Geoffrey Sampson


Why are metropolitan élites politically irresponsible?

A strange mentality

I have been lucky enough to live most of my life in small towns and country places. Away from work I have mingled mainly with people whose lives revolve round humdrum, practical tasks, from farming through business accountancy to housewifery. Many of my friends and acquaintances have political views I disagree with; but their politics normally have a quality of realism. They know that the world is what it is, and political aims and plans have to be tailored to fit the facts of life. Doubtless plenty of small-town and rural dwellers are exceptions to that generalization, but I comment on my personal experience.

As a university teacher, at work I mix with a different kind of people: members of what I would call the metropolitan élites. By that I mean people who identify with the life of big cities and who deal with public affairs, and with words and ideas at a large remove from humdrum practical reality. Academics are one such category. People who work in television and other media are another. Now that politics has turned into a profession of its own, rather than something which people with other careers put part of their time into, Members of Parliament are the clearest case of all.

Metropolitan élite status, as I think of it, is partly a voluntary self-identification rather than a matter of objective fact. In the days when I got to work by car, the distinction was amusingly symbolized each evening as I queued to get onto the main road to drive home. Virtually every car in the queue would turn right, into the nearby city; I alone turned left, away from it.

Members of metropolitan élites are in a better position than most people to gather information about current affairs and to take a broad view of society. One might expect that their political views would be better-worked-out and wiser than those of others. In my experience the reverse is true. It is not that their voting intentions are commonly different from mine (though they are), but we don’t even seem to have much shared basis for political discussion. When attractive political ideals conflict with harsh realities, I take it for granted that politics has to adapt to reality. Members of the metropolitan élites commonly seem to assume that reality must give way to their ideals. Again there are exceptions, but in general this class of people seem astonishingly willing to believe that theories are the only reality that matters. Awkward facts can be wished away or ignored.

I presume this strange mentality comes from a way of life which supplies too few reminders that real actions in the world have real consequences. In the metropolitan-élite environment, whether you do well at work or make some ghastly error your salary arrives at the end of the month just the same. (And we must remember also, as Kenneth Minogue puts it, that one can be an “intellectual” without having much intellect.)

Whatever the explanation for it, the growth of the metropolitan-élite mentality is extremely unfortunate for society. The proportion of the population working in the kinds of job I have discussed has been expanding fast; and these are opinion-forming jobs, so this mentality is impinging more and more on the population at large. As a result, here in Britain (and, I surmise, in other Western nations) politics seems to be cutting loose from the real world and developing into a parallel reality, where facts are what members of the élites want them to be, and contradictions between “political reality” and realities as they present themselves to people on the ground are matters to be dealt with by spin doctoring and news management rather than by addressing real people’s real problems.

The general election of May 2015 was very interesting in this connexion. By 2015, under Ed Miliband, the Labour Party was presenting itself as having finally completed the transition from a party representing the respectable British working class (if it were still that, I might vote for it myself) to a party representing the metropolitan élites. As a result, everywhere outside London the voters gave Labour a good kicking, and the Conservatives won an absolute majority. This result came as a total shock to virtually all political commentators in the media, who had been confidently predicting a very different result. But then, most of the commentariat are themselves élite members, and blithely unaware of the existence of values other than their own. One of the most insightful comments on that election which I read was by Lynton Crosby (quoted in the Daily Telegraph, 16 May 2015):

The problem with political commentary and punditry in this country is that it’s conducted by a bunch of people most of whom live inside the M25 who could never live on the £26,000 that is the average annual earnings of people in this country. Most went to Oxbridge, talk only to themselves and the last time they met a punter was when they picked up their dry cleaning.
The 2015 election showed that common sense does retain a substantial foothold among the British population. But the direction of change is clear. The education establishment, for instance, nowadays sees its role quite largely in terms of inculcating in young people the values of the metropolitan élites.

Black Athena

In academic life, the leading public manifestation of the metropolitan-élite mentality is cases where scholars invent structures of ideas which are presented as factual, but whose motivation relates more to supporting abstract political theories than to correspondence with reality.

At the beginning of the 21st century, one of the “hottest” areas of politics is racial politics. Now that the 20th-century debates between socialist planned economies and free markets have been largely resolved, political differences often concern the issues summed up under the strange term “political correctness”. (I say strange, because the essence of politics is about reconciling conflicting interests; so the concept of a single “correct answer” has no application.) What should the relationships be between the ethnic minority groups who have arrived in Britain over the last fifty years, and the indigenous majority population?

