Science, socialism and the Russian Revolution

Issue: 155

John Parrington

Science matters to socialists.1 For one thing, it’s impossible to be an effective activist in the 21st century without having some awareness of the impact of science on society. The threat of global warming, the replacement of jobs by computers and robots, the ethical issues raised by new advances in genome editing—a response to all of these issues requires scientific understanding. It is not only new technologies that are of interest. A key aspect of the socialist view of the world is that everything—from the origin of the universe to the human mind—can ultimately be explained by science. For this reason, socialists have an interest in even the most apparently esoteric new scientific insights about the natural and social world, even if their practical importance may be some distance in the future.

At the same time, socialists have something important to offer science. A common view about science is that it is “pure” knowledge, unaffected by the society in which it originates. In contrast, socialists believe that scientific knowledge can not only be misused, for instance in the use of Albert Einstein’s discoveries to build an atom bomb, but also that scientific theories themselves reflect a particular society’s values. Since modern science grew up under capitalism, this means that it will tend to be influenced by the values of that system. In fact there is a tension between this tendency and the pursuit of truthful knowledge about the actual state of the world that is central to science. Importantly, opposition to capitalism throws up a challenge not only to the misuse of science and technology, but also to the idea that science is a value-free, neutral pursuit of truth. Such opposition has also revealed the possibility of new ways to approach science, and of harnessing technologies to benefit ordinary people, not only the privileged few. This phenomenon is particularly well illustrated by what happened to science and technology in Russia following the revolution of 1917.

In 1917 workers took control of a major country for the first time in history. The revolution led to some immediate changes in Russian society. Before the revolution, antisemitism had been rife and pogroms against Jewish people were actively encouraged by the Russian ruling class. Yet after the revolution, Russian workers recognised Leon Trotsky, a Jew, as leader of the Red Army. For the first time in history a woman, Alexandra Kollontai, became a government minister. Divorce and abortion were available on demand, and also for the first time, laws discriminating against gays were abolished. In addition, new and exciting forms of art and literature flourished, not just in the galleries, but in the streets and factories.

Such intellectual ferment wasn’t only confined to the arts. For many young scientists the revolution offered the possibility of a complete reworking of science. Their aim was not dry academic scholarship but the creation of scientific theories that would be of great practical importance for the construction of the new socialist society. The excitement among scientists at this time has been powerfully expressed by the psychologist Alexander Luria:

I began my career in the first years of the great Russian Revolution… From the outset it was apparent that I would have little opportunity to pursue the kind of well-ordered, systematic education that serves as the cornerstone for most scientific careers. In its place life offered me the fantastically stimulating atmosphere of an active, rapidly changing society. My entire generation was infused with the energy of revolutionary change—the liberating energy people feel when they are part of a society that is able to make tremendous progress in a very short time.2

Psychology was only one of the scientific disciplines transformed after the revolution. In the 1920s and early 1930s, scientists in the new Soviet Union made major contributions in genetics, evolutionary theory, ecology, materials science and cosmology.3 As well as having a major impact on science in the Soviet Union itself, the revolution also left its mark on scientific practice around the world, helped along by left wing scientists sympathetic to the ideals of the new socialist state. Tragically, the intellectual excitement and freedom that characterised Russia in the 1920s came to a juddering halt with Stalin’s rise to power at the end of the decade. Stalin’s brutal counter-revolution was coupled with the suppression of any intellectuals who disagreed with his reactionary view of the world.

In this article, I will outline some of the key ways in which both scientific theory and practice blossomed in the years following the revolution, and how these were then affected by the degeneration of the revolution under Stalin. In addition, I will seek to ground such developments in scientific theory and practice, in a wider analysis of what Marxism has to offer science, and what it can learn from the latter. Finally, I will consider how the 1917 revolution influenced science and technology at the international level, and how we might seek to use the experiences of the revolution in our debates about science in the present day.

Vygotsky, Voloshinov, and a Marxist approach to psychology

The Russian Revolution of 1917 was significant in two major respects. First, as noted above, it demonstrated the potential of ordinary workers to take power for themselves. Second, the philosophy guiding the new state was the dialectical materialist approach pioneered by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. So how did these two novel features affect scientific progress in post-revolutionary Russia? In fact the development of science in the early Soviet Union shows that even in a socialist society, the development of a truly dialectical, materialist approach to nature is far from assured and instead must be fought for, against pseudo-scientific approaches.

A fundamental issue for Marxist scientists in post-revolutionary Russia was developing a scientific understanding of the material basis of consciousness. Lev Vygotsky was particularly interested in this question. He became one of the foremost psychologists in the Soviet Union during the 1920s and up to his tragically early death from tuberculosis in 1934.4

One issue faced by those seeking to develop a Marxist psychology in the 1920s was that mainstream psychology was then, and remains today, in a state of crisis. Vygotsky recognised this with his comment that “there are many psychologies but no Psychology”.5 At that time, three particularly influential viewpoints were introspective psychology, behaviourism and psychoanalysis. Introspective psychology, pioneered by individuals such as the American psychologist and philosopher William James, brother of the novelist Henry James, sought to understand the human mind by questioning individuals about their innermost thoughts. Behaviourism was stimulated by Ivan Pavlov’s discovery of conditional reflexes. Meanwhile psychoanalysis developed from Sigmund Freud’s discovery that the neurotic individuals he analysed seemed to be supressing important thoughts and desires, leading to the idea of an unconscious mind existing alongside the conscious one of which we are aware.

Vygotsky recognised the important insights into the workings of the human mind that James, Pavlov and Freud had provided. Yet he also pointed to two problematic tendencies within their respective schools of thought. The first tendency was for each insight to develop into an all-encompassing view of the mind that tended to exclude other viewpoints; the second tendency was for this worldview to begin to collapse under the weight of its own internal contradictions. The first tendency was illustrated by the way behaviourism developed into the view that all human behaviour could be seen as a series of conditioned reflexes. In contrast, Freudian psychoanalysis led to the idea that an individual’s behaviour, and even human society as a whole, could be explained as a battle between the conscious and unconscious mind. Meanwhile, introspective psychology argued that only the individual can truly assess his or her innermost feelings. These mutually exclusive ways of viewing the mind meant that “any behavioural or mental act being expressed in terms of these three systems would acquire three entirely different meanings”.6

The second tendency was shown by the different viewpoints expanding to the point that they became a parody of the original insight. So, as Vygotsky observed, Freud’s view that unconscious impulses were primarily due to repressed sexuality, led to psychoanalysis attempting to explain all of human society in this light, and the belief that: “Communism and totem, religion and Dostoevsky’s writings, occultism and commercials, myth and Leonardo da Vinci’s inventions—all of them are just a libido in disguise and nothing else”.7

Vygotsky believed that to utilise the many insights that psychological research has uncovered it is not enough simply to graft Marxist concepts on to existing theories of the mind. Instead, it is necessary first to understand the nature of the crisis, in order to reformulate a view of the mind that overcomes the splits that characterise mainstream psychology. Importantly, there are no short cuts to such an approach. As Vygotsky put it:

I don’t want to discover the nature of mind by patching together a lot of quotations. I want to find out how science has to be built, to approach the study of the mind having learned the whole of Marx’s method… In order to create such an enabling theory-method in the generally accepted scientific manner, it is necessary to discover the essence of the given area of phenomena, the laws according to which they change, their qualitative and quantitative characteristics, their causes. It is necessary to formulate the categories and concepts that are specifically relevant to them—in other words, to create one’s own Capital.8

Vygotsky argued that the essence of Marx’s method in Capital was to define a “unit of analysis”, in this case the labour theory of value, which provides a means to understand the system as a whole. He concluded that the key to understanding consciousness was to define such a unit of analysis for the human mind. A Marxist psychology can do this by taking as a point of departure those qualities that make the human mind unique. Instead of pursuing a metaphor taken from the animal world or from a machine, it is necessary go back to what it means to be human. Only Marxism provided the key to a scientific psychology because it had correctly taken historically-created humanity as its starting point.

