Main NI Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

New International, July–August 1950


Carl Darton

The Scientist in a Time of Terror

A Discussion of Science and Social Responsibility


From New International, Vol. XVI No. 4, July–August 1950, pp. 210–217.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Scientists desiring a quiet life would have done better to live in the 19th rather than the 20th century. For, like it or not, science today is intertwined with politics, and scientists cannot separate themselves from social conflict. The only question is: shall they consciously enter into the struggle or continue to be the dupes of pre-scientific forces? If scientists wish to live up to the best tradition of their profession they will seek to understand their times and the social and political role they can best play.

During the continued growth of capitalism in the 19th century, a scientist could, consciously or unconsciously, play a progressive role. René J. Dubos in his biography of an outstanding scientist of the 19th century, Louis Pasteur (Little, Brown & Co., 1950), writes of the hope then that man “would soon complete his mastery over nature.” As a result of this hope there was faith and enthusiasm in science throughout the Western World. To quote Dubos further:

“... the 19th was a wonderful century. Its scientists were masterful practitioners of the experimental method and, at the same time, they knew how to integrate their efforts into the classical ages ... In their hands, science was not only a servant of society, an instrument for the control of the physical world, but also an adornment of our Western culture.”

During this period, though many evils of capitalism were apparent, the bourgeoisie could still point to the hope that science would provide plenty for all in the future.

Following World War I, which more than the calendar marked the end of the “wonderful century,” science still remained on the sidelines, away from the main flow of politics. But one important change had taken place since the 19th century: science had at last matured to the extent that it material benefits could be given to all, politics allowing. During the depression of the Thirties, production was curtailed, and the food, clothing and shelter which science and technology had made available were allowed to waste. We heard then of the “Frustration of Science,” and “Science in an Irrational World,” but saw little activity from the scientists to implement this mild intellectual protest.

Today the effect of science on our lives is such that the problem can be avoided by no one. As James B. Conant, president of Harvard University, writes in the January 1950 issue of Foreign Affairs:

“The advent of the scientist into the news and the growing interest of the nation in science are the direct consequence of World War II. But quite apart from the fact that certain new tools of war, notably the atomic bomb, the proximity fuse and radar, were products of scientific laboratories, there has been a growing appreciation in the last 50 years of the national importance of scientific progress. Today a government official or an elected representative in Washington thinking in terms of either increasing the military potential of the country or the industrial capacity will wish to consult both scientists and engineers.”

Aside from the increased military, governmental and industrial influence on his activities, the scientist is also greatly influenced by the fact that he no longer works as an individual. Modern science is elaborate and expensive. A single piece of equipment such as a cyclotron may cost a million dollars. As a result, scientists find that they can achieve better results when they are organized in “teams” with large and extensive laboratory facilities at their disposal. Abstractly, such organization, if properly carried out, need not restrict the intellectual freedom necessary for a scientist’s best work.

It is small wonder, then, that scientists can no longer be aloof to the outside world. The manner in which the scientist feels the impact of events on his activities can be summarized by two words: freedom and responsibility.

The meaning of freedom to the scientist is indicated by P.W. Bridgeman (Reflection of a Physicist – Philosophical Library, 1950): “there is no scientific method as such, only the free and utmost use of intelligence. In certain fields of application, such as the so-called natural sciences, the free and utmost use of intelligence particularized itself into what is popularly called the scientific method.” Most scientists feel that in a rational society which is becoming increasingly complex, any necessary organization of science should be in a manner which will not destroy its creative function. Above all they feel that the inherent freedom of the individual or the scientific method must not be impaired. The crux of the situation is that scientists cannot be half free. Freedom in thinking, intellectual honesty, cannot be turned on and off like a faucet. This is why the demand of any government for secrecy in research, lack of intercourse between scientists of different countries, loyalty checks and clearances, and direct interference in a scientific theory are so oppressive to the letter and spirit of science. It is small wonder then that “Freedom in Science” has become a rallying point in the current rebellion of scientists.