In this area of politics, one extraordinary example of the “metropolitan élite” approach to academic discourse has been Martin Bernal’s Black Athena – a book series announced as a planned four volumes of which two have been published to date, the first in 1987 and the second in 1991.

Bernal is a British expert on modern Chinese history, who went to work in the USA; he recently retired as Professor of Government at Cornell University. But Black Athena is not about China. It is about the origins of Greek civilization. In a nutshell, Bernal argues that rather than creating their remarkable culture themselves, the Greeks of the first millennium BC were given it by Black Africans and by Semitic people, who colonized Greece at a period which was remembered in myths but was a little too early to be recorded in written history. The roots of European civilization which we associate with ancient Greece are really Black African (and Semitic) roots. The Greeks did little more than transmit what they had received.

The Africans who colonized Greece, according to Bernal, were ancient Egyptians. The Arabic speakers who live in modern Egypt, although they are “African” in the sense that Egypt is geographically part of the African continent, would not be described as “Black Africans”. But the inhabitants of Egypt under the Pharaohs spoke a different language, and were not necessarily the ancestors of present-day Egyptians. Bernal says that those Egyptians were Black Africans.

An inflammatory message

In terms of what we thought we knew about Western history, these claims are revolutionary. It has ranked as a truism that

Europe is the only traditional society known to history to modernize itself from within, intellectually no less than economically and technologically, enabling Europe to impose its cultural as well as political stamp on much of the non-European world

as Marcia Colish put it in Medieval Foundations of the Western Intellectual Tradition, 1997. Marcia Colish was writing specifically about mediaeval Europe, but the intellectual tools that mediaeval Europeans used to achieve that modernization were themselves seen as forged in Europe, and largely in Greece. On the other hand the Negro societies of sub-Saharan Africa (which is what “Black African” is normally shorthand for), while they may have possessed colourful and interesting pre-colonial cultures, were seen as having made essentially no contribution to the transition from the Middle Ages to modernity.

It was understandable that they should not have done. Black Africans are known to have lower intelligence on average than white Europeans (see e.g. Charles Murray’s article on “The Inequality Taboo” in Commentary, September 2005). The difference is not massive, and it is only statistical (plenty of individual black Africans are brighter than plenty of individual Europeans), but even a statistical difference might have a large impact on the ability of a society to progress. Jared Diamond (Guns, Germs and Steel, 1997) has argued that geographical factors played an important role: progress is easier in a continent which extends east-to-west, like Eurasia, than in one like Africa which extends mainly north-to-south, across different climate zones. And there must have been a considerable element of luck: if Socrates’ or Euclid’s father had never happened to meet Socrates’ or Euclid’s mother, large slices of Greek culture would have been missing.

Whatever the reasons, though, the simple fact seemed unchallengeable.

(The point about Semitic influences on Greek and hence later European civilization is much less controversial than the point about black African influences. I am very sceptical about Bernal’s specific claims concerning Semitic rule in Greece, but we have always known that there were large and crucial cultural contributions to Europe from the Levant. Worshipping a Palestinian Jew as the only-begotten Son of God would be an odd way for Europeans to belittle the significance of Jews for early European cultural history. And it is well known that Arabs kept knowledge of Greek science alive during centuries when the Greek language was not understood in Western Europe. Bernal’s title shows that the main thrust of his argument relates to a Black African ancestry for our civilization, and that is the point which would revolutionize our understanding if it were true. So I shall focus mainly on that.)

Apart from being intellectually revolutionary, Bernal’s claim about Greek civilization deriving from Black Africans is politically inflammatory. In recent decades we have seen tensions that have repeatedly erupted in race riots, together with an ongoing incidence of criminality, by members of ethnic minorities – in Britain, often West Indians of black African descent – who feel dissatisfied with the places they have managed to attain in our society, and resent what they perceive as oppression by the indigenous population. Finding ways to reconcile the reasonable aspirations of these groups with the need to avoid letting the indigenous population feel dispossessed within their own land, or putting at risk the overall efficiency of society, is – or ought to be – one of the most urgent tasks on the political agenda. Will that task be easier or harder, if a theory is given currency which says in effect that European civilization was stolen from blacks by the white man: we borrowed it and then failed to acknowledge where we got it? The question answers itself.