In particular, the publication in Russia in 1925 of Engels’s Dialectics of Nature with its essay “The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man”,9 inspired Vygotsky to try to extend the Marxist conception. An important feature of Engels’s view of human evolution was its emphasis on the fact that labour, the capacity to act upon the world using tools, was only able to develop within a co-operative and social context.10 This led to the need to communicate while engaging in such labour, stimulating the development of that other specifically human attribute—language. These two attributes combined then led to the development of human consciousness. Vygotsky creatively elaborated on Engels’s account of how tool use allowed human beings to begin to shape the world around them. He proposed that language, through becoming internalised as thought, could itself be viewed as a tool, in this case shaping consciousness. What language and tools have in common is that they both act as mediators, except that whereas technical tools are aimed at “mastering, and triumphing over nature”, language is an “internal activity aimed at mastering oneself”.11

One phenomenon that Vygotsky focused on was the tendency for young children to talk to themselves as they play. The French psychologist Jean Piaget labelled this phenomenon “egocentric speech”, but whereas he saw it as a relic of a past developmental stage, Vygotsky believed that such speech was a vital stage in a child’s development. By studying young children, Vygotsky showed that “egocentric speech” is not only centrally involved in guiding the child’s activity but also, later, becomes internalised as “inner speech” and helps to create the thought processes of the child. In other studies Vygotsky showed that conceptual understanding is not something that comes immediately to the child. Instead, children go through a series of stages in their conceptual development. Vygotsky’s studies showed that this is an active process on the child’s part, whereby the child seeks out the words and concepts that make sense of his or her everyday practical and social experience. Continual testing of the meaning of language against reality is one of the features that allow the child to reach towards future knowledge and abilities.

Vygotsky was not the only Russian thinker at this time with such an attitude to the role of language in human consciousness. Valentin Voloshinov, a philosopher of language, was coming to similar conclusions, although there is no evidence that he and Vygotsky ever met.12 Voloshinov was more concerned with adult thought patterns. He believed that: “we do, after all, think and feel and desire with the help of words; without inner speech we would not become conscious of anything in ourselves. This process of inner speech is just as material as is outward speech”.13 But he also argued that thought and language not only share the same transmission medium, they have the same source, that is, society. Voloshinov believed that “social psychology…is not located anywhere within (in the ‘souls’ of communicating subjects) but entirely and completely without—in the word, the gesture, the act”.14 For Voloshinov every individual engages in “horizontal” social relationships with other individuals in specific speech acts, and simultaneously in “vertical” internal relationships between the outer world and their own psyche. The psyche is thus not an internal but a boundary phenomenon. As he put it: “Individual consciousness is not the architect of the ideological superstructure, but only a tenant lodging in the social edifice of ideological signs”.15

Voiced in such a way, it might appear that Voloshinov viewed language, and therefore thought, as something imposed upon the individual from the outside, like the “blank slate” theory of the mind of the behaviourists. In fact this was far from the case, since Voloshinov saw language as a highly dynamic process, in which the individual plays a highly active role. Or as he put it, each word “is a two-sided act. It is determined equally by whose word it is and for whom it is meant… A word is a bridge thrown between myself and another”.16 And it is the social relations between the two individuals taking part in a verbal exchange that influence the way this exchange develops:

The word is implicated in literally each and every act or contact between people—in collaboration on the job, in ideological exchanges, in the chance contacts of ordinary life, in political relationships, and so on… The word has the capacity to register all the transitory, delicate, momentary phases of social change.17

Such a viewpoint raises the question of how this can be so, given that all individuals in a particular society use the same words, the same language system. The reason is that words used by groups with radically different circumstances and life activities become inflected with different and competing meanings as these groups struggle to express their life situations, their outlooks and their aspirations. Because of this, for Voloshinov, language exists in “a continuous process of becoming. Individuals do not receive a ready-made language at all, rather, they enter upon the stream of verbal communication”.18

While Voloshinov viewed words as having multiple accents, he did not see this as a random process. Instead, verbal exchanges between individuals are governed by what he called “speech genres”.19 These form a crucial link in the process of moving from the abstract level of a language system to the concrete richness of speech. Speech genres come in a variety of different forms, and it is this that gives social interaction its range and dynamism. So a secretarial worker might use a formal and deferential genre while speaking with her boss, a more relaxed and humorous one while talking with workmates at lunch and a more politicised genre at a union meeting during a workplace dispute.

Importantly, being linked to organised social groups, speech genres are very sensitive to social change. Examples would be the way that the word “gay” was appropriated as a positive term for homosexuality, but also how distinctions in languages between formal and informal terms of address, for instance “vous” and “tu” in French, have disappeared in other languages such as English with its simple “you”.

Such are the surface changes that can take place during the evolution of a language, but how does this relate to what is going on in an individual mind? Importantly, in line with Vygotsky’s view that “higher mental functions appear on the inter-psychological plane before they appear on the intra-psychological plane”, or Voloshinov’s belief that consciousness is “a social entity that penetrates inside the organism of the individual person”, inner speech appears to be not so much a monologue but closer to a dialogue in character.20 As Voloshinov himself put it, “the units of which inner speech is constituted are certain whole entities somewhat resembling a passage of monologic speech or whole utterances. But most of all, they resemble the alternating lines of a dialogue”.21 When coupled with Voloshinov’s claim that different speech genres represent the interests of different groups within society, this dialogic aspect of inner speech has important consequences, for it suggests that an individual consciousness contains different perspectives drawn from different parts of society. Drawn from an individual’s development from childhood to adulthood, such inner “voices” may represent the viewpoints of an individual’s parents, siblings, schoolteachers, past and present friends, or any assortment of people who have had an influence over the years. Importantly, this dialogue may become argumentative, and it can also be influenced by new voices as an individual’s personal circumstances change.

Far from being “knowledge for knowledge’s sake”, such a view of human consciousness has very important practical consequences, for instance for education. In the same way that he saw social interaction acting as a kind of scaffolding for the development of the child, Vygotsky believed that individuals learn best when learning is part of experience. Such an approach has been vindicated by recent studies in the United States which have successfully taught literary skills precisely along the lines proposed by Vygotsky.22 One group, working in a deprived area of Chicago, situated reading and writing in everyday activities like talking, drawing and even play, while in a school in Arizona, writing classes were geared to the children’s everyday experiences outside the classroom. This took the form of project work whose content was drawn from the working class community where the knowledge of parents and other workers in the community was enlisted. In these studies, spelling and grammar were not ignored, but the emphasis was put primarily on treating reading and writing as communicative and meaningful. With such an approach even the most uninterested or apparently incapable children made dramatic improvements in their literary skills.

