The Bolsheviks, Stalin and Science

In the discussions prompted by centenary of the first workers’ government, little has been said about the Bolsheviks and their science policies. This series of blogs about Marxism, the Bolsheviks, Stalin, and science draws, amongst other sources, on Simon Ings’ recent book Stalin and the Scientists,1 Douglas R Weiner’s book Models of Nature,2 and Loren R Graham’s Lysenko’s Ghost.3

No previous government in history was so openly and energetically in favor of science. …[it] saw the natural sciences as the answer to both the spiritual and physical problems of Russia” (Graham quoted).1

An individual scientist may not at all be concerned with the practical application of his research. The wider his scope, the bolder his flight, the greater his freedom from practical daily necessity in his mental operations, all the better” (Trotsky).4

Russia before the Bolshevik revolution was an unpromising prospect for the anti-capitalist movement. Atop the underdeveloped mainly agrarian base, lately emerged from feudalism, and a small urban working class, sat a tiny superstructure of art and science. This included people of world renown (composers such as Tchaikovsky, Borodin, Stravinsky, Prokofiev; authors such as Pushkin, Chekhov, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Gorky, Mayakovsky; artists such as Repin, Chagall, Kandinsky, Malevich; other creatives such as Diaghilev, Fokine, Nijinsky, Pavlova) but relatively few scientists (such as Borodin (the same!), Mendeleev, Pavlov, Tsiolkovsky, Kovalevskaya, Kropotkin). Quite a few of these were as avant garde as any foreign contemporaries: for example, Pavlov and Metchnikoff received Nobel Prizes for Medicine in 1904 and 1908 (and Mendeleev should have got it for Chemistry).

The problem facing the Bolsheviks was an economically and socially backward country: a tiny working class; a multitudinous peasantry; a legacy of Tsarist repression; colossal war losses (3 million deaths from all causes; 4 million wounded). Isolated, the Soviet state fought against the White counter-revolutionaries, aided by 170,000-plus foreign soldiers; agricultural and industrial production collapsed, as did civil society (millions of orphans left wandering); famine and disease were rife (5 million died in the Volga famine of 1921-2, after crop failures; 3 million died of typhus in 1920 alone).

This is the background for Ings’ history of post-revolution science,1 Weiner’s book about the conservation movement in the USSR,2 and Graham’s book about the notorious Lysenko chapter in genetics.3

As Marxists, the Bolsheviks were very pro-science.5 Looking back in 1925, Trotsky summed up the best aspects of the Bolsheviks’ attitude: “The new state, a new society based on the laws of the October Revolution, takes possession triumphantly – before the eyes of the whole world – of the cultural heritage of the past.” On the independence of science from imposed political goals, he said “Only classes that have outlived themselves need to give science a goal incompatible with its intrinsic nature. Toiling classes do not need an adaptation of scientific laws to previously formulated theses.”4 He had in mind capitalist societies but his words apply equally to the Stalinist reaction soon to destroy the gains of 1917.

Trotsky explicitly accepted the heritage of the natural sciences: “The need to know nature is imposed upon men by their need to subordinate nature to themselves. Any digressions in this sphere from objective relationships, which are determined by the properties of matter itself, are corrected by practical experience. This alone seriously guarantees natural sciences, chemical research in particular, from intentional, unintentional, or semi-deliberate distortions, misinterpretations, and falsifications.”4 Trotsky had not counted on the fraudulent exaggerations or falsifications of “practical experience” by such as Lysenko, whose theories had the endorsement of Stalin himself, and the persecution even unto death of those who stood for scientific knowledge.

The Bolsheviks acted quickly to protect the environment as an important resource to be used to build socialism, rather than to be squandered for short term needs.6 This approach was followed in other fields but the nature of the government changed with the privations of the civil war, the early death of Lenin, and increasing bureaucratisation, culminating in Stalin’s domination. As Ings observes, “Leaders, politicians and bureaucrats have their hobby horses, of course. The problems start only when these people assume for themselves an expertise they do not possess, when they impose their hobby horses on the state by fiat. The Bolshevik tragedy was that, in donning the mantle of scientific government, the Party’s leaders felt entitled [even obliged] to do this.”

