J. D. Bernal in the 1920s

John Desmond Bernal (1901-1971) was a physicist and crystallographer.  Born in Ireland (his mother was an American), he was educated at Cambridge, and worked in the Cavendish laboratory in the 1930s. He lectured at Birkbeck College, University of London, and was elected to the Royal Society in 1937. An unqualified defender of Lysenko, he received the Stalin Peace Prize in 1953. He was the father of Martin Bernal of Black Athena notoriety.

Stalin as Scientist

J. D. Bernal, F.R.S.

Modern Quarterly Vol. 8. No. 3, Summer 1953.

In thinking of Stalin as the greatest figure of contemporary history we should not overlook the fact that he was at the same time a great scientist, not only in his direct contribution to social science, but, even more, in the impetus and the opportunity he gave to every branch of science and technique and in the creation of the new, expanding and popular science of the Soviet Union.

Stalin's contribution to the development of science cannot be separated from his great work as the builder and preserver of socialism.  He combined, as no man had before his time, a deep theoretical understanding with unfailing mastery of practice.  And this was no accident.  The success of Stalin both in his creative role and in his many battles against apparently overwhelming forces, was due precisely to his grasp of the science of Marxism as a living force.  In learning from Marxism and in using Marxism he developed it still further.  He will stand now and for all time beside Marx, Engels and Lenin, as one of the great formulators of the transforming of thought and society in the most critical stage of human evolution.  In their different ways they each had crucial tasks to fulfil.  Marx and Engels had to achieve the first knowledge of the nature of capitalist exploitation and of scientific socialism, at a time when the domination of capitalism seemed assured beyond any question, and had to create the methods of dialectical materialism completely foreign to the official thought of the time.  They had to bring to the newly emerging industrial working class the first consciousness of their strength and destiny.  Lenin was the first to make the decisive break and, through the creation of a communist party of a new kind, succeeded by revolution in forming the first socialist state.  But he lived only to see it triumphant against the first onslaught of its enemies.  The task of turning a backward and half-ruined country into a great and prosperous industrial and military power, the task of showing that socialism would work, was, throughout all the crises of internal difficulties and external attack, the responsibility of Stalin and history records his success.

But though his was the guiding hand and his also the undaunted strength of purpose that all could rely on, this achievement was the achievement of hundreds of millions of men and women infused with the same determination and inspired by the same ideas.  The true greatness of Stalin as a leader was his wonderful combination of a deeply scientific approach to all problems with his capacity for feeling and expressing himself in simple and direct human terms.  His grasp of theory never left him without clear direction.  His humanity always prevented him from becoming doctrinaire.  He expressed himself on this point most clearly in his answer to Kholopov in the linguistics controversy:

"The dogmatists and talmudists regard Marxism and the various conclusions and formulae of Marxism as a collection of dogmas, which 'never' change, despite changes in the conditions of the development of society.  They think that if they learn these conclusions and formulae by heart and begin to quote them without rhyme or reason, they will be able to solve any problems whatever, reckoning that the memorized conclusions and formulae will serve them for every period and country, for every possible contingency.  But this idea can be entertained only by people who see the letter of Marxism, but not its essence, who learn by rote the texts of conclusions and formulae of Marxism, but do not understand their content.

"Marxism is the science of the laws governing the development of nature and society, the science of the revolution of the oppressed and exploited masses, the science of the victory of Socialism in all countries, the science of building a Communist society.  Marxism as a science cannot stand still, it develops and improves.  In its development Marxism cannot but enrich itself with new experience, new knowledge—consequently its various formulae and conclusions cannot but change with the passage of time, cannot but be replaced by new formulae and conclusions, which correspond to the new historical tasks.  Marxism does not recognize immutable conclusions and formulae, obligatory for all epochs and periods.  Marxism is the enemy of all dogmatism."

