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Festival of Ideas

Stalin and the Scientists Simon Ings

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The Soviet Union’s sciences were the largest and best-funded in history – and were at once the glory and laughing stock of the intellectual world.

Simon Ings weaves together what happened when, early in the twentieth century, a handful of impoverished and underemployed graduates, professors and entrepreneurs, collectors and charlatans, bound themselves to a weak and failing government to create a world superpower. He reveals how Stalin’s philosophical obsessions – and his role as the state’s Great Scientist – derailed the Soviet Union’s grand experiment in ‘rational government’.

Photo: Lydia Nicholas

Audience Member Review

Written by Hugh D Reynolds

This week, scientists and their sympathisers took to the streets.

The demands politicians take science more seriously. So is it a bad time to be talking about the danger of a political regime steeping itself in too much science?

This week, novelist and science writer Simon Ings visited the Festival of Ideas to present Stalin and the Scientists: A History of Triumph and Tragedy, 1905-1953 (Faber & Faber 2016). For those of us who dream of a more scientifically literate state, Ings’ history can be read… I’m reading it… as a cautionary tale.

Ings’ energised storytelling, an evidently insatiable curiosity, and sheer stamina in tackling the source material – these have produced a work commensurate with epic Soviet ambition. Its case studies detail how scientific and political visions can blur in ugly ways. How truths will not out if we don’t attend to the ways we set about getting them.

The sinister and sometimes absurdist world Ings paints is worthy of his speculative works of fiction – ambitious plans tainted by everyday realities, veering towards dystopia.

His canvas is huge – like that of his previous non-fiction book The Eye: A Natural History (Bloomsbury 2007). Ings has had a ‘weirdly split career‘ making him particularly suitable for the role of arts editor at NewScientist. He insists that it is not as difficult as it sounds for someone with an arts background to make the transition to science writing. ‘You can know what you don’t know […] that’s all you need.’ If only Uncle Joe had had such humility – and Ings appreciation for the changing nature of scientific knowledge and methods.

It wasn’t that Stalin was a scientific ignoramus, (‘that’s why Trump is not Stalin‘ says Ings) – but his notion of science was outmoded, grounded in nineteenth century scientism. An excessively smug view of what science can do. Science yoked to a single approved worldview: dialectical materialism. Science squeezed into the lead role as a prescribed scroll of historical progress unfurls.

Bad timing was everything. Around the time of the Russian revolution, science was undergoing revolutions of its own. As the grand Soviet project spread – seeding itself across an area ‘bigger than the visible moon‘ – its philosophical roots were rotting. Upheavals in scientific certainty came, as Ings puts it, to ‘make a mockery of a Scientific State‘.

What hope for absolute measurement – universally recognised truths – in a relativistic universe? How to control matter, minds, people, faced with quantum indeterminacy?

Sat in my particular frame of reference, I’m no longer sure that you – sat in yours – will agree with my findings any more. And I’m starting to wonder if this experiment I’m conducting isn’t somehow tethered to my consciousness in an unhygienic way: is it nature or my perceptions of it that I’m discovering? If no-one was here to read the data print-out, what would it say? That’s the same evidence I’m basing my science on but, hang on, she can draw a different conclusion; how come?

These are caricatures of the kinds of doubt befalling believers in the new physics. Responsibility for licensing these sorts of doubt was pinned on the Austrian physicist-cum-psychologist Ernst Mach (honoured these days in the units we use for supersonic speed). Objectivity and materialism, were – often misguidedly – seen as being under attack. Machism – a term of abuse – was seen as a form of idealism, too open to subjective interpretation. Ings: ‘Marxist philosophers found idealism under every stone, but only because they didn’t have a clue about what the new physics actually meant.

Lenin himself published a very angry text against Machist science: Materialism and Empiriocriticism (Zveno 1909). This was a targeted attack on Alexander Bogdanov, an apologist for Mach who – it just so happened – was also Lenin’s main rival for control of the Bolsheviks.

