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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

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 us set aside that delicate dream, as the Bolsheviks did in their first years of rule. Let us even set aside the ordinary liberal’s faith in the modern trinity of rationality, technology, and humanism. Substitute effective state power for humanism, as people do who call themselves political realists, and the practical success of the Soviet system is still puzzling. Much violent irrationality has accomplished, perhaps helped to generate, a growth of industrial and state power.

Medvedev is one of the Soviet patriots who are convinced that their country could have progressed much further and more humanely—a feeling for humanity is very much a part of the Soviet reformers’ faith—had it not fallen into the violent irrationality of Stalinism. Back in the Twenties, under Leninism, he argues, there was harmonious cooperation between political leaders and public-spirited scientists, like Nicholas Vavilov, who worked out a splendid plan of biological research for the benefit of socialist agriculture:

The scale of the work was indeed worthy of the first socialist state. It was based on Lenin’s revolutionary and profoundly scientific approach to the reconstruction of Soviet science and practice and to mastery over all the riches created by mankind. To deny these achievements was impossible. One could only be proud of them. They placed our country first in the world in the field of plant breeding; they were organically linked with socialism; they were its bright torch in world science, vanguard of the united world front in biology and agronomy. The mighty torrent was swelled by many tributaries and brooks of Soviet genetics and breeding sciences, and in turn gave rise to many, at that time still embryonic, trends.

Yet all this was thrown away in the mid-Thirties, when Soviet leaders turned to promoters of sensationalist agricultural nostrums.

Let us disregard the problem of names. Whether this was a change from “Leninism” to “Stalinism,” or a change within the Stalinist system (Lenin, after all, died in January, 1924, and Stalin was undisputed master by 1927), we are dealing with a drastic change, which Medvedev brilliantly describes. Unable to withstand rational criticism, the promoters of pseudo science used force to have their own way. The two main centers that Vavilov organized, the Lenin Academy of Agricultural Sciences (the federal headquarters of many research institutes), and the Institute of Genetics at the Academy of Sciences, were handed over to Lysenko, while Vavilov died in prison of malnutrition. In 1948 the few remaining centers of genuine biology were taken over by the Lysenkoites, while Lysenko himself was elevated to a position so high that public criticism of his work became impossible. Even in 1952, when his gigantic tree-planting campaign turned out a fiasco, and his power was somewhat diminished, public criticism was limited to only a few issues. In fact, he was able to suppress his critics until the end of 1964, when the Party leaders who dismissed Khrushchev withdrew all political support from him. With that his movement collapsed, and serious biologists were given autonomy to restore their science in all institutions of research and education.

In a final chapter Medvedev reviews the costly lessons of Lysenkoism. Farming by decree is a failure; agricultural policies must be based on reasoned discussion rather than on authoritarianism and intuition. The separation between bourgeois and socialist science must end, and Soviet scientists must be allowed free communication with their colleagues throughout the world. Not only advanced research in biology and agronomy, but all learning and publishing must be emancipated from centralized political control.

Readers with a memory will wonder at Medvedev’s silence on two themes that preoccupied Western commentators during Lysenko’s reign. Lysenkoism was widely supposed to rest on scholastic deduction from Marxist texts. Its goal was assumed to be the Bolshevik dream of creating a new human breed. These assumptions were creations of the anti-Communist imagination, which was unable to take seriously Lysenko’s claim that agriculture itself was the source of his doctrines. Quotation and analysis of the “Marxist classics” were actually minor aspects of Lysenkoism, if only because suitable biological texts were extremely rare, nothing more than two or three fleeting comments in Engels’s posthumous fragments. Non-biological texts, largely concerning the determination of theory by practice, were frequently used, as sententious decorations of the real argument: Soviet agricultural authorities have certified the practical success of Lysenko’s nostrums, therefore his biological theories must be true.

By the same argument, the Lysenkoites proved the socialist nature of their science (it was praised by Soviet farm bosses) and the bourgeois nature of their opponents’ science (it was praised by capitalist farm authorities). Magister dixit was indeed the implicit criterion of truth in this reasoning, but magister spoke in the practical voice of living political leaders rather than the theoretical texts of dead prophets. Stalin’s version of the Marxist view on theory and practice was strongly dogmatic but hardly scholastic: One learns by bossing people around, not by interpreting words.

The Western picture of Lysenkoism as a kind of Lamarckist eugenics is doubly untrue. In the first place, Soviet leaders—with the exception of the first Commissar of Public Health during his early years in office—have never wasted their time on idle dreams of creating their “new man” by altering human heredity, whether by Lamarckist or by Mendelian methods. Their materialist interpretation of history depends upon neither cytoplasm nor germ plasm, but upon social relationships. Theory aside, Soviet politicians know that they rule by manipulating people not protoplasm. Secondly, the Lysenkoites not only shared the politicians’ indifference to human heredity; they took it to a ridiculous extreme. “Man,” said Lysenko in a rare comment on the subject, “thanks to his mind, ceased long ago to be an animal.” Concerning such a creature biological science, whether genuine or pseudo, has nothing to say. Lysenko’s only contribution—and there is reason to wonder whether it originated with him—was to suppress any study of human heredity, even medical genetics, as a fascistic effort to substitute biology for sociology.

Eugenics, speculation about the reciprocal improvement of human society and human biology, had been suppressed before Lysenko invaded the science of genetics. Now that he has been driven out, the study of medical genetics has been restored, but eugenics remains a taboo subject, in its Lamarckist no less than its Mendelian forms. Anyone who is surprised to hear that eugenics once had a Lamarckist trend should read H.G. Wells, for a specimen on the political left, and the Nazi biologist Ludwig Plate, for a specimen on the right. Soviet examples of Lamarckist eugenics are extremely rare. They date entirely from the Twenties, and have nothing to do with Lysenkoism.

Digressions on Marxist philosophy and Frankenstein myths will not be found in Medvedev’s book. He does devote considerable space to demolishing the myth that Lysenkoism was a serious trend in biological science. This view was assiduously cultivated within the Soviet Union before and after the Lysenkoites had the power to insist that theirs was the only science of biology. In the West this myth has usually taken the form of picturing Lysenkoism as an outgrowth of defunct Lamarckism, or even, although rarely, as a contemporary response to the inadequacies of genetics. Haldane, most notably, persisted in believing that there must be untranslated Lysenkoite writings offering a refined critique of genetics, in the manner of Hinshelwood or Waddington. There are no such papers, and there are none revealing Lysenkoism to be an outgrowth of Lamarckism.

Lysenko himself was an anti-intellectual agronomist, proud of his lack of roots in any theoretical school. His sophisticated lieutenants taught him to express admiration for Darwin and, later, for Lamarck, but the supreme god of his school was Michurin, an uneducated breeder of fruit trees who was also incensed by scholarly criticism of his rustic intuitions. There is reason to dispute Medvedev’s insistence that this god, who is still revered in the Soviet Union, contributed nothing to the Lysenkoite revolt against science. But that is a minor issue. The important point is that Lysenkoism was not a trend in science but a revolt against it, a rejection of its basic concepts and methods in favor of the unreasoned intuitions of supposedly practical agriculturists.

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