Book review: No royal road

Social Change and Scientific Organization — The Royal Institution 1799-1844 Morris Berman. Heinemann.

The SPGB has always held the view that science is not an independent or self developing force which can be blamed for the problems that arise in society. On the contrary, science develops the way it does because it serves some particular interest, in modern society that interest is the profit of the capitalist class.

The above book is a study of the motives behind the establishment of the Royal Institution and its development as an organisation for serving capitalism. Despite the author’s misunderstanding of the nature of socialism and capitalism, notably the belief that the former has been established in some countries, he illustrates well the motives for the development of science, in the early nineteenth century. Whereas for most of the eighteenth century scientific institutions, like the Royal Society, were mainly concerned with amateur speculative pursuits, leaving practical techniques to individual innovators, by the end of the century some ‘improving landlords’ sought to exploit the expanding market for agricultural produce through enclosures and the introduction of new methods.

But the problem for them was that this only led to an increase in the propertyless, who were forced to resort to the Poor Rate for subsistence. This Poor Rate was paid by the local landlords. Various ideas were dreamed up to try and eliminate this problem of the poor, which was a restriction on the landlords. But the Royal Institution was formed as part of an attempt to overcome the problem through the organised use of science. Scientific principles were to be used to prepare more economic food recipes for the poor, suggest how to build cheaper cottages, establish workhouses and soup kitchens, and also to educate the lower class to live more cheaply.

The development of this Benthamite use of science was frustrated by the differing interests of various capitalists and landlords. The industrial capitalists feared that the widespread use of their techniques and inventions would undermine the profitability of their products, and thus opposed the Royal Institution. Few joined it in its early years. The landlords wanted to use science to increase the yield of their lands, rather than to assist the poor, and with the fears of popular unrest growing the idea of a scientific education for the propertyless was soon dropped.

The outcome of this was that in its early years the science of the Royal Institution was directed to the interests of the landlords, and it was seen and described as a “society of husbandry”.

But it was also concerned with the study of minerals for mining, the tanning of hides, and other concerns which could benefit the landlords. Scientists of the Royal Institution, such as Humphrey Davy, inventor of the miner’s lamp, who was originally an amateur scientist in the eighteenth century tradition, soon found their scientific investigations being directed along paths consistent with particular class interests. However, the dominance of landlords in the Royal Institution did not last, as the changing social structure thrown up by the industrial revolution led to conflicts with other groups. The group of capitalists, merchants, and nabobs who wanted to exploit the resources and workers in the Eastern Colonies came into conflict with the landlords in the Royal Institution over whether the substance catechu should be developed for use in tanning leather (the landlords’ interest) or for adulterating tea so that it could be sold cheaply to the working class (the Colonial interest). In 1805 the Colonial group of capitalists broke away to form their own scientific organisation, the London Institution, with the aim of developing the type of science which served their particular interest.

By the 1840s control of the Royal Institution had slipped from the landlords’ grasp. After some administrative reforms the organisation became increasingly involved with serving the wider interests of capitalism. One way this was done was by supplying the ruling class with ‘scientific experts’ to act for the government in their enquiries into some of the disasters created by capitalism. Such a disaster happened at Haswell Colliery in 1844 when a gas explosion killed 95 men and boys. It was Faraday, the founder of the science of electro-magnetism who conducted the scientific investigation. His report was used to give respectability to the coroner’s verdict of ‘no fault’ (accident) because it was supposedly based upon a scientific study, even though the scientific knowledge of mining at that time was negligible. The cause was put down to gas building up and the ignorance of the miners. The report contained an elaborate scheme for getting rid of the gas (which even the owners recognised as useless) and also called for scientific education of the miners. The reality of the situation was somewhat different. On the one hand, the introduction of Davy’s lamp did not make mining safer because it made the working of deeper and more dangerous seams profitable for the mine owners. On the other, the mine owners had the practice of working ‘rich’ seams and leaving the less profitable ones to waste. This often led to the sporadic release of gas from the abandoned seams into the worked mine, increasing the chances of an explosion.

The Royal Institution assisted in putting science at the service of capitalism both by helping to find ways of increasing the surplus value for the ruling class, and also in becoming a part of the ruling class ideology which sanctions the profit motive. The situation today is not fundamentally different.


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