On 9 April 1940, the British biologist Lancelot Hogben (1895–1975), Regius Professor of Natural History at Aberdeen, was preparing to travel to Copenhagen from Oslo to continue a series of lectures on the Nazi misuse of genetics. On the same day, Germany launched Operation Weserübung and began to invade Norway and Denmark. Hogben saw the bombing of Oslo airport, Luftwaffe aeroplanes ‘firing less with destructive intention than to terrorise’, and a ‘lorry of Nazi troops in grey uniforms with steel helmets, machine guns pointing in all directions … patrolling the street outside the Legation’. Escaping hastily with his daughter, Sylvia, to the border with Sweden, Hogben eventually arrived in Britain ten months later, in February 1941. To get home, he travelled through Russia (via Riga) along the Trans-Siberian Railway to Japan, before crossing the US and the Atlantic. In the two weeks between Yokohama and San Francisco, Hogben began to write about his experiences as an Author in Transit (1940). Comparing his journey to Charles Darwin's voyage, Hogben's observations produced a ‘narrative which might be called a quest of the middle way’, a place of hope between the extremes he was living through. And he found this middle way, not in the USSR (where there was ‘little difference between the Soviet citizen of 1940 and the character of a Dostoevsky novel’), but in the US. He summed up his impression of the New Deal United States in one concise cliché: ‘The New World really is the new world’.1
Hogben was not alone: from his friend the biologist Julian Huxley (1887–1975) to the Marxist biochemist Joseph Needham (1900–1995), several left-wing and progressive scientific thinkers became interested in the New Deal US in the period between the mid-1930s and the Second World War. In this essay, I focus on Hogben, Huxley (who was one of the first scientists to comment on Roosevelt's project) and the scientific interpreter J.G. Crowther (1899–1983), who lectured on the history of US science at Harvard University in 1937 and published a book titled Famous American Men of Science in the same year.2 Huxley, Hogben and Crowther had different political views, which inflected what they had to say about the US and its system of planning, but they were united in seeing the New Deal as a promising political experiment.
This is unexpected. The interwar left tended to dismiss the US as a laissez-faire, capitalist country.3 Critics of all political persuasions also remarked on the increasing – and negative – Americanization of British culture.4 Liberals were more likely to admire the New Deal than were Marxists, many of whom believed that Roosevelt's programme at best merely delayed the inevitable failure of capitalism and at worst represented a dawning fascism.5 The communist writer John Strachey and the Labour intellectual Harold Laski were amongst the notable exceptions; Laski believed that Roosevelt was ‘attempting a revolution by consent’ and that, aside from Russia, ‘no modern state has undertaken an experiment which even approaches in magnitude or significance the adventure upon which President Roosevelt has embarked’.6 Yet he was unsure whether the New Deal would succeed; if it did, ‘no radical would be tempted to regard [it] as anything more than a necessary historic phase in the slow evolution of American capitalism’.7 In all, as Eric Hobsbawm wrote, the US seemed to drop out of the post-First World War progressive triad (which included science and the Russian Revolution) in the after-effects of Black Tuesday.8
What's more – though Anglo-Marxism may have ‘opened eyes to other parts of the world, not just the USSR’ – in our understanding of the scientific left's global politics, the Soviet Union has dominated while the US has languished.9 Gary Werskey's analysis of the emergence of a group of prominent left-wing scientists in the 1930s – namely Hogben, Needham, the crystallographer J.D. Bernal (1901–1971), the geneticist J.B.S. Haldane (1892–1964) and the mathematician Hyman Levy (1889–1975) – showed how central the USSR was to their vision of planned scientific socialism.10 The year 1931, when several Soviet intellectuals arrived in England and spoke at the History of Science Congress, is widely seen as a turning point.11 As J.D. Bernal said, with only some hyperbole, what was known about Soviet Russia before this congress came from ‘incomplete or mendacious accounts in the Press and the reports of more or less unqualified travellers’.12 British socialists heard the Soviet historian Boris Hessen talk at the congress about how the social and economic context of the seventeenth century motivated Isaac Newton's science, which according to Crowther ‘transformed the study of the history of science’.13 As we shall see, Crowther and Hogben enthusiastically adopted this approach and attempted to translate it for an English-speaking audience.14 Meanwhile, B.M. Zavadovsky's and Nikolai Bukharin's talks inspired serious attempts to develop dialectical materialism in relation to science.15 Since its first publication in 1978, Werskey's analysis has been extended in several directions, but the essentials of the story, particularly the centrality of the Soviet Union, remain familiar.16
Whilst there is no denying the appeal of the USSR to left-wing scientists, Hogben's reaction to the US points to a parallel story. The Soviet Union was attractive in part because it seemed to be effective where Western democracies were not, especially when it came to withstanding the effects of the Great Depression. Bolshevism also opposed the rise of fascism, which strongly threatened democratic values. As the historian Ira Katznelson has emphasized, it was in the context of a departure from democracy to communism and fascism that the New Deal attempted to answer a ‘key political question’: could democracies, ‘with their fractious parties, parliaments, and polarization … invent solutions and find their way while holding on to their core convictions and practices’? In answering this question, Roosevelt found it necessary to draw tentatively on elements of both fascism and communism.17
It was this political experimentation which captured the attentions of Huxley, Crowther and Hogben. Like the rhetoric of ‘planning’ more generally, which – as Daniel Ritschel argues – tended to conceal genuine political differences between historical actors, understandings of the New Deal were inflected by commentators’ underlying ideologies.18 For Huxley, who associated with organizations which advocated a capitalist form of planning because he feared that Soviet-style socialism would go too far in its restriction of liberty, the all-embracing planning elements of the New Deal, as reflected particularly in the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), were a model of democratic planning by persuasion that could also be applied in Britain. Ultimately, as an admirer of the Soviet Union's state intervention, Crowther was less concerned about restriction of liberty, but he too regarded the New Deal as an interesting experiment. In lectures at Harvard University and in Famous American Men of Science (1937), he took inspiration from Hessen and analysed US history of science in light of contemporary events. Notably, he idolized Benjamin Franklin for his experimental attitude and pointed out that Franklin was the only Founding Father to object to the United States Constitution because he was able to see that it was predicated on a balance of forces derived from outdated Newtonian physics. In this way, Crowther aimed to shed light on the tensions between president, Congress and Supreme Court which were frustrating New Deal legislation. Hogben's interest in the US, meanwhile, related to his opposition to the jargon of dialectical materialism. He saw Crowther's work as contributing to the project of rescuing an Anglo-American cultural heritage that Hogben thought essential to an English-speaking socialism. Hogben also believed that histories of science which were sympathetic to the cultural heritage of individual countries acted as more effective propaganda for the politics that inspired their writing. When he finally saw the US in 1940, at a crucial point in his political evolution, he (like Huxley) regarded it as a model for how to bring about a planned socialist society through peaceful persuasion.