Vygotsky would have been highly critical of the sort of tests that recent governments in Britain—both Tory and Labour—have introduced into schools. He attacked the class and cultural bias of such tests, and argued that they tell us very little about learning potential. He proposed that a true assessment of a child’s ability should not just consider what they can achieve unaided, but also what can be achieved through collaboration with others.

In addition to this general focus on education, Vygotsky was particularly concerned with the problems faced by those with learning difficulties. Indeed, he practically founded what we call special education. He also investigated the nature of “mental illnesses” such as schizophrenia, began to look into the biological basis of consciousness and even advised the film director Sergei Eisenstein on how to portray complex ideas visually on the screen.

At their height in the late 1920s Vygotsky’s views about the mind were among the most influential in Russia. Yet after his death in 1934 Vygotsky was denounced for “bourgeois idealism”, partly due to his willingness to consider the work of psychologists such as Freud and Piaget, and his writings banned.

In place of Vygotsky and Voloshinov’s sophisticated view of the human mind, the psychological viewpoint that now became dominant in Stalin’s Russia was crude behavourism—the idea that human beings start life as “blank slates” that society then imposes a personality on through conditioned reflexes. This viewpoint was expressed in 1930 by the US behaviourist John Watson when he said: “Give me a dozen healthy infants…and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select—doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations and the race of his ancestors”.23 This viewpoint fitted with the idea that anyone could thrive and find fulfilment in the socialist paradise of Stalin’s Soviet Union. The reality of course was quite different, but those who rebelled against the official viewpoint could be considered as “insufficiently conditioned”, and sent to the labour camps of the Gulag Archipelago to be “re-educated”.

Vavilov, Lysenko and genetics: a Russian tragedy

Another important area of science that blossomed after the Russian Revolution was genetics. In particular, the work of geneticist Nikolai Vavilov revolutionised our understanding of genetic diversity among plants and its implications for agriculture.24 Vavilov was born in 1887 in Moscow into a well-off, middle class family and, in 1906, entered the Petrovskaya Agriculture Academy, one of many institutes established after the devastating famine of 1892.

In the first years of the 20th century, Russian agricultural practices lagged behind those of other European countries and the United States. From the start of his career Vavilov undertook “to work for the benefit of the poor, the enslaved class of my country, to raise their level of knowledge”.25 After graduating, he spent a year researching wheat at the Bureau of Applied Botany in St Petersburg, before beginnning a two-year tour of European laboratories. His stay with William Bateson in Cambridge was particularly fruitful. Bateson was a major proponent of the new science of genetics. This science had been kick-started by the rediscovery of the significance of the scientific findings of an obscure monk, Gregor Mendel. Working in a monastery in Brno, in what is now the Czech Republic, Mendel showed that inheritance of different characteristics follows set mathematical laws.26 This insight led to the idea that such characteristics are due to inherited factors, which later became known as “genes”.

Following the revolution of 1917, Vavilov took up a post as a professor in Saratov, a large city on the Volga river some 700 kilometres southeast of Moscow. It was from here that he set out on expeditions to Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, North and South America and the Mediterranean, seeking plants that might increase agricultural productivity in Russia. As well as their importance for the development of agriculture, Vavilov’s findings were also imprtant for ecology. He was the first to demonstrate the existence of “biodiversity hotspots”—regions in the world that are centres of genetic diversity. Vavilov’s work complemented that of Vladimir Vernadsky, another Russian scientist who achieved international renown for his analysis of the biosphere—the regions of the Earth’s surface and atmosphere occupied by living organisms.27 The existence of biodiversity hotspots is now recognised as of major importance in efforts to conserve species from extinction. In fact an awareness of the need to safeguard the environment was an important feature of the early Soviet Union. Lenin insisted that a “rational exploitation” of the environment, or the scientific management of natural resources in accord with the principles of conservation, was essential. He argued for “preservation of the monuments of nature”, and the dedicated environmentalist Anatoly Lunacharsky was put in charge of conservation in the Soviet Union.28 Lenin had enormous respect for Vernadsky, and at his urging established in the southern Urals the world’s first nature reserve implanted by a government, exclusively aimed at the scientific study of nature.

In 1930 Vavilov was appointed director of the Institute of Genetics of the USSR Academy of Sciences, in recognition of his position as the country’s leading plant geneticist and his international reputation. Yet just six years later, he was in disgrace, supplanted by a man called Trofim Lysenko. Lysenko couldn’t have come from a more different background to Vavilov. Born in 1898 into a peasant family, Lysenko was only able to attend a school of agriculture and horticulture because of the new possibilities in education offered to workers and peasants after the revolution. As an agricultural researcher he first came to prominence in 1927, when the state newspaper Pravda reported his success in changing the time of sprouting in seeds by exposing them to differing periods of cold temperatures, a phenomenon known as “vernalisation”. The reporter noted that Lysenko was working for the people, not carrying out esoteric research studying the “hairy legs of flies”.29 This was a reference to those scientists carrying out research on the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster, a species that had been developed as an experimental organism by Thomas Hunt Morgan at Columbia University in New York. Far from being esoteric, such research would eventually lead to the discovery of the genetic basis of severe human diseases such as cystic fibrosis, sickle cell anaemia and haemophilia, and the award of a Nobel Prize to Morgan in recognition of the importance of his findings.30

Lysenko promoted himself as the discoverer of vernalisation when in fact it had been known about since 1858. He also claimed it could provide a solution to the Soviet Union’s chronic food shortages.31 This was a particular issue at this time as the consolidation of land and labour known as collectivisation, that began around 1929 under the new Stalinist regime, had led to a disastrous collapse of Soviet agriculture. A key aspect of Lysenko’s argument was the claim that the changes in the germination times of the plants became heritable after several generations of vernalisation—in other words that this acquired characteristic would be passed on to the plant’s offspring.

In fact recent studies have suggested that so-called “epigenetic” effects—environmentally-induced chemical changes to genes that do not involve a change to the DNA sequence—mean that the genome is far more sensitive to environmental influence than had been thought.32 Such epigenetic changes can also sometimes be inherited. For instance, after the Dutch famine during the blockade of the country in the Second World War, it was found that baby girls born to mothers who had been starved not only suffered from health problems themselves, but passed these problems on to their own children. This is thought to be due to epigenetic inheritance.

It may be that Lysenko had stumbled across a real phenomenon in his studies of plants. But if this was the case, it was not borne out by other scientists’ scrutiny of his findings, which showed these to be completely lacking in scientific rigour. A major problem was the totally unscientific way in which the effect of Lysenko’s approach was assessed by state officials. The evidence used was anecdotal, not statistical. Unfortunately, in Stalin’s Soviet Union, rationality no longer counted as much as ability to manipulate the political situation. The conflict between Lysenko and the “Mendelian-Morganists”, as geneticists were now labelled by Pravda, reached boiling point in 1936 at a conference at the Lenin Academy of Agricultural Sciences. Despite many leading Soviet geneticists’ criticisms of Lysenko’s claims, the government-controlled media declared Lysenko the winner. Vavilov now came under particular attack while Lysenko consolidated his position. By this time senior scientists were falling prey to Stalin’s Great Purge, in which as many as one million “anti-revolutionaries and enemies of the people” were executed over two years. The victims included Alexander Muralov, president of the Lenin Academy. Lysenko took his place to become Vavilov’s boss.

