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John G. Wright

The Scientists and Atomic Energy

(June 1946)

From Fourth International, Vol. 7 No. 6, June 1946, pp. 188–190.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

In a recent public speech at St. Louis, Dr. Harold C. Urey, Nobel Prize winner and one of the world’s outstanding physicists, expressed the fear that he and all those associated with him in nuclear research will be “cursed by generations to come.” Dr. Urey’s somber prediction puts into words the mood of pessimism verging on prostration which prevails among the overwhelming majority of the men of science.

It might appear that the explanation for this pessimism is to be found in the very nature of their discovery. The scientists made atomic energy initially available on a large scale in the form of an explosive. But in and of itself there is nothing alarming in such a development.

In the first place, it is much easier and simpler to gain releases of energy at slow rates and in small amounts than it is to obtain such vast and sudden quantities of energy as will produce an explosion. In the very process of exploding nuclear energy, the scientists were obliged at the same time to solve many of the key problems of releasing this energy in forms which are easily adaptable to industrial and civilian use.

Moreover, explosives can be and have been harnessed. Let us recall that the first combustion engine was the cannon. The internal combustion engine is essentially a mechanism whereby millions of small explosions are controlled and converted into motive power. The jet propulsion engine, still in its infancy, is a mechanism for controlling much larger and more powerful explosions. To be sure, atomic explosives are far more difficult to control, but, as every qualified scientist knows, it is a practical problem. In return for all the difficulties, undreamed-of motor forces will eventually be at the disposal of society. A sober and conservative sketch of the theoretical perspectives of the “atomic age” seems more far-fetched than ever did the most imaginative flights of Jules Verne or the Arabian fairy tales. The tapping of nuclear energy is the most revolutionary discovery in history.

All social progress depends, first and foremost, on the sources of energy at the disposal of society. Every advance in this field has led to momentous consequences. But these advances have been few and far between. Hence the painfully slow and tortuous development of society. For untold centuries, social progress ran up against material limits, especially the fact that no other source of energy was available except the muscular energy of the human organism. The discovery and application of tools could multiply this energy and render its utilization more efficient only within a very narrow framework. The use of domesticated animals was in its time an epoch-making invention enlarging man’s power. Throughout the pre-historic periods, as well as thousands of years later, it was still possible to work upon nature primarily through animal power, primarily through millions of slaves. Man’s extremely limited mastery of nature in the past was maintained by the establishment of man’s mastery over man. Let us note, in passing, that this tended to stabilize the age-long institution of slavery.

The harnessing of water power (watermills) and of air currents (windmills, sails) played an important role in advancing technology but did not add greatly to the reservoirs of energy.

The giant leap of modern society is correctly dated back to the so-called industrial revolution of only a few centuries ago. The material premise of the latter was the discovery and use of coal as a new and revolutionary source of energy. The principle of the steam engine has been known for 17 centuries. But lacking was the fuel to operate it, as well as the knowledge of metallurgy to construct adequate boilers.

With the industrial revolution, science and technology made colossal strides. Nevertheless, the fact is that in terms of power resources, the situation has not altered as much as one might imagine. Coal, for instance, is still the key fuel. Of the total world energy produced, coal still accounts for more than 70 percent; oil and natural gas – 25 percent; waterpower – 5 percent.

Things have been literally altered overnight by the work of the atomic scientists. They have tapped the secret of secrets, making available the basic source of energy not only on our planet but in the universe. It is estimated that a pound of fissionable fuel (uranium) is equivalent as a source of energy to several thousand tons of coal, more than a quarter of a million gallons of oil, and approximately 50 million cubic feet of natural gas. In terms of electrical power, one pound of U-235 is equivalent to an annual output of 1,400 kilowatts per hour. This means that a single atomic power plant with 5 tons of U-235 would match the annual output of all the existing hydroelectric plants in this country, whose capacity is rated at 14 million kilowatts. Atomic power plants of 300 ton capacity would match all the energy (coal, oil, and waterpower) produced in the US. [These figures are estimated on the basis of utilizing one-one-thousandth of the total energy in one pound of uranium.] There are no grounds whatever for the contention (deliberately propagated) that such use of atomic energy will require research of untold years. At this very moment there exist sources of heat, light and electricity capable of replacing coal. The atomic piles in the State of Washington which are now heating up the Columbia River are such rudimentary power plants. An infinitesimal fraction of the huge sums still being spent on the production of atomic bombs would suffice to convert these atomic piles for industrial and civilian purposes. No less fraudulent are the contentions that such enterprises would be extremely dangerous, or more costly, less efficient, less reliable, etc., than existing power facilities.