Obviously, that does not mean that the Black Athena theory should not be put forward, if it is true or likely to be true. If it were true, its political significance might make publication all the more appropriate. But is it?

Science versus tradition

Some of Bernal’s views are reasonable enough. I agree with him that where a question can be addressed using either scientific methods, or the traditional methods of classical scholarship, it is likely that the scientists will be able to cut through biases stemming from those complex traditions and reach an accurate answer relatively objectively. In Black Athena, this is specially relevant to the date of the massive eruption which destroyed the island of Thera (now called Santorini) – the event seen by some as underlying the Atlantis myth. (Getting this date right happens to be relevant to one aspect of Bernal’s argument.) The leading Greek archaeologist Spyridon Marinatos suggested, on grounds relating to the rise and fall of Aegean cultures, that the eruption probably occurred in about 1450 BC, and his views were widely accepted. But more recently, evidence from scientific disciplines such as radiocarbon dating, dendrochronology (tree-ring dating), and the study of Greenlandic ice cores have pointed to a much earlier date, with the tree-rings indicating the precise date 1628 BC. Some classicists and archaeologists found this early date absurd (for instance Paul Åström in 1978 described it as “quite ridiculous”), but Bernal argues that the scientific findings should be used to correct the date emerging from humanities-based studies, rather than the other way round. I agree with Bernal there.

I agree too that the early Greeks are unlikely to have developed their civilization in a vacuum, isolated from cultural borrowings or influences from other Mediterranean peoples. People move about, and always have done. It would be strange if people living on a peninsula and scattering of islands within a not very large sea had never interacted or exchanged goods or ideas with the many societies adjacent to other coasts of that sea. (Surely it would not have increased our admiration for the Greeks if they had behaved so provincially?)

And I agree with Bernal further that myths about gods and prehistoric culture-heroes, even if in recent times they have been seen as pure fictions, could well in many cases be vividly exaggerated accounts of things which really did occur before written records began. The novels of Mary Renault, such as The King Must Die, have shown us how realistic events might quite plausibly have lain behind some of the most familiar Greek myths, and I accept that the myths could have got started that way – though clearly we cannot tell what actually did occur in the case of the myths Renault uses, and likewise we can hardly rely on the myths Bernal refers to unless we have independent evidence corroborating them.

None of these areas of agreeement add up to a reason for accepting Bernal’s claim that the outstanding cultural achievements of classical Greece were not the Greeks’ own achievements, but were borrowed from Egyptians and Semites who had invaded and conquered mainland Greece. The Greeks may have borrowed elements of their culture from others, as most societies do – we know very well, for instance, that they borrowed that important tool of civilization, the alphabet, from the Semites of Phoenicia. But what we admire the ancient Greeks for is what they made with the intellectual resources they had to hand, whether those resources were partly borrowed or entirely home-brewed.

We remember the Greeks today for what they did in terms of implementing and theorizing about political liberty; for laying the foundations of mathematical proof; for creating frameworks for considering how best to live one’s life that continue to define many of the issues we confront more than 2000 years later. These things were done in Greece, at particular times, by particular Greeks whose names we know. Surely we do not think less of Isaac Newton or Albert Einstein because their extraordinary intellectual achievements used tools (including written languages) which had been developed by those who came before them? Equally, we would have no reason to downgrade the Greek achievement if it drew heavily on borrowed materials.

But furthermore, the idea of the ancient Greeks as a subject race who inherited the elements of civilization from Egyptian colonial masters seems to be a fantasy. Among the rich panoply of Greek myths, there were some about individual heroes who arrived from Egypt or from the Levant – though Martin West comments that “the influence of Egypt on Greek poetry and myth was vanishingly small in comparison with that of Western Asia” (The East Face of Helicon, 1997). But Bernal in any case builds far more on those myths than they can bear. I am no expert here, but those who are experts have made comments such as:

Archaeological evidence ... of a colonizing process by the Egyptians, is totally absent from the Aegean, despite many years of field work.

– quoting David O’Connor (Professor of Egyptology at the University of Pennsylvania) writing in Black Athena Revisited, ed. by Mary Lefkowitz and Guy Rogers, 1996. O’Connor contrasts the Greek world in that respect with Nubia and with Palestine, respectively south and northeast of Egypt, both of which are known to have been ruled as colonies by Egypt at different periods, and in both of which this fact is evidently reflected clearly in the archaeological record.

