Lecture 8: Science in Non-Christian Cultures

8.1. Introduction.

Modern science is a plant with Christian roots: what becomes of it when it finds itself in an alien soil? This can happen in two ways; a Christian country can be taken over by an alien ideology, or science can be introduced into a non-Christian culture. Two examples of the former are provided by science in Nazi Germany and in Soviet Russia, while examples of the latter are to be found in Eastern countries, notably India, China and Japan.

The European domination by Nazi Germany was fortunately rather brief, though highly unpleasant, and is within our personal experiences. It shows how, in a very few years, the science in a country with one of the highest reputations for excellence in science can be almost destroyed by an alien ideology. What happened is described in Section 8.2.

The rise and fall of Communism, with its associated Marxist ideology, took much longer, and had far more pervasive effects, which are still with us today. It merits a more detailed study, and this is given in Section 8.3.

8.2. Science in Nazi Germany.

Over the centuries, German contributions to science have been of the highest order, and German science was flourishing when Hitler came to power in the early nineteen thirties. Nazi ideology was based on the superiority of the Aryan race that was destined to rule the world, and from this followed the inferiority of other races, particularly the Jews, who were expelled from their university posts and forced to flee overseas. (The following account of German science is largely based on K.Mendelssohn's book "The World of Walter Nernst").

In spite of their political skill, the Nazis had no understanding of the importance of science not only for itself but also as the foundation of Germany's immensely strong chemical industry. Carl Bosch warned Hitler that the expulsion of Jewish scientists was ruining German science, only to be told: "Then we will do without physics and chemistry for the next hundred years". In their speeches, the Nazis promised to rid German academic life of all traces of Jewishness. This even extended to scientific theories due to Jewish scientists, and a particular object of their venom was Einstein's theory of relativity. Hitler appointed Party stalwart Bernhard Rust as Minister for Science and Technology. He was an ex-elementary schoolteacher who had been dismissed four years previously for mental instability, and his qualifications for the post were his early Party membership and his fanatical belief in Aryan superiority.

The universities were soon controlled by the Nazis, and each faculty had a Dozentenfuerher responsible for Nazification who ensured that only Party members were promoted. About three thousand academics were dismissed for being Jewish or politically unreliable.

The name of Einstein is a reminder that the highest eminence was no protection. He was briefly in Oxford before going on, like so many others, to the United States. Born and Franck were two other eminent physicists who had to leave, as well as a large number of younger scientists. They were welcomed in Britain and the United States, and made great contributions to the scientific life in those countries. Einstein went to the Institute of Advanced Studies in Princeton, Born was appointed to the Chair of Natural Philosophy in Edinburgh and Franck went to a high position in the United States. Rutherford led a public appeal for funds to support refugee scientists when they arrived in England, often having left all their possessions behind. Cambridge even welcomed the ailing Haber, who had made immense contributions to the German chemical industry, not only the Haber process for fixing nitrogen, so important for manufacturing explosives, but also the process for manufacturing poison gas. It has been suggested that the welcome extended to these refugees was simply 'a shrewd move on the part of these countries to secure for themselves first-rate scientists at low cost'. Kurt Mendelssohn, himself a refugee who later made great contributions to science in Oxford, says that 'nothing could be further from the true facts and it is the duty of those who benefited by this manifestation of academic solidarity to repudiate this explanation emphatically'. It was done for humanitarian motives and academic solidarity, and as 'a protest against Nazi barbarism with its ruthless contempt for learning and scholarship'. Furthermore, the most eminent were beyond the age of their greatest achievements and most of the refugees were relatively young and unknown.

German physicists reacted in different ways to the Nazi policies. A few, like the Nobel Laureates Lenard and Stark, supported the Nazi regime, and rose to positions of great power. Lenard became President of the Physicalisch-Technische Reichsanastalt after the previous director Paschen, a Jew, was dismissed. Many lesser men, seizing their opportunity, used their Party membership to attain positions they would never have reached on their scientific merits. Thus Wilhelm Muller wrote a book on the international Jewish conspiracy to pervert science and destroy humanity; he was appointed to succeed Arnold Sommerfeld in Munich. On the occasion of Muller's inauguration, Stark castigated 'white Jews' (Aryans who taught in the 'Jewish spirit') such as Planck and Heisenberg, who continued to accept Jewish science such as the theory of relativity. Others, such as Max von Lane, spoke out with great courage against the Nazis and endangered their very lives. The majority, while disliking what was going on, decided that the best thing to do was to keep their heads down and preserve what they could of German science so that it could flourish again in better times.