By providing essential new information on the broader international context for the social-relations-of-science group, this essay makes several contributions to the historiography of left science.19 First, putting the non-Marxist Huxley alongside Crowther and Hogben opens up Werskey's analysis by bringing the similarities between these figures to the fore. Werskey objected to those who ‘lumped’ Huxley ‘together with his radical associates’, yet the similarities between their outlooks were more important than the differences by the mid- to late 1930s, a time when Huxley was becoming increasingly convinced by the need for planning and when both he and Crowther were engaging with the People's Front.20 Second, and relatedly, it complicates our understanding of the politics of the scientific left in this period, and the cultural history of Marxism, as we see socialists willing to look to the essentially capitalist US as a partial model for social reform based on science. Finally, it contributes to our understanding of how British writers such as Crowther and Hogben adopted and adapted Hessen's approach to the history of science for an English-speaking audience.21
The first part of this essay offers an account of the relations between Huxley, Hogben and Crowther up to 1931. The three were acquainted: moreover, Huxley and Hogben were close friends, as were Hogben and Crowther. They differed politically and in their reaction to the USSR, and only Huxley had direct experience of the US in these years. The following sections cover Huxley's, Crowther's and Hogben's engagement with the New Deal in turn. The narrative in these sections is also chronological, with Huxley first to appreciate Roosevelt's experiment, followed shortly after by Crowther's delving into the history of US science; Hogben only properly engaged with the New Deal during the Second World War. Throughout, I also attend to their opinions of US society and culture, including racial segregation.
Crowther, Hogben and Huxley in the 1920s
Of Huxley, Hogben and Crowther, only Huxley had serious contact with the US before the 1930s. The eldest of the three, Huxley was born in 1887 and educated at Eton and Oxford, where he studied zoology. He then did research on regeneration at the Naples Marine Biological Station, before returning to Oxford as a demonstrator, where he began seriously to study the courtship habits of birds. In 1913 he moved to Rice University in Houston, Texas, where he was assistant professor of biology. He later recalled that, on a preparatory visit to the US, ‘New York thrilled me with its skyscrapers (though they were nothing compared to the later giants)’; he was impressed by ‘the grandeur of its two main railway stations … [and] the beauty of Brooklyn Bridge’. He returned to England three years later, having realized that he ought to ‘do something about the war’, served in the intelligence unit of the Army Service Corps, and in 1919 was made a fellow at New College, Oxford. Some of Huxley's contemporaries suspected that his success was largely owing to his family connection to T.H. Huxley.22
Hogben and Crowther had no such, or lesser, shadows to escape from. Born four years apart, Hogben's background was working-class, while Crowther's father was the headteacher of Halifax Technical School and his mother taught music. Hogben finished his degree (which he had been awarded on a scholarship) at Trinity College, Cambridge, shortly before Crowther won a scholarship to study physics and mathematics there. Crowther took up his place, which was deferred thanks to the war, after working on anti-aircraft gunnery with A.V. Hill at Portsmouth; Hogben, meanwhile, was in jail (in solitary confinement) for conscientious objection. Once the war ended, Crowther survived one term at Trinity before experiencing a nervous breakdown and dropping out. In the same year, Hogben married Enid Charles, a feminist mathematician, who was a friend of Crowther's sister, Dodo (they had attended Newnham College together). In 1922, seeking an appointment, Hogben moved to Edinburgh, before going to Canada and Cape Town. Crowther, meanwhile, scraped a living as a temporary teacher before securing a job with Oxford University Press as a travelling book salesman. Testing his bosses’ limits, he soon began commissioning books, and was saved from dismissal thanks to his knack for spotting a bestseller.23
The intimacy that existed between Huxley and Hogben did so in spite of serious political and ideological differences.24 Hogben and Crowther were socialists: both were active in the Plebs League, a movement which promoted radical working-class education, and both visited the socialist 1917 Club in London; they also rejected religion at an early age.25 However, Hogben was never a communist, unlike Crowther, who briefly joined the Communist Party of Great Britain (in 1923, and probably only for a year).26 Huxley, by contrast, had more conventional political and social views, which he set out in Essays of a Biologist (1923). Hogben and Crowther both criticized the book, Hogben commenting on its ‘timid superficiality and insipid obscurantism’ which reflected ‘the defects of mental immaturity’.27 In the Sunday Worker, Crowther similarly said that Huxley was incapable of dealing with sociological issues. Huxley
flounder[s] on for pages without saying anything at all to the point. He ridicules Ant and Bee Socialism, underlines the importance of early environment to man, and the dangers of Nationalism, all points on which Marxists are avid for information, but he does not tell us the convincing biological facts, he mentions only that biology teaches us these views.28
Though he was no radical, Huxley did believe in social progress, which – as Roger Smith has shown – ‘entailed “community” and progressive evolution towards “individuality” of both person and collective’; in the case of humans, ‘individuality’ meant freedom from, and mastery of, the environment. This was an elite version of social progress, which left little room for democratic participation.29 One element of the world view, and the next step in humans’ progressive evolution, was eugenics, which Huxley promoted in the 1920s. Hogben and Crowther, by contrast, were about as opposed to eugenics as it was possible to be in this period.30
Racism was a key part of Huxley's eugenic beliefs in the 1920s, as revealed in one article from a series published in 1924 in The Spectator under the title ‘America revisited’. Overall, Huxley believed the US's ‘civilization is essentially different from anything which exists in Europe … The country is still in the semi-pioneer stage’.31 Each essay dealt with an element of the US's distinctive culture: religious fundamentalism (and anti-Darwinism), universities, segregation, immigration, architecture (‘the first blossom of a genuine American artistic culture’) and Prohibition.32 In ‘The Negro problem’ he observed that ‘the negro mind is as different from the white mind as the negro from the white body. The old characterization “the minds of children” is perfectly true’. People of mixed race, meanwhile, were ‘disharmonious organisms’ owing to the ‘Mendelian recombination of the two sets of factors which co-operatively build up the well-adapted negro and Caucasian type respectively’. He noted ‘with relief that, contrary to much popular belief, [black people] are not increasing faster than the whites’. Many were migrating to the northern states, but they tended ‘to die off more rapidly’ there; however, this would ‘not solve the problem’ because the mortality ‘will assuredly bear harder on the coal-black negro than on the mulatto’. Segregation was the only solution, and he foresaw a time when Southern Europeans and black people would intermarry in the South such that ‘it would be impossible to draw a sharp colour line’ and the US would divide into two regions, ‘one in the South where there was no distinction of colour, and one in the North where the negro could be kept out, or at least allowed no privileges’. In the meantime ‘the problem is acute and likely to remain so for some time’.33 Huxley's racism became less pronounced after experience in Africa and as he became opposed to Nazism in the 1930s, and this change was reflected in his comments on the New Deal.34
By the mid-1920s, Crowther had begun to submit his own articles to the New Statesman and the Manchester Guardian.35 He wanted the interpretation of science for non-specialists to be a political endeavour, as he acknowledged to Huxley in 1925 when he approached him about creating a ‘journal whose business it is to expound the significance of new scientific work to the general public’, which ‘would be conducted so that it would be acceptable to the WEA [Workers’ Educational Association] and other serious minded socialist student movements’.36 Two years later, Crowther secured his first scoop for the Manchester Guardian: ‘There is much surprise in scientific quarters about the announcement of Professor Julian S. Huxley's decision to resign the Chair of Zoology at King's College, London’, he wrote.37 A few months before, Huxley had embarked on a book project with H.G. Wells and his son, G.P. Wells, to be published as The Science of Life; he decided to free up more time for writing when the quantity and quality of his copy had not satisfied the elder Wells.38 Commenting on Huxley's decision to ‘explore the methods of communicating the results of scientific research to the public’, Crowther said that ‘the development of cheap printing, broadcasting, and the systematisation of popular lectures has revolutionised the possibilities in this direction’.39
While Crowther and Huxley were both experimenting with new careers in the interpretation of science, Hogben told Crowther that he had been ‘pitchforked into the middle of the seventeenth century’ in Cape Town, which was ‘a semifeudal society with a white “Labour” bureaucracy [where] any sentence which I might write to any body involving the word native lays me open to deportation’. He hated South Africa and wanted ‘to be back where things are happening that affect the world’.40 He got the opportunity to do so when he was offered the chair of social biology at the London School of Economics, which he took up in 1930. Here, he continued to challenge right-wing eugenics by investigating the relationship between nature and nurture.41 While in London, Hogben and Enid Charles stayed with Crowther and his wife Franziska.42 Crowther had been made the ‘scientific correspondent’ of the Manchester Guardian in 1928; Huxley's reputation as a first-rate writer, meanwhile, had been secured by the publication of The Science of Life. Yet even Huxley felt the need to ask Crowther to check the articles he had been writing for The Times and Nash’s: ‘One is so likely after such a short time to make some stupid mistake, and I do not want to be taken to task over trivial matters’.43
Such were the relations between Crowther, Hogben and Huxley up to 1931, when representatives of the USSR arrived in London to attend the Congress on the History of Science. As might be expected, they had quite different responses to the delegation and to the USSR generally.