To turn Bernal’s point about science versus humanities round against him, surely we should allow the physical evidence of archaeology to overrule vague suggestions derived from folk-myths?

Wild etymologies

One way in which Bernal argues that Greek culture must have come from the Egyptians is by reference to language and etymology. Greek was (and is) an Indo-European language, related (distantly) to other European languages including English. Egyptian (now a dead language) belonged to the Afro-Asiatic family, which also includes the Semitic subfamily comprising Hebrew, Arabic, and other modern languages, together with various languages of north and northeast Africa. Thus Greek and Egyptian do not go back to a common ancestor language. But everyone accepts that there are many words and names in Classical Greek that have no clear counterparts in other Indo-European languages. (In itself this is no surprise – words undergo so many adventures over time that the surprise is how much of one Indo-European language’s vocabulary can be shown to be related to vocabulary in other branches of the language family.) Some of these words in Greek certainly are borrowings from other ancient languages. Bernal argues that far more Greek words were borrowed from Egyptian, in particular, than is usually supposed.

But the way Bernal goes about justifying this assertion is wild. Any vague similarity is enough for him to claim that a Greek word comes from Egyptian – and, if vague similarities are enough, any two languages are sure to reveal some. The Classical Chinese word for “dawn” happens to be dàn, which itself sounds rather like “dawn” – it is a better match than the ones Bernal offers. That does not mean that England was once a colony of China.

Take for instance Bernal’s treatment of the name Melantho or Melaina, the nymph with whom either Apollo or Poseidon (depending on myth-variant) is said to have fathered Delphos (who gave his name to Delphi, home of the famous oracle). Melantho/Melaina clearly relates to the Greek root melan- “black” (the nominative form is melas), but according to Bernal the origin of that root is obscure:

There is no common Indo-European root for the colour black ... it would seem more plausible to derive this from the Egyptian name M3nw, the Mountain in the West, where the sun goes down in the evening ... In this case, Melaina/Melantho may mean not merely ‘black’ but the black of the west and the evening.

(The character 3 in M3nw is the best I can do in HTML to show a symbol used to represent an Egyptian sound or letter called “double aleph”.) This Egyptian derivation then justifies Bernal in linking the Apollo/Melaina/Delphos legend with Egyptian mythology, and thus endowing ancient Greece with another “black” and “African” feature.

But, in the first place, Greek melan- has got an Indo-European etymology, according to the standard reference work by J.P. Mallory and D.Q. Adams, Encyclopedia of Indo-European Culture. Mallory and Adams list a Proto-Indo-European root mel-n- “dull or brownish black”, which gave not only the Greek word but also words in Sanskrit, various Baltic languages, Gothic, Old High German, Old English, Latin, and Welsh – unless these links are just wrong, melan- cannot be a borrowing from Egyptian.

They may be wrong; but, secondly, why would an Egyptian name for the place where the sun goes down in the evening yield a Greek root meaning “black”? At sundown, the west is the direction which is not black: it is the last place to remain bright.

There is masses of this sort of thing in Black Athena. Sometimes Bernal undercuts himself, apparently without realizing it, by arguing simultaneously for two incompatible etymologies. He urges that the goddess Semele, mother of Dionysus, derived her name “from the West Semitic divinity Șml (the Mother of the Eagles) ... There is ... every reason to suspect West Semitic influence here.” Yet in the very next paragraph he says “Nevertheless, the most likely fundamental derivation of Semele would seem to be from the Egyptian sm3t (wild cow).” This is like Billy Bunter’s protest that “I never saw your beastly jam tarts, and anyway I only ate one or two”. If Semele were the Semitic Mother of the Eagles, she could not be an Egyptian wild cow, and vice versa. A word does not have a derivation in one language and a separate “fundamental derivation” in another language. That would be like having two mothers.

Perhaps the oddest of Bernal’s linguistic solecisms relates to a name far more recent than those in Greek myths. Near the beginning of vol. 2 of Black Athena he discusses the ideas of Imre Lakatos, a Hungarian-born philosopher of science who taught at the London School of Economics – I knew him as a colleague at the time of his premature death in 1974. For no reason that I can imagine, Bernal repeatedly spells his surname “Lacatoš” – with a C in place of the K, and with a v-shaped accent mark (a “caron”) above the S. The C might be carelessness, I suppose (though in Hungarian it would imply a very different pronunciation); but the caron is bizarre. In Hungarian the letter S is pronounced like an English sh, but it is written as a plain S – the Hungarian language does not use the caron mark any more than English does. (In Czech the sh sound is indicated with a caron; but Lakatos was not a Czech, and these two Central European languages are entirely unrelated to one another.) In the book of Lakatos’s which Bernal cites, his name is spelled normally, as I have spelled it here.