The doyen of German physicists, Max Planck, an honourable and upright man of the old school, was appalled at what was happening (see "The Dilemmas of an Upright Man", by Max Heilbron). Already in his seventies when the Nazis came to power, and President of the Kaiser Wilhelm Gesellschaft, he could well have retired. He went to see Hitler personally in 1933, in his capacity as Secretary of the Prussian Academy of Sciences, and asked him to reconsider the anti-Jewish policies. Predictably, he failed to make any impression on Hitler, and was treated to a characteristic anti-Jewish tirade. Planck decided that it was his duty to stay at his post and do what he could to protect German science, without compromising his principles. There was very little resistance from the academic community. As Mendelssohn remarks, 'The spirit of resignation was aptly put into words by Otto Hahn who, in 1966, said in his autobiography: "As acting director I tried to soften especially harsh orders from the people in power, but of course I could not do anything about the general situation.' Einstein has recalled: "When the revolution came to Germany, I looked to the newspaper editors who in times past had proclaimed their love for freedom, but they were silent. Then I looked to the universities, but they too were soon silenced. Only the Church stood squarely in the path of Hitler's aggression. I am thus forced to declare that what I once despised I now unreservedly praise".

Werner Heisenberg, the brilliant young theoretician who gained the Nobel Prize at the age of 32, was torn in two. An ardent nationalist, he longed to see the triumph of Germany, but he was also disturbed by what was happening to German universities. He was urged by friends in the United States to emigrate while he had the chance, but considered that his duty was to remain in Germany.

The early history of the atomic bomb strikingly illustrates both the failure of the Nazis to understand the importance of science and the dramatic deterioration of German science that resulted from their policies. Fission was discovered in Berlin by Hahn and Strassmann in 1939, and its importance was realised by Otto Frisch, an Austrian who had emigrated to England. He joined Rudolf Peierls, a German refugee who was working in Birmingham. Together they made the vital calculation of the amount of fissile material needed to make a practicable atomic bomb. They found it to be a few tens of kilograms, small enough to be carried by a bomber, and immediately realised that the future of humanity was changed forever. They alerted the British Government in a short memorandum that outlined the future possibilities with great prescience. If Hitler had encouraged and supported science, all these men might have remained in Germany, and the course of history might have been somewhat different.

After the outbreak of war, when it become known that it might be possible to make an atomic bomb, Heisenberg was asked to lead the research programme. He accepted this appointment, and gathered together a team of scientists. They tried to build a reactor, but thought that it would be impossible to make a bomb. Even the much larger effort in the USA did not succeed until the war in Europe was over. It has recently been maintained that Heisenberg deliberately held back for moral reasons, in contrast to the Allied scientists at Los Alamos who actually made the bombs that were dropped on Japan. This is completely incorrect. Heisenberg would have made the bomb if he could, but the scale of his effort was quite inadequate, and his knowledge of the requisite nuclear physics was not nearly detailed enough. This has been confirmed recently by the release of the Farm Hall transcripts, giving the conversations of the captured German scientists when they heard about the use of the atomic bombs on Japan.

8.3. Science in Soviet Russia.

The duration of Nazi power in Germany was relatively brief, whereas that of Marxism in Russia was much longer. It therefore provides a better opportunity to assess the effect of an alien ideology on the status of scientific research.

For many decades Soviet science enjoyed high prestige. The Soviets sent up the first artificial satellite, the sputnik, and we frequently read about Soviet triumphs in almost every branch of science. However, there have been few serious attempts to analyse objectively the standing of Soviet science. There is perhaps a good reason for this: the higher the prestige of Soviet science the more likely were Western Governments to make available funds for research and development, in order to ensure that we kept pace and if possible surpass the Soviet achievements. Sputnik was the bombshell that galvanised the United States Government into providing massive support for American science. It was thus to everyone's benefit to maintain the high prestige of Soviet science.

But what is the truth? Inevitably, it is complicated. Modern science developed in Western Europe, including Russia, in the seventeenth and subsequent centuries, and the basic question is how well it has flourished under Marx-Leninism. It is the proud claim of that political system that it is essentially a scientific view of the world, and if this is so we would expect science to flourish more than under other political systems.

