Cracked Wheat

The Rise and Fall of T.D. Lysenko

by Zhores A. Medvedev, translated by I. Michael Lerner, with the editorial assistance of Lucy G. Lawrence
Columbia University Press, 284 pp., $10.00

T. D. Lysenko
T. D. Lysenko; drawing by David Levine

To condemn the practices of nations whose historical experience is very different from our own is to imply that we in their place would do better: a pointless exercise, for we are not in their place, and a repulsive one, as self-congratulation usually is. But it is hard to talk about Russia without becoming abusive. And the Lysenko affair seems a particularly egregious example of the damage done in the Soviet Union by irresponsible crackpots and tyrants.

During the mid-Thirties Soviet leaders wrecked the centers of biological science that they had enthusiastically supported up to that time, in the hope of improving their agricultural program. When the agronomist Lysenko promised, on the basis of pseudo science, spectacularly greater gains, they threw their support to him, and kept it there until 1965, when they “corrected” the “mistake.”

The affair is now meant to be forgotten, and penalties have been imposed on those who have attempted to draw public lessons from it. The author of this book, a distinguished Soviet biochemist, was subjected to petty harassment while his work was circulated in samizdat (self-publication by typed and xeroxed copies), and was fired from his job when he published it abroad.

If we check our impulse toward indignation and examine carefully what happened, we discover a problem that seems insoluble. The political leaders who made the prolonged mistake of supporting Lysenko believed themselves to be practical men, far more knowledgeable in agricultural matters than the academic people who disputed Lysenkoism. The leaders who have now corrected the mistake—in many cases the same individuals—still insist that they are masters of practical affairs who may not be criticized by presumptuous academicians. If this is a case of the self-deception of political masters who refuse to be instructed by their scientific servants, how are we to explain their original support for the autonomy of science and the present return to it? If imperious but essentially practical politicians tacitly acknowledge limitations on their power that they will not concede in words, how are we to explain such a wild aberration as the thirty-year reign of Lysenkoism, when political bosses asserted the power to dictate the truth to scientists?

This is part of the nagging problem that the Soviet system presents to the modern belief that rationality and industrial growth are the interdependent sources of the power of the state. The system became violently irrational in the Thirties, yet it did not destroy itself. On the contrary, it achieved great industrial growth; it emerged triumphant from a far more damaging war than the one that precipitated the revolutions of 1917; and—the deepest puzzle of all—it has, without accountability to the public, retained a capacity for self-correction that has kept it functioning. In many respects the world’s second greatest military-industrial complex works almost as well as the greatest.

This is hardly Marx’s vision of liberating revolutionary praxis, but let…

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