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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.

Making this main point quite clear, Medvedev comes to the real issues of the Lysenko affair: the changing relationships between Soviet farmers, scientists, quacks, and politicians. His historical analysis is substantially accurate, as far as it goes, and so courageous in raising forbidden questions that an outsider hesitates to point out where it stops. It seems unfair to ask for more, yet I will, because I share Medvedev’s faith in the eventual triumph of rational discussion within the Soviet Union. I even hope that an outsider may participate.

Medvedev, as patriots usually do, stops questioning his country’s past at a point where the answers would become extremely painful for those living with the legacy of the past. Reviewing the contest between scientists and quacks, he does not ask whether advanced scientific methods were applicable to Soviet agriculture of the Thirties and Forties. He simply assumes that they were, which vindicates the scientists but leaves the politicians’ preference for quackery incomprehensible. Surely, the reader wonders, Lysenko’s sensationalist advertising must have lost its appeal before thirty years had passed. At the very end Medvedev does comment briefly on the basis incompatibility of scientific methods and farming by decree. That is the key to the riddle, but Medvedev’s belated comment, cryptic in its brevity, hardly dispels the puzzlement that all the preceding pages have aroused in the reader: In the Thirties, and for thirty years thereafter, the political bosses inexplicably spurned the agricultural gains offered by scientists, preferring the illusory gains and the real losses of quackery. That was indeed irrational behavior, but it needs to be explained, whatever disturbing paradoxes are uncovered in the process.

Consider the case of corn. Hybrid crosses of inbred lines were, already in the Thirties, the geneticists’ major contribution to modern agriculture, increasing average yields between 25 and 35 percent. Medvedev is certainly right to score “the unproved, unfounded, tendentious, and simply ignorant” Lysenkoite propaganda against these hybrids. (The Lysenkoites took the old-fashioned prejudice against inbreeding and turned it into an absurd dogma.) But it is hard to accept his assumption that the new hybrids could have been put to use as early as the Thirties, and that rejection of them until the Fifties cost the country at least thirty and possibly even fifty billion kilograms of corn.

Speculation is hardly necessary. The public record shows that Soviet corn specialists eagerly promoted the new hybrids in the early Thirties, on the expectation that centrally directed socialist agriculture could make swift and proper use of them. Very soon they saw how utopian this hope was. Soviet seed firms could hardly produce adequate amounts of the old-fashioned varieties of corn, let alone provide new hybrids of inbred lines. The chemical industry could not provide the necessary fertilizer. Even if the seed and fertilizer could be produced, the farms could hardly be expected to buy them, or to use them properly, for the one managerial skill prized above all others was the extraction of state procurements at such low prices as to penalize increases in any inputs except unpaid labor.

By the time Lysenko attacked the new hybrids they had already been demoted to a small-scale research and development program for the distant future. His interference seriously damaged that program, so that corn specialists had to start virtually from scratch in 1954, when Khrushchev overrode Lysenkoite objections and ordered large-scale production of the new hybrids. But even then it proved extremely difficult for the Soviet seed business to produce genuine doublecross hybrids of pure lines. An American expert touring Soviet farms in 1964 concluded that “there is little, if any, true hybrid corn being grown in the Soviet Union in the sense that we use the term.” The scientists who thought it could be grown in the newly collectivized farms of the Thirties were at first agents, then victims, of the utopianism that moved their bosses to collectivization, and then moved them on to quackery when advanced scientific farming proved incompatible with the new farming system.

Modern methods of crop rotation are another instructive case. Medvedev neatly exposes the nonsense of travopol’e (literally, grassland), a panacea that was forced on farmers between the mid-Thirties and the Fifties, when Krushchev rejected it. It has been very hard for Soviet bureaucrats to keep from dictating single schemes. Even when they have preached the necessity of each farm working out its own crop rotation, they have frequently contradicted themselves by decreeing single practices for all.

There have been various causes of this disconcerting inconsistency, including the need to have all farms produce such staples as grain. But one of the main causes has been the utopian expectation that the peasantry could leap directly from medieval, three-field, grain mono-culture to the most modern methods of land use. The first effort to accomplish such a leap was made under the guidance of genuine scientists, who shared with the political bosses the conviction that putting traditional peasants into new collective and state farms would make the leap possible. On this basis, N. M. Tulaikov, the government’s chief adviser on crop rotation and land use during the late Twenties and early Thirties, predicted a doubling of grain yields by 1937. In fact, the first effect of collectivization was a decline in yields.

Pointing to chaotic mismanagement as the cause of the decline, Tulaikov in 1932 urged a strategic retreat to “simplified agronomy.” He was immediately vilified as a “wrecker,” having dared to suggest that the world’s most advanced farming system needed something less than the most advanced scientific methods. The bosses then turned to quackery in soil science as they did in plant breeding. Tulaikov perished in a labor camp, and V.N. Stoletov, the Lysenkoite who made a career by vilifying Tulaikov, became RSFSR Minister of Higher Education. He is still there, now supervising the restoration of the sciences he once helped to destroy.