Aldous Huxley, though not a scientist, has summed up well the question of responsibility in Human Rights (Columbia University Press, 1949):

“The time has surely come when scientific workers must consider, individually and collectively, the ethical problem of ‘right livelihood.’ How far is a man justified in following a course of professional action which, though involving no immediate wrong-doing, results in social consequences which are manifestly undesirable or downright evil? Specifically, how far is it right for the scientist or technologist to participate in work, the outcome of which will be to increase the concentration of power in the hands of the ruling minority and to provide soldiers with the means for wholesale extermination of civilians?”

Many of the American scientific journals have been thrown open to all viewpoints in an effort to obtain a collective answer to these questions.

Over the past several years the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has done an excellent job in reviewing these discussions. The reactions of the scientists can generally be classified into four viewpoints:

  1. The traditional or conservative – that scientists have no more concern about the social and political implications of science than other “citizens.” These scientists invariably end by supporting the dominant political and military policy.
  2. The renunciation of war research, but with no other social or political reaction.
  3. The utopian, pacifist, world government response – that scientists should seek to maintain the freedom of science from oppression from all sources. This they propose to do by international cooperation of scientists, and politically by agitating for “One World.”
  4. An attempt to find a satisfactory social and political answer – as among those scientists who, basically dissatisfied with all conventional approaches, have joined the Federation of American Scientists or the Association of Scientific Workers.

The conservative position has been expressed by P.W. Bridgeman, Nobel prize winner in physics (1946), in the March 1947 issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Bridgeman poses the question of responsibility correctly: “does each and every scientist have a moral obligation to see to it that the uses society makes of scientific discoveries are beneficent?” For a positive answer Bridgeman feels that there would have to be something special and exceptional in the position of the scientist. Otherwise, by the same token, the miner of iron ore would be obligated to see that no iron scrap was sold to Japan. (Apparently Bridgeman is not aware that at times miners and other workers have taken collective action for political and social purposes.)

Bridgeman admits that because of special abilities scientists might be expected to exercise more social responsibility than others. But he feels it would be wrong for society to expect this of them since it is an erroneous social philosophy which says that “the community has a right to exact disproportional service from special ability.” Bridgeman then proceeds to claim that it is wrong for society to impose such responsibility on scientists since society itself has not been successful in overcoming its problems. Thus, scientists have no particular responsibility since society has not as yet matured sufficiently to abolish war.

That the idea of lack of responsibility can only result in acquiescing to the dominant political position of the day is seen in an article, Physicists and the Cold War, by Frederick Seitz in the March issue of the Bulletin. Seitz sees the present world crisis as a struggle between the ideals of the “East and West” for supremacy. He calls upon physicists and scientists to devote a greater fraction of their time to research of military interest which was “so successful during the recent war.” Edward Teller also directs the scientists “back to the laboratories,” stating “it is not the scientist’s job to determine whether an H-bomb should be used, or how it should be used.” Rather the scientist should contribute “by making the country strong.” In typical unscientific confusion, Teller advises the scientist to do good “by explaining this dangerous world to his fellow citizens.”

The fact that most scientists think otherwise is indicated by the general aversion among them to military research. The trend, where possible, is into peaceful and more useful pursuits. This viewpoint was clearly upheld by Cuthbert Daniel and Arthur Squires, former Manhattan Project scientists, in the October 1948 issue of the Bulletin. Addressing themselves to American scientists and engineers working on weapon projects, they write:

“Scientists are not automatons; their sincerity and fundamental decency cannot be called into question. And yet, under far less compulsion than the German scientists they engage in the business of preparing death for millions of innocent people. It is the situation that is wrong.”

Since scientists generally are not evil men, many are leaving weapon projects. A few scientists may enjoy the increase in power they have gained but most do not like the course that science has been forced to take.

Some scientists confuse the claim for freedom of science with the freedom from responsibility. Daniel and Squires deny that the search for truth of whatever nature is always justified. Obviously it is wrong to conduct painful or lethal experiments on human beings. Likewise there is no justification for every research in “pure science” simply on the basis that it may appear to be separate from technology. Much of “pure science” today is pointed toward fields that can lead to improved methods of destruction. As a guide for scientists in the exercise of responsibility, Daniel and Squires suggest discussion of the social consequences of their activities and refusal to engage in these activities if discussion reveals the consequences to be evil.