In October 1939, the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union held another genetics conference. This again ended in triumph for Lysenko. Lysenko’s ideas appealed to the Stalinist regime because he promised rapid advances in agriculture at a time when the regime’s botched agricultural policies had led to thousands of Soviet citizens dying of starvation. He promised that new strains of wheat and other crops with desirable traits could be produced within three years, much quicker than the 12 years that Vavilov required. In many ways, Lysenko’s claim that plant characteristics could be transformed merely by changing their environment, mirrored the behaviourist viewpoint that now dominated Soviet psychology, that saw human beings as blank slates whose behavior was also infinitely malleable. At a 1948 session of the Lenin Academy, Stalin himself drafted Lysenko’s opening remarks. When Vavilov tried to appeal personally to Stalin, the latter sneered: “You are the Vavilov who fiddles with flowers, leaves, grafts and other botanical nonsense instead of helping agriculture, as is done by Academician Lysenko”.33

On 6 August 1940, while collecting plants in Ukraine, Vavilov was seized by the Soviet secret police, taken to Moscow and brutally interrogated over an 11-month period. In July 1941, he was tried and sentenced to death. Later, after appeals from geneticists all over the world, the sentence was changed to one of life imprisonment. However, so bad was the treatment of Soviet prisoners at this time that Vavilov died of starvation on 26 January 1943 in a prison in Saratov, the city where he had begun his illustrious career 26 years before.

But, while Vavilov’s death marked the end of an unfolding personal tragedy, an even greater tragedy was now to engulf the Soviet Union due to the decision by its Stalinist rulers to move from a position of scientific rationalism to one of pseudo-science. The new policies in agriculture based on Lysenko’s theories had catastrophic consequences, and were one of the causes of famine in Russia in the 1930s. Even by 1948 harvests had not reached pre-revolutionary levels. In addition, the turn to pseudo-science would eventually have a negative impact on the influence of the Soviet Union on scientists in other countries.

One foreign scientist who started off as a passionate supporter of the Soviet Union, but then realised to his horror how much things had changed with the rise of Stalin, was the US geneticist Hermann Muller. Muller was a student in Morgan’s famous fruit fly genetics lab at Columbia University.34 While part of Morgan’s group, Muller made some important contributions, such as showing that mutations in one gene could alter the expression of another gene, implying that genes interact. However, Muller didn’t feel his ideas were given sufficient credit in Morgan’s publications, and he moved to set up his own lab at the University of Texas. Here he showed that irradiating fruit flies with X-rays dramatically increased the number of mutants in subsequent offspring: “In a few months Muller found more mutant genes than the total from all the Drosophila labs up to that time”, said James Crow, who was a graduate student at Texas and later became a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.35 This discovery would have a major impact on genetics, by making it possible to link a variety of characteristics to specific genes, in multiple species.

Unfortunately Muller’s socialist views led to trouble with the authorities. He helped publish a Communist newspaper at his university, and the FBI tracked his activities. In 1932 Muller moved to Russia, expecting to find himself among kindred spirits, only to find the country in the grip of Stalin’s clampdown on both personal and academic freedom. By the time he left the country in 1937, many of Muller’s students and colleagues had “disappeared” or been shipped to Siberia, and he was lucky not to meet a similar fate.36

Despite these troubles, Muller’s greatest scientific triumph was still to come. In 1945, he was awarded the Nobel Prize.37 The award not only recognised the importance of Muller’s findings for basic science. It also reflected increasing awareness of the dangerous effects of radiation on human genes, an effect that was to be demonstrated on a far greater scale by the dropping of atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the same year. For the rest of his life, Muller remained a passionate advocate of the need for a socialist society, but he had realised, to his deep regret, that the Soviet Union under Stalin no longer represented such a society. Tragically, many socialist scientists outside Russia would be forced to come to a similar conclusion, based on bitter experience. This is shown by the rise, and later fall, in influence of the scientific left in Britain in the 1930s and 1940s.

Red professors in Britain

From the start, the impact of the 1917 revolution on science was far from confined to the Soviet Union. It also affected scientists in other countries, including Britain. The University of Cambridge is not generally considered a hotbed of radicalism but it became so for a brief period in the 1930s. Max Perutz, who would eventually receive a Nobel Prize for his pioneering studies on the structure of proteins, first arrived in Cambridge in 1936. Born in Vienna to a wealthy Jewish family, Perutz had been lucky to get a PhD position in the laboratory of JD Bernal, a world expert in protein structure, and thereby manage to escape the coming tide of Nazism that would lead to the deaths of so many other Austrian Jews. To his surprise, the first question Perutz was asked when he joined the Cambridge laboratory was: “Are you a Communist?” It turned out that half the lab, including Bernal himself, were Communists, and the rest were sympathetic to socialist ideas.38

There are two main factors explaining the rise of the scientific left in Britain in the 1930s. First was the economic crisis. Scientists who had been told that their work was part of an effort to make the world a better place, could only watch as the worldwide slump destroyed the industrial fruits of their scientific endeavours. In Britain, science research funding was cut while in Germany the Nazis appeared to be launching a frontal attack against scientific rationality itself.

The second important factor was the presence of the growing Communist Party.39 In the 1930s the CP was able to grow substantially and sink roots deep into the working class movement. The party also distinguished itself by its struggle against the growing British fascist movement. Linking all this together was their newspaper the Daily Worker. By 1932 the CP were selling 20,000 papers on a weekday and 46,000 of the special weekend edition. The growth of socialist ideas among workers undoubtedly helped the left in the universities. But the spark that ignited the scientific left was the growth of fascism. Horrified by Hitler’s victory in 1933 and the rising influence of Mosley’s British Union of Fascists, many young scientists began to participate in anti-fascist marches and demonstrations. The scientific left’s leaflets and publications highlighted not only how fascism represented a threat to scientific rationality but also the way the Nazis used pseudo-scientific theories to back up their racist ideas.

The most celebrated addition to the scientific left was the geneticist JBS Haldane. Born into an upper middle class family and educated at Eton and Oxford, he had been a captain in the Black Watch regiment and later admitted to enjoying the First World War. But in 1938 Haldane declared himself a Marxist and a supporter of the CP. In fact Haldane had been growing steadily more left-wing since the early 1920s, being initially part of the fringes of the Labour left. But a growing disenchantment with the unwillingness of the ruling class, and the inability of the Labour Party, to resist fascism, convinced him to throw in his lot with the CP. This disenchantment reached a height during the Spanish Civil War, in which it became clear to Haldane that the policies of the Labour opposition as well as those of the Tory government favoured Franco’s fascists.