The study of Stalin's written works needs to be related step by step with the actual political, social and economic problems which called them forth and which in turn they illuminate.  In his youth he counted as a "practical" Marxist though this was largely because his success in revolutionary agitation masked his profound and wide reading.  The amount of economic and philosophical material that this student from remote and backward Georgia mastered sixty years ago is enough to put to shame students of to-day in advanced centres of culture.  It included such diverse works as Darwin's Descent of Man, Lyell's Antiquity of Man, Adam Smith's and David Ricardo's books on political economy, Victor Hugo's Toilers of the Sea, Thackeray's Vanity Fair, Buckle's History of Civilisation in England, Mendeleev's Chemistry, Spinoza's Ethics, and the classics of Shakespeare, Schiller and Tolstoy.  Already in the seminary of Tiflis, as his earliest writings show, he had seized on the essentially scientific character of Marxism.  He could see that it was no arbitrary creation but the discovery of objective laws of nature and of society.  That concept of scientific law never left him.  He gave it its fullest expression in the last of his great contributions to Marxism, the Economic Problems of Socialism in the U.S.S.R.  There at the outset he states categorically:

"Marxism regards laws of science—whether they be laws of natural science or laws of political economy—as the reflection of objective processes which take place independently of the will of man.  Man may discover these laws, get to know them, study them, reckon with them in his activities and utilize them in the interests of society, but he cannot change or abolish them.  Still less can he form or create new laws of science."

Though Stalin had no professional connection with science, apart from a few months as an observer and computer at the observatory of Tiflis, he retained a lively and practical interest in the progress of science and his appreciation of its needs and difficulties was of decisive importance to the great efflorescence and transformation of science in the Soviet Union.

The chapter on "Dialectical Materialism" which Stalin contributed to the History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union is the finest example of his range of understanding and his skill in exposition, which he had first shown in his Anarchism and Socialism forty-six years before.  Set out simply and logically are the ideas on the development of the world and of society that are to be found scattered in many places and often obscurely expressed in the writings of Marx, Engels and Lenin.  The simplicity is somewhat deceptive.  In a short compass are ideas and formulations that are worth reading many times over and from which many new ideas and practical applications can be extracted.  Particularly illuminating are his remarks on the science of the history of society which "despite all the complexity of the phenomena of social life can become as precise a science as, let us say, biology and capable of making use of the laws of the development of society for practical purposes" (Leninism, p. 601).  Here also we find the idea which he developed further in Concerning Marxism in Linguistics, of the nature of ideological superstructure and of the importance of social ideas:

"New social ideas and theories arise only after the development of the material life of society has set new tasks before society.  But once they have arisen they become a most potent force which facilitates the carrying out of the new tasks set by the development of the material life of society, a force which facilitates the progress of society.  It is precisely here that the tremendous organizing, mobilizing and transforming value of new ideas, new theories, new political views and new political institutions manifests itself.  New social ideas and theories arise precisely because they are necessary to society, because it is impossible to carry out the urgent tasks of development of the material life of society without their organizing, mobilizing and transforming action.  Arising out of the new tasks set by the development of the material life of society, the new social ideas and theories force their way through, become the possession of the masses, mobilize and organize them against the moribund forces of society, and thus facilitate the overthrow of these forces which hamper the development of the material life of society"
(Leninism, p. 603).

Throughout, and from the very beginning of his mastery of Marxism, Stalin maintained a dynamic conception of natural and social progress.  He noted and confidently relied on the triumph of the growing, and the defeat of the decaying, forces of society whatever their apparent strength at the time.  As early as 1906 he wrote,

"That in life which is born and grows day after day is invincible, its progress cannot be checked.  That is to say, if, for example, the proletariat as a class is born and grows day after day, no matter how weak and small in numbers it may be today, in the long run, it must conquer.  Why?  Because it is growing, gaining strength and marching forward.  On the other hand, that in life which grows old and is advancing to its grave must inevitably sustain defeat even if today it represents a titanic force.  That is to say, if, for example, the ground is gradually slipping from under the feet of the bourgeoisie, and the latter is slipping further and further back every day, no matter how strong and numerous it may be today, it must, in the long run, sustain defeat.  Why?  Because as a class it is decaying, growing feeble, growing old, and becoming a burden to life"
(Anarchism or Socialism?, J. Stalin, Foreign Languages Publishing House, Moscow, 1950).

