Werner Heisenberg
Werner Heisenberg; drawing by David Levine

In August 1945 British military intelligence unwittingly performed a splendid experiment in the social psychology of natural scientists. They delivered the news of Hiroshima to interned German atomic scientists, and secretly recorded the conversation that resulted. Only fragments of the record have got past restrictions on “classified” material, but they are enough to reveal the German scientists’ mentality—their soul, if I may use an outmoded term. They were conscience-stricken; they had failed “German science.” Casting about for reasons, they took note of the obvious disparity in size: the American A-bomb project had been enormously larger than their own. But that contrast only deepened the anguish of self-accusation. “We would not have had the moral courage,” Werner Heisenberg, the originator of the Uncertainty Principle, exclaimed, “to recommend to the government in the spring of 1942 that they should employ 120,000 people.”1

Implicit in that soul-searching was one measure of the scientist’s social and moral worth: his capacity to beat the competition, to win, whether fame for himself or wars for his country, or both together. When Heisenberg emerged from internment and discovered that the winners were uneasy, he turned to a different measure of the scientist’s worth. He and his colleagues had shown moral courage, he decided, of a higher order. They had dragged their feet, to withhold the A-bomb from their Nazi masters. Heisenberg inspired a gullible journalist to write that

the German nuclear physicists…obeyed the voice of conscience and attempted to prevent the construction of atomic bombs, while their professional colleagues in the democracies, who had no coercion to fear, with very few exceptions concentrated their whole energies on production of the new weapon…. “The scientists of totalitarian countries [said one of the German scientists] are rarely good patriots.”2

C.P. Snow went further, picturing scientists of all countries as unpredictable free spirits because they apply critical thought to all realms, not merely to their special fields. “Engineers and civil servants working on the A-bomb,” he wrote, “buckled to their jobs and gave no trouble, in America, in Russia, in Germany; it was not from them, but from the scientists, that came heretics, forerunners, martyrs, traitors.”3

The historical record does not sustain that romantic vision. An overwhelming majority of scientists have shown themselves to be single-minded devotees of winning, to the extent that they are venturesome, or of keeping their comfortable jobs, to the extent that they are cautious. They are prizefighters or pay-rollers, or some mixture of the two types. heisenberg’s initial anguish in August 1945 was that of a world-renowned champion realizing, in his mid-forties, that he had funked the chance at another great trophy. He was probably recalling a conference with the high brass in Berlin, June 7-8, 1942, at which he kindled their enthusiasm by declaring the A-bomb a feasible project within the time they estimated the war would last. A whole city could be destroyed with a lump of explosive the size of a pineapple, he had told them, cupping his hands in the delicious shape. But when Admiral Speer had eagerly asked how much money was needed, Heisenberg had backed off from a reckless commitment by requesting a small sum.4 In short, the moral courage he later accused himself of lacking was the courage to stick his neck out in the Nazi bureaucracy. At about the same time in America Vannevar Bush was urging a major project upon Roosevelt.

But we must not be too harsh on the German scientists. Sticking out one’s neck in the Nazi system required far more “moral courage” than in the American. To be fair, perhaps we should give highest marks in such courage to the handful of Soviet physicists who were urging an A-bomb project on Stalin at about the same time. His bureaucracy was by far the most fearsome place for extended necks. Yet somehow he got scientists to work hard and take for him, even when he imprisoned them.

Peter Kapitsa was among those astonishingly bold, early advocates of the Soviet bomb project.5 The widespread story, repeated by Medvedev, that he refused to work on the A-bomb is misleading. He has explained to the American physicist Herbert York that he supported the project but would not accept the particular task that “Beria” assigned to his institute. I am not trying to undermine Kapitsa’s well-deserved reputation for courageous liberalism. Medvedev is quite right to praise his legendary rescue of his brilliant young colleague Leo Landau from the NKVD in 1938, when Kapitsa threatened to resign unless Landau was released from arrest. I am merely trying to show that Kapitsa’s exceptional boldness was dedicated to the service of his country and its tyrannical masters, as Heisenberg’s cautious service was given to his—as, all over the world, participants in the cosmopolitan search for scientific truth serve whatever regime stands over them.


