Stalin and the Defence of Science

Ethan Pollock wrote Stalin and the Soviet Science Wars in 2006.  This review of the book shows how the Soviet archives provided evidence of the widespread debates and knowledge concerning science which took place throughout the Soviet Union during the period under consideration, namely 1945 to 1953, to which even this bourgeois academic had to attest.


The continuing plunder of Soviet archives by Western academia is having some unexpected, and for imperialism unwelcome, consequences.  The lavish grants and bursaries made available to send scholars out to Moscow to dig up anti-communist dirt are, in some cases, having quite the reverse effect to that intended, facilitating the rediscovery of documents that add fresh life and colour to what is already known of the great Soviet achievements in every sphere of social development.

When Ethan Pollock sat down to write the sensationally titled Stalin and the Soviet Science Wars, we need not doubt that his intentions were unimpeachably anti-communist.  Yet page after page of his book cannot help but reveal fresh evidence of the extraordinary vitality, creativity and scientific seriousness which continued to characterise Soviet existence in the period under consideration, between the end of the Great Patriotic War and the death of Stalin.

This period, which saw the intensification of anti-colonial struggle, the extension of socialism across Eastern Europe, the founding of the DPRK and the triumphant arrival of the People’s Republic of China, saw also the new danger to peace and progress in the world posed by US imperialism, armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons and the sworn enemy of communism.  Having weathered so many storms – battling against fourteen imperialist armies in the civil war period, building up socialist industry and making gains for socialism in the countryside, enduring and finally defeating invasion by the Nazi hordes – the Soviet Union now required the utmost unity and strength to resist the new menace posed by imperialism. That strength was not to be measured by economic indices and military inventories alone.  What was required above all was the unity and strength that springs from the unremitting battle for Marxism-Leninism, fought out on the widest possible social basis.

It was natural then that this period, which saw the Soviet leadership fully occupied with major developments in the international field, also witnessed the most intense ideological struggle in the Soviet Union, ranging across every branch of science.  And right in the thick of all these ideological struggles, to Pollock’s evident amazement, was that same Soviet leadership.

During that period, we are told, Stalin “intervened in scientific debates in fields ranging from philosophy to physics.  In 1946, when Stalin was sixty-seven years old and exhausted from the war, he schooled the USSR’s most prominent philosopher on Hegel’s role in the history of Marxism.  In 1948, while the Berlin crisis threatened an irreparable rift between the United States and the USSR,” he was busy with the genetics debate.  In 1950, halfway through negotiating a pact with the newly victorious People’s Republic of China, he was “also writing a combative articled on linguistics, carefully orchestrating a coup in Soviet physiology [= defending the materialist basis of Pavlovian science!] and meeting with economists three times to discuss a textbook on political economy…  [He] consistently spent time on the details of scholarly disputes.”

It turns out that records of all these ideological struggles are sitting in the Archive of the Russian Academy of Sciences.  In interpreting these primary sources, Pollock naturally does his best to find the most cynical anti-communist angle.  Bolshevik efforts to repulse the debilitating ideological influences seeping in from the imperialist West are written off as a bone-headed attachment to Great Russian chauvinism, or as driven by anti-semitism.  Where scientific debates conclude with some questions still left pending, they are sneered at for failing to answer all questions; when those debates are thorough in organisation and decisive in outcome, they are damned as stage-managed.  Where Stalin or other influential leaders wade in with their own views, this is presented as intellectual bullying; where they hang back the better to let the discussion develop, this in turn is characterised as sinister manipulation from the wings.  In short, Bolshevism cannot be allowed to win!

Yet Pollock’s own exposure to the first hand archive evidence has clearly had an unsettling effect on his view of Stalin’s role.  Again and again, the author is brought up short by the deadly seriousness with which the communist leadership approached the struggle for correct theory – in all fields.

He took ideology seriously.  He was not simply [!] a megalomaniac and reclusive old man who used scholarly debates to settle political problems… He consistently spent time on the details of scholarly disputes… Thousands of newly accessible and previously unexplored documents from [Russian] archives reveal that he was determined… to show the scientific basis of Soviet Marxism.”