Norbert Wiener, the authority on cybernetics, is an excellent example of an outstanding scientist who has publicly renounced all war work. Dr. Wiener has repeatedly refused to do any scientific work, especially military, which he does not consider will be used for the best interests of science and of humanity. Such an individual acceptance of moral responsibility and forthright refusal to participate in the world’s crazy rush to destruction can only receive the highest moral commendation. Furthermore, conceivably, if sufficient numbers of scientists, accepted this, a strike against work on war weapons could go far toward ensuring peace.

Realistically, however, what can be expected of the outright renunciation of scientific war work? Theoretically, each scientist who walks away from destructive work decreases the number of new weapons produced. However, even if all additional scientific war work would stop today an extremely destructive war could result by using weapons now available. No additional scientific work is necessary to stockpile an immense quantity of A-bombs. Actually, the greatest limiting factor today on increased scientific work is not the actual number of scientists available, but money, time and organization. And though we should like to consider it in the best tradition of science to scorn war work, we must realize that many scientists, now and in the future, will be willing to engage in destructive scientific activity. They, as well as others, can be sold on “one more war to save democracy.” Even Hitler was able to obtain scientists of a sort. We can expect then that the effect of the individual scientist’s renunciation of war work on the military machine will be minor.

This renunciation cannot be considered only abstractly as above but also relative to war resistance in general. If a few very prominent scientists or a mass movement of scientists would denounce destructive research, a great “lift” might be given to those who “oppose the manufacture and the politics of the H-bomb.” Using these terms, R. Fahan (The New International, March–April 1950) feels that the anti-war sentiment of the scientists should be combined with other “anti-bomb” elements into an attempt at a mass anti-war movement. I will leave a detailed political consideration of an anti-bomb movement to others. I feel, however, that emphasis upon such a movement will fail in preventing World War III just as much as an “anti-poison gas” movement would have failed to have prevented World War II. The imperialist powers can still have a “pretty damn good war” without A- or H-bombs – a war which would set back humanity and the working class movement tremendously. The fact that the use of such bombs would cause greater mass destruction is in my opinion a quantitative, not a qualitative, difference. Undoubtedly both imperialist powers would be glad to buy a “safe war” without atomic bombs if, by foregoing such weapons, they could win the support of all their national and international sympathizers (including the “anti-bomb” movement).

To ask: how should a scientist react “as a scientist,” that is, should he or should he not engage in war work as a physicist or a chemist, is too limited an approach. Scientists, in the best meaning of the term, will, without question, disengage themselves as much as possible from objectionable or distasteful activity. The major question is where do they go from there? And far more important than their function as physicists or chemists is their reaction as scientists in the broad concept of the term.

The main characteristic of the scientist is that he attempts to be a rational being. If he is a successful scientist or engineer he has achieved this in his own specialized field of professional endeavor. It is not too much to expect that if he turns consciously to political and social matters the tendency will be for him to continue to act in a rational manner. Many scientists have accepted irrational social, religious and political beliefs merely because they have accepted without thinking the dominant beliefs of the day. By and large most scientists and engineers have accepted such positions by “default.” It is our opinion that scientists and engineers today, because of the objective cultural situation in which it becomes increasingly difficult to reconcile the aims of science with capitalism, will take off their blinders and tend to revolt against the misuse of science.

Unfortunately, so far, the revolt has many “utopian” aspects. This results in campaigns to scare the world into a renunciation of war, agitation for a world government, and activity in the United Nations, particularly in Unesco. Foremost among the scientists seeking a solution through a “world government” is Albert Einstein. Einstein has long been known as a Utopian Socialist and in his latest writings (Out of My Late Years, Philosophical Library, 1950) pleads for a planned economy in which the democratic rights of the workers will not be overshadowed by a centralized bureaucracy. He calls for a “supranational political force as protection against fresh wars of aggression.” How such a force can emerge from the nationalistic conflicts of today remains unanswered.

The United National Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) serves as a focal group for those scientists who hope that international cooperation in science will lead the way to “One World” of peace and goodwill. Insofar as such groups seek to maintain the rights of science they serve a useful purpose but it is likely that the main result will be only lengthy documents from Lake Success.