Haldane was a well-known and charismatic speaker. Whether speaking at the Albert Hall or in Trafalgar Square, he was always guaranteed to enthuse and inspire his audience. He turned up at one meeting on the Spanish Civil War wearing a beret, having come straight from the Spanish front itself. Even on the subject of “A Dialectical Approach to Biology”, Haldane could still draw a substantial crowd. His personal observation of air raid attacks in Spain turned out to be of great importance in the British scientific left’s campaign for proper air raid protection in the event of war, an issue that gained some immediacy as the Second World War loomed. The scientific left were able to make use of their scientific knowledge in a daring series of “experiments” with gas and explosives, which tested the government’s air raid protection procedures and found them sadly wanting. One of the young scientists who took part in these experiments was Maurice Wilkins, who would later receive a Nobel Prize for his role in the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA. These experiments and Haldane’s book, Air Raid Protection, were to be of great importance in the CP’s eventually successful campaign to get proper public provision of air raid shelters.

Another important focus for the scientific left was building trade union membership among scientists. Most scientists at the beginning of the 1930s still saw themselves primarily as “professionals” and looked to individual advancement rather than collective struggle. Continued cuts in scientific funding began to challenge this complacency. But equally important was a growing awareness among many young scientists, based on their experience of the anti-fascist movement, of the power of the collective.

Such practical interventions were only one aspect of the British scientific left’s activities in the 1930s. Ideological struggle was an equally vital component of their success. Scientists in or around the Communist Party argued that science is a product of society and that the nature of society affects science too. This approach was first developed early in the decade in the unlikely surroundings of the Second International Congress of the History of Science and Technology, held in London in 1931.40 The stimulus for the new approach to the history and philosophy of science was a large delegation from the Soviet Union, led by the Bolshevik leader Nikolai Bukharin. The Soviet delegation put forward a Marxist analysis of science. Boris Hessen, a Russian physicist, demonstrated how Issac Newton’s Principia was shaped by the social contradictions that followed the English Revolution of 1649, while Bukharin himself challenged the very notion of what we understand as science. He argued that science is primarily a social activity and one of the major forces for human progress; but its potential for transforming the world is held back under capitalism. The young left-wing scientists present at the London meeting were enthused by this approach to the history and philosophy of science. In later years they would expand and develop these insights, culminating in Bernal’s 1939 book The Social Function of Science. The success of their endeavour can be judged by the fact that, by the end of the decade, society’s influence on science was accepted not only by the scientific left but by liberals such as the biologist Julian Huxley.

Application of the dialectical method to science also resulted in some important scientific discoveries. One such discovery related to the origin of life on Earth. In the 1930s, working on the same dialectical principles, Haldane in Britain and the Russian scientist Alexander Oparin, independently argued that, originally, Earth’s atmosphere must have been quite different from now.41 Instead of the present highly oxidising atmosphere, it must have been a reducing mixture of hydrogen, ammonia and methane, together with carbon dioxide: exactly the composition that the Galileo probe has revealed on the surface of Jupiter’s moon Titan. Following Oparin and Haldane’s work, it was shown that the major building blocks of life can be created spontaneously in such conditions. The present Earth atmosphere is very different precisely because it is a by-product of life itself, in particular the photosynthesising work of plants.

Nowadays, the popularisation of science is not seen as a particularly radical activity. Newspapers publish both science news and feature articles on science. In addition to specialist magazines like New Scientist and The Scientist, there are programmes on radio and television about science, and there are hundreds of popular science books published every year. At the start of the 1930s, however, popular accounts of science were rare. Those scientists who did popularise their work were judged severely by the scientific establishment, who believed that such activities distracted from the “purity” of the scientific endeavour. It was also thought that understanding science was beyond the capabilities of ordinary workers.

The scientific left held no such prejudices.42 In 1931 the mathematician Hyman Levy, one of the first scientists to join the CP, took part in a series of BBC radio broadcasts on the subject of “Science in a Changing World”. In a later series Levy discussed scientific matters with a skilled manual worker. The seriousness with which the party regarded science was shown by its decision to ask Haldane to write a column for the Daily Worker. Before the Second World War the Daily Worker was the only newspaper to run such a weekly science column. One published collection of Haldane’s columns, called Science and Everyday Life, conveys well Haldane’s approach of linking together familiar and everyday experiences with the science that lies behind them. He managed to explain the most sophisticated scientific concepts in a way that was both informative and entertaining.

During the Second World War the influence of the British scientific left increased if anything. Yet only a few years later the movement was in disarray and its leading members were vilified in influential science magazines as opponents of scientific freedom. What had happened to cause such a turn around? The scientific left was an early victim of the Cold War. But the fact that its base turned out to be so fragile was due partly to a real change in the objective circumstances and partly to its flawed Stalinist politics. One of the strongest arguments of the left in the 1930s was that capitalism was incapable of organising science effectively. But in the short term at least, the postwar boom saw an expansion of funds for scientific research. Another problem was the fragile nature of the alliances that the scientific left had relied on in the 1930s. Its strategy was that of the popular front, which meant differences between Communist scientists and “progressive” members of the scientific establishment were played down. Such erstwhile allies were quick to abandon their association with the left once the Cold War began.

Ultimately, however, it was the equation of socialism with the Soviet Union that was the scientific left’s undoing. Reports were now coming from the Soviet Union about the repression of leading scientists in connection with the Lysenko affair mentioned previously. This “ideologically inspired” state interference in the affairs of science evoked an uncomfortable parallel between Stalin’s treatment of scientists and Adolf Hitler’s, and was the final nail in the coffin of the scientific left. Haldane, a leading geneticist, was one of the British scientists who now severed his connections with the CP.

The uncritical attitude of many of the British scientific left to Stalin’s Russia also affected their views about the history and philosophy of science. What had been a sophisticated, dialectical approach to the question of how much of modern science was about objective truth-seeking, and how much was a distorted reflection of the social values of its time, now became far more mechanical in its outlook. This was particularly shown by Bernal’s four-volume series Science in History, published in 1952.43 While this provided a very useful history of the development of science and technology throughout the ages, it suffered from insufficient recognition of the ways in which the ideology of a particular society affected the content of scientific theory. In the final volume, which looked at the modern world, Bernal was also uncritical of the way that state capitalism in the Soviet Union, with its forced industrialisation programme and arms race with the US, was distorting science and technology in the country. The consequences of this would become apparent in later years when evidence emerged about the terrible effect of industrial pollution on the environment, most catastrophically demonstrated by the Chernobyl disaster.

The 1917 revolution in Russia inspired the British scientific left but the degeneration of the revolution under Stalin eventually led to the downfall of the movement. It was only several decades later that the struggles of the 1960s and 1970s gave rise to a new scientific left, primarily in the United States.

The scientific left in the US

The scientific left of the 1960s and 1970s were part of the so-called “new left” of that period. The fortunes of the scientific left were revived by the global opposition to the Vietnam War in particular.44 Scientists were outraged that research on plant hormones had been used by the military to produce chemical defoliants such as Agent Orange, which were used to destroy the forests and crops of Vietnam. Eventually, evidence would emerge that exposure to Agent Orange was linked to major health problems including cancer in at least three million Vietnamese people, as well as affecting many US Army veterans. In the US, opposition to the Vietnam War saw the rise of left-wing scientist groups like the California-based Scientists and Engineers for Social and Political Action and the East Coast Science for the People. Science students in universities across the country campaigned against the large number of contracts that universities in the US had with the military, often involving the development of new and more deadly types of weapons.

