Kirkus Star


Email this review


The chain of political, social, and scientific events from World War I through the Cold War form the warp of Werskey's radical political tapestry, whose pattern is dominated by the interwoven lives of England's five most colorful and consequential left-wing scientists: J. B. S. Haldane, J. D. Bernal, Hyman Levy, Joseph Needham, and Lancelot Hogben. These men formed the ""visible college,"" Werskey's turn on Robert Boyle's ""invisible college. . . of persons who take the whole body of mankind for their care."" Werskey, an American teaching at Bath and himself a sociologist, provides a stimulating--at times revelatory--combination of political and biohistory. He etches the climate of the times--High Science at Cambridge and the University of London and much elitist and eugenist thinking in the Teens and Twenties--which nevertheless saw the focal five assuming a radical stance (though some, like Haldane, would continue to worry about the working-class tendency to multiply). With the exception of mathematician Levy, all came from affluent or genteel backgrounds. Bernal reigns as the leading Marxist theoretician setting forth the theme that scientific endeavor was Marxism, that progress toward the fulfillment of individual lives depended on the social function of science flowering under a socialist system. By the mid-Thirties these early radicals had been joined by others sparked by the Spanish Civil War and a British Communist Party which now welcomed all classes. The Scientific Left reached its apogee in 1945 with the successful conclusion of the war (a triumph of science), the election of a Labour government, and an 18,000 member union, the Association of Scientific Workers. Eclipse came quickly with Stalin's elevation of Lysenko and attacks by anti-Communist intellectuals. Werskey's account of the final years of the five is moving. Haldane remarries, leaves the Party, and goes to India; Levy is noisily expelled over anti-Semitism issues; Hogben, never a joiner, retires to Wales and a second marriage; Needham (the only survivor today) shifts his attention to China and begins his major lifework. Bernal alone remained a staunch defender of the Party, vindicated, perhaps, by the universal acceptance of the place of science in all political party programs. Freighted with minutiae and a little too apologetic, this is nonetheless a stunning job, providing a sorely needed perspective on science in relation to society and politics to this day.

Pub Date: May 10th, 1979
Publisher: Holt, Rinehart & Winston