I disagree with Zhores Medvedev, who thinks that scientists can turn their masters to liberalism at home and to peaceful relations abroad. At times in his new book he seems to think that science alone can save the world:

Attempts to create global unions of states and governments, workers, writers, and religious or even artistic values, are certain to fail. Selfishness, egocentricity, nationalism, political dogmatism, racialism, and many other dividing factors affect almost all forms of human activity except genuine science.6

Einstein and Hitler were closer to the harsh reality. When Hitler was asked, in 1931, where he would get the brains to run a Nazi state, he countered with a scornful question of his own, lumping scientists with the Bürgertum or middle class:

Do you believe that the German middle class, this flower of the intelligentsia, would refuse to serve us and place their minds at our disposal? The German middle class would take its stand on the famed ground of the accomplished fact; we will do what we like with the middle class.7

Einstein was more precise. If a few scientists tear themselves loose from “the traditions of the herd,” that “is not attributable to intellectual capability but to human stature,…a strong feeling of justice.”8 Indeed, Einstein saw a connection between “the mechanized and specialized thinking” characteristic of natural science and the stunting of ethical feeling.9 I would turn that harsh judgment into a question. I wonder whether the ethics required for scientific work as for other specialized roles in modern society, the rules imposed by one’s “discipline,” may not be at odds with a broader human ethics.

Neither Medvedev nor Beyerchen puts such a sharp, uncomfortable question to himself. Their books are gently fuzzy. In his book on the Lysenko case, Lecourt, in spite of his Marxist posturing, never tries to place scientists in any socio-political hierarchy or ethical universe. Beyerchen begins with Paul Forman’s astute observation that German scientists concealed their right-wing political views within an ostensible disdain for politics. Thus they were prepared to ascribe “a great and noble goal” to the Nazis, though they might deplore their rough tactics, and nearly all the German physicists—including many of the Jews, who pleaded for the right to go on serving the Reich—were willing to work for the Nazi regime on the pretext that they were working for German science, which was not involved in politics. Yet Beyerchen demurs from Joseph Haberer’s realistic remark that “the scientists disengaged themselves from the problem of their responsibility in the crisis which involved them.”10

The facts are not at issue. Unless they were Jews and therefore forced into exile, nearly all the German scientists served the Nazi regime as best they could. It is the accusation of evaded responsibility that Beyerchen finds too harsh. He notes that few people could see the full implications of Nazism until it was too late, and he declares that the “political significance of science” was not obvious before Hiroshima. Neither excuse seems convincing to me. The Nazi death camps could not be foreseen in 1933, but the right-wing nationalism that bound the scientists to the Nazi regime had already, during the First World War, revealed its potential for mass murder. Nor is war the only issue in the debate over “the political significance of science,” which began long before Hiroshima. In 1898 Leo Tolstoy put the problem in its most basic terms, with the stunning simplicity that was characteristic of his moral vision:

If the arrangement of society is bad (as ours is), and a small number of people have power over the majority and oppress it, every victory over Nature will inevitably serve only to increase that power and that oppression. That is what is actually happening.11

Of course one can argue that Tolstoy oversimplified the scientist’s moral problem, which may be more complex than a stark choice between strengthening an evil society by pursuing science and abandoning science to work for a good society. But in simple or in complex forms, the problem is implicit in the scientists’ unctuous separation of power over nature, which they seek, from power over people, which they abjure. Modern ideologies, such as nationalism, democracy, and socialism, have intensified yet obscured the problem by fusing the individual with the collective that is supposed to have power over people, thereby blurring the sense of individual responsibility while increasing the individual’s willingness to enhance the collective’s power. Not only for scientists but for all of us skilled workers, Einstein’s metaphor of the herd may be less revealing than the metaphor of social insects—the ant hill that leaped to Dostoevsky’s mind when he saw the Crystal Palace exhibition in London. With this significant difference, that we are held to our specialized roles by ideologies and paychecks rather than by biochemicals.


