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Socialism's control of science

Scientist in Chief
Even the laws of nature were expected to coincide with Stalin's evolving interpretations of Marxist philosophy, a new book by historian Ethan Pollock shows.

By Susan Eisenhower
Published: February 9, 2007

As the 20th century recedes, it becomes increasingly difficult to explain to younger generations the peculiar combination of idealism, naivete, cynicism and brutality that was the hallmark of that century's totalitarian states. Ethan Pollock's "Stalin and the Soviet Science Wars" looks at this phenomenon through the lens of Soviet science policy in the immediate postwar period to explain Josef Stalin's determination to articulate and demonstrate "the compatibility of its ideology with all fields of knowledge." While savage dictatorships in Nazi Germany and China played at the edges of harnessing science and its theories for the advancement of their ideological dogmas, nowhere was the attempt more comprehensive than in the Soviet Union. And nowhere before or since has a national leader involved himself in such detailed analyses of science and philosophy to assure their affinity with the conceptual underpinnings of his political power.

Stalin desperately wanted to put the fruits of scientific discovery and technological progress in service of the "first socialist country in the world," and the role of scientists and engineers in that process was well understood by the regime. Communist ideology demanded that there be no contradictions between the laws of nature and the teachings of Marxist philosophy. Yet who was to interpret the issues inherent in the wide and very specific areas of scientific and technical research? Until the end of World War II, Stalin stayed rather aloof from such debates. But in the immediate postwar period his involvement intensified. Only Stalin, "the greatest philosopher ever," would be the final judge.

During this time, Stalin's hidden hand guided a tumultuous series of campaigns, which the Soviet leader himself orchestrated. To create the impression that open and rigorous scientific debate had produced a consensus on the fundamentals of Marxism and science, Stalin cleverly drew these communities out into the open. From 1945 to 1953, the Soviet authorities sponsored a number of highly visible campaigns focused on several major areas of the natural, social and political sciences. The net effect on the development of each specific discipline was different. Physics, whose role in making the atomic bomb was critical, remained almost untouched. Other disciplines were not so lucky. The result was the purging of scientists and the hijacking of whole areas of academic and scientific research. Theories that had drawn on Western rather than Russian thought were especially vulnerable.

Much has already been written about some of the most egregious cases of ideology run amok. Among the most famous is the "biological war" that was waged by pseudo-biologist Trofim Lysenko just after World War II. His condemnation of the "bourgeois" nature of the chromosome had a devastating impact not only on this science but on Soviet agriculture more broadly. So what was Stalin's motivation in supporting this semi-literate homegrown agronomist who tried to kill contemporary genetics? It would be too easy to attribute it to the conceptual contradiction between Marxism's unspecified environmental, evolutionary beliefs and Western-oriented genetics, which was based on the fundamentals of molecular biology. Stalin, Pollock shows us, never bought Lysenko's arguments on the "class nature" of this science. In the margins of a draft speech by the biologist, Stalin scoffed: "Ha-Ha-Ha!!! And what about Mathematics? And Darwinism?" Rather, Stalin and the Party's support for Lysenko was the outgrowth of the desperation that had set in once it was clear that collectivization had failed to transform Soviet agriculture. Stalin counted on Lysenko to provide practical, indeed miraculous, results for the food supply. This gamble, however, assured that vast armies of serious scientists would perish and that Soviet biology would be damaged for generations.

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