Medvedev shows enormous courage in calling attention to Stoletov’s record. When he first did so, in the samizdat edition of 1962, another prominent Lysenkoite publicly threatened him with criminal prosecution. In such circumstances it may seem impossible to criticize Tulaikov. The people who martyred him are still in power, threatening martyrdom to his vindicator. Yet the painful fact cannot be avoided. Tulaikov lent his great scientific authority to utopian expectation of a great leap, by means of forced collectivization, from medieval to modern land use. His frenzied use of science helped to bring on the quackery and terror that destroyed him.

Nicholas Vavilov, Medvedev’s hero, also encouraged wild expectations that, when frustrated, led to quackery. In 1929, though not a Party member, he was an honored speaker at the 16th Party Conference, which denounced the feeble efforts of the “right opposition” to slow down the push to forced collectivization. Vavilov endorsed the push as a short way to scientific agriculture: “Enormous energy is needed to get our enormous country moving, the whole peasant mass of it, to rouse to willful action all the creative forces of our country.” Very likely Vavilov did not realize that this enormous energy and willful action would prove incompatible with the creative forces of his science. Political fanatics exploiting traditional peasants, for the benefit of heavy industry and military power, were unlikely agents of scientific farming. If Vavilov perceived that a few years later, he could not say it. He had enlisted in a cause that generated enormous energy and willful action by disciplined and absolute faith in the Party line.

Medvedev does not reveal this tragedy of socially committed scientists, or the tragedy of the fanatics. Whether we find in the behavior of Stalinist bosses a clash of right with right (the needs of the state vs. humane reason) or merely, in Poe’s words, an oasis of fatality amid a wilderness of error, we cannot deny the fact that a large percentage of them were driven to the execution chambers and the camps, tragic victims of their own mad visions. If the Bolsheviks had consciously set themselves the task of exploiting the peasantry, they might have done it with coldly efficient rationality. They might have promoted such technical methods as can be applied by chronically impoverished peasants, while maintaining a modest investment in scientific research as preparation for the day when modernizing farmers could be properly rewarded.

But the Bolsheviks were not Prussian Junkers or plantation owners in the American South. They were utopian radicals who really believed that a forceful transformation of peasant social organization would make the most advanced scientific methods immediately applicable. So their support of genuine science reached its peak at the same time as their infatuation with quackery began, in the years of collectivization, and for the same reason: leading scientists as well as quacks agreed that collectivization could rapidly achieve the most advanced agriculture in the world.

The swiftness of the Bolshevik disenchantment with science and the length of their infatuation with quackery were also symptoms of their utopian faith, as it was transformed by experience. Honest scientists could only briefly maintain the dream of modern methods on impoverished farms. Quacks and timeservers could do so indefinitely, so long as their political masters demanded reassuring illusions. Collectivization brought a sharp increase in state procurements. If other indices of productivity remained low or even declined, the Bolshevik reaction was to blame lazy peasants and hidebound specialists, and to penalize them for “anti-social behavior,” the peasants for preferring to work on their tiny household plots, the scientists for preferring useless methods and doctrines.

The high command was not unmindful of results down on the farm. When their non-coms, the local farm managers, persistently evaded or resisted a Lysenkoite nostrum, the campaign for it was silently dropped. Thus the centralized bureaucracy moved from one nostrum to another, with little regret for unacknowledged tactical defeats, since peasant labor was the chief ingredient in every Lysenkoite remedy. The war with Germany caused an intermission, and then the climax was reached with the extensive tree-planting campaign of 1948-52, part of the “Great Stalin Plan for the Transformation of Nature.” This required a considerable outlay of state funds, and when its failure became obvious, an objective investigation was ordered. By this time the highest officials were also growing unable to disregard the fact that state procurements were not climbing above the level of the late Thirties. They began the slow retreat from farming by decree, at every step of the way rebuking those who “disorganized the cadres” by questioning the decree of the moment or looking too closely at abandoned ones.

Lysenkoism was thus a characteristic product of the transformation from wild utopianism to the sullen insistence that utopia was being created, whatever was, in fact, happening, and whatever its critics might suggest. What saved the Bolshevik leaders from falling into a permanent condition of fantasy was their unflagging devotion to the needs of the state, and their consequent respect for such indices of agricultural reality as the level of state procurements and the widening gap between Soviet and American farm yields. In short, Lysenkoism was a narcotic. It gave the Soviet leaders a dream of a scientific agriculture during the long period when they were testing the limits of extracting peasant produce by force. As they perceived the limits and began to recognize once again the need for autonomy among farmers and scientists, they began the grudging withdrawal from Lysenkoism.