Medvedev’s gentle fuzziness is different from Beyerchen’s, if only because Soviet totalitarianism, as he feels free to describe his country’s polity, has proved far more durable than the Nazi interlude in Germany, and has therefore posed many more, and far more complex, dilemmas. Medvedev sympathizes with those scientists and scholars who emigrated when the 1917 revolution shattered their dream of a liberal, constitutional Russia. (There were far more of them than there were of non-Jewish émigrés from Nazi Germany. The Bürgertum fears the left more than the right.) But Medvedev also sympathizes with those who stayed and helped the new regime to tear down old Russia and build a new one. His own father was a communist professor of philosophy at a military institute who fell victim to the terror in the Thirties, as many other scholars and scientists did. In spite of that tainted paternity, Zhores Medvedev managed to become a biochemist, and somehow kept the faith that the Soviet system was potentially good.

Indeed, he became one of the handful of Soviet scientists who have tried to make it good by criticizing its flagrant evils. The authorities responded by various harassments, which culminated in his banishment. Now working in a London research institute, Medvedev continues to argue for the reform of the Soviet system. Thus he finds himself denounced by former friends such as Solzhenitsyn who also worked quietly for the Soviet regime when it was most ruthlessly tryannical but have now decided that it is evil in the root as well as in the branch, suitable only for extirpation. The trouble is that they don’t know how to achieve the extirpation any more than Medvedev knows how to achieve reform.

Medvedev forthrightly describes his book as less a history than “a desperate appeal to attract attention to the plight” of Soviet science. He used to write such appeals (The Rise and Fall of Lysenko and The Medvedev Papers) for Soviet readers, or rather, for that fraction of Soviet readers who were bold enough to seek access to uncensored samizdat and tamizdat (“self-publication” and “there-publication”). His present book is frankly written for Western readers, an implicit retreat from the fond hopes of the Sixties, when Medvedev’s friends in the Soviet Academy thought they could win official publication of his book on Lysenko—and barely managed to win his release from a mental hospital. Now Medvedev strains to persuade a Western audience that they can help Soviet scientists liberalize the Soviet system by supporting détente and increased “cultural exchange.”

Usually very meticulous with figures, as befits a scientist, Medvedev offers none in support of his declaration that there is “a higher frequency of political dissent in science than in all other fields of social life.”12 Even if that could be proved—and I doubt that it can—it would probably have only negative significance. If, say, three-hundredths of one percent of all scientists have signed dissident petitions as against, say, one-hundredth of one percent of all artists, the significant conclusion to be drawn is not that scientists become dissidents three times as frequently as artists but that dissidents are a negligible fraction of both occupations.

Indeed, Medvedev acknowledges the grim realities that tend to undercut his hopes. One of the most depressing parts of his book is the detailed account of the intensified political screening imposed on Soviet science in the past several years. At every step in the making of a scientist, from admission to higher education to the granting of advanced degrees and appointment to jobs, political scrutiny has been raised to an incredibly paranoid level. Thus, participation in “cultural exchange,” which exposes scientists to ‘liberal culture in the West, has become more than ever a prize for unremitting conformists. How then can Medvedev expect “cultural exchange” to be a, or the, major force for liberalization?

At best, Soviet scientists and scholars develop split personalities, mouthing in public subservient formulas that they deride in private. Medvedev notes that such a “double life” has become the rule among “bright and thoughtful” scientists, and he argues that it could lead to “different kinds of underground activities,” and thus liberalization.13 He brushes off a worse possibility projected by Amalrik—a deadlock ending in ungovernable chaos—and does not consider the worst possibility: endless domination of higher learning by sophisticated opportunists, timeservers who combine some technical skill within a particular discipline with genuine subservience to the political gods from whom all blessings flow. His appendix on the state of genetics since Lysenko’s fall suggests that something of the sort has happened in that field, where one would expect scientists to be most keenly aware of the need to challenge political authority and impose constitutional limits on it.