Most astonishing of all to the bourgeois academic mindset, taking for granted a universal disconnect between “high-minded” theory and cynical practice, must be Pollock’s discovery that Stalin’s “memos and top secret documents are saturated with the same Marxist-Leninist language… that appeared in the public discourse.  He did not keep two sets of books.”

Pollock  further reminds us that “Under Stalin’s guidance the USSR went further than any previous state in placing the support of science at the centre of its stated purpose”. And if science was at the heart of Soviet civilisation, then Bolshevism was at the heart of science.  Even in Pollock’s jaundiced summary, this basic reality shines through:  “The Party’s political authority relied on the perceived rationality and scientific basis of its actions… Stalin and the Central Committee insisted on the scientific discussions.  Scholars, in the course of debates that were closely observed (but never totally controlled) by the Party, were supposed to forge an understanding of their disciplines that was in harmony with ideology.”

In following Pollock’s whirlwind tour of the great public debates on science which unfolded in this period, it is no ambition of this review to give a proper analysis of the issues raised.  To do so would require a library, not a book review, and somebody much cleverer than the present author.  What can be grasped, however, even from such a cursory overview, is the huge revolutionary confidence and high sense of social duty with which the Bolsheviks, the Soviet scientists and the Soviet masses embraced the struggle for correct theory.  

The Philosophy Debate

The first branch of science to become an arena of ideological struggle was that of philosophy.  In 1946, the then-leader of Agitprop (the Bolshevik agitation and propaganda organisation) came under criticism for giving insufficient emphasis to the reactionary side of Hegelian philosophy.  Pollock is at a loss to understand Stalin’s approach to this issue.  After all, Stalin “could easily have instructed Zhdanov to draft a decree denouncing Aleksandrov… He could have signed a Politburo decree criticising the book… But despite his clear distaste for the book, Stalin did not make his views known to the public or restructure Agitprop.”  Such an approach would perhaps have sat more easily with the routine slander of Stalin as a bureaucrat and despot, imposing his will by administrative measures!

The reality proved to be very different.  Stalin recommended that the Institute of Philosophy should organise an open discussion of Aleksandrov’s book.  Acting on this advice, the Central Committee ordered a meeting that would, in the CC’s own words, “ensure complete freedom of criticism and exchange of opinions”. Arrangements were made for three different journals to publish the proceedings and for the audience to include communist leaders as well as academics and journalists.  Nearly 400 people attended this meeting in January 1947.  An even more ambitious discussion series was run in June, with an average of 300 people attending each of the eight sessions, including representatives from the Red Army and the Union of Soviet Writers.  After the conference, all the speeches were put in front of the Soviet public, even including the speeches of many who could not be squeezed in to speak at the conference itself.  This ensured that the fullest possible account of this philosophical debate could be heard by all.

Previous philosophers have interpreted the world, noted Marx, adding famously that the point however is to change it.  Only a society that took philosophy with deadly seriousness as a key front in the revolutionary war to overthrow imperialism could take such great pains to have the argument out properly.  At the penultimate session, Zhdanov (senior) talked about the “philosophical front” of the class struggle, which required a “detachment of military philosophers, fighting for the perfection of Marxist theory, leading the decisive blow against hostile ideologies abroad”.  In his view some contemporary philosophy looked more like a “quiet factory or an encampment somewhere far away from the field of battle”!  Other speakers demanded that more attention be paid to Russia’s own pre-communist revolutionary tradition, as represented by figures like Belinsky, Herzen and Chernyshevsky.  Pollock’s feeble effort on this evidence to denigrate the conference as pandering to Great Russian chauvinism hardly holds up when, on the same page, he cites a speaker from Tashkent who demanded closer analysis of the Arab philosophical tradition, and another from Erevan who wanted the scholars to have a proper look at Byzantine thought.