But it wasn’t only students who became involved in the new movement. Academics from across different scientific disciplines started to question not only the potential for misuse of scientific knowledge, but the very basis of that knowledge. For instance, the geneticist Richard Lewontin, the evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould and the neuroscientist Steven Rose played important roles in challenging certain racist assumptions in science.45 In 1969, Arthur Jensen, an educational psychologist at the University of California at Berkeley, had published an article titled “How Much Can We Boost IQ and Scholastic Achievement?”.46 Jensen argued that the poor performance of many people of Afro-Caribbean ancestry in the US was due primarily to genetic factors, and not the poverty and racism faced by so many black US citizens. Lewontin and Gould challenged the biological determinism at the heart of this argument, as well as flaws in the psychological tests designed to measure intelligence, which were standardised to a white, middle class experience of life. Later this critique of biological determinism would culminate in two influential books, Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man, and Not In Our Genes,47 which Lewontin co-authored with ecologist Richard Levins and neurobiologist Steven Rose.

Female scientists played an increasingly important role in the scientific left. Psychologist Ethel Tobach, molecular biologist Rita Arditti, biochemist Ruth Hubbard and physiologist Ruth Bleier all published books exploring women’s often inferior position in the scientific hierarchy, and the use of biological determinist arguments to justify this situation.48

As in the 1930s, some scientists at the cutting edge of scientific discovery combined their studies in the lab with political activities that challenged the established order. In 1969, Harvard geneticist Jonathan Beckwith became the first person physically to isolate a gene—the so-called LAC gene, which controls the metabolism of the sugar lactose in bacteria. As a reward for his efforts Beckwith was awarded the drug company Eli Lilly’s Award in Microbiology, but in the spirit of the times he declared that he was giving the $1,000 prize money to the Black Panther Party.49

Another Harvard molecular biologist, Mark Ptashne, found fame by isolating the “LAC repressor”, the regulatory protein that switches the LAC gene on or off in response to the amount of lactose in the environment. Journalist Horace Judson, who interviewed Ptashne at this time, noted his “aviator-style spectacles, T-shirt, sawed-off blue-denim shorts, and sandals—more exposed skin than appeared prudent in a laboratory”.50 Ptashne only achieved his goal after years of trying to find a way to isolate sufficient amounts of the repressor protein to study it. The difficulty of the quest, and the hippy spirit of the times, was summed up by Ptashne’s comment that “people who claimed to be trying to isolate the repressor…weren’t really willing to take the kind of risks that were necessary…psychic risks”.51 But as well as being a scientist at the forefront of his field, Ptashne was also a committed left-wing activist, being particularly active in the campaign against the Vietnam War. Indeed, at the height of his quest to isolate the LAC repressor, Ptashne still found time to visit war-torn North Vietnam, where he gave talks about his work and his anti-war activities.52

Sadly, as the 1970s gave way to the 1980s, the scientific left was largely in decline. This partly reflected the general downturn in the class struggle, and the ascendancy of right-wing governments led by Margaret Thatcher in Britain and Ronald Reagan in the US. But it also reflected disagreements within the scientific left. To some extent these mirrored those taking place in the wider movement. So, for instance, some women scientists angered by sexism within the scientific left, and influenced by feminist patriarchy theory, argued that they could only win their goals by organising separately from male left-wing scientists.53

Other disagreements were more specifically related to science. A major disagreement centred on what attitude scientists should have towards the new “recombinant” DNA technology. This enabled molecular biologists to cut and paste DNA in a test-tube for the first time, and also to transform the genomes of organisms ranging from bacteria to mice.

Attitudes to recombinant DNA technology divided the scientific left. On the one hand, some scientists pointed to the possibilities that recombinant DNA technology offered to society, for instance for medical research. This potential was demonstrated by the use of the technology to produce insulin for diabetics by expressing the human insulin gene in a bacterium. On the other hand, such clinical potential was tempered by concerns about the safety of the new technology. In February 1975, a landmark conference was called at Asilomar, California by Paul Berg, one of the pioneers of recombinant DNA technology. The conference was to discuss the possibility that, while: “the new technology opened extraordinary avenues for genetics and could ultimately lead to exceptional opportunities in medicine, agriculture and industry…unfettered pursuit of these goals might have unforeseen and damaging consequences for human health and Earth’s ecosystems”.54 In line with such concerns, in the run-up to the meeting a voluntary moratorium was proposed, and despite the commercial potential of the new technology, this was universally observed not only in academia but also in the burgeoning biotechnology industry.55

The Asilomar meeting decided that recombinant DNA technology could continue, but only following strict guidelines that regulated the safe disposal of genetically modified bacteria. It also introduced genetic safeguards that limited the ability of such bacteria to survive in the wild, should any accidentally escape. A key point, according to Berg, was that the meeting agreed that: “the best way to respond to concerns created by emerging knowledge or early-stage technologies is for scientists from publicly-funded institutions to find common cause with the wider public about the best way to regulate—as early as possible”. Berg was particularly concerned that “once scientists from corporations begin to dominate the research enterprise, it will simply be too late”.56 Such concerns showed that, although the biotechnology industry had developed from academic science, already some of the priorities and interests of the two spheres were diverging, in ways that remain relevant today.

Despite the success of the Asilomar conference in providing a framework for the regulation of recombinant DNA technology, the conference marked a growing divergence between those on the scientific left who continued to oppose it as a dangerous new development, and those who saw it as an important new tool for medical research. Richard Lewontin not only opposed recombinant DNA technology but would also later become a major critic of initiatives such as the Human Genome Project. In contrast, Mark Ptashne refused to go along with the idea that recombinant DNA technology was primarily a problem, seeing it as a massive opportunity for medical research and clinical medicine. “I remained a bona fide lefty until years later when I broke with the left over recombinant DNA”, said Ptashne. “They said we should oppose the experiments because they were dangerous—mobilising the masses and all that. Trouble was that it wasn’t true”.57

In fact, despite initial fears, the risks posed by recombinant DNA technology have been shown to be negligible, partly because regulatory frameworks have been adhered to. But the argument about the technology was about more than risk. It was also based on a belief that molecular biology is so distorted under capitalism that it will always tend to hinder, rather than enhance, the interests of the working class and the socialist movement. Or at least there seems to be no other explanation for the decision by key figures of the scientific left such as Richard Lewontin and Steven Rose to oppose the Human Genome Project. The aim of this project, which cost $3 billion, was to map all the genes in the human genome and “read” their DNA sequence.

Certainly there was much to criticise in many of the claims made by top figures in the scientific establishment during their fund-raising efforts for the project. For example, Walter Gilbert, who received a Nobel Prize for his role in developing ways to read a DNA sequence, ended his seminars at this time by holding up a glittering CD and declaring: “soon I will be able to say ‘here is a human being, it’s me’”.58 Such claims grossly overestimated the extent to which it is possible to learn about a human being from a DNA sequence alone. They were also flawed in trying to reduce the human condition to biology, thereby disregarding the social aspects of being human. Yet, as I have argued elsewhere, the flawed ideology often used to justify the genome project should not detract from the fantastic resource for biomedical science that it has turned out to be.59 Importantly, both the genome project and the follow-up Encyclopaedia of DNA Elements (ENCODE) project, which sought to map all the functional activity in the genome, have provided us with a picture of the genome as far more than just a DNA sequence, but rather a complex 3D entity that includes both the DNA but also the proteins that it interacts with. Importantly, as discussed above, there is increasing evidence that changes in the environment can directly influence the activity of the genome and be passed on to future generations. Discoveries such as these are influencing not only diagnosis and treatment of disease but also our understanding of what it means to be human.