It was this belief firmly founded on science that helped to surmount successive dangers without ever losing heart.

This exposition of Marxism is however only a nucleus to which Stalin added in practice and theory contributions of his own.  The major contribution, characteristic both of the man and of the creation of socialism in one country, can be summed up in one phrase—learning with the people.  Stalin's capacity to learn was the secret of his success in action.  It began with his first political experience.

"My first teachers were the workers of Tiflis" (Pravda, June 16, 1926) and it lasted to the very end as the Economic Problems of Socialism in the U.S.S.R. shows.  It is the basis of his most celebrated parallel of Bolsheviks to the giant Antaeus of the fable who was strong only if he kept his feet on mother earth, "As long as they maintain connection with their mother, with the people, they have every chance of remaining invincible"
(History of the C.P.S.U.(B.) p. 363).

It was this profound feeling for the people and for people as individuals that gave Stalin himself his sure touch in good and bad times alike.  It was the basis for his judgment that kept a balance between doctrinaires who wished to push forward irrespective of circumstances, and the cautious time-servers who would go no faster than the slowest of the crowd.  He showed it at its best in his decisive Pravda article of March 2, 1930, "Dizzy with Success", where he checked, and only just in time, the irresponsible and self-defeating forcing of the pace of collectivisation.

That great double transformation, the industrialisation of the Five Year plans, and the formation of collective farms is Stalin's most enduring monument but, though it needed profound economic and technical study and the greatest firmness of purpose in execution, it was only possible because it expressed the active will of the great majority of the peoples of the Soviet Union.

Shallow thinkers, philosophic defenders of "Western Civilisation," have accused Stalin of being motivated by love of power, but to those who have followed his thoughts and works, the accusation is only a revelation of utter ignorance.  Stalin understood the nature of political power far too well to imagine that it was something that could be sought or held by any man or group of men. He knew that the events of political life only express the outcome of social forces, of the wills and aspirations of millions of men who can only be moved if and when the material conditions are propitious and they are conscious of this.

"It would be foolish to think that the production plan is a mere enumeration of figures and assignments.  Actually, the production plan is the embodiment of the living and practical activity of millions of people.  What makes our production plan real is the millions of working people who are creating a new life.  What makes our plan real is the living people, it is you and I, our will to work, our readiness to work in the new way, our determination to carry out the plan"
(Leninism, p. 387).

Over and over again by example and warning Stalin urged the need for the way of co-operation and persuasion and denounced the bureaucratic practice of administrative orders. He had nothing but contempt for the bogus "Fuhrer prinzip" which led Hitler to his doom.

As he insisted once again in his last work, the laws of social progress are objective: they cannot be laid down, they must be discovered; and in the process of discovering them, there is always the possibility of revealing the new and unexpected.  The transformation of capitalism to socialism and of socialism to communism produced many surprises, good as well as bad.  It was Stalin's peculiar genius to detect and cherish the significant new manifestations.  It came all the more naturally to him because of his ability to appreciate and cherish the achievements of individuals and to learn the lessons they could teach.

The most striking example of this was his immediate seizing of the achievement of Stakhanov and his understanding that here was not merely someone who worked harder and more enthusiastically, but someone from the ranks of the workers who had mastered modern scientific technique and was able to combine it with his practical experience.  Stalin saw at once that this opened the way to using the hitherto untapped reserves of intelligence of the people which capitalism could never touch, and that it broke at once the barriers of accepted standards of production.  Here, for the first time in history, the workers were entering science in a positive way and science must make way for them:

"People talk about science.  They say that the data of science, the data contained in technical handbooks and instructions, contradict the demands of the Stakhanovites for new and higher technical standards.  But what kind of science are they talking about?  The data of science have always been tested by practice, by experience.  Science which has severed contact with practice, with experience—what sort of science is that?  If science were the thing it is represented to be by certain of our conservative comrades, it would have perished for humanity long ago.  Science is called science just because it does not recognize fetishes, just because it does not fear to raise its hand against the obsolete and antiquated, and because it lends an attentive ear to the voice of experience, of practice"
(Leninism, p. 555).