Crowther in particular liked what he heard and took inspiration from both Hessen's analysis of the history of science and Bukharin's exposition of dialectical materialism. He had helped to organize the congress, and was already familiar with developments in Russia (having advised the Bolshevik government on technical education in the late 1920s and visiting the country to see his childhood friend, the novelist Ralph Fox).44 Publicly, he said that the Soviet Union's importance lay in the ‘invaluable data’ it provided on planning ‘for those who must sooner or later devise a satisfactorily organized industrial society’, something that he thought could happen in Western countries without a revolution.45 Hessen's essay, he reflected a decade after hearing it,
transformed the history of science from a minor into a major subject. It showed that a knowledge of the history of science was not only of entertaining antiquarian interest, but was essential for the solution of contemporary social problems due to the unorganised growth of a technological society.46
He adopted Hessen's method, albeit not dogmatically, in British Scientists of the Nineteenth Century (1935) and Famous American Men of Science (1937), where he attempted to contribute to the solution of contemporary social problems in the English-speaking world. Around the same time, he grappled with dialectical materialism, and interpreted it in Soviet Science (1936), where he said that ‘the inspiration of some remarkable doctrine’ was responsible for the achievements of science under the Bolsheviks.47 Russia To-day’s reviewer considered Crowther's chapter on dialectical materialism to be ‘as clear an exposition of a complicated subject as the reviewer has met’.48
Hogben, meanwhile, in the words of the Fabian socialist Beatrice Webb (writing in her diary in 1933), was ‘upset by the dogmatism of the soviet scientists and their childish exegesis of Marx as Holy writ; but he delights in their anti God campaign, and approves of economic equality: so, by and large, he is on their side’.49 Hogben objected strongly to premature and doctrinaire discussion of dialectical materialism.50 He commented in 1931 that the Russian delegation ‘did not seek to establish any rapprochement between the standpoint of dialectical materialism and the empirical temper of our own tradition’; the Russian philosophy had ‘not yet been upholstered with the pragmatic simplicity congenial to the English-speaking peoples’.51 Dialectical materialism would be more attractive to Americans than to the British, he predicted, because in the US ‘natural science is regarded as part of the equipment of an educated man or woman and the behaviourist school in psychology has paved the way for a radical re-examination of traditional philosophic systems’.52 As we shall see, he saw Crowther's histories of science, and in particular Famous American Men of Science, as contributing to this project of making ‘the doctrines of the Russian school’ intelligible to ‘the empirical temper of our own tradition’.53
Huxley was less influenced by the Russian delegation than were Crowther and Hogben, though he appreciated the practical importance of what was happening in the USSR. In July 1931, he visited Russia in a delegation which Crowther arranged on behalf of the Society for Cultural Relations.54 As he reported in A Scientist among the Soviets, on the way to Russia the group stopped in Hamburg, ‘just when the German financial crisis of July 1931 was engaging the world's attention’. On returning to England, he found ‘the whole capitalist world … in the throes of a crisis’. In the meantime, he had seen in Bolshevik Russia ‘a scientific experiment, and the only one ever yet carried out in such a field and on such a scale’. He evidently considered the experiment in terms of his own ideas about social progress and individuality, as he regarded individual elements of the USSR ‘in relation to the growth and travail of the whole vast organism’. Travail, because Russia was in ‘transition between a mediaeval past and a communist future, a compromise between a chaos and a plan, a mixture of expedience and principle’. Towards the end of A Scientist among the Soviets, after admitting that some form of planning was necessary, he asked, ‘is the Russian method the only practicable one?’55 This was a question that others who, like Huxley, worried about the restriction of liberty from above were asking. The New Deal suggested to Huxley that planning and freedom were reconcilable, and that alternatives to the Russian method existed.
‘A new and hopeful type of social organism’: Huxley and the Tennessee Valley Authority
People like Huxley began to look to the USSR for ideas because, by the early 1930s, it was clear that democracy was in trouble. Democratic countries seemed incapable of dealing with the Depression, and as the decade wore on they gave way to other, more totalitarian, forms of government which seemed better able to cope. In this context, liberal democracy's ability to survive was in doubt. If, as some suggested, democracies also adopted a degree of planning to tackle ‘the big problems of the day’, would liberal values be compromised?56
The New Deal attempted to answer this question. As Roosevelt said, it drew for pragmatic reasons on ‘some of the things that were being done in Russia and even some of the things that were being done under Hitler in Germany’.57 Supported by southern Democrats, who initiated and backed progressive social legislation in Congress so long as it did not threaten racial segregation, the New Deal enabled ‘an unprecedented degree of national state intervention’ designed to deal with economic collapse.58 The emergency legislation passed during Roosevelt's Hundred Days was ‘characterized by immense powers delegated from the legislature to the executive branch that dramatically expanded the powers of federal agencies, many of which were new’.59 Notably, the Banking Act (1933) aimed to stabilize banks by, for example, requiring the separation of investment and depository functions; the Agricultural Adjustment Act (1933) brought in a series of subsidies for farmers designed to stop overproduction and raise commodity prices; and, more controversially, the National Industrial Relations Act (1933) allowed workers to unionize, attempted to raise wages via collaborations between trade associations and unions, and provided over three billion dollars (largely from taxes) for the construction of infrastructure.60 In all this activity arose an answer to Huxley's question whether the Russian method of planning was the only practicable one.