So what is the basis for the opposition of figures on the scientific left to the genome project and other recent developments in biomedical science, such as stem cell technology? An important clue is in the recent claim by the feminist sociologist Hilary Rose that science under capitalism is “not objective”.60 According to this viewpoint, modern science is so distorted by the values of capitalism that it ceases to present a truthful picture of the world. To me, this seems a departure from the classical Marxist view of science, expressed by Lenin, that “human knowledge is not (or does not follow) a straight line, but a curve, which endlessly approximates a series of circles, a spiral”.61 As such, although modern science may sometimes present a distorted view of reality, it nevertheless provides a progressively more accurate picture.

Unfortunately, there are practical consequences of Rose’s and others’ dismissal of modern science. Currently, both healthcare and biomedical research are in crisis due to government cuts. Yet, if recent technological advances in biomedical science really are inherently flawed, then there is no point in fighting against the cuts in research funding and for new diagnostic methods and therapies to be introduced into our hospitals. Another unfortunate consequence is that scientists themselves begin to be seen as part of the problem, as individuals paid to reproduce capitalist ideology in the laboratory. Not only does this distort the reality of current life in academia, which is about falling living standards, job insecurity, and decreasing funds for research, but it also dismisses the passion with which all the academic scientists I know pursue their studies with both a desire to uncover the truth, and to make the world a better place.

Current prospects for the scientific left

Today the scientific left is a fragment of its former size and influence. The individuals that led the movement in the 1960s and 1970s are now largely retired—“emeritus” professors—or sadly passed away.62 Currently, there is no organised scientific left in either the US or Britain, although a recent welcome development is that Science for the People, which disappeared as an activist organisation in the 1980s, was reported to be reforming as part of growing opposition by US scientists to the election of Donald Trump.63

A major question then is how to rebuild the scientific left today, and what role revolutionary socialists can play in this process. In my view, an important starting point has to be the recognition that science is above all a search for the true, objective state of the world. New discoveries in fields as diverse as genetics and quantum physics are important because they further our understanding of the fabric of reality. Importantly, even the most apparently esoteric research can also lead to important practical benefits, from mobile phones and tablets to new methods for diagnosing and treating cancer.

At the same time, modern science is distorted by the values of the capitalist system under which we live. The distortion can affect science in multiple ways. For instance, some areas of research may be prioritised over others when it comes to funding. A particular issue is that while biomedical science in our universities is increasingly starved of funds, over half of all research spending goes to the military for the creation of ever-more sophisticated ways to kill people in far-off places. Ironically, the blowback from such activities is the rise in terrorist incidents in Europe and the US, with terrorists often using far more low-tech methods, like articulated lorries.

It is not only funding priorities that distort science. As we have seen, distorted views about the role of genes in determining the human condition have led to overinflated claims about the potential of genetics for treating disorders ranging from diabetes to schizophrenia, but they have also been used to justify racist, sexist and homophobic viewpoints.

In such circumstances, those seeking to build a new scientific left need to think carefully about the focus of both their theoretical and practical activities. Clearly, scientists on the left need continually to challenge the distortions of scientific findings that justify class society, inequality, and sexism, racism, and homophobia, distortions that occur not only in the media, but are also evident in some of the statements from members of the scientific establishment. But it is equally mistaken to see ordinary scientists as the enemy. Far from being corrupted by money from drug companies or the military, the reality for most senior academic scientists these days is a falling salary and pension, the threat of redundancy and diminishing funds for research. For more junior scientists, the situation is even more serious, with temporary contracts becoming the norm, and with little likelihood of a permanent job in the future. The Brexit vote has been particularly traumatic for science, since a considerable proportion of scientific researchers in Britain are from European Union countries, and they now face an uncertain future. Many scientists are also concerned at the effect leaving the EU will have on scientific research, given that many laboratories in Britain rely on EU funds.64 It would surely be a huge mistake to see scientists themselves as the enemy. Instead revolutionary socialists need to think carefully about what they can offer to scientists disgruntled by the capitalist system, and what they in turn can learn about the state of the world and the human condition from science.

An important starting point is to involve scientists in campaigns such as those in defence of academic wages and conditions, but also in anti-racist and pro-immigration initiatives. With many PhD students, post-doctoral researchers, and also senior scientists in Britain’s laboratories being from the EU, as well as further overseas, it will be important to state how important free movement of workers across borders is for science, an area of work that is heavily dependent on such free movement and collaborations between labs in different countries. There needs to be a concerted campaign to demand that UK government funding is increased to match any loss of EU funding. But this also needs to be combined with a push for increased academic science funding overall, since this is an area that has been steadily starved of funds over recent years.

Here there is the important issue of priorities to raise. For instance, imagine if the billions being spent on renewing the Trident missile system were instead used to fund medical research, and the application of such research in diagnosis and treatment in our hospitals. It is here that socialists have little to say if they take part in a blanket rejection of new technologies such as genome analysis, gene editing, or stem cell technologies. Instead socialists need to be enthused by the potential of such technologies for medicine, but also able to point to the ways that their development under capitalism distorts such technologies. Why, for instance, is a huge battle being fought by the universities of Berkeley and Harvard for the right to patent the new technology of genome editing? Here, socialists have important potential allies among senior scientists, such as Nobel laureate Sir John Sulston, who led the British component of the Human Genome Project. Sulston opposed the patenting of the genome sequence, and is now similarly opposed to the patenting of genome editing.65

Genome editing—which for the first time makes it possible to modify the DNA sequence of a living cell of any species, including the human species, with precision—looks set to transform biomedical research and clinical medicine, and also agriculture.66 As such it raises many important ethical and political issues that socialists need to be able to debate. Similar debates could be had about many other developing areas of science and technology.

In taking part in such debates, socialists have much to learn from the dialectical approach to science pioneered by people like Lev Vygotsky. The dangers of not pursuing such an approach can be seen by the way in which some contemporary socialists have responded to the so-called “nature versus nurture” debate about human characteristics and disorders. Quite rightly, socialists reject the biological reductionism that sees human characteristics like intelligence, or mental disorders like schizophrenia, as being directly determined by an individual’s genes. Unfortunately, many socialists slip into an equally erroneous social reductionist viewpoint, which is basically just a rehashed form of behaviourism.

In fact all the evidence points to mental disorders being the consequence of a subtle interaction between social and biological factors. The more we learn about the biological basis of mental conditions such as depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia or autism, the more it becomes clear that there is no simple genetic cause, as there is for single-gene disorders like the lung disease cystic fibrosis. But that is not to say that there is no genetic link at all. Instead, genetic differences have a role to play, but only subtly, in certain social circumstances. For instance, a recent study has found that individuals with a change in one of the regions of the genome that acts to switch on a gene called AKT, are more likely to succumb to schizophrenia, but only if they also smoke excessive amounts of cannabis as teenagers.67 Another study found that certain nine year old boys who had been subjected to extremely stressful home environments as toddlers, had significantly altered telomeres—the structures that protect the ends of chromosomes from damage.68 This is important because telomere shortening has been linked to susceptibility to disease, and to premature ageing. But this was only true of boys with a genetic difference in a gene linked to the stress response. Intriguingly, the same genetic difference in boys who had a nurturing, caring home environment, had telomeres that were longer than normal. This shows that there is no simple relationship between a genetic difference and its effects in different environments, exactly what a dialectic approach to biology would predict.