If Bernal plays as fast and loose as this with modern foreign words, how can we take him seriously as an authority on etymologies from the dawn of history?

Who were the ancient Egyptians?

So the Greek achievement would not have been lessened, even if they had been colonized by Egyptians; and in any case, they weren’t.

What is more, if Greek civilization had been borrowed from Egypt, that would not mean that it was borrowed from “Black Africans”, in the sense that that phrase would be understood nowadays. That is not what the ancient Egyptians were.

Human beings do not come grouped into neat, non-overlapping racial categories, as the boxes on modern census forms might suggest – there is and always has been enough intermarriage to prevent that concept making sense. Racial classification is fuzzy. But that does not make it meaningless. Objective statistical classification of individuals in terms of clusters of genetic markers in their genome correlates very well with laymen’s racial classifications. (See for instance a paper by Hua Tang et al. in the American Journal of Human Genetics, vol. 76, 2005.)

It is not possible to examine the genes of ancient Egyptians. But we have skeletal remains; so the next best thing is to compare ancient Egyptians with other populations in terms of measurements on those. C. Loring Brace (Professor of Anthropology at the University of Michigan) and collaborators have applied statistical clustering methods on various skull measurements in order to establish the relationships among samples drawn from many different parts of the world, including two Ancient Egyptian samples, taken from near the beginning and near the end of Egyptian civilization. (Their findings are in Black Athena Revisited, already cited above.)

The two Egyptian samples grouped most closely with each other; but, beyond that, they grouped together with European and North African samples. Most samples from sub-Saharan Africa were as distant from the Egyptian samples as any samples surveyed, more distant than e.g. Japanese, Polynesian, Eskimo, or Amerindian samples. The only samples which grouped close to the ancient Egyptian samples and which might count as “black African” were Nubian and Somali, from areas of Africa geographically close to Egypt. These populations are African, and they are dark-skinned, but they are apparently not very closely related to black populations elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa. (They are also not very representative of “blacks” in the sense which has become significant in the racial politics of the developed world. Very few West Indians or American Negroes, I believe, have Somali ancestry.)


So there we have it. Bernal’s attempt to argue that the greatness of the Greeks was borrowed from Black African masters fails three ways. What was great about the ancient Greeks was not the cultural material available to them but what they themselves did with it. They did not have Egyptian masters. And Egyptians were not “Black Africans”.

As a plausible revision of standard ideas about cultural history, I do not believe Bernal’s Black Athena can be taken seriously. The reason why he has put it forward, surely, is that as a matter of racial politics he would like it to be true. Bernal is quite open about his motives: he sums up the introduction to his first volume by writing “The political purpose of Black Athena is, of course, to lessen European cultural arrogance”. He wants to elevate Black Africans (and Semites) relative to the wicked white European, and the scholarly soundness of the structure of ideas he has created in order to do that seems to be a minor consideration for Bernal.

Realistically, one might feel that when Europeans contemplate their history they have a good deal to be arrogant about – though an attitude of quiet pride is surely preferable to in-your-face arrogance. I do not say that as one who claims any personal ancestral link with early European achievements. I have no way of knowing precisely who my various ancestors were 2500 years ago, but it is not likely that many (if any) of them were Greeks. I presume that most of them were illiterate Germanic or Celtic tribesmen leading lives that were fully as culturally impoverished as the lives of pre-colonial Africans. It is not obvious why I, or other inhabitants of Northwest European countries which have made most of the running in recent centuries, should care whether Western civilization was inaugurated by Greeks in the remotest corner of our own continent, or by Egyptians a few hundred miles further off. But I care about the truth, and the truth is that it was the Greeks.

In its “anti-whitism”, Bernal’s discourse resembles many other things that metropolitan élites are saying and writing at the beginning of the 21st century. (“Anti-whitism” is an ugly word, but I see no better term – “anti-Europeanism” would sound like an attitude to the European Union, which is quite another matter.) It is fashionable to believe that non-European ethnic groups are “good” and Europeans “bad”, and any discourse that helps to support that generalization is likely to find a favourable reception. Whether the discourse is actually true or not is a quibble which it is bad form to raise.