By the mid-1930s, Huxley was well placed to appreciate the New Deal's attempt to rescue liberal democracy via experimental intervention in the economy. Over the previous few years, he had gradually moved closer to the red scientists’ belief that science needed to be organized for the benefit of society. In 1934, he sent Crowther an advance copy of his Scientific Research and Social Needs, a book which contained transcripts of discussions between Huxley, Hyman Levy and the socialist physicist Patrick Blackett.61 Huxley told Crowther that writing the book had ‘both enlarged and altered my ideas on the relations between science and social activities in general’.62 He became a great advocate of planning, actively participating in groups such as Political and Economic Planning and the Next Five Years Group, which searched for a middle way and tended towards a form of ‘capitalist planning’ characterized by industrial self-government.63 The rise of Nazism also worried Huxley, and he became an opponent of its racial theories. These developments formed the context of Huxley's interest in the New Deal.
Huxley focused on the Tennessee Valley Authority, another piece of New Deal legislation passed during Roosevelt's Hundred Days. The TVA was ‘a public power company’ which was granted wide-ranging powers in its task of electrifying the southern states.64 In If I Were Dictator, published in 1934, Huxley mentioned the ‘government ownership and administration of the hydro-electric station at Muscle Shoals’ as a promising example of large-scale planning, though acknowledging that as it had only just begun, ‘so … we cannot yet judge its results’.65 A year later, having visited the US, Huxley was better placed to comment, and he reported in The Times and The Listener on the experiment, emphasizing its scale and the planning involved in dealing with such problems as drought and siltage. In modernizing the valley, Huxley wrote that administrators had to deal with similar problems as had the Bolsheviks in Russia, including poor agriculture and a ‘backward’ (but not genetically inferior) population. He gave a sense of the scale of the effort, and said that ‘planning is needed, and interconnected planning covering all aspects of life’.66
Huxley believed that the TVA was an example of planning which did not unduly impinge on freedom. The project proceeded with ‘the necessary modicum of authority, of compulsory powers, and financial backing’, but, unlike efforts prosecuted under Hitler's or Mussolini's regimes, it aimed ‘at exerting its influence for the most part indirectly, by persuasion or demonstration’.67 This was most evident in the use of model farms, which encouraged farmers to adopt innovations that they could see were worthwhile, and more generally in the way the TVA engaged in social engineering without dictatorship. According to Huxley, ‘the population must be educated towards better economic methods and towards a higher and richer standard of life’ in order for further electrification to proceed, and so the TVA focused on uplifting the ‘hillbillies’ through education and improvements in health.68
In these comments on reformation of the South, Huxley largely overlooked Jim Crow laws. As with other New Deal legislation, the existence of the TVA relied on the votes of southern Democrats in Congress, who correctly ‘assumed that the law's administration would do nothing to disturb the racial order’.69 Huxley believed that the TVA was unable rather than unwilling to tackle the problem, noting that ‘race prejudice and all the difficulties it engenders will persist for a long time, and no extraneous authority can do much’.70 He said that, on principle, the TVA ‘employs negroes in the same proportion in which they occur in the population at large (about 12 per cent. for the area as a whole)’ and ‘pays negro and white the same wage for the same work’.71 He did not mention that, in practice, blacks were employed in mundane jobs with no opportunity to learn additional skills, or that segregation characterized TVA regions.72 Foreshadowing something that would hamper New Deal initiatives later in the decade, Huxley noted that there had been ‘a large accession of negroes to trade unionism in this region of the South’.73 As we shall see, Huxley's blind spot regarding race was shared by Crowther and, to a lesser extent, Hogben. Huxley perhaps thought it inexpedient to suggest similarities between the US's and Germany's racial policies at a time when he was speaking out about the latter.74
Overall, it was the experimental nature of the New Deal – the application of scientific methods to society – that appealed to Huxley. This went beyond vague references to ‘scientific planning’, which – as Ritschel suggests – merely concealed planners’ political stances.75 Huxley saw the scientific method writ large in the New Deal. Indeed, the TVA ‘marked the beginning of the large-scale application of the experimental method in social affairs’.76 The experiment went beyond that of Bolshevik Russia, because it had a scientific control to determine whether the experiment had worked. The TVA had ‘been carefully planned to give a specific answer to certain definite questions’ – in particular ‘whether a public agency can generate electric power more cheaply and more efficiently than private companies’.77 The Electric Power Association of one county, though it paid ‘the same taxes as any private company’ and had ‘an amortisation charge for the purchase of the property’, had rates which were ‘only about half those of the private company previously operating in the county’.78 In other words, the experiment had succeeded.
In all, Huxley thought he had witnessed ‘the early growth of a new and hopeful type of social organism’, one that was progressive by combining ‘science and vision’ on a large scale.79 He hoped that a similar experiment could be introduced in Britain: ‘If one has got to try some sort of planning, the methods employed by the TVA are adapted to a democratic regime’; Russian methods could never be applied ‘to such individualistic countries as America or Britain’.80
‘A valuable American belief in political experimentalism’: Crowther on Franklin and the US Constitution
Huxley's articles describing the remarkable experiment in planning which was under way in the Tennessee valley appeared just as Crowther was searching for a topic for his second book on the history of science. Inspired by Hessen, Crowther had begun in 1931 to work on a history of nineteenth-century scientists ‘precipitately, for fear of being forestalled’.81 British Scientists of the Nineteenth Century eventually appeared in 1935, and Famous American Men of Science followed two years later. In his autobiography, published in 1970, Crowther said that he chose to write about American scientists because his lack of foreign languages restricted him to reading sources written in English. ‘At the same time, visits to scientific institutions in the U.S.S.R. having become more difficult, and visits to German scientific institutions repulsive, I paid more attention to other countries’.82 These motivations, combined with his belief that history of science ‘was essential for the solution of contemporary social problems due to the unorganised growth of a technological society’, conspired to create a situation in which he could not avoid commenting on, or intervening in, US politics. Indeed, in writing about the US, he had a choice. He could have dismissed the New Deal as fascist, or written that it was doomed to fail (just as capitalism was destined to collapse). In the event, he chose to use the histories of prominent scientists to endorse the experimental approach to politics embodied in the New Deal, and to hint at how to keep the project from going off course.