In the pages of Das Capital, Marx compared his method to that used by physicists, and claimed to have discovered a basic set of rules unconditionally valid in both natural and social sciences. This is a large claim, with momentous consequences. If it is true, then science under Marxism is set on its right course, and should flourish as never before. But if it is false, and if that same Marxism has complete political power, then the stage is set for the enslavement of science. Which of these alternatives is true can be discovered by an examination of the development of science in the Soviet Union after the Revolution. By their fruits you shall know them.

Marx himself had little scientific knowledge and relied on Engels to develop the theory of the application of dialectical materialism to the sciences. Like so many addicts of scientism, Engels was able to read into science the results he wanted to obtain, and was thus able to produce from physics an apparently overwhelming documentation of the validity of the laws of the dialectic. He firmly told scientists that under Marxism they would no longer be able to do as they pleased: "Whatever pose natural scientists adopt, philosophy rules over them. The question is only whether they want to be ruled by some vile fashionable philosophy, or whether they want to be guided by a form of theoretical thought that is grounded on acquaintance with the history of thought and its achievements," (Engels: Dialectics of Nature p. 243). After this, it is hardly surprising that Engels lays down a whole series of rules that physics is supposed to obey, rules that are invariably erroneous. The roots of this folly may be traced back to Hegel, well-known for his ability to legislate about the behaviour of the material world. With such a mentor, it is not surprising that in his Dialectics of Nature Engels castigates a whole galaxy of physicists including Maxwell, Helmholtz, Clausius, Carnot, Thomson and Tait. Even Newton is not exempt: he is criticised for only picturing the universe, instead of explaining it (ibid. p. 172).

Engels was quite clear about the relation of science to philosophy, by which he meant dialectical materialism. Scientists are of necessity 'in bondage to philosophy' (ibid., p. 184). It was for Engels an evident truth that philosophy could by itself yield results superior to those attainable by science itself: "Scientists could have seen even from the successes in natural science achieved by philosophy that the latter possessed something that was superior to them even in their own special sphere" (ibid., p. 154). Once again, if this is true, then it is of the greatest importance, and every scientist should as an essential part of his scientific training take care fully to absorb the principles and spirit of dialectical materialism.

Physics, however is rarely so pliable to the demands of the dialectic, and any new discovery that seemed to cross his wishes aroused Engels' special wrath. The concept of entropy, for example, seemed to be contrary to one of his cherished notions, the eternal cycles of matter. The conclusions of science, according to Engels, are arrived at not by the arduous road of observation and experiment, but come forth fully armed from dialectical materialism, like Pallas Athene from the head of Jupiter. "Physics, like astronomy before it, had arrived at a result that necessarily pointed to the eternal cycle of matter in motion as the ultimate reality" (ibid., p. 11). The leading physicists of the time were however unaware of this startling result. For Engels, science is not a source of objective information but the slave of dialectical materialism.

In the midst of his revolutionary activity, Lenin was aware of the revolutionary changes in physics in the early years of the twentieth century, and he saw a connection between the two revolutions: "Modern physics is in travail: it is giving birth to dialectical materialism. The process of childbirth is painful. In addition to a living healthy being, there are bound to be produced certain dead products, refuse fit only for the garbage heap. And the entire school of 'physical idealism', the entire empirio-critical philosophy, together with empirio-symbolism, empirio-monism, and so on, must be regarded as such refuse' (Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, p. 323). He greeted with enthusiasm the discoveries of radioactivity, radio waves and X-rays, while realising that they spelt the end of mechanical materialism. With admirable flexibility, he insisted that 'the destructibility of the atom, its inexhaustibility, the mutability of all forms of matter, have always been the stronghold of dialectical materialism. All boundaries in nature are conditional, relative, movable, and express the gradual approximation of our reason towards the knowledge of matter (Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, p. 289).

Already we see in these words of Lenin that in some sense the dialectic responds to the advance of science. There is on the surface an inconsistency between the subservience of science to the dialectic taught by Engels, and the growth of dialectical materialism out of science described by Lenin. Perhaps however it is unfair to read too much into the writings of a busy revolutionary, and better to conclude that in their view science and dialectical materialism are joined in a symbiotic resonance that shows both these aspects at different times.

At the beginning of the Soviet Revolution it was proclaimed that science is based on the iron rock of materialist dialectical thought, and notices to that effect appeared in the Soviet scientific journals. Some scientists in Germany wrote to their Soviet colleagues saying that they were very interested to hear about this new scientific method, and would they please send someone to tell them about it. The Soviet scientists, who did not believe it themselves, were much embarrassed by this invitation (Weisssberg-Cybulski, 1955). They carried on their work much as before, in accord with the inner logic of scientific growth, paying whatever lip-service to Party dogma that was required of them. The political pressures existed from the very beginning, but Soviet scientists learned to insulate themselves as best they could.

