary workers.
The scientific left held no such prejudices. As early as 1931 the mathematician Hyman Levy, one of the first scientists to join the CP, took part in a series of radio broadcasts on the subject of 'Science in a Changing World'. A later series had Levy discussing scientific matters with a skilled manual worker. The seriousness with which the CP regarded science was shown by its decision to ask Haldane to write a column for the Daily Worker. Before the war the Daily Worker was the only newspaper to run such a weekly science column.
Haldane's articles are still a joy to read. One collection, called Science and Everyday Life, perfectly conveys Haldane's approach of linking together familiar and everyday experiences with the science that lies behind them. He managed to explain the most sophisticated scientific concepts in a way that was both informative and entertaining.
At the end of the 1930s it must have seemed to members of the scientific left that their future success was assured. And certainly during the Second World War their influence was if anything increased. Yet only a few years later the scientific left was in disarray, its leading members vilified in influential science magazines as opponents of scientific freedom. What had happened to cause such a turn around?
The scientific left was an early victim of the Cold War. But the fact that its base turned out to be so fragile was due partly to a real change in the objective circumstances, partly to its flawed Stalinist politics. One of the strongest arguments of the left in the 1930s was the claim that capitalism was incapable of organising science effectively. But in the short term at least, the postwar boom saw an expansion of funds for scientific research.
Another problem was the fragile nature of the alliances which the scientific left had relied upon in the 1930s. Its strategy was that of the popular front, which meant differences between Communist scientists and 'progressive' members of the scientific establishment were played down. Such erstwhile allies were quick to abandon their association with the left once the Cold War began.
Ultimately, however, it was the equation of socialism with the Soviet Union that was the scientific left's undoing. Reports were now coming from the Soviet Union about the repression of leading scientists in connection with what was known as the Lysenko affair. This 'ideologically inspired' state interference in the affairs of science evoked an uncomfortable parallel between Stalin's treatment of scientists and Hitler's, and was the final nail in the coffin of the scientific left.
The scientists who turned to socialism in the 1930s did so because they believed that science should be a force used not for profit but for the good of humanity. That belief was distorted in the interests of Stalinism. They did show, however, that it is possible to build an influence even among groups not usually associated with radical ideas. The prospects today ought to be even more favourable than the 1930s given the increasing pressure on scientists' pay, working conditions and job security. The key remains the same, however the growth of a mass socialist movement coupled with the determination of individual socialists who work in science to lay the foundations for the future.