An apologist for Stalin

We have been here before. A generation or two earlier, the cause which metropolitan élites treated as too fashionable to permit facts to get in the way of was communism. It was an article of faith, among many people who had access to opinion-forming media and little personal experience of the world of mundane work, that the Soviet Union was showing the world the way to the future. It was something like a sacred duty towards people at the bottom of the social pyramid to apply one’s political energies to the task of bringing about the common ownership of the means of production and distribution in Western nations also. Information about what it was actually like in practice to live under Soviet rule was not allowed to interfere with this starry-eyed vision. As Malcolm Muggeridge described middle-class British visitors to the Soviet Union:

Their delight in all they saw and were told, and the expression they gave to their delight, constitute unquestionably one of the wonders of the age. There were earnest advocates of the humane killing of cattle who looked up at the massive headquarters of Ogpu with tears of gratitude in their eyes, earnest advocates of proportional representation who eagerly assented when the necessity for a Dictatorship of the Proletariat was explained to them ... The almost unbelievable credulity of these mostly university-educated tourists astonished even Soviet officials used to handling foreign visitors ... (The Thirties, 1940).

To illustrate this generalization with a concrete example I do not need to range far; as it happens, Martin Bernal’s father, J. Desmond Bernal, was a specially clear case.

Obviously, it is not fair to visit the sins of the father on the son. I do not suggest that Desmond Bernal’s bad politics are an extra reason to reject Martin Bernal’s axe-grinding historical theories – we need no extra reasons to reject them. But the overall point of this web page is to argue that political irresponsibility by metropolitan élites is a recurring pattern, so I need to offer more than the single example of Martin Bernal’s Black Athena. And although the particular political issues addressed by the two men are quite different (reflecting the different periods at which they were productive), it is probably not pure coincidence that there is a common style running through the contributions of both. Martin himself comments “I have been heavily influenced by my father” (Black Athena, vol. 2, p. xx), which makes it legitimate for me to suggest that the son’s approach to politics is explainable at least in part by reference to the father’s.

Desmond Bernal (1901–71) was a distinguished pioneer of molecular biology, who worked as Professor of Crystallography at Birkbeck College, University of London. But he was also a political activist; his political energies were harnessed in support of Soviet communism, and particularly its leader, Stalin. In a speech at a meeting of the Soviet Partisans for Peace in Moscow in 1949, for instance, Desmond Bernal declared that “Only under capitalism is it true that science can bring no happiness but only destruction”, and he praised the Soviet people’s “great leader and protector of peace and science, Comrade Stalin”. (I quote this and other points below from Desmond Bernal’s biography, published by Maurice Goldsmith under the title Sage in 1980.)

This was not just a case of a blinkered specialist revealing himself as an innocent buffoon when he steps outside his own sphere. Stalin impinged very significantly on Desmond Bernal’s sphere of expertise, by appointing T.D. Lysenko, who advocated an idiosyncratic theory of genetics, to a powerful position in the direction of Soviet agriculture, and having Lysenko’s orthodox, Mendelian fellow-geneticists arrested. Desmond Bernal did not let his genetic expertise get in the way of his political agenda. In a 1949 article in The Modern Quarterly he discussed Lysenko’s elevation as a welcome challenge to “the entrenched forces of scientific orthodoxy”, and he pooh-poohed reports that other, more orthodox scientists had been exiled or imprisoned.

The truth was, though, that outside the Soviet Union Lysenko’s theories were generally recognized to be nonsensical (an assessment which is now uncontroversial everywhere in the world); and none of the prominent Soviet geneticists who disagreed with Lysenko survived the gulags to which Stalin sent them. Desmond Bernal never seems to have acknowledged this latter point. In the 1957 edition of his book Science in History, although by then he does appear to have recognized that orthodox geneticists had encountered some temporary awkwardnesses, he wrote that “All of the Mendelian geneticists are, as far as I know, back in positions of equal importance to those from which they were removed.” In reality, by then they were all dead. N.I. Vavilov, whom Desmond Bernal had met on more than one occasion and who had been ejected from his distinguished post so that it could be given to Lysenko, died of starvation in a prison camp in 1943.