We do not mean to say that the full potentialities of nuclear energy, or even a major part of them, can be realized within a brief period. Eventually this discovery will transform not only every branch of industry, especially metallurgy, but also every branch of science. Future chemistry, physics, biology, etc., will differ as profoundly from their present state as modern industrial processes differ from those of the stone age. The vast and still undreamed-of possibilities of the application of atomic energy to research, medicine, agriculture, industry and other fields of activity – that is the music of the future. But the whole point is that in the very process of exploding atomic energy, the scientists have placed in the grasp of mankind an unlimited source of power, heat, light, electricity.

Assuredly those who have opened up such vistas could with justification expect their names to be enrolled among the greatest benefactors. Universal acclaim and honor have invariably been accorded to those who have enlarged human resources. For the sake of illustration, suffice it to cite the case of Edison. By his invention of the electric bulb, Edison became a symbol of progress, an almost legendary figure among the peoples of the world. It would enter no one’s mind to affirm that posterity will brand his name with infamy. Still, the attainments of Edison were relatively modest. In any case, they pale by comparison with the scope and significance of the work of the atomic scientists. Here are men who have achieved the dreams of their predecessors. Theirs is the crowning discovery of all the past scientific endeavors. They have scaled heights that seemed to be beyond the reach of contemporary science.

And yet what is their own verdict? They gloomily foresee, in Urey’s words, the condemnation of history. In their own eyes, they appear, by implication, to be worthy not of respect but contumely. The foremost scientists expect in reward for their greatest successes – to be forever cursed by the future generations. Why? Because they expect their discovery to be used only for purposes of destruction.

Pessimism of Scientists

The pessimism of the American scientists is all the more startling because if they had any faith at all it was faith in unlimited progress, above all through science. Their view of the march of history was primitive but optimistic in the extreme. In the words of the historian Charles A. Beard, it meant:

... moving from one technological triumph to another, overcoming the exhaustion of crude natural resources and energies, effecting an ever wider distribution of the blessings of civilization – health, security, material goods, knowledge, leisure, and aesthetic appreciation, and through the cumulative forces of intellectual and artistic reactions, conjuring from the vast deeps of the nameless and unknown creative imagination of the noblest order, subduing physical things to the empire of the spirit ...

This harmonious and uninterrupted movement from “one technological triumph to another” is a purely arbitrary construction. It represents a simplification and vulgarization of all movement in nature, society and science in particular. What such an outlook really advances is the inevitability of gradual-ness. Yet as every scientist knows, side by side with slow, molecular (gradual) changes there occur in every sphere sudden (catastrophic) changes, explosions, leaps forward and backward. At a certain stage, gradualness becomes transformed into its very opposite.

By the savage irony of history, upon reaching the very gateway to unlimited scientific horizons, implicit in the unlimited source of power they have discovered, the scientists find their traditional optimistic outlook in complete conflict with reality.

While assimilating the most advanced ideas in their own specialized fields, these men have remained conservative and even reactionary in the sphere of social thought and action. If they thought about it at all, they took it for granted that there existed complete correspondence between contemporary social organization and social needs. To be sure, a few things might be amiss here and there, but it was only a question of some minor readjustments, which would be solved in passing as science marched on from one triumph to the next.

The fact, however, is that there is no such correspondence at all. From a relative obstacle to progress, capitalism has long since turned into an absolute brake upon it. Almost one hundred years ago, Marx and Engels warned that the welfare of society was incompatible with the regime of capitalism. Today it is no longer a question of inevitable social stagnation and decay, but literally of physical survival.

“The life of monopolistic capitalism in our time,” wrote Leon Trotsky, “is a chain of crises. Each crisis is a catastrophe. The need of salvation from these partial catastrophes by means of tariff walls, inflation, increase of government spending, and debts lays the ground for additional, deeper, and more widespread crises. The struggle for markets, for raw materials, for colonies makes military catastrophes unavoidable.”

Summed up in these words is the actual movement of contemporary society, especially during the last three decades. It may not be as consoling as the thesis of gradualism, but it has the advantage of being scientifically exact. Moreover it points the only way out of the impasse in which humanity finds itself today. Unconditionally necessary is the abolition of a social system that is capable of surviving, even temporarily, only through periodic destruction of the productive forces in a series of increasingly devastating economic and military paroxysms.

The parasitism of monopolistic capitalism is malignant. The latest symptom of this malignancy is the use to which nuclear energy has been put since its discovery. Unlimited power is being applied solely for the purposes of unlimited destruction. This is not a theoretical forecast but the grimmest of realities. It has provided the dominant theme for the public utterances of most of the atomic scientists. It is the keynote of their latest publication, One World or None.