Crowther's approach in Famous American Men of Science was informed by Hessen, but also drew on the theories of others. He approved of the American sociologist Thorstein Veblen's ‘brilliant writings’ and intended, as he wrote to his publisher, ‘to look at [the psychologist William] James from the standpoint of Veblen's Theory of the Leisure Class’.83 In his research notes he paraphrased Veblen's argument that the ‘aberrant scions’ of the leisure class advanced science, especially those ‘middle-class persons who have risen into [the] leisure class’.84 Benjamin Franklin was a perfect example: whereas the researches of the leisure class were usually non-practical, Franklin came from the lower middle class and inherited their industrious talents.85 Meanwhile, Crowther suggested that Thomas Edison was not ‘the inexplicable wizard of invention’, as traditionally portrayed. Joseph Henry, as secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, represented ‘a distinguished forerunner of the modern social planners, who wish to integrate science into the machinery of society’. The physical chemist Josiah Gibbs remained underappreciated because, though his science had social use, he was at Yale where most of his peers regarded science as an offshoot of curiosity.86 Crowther's subjects highlighted issues of contemporary relevance: in this case, of practical science for social use and – perhaps most importantly – political experimentation in the form of planning.
By the time Crowther began work on American Men of Science, the New Deal's ‘radical moment’ was temporarily faltering as some of its earliest initiatives were being ruled unconstitutional. In May 1935, the Supreme Court declared that the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) went too far in its delegation of legislative power to the president. As mentioned, NIRA regulated the economy, allowing ‘the national government to assume the leadership of private enterprise’ (in the words of one of Roosevelt's advisers), and initiated a public-works programme.87 It also ‘guaranteed workers the right to form and join unions’, leading to general strikes the year after its passage into law.88 This increase of power to workers continued after the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) was passed in July 1935. The Wagner Act (as it was also called) outlawed actions taken by employers to undermine labour unionization and established the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). ‘With this law, the federal government offered organized labour a broad legal umbrella under which to shelter’, Katznelson writes.89 Membership of trade unions increased dramatically; by the late 1930s, ‘American workers had acquired substantial influence on both the shop floor and in the political realm’.90 Also in 1935, the Social Security Act came into law, which provided ‘old-age pensions and unemployment insurance’.91 Notwithstanding the lack of desire to ‘build a socialism in which the national state would supplant private firms to become the central economic factor’, much less to ‘discard private property in accordance with the Soviet model’, it is perhaps unsurprising that this national planning and a resurgent labour movement would attract the attention of socialists such as Crowther.92 At the same time, in response to the international political situation, Crowther recognized the need to compromise and became involved in the People's Front. For example, in 1936 his name appeared alongside Huxley's underneath a letter sent by For Intellectual Liberty to all Liberal and Labour MPs.93 The letter urged ‘the scattered forces of progress [to] call a truce to the civil war that now divides them, and co-operate for the defence of those democratic principles which are common to them all’.94
As Crowther researched and wrote about Franklin, the Manchester Guardian reported that the Supreme Court had ruled the Agricultural Adjustments Act (AAA) unconstitutional for infringing state power.95 Crowther commented, ‘at the present time, the Constitution is more than ever the centre of American political thought. The contentions between the executive, the houses of Congress, and the Supreme Court, affect the foundations of American life’.96 Crowther aimed to shed some historical light on these tensions. On the very day that the Supreme Court made its decision about the AAA, Crowther read Woodrow Wilson's Constitutional Government in the United States (1908), which linked the ‘checks and balances’ embedded in the Constitution with Newtonian physics.97 Crowther fleshed out Wilson's argument that the Founding Fathers designed a balanced Constitution by drawing on Newton's physics, whereby ‘all bodies are nicely poised by a balance of the forces acting on them’.98 According to Crowther, they did so because they were lawyers and established members of the leisure class, and therefore did not have an up-to-date understanding of science: ‘Newton with pencil and paper worked out the Constitution of the Universe. This appealed to lawyers who desired to work out the Constitution of the United States of America with pen and paper’.99
But this was not the whole story because, as Hessen argued, Newton's ideas arose from his social environment. Crowther believed that comments by Niccolò Machiavelli and James Harrington on balanced constitutions suggested ‘that “Newtonian” ideas are older than Newton’.100 Indeed, Newtonian mechanics were ‘indebted to Whig or mercantile theories of government. In the environment of such theories, and allied systems of thought, [Newton] produced his mechanics’.101 Rather than providing the Founding Fathers with the idea of a balanced Constitution, then, ‘there was a continual interaction between notions of government and scientific ideas’, and the drafters of the Constitution adapted Newtonian mechanics ‘to give more precise expression to the theories of government suitable to trading classes’.102 The result was a political structure ‘equipped with a system of automatic governors, safety valves and balance-weights’ which ‘harmlessly discharged [social discontent] through a temporary acceleration of the balanced mechanism, and the original relative positions of the interacting parts, or social interests or classes, would remain constant for ever’.103 In other words, the Constitution was a conservative force which kept people in their place. Understandings of science – as manifested in disagreements between the executive, legislature and judiciary – evidently played ‘a part in the rejection or delay, for good or ill, of social plans such as the New Deal’.104
Yet this was not the only political tradition which existed in the United States. Crowther also pointed out that Franklin was the only prominent Founding Father to disagree with the Constitution. He did so, according to Crowther, because ‘he was the most confident pioneer of the next advance of science beyond Newton’, so ‘could not sympathize with lawyers in love with a scientific point of view already old-fashioned’.105 As befitted his origins outside the leisure class, Franklin was a scientific experimentalist who also wanted to make political experiments. In recent years, Crowther observed, US politicians said that they wanted to experiment in politics without knowing the answers. ‘A new attitude has begun to appear in America’, he wrote, ‘where leaders have plainly said that they did not know beforehand the solutions to all problems, but merely wished to have power to try various experimental policies’.106 Yet this attitude was coming up against the Newtonian balance of forces encoded in the Constitution. Crowther's implicit argument was that the executive should be allowed to experiment by initiating ambitious plans such as the New Deal, and that the eighteenth-century Constitution was unfit for twentieth-century challenges.