This was his appreciation of the revolutionary effect of a whole working population contributing to the making of knowledge and not merely to the using of it.  Stalin drew the moral in his toast to science at a gathering of workers in higher education in May, 1936:

"To the flourishing of science!  Of such science as does not segregate itself from the people, does not keep aloof from the people but which is ready to serve the people, to place all its achievements at the disposal of the people; of the science which serves the people, not under constraint, but voluntarily, willingly. ...

"To the flourishing of science!  Of such science whose devotees, while realising the force and significance of the traditions established in science and making skilful use of them in the interests of science, yet refuse to be slave to these traditions; of science which has the daring and determination to shatter old traditions, standards, and methods when they become obsolete, when they turn into a brake on progress, and which is able to establish new traditions, new standards, new methods.

"In the course of its development science has known quite a number of courageous people who have been able to shatter the old and establish the new regardless of, and in the teeth of all obstacles.  Such men of science as Galileo, Darwin, and many others are widely known.  I should like to dwell on one such Corythaeus [Coryphaeus] of science who is at the same time the greatest man of modern science, I have in mind Lenin, our teacher, our mentor ...

"It also happens that new trails in science and technique are sometimes blazed, not by widely known scientists, but by people who are absolutely unknown in the scientific world, by ordinary people, men engaged in practical work, innovators.  Here at the table with us all sit comrades Stakhanov and Papanin, men unknown in the scientific world, without academic degrees, practical workers in their fields of activity.  But who does not know that Stakhanov and the Stakhanovites in their practical work in the field of industry scrapped as obsolete the existing standards established by well-known men of science and technique and introduced new standards, corresponding to the demands of real science and technique?  Who does not know that Papanin and the Papaninites in their practical work on the drifting ice-flow, incidentally without any special effort, scrapped as obsolete the old conception of the Arctic and established a new one corresponding to the demands of real science?  Who can deny that Stakhanov and Papanin are innovators in science, men of our advanced science?"
(International Book Review, Nos. 1-2, published, Marx Memorial Library, 1938).

The development took shape even more clearly after the second World War with the recognition of the two complementary groups of worker-scientists, the rationalisers who continually improved production in detail and the innovators who provoke radical alterations in the mode of production.

The discovery of the unlimited new source of scientific and technical advancement that lay hidden, and was indeed actively suppressed by all earlier systems, will in the long run prove the greatest of benefits conferred to socialism.  Stalin saw well how it was needed to pave the way to the next stage, the transition to communism.  This involved the abolition of the essential distinction between mental and physical labour:

"It is necessary, in the third place, to ensure such a cultural advancement of society as will secure for all members of society, the all-round development of their physical and mental abilities, so that the members of society may be in a position to receive an education sufficient to enable them to be active agents of social development"
(Economic Problems of Socialism in the U.S.S.R., p. 76).

This would in itself require a shortening of the working day to six or even five hours.

"It is necessary, further, to introduce universal compulsory polytechnical education, which is required in order that the members of society might be able freely to choose their occupations and not be tied to some one occupation all their lives" (Economic Problems of Socialism in the U.S.S.R., p. 77).

It is this development, made possible only by socialism, that will in turn make its triumph inevitable and rapid.  A totally educated population is a power equivalent to billions of atom bombs and it is a constructive and not a destructive one.  Already two years ago the Soviet Union was turning out more trained men and women than the United States and the disparity is bound to grow as long as capitalism persists and higher education is employed to ensure the dominance of a class.  In this country the fatuous complacency of university authorities who accept a consolidation which is really a cut in an intake that represents 3 1/4 per cent. of the age group, spells disaster to the economy, indeed to the very life, of the country.  The new force that Stalin discovered and which he specially fostered could only be realized in a genuinely socialist state.  He followed closely the transformation of the old bourgeois intelligentsia under the impetus of great technical developments, and its new widening through the entry of the working people to form the new Soviet intelligentsia.