Some of Desmond Bernal’s comments on Stalin read quite sickeningly. When Stalin died in 1953, Desmond wrote a Modern Quarterly article on “Stalin as Scientist” which included the remarks:

Stalin’s concern for men and women also found expression in his concern for the advancement of oppressed people and nationalities ... In the world as a whole it will be Stalin’s solution to the nationalities question that has made the most lasting impact. ... Stalin’s ... thought and his example ... ha[ve] become an indissoluble part of the great human tradition.

(Desmond Bernal’s biographer found this so painful that he suggested the piece must have been drafted by a hack and approved by Desmond over-hastily. But he offers no evidence for that; and who allows his name to be used for such sensitive material without at least carefully checking what words are put into his mouth?)

In fact, Stalin’s solution to the nationalities question was genocide. To quote a summary by Paul Johnson of detailed findings in Stéphane Courtois’ Le livre noir du communisme, 1997, Stalin

committed crimes of genocide, as defined by the international courts, on at least seven occasions ... against the Ukrainians in 1932–33; against the Poles, Balts, Moldavians and Bessarabians in 1939–41, and again in 1944–45; against the Volga Germans in 1941, the Crimean Tatars in 1943, the Chechens in 1944 and the [Ingush] in 1944.

He also killed plenty of Russians, of course. Robert Conquest (writing in the New Left Review, 1996) calculated that Stalinism had by 1938 – before the start of the Second World War – been responsible for about 14 million deaths (more than twice as many as the Nazi Holocaust).

Other Englishmen knew by the time of Stalin’s death that he was a tyrant, even if they did not know the full horrific details. I knew it myself, as an eight-year-old schoolboy. Desmond Bernal was a frequent visitor to the Soviet Union; it should not have been hard for him to check at first hand whether the Mendelian geneticists were indeed back in suitable positions. How could a clever, educated man lend himself to whitewashing such evil? The fact is that even in his scientific work Desmond was reluctant to let facts get in the way of his theories. His (in general, sympathetic) biographer wrote:

One might detect a tendency in his scientific work to accord a beautiful idea as much importance as the actual facts. He was selective about the facts, and stubborn facts for a while could be evaded by ignoring them.

Likewise in politics. Martin Bernal’s mother Margaret has described accompanying Desmond in Moscow in 1934 at the time of the Kirov assassination which inaugurated the Great Terror. She heard the rumour that Stalin had instigated the assassination, but Desmond shrugged it off as malicious gossip. There was

a heavy pall of suspicion and fear. ... “Don’t you feel it?”, I asked Desmond. “No, I don’t,” he answered. But many years later ... he said to me, “You know, you were right that time in Moscow, only I didn’t want to admit it. I wanted to give them the benefit of the doubt.”

It seems that Desmond Bernal went on giving Stalin the benefit of the doubt long after the possibility of doubt had evaporated.

What is the cure?

Nowadays, it seems incomprehensible that anyone could have taken the political line that Desmond Bernal took. Communism has ceased to be fashionable among the metropolitan élites. Everybody now understands that the machinery of capitalism and free markets is necessary to allow an economy to function well, and many people grasp that the unworkability of socialist planned economies makes it near-inevitable that they will throw up dictatorial leaders.

But anti-whitism has become highly fashionable. Adherence to anti-whitism does not merely get one brownie points in conversations round metropolitan dinner-tables; in Britain the law, and the control which government exercises over institutions such as schools, are being used to drill our children in these attitudes and enforce them on the adult population. So discourses which would be rejected out of hand if they were judged on their objective intellectual merits are taken seriously, if they further the cause of anti-whitism. And thus an expert on modern Chinese history can make a name for himself with a series of absurdities about the early origins of European civilization.

The time will come when anti-whitism will be as passé as communism is now, and the reputation Martin Bernal has made with Black Athena will evaporate, if he is still remembered at all. But we can be sure that the metropolitan élites will have some new bee in their bonnets. And again they will be expecting or requiring the rest of the world to fall into line and agree that 2 + 2 = 5, because fashionable opinion says that it must be.

Is there no way to bring these people down to earth? Perhaps we ought to take a leaf out of Mao Tsê-tung’s book, and require anyone in an intellectual job to spend part of his life working on the land.

Alas, in the 21st century we haven’t got enough farm work left to cure them all.

Geoffrey Sampson

last changed 14 Nov 2017