In the August–September 1949 issue of the Bulletin, Julian Huxley and Bart Bok write of the “Freedom of Science” and the “Charter for Scientists” which resulted from the Committee on Science and its Social Relations of the International Council of Scientific Unions meeting in Paris, June 1948. This document calls for honesty and integrity among scientists and asks that they endeavor to guide science to useful ends and to seek international cooperation. To fulfill these obligations, scientists would claim the right to participate in the activities open to all citizens; to know the purpose of their research, and full rights of publication and discussion.

Because the above approaches are unsatisfactory to many scientists, they have organized into such groups as the Federation of American Scientists and the Association of Scientific Workers. The efforts of these scientists toward political and social action have been reviewed in recent issues of Labor Action. The ASW as part of the World Federation of Scientific Workers has perhaps gone farther than any other group in making the correct analysis of the problem. In the January 1949 issue, of Science and Mankind, the preamble to A Charter for Scientific Workers states:

The primary responsibility for the maintenance and development of science must lie with the scientific workers themselves, because they alone can understand the nature of the work and the directions in which advance is needed. The responsibility for the use of science, however, must be a joint responsibility of scientific workers and of the people at large. Scientific workers neither have nor claim to have control over the administrative, economic and technical powers of the communities in which they live. Nevertheless they have a special responsibility for pointing out where the neglect or abuse of scientific knowledge will lead to results detrimental to the community. At the same time, the community itself must be able and willing to appreciate and to use the possibilities offered by science, which can be achieved only through the widespread teachings of the methods and results of the natural and social sciences.

In even the most progressive of the scientist’s viewpoints today there appears to be “something more” needed. This is hinted by Eric Ashby, who pleads for a broader viewpoint in the October 1948 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists by saying:

“... if the scientist combines with the man who grows his bread and the man who digs his coal, in a common assault on the problem, he may have some chance of making an impression on governments and influencing the course of diplomacy.”

Let us consider this possibility of scientists, technologists and engineers moving toward collaboration with organized labor. Since scientific workers are basically skilled workers both by the nature of their own psychological approach and their contribution to production, it is not utopian to expect their revolt to develop along the same lines as workers in general. Certainly the movement of scientists into such groups as the FAS and the AASCW is a healthy trend in that direction. And since they are intellectuals, they can be expected to do more consciously what the mass of workers are driven to by the course of events. A scientists’ movement against the main current of capitalism, however, will be motivated not only by their short term economic and social interests, but also by their moral concern over the misuse of science.

Scientists and workers alike are oppressed by nations preparing for war with loyalty checks, guilt by association and other attacks on civil rights. Scientists wishing to educate the people in the implications of science will find an excellent opportunity through the organized educational programs of the labor unions. The details and technicalities of any science are tortuously involved; but properly taught, the meaning and use of the scientific method can be grasped by most people. The association of the scientists with mass production workers would be mutually stimulating and give new meaning to each group’s activities. It is not too much to expect that further development of the FAS and the AASCW combined with organizational drives by the AFL and the CIO could lead to additional unions of scientists, engineers, and other intellectual workers. Large unions of intellectual workers would do much to bring all white collar workers into the mainstream of American labor.

Finally, we can be sure that scientists will really be acting “as scientists” when they see their own problems as part of the larger struggle of masses of people to control their own economic, social and political destinies. When scientists, labor unionists, and the working people in general realize that “Capitalism made science possible, and science today makes capitalism superfluous,” the main problems of today will be well on their way to solution.

To the conscience stricken scientist, who because of pacifist or “scientific” convictions, is considering the resignation of his job, the socialists might say:

“We admire your sensitivity, your social awareness, and courage and would defend your right to make such a decision regarding your employment. However since you, as a worker, no matter how highly skilled, are replaceable, your resignation is at best a temporary retarder on the destructive scientific development on which you are employed. Insofar as your resignation frees you, objectively and subjectively, for greater participation in ideas and movements dedicated to the constructive use of all natural and human resources, then to that extent only is your resignation a desirable action.”

Top of page

Main NI Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

Last updated on 18 October 2018