And they are now in process of making still another shocking discovery. They are discovering how impotent they are even to mitigate the situation. Despite all their collective efforts, not a dent has been made in the military control of atomic energy. The MacMahon Bill, on which they pinned such great hopes, perpetuates this military control through the simple device of a revised amendment by Senator Vandenberg. This “revision” consists merely of adding a little red tape to the original amendment, which aroused such universal protest among the scientists, not to mention the bill’s sponsor MacMahon. The Brass Hats retain the veto power, only instead of exercising it in their own name they must henceforth do it through the Secretaries of War and the Navy. Moreover, there are secret provisions to the bill, which, as reported by columnist Drew Pearson, make it a crime even to gather “commercial” information concerning nuclear energy.

In the meantime, the plants producing atomic explosives continue to operate around the clock, 24 hours a day. The stockpile of bombs and explosive materials is growing by leaps and bounds. Periodically the public is informed that new improvements are either on the way or have already been introduced. Vast sums continue to be secretly spent. The cost of operating the existing plants alone runs in the neighborhood of a half-billion dollars a year.

An international atomic armaments race is on. It is not true that even the “know-how” can long be kept a secret; nor that only countries with the most advanced industrial plant can manufacture these bombs. The minimum requirements are: adequate laboratory equipment, technical personnel and the necessary raw materials. Authoritative scientists have testified before Congressional committees that atomic armament plants can be built for 100-million dollars, and even less.

The Race for Pitchblende

In the previous struggles over raw materials (oil, rubber, tin, etc.) the great powers were content with grabbing the lion’s share. It is otherwise with pitchblende, and other ores bearing fissionable raw materials. Here, the precondition for supremacy is nothing short of world monopoly. American imperialism is determined to achieve such monopoly. This is the gist of the Acheson-Lilienthal report, drafted and issued under the auspices of the US State Department. Furthermore, complete control of raw materials is not enough; it must be supplemented by a world monopoly of all the industrial processing of these materials. This, too, is provided for by the Acheson-Lilienthal report.

Bleakest of all are the prospects of the United Nations organization, upon which the scientists tend to look as the surest avenue of salvation. This “world” body is the very center of preparations for the next world war and will continue to serve in this capacity so long as it exists.

The helplessness of the scientists is not a temporary condition, but is inherent in their social position. They are precluded by the dynamics of the class struggle from playing an independent role. The decisive word in society rests only with the classes that play an independent role in the productive process. The scientists play no such role. They are therefore faced with the choice of allying themselves with labor or with the capitalists. An alliance with the latter can only help precipitate the very catastrophe the scientists hope to avert. On the other hand, in alliance with labor’s struggle for socialism they can individually and collectively play a very great role.

Civilization can be saved from atomic explosives in the bands of the imperialists only through a social explosion, or revolution. It ought not be too difficult for those who readily accept explosions as an integral part of the natural processes and who guided by that knowledge succeeded in exploding the tiniest particles of matter – it ought not be hard for them to understand that the same thing holds true of social processes.

All the conditions for revolution are prepared by the uninterrupted series of economic, political and military crises into which society is plunged by monopolistic capitalism. Human beings cannot continue to live indefinitely in a society that totters on the brink of the abyss. When the break in mass moods comes, heralding the objectively revolutionary situation in this country, the revulsion will be all the more violent, and the tempo of revolutionary events all the more rapid.

Here an objection may be raised that to stake everything on the revolution is to invite disaster, especially in face of the atomic bomb. This is merely a restatement of the hoary argument of all those who counted up the number of rifles, guns, tanks, planes, and soldiers in a country and invariably credited them to the side of the counter-revolution. Naturally, if the existing apparatus of repression remains intact in the hands of the ruling class, then no revolution is possible. But the revolution is precisely a revolution by reason of the fact that it permeates every nook and cranny of the social organism, leaving nothing untouched. The ruling class finds itself isolated. Even the servants, the cooks and butlers depart. The rulers begin to vacillate, and finally become rendered incapable of action. Under the onset of the masses, their apparatus of repressions crumbles to pieces.

During the Russian Revolution the Czarist officers were confident that all they needed was a single strong regiment to put down the masses. In his History of the Russian Revolution, Trotsky wrote:

One strong regiment is all the enemy needs! ... This idea, by the way, will meet us in different versions throughout all the stages of the revolution. “Give me a strong regiment,” gallant colonels will more than once exclaim to their friends, “and in two seconds I will clean up all this mess!” And some of them, as we shall see, will make the attempt. But they will all have to repeat Khabalov’s words: “The regiment starts, starts under a brave officer, but ... there are no results.” Yes, and how could there be results?

The handful of monopoly capitalists can hardly expect any different results once the overwhelming majority of the American people, led by the working class, rises up against them.

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