“We can always shoot them later”

Issue: 122

John Baxter

Ethan Pollock, Stalin and the Soviet Science Wars (Princeton, 2009), £17.95

The post-war period was a time of rapid reconstruction and modernisation in the Soviet Union, and science and technology were expected to play a huge part in the process. As such, the rewards and prestige for those working in Soviet science were particularly high. But the risks were great too. Whole academic disciplines could find themselves out of favour—academics might be arrested or killed if their ideas were deemed unpatriotic or “anti-Soviet”.

Ethan Pollock has studied the Soviet archives to give an unprecedented insight into the post-war (1945-53) machinations of Joseph Stalin and the bureaucracy in six academic areas: philosophy, biology, physics, linguistics, physiology and political economy. In each area the party planned huge set-piece debates at which they hoped to demonstrate the superiority of Soviet ideas. Some of these areas have been extensively analysed in the past (biology, physics and physiology) and in these cases his work arguably does not add to the general picture we already have. However, in every case Pollock’s painstaking work means that we now have a level of detail we have never had before, particularly on the personal role of Stalin.

Take, for example, the story of the decline of Soviet genetics and the rise of the pseudo-scientist Trofim Lysenko. This is a tale which has been told many times before, most often in an attempt to demonstrate how awful it is when politicians intervene in science. Lysenko was an agricultural scientist, who rejected the science of genetics and promoted his own theories, which included the inheritance of acquired characteristics. The Stalinist apparatchiks particularly liked Lysenko as he promised huge increases in crop yields (though these never actually materialised). Lysenko had already flourished in the 1930s, promoting his supposedly “proletarian” biology against the “bourgeois” science of genetics. In 1943 the leading Russian geneticist Nikolai Vavilov was sentenced to death and died in prison.

A huge conference on agricultural science was planned to take place in July 1948. Lysenko, his scientific supporters and his backers in the bureaucracy planned to use this conference to confirm the dominance of his ideas and to smash genetics. The conference would also serve to demonstrate the superiority of Soviet science to that in the bourgeois West. Beforehand Lysenko presented a draft of his proposed conference report to Stalin for comment. The archives show that Stalin was not convinced by all of Lysenko’s claims and was not happy that Lysenko planned to use the stamp of approval of the Communist Party’s central committee to establish his scientific validity. Stalin produced an extensive hand-written commentary on the draft of the speech. When Lysenko claimed that all science was class based and that all conflict in science was based on class conflict, Stalin wrote, “Ha ha! And what about mathematics? And Darwinism?”

Stalin removed whole sections which dismissed all science in bourgeois society and which claimed Stalin’s Anarchy or Socialism was the correct guide for biologists to consider when thinking about species formation. Pollock, following other recent historians, argues that this shows that Stalin wanted to emphasise the “universal, scientific scope of Lysenko’s claims”.

So instead of emphasising the class nature of their “science”, Lysenko and his supporters emphasised its practical utility and Russian pedigree, opposing this to the supposed abstractions of the Western influenced “Weismann-Morganism” (genetics) of their opponents. They claimed that Lysenko’s theories were a direct continuation of the ideas of the highly influential Russian plant breeder Ivan Vladimirovich Michurin, who had died in the mid-1930s.

Many of Lysenko’s opponents were not convinced that he had the full backing of the central committee and defended genetics vigorously. Towards the end of the conference Lysenko was able to trump his opponents: “The question is asked in one of the notes handed to me: ‘What is the attitude of the central committee of the party to my report?’ I answer: the central committee of the party examined my report and approved it.”

According to the records, the conference rose to give a standing ovation and ended as, one by one, Lysenko’s opponent recanted and promised to emancipate themselves from their “Weismann-Morganist views”. Despite Stalin’s desire that Lysenko should be able to win on the merits of his science, in the end Lysenko’s victory only came when he was able to claim unequivocal central committee support.

Stalin and the party intervened in the other subject areas with largely the same objective in mind: to demonstrate their ideological and practical superiority over the West. But in each area the story played out differently. For example, in the other five cases explored here the party was less inclined to predetermine the outcome. I do not have the space here to develop all the stories, but let us contrast the tale of Lysenko with those of physics and political economy.

After the “success” of the 1948 Agricultural Science Conference, plans were made for an All-Union Conference of the Physicists to overcome the ideological problems in Soviet physics. During the war divisions had grown between the physicists of the academies and those of the teaching universities. Broadly speaking, the academies tended to recruit the more talented and often older physicists, who became involved in highly funded and prestigious war-related research, not least the project to build an atomic bomb. The teaching universities tended to employ those left behind—often younger physicists more integrated into the party. This division helped to foster an ideological rift in physics, which the conference was supposed to resolve.