Ultimately, it was Stalin alone who was in a position to impose his hobby horses, or rather of those scientists he favoured. This was most egregious in the area of agriculture and genetics.7 Immediately after the revolution, however, the Bolsheviks found that many of the existing scientific establishment were willing to work with them, exemplified by the (Imperial) Academy of Sciences which, as early as the end of 1917, offered to aid “state construction.” However, organised scientific work was fairly impossible until the civil war and the ensuing famine caused by drought and crop failures in 1921-2 were over.

Gradually, scientists began to organise and reorganise. Scientific supplies, and even food and fuel, were scarce and scientists used cunning and ingenuity to collect equipment. Pavlov, for example, grew his own vegetables but lacked food for his experimental dogs.

The All-Russian Society for Nature Conservation was founded in 1924 and the movement had much success in setting up and running nature reserves with scientific goals of understanding the ecology of the Soviet Union. With Stalin’s “Great Break,” the 1929 turn towards building “socialism in one country,” the attitude towards science and nature began to change. By the early ‘30s, and the claimed completion of the first Five-Year Plan, the author Gorky, an enthusiast for Stalin’s rapid industrialisation, could describe nature not as something to be understood but as an “enemy standing in our way…our main foe.” This meant that nature, in particular the nature reserves, had to yield to the exploitation and pollution that accompanied canal and dam building, the steel plant construction, and the expansion of agricultural land.6

The Russian Association of Physicists was set up in 1925, later to produce Nobel Prizewinners such as Landau and Kapitsa. Many physicists were mentored by Sergei I Vavilov, whose brother Nikolai would become the most prominent victim of Stalin’s meddling in genetics.7 The emigré Cambridge physicist Peter/Pyotr Kapitsa, who was virtually kidnapped during a family visit to Russia, was another leading mentor. Despite Stalin’s doctrinaire rejection of Einstein’s theories, Russian physicists were successful in catching up with the USA in developing first an atom bomb and then a hydrogen bomb from 1944 on.8

Stalin’s purges affected science greatly, particularly when scientists defended science against Stalin’s mistaken theories. Many dedicated scientists were imprisoned or shot (or died of maltreatment) as “wreckers”, “terrorists”, or “foreign agents”. Ideological commitment to socialism was not a defence. Three out of eight Soviet delegates to the Second International Congress of the History of Science, Bukharin, Hessen and Vavilov, were shot or died in prison, while a fourth, Ernst Kol’man, though a Stalin supporter, was imprisoned for non-science reasons.9

After the death of Stalin, the worst ideological influences were relaxed or removed, but the attitude towards science and nature as something to be directed did not entirely change. This led to the ecological disaster of the Aral Sea and nuclear contamination in the Urals, while Lysenko gained the ear of Khrushchov, suggesting one unsuccessful agricultural venture after another. The top-down approach essentially continued until the end of the USSR.

Stalin’s worst errors were also repeated in Mao’s China in the so-called Great Leap Forward (1958-62). One particular episode epitomises the contempt of the Chinese Stalinists for science. The Four Pests Campaign focused on killing sparrows which the bureaucrats blamed for eating grain. In fact, as any ecologist could have testified, they also ate a lot of insects. With the sparrows largely eradicated, locust populations burgeoned. The “backyard steel furnaces” fiasco resulted in deforestation for fuel with the production of worthless low-grade pig iron. Mao lacked any knowledge of metallurgy and the experts who might have advised him were either in labour camps or cowed by the experience of the “Hundred Flowers Campaign.” The environmental damage and disruption of rural life caused by the Great Leap resulted in upwards of 30 million famine and other deaths.

This series of articles will cover Marxists’ attitudes to the natural sciences, physics in Russia, nature conservation, and Stalin’s deformation of genetics.

1Stalin and the Scientists: A History of Triumph and Tragedy, 2016.
2Models of Nature: Ecology, Conservation, and Cultural Revolution in Soviet Russia, 1988.
3Lysenko’s Ghost: Epigenetics and Russia, 2016
4Trotsky, Dialectical Materialism and Science, in Problems of Everyday Life (1925)
5See forthcoming article on the attitudes of Marxists to science
6See forthcoming article on nature and environment
7See forthcoming article about agriculture and genetics
8See forthcoming article about Soviet physics
9Science at the Cross Roads (1931/1971) comprises the contributions of the Soviet delegates.


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