What started with criticism of one man’s book ended up as a profound examination of the proper role and future of philosophy in socialist society.  Aleksandrov made some self-criticism, and urged his fellow philosophers to struggle for the “elevation of philosophical work in the country and for the organisation of the wide propaganda of Marxism-Leninism”.  In July he transferred from his post at Agitprop to the post of director at the Institute of Philosophy, the better to contribute to this task.

The Biology Debate

The controversy within Soviet biology which erupted in 1948 was handled with no less seriousness. The struggle to advance agronomic science and put an end once and for all to the history of sporadic famine which had blighted peasant existence for long centuries was no less vital to the continued growth of socialism than had been to keep Soviet philosophy firmly rooted in consistent dialectical materialism.  Further, whatever may be the final judgement on the question of the heritability of acquired characteristics, the philosophical question underlying the conference (which began at the Agricultural Academy in July 1948) was one of the greatest significance for socialism: with what prospect of success one could hope, by transforming the economic environment of production relations, to raise up future generations of new Soviet men and women, qualitatively transformed by the experience of building socialism.

Over 700 attended the opening session to hear and discuss the talk given by T.D. Lysenko, the director of the Agricultural Academy, whose promotion and development of the ideas and practice of the late peasant-innovator Ivan Michurin had earned him enemies as well as friends.  On the second day Lysenko invited delegates up into the Lenin Hills to make their own assessment of the practical work being done by the Institute.  Then the floor was thrown open, and 56 delegates had the chance to speak their minds. Every day for a week extracts from the ongoing discussion were published in Pravda, so that everyone could follow the twists and turns of the debate.  The debate concluded with endorsement of the direction in which Lysenko’s work was proceeding.  On 12th August Pravda publicised the outcome with a front page editorial, and all through the autumn universities and academies ran workshops to explain the significance of the conclusions reached.  Even those who with the benefit of hindsight would dismiss some or all of Lysenko’s assertions can hardly deny the democratic thoroughness and high civic seriousness with which this whole public exercise was organised – again demonstrating the very different status of science in socialist society.

The Physics Debate

Soviet physicists of necessity acquainted themselves with quantum theory, not least because the post war defence of the USSR against US imperialist reaction required the urgent development of nuclear deterrence. However, these Western-led scientific developments arrived with a good deal of accompanying idealist baggage.  Physicists based at Moscow University expressed concern that their Academy-based colleagues were lax in regard to unmasking some of the idealist nonsense riding on the coat tails of these indisputably useful scientific breakthroughs.  In return, some at the Academy suggested that this concern was being overplayed, and there was a contrary danger that the scientific baby might be thrown out along with the idealist bathwater, to the detriment of Soviet physics.

To restore unity and common goals in this vital branch of science, the Ministry of Higher Education and the Academy of Sciences between them planned another conference.  Agitprop gave it the green light, and a 15-strong organising committee began the most thorough preparation for the conference, meeting no less than 42 times in a three month period.  It is worth recording these minutiae culled from the archive by Pollock.  Such dry as dust records, tedious in themselves, tellingly reveal the infinite pains that Bolshevism was prepared to take in order to strengthen the ideological defence of Soviet socialism.

Pollock would have us believe that the reason the conference never actually happened was the fear that progress towards securing the Soviet atom bomb might be impeded by too much controversy.  However, whilst it is clear that the defence and growth of socialism could only be achieved by accelerating scientific progress in all fields, it is equally clear that such progress could not be sustained on a diet of bourgeois idealism.  As the philosopher Maksimov had planned to say in his speech, “Physical idealism is a link that connects scientists to the hearse of capitalism”.  (Given the subsequent career of one notorious ex-Soviet physicist, Andrei Sakharov – now firmly hitched to the hearse of Zionism and hurtling with it towards a common and well-deserved destruction – such timely warnings were scarcely alarmist.)