Nevertheless, Medvedev may have a point, even when one sets aside his romantic vision of scientists as critical free spirits. The overwhelming majority, who are quite subservient to political authority, may nevertheless limit political authority, unwittingly. They require autonomy if they are to provide a regime with the services it requires of them. Even Hitler and Stalin had to concede that. The Nazi regime, Beyerchen shows, was obliged to back off from its ideological assault on modern physical theory. So was Stalin’s regime, in a protracted series of assaults and retreats that Medvedev brushes over far too lightly.

In each country a few old-fashioned experimentalists who objected to modern physical theory because it clashed with some of their cherished assumptions won the support of ideologists who understood only that modern theory made physics more esoteric than ever. Thus the tsekhovshchina or zamknutost’ of the profession, its “guild-ness” or “locked-up-ness,” was increased, as Soviet ideologists complained. The minister of the interior, Wilhelm Frick, was similarly worried by the “something sovereign” in science that threatened “isolation from the great whole.”

The “philosophical” complaints—or labels—were different in the two countries. One of Beyerchen’s delightful discoveries is a German philosopher attacking “Jewish physics” during the Nazi period for its divergence from Ernst Mach; in Soviet Russia “bourgeois physics” was belabored for affinity to Mach’s philosophy.14 In both countries the physicists defended their discipline in much the same way: by simple declarations that the glorious ideology of the revered state could not possibly be at odds with elementary truths of science, which could be of great practical use. Stalin’s ideologists repeatedly attacked that basic plea for autonomy, whenever a crisis intensified the regime’s suspicion of learned specialists: in 1930-1932, 1936-1938, and 1947-1950. Each time the yahoos were obliged to retreat.

In fact, Stalin himself provided the slogan for the final retreat, in a sensational generalization, as he restored some autonomy to linguistics in 1950:

It is generally recognized that no science can develop and prosper without the clash of opinions, without freedom of criticism. But this generally recognized rule has been ignored and violated in the crudest way. A closed group of infallible leaders has been created, which, insuring itself against any possible criticism, has begun to act in a willful, highhanded manner.15

Logic cried out then, and cries out still, for Soviet political bosses to turn that line of thought inward, against their own despotic mentality, especially in view of their ideological claim to be applying a science of society. Of course logic is notoriously erratic in the group mentality that Marx called ideology or false consciousness, but the Stalinists’ entanglement with science does give some ground for hope.

There is an internal tension in the Stalinist ideology that has dragged the Soviet regime through a tortuously protracted retreat from delusions of omnipotence. Many little concessions of autonomy to all sorts of groups, from physicists to farmers, have been motivated by a persistent desire to stimulate initiative among technical authorities without limiting political authority. The concessions have not been sufficient to drain the “philistine mire” (obyvatel’skoe boloto) that retards Soviet progress, the swamp of payrollers that can be shoved in one direction or another but cannot be brought to creative life. Soviet leaders boast of the greatest number of scientists in the world—1.25 million, according to Medvedev—yet they complain of a continuing lag in scientific achievement, whether measured by technological levels or by Nobel Prizes. They may in fact be losing their desire to “overtake and surpass” the US. If they are, the subservient mass of payrollers is unwittingly shaping the leadership in its image, and major liberalization of the system is as unlikely as it is in the US Teamsters Union. But the old Stalinist passion for overtaking and surpassing may still be strong, still at odds with the passion for unlimited political authority, constantly pushing the leaders to fateful choices. Ultimately they may find themselves backing into constitutional limits on their own power, defining political authority in order to make it more effective. That would be a great triumph for an ideology that has always claimed to be scientific, if it helped Soviet leaders acknowledge the need for “the clash of opinions” within their own specialty. (At this point Medvedev will accuse me of romantic dreaming).