During the nineteen twenties the revolutionaries were preoccupied by the crumbling economy and by internal struggles, and generally left the scientists alone. Russian physicists were free to travel and many worked for years in Gottingen, Cambridge and American universities. Most of them were uninterested in Marxism and avoided ideological discussions.

By 1929 the situation was somewhat easier for the Party, and Stalin turned his attention to science. By April 1931 Bukharin was threatening scientists with 'moral and physical guillotine', meaning the systematic imposition of Marxism. Throughout the nineteen thirties, scientists were forced to subscribe to Marxist doctrine, and many who resisted were purged from the Academy.

Among the scientists who came to England at that time was Peter Kapitza, who worked with Rutherford in the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge. He made important researches on magnetism, but in the mid-thirties the Soviet authorities realised his value and he was told, during a visit home, that henceforth he would work in the Soviet Union. He was not permitted to return to Cambridge but Rutherford arranged for his experimental equipment to be sent to Russia so that he could continue his work there.

During the war years the struggle for survival left little time for scientific work, but as soon as the war was over the battle between science and Marxism was resumed. In a speech in 1947 Zhdanov called for a fight against 'countless philosophical weeds', against the 'whole arsenal of the philosophical lackeys of imperialism' and even against 'smuggling God into science'. Einstein's theory of relativity was condemned, and the theory of molecular bonding suffered the same fate. Genetics was destroyed by Lysenko, and Vaviov, the greatest of the Russian geneticists, was exiled to his death in Siberia.

The following extract from Pravda gives the Soviet version:

'There is no country in the world where the State shows such care of science and scientists as our country. The bourgeois states leave science in the power of capitalist monopolies, and condemn scientists to sell themselves to the exploiters or be left to starvation and misery. The Soviet State annually spends thousands of millions of roubles for scientific establishments and improving the living conditions of scientists.

Scientific workers of all branches of the leading Soviet science work in an honourable and at the same time responsible way. The great Stalin put before them the task of not only catching up with scientific achievements abroad, but also surpassing them in the near future.

The Soviet scientists are solving this task successfully. This is particularly clear from the August session of the Lenin Academy of Agricultural Sciences of the USSR. Academician Lysenko's report on the situation in biological science, and the discussions of this report during the session, showed that Soviet biological science is the most advanced in the world. Michurin's materialist trend in biology is the only scientific one because it is based on the principles of dialectical materialism -- the revolutionary transformation of the world in the interests of the people. The Weissmann-Morgan idealist trend in biology is pseudo-scientific because it is based ultimately on the admission of divine origin in the development of the world -- on the passive adaptation of man to permanent and unchanging laws of nature. The struggle of Michurin's followers with those of Weissmann is a form of the class ideological struggle of Socialism against capitalism on the international arena, and against the remnants of bourgeois ideology among a section of scientists inside our own country,' (Editorial in Pravda, 27 August 1948, reprinted and translated in Soviet News).

Eventually, of course, Lysenko was exposed, and the science of genetics was re-established.

In 1952, I.V.Kuznetsov, a Party Theoretician, wrote on the relation of science to dialectical materialism, and claimed that 'Soviet physics is the standard-bearer for the most modern and progressive ideas of contemporary natural science.' Turning his attention to relativity, he declared that the development of science can only be secured by 'total renunciation of Einstein's conception, without compromise or half-measure.'

Physicists of the stature of Landau, who had hitherto kept out of ideological disputes, rebelled against this nonsense. They could argue from a secure position of strength. Whatever the Marxist theoreticians may say, the real world goes on behaving according to its intrinsic nature. You may re-write history to your heart's content, and if you control the media and the educational system, no one will stop you. But if you insist on designing a nuclear accelerator without using Einstein's equations, then on the great day when you switch it on for the first time, nothing will happen. The physicists had no difficulty in tearing to shreds the diatribes of the Party theoreticians. One of them, Fock, compared Maximov's rejection of relativity to the denial of the sphericity of the earth. Experiences such as these convinced the Party that science, especially physics because of its relation to industry, must be accorded some measure of autonomy. It was not however possible to allow science the freedom it needs for healthy growth; it must still be subjected to the demands of dialectical materialism.