The more probable explanation for the decision not to press on with the conference is that the preparation had been so thorough that the conference itself was effectively redundant.  Maksimov noted in a memoir that “the conference was cancelled precisely because of the Orgkom’s substantial work, since the Orgkom heard all the speeches and even all the proposed contributions to the conference”.  And indeed the discussion continued in print.  In 1951 some of the speeches written for conference were put before the Soviet public in a publication titled Philosophical Questions of Modern Physics, triggering further lively debate.

The Linguistics Debate

The next great scientific debate occurred in 1952, this time in the field of Soviet linguistics. In their eagerness to promote a science of language that could demonstrate clear roots in materialism, some argued that language itself formed part of the superstructure determined by the production relations obtaining in a given society.  The foremost proponent of this approach, the late Nikolai Marr, had great influence on the thinking of many linguists.  Not all agreed, however.  The first secretary of the Georgian Central Committee, Kandid Charkviani, forwarded a number of articles by the Georgian linguist Chikobava for Stalin’s attention.  In a covering letter, Charkviani identified a number of objections to the Marr orthodoxy.  If all languages were class-based, how should one account for language-use during the pre-class, primitive communist phase of development?  And how did the notion of language evolving in line with the dominant mode of production chime with the known facts about individual national cultures?  Getting muddled on these issues could lead to serious political mistakes with regard to the national question.

Stalin promptly invited both the linguist and the communist leader to come to Moscow to discuss the issues.  At the end of their meeting, he urged Chikobava to sum up his criticism in an article for Pravda.  Stalin edited the resulting article line by line before sending it off for publication on 9 May 1952.  Pravda then devoted two pages a week to, as the paper’s editor put it, “organise an open discussion in Pravda in order, through criticism and self-criticism, to overcome stagnation in the development of Soviet linguistics”.  The debate in Pravda raged on for week after week, with arguments for and against the Marr approach to linguistics.  Through all those weeks of heated debate, Stalin and the Central Committee declined to declare a Party line on the issues involved, preferring to let all the leading thinkers in Soviet linguistics have it out in the public arena.

Finally on 20 June, Stalin broke silence and added his contribution to the debate, in a piece for Pravda entitled On Marxism in Linguistics.  This article backed up those who saw in Marr’s theories a vulgarisation of Marxism, and contested the notion that language forms part of the ideological superstructure.  This decisive intervention was followed by one more week of contributions in Pravda, including some self-criticism.  In concluding the discussion, Pravda noted with justifiable pride that “The great and vital principle of the development of all Soviet science is contained in J.V. Stalin’s words: ‘no science can develop and flourish without a battle of opinions and without freedom of criticism’”.

The Physiology Debate

The debate which erupted in the discipline of Physiology followed naturally from the earlier struggle over genetics.  As with some of the predestinarian claims being advanced in the name of genetics (still around today in the present day obsession with tracking the “gay” gene, the “criminal” gene, and presumably soon the “terrorist” gene), some of the criticism being directed at the Pavlovian science of conditioned reflexes also seemed to reflect a fundamental pessimism about the degree to which human nature could transform itself in the process of transforming human society.

In 1949, to celebrate the centenary of Pavlov’s birth, the Ministry of Cinematography commissioned a film biography with the aim of showing “Pavlov’s struggle with reactionary trends in physiology and his hatred for idealist pseudo-science”, and Pravda published a birthday tribute to the great scientist on its front cover.  But some questioned whether Pavlov’s legacy was being correctly developed in current Soviet practice.  Yuri Zhdanov (Andrei Zhdanov’s son) criticised a failure to translate theory into clinical practice, and Stalin criticised those who paid lip service to the great man’s memory whilst in practice undermining the work he had initiated.

Zhdanov proposed an “organised offensive against the enemies and hypocritical ‘friends’ of Pavlovian science”, and the Central Committee agreed.  The Pavlov session was organised in the House of Scientists, under the auspices of the academies dedicated to medicine and biology. Over a hundred telegrams arrived daily from people desperate to take part in the great debate, and when the session finally got going, it included more than one thousand people from more than fifty cities and from the scientific academies of every Soviet Republic.  After thorough debate, the Pavlovian scientist Bykov noted without exaggeration that the whole country had followed proceedings, saying with pride that the Soviet people “love science, are interested in it, and are as concerned about its fate just as we are”.