"Our Soviet intelligentsia," he said in his speech on the Draft Constitution of the U.S.S.R., "is an entirely new intelligentsia bound up by its very roots with the working class and the peasantry. ... Formerly it had to serve the wealthy classes, for it had no alternative.  Today it must serve the people, for there are no longer any exploiting classes.  And that is precisely why it is now an equal member of Soviet society, in which, side by side with the workers and peasants, pulling together with them, it is engaged in building the new, classless, Socialist society"
(Leninism, pp. 566, 567).

The real greatness of Stalin is shown most of all by the way in which he could keep an active balance between the material and the human elements in a developing society.  No one knew better, no one understood more widely, the productive mechanism of modern industry, the need for raw materials, the need for technique and the application of science.  But he was never hypnotised by that knowledge and experience into an inhuman faith in the machine, into any form of technocracy.  Indeed he reserved his most bitter sarcasms for those who thought in this way, as the discussion on economic problems shows.  He always put man first, "men produce not for production's sake, but in order to satisfy their needs ... production divorced from the satisfaction of the needs of society withers and dies" (Economic Problems of Socialism in the U.S.S.R., p. 84).

Stalin's concern for men and women also found expression in his concern for the advancement of oppressed people and nationalities who, far from being backward, contained, as he knew well from his own experience, even greater relative possibilities than those of so-called advanced civilisations.  In the world as a whole it will be Stalin's solution to the Nationalities question that has made the most lasting impact.  He showed how to preserve the living core of national culture while raising the political, technical and economic lives of all peoples, even the most primitive, to the level of the highest.  The contrast between the success of this method and the abject failure of the Point Four projects and Colombo Plans, emphasises the fundamental Marxist condition of the abolition of capitalist exploitation as an absolute necessity for the self-development of any country.  That was a lesson which not only the republics of the Soviet Union have learned, but many other nations of Asia are already learning and all will learn in their time.

It was in this field too that Stalin made his most direct contribution to social science.  His article Concerning Marxism in Linguistics is far more than its title indicates; it is an extension of Marxist thought over the whole social, cultural field particularly in the clear distinction it draws between the ideological superstructure limited to a period and serving a particular class, and general auxiliaries of social existence like language and material means of production that can, whatever their origin, serve a new as well as an old structure of classes.  The same consideration certainly applies to science and Stalin's strictures on the way it had been allowed to develop were a most valuable corrective to mechanical, stupid and uncritical applications of Marxism.

"It is generally recognized", he wrote, "that no science can develop and flourish without a battle of opinions, without freedom of criticism.  But this generally recognized rule was ignored and flouted in the most unceremonious fashion.  There arose a close group of infallible leaders, who, having secured themselves against any possible criticism, became a law unto themselves and did whatever they pleased"
(Concerning Marxism in Linguistics, "Soviet News", London, p. 22).

Stalin's intervention at this point as in similar cases in the economic field shows his continued awareness of the need to correct misplaced zeal and distortions of Marxism by a strong infusion of practical common sense.  He aimed always at the fullest and freest development of Marxist ideas but he saw that their application required unceasing vigilance if they were not to degenerate into dogmatism.

Stalin's achievement is something greater than the building up and defending of the Soviet Union, greater even than the hope for peace and progress that he gave to the whole world.  It is that his thought and his example is now embodied in the lives and thoughts of hundreds of millions of men, women and children: that it has become an indissoluble part of the great human tradition.  However great the changes of the next few years, and they will be great changes which he worked for and would welcome, this remains.  The ideas of Marx have found and can find no final resting place but Stalin has given them an illumination and an impetus that will never be forgotten.  In the words which he quoted from the earliest of the Greek philosophers of change, Heraclitus:

"The world, the all in one, was not created by any god or any man but was, is and will ever be a living flame."