Ings writes of Lenin’s and his position: Materialism […] is incompatible with any doubts about the comprehensibility of the world. He advanced a copy theory of knowledge, in which our sensations are ‘copies, photographs, images, mirror reflections of things’.

Come the revolution, Lenin’s treatise would be taken as gospel – the immortal words of an immaculate prophet – preached in every university. Ings: ‘This is what makes Lenin’s tract so frightening: the way the exigencies of that wobbly moment in Bolshevik history got frozen, not just into print, but into policy.’

Stalinist science ‘saw no gap between consciousness and the external world’, people were ‘made of glass‘ – transparent in all their interactions with the rest of nature. (A reference to a prophecy by Maxim Gorky, quoted in Ings’ book: ‘In a word, every person will be seen through now, and however thick and impenetrable your skin might be, the new light makes it transparent like glass.’)

Forced pretence that every matter – everyone – is so see-through and simple. Dictates that we must all accept, without interrogation, a single indisputable reality. It is easy to imagine the stifling and chilling effect on scientific and wider debate.

Read Ings and you won’t need to imagine in the abstract; he’s so adept at conveying the everyday contortions and corruptions scientists had to endure; particularly mindful of the wider, devastating impact that scientific stagnation had on the people of the USSR. A theoretically minded review like this does Ings, and most importantly them, a disservice.

Ings told us of the early years of the Union, a genuine high-minded enthusiasm for science. ‘A clear rationale for prioritising science‘ with the immense problems of food supply and industrial expansion so pressing.

He told us of impoverished but unabashed researchers being told their work couldn’t be funded, but that they were welcome to commandeer a palace and turn it into an institute. Of bitter rivalry between those institutes, stealing from hospitals – and each other – to equip their labs. Of the ossified systems of patronage and appointment; genuine scientific expertise counted for very little; spin, connections and goodness-of-fit with the party line was all. Informing the NKVD (secret police) against one’s co-workers was a popular career development tool of the time.

Ings complained of the dryness of the material he had to research for this book (a monumental act of scholarship); dry because no-one was willing to commit their real thoughts to paper – little mention of personal lives that might incriminate – loose opinionated words that could get someone executed, exiled to the Gulag – or its slightly less harsh specialist units, the sharashka. These were glorified prison camps – an important component of the prolific Gulag economy. Scientists were kept in seclusion to work on particular research problems for the State. Some appreciated the relative intellectual freedom they found in the sharashka. For example Léon Theremin (pioneer of electronic music and spying technology) chose to stay on in one after his formal release.

All science was applied science in an age where ‘the best qualification for political office was being able to build a dam.’ For reasons of academic back-stabbing and ideological blinkering, ‘entire disciplines went to the wall.’

Enter Trofim Lysenko, working class hero, ‘barefoot‘ agricultural researcher, father of what is now, sneeringly, referred to as Lysenkoism.

Lysenko studied vernalisation – chilling seeds during their germination to trick them into boosted growth once planted out. So far, so (potentially) useful. The trouble came when Lysenko was used as a poster boy for science by official state news outlet Pravda which, in 1927, published a ‘puff-piece‘ on him. The fame went to Lysenko’s head ‘effectively destroying him as a scientist‘. But that recognition would lead him to become ‘a new Messiah of biological science‘ because he served Stalin’s purposes so well: showcasing a bold and proletarian form of science, appealing to farmers to return to the land following the Russian famine of the 1920s.

Progress in breeding improved crop strains was devastated by Lysenko’s rejection of Mendelian or Morganist genetics (Still the basis of contemporary work in the field, these were patterns of inheritance worked out by Gregor Mendel and developed by T H Morgan who showed that genes sit on chromosomes.)

Lysenko favoured a version of Lamarckism (that characteristics acquired within the lifespan of an organism can be passed on to the next generation). He saw to it that detractors – people like Nikolai Vavilov, who’d initially encouraged Lysenko – were deposed.