In October 1936, the president of Harvard University, James Bryant Conant, wrote to Crowther, introducing himself as someone ‘interested in the History of Science’ who had read British Scientists (published in the US as Men of Science) ‘with much interest’.107 Conant thought an understanding of the history of science could help to defend free inquiry in universities: as he said in a talk to Amherst College in 1935, ‘without a widespread appreciation of what the creative spirit has accomplished, the forward advance will always be subject to the danger of being halted by a mob demanding dogma, not discussion, and crying for a moratorium on research’.108 Harvard needed ‘thoughtful rebels’ on its faculties, but it was hard to find merely ‘satisfactory teachers’ of history of science.109 He invited Crowther to deliver a series of lectures at Harvard. Crowther set sail in February 1937, three months after Roosevelt's re-election, and shortly after departing, he wired for his wife, Franziska, to join him because he realized that she had ‘made a definite contribution’ to the lectures: ‘Her contributions in ordering & criticising was [sic] an organic part. The lectures were partly hers’.110 Political issues bulked large in his diary of the trip, from the ‘democratic’ atmosphere aboard the SS Paris that ‘reflected the French popular front’, to his comments on the political outlook of various scientists and left-wing writers.111 Upon arriving, the ‘beautifully clean & well-ordered’ New York with its ‘light & charming’ modern architecture immediately created ‘a lively impression’.112 He was surprised to find ‘strong anti-feminist feeling’ in Harvard, ‘even more than in England’.113 Nor was he impressed by the socialists at a Science & Society party.114 Most seemed intolerant, and there were ‘several pretty bitter men, perhaps [Communist] party members’.115 Overall, however, Crowther thought progressive views were in the ascendant at Harvard.116
Yet when the Marxist archaeologist Vere Gordon Childe (1892–1957) visited Harvard later in 1937, he reported that Crowther's lectures ‘provoked controversy among historians’.117 Childe did not elaborate, but American historians were debating the uses of history in the 1930s. One Harvard historian, C.H. McIlwain, disparaged the utilitarian approach to the past in his Presidential Address to the American Historical Association in December 1936.118 Already, McIlwain worried, ‘there are more than hints in certain parts of the world that all past history must be rewritten for a present purpose’.119 Crowther's lectures, and especially that on ‘Science and the American Constitution’, which Conant attended and in which Crowther presented his arguments about the frustration of the New Deal, must have seemed particularly disconcerting, coming as they did a month after Roosevelt had announced his plan to change the composition of the Supreme Court (in an attempt to make it more amenable to New Deal legislation).
Crowther's other lectures were apparently more successful. The New Deal brought with it attempts more effectively to plan science and fund activity at a federal level. These were spearheaded in particular by Karl Compton, president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and chair of the Science Advisory Board (which Roosevelt established in 1934). Conant was also associated with ‘this new generation of scientific leaders’.120 Crowther pointed out in his lecture on Joseph Henry (reported in the Harvard Crimson) that in promoting scientific research at the federally funded Smithsonian Institution (as its first secretary), ‘Henry did much toward establishing the profession of scientific administration, a profession which in the complexity of modern civilization is becoming more and more essential to scientific progress’.121 This achievement in fact made Henry ‘the equal of Faraday, Helmholtz, Kelvin, Maxwell, and the other great scientists of the nineteenth century’.122 Crowther's comments on Franklin were also well pitched. For Crowther, Franklin embodied the model ‘politician–philosopher–journalist’, a ‘model to which modern men must return if contemporary problems [were] to be solved’ and the dangers of specialism to be avoided.123 Specialists, Crowther said, tended to exaggerate the importance of their own subjects, and could easily be misled by quacks on other topics; the legalistic Founding Fathers, ignorant of modern experimental technique, were an example of this. Specialization was a ‘centripetal force … driving inward to dictatorship’.124 The solution, ‘philosophic journalism’, required ‘breadth of understanding, fertility of mind, and coordination of walled-in ideas’, combined with something which Franklin lacked: ‘some general idea of the system and tendencies of the forces that govern society’.125 The conservative Harvard Crimson noted that ‘Mr. Crowther's philosophy resembles President Conant's. The planning of the University Professorships is directly traceable to the necessity for broader, free, and more embracive thinking, with particular reference to the increasing complexity and specialization of contemporary society.’126 In a Manchester Guardian article on Harvard, Crowther highlighted ‘the appointment of professors whose teaching and creative work shall not be confined to any of the recognised subjects’ as being ‘of particular interest’.127
Famous American Men of Science received favourable reviews, and Crowther returned to the US in 1938 to promote the book on a lecture tour and to visit scientific institutes; he lived in New York for about three months after the tour. He ‘saw evidence in several directions that American science was progressing swiftly’ and that ‘the disparity between British and American academic institutions was rapidly growing’.128 Further exposure to US culture did not apparently awaken Crowther's sense of racial injustice; like Huxley, he largely ignored this aspect of the US. Crowther was more interested in the cultivation of science because it ‘had become the chief positive characteristic of civilization’ and could provide ‘a measure of a country's cultural, industrial and military strength’.129 In Famous American Men of Science, and in his lectures at Harvard, Crowther attempted to unearth a seam in US history which valued breadth of knowledge, efficient science administration and – above all – experimental politics, all of which he hoped could help to mitigate society's present troubles. As he said, understanding the history of science ‘was essential for the solution of contemporary social problems’.130
‘The commonwealth of knowledge’: Hogben and Anglo-American Marxism
In writing his books and drafting his lectures, Crowther received help from Hogben, who was equally enthused by the new interpretation of history of science. Indeed, Crowther and Hogben worked together to establish a Hessen-inspired approach to the history of science. Hogben wanted his Mathematics for the Million (1936) to be published by Routledge, Crowther's publisher, and considered the possibility of a shorter edition, to be written in cooperation with Crowther and published later.131 This turned out to be unnecessary, because Mathematics sold in surprisingly large numbers. Hogben aimed to show, he said to Crowther, ‘that Marxism can be applied as an instrument of pedagogics and why the hell [Hyman] Levy doesn't do it better instead of talking generalities about science as a social venture I don't know!’132 In his next ‘Primer for the Age of Plenty’, Science for the Citizen (1938), which sold equally well, Hogben specifically recommended Crowther's two histories of science in the preface, and the publisher Allen and Unwin hoped that Crowther would contribute a volume (ideally Famous American Men of Science) to the series.133
Hogben may have taken historical materialism seriously, but he had not abandoned the critique of dialectical materialism and its jargon which he set out as early as 1931. At that point, he had said that the US was more likely than the UK ‘to find an adequate exponent to interpret [the doctrines of the Russian school] in a language intelligible to the English-speaking world’.134 In 1937, Hogben presented this argument about the need for an English interpreter of Marxism to an American audience in an article for the US-based Science & Society; along with Bernal and Haldane, he was listed as being on the journal's editorial board. In this piece, titled ‘Our social heritage’, Hogben suggested that writings such as Crowther's pointed the way to an Anglo-American Marxism. He reminded his readers that ‘Lenin never encouraged his followers to kick away their own spiritual ladders’, and argued,