Soviet science then moved into a new phase. The scientists must be allowed to carry on their work according to scientific criteria, but the aims of the research must be governed by the needs of society. At first sight, this seems eminently reasonable. The technological applications of science are continually transforming our lives, and as society pays for scientific research it appears very sensible to concentrate our efforts on those areas that appear to be the most likely to yield practical benefits. It is of course accepted that technology should be guided by this criterion; the vital questions is whether academic or 'pure' science should be governed in the same way.

This is the essential issue in the debate between Bernal and Polanyi in England in the nineteen forties, Bernal arguing for the State direction of science and Polanyi for the freedom of science. Bernal wrote an influential book 'The Social Function of Science' and he and his supporters were vigorously opposed by a group of scientists who founded in Oxford in 1940 the Society for the Freedom of Science. Their leading spokesman, Polanyi, argued that science must be allowed to develop according to its own intrinsic criteria, allowing scientists to choose their subjects for research, for only then can all important areas be developed. This may in certain respects appear wasteful and inefficient, but is the necessary condition for growth. A wise Government will therefore confine itself to providing support for what appear to be the most promising growth areas, as judged by the scientists themselves.

The alternative of State direction requires the selection of growth areas by leading scientists, followed by directions to individual scientists saying what problems they are to study. There may at first sight appear to be little difference between these methods, but in actual practice it is crucial. On the former system the individual scientist chooses his area of research, although he still has to apply for whatever support he may need, while on the other it is chosen for him. The fatal weakness of State direction is that it saps the responsibility of the individual and makes him a cog in the State machine. Knowing that some of the most important decisions are taken for him, he is less inclined to scan the horizon for promising new developments. The State research directors inevitably lose touch with the whole field, become dated in their outlook and tend to support areas of research of interest to themselves personally or with fairly foreseeable practical applications. The result is that some areas of research flourish while others are neglected, and to whole level of expertise in the subject falls.

The main strength of State direction appears when there is a well-defined objective, such as to make an atomic bomb, or to launch a satellite. Even these achievements, it may be noted, relied greatly on Western science, the one on international work at Los Alamos and the other on the German research at Pennemunde, which was taken over by the Red Army at the end of the war.

In pure science the results of State direction are less impressive. The whole development of nuclear structure physics was blighted because Kapitza was not in favour of van de Graaff accelerators, which have proved to be essential tools in nuclear structure research. The Soviet accelerator at Dubna, like most Soviet instruments, was designed to the be biggest in the world. It was certainly one of the heaviest, with 30,000 tons of steel alone, but it was heavily and clumsily engineered, and never fulfilled its high hopes. Soviet computers are slow and inefficient by Western standards, and the Soviet copy of Concorde was a monumental failure.

So great is the intrinsic vitality of science, and the natural vitality of the Russian people, that excellent work continues to be done, even under the most severe disadvantages, and Tamm, Migdal, Cerenkov, Kurchatov, Fock, Bogliubov, Vexler, Kapitza, Markov and Sakharov are names that will always be remembered by physicists, Yet even these experienced difficulties with the Stalin regime. A single remark in the biography of Landau by Anna Livanova hints at his incarceration: "In one burdensome year, Landau reconstructed for himself the theory of shock waves. He made all the calculations mentally, without paper and pencil". The abrupt termination of Kapitza's Cambridge career has already been mentioned. When he learned that he could not return to Cambridge he wrote poignantly to Rutherford: "After all, we are only small particles of floating matter in a stream which we call fate. All that we can manage is to deflect our tracks slightly and keep afloat -- the stream governs us". These sad and resigned word may be set beside those of one of the greatest Russian scientists, Mendeleev, who lived in Czarist times: "Knowing how contented, joyous and free is the life in the realms of science, one fervently wishes that one may enter its portals."

Sociologists fared no better. In his book on sociology, Alex Inkeles remarks that "the Soviet regime was not long in power in Russia before most of her sociologists were either driven out of the country or purged. Sociology is defined in the Soviet Union as a bourgeois social science, engaged in only by the 'lackeys' and 'wage slaves' of capitalism who use it to counter the 'true' Marxist-Leninist social science. Sociology suffered a similar fate in Communist China. Before the Communist takeover, there were more than 1,000 students studying sociology under some 140 teachers in Chinese colleges and universities. The new regime stamped out these activities completely, to replace them by new courses on Marxism. Dr. Sun Pen-wen, author of what was the leading treatise on sociology before the new regime took over, sent the following chilling response to an American sociologist who wrote requesting a set of his works: "I have come to understand that all my books are only good for burning, and hence I have none to send you. I have also learned that I formerly neglected to study the works of Karl Marx which I am now doing many hours a day. Please don't write again."