Such problems in the interaction of science and ideology are oversimplified by Beyerchen and Medvedev, who tend to regard science as essentially rational and consensual, ideology as essentially irrational and willful. Dominique Le-court, a disciple of the leading French communist philosopher Louis Althusser, has undertaken to unravel the connections between the two worlds as they were revealed in the Lysenko affair. He scolds Soviet thinkers for their timidity in this problem, but he winds up with a rehash of their characteristic mystifications and crude evasions. They brush aside the Lysenko affair with a brief formula: Lysenko’s initial success in “agrobiology” carried him away into “mistakes,” which have now been “corrected.” Lecourt also begins by insisting on Lysenko’s initial success in agronomy, offering as proof nothing more than the say-so of Soviet bosses in the 1930s. He accuses me of anti-Marxist bias for establishing the absurd inadequacy of Lysenko’s data, and never wonders why the bosses who were enthralled by those absurd data subsequently abandoned their campaigns for Lysenko’s recipes. Worst of all for a communist philosopher claiming to analyze the Stalinist mode of thought, Lecourt ignores Lysenko’s express contempt for statistical reasoning and the bosses’ applause for that contempt.

Lysenko and the Stalinist bosses made a revolutionary virtue of leaping before looking, or rather, of getting millions of underlings to leap, and scolding them if they did not land where the leaders hoped they would. To judge agrarian recipes—whether vernalization or collectivization—by conventional statistical measures was to lose revolutionary verve, to fall prisoner to “bourgeois” specialists whose calculations of natural and social constraints would subvert the great leap forward. That was the Stalinist version of the old principle that practice is the test of theory. Until Soviet leaders are willing to rethink that basic principle, that is, to allow academic theorists to examine the limits of the bosses’ practical authority, they have reason to suppress discussion of the Lysenko affair. Lecourt does his Soviet comrades very poor service to brush over that painful issue and to concentrate on the doctrine of “two sciences,” as if it were the source of Lysenkoism.

On that doctrine Lecourt starts out much more boldly than Soviet ideologists, and winds up in the same muddle. Althusser has taught him the truth that was called “revisionist” when Eduard Bernstein first announced it: Marxism lacks a distinctive philosophy of natural science. Stalin’s ideologists thought to fill the gap in 1930-1931 (not in 1948, as Lecourt believes) by extending the doctrine of “two sciences” from human affairs to nature at large. In every field, they insisted, genuine proletarian science must combat the pseudo science of the bourgeoisie. That wild claim was vigorously applied in the social science and the humanities—and still is—but only sporadically and halfheartedly in the natural sciences, with the great exception of “agrobiology.” In 1950 Stalin told his ideologists to reconsider the doctrine of two sciences, and they have awkwardly backed into an unexamined doctrine of three: natural science is conceded to be the same for capitalists and communists, but the human sciences are still split into warring camps, with the Central Committee still in command of proletarian science.

That is Lecourt’s position, too, though he is much bolder than Soviet ideologists in asserting the cosmopolitan unity of natural science, and he is much more timid in asserting the partisan nature of “historical materialism, the science of the history of social formations.” This materialist science is developed “by the political practice and theoretical reflection of the workers’ movement…[and] receives every day the sanction of the gigantic ‘experimentation’ constituted in its various forms by the class struggle….”16 Lecourt is too shy to say so, but that is the Stalinist “criterion of practice,” which is no longer valid in biology but still justifies the subjection of human studies to Party control.

One of the most bizarre features of Lecourt’s exercise in partisan apologetics is his exhumation of Bogdanov, Lenin’s Bolshevik rival in philosophy, who has been covered with scorn by Soviet philosophers for more than fifty years. Lecourt blames him for their doctrine of the two sciences. In fact, Bogdanov made a serious effort to work out a single, pragmatic standard of truth for all fields of human learning.

That involved him in the pragmatist’s classic paradox: the single standard turns into many, as many as the diverse groups engaged in learning. The primitive tribe’s rain dance seems as valid for them as the meteorologist’s forecast is for us. Bogdanov struggled with that problem, and did not surrender to the cynical relativism one finds in so many Stalinist scholars. The political edge of his theorizing was turned sharply against authoritarian mystifications that drape the name of science over political decisions. He followed Marx to the frontier where scientific, philosophical, and political problems merge into one another; in that dangerous region of ideological blurring he tried to be rebelliously precise. If communist philosophers resume such daring explorations, they may help their leaders to learn the limits of political authority. But it is unlikely that they will. They are thoroughly modern specialists, like scientists or admen; the most one can expect of them is defense of their professional autonomy in its narrowest interpretation.

This Issue

October 12, 1978