One aspect of the historical situation with which we have to deal is the recrudescence of national sentiment. This being so, no helpful contribution to the social culture of a rationally planned economy of human welfare will be made by missionary zeal for a foreign creed unfortified by sympathetic appreciation of the contribution which our Anglo-American heritage has made and can still make to the commonwealth of knowledge.135
Marxists could ‘learn much from Soviet historians of science like Hessen’ in ‘the task of modifying and expanding the great empirical traditions of our common social heritage’, but the tradition of Hegel, when transplanted to a foreign Anglo-American culture, merely provided ‘theology with a new rationale and … reinforce[d] scholastic humanism in opposition to the claims of realistic research’.136 Adopting dialectical jargon – imposing ‘the idiom of a Volkssprache which helps Hitler to deceive his countrymen’ – was ‘neither good Marxism, good history or good salesmanship in the realm of propaganda’.137 Unlike Maurice Dobb's On Marxism Today (1932) or D.S. Mirsky's The Intelligentsia of Great Britain (1935), which adopted this jargon, Hogben judged that Crowther's books were ‘brilliant’.138
Indeed, some of Hogben's examples of how the legacy of English-speaking countries could be rescued came from Crowther. For example, Hogben said that the natural philosopher William Petty (1623–1687) and the social reformer Robert Owen (1771–1858) came up with the labour theory of value before Marx; Franklin also ‘subscribed to Petty's view that human effort is the only rational basis for costing a scientifically organized society’.139 Crowther had mentioned to Hogben ‘the germs of the Labour Theory of Value in Franklin & Petty’ a few months before.140 In short, in order to ‘play a fruitful part in a popular intellectual front’, Hogben argued in his Science & Society article that advocates of Marxism must ‘emphasize its historical rôle as custodian of the positive cultural achievements of the English and American Revolutions’.141 As Crowther said in a signed review of Hogben's Dangerous Thoughts (1939), Hogben ‘is at heart an English Protestant and Empiricist’; as such, ‘one of his special merits is that he understands and continues the English intellectual tradition’.142
This was a tradition which was, of course, increasingly under threat from fascism. After war broke out in Europe, the emphasis on a shared Anglo-American heritage understandably took on added importance, as those in the UK attempted to persuade the US to intervene in the war against fascism and in defence of common values. Joseph Needham delivered a series of lectures in the United States between June and November 1940, mostly to university audiences, on the general situation in Europe. Needham, writing under the pseudonym Henry Holorenshaw, had already done his bit to celebrate Britain's radical heritage. The Levellers and the English Revolution, published by Victor Gollancz in 1939, emphasized the communal, socialist inspiration of the early radicals.143 In the United States, Needham used a similar history to encourage cooperation with Britain. It was not just Britain, he said, ‘but rather Anglo-American democracy’, that could defend the world against Nazism. There was a ‘historical association between science, democracy, capitalism and puritanism’, all of which were ‘taken to America by the founding fathers, who set up in North America a society conformable to the “Good Old Cause” of the Parliament-men in 17th century England’. Now, Needham continued, ‘American democracy is, in its vast industrial production, coming to help of the Good Old Cause of Freedom in Europe, against “the Amalekite tyranny”, as Cromwell's troopers would have called it, of the Nazis’. Deep historical roots existed that justified Britain and the US collaborating to defend science, freedom and democracy against the irrationality, bondage and dictatorship of fascism. Emphasizing these roots was especially important as Needham noted that Americans tended to equate ‘fascism’ with other past European tyrannies – notably British imperialism. In all, ‘the fate of world-science … depends on the success with which the democracies, i.e. Anglo-American democracy, can overthrow Nazi tyranny, without themselves succumbing to fascist ideas in any other guise’.144 Back home, Crowther was ideally placed to propagate scientific achievements, having been appointed to the British Council, but any propaganda for a shared Anglo-American heritage was hampered because the US was outside the council's remit.145 Nevertheless, Crowther sought to cultivate Anglo-American cooperation by mooting an Anglo-American Society of Sciences, modelled on his Anglo-French Society.146 Conant also dined at the Tots and Quots, an informal discussion group attended by leftist scientists, in 1941; they discussed Anglo-American cooperation and the organization of contact between British and American scientists.147 In the meantime, Patrick Blackett had visited the US and delivered a lecture at Harvard on the history of science.148
Hogben's arrival in the US coincided with Needham's visit. He arrived in San Francisco in the summer, finding that ‘after a first view of the University of California campus at Berkeley, and the polychromatic prodigality of the garden sidewalks in the neighbourhood, it would be easy for a mere European to gush his way through several pages of effervescent encomiums’.149 After visiting Madison, Wisconsin, Hogben ended up in New York, which he remembered as ‘relatively smokeless’; ‘some of its thousand-foot-high buildings, in particular [the] Rockefeller Center’, had to his taste ‘a unique geometric beauty’.150 He believed that ‘if America continues to countenance recourse to bold expedients in the spirit of the New Deal, it can still buy time for testing a variety of ways of replacing production for profit by production for use’.151 Meanwhile, he continued (echoing Huxley),
what makes America a fascinating and inspiring spectacle is that it is a laboratory in which it is possible to study the merits and limitations of spectacular exercises in state planning, co-operative marketing, purchasing and credit for agrarian development, or the highly mechanized domestic production of the Homestead Unit.152
In short, ‘there is hope for the New World because, and while, there is the hope of a New Deal’.153
Hogben did not gloss the shortcomings of the New Deal US, however, and recognized that
it would be foolish to underrate the explosive potentialities of juvenile unemployment, of race antagonism in the South, of carpetbag sentimentality about freeing the wheels of industry for another crisis of underconsumption, or of hysterical heresy hunting already foreshadowed by some of the activities of the Dies Committee.154
Hogben distinguished himself from Huxley and Crowther in explicitly acknowledging the tension between progressive Americans’ distaste for Germany's ‘unsavoury creed’ on the one hand and the US's ‘formidable and, as yet, unsolved race problem of the southern states’ on the other.155 Hogben also noted the US's ‘faith in the eternal validity of the Constitution’, which was an exception to the country's willingness to experiment.156 Probably influenced by Crowther's comments on this point, Hogben said that the system of checks and balances suited ‘the tempo of life at the end of the eighteenth century’, but now ‘far-reaching constitutional reforms may be the only way of preserving’ a way of life marked by ‘flexibility which permits a nation to face new social problems and to realise a new potential of plenty without recourse to violent upheaval’.157 Overall,
The possibility of social adjustment by common consent in the world of today may stand or fall with readiness to modify the machinery which makes it possible to override vested interests in traditional business methods when need for innovation is generally recognized.158
Continuing unemployment, Jim Crow, laissez-faire attitudes, an emerging surveillance state and a reluctance to reform the Constitution all counted against the United States.