Vavilov – a great bureaucrat of science in a time of booming bureaucracy – later died of starvation in the Gulag. Ings says Vavilov is ‘the most famous of the twentieth century’s scientific martyrs’ standing up against Lysenko and those who ‘maintain belief against all evidence‘.

Others, such as the scurrilous president of the Society of Materialist Biologists, Isaak Prezent, had no qualms about switching scientific allegiance to further their personal ambition. It was with Prezent (formerly a declared Morganist) that Lysenko formed ‘the most destructive partnership in the whole of science‘. Prezent bolstered Lysenko, building him an ideological framework in which to site his work. Dovetailing this pseudo-science with Marxist-Leninist theory ensured Lysenkoism dominated the biology curriculum across the USSR.

Ings said he wished he’d spent more time talking about issues beyond agriculture – and the infamy of Lysenko. So allow me to leave you with a less famous sorry saga. One that appealed to me from Ings book. One about Boris Hessen.

Hessen was a great man who overturned the idea of science progressing by the great thoughts of isolated great men. The reasons he did this – in defence of that great mind, Albert Einstein – are quite intriguing. (Ings is impressing me with his commitment to exploring not just the reason for an event, but the complex of reasons behind it.)

You might still be wondering how theoretical physics could be such a political hot-potato, but as Einstein wrote to a friend in 1920: ‘Every coachman and every waiter is debating whether relativity theory is correct. Belief in this matter depends on political affiliation.

The fact that Einstein’s discipline was highfalutin, exotic and removed from everyday observation – its possible set of applications yet to be realised – put it at odds with materialist accounts and revolutionary aims. His was a bourgeoise diversion, not the barefoot science of proletarians like comrade Lysenko; not the life-enhancing industrial endeavour of engineers. Ings: ‘You didn’t need to be a Marxist to deplore the passing of common sense in the field of physics.

Boris Hessen, in championing Einstein, had to navigate a precarious path around the likes of adversaries, better connected to Stalin, like Arkady Timiryazev. He had turned decrying Einstein into a political art. Timiryazev, die-hard devotee of Isaac Newton’s classical physics had ‘turned the physics department at his university into a kind of militant ideological camp.

Ings: ‘Hessen saw off Timiryazev’s reactionary objections to relativity theory […] with an argument that ran something like this: if you are a Marxist, and you claim that relativity theory is anti-Marxist, that’s all very well – right up to the point where the theory is demonstrated to be correct.

Such reasonable arguments did nothing to ingratiate Hessen to a dominant hierarchy so blinded by unreasonable doctrine.

Hessen went on to write a seminal paper on the historiography of science – The Socio-Economic roots of Newton’s Principia (1931) – in which he points out that Newton’s ideas were a product of his social and economic context. Those ideas included both unquestionable ones – laws of motion and the like, so useful for underwriting a materialist philosophy – but also alchemical, mystical and theological ones; notions that didn’t sit well with Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy.

Ings takes care to highlight a double message carefully spun within Hessen’s essay (delivered at an international conference):

To the West, it is one seemingly spoken by a loyal representative of Marxism: ‘Science was not the product of great minds somehow isolated, priestlike, from the world and its practical demands. It was a cultural practice: it was what people did .’

To Hessen’s Soviet masters, the message was an audacious challenge: ‘If you reject the findings of science because you don’t like the philosophical or political conclusions the authors draw from them, then you not only have to reject Einstein: you also have to reject Newton.’

The paper was highly influential in the West – it reset the agenda for historians of science – but ultimately did nothing to salvage Hessen’s reputation in the USSR.

Five years later, arrested on terrorism charges and tried in secret, Hessen became yet another victim of Stalin’s purging. He was shot. Then posthumously rehabilitated by Khrushchev in 1956.

Our own world is in dire need of more scientifically inspired policy. For me, Ings’ talk has been a timely warning about what happens when ideology inspires the science.

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