Taking their lead from the biologists, university physicists accused many of the academy physicists of kow-towing to bourgeois, idealist Western physics, in particular regarding their adoption of quantum mechanics and relativity. They attacked as anti-materialist the notion, proposed by the German physicist Werner Heisenberg, that it is not possible to know precisely both the momentum and position of sub-atomic particles. They proposed the elimination of these so-called “Machist” tendencies from Soviet physics. (Ernst Mach was a philosopher and physicist who had been criticised by Lenin in his Materialism and Empiriocriticism.) They attacked the often Jewish physicists of the academy for their alleged lack of patriotism and their “cosmopolitanism” (widespread official anti-Semitism at this time was dressed up as “anti-cosmopolitanism”).

A series of detailed planning meetings were held to prepare for the conference, where many of the committee members assumed the supporters of quantum mechanics and relativity would be routed. But the date for the conference was constantly put back. The planning committee could not agree on the structure of the conference or what it could be expected to achieve. It became increasingly apparent that many of those around Stalin felt that the conference was not in their interest. The conference was eventually cancelled.

The exact reasons for the cancellation are not explicit in the records that Pollock has studied, but it is pretty apparent why the decision was made. Without quantum physics there could be no hope of a Soviet nuclear weapons project—something which the Stalinists were not prepared to contemplate. David Holloway, the historian of the Russian bomb project, has argued that Stalin and his henchman Lavrentiy Beria were perfectly aware, from sources in their spy network, that Western physics was not useless, idealistic nonsense. It had been used to build the American atomic bomb, after all. Stalin allegedly agreed to cancel the conference, saying, “Leave them in peace. We can always shoot them later.”

Political economy was the subject of the last central committee sponsored scholarly discussion in Stalin’s lifetime. The party needed Soviet political economists to demonstrate the superiority of the Soviet system over the capitalist West; as such they planned an official Soviet text-book on political economy. They hoped to mirror the success of the History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union: Short Course, published in 1938, which had rewritten the history of the 1917 Revolution in order to maximise Stalin’s role (and his closeness to Lenin) and minimise or eliminate the role of his opponents.

But rewriting history proved to be easier than rewriting political economy. The first plans for the book were made in 1937—there were endless drafts and re-drafts as Stalin and other leading apparatchiks criticised and rewrote sections. The economists were placed in an impossible position. They were expected to blindly praise all of Stalin’s decisions and at the same time provide an objective scientific analysis of the Soviet economic system.

The tensions between science and propaganda made it impossible to produce a book which satisfied Stalin, not least because the changing needs of the system meant that what was important in one period could be denounced in the next. One draft of the book praised the role of Soviet planning, suggesting that it allowed the USSR to “surmount the Law of Value” and eliminate the anarchy of capitalist production methods. Stalin criticised the draft, saying, “This is all schoolyard nonsense, some sort of schoolyard bumbling!… The main task of planning is to ensure the independence of the socialist economy from capitalist encirclement.”

Stalin went on to argue that planning allowed the country to invest in heavy industry for the country’s defence, irrespective of its profitability. In private at least, there was little pretence of planning for socialism—it was very clear that planning was a tool to allow more effective competition with the West.

Pollock provides a fascinating and detailed account of the attempts to produce the textbook, including the debates over whether the law of value applied in the Soviet Union (Stalin insisted it did) and Stalin’s insistence that Karl Marx was not a starting point for understanding the Soviet system. It took nine years to produce, in 1946, what was considered to be a final draft of Political Economy: A Short Course. But the book was still not good enough for Stalin. There were still a huge number of problems, including the fact that it did not do enough to stress the achievement of the Russian nation through the ages.

By 1951 yet another draft had been prepared, and this time it was circulated more widely. A discussion was planned to debate the merits of the book and how it could be improved. In this case the session was to be held in private, as the tensions over the interpretation of Soviet political economy were too sensitive to be made immediately public without suitable vetting. Over 250 economists and leading party members met in continuous session for over five weeks, with 110 speeches, but it didn’t help—the problems were insurmountable, not least because it was hard to know what Stalin wanted to hear on a given subject. The book was eventually published in 1954, a year and a half after Stalin’s death and 17 years after it had first been proposed.

Pollock has written a fascinating book. Its focus on the arguments in and around the sciences should not deflect from the fact that it throws a great deal of light on the nature of the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War. The book is not without its problems. The author seems to shy away from theorising about the nature of the Soviet system or from making judgements and drawing conclusions about the inter-relation of science and politics. There is much here that will come as no surprise to readers of this journal, and the private behaviour of Stalin only serves to reinforce the idea that the Soviet regime at this time had nothing in common with socialism or communism, but instead was a highly centralised state capitalist regime locked in competition with the West.

As Pollock makes clear, Stalin’s interventions in the academic fields came at times when his attention might easily have been focused elsewhere. At the height of the Berlin crisis in 1948 he was actively engaged in the campaign to rid Soviet science of Mendelian genetics. In early 1950 he was busy shaping the new Sino_Soviet pact and planning the invasion of South Korea, yet he found time to write an extensive article on linguistics, to “orchestrate a coup” in physiology and to hold three extensive meetings to discuss the new book on political economy. For Stalin it is clear that these ideological battles were an important part of the Cold War.