In the wake of the discussion, some leading academic posts were reshuffled, promoting those who had most convincingly demonstrated their commitment to developing physiology along the materialist lines pioneered by Pavlov.  Extra encouragement was also given to the next wave of graduate students in Pavlovian science.

Readers may draw their own conclusions from the fact that many of these changes were reversed in the years after Stalin’s death.  Indeed, another raid on the archives could yield some very important data on exactly how and when Marxist-Leninist leadership of science and society was undermined by Khrushchevite revisionism, chipping away at the ideological foundation and preparing the way for the eventual capitalist restoration.

The Economics Debate

Of the greatest interest in such a sequel will be the gradual undermining of the Soviet planned economy by the influence of bourgeois economics.  It is the struggle for clarity in this scientific field that Pollock presents as the last of the so-called Science Wars.

In 1937 the Central Committee charged Lev Leontiev with the task of editing an introductory textbook on political economy to serve as the basis for educating, not just Soviet cadres, but communists everywhere.  Pollock tells us that Leontiev started sending Stalin drafts in 1938.  Stalin fed back regular comments and revisions, and also “solicited other economists’ comments, corrections and opinions on drafts”.  In 1941 Leontiev was invited to a meeting attended not only by fellow academics but also by important political leaders like Yuri Zhdanov, Molotov and Voznesenskii (chairman of the State Planning Commission).  At this meeting Stalin unpacked his ideas on the law of value under socialist state planning.  By Pollock’s account, the archive records Stalin as explaining that “The main task of planning is to ensure the independence of the socialist system from capitalist encirclement,” and counselled Leontiev: “You don’t need to praise our system too much and describe accomplishments that don’t exist,” urging him to deal concretely with the actual economic problems of building socialism.  It was necessary to get the socialist foundations built before mature communism could be attained.

Whilst we may regard with caution this second or third hand account of Stalin’s comments, the spirit of realism they breathe contrasts starkly with Khruschev’s later empty bragging about the imminence of a fully classless communist society led by a state of all the people.  “We have yet to get socialism in the flesh and blood” Pollock quotes Stalin saying, “and we still need to put socialism right, still need to distribute according to labour as is necessary… We have dirt in the factories and want to go directly to communism.  And who will let you in?  They are buried in rubbish but desire communism.”

So seriously did the Party take the task of educating its cadres in this field that the struggle to perfect the planned textbook continued for seventeen years, spurred on in 1952 by the publication of Stalin’s Economic Problems of Socialism in the USSR.  It was finally published in 1954.  Pollock comments that the textbook “was released into a world of political uncertainty after Stalin’s death” in March 1953. In that new period of Soviet existence, during which the corroding influence of bourgeois ideology would begin to be felt even within the Party itself, there would never be a greater need for that Bolshevik legacy of honest theoretical struggle.

Soviet Science: property of the Soviet masses

Under socialism science applied to production was no longer an enemy to the worker but a dear friend.

Marx explains this very clearly in his chapter on the “General Law of Capitalist Accumulation” in Volume I of Capital.  Whereas under capitalism “all the methods for increasing the social productivity of labour are carried out at the cost of the individual worker”, making of him “a mere appurtenance of the machine”, under socialism every scientific advance adds to the power and authority of the working class. Whereas under capitalism every improved technique of production “estrange(s) from him the intellectual potentialities of the labour process in very proportion to the extent to which science is incorporated into it as an independent power”, under socialism scientific knowledge of all kinds is cherished by the working class as something belonging to it in the new socialist world, as the proud achievement of the revolution.

This was the basis of the astounding level of Soviet public interest in the scientific debates that erupted after the war.  Those who would dismiss the period of Stalin’s leadership as characterised by meek submission to administrative diktat need to think again.  Oddly enough, this little anti-communist work by Ethan Pollock might just prove helpful in this regard!