Rationality usually coexists with many opposing tendencies. We should not be surprised to find elements of it in the Bolshevik’s zigzagging path toward agricultural modernization. Certainly we should not be incensed by the effort to sort out the complex, changing mixture. But of course many people are incensed, especially in the Soviet Union, where the history of collectivization is still an explosive political issue. Under Khrushchev’s capricious liberalism scholars made tentative first steps toward objective study of the subject, but they have since been stopped. S.P. Trapeznikov, a hack writer on agrarian history who became chief of the Central Committee’s Division of Science after Khrushchev’s dismissal, has denounced “dilettantes of scholarship who, with a mercantile outlook [kupecheskii razmakh, as opposed to the revolutionary razmakh that Stalin extolled] and petty-bourgeois obstinacy, try to denigrate the celebrated conquests of the Party and the people, to cast a shadow on the great and thorny past traversed by our socialist Nativeland.” Trapeznikov warns them that scholarship resembles an enormous machine in motion; or it can crush careless dilettantes.

Nowadays such talk is alarming, but it no longer terrifies. When Trapeznikov was nominated for membership in the Academy of Sciences, the academicians voted him down, and Academician Sakharov, a famous physicist, added public humiliation to private injury by telling the story in his essay on intellectual freedom. It is also worth nothing that Medvedev’s book was unanimously recommended for publication by a commission of the Academy, though each member was required to write a separate evaluation.

At that point the political authorities stopped publication, and Medvedev, trying to head off the use of his uncorrected first version by political sensation-mongers in the West, asked Professor Lerner, a leading geneticist at Berkeley, to arrange for reputable publication of the final version. No Soviet law prohibits this method of getting samizdat works into print, but the salaried vigilantes have their own unwritten rule against it. They prefer samizdat authors to be under constant threat of publication by Western organizations that have been labeled criminally subversive. For that an author can be jailed. For publication by Columbia University Medvedev merely lost his job, as did Sakharov for publishing his essay in The New York Times.

The old contest between vlast’ and obshchestvennost’, political power and enlightened opinion, has been resumed, after many years of repression by terror. Wild excess, like a disease that immunizes, has generated among the Bolsheviks some awareness of the limits of power, and Russian intellectuals can resume their forefathers’ striving for real guarantees of civil liberties. Outsiders who wish to help would do well to follow the scrupulous example of Professor Lerner, who has published only when and what he was explicitly asked to publish by a Soviet author.*

We are under no legal sanction to be scrupulous, for the Soviet government does not adhere to the international copyright agreement. Thus the way is open for anti-Communist crusaders in the West and salaried vigilantes in the Soviet Union to help each other to prove that reformist Soviet writers must be wild outlaws.

Just as Columbia University Press brought out Medvedev’s authorized edition, Possev, an émigré organization in West Germany, published the uncorrected 1962 version of his manuscript. Widely reputed to be supported by the CIA and penetrated by the KGB, Possev presents itself as a center for fearless “freedom fighters.” Its editors invite Soviet authors to send in works, promising to respect anonymity where this is requested. At the same time they promise—or threaten—to publish any samizdat manuscript that comes into their hands, with or without the author’s permission. When a kangaroo court jails a Soviet author, citing publication by Possev as evidence of his subversive connections, the editors of Possev denounce Soviet terror and summon to further struggle their brave compatriots, as, from West Germany, they choose to call the Soviet intelligentsia. Medvedev has protested their publication of his manuscript, calling it provocation, and their disingenuous reply—alleging that they requested his authorization, and that they did not know of the authorized publication by Columbia—is hardly reassuring.

Of course it is frequently difficult to decide what constitutes a Soviet author’s explicit permission to publish a samizdat manuscript, and the publisher who is excessively legalistic, in a situation where the law is still inchoate, may unwittingly enter into another kind of collaboration with the Soviet vigilantes, publishing only what they have already approved. Honest intentions must be helped by realistic knowledge of the impact that publication of a given manuscript is likely to have on the struggle for reform within the Soviet Union.

Medvedev’s book, however modest it may appear, is a very important attempt to do in a straightforward historical monograph what Dudintsev did in his novel, Not By Bread Alone. The relationship between the scientific intelligentsia and the political bosses, long a theme of hack writers, has been turned by these authors into a stark morality play, which depicts the clash between altruistic rationality and self-serving tyranny. Solzhenitsyn’s First Circle treats the same subject differently: instead of simple allegorical figures it contains subtle analysis of character, particularly in its treatment of the Communist intellectual, Rubin, who is presented as a genuinely tragic hero. For the practical purpose of achieving reform, the stark simplifications of Dudintsev and Medvedev are no doubt preferable to tragic complexity, which we at our safe distances prefer.

  1. *

    He has, to be sure, omitted some passages that he judged uninteresting to the Western reader. In each case he has been careful to call attention to the omission. The translation is admirable, with only a few lapses, such as “cereal grasses” instead of “gramineous herbage” or simply “true grass” (I assume that the original was zlakovye), and “CEC” as an abbreviation for the Party’s Central Committee (CEC is the usual abbreviation for the government’s Central Executive Committee). The only other fault one can find with the editor—and the author, in this case—is that they have not entirely eliminated inconsistencies resulting from the conflation of three editions. The most glaring is the passage on pp. 193-4 that describes Lysenkite domination of education in the present tense.

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