There are important practical consequences to not getting the balance right in the nature versus nurture debate, in terms of the diagnosis and treatment of mental disorders. On the one hand, there is increasing recognition that simplistic ideas about conditions like schizophrenia and depression being due to imbalances in particular chemicals in the brain, do not reflect the true complexity of the situation, both in terms of the biological and social basis of these conditions. This means that anti-depressant drugs like Prozac may actually be acting in a completely different way than first thought, but it also explains why such drugs have only limited effects in many patients, and none at all in so-called “non-responders”.69 At the same time, the primary focus on biology that is characteristic of psychiatry means that the social causes of such conditions, which might be explored by “talking cure therapies”, can be seen as low priority. This is a particular issue at a time when cuts in public healthcare budgets mean that such therapies are seen as too expensive compared to drug treatments that may be acting as little more than chemical straightjackets.

However, there is also a danger in assuming that mental “disorders” are purely the product of an adverse environment, and have no genetic basis. Such, for instance, is the viewpoint of psychotherapist Oliver James, author of the book Not in Your Genes, who argues that “what is crucial is how, as children, we are (or aren’t) nurtured by our parents”.70 Now, while it is certainly true that family tensions can definitely have a negative impact on mental health, to reduce the situation to one in which “children are born with brains of soft clay, their mental makeup unaffected by genes and infinitely mouldable by their parents”,71 is not only scientifically incorrect, but can also lead to a situation in which parents become the primary targets of blame for their children’s poor mental health. Notably, such a viewpoint has in the past often focused negatively on the role of women. For instance, in the 1950s, the influence of behaviourism meant that it was common to see autistic and schizophrenic individuals as the product of so-called “refrigerator mothers”, high-achieving, emotionally cold women too concerned with forging a brilliant career to give their children a loving and nurturing home environment.72

Instead of the two poles of biological and social reductionism, only a dialectical viewpoint can fully appreciate that human characteristics and disorders are the product of both biology and society, and of wider society as well as the home environment. Such a viewpoint is important if we are to identify new drug treatments based on a proper understanding of the organic basis of mental conditions, but also recognise the social character of disease in a way that does not put the blame on the sufferer or their family, but seeks to understand how social stresses can act as triggers for poor mental health. Taking this view of the mind, there is a place for both drug treatments and talking cures.

Ultimately, it is through science and technology that human beings transform their environment. But in current capitalist society, not only can scientific advances be used to fuel war and oppression, but too often new technologies that could play a positive role are only accessible to a tiny minority of the world’s population. At a time when a baby’s genome in the US can be sequenced in 50 hours to identify a life-threatening disorder, but children in other parts of the world are dying for lack of clean water, and given that uncontrolled global warming now threatens the very future of human civilisation, and perhaps life itself on our planet, the case for a socialist society is surely stronger now than it has ever been. As such, the experience of the Russian Revolution, which showed for a brief period the power of ordinary people to transform society, remains a powerful example. Ultimately, socialists need to make the case that we need a new revolution, as the only way to abolish the unplanned capitalist system, and replace it with a democratically run, socialist society. Only in such a society will science truly blossom, and only in such a society will it be possible to ensure that science is used to improve the lives of ordinary people, not just the privileged few.

John Parrington is an associate professor in molecular pharmacology and tutor in medicine at the University of Oxford. He is the author of The Deeper Genome: Why There is More to the Human Genome Than Meets the Eye (Oxford University Press, 2015) and Redesigning Life: How Genome Editing will Transform the World (Oxford University Press, 2016).


1 Gasper, 1998.

2 Luria, 1979, p17.

3 Parrington, 2016a.

4 Parrington, 1994.

5 Vygotsky, 1987.

6 Vygotsky, 1987.

7 Vygotsky, 1987.

8 Vygotsky, 1978, p8.

9 Engels, 1954, pp170-183.

10 Harman, 1994.

11 Vygotsky, 1978, p55.

12 It has been suggested that Mikhail Bakhtin was the real author of the two books—Marxism and the Philosophy of Language and Freudianism: A Marxist Critique—that are ascribed to Voloshinov. It is probable we may never know the truth but it is worth pointing out that, although this claim is now accepted uncritically by many commentators, it rests on unsubstantiated facts and contradictory assumptions, as discussed in Parrington, 1997. As such, having noted the controversy, in this article I will assume that the writings ascribed to Voloshinov were actually written by him.

13 Voloshinov, 1987, p21.

14 Voloshinov, 1987, p19.

15 Voloshinov, 1973, p39.

16 Voloshinov, 1973, p86.

17 Voloshinov, 1973, p19.

18 Voloshinov, 1973, p81.

19 Parrington, 1997a.

20 Parrington, 1997a.

21 Voloshinov, 1973, p38.

22 Parrington, 1994.

23 Parrington, 2015a.

24 Witkowski, 2008.

25 Witkowski, 2008.

26 Parrington, 2015b, pp16-18.

27 Parrington, 2000.

28 Parrington, 2000.

29 Witkowski, 2008.

30 Parrington, 2015b, pp18-23.

31 Witkowski, 2008.

32 Parrington, 2015b, chapter 9.

33 Witkowski, 2008.

34 Parrington, 2016b, p24.

35 Parrington, 2016b, p25.

36 Parrington, 2016b, p25.

37 Parrington, 2016b, p26.

38 Parrington, 1997b.

39 Parrington, 1997b.

40 Parrington, 1997b.

41 Parrington, 1998.

42 Parrington, 1997b.

43 Bernal, 1971.

44 Rose and Rose, 2012a, p5.

45 Rose and Rose, 2012a, p7.

46 Rose, 1976.

47 Gould, 1996; Rose, Levins and Lewontin, 1984.

48 Rose and Rose, 2012a, p7.

49 Parrington, 2015b, p52.

50 Parrington, 2015b, p53.

51 Parrington, 2015b, p53.

52 Parrington, 2015b, p53.

53 Rose and Rose, 2012a, p9.

54 Parrington, 2016b p38.

55 The biotechnology industry emerged when a molecular biologist, Herbert Boyer, and an unemployed banker, Robert Swanson, realised that the new technology might have great commercial potential. The pair would go on to found the first biotech company, Genentech—Parrington, 2016b, p36.

56 Parrington, 2016b, p38.

57 Gitschier, 2015.

58 Parrington, 2015b, p87.

59 Parrington, 2013.

60 Rose and Rose, 2012b.

61 Lenin, 1965.

62 Both Ruth Hubbard and Richard Levins died in 2016.

63 Mervis, 2017.

64 Shadan, 2016.

65 Parrington, 2016b, p105.

66 Parrington, 2016b, chapter 6.

67 Morgan and others, 2016.

68 Madhusoodanan, 2014.

69 Marshall, 2006.

70 Devine, 2017.

71 Ritchie, 2016.

72 Costello, 2015.


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