Yet Hogben remained hopeful, partly because these political defects were outweighed by the US's culture, which was empirical and science-based. For Hogben, ‘what is most hopeful about America is that these States have produced a crop of writers at once accessible to what is new and fruitful in the intellectual milieu of the Old World and immune to the doctrinaire temper fostered by the scholastic tradition’.159 Authors such as Lewis Mumford were exploring ‘contemporary agencies which are shaping the contemporary world, while European scholars [notably the neo-liberal economist F.A. Hayek] continue to build skyscrapers of flawless logic on a floating foundation of mid-nineteenth century science’.160 Education in the US was not about such subtle mental games, based on outdated philosophies from the age of coal and steam, but about understanding and solving problems ‘in the age of hydroelectricity, magnesium–aluminium alloys, synthetic plastics, broadcasting, and aviation’.161 Roger Burlingame's Engines of Democracy: Inventions and Society in Mature America (1940), for example, provided ‘a swiftly changing view of social conditions produced by the interplay of a multitude of minor devices which are separate like the glass pieces of a kaleidoscope’.162 Furthermore, in coming up with ‘remedies for social maladjustments’, US culture favoured the middle way because ‘higher education in America has not inherited the authoritarian temper of medieval Europe’.163 And, unlike Europe, the US was ‘building an educational system which produces the maximum yield from the gifts of the average man or woman’, which ‘is the only guaranty for the survival of democracy’.164 In circumnavigating the world and comparing the US with the USSR, Hogben became more convinced of two things: ‘that piecemeal planning by peaceful persuasion is the only path to an economy of abundance in our time’, and ‘that the fullest utilisation of scientific knowledge for human welfare calls for an educational reformation which will make the world outlook of modern science an open Bible’.165
Huxley also highlighted the importance of education to successful democratic planning when he revisited the TVA in 1942. His reflections were published in The Times and in a richly illustrated book, which had much to say about the beautiful architecture, and how the TVA had improved people's health, boosted tourism and made exhausted land productive again.166 The Times article noted that he found the project even more impressive than when he had first seen it. ‘But what interested me most when I revisited the area in the spring of 1942 was the technique which the TVA has adopted with the deliberate aim of reconciling over-all planning with the values of democracy’.167 This was a pertinent focus, because the war had brought the tension between freedom and organization, between democracy and dictatorship, into greater relief – in both Britain and the US. The year 1941 saw the appearance of Crowther's The Social Relations of Science, which concerned Hayek (who criticized it in The Spectator and was working on The Road to Serfdom (1944)). The US, meanwhile, had witnessed an increase in executive power and restrictions on freedom to deal with the demands of war and, as Huxley said, the notion that ‘over-all planning is incompatible with democratic freedom and individual initiative … lingers on in considerable strength in the U.S.A.’168 This, he thought, was odd ‘because it is precisely in the U.S.A. that planning has been most conspicuously and most successfully democratic’.169 This achievement was owing to a focus on ‘planning by persuasion, consent, and participation’.170 People in the region where planning was to take place were regarded ‘as participating co-planners’, and this cooperative participation was twofold: first, the TVA had to work alongside other government bodies and agencies; second, ‘people at large’ had to be involved.171 This second activity was quite embryonic when Huxley wrote (a committee had been set up ‘to see how best the educational system and its curriculum can be utilised to bring about a wider understanding of the aims and achievements of the TVA’), but he pointed out that in the Columbia basin of the north-west US, administrators were asking the public to help frame ‘the plan itself’.172 The ‘idea behind an administration’ thereby became decentralized, ‘so that its planning becomes a part of public opinion’.173 He concluded,
In the planned Britain of after the war, we must avoid a congestion of centralised planning in Whitehall, we must encourage the people to feel that it is their plan and that they are helping to make it. This can be done by using the democratic techniques of decentralisation, co-operation with other agencies, and popular participation, both in action and in opinion and feeling.174
These comments suggest a shift in Huxley's politics, away from an exclusionary attitude towards the masses. Only by including the people could planning be harmonized with the principles of liberal democracy.
The New Deal arguably extended into the post-Second World War period, but by then the project had taken on a different flavour. The development and use of the nuclear bomb brought about a change in foreign policy, and economic planning declined from 1943 in favour of fiscal management.175 On the day that Japan surrendered, Crowther told Needham that the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, combined with the election of a Labour government, had ‘produced interesting changes in the perspective of my own particular world. It is in a state of pregnant paralysis’.176 While Crowther and Huxley both became involved in international initiatives – notably helping to organize the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) – Crowther and Hogben both became disillusioned by developments in the United States. ‘Few years were to pass before McCarthy's congressional committee revived the Salem tradition as never before in this century’, Hogben later recalled.177 The US always played second fiddle to the USSR in Crowther's eyes, and there was little doubt about his allegiance during the Cold War. He too disliked McCarthyism; one of his closest friends in the second half of the century, the physicist Melba Phillips, had been victimized by it. Phillips was, for Crowther, ‘the American personality who inspires in me the greatest hope for the future of her country’.178
To what extent did Huxley, Hogben and Crowther consider the New Deal to be a viable alternative social system in the 1930s? Huxley and Hogben were clearly enthusiastic: the New Deal satisfied Huxley's need for planning without a fundamental change in the social system and confirmed Hogben's belief that ‘piecemeal planning by peaceful persuasion’ was the only way to create a period of plenty for the majority. Hogben also recognized the need for a degree of private enterprise in any future socialist society, particularly in publishing, so his attraction to the New Deal was not inconsistent.179 It is not entirely clear, however, whether Hogben believed that the New Deal would eventually evolve into socialism or whether it was an alternative. Crowther presents more of a conundrum, as his comments on the New Deal were more abstract, filtered as they were through the history of US science. Nonetheless, he was clearly impressed by the political experimentalism of the New Deal, and believed that it was worth studying; a centralized, planned socialist system he thought inevitable, and the New Deal could help to show what worked and what did not. Overall, politically Crowther was closer to Hogben and further from the Communist Party than the current secondary literature suggests.180 Both agreed that the experimental turn in US politics was a promising sign, and hoped for Constitutional reform to facilitate further experimentation.
If these intellectuals’ views of the US were inflected by their individual political views, there were also commonalities. Most obviously, what was common to the appeal of the New Deal for Huxley, Crowther and Hogben was the commitment to social modernization via the application of science. This arguably went beyond breezy invocations of ‘scientific planning’. For example, Huxley wrote of ‘controls’ in social experiments (analogous to controls in scientific experiments); because the TVA had a ‘control’, he thought it was more scientific than similar experiments happening in the USSR. There were also other similarities: all three appreciated the US aesthetically, commenting in particular on modern architecture; with the partial exception of Hogben, they tended to gloss over the racism of the New Deal, perhaps in an attempt to avoid comparisons with Nazi Germany; and they all regarded US culture and education as a strength, imbued as they believed them to be by science. As Crowther said, ‘scientific ideas have had an exceptional influence on the history of America, more, perhaps, than on the history of any other country, except the USSR’.181
By reinterpreting that history, and showing how deeply embedded in US culture were science, planning and political experimentation, Crowther effectively legitimized contemporary political developments. Indeed, this article has shed light on the content of the early histories of science which were inspired by Hessen. Crowther and Hogben avoided Marxist jargon, and tried to interpret Hessen's ideas in a way that would be understandable to English-speaking readers. Crowther looked not only to Hessen, but also to Veblen's theories, and Hogben thought it was crucial not to reject the cultural heritage of English-speaking countries. Study of the English-speaking past could unite those peoples in defence of the heritage and values that they held in common. Furthermore, it could show that many of the ideas commonly regarded as foreign imports, including the labour theory of value, were first formulated and taken up by Anglo-American writers such as Benjamin Franklin. The political experimentation and planning of the New Deal were not alien to the United States; as Franklin's biography in particular suggested, they had deep roots.
The Soviet Union was a prominent inspiration for British planners in the first half of the twentieth century. But it was not the only one. At a time when civilization seemed to be in the balance, thinkers with a variety of political beliefs were willing to engage with and learn from the US's experiment in planning, elements of which could inform the design of the organized social system to come. Even some socialists succumbed – however briefly – to the appeal of Roosevelt's new world.