A purge of physiologists was set in train in 1950 when a joint session of the Academy of Science of the USSR with the Academy of Medical Science called for "a united front to defend Pavlov's materialist teachings against the reactionary assaults of men like Sherrington, Lashley, Fulton and other Western idealist physiologists" (Huxley, 1982).

More recently, the treatment of Sakharov has received much publicity. A distinguished scientist with many contributions to cosmology and to elementary particle physics and designer of the Soviet hydrogen bomb he has become an outstanding spokesman for human rights and disarmament. Several years ago he was banished without trial to Gorky and almost totally isolated. The KGB removed his notebooks and manuscripts in an attempt to stop his intellectual activity. His son's fiancee Elizaveta Alexeyeva was for a long time prevented from leaving the Soviet Union, and permission was finally obtained only after a hunger strike by Sakharov himself.

There are very many other scientists in Russia who have suffered a similar or worse fate, Yuri Orlov has been in a labour camp since 1978. Josef Dyadkin was sent to a labour camp for making a demographic survey of persons who died in Stalin's time. Wiktor Brailovsky, the organiser of the Moscow Sunday seminars, has been harassed and arrested. Vladimir Kislik has been sentenced to three years in a labour camp on a fabricated charge and prevented from emigrating (Huxley, 1982). These and many other similar actions were taken either without trial or after trials conducted in flagrant violation of statutory procedures, such as the absence of defending counsel. In the labour camps they suffer solitary confinement, cold and hunger, restriction of correspondence and capricious cancellation of family visits. This is now a familiar pattern stretching back more than fifty years, one of the fruits of Marxism.

One of the inevitable results is a lowering of the standards of science. The deficiencies of Soviet science are admitted even by those who are wont to praise it enthusiastically. Thus Dr. Needham says that when he visited Russian laboratories in 1935 'the general standard of work was not quite up to the prevailing standards in Western countries, or in the United States' (Baker, p.77). Professor Bernal has written of the 'shortcomings and backwardness of Soviet science' and elsewhere of 'the errors and crudities of Soviet science' (Baker, p.78).

In his book on 'Science and the Planned State' (from which the above quotations were taken), Dr. Baker adds an amusing note on Soviet propaganda:

Those who praise Soviet science are sometimes almost pitifully anxious to make the most of small discoveries. Thus the distinguished Soviet scientist Dr. Peter Kapitza, in a general survey of science and war in the USSR published in 1942, tells us that Soviet scientists are experimenting with a synthetic drug which is likely to have curative properties 'not inferior to those of Peruvian balsam'. This is the only claim for Soviet pharmacology. Balsam of Peru is still sometimes used in the treatment of wounds. It was introduced into European medicine by Nichola Monardes of Seville in 1560. Monardes would have been flattered if he could have realised that nearly four centuries later the preparation of a 'not inferior' substitute for his balsam would be used in propaganda on behalf of a large country. Meanwhile scientists in Britain were at work on penicillin. There has been too much boosting of discoveries on the level of a substitute for balsam of Peru (p.82).

One should, however, in fairness, allow an opposing view to be heard, this time from a speech by Dr. Malek, Head of the Central Biological Research Institute in Czechoslovakia made to the Ideological Conference of University Scientific Workers, held in Brno, Czechoslovakia in 1952:

"There are two worlds, the world of scientific, materialist, creative biology, which was assisting the construction of a new world, and that of bourgeois biology -- decadent, abounding in idealist superstition, and more or less openly working on behalf of the exploiting governments.

In a short time Soviet biology has managed to create completely new conditions of life for man. On the basis of newly-discovered biological laws biology was not only regulating the heredity of plants and animals, but was also utilising extensively the creative capacity of micro-organisms. It had multiplied crop yields and the productivity of livestock breeding, evolved new useful plants, and transformed deserts into fertile land. It was realising the greatest task -- the fulfilment of Stalin's plan to transform nature.

Imperialist biological discoveries like penicillin and streptomycin served the profiteering interests of a limited number of concerns -- not those of the broad masses. Instead of improving man's lot, science in the imperialist countries was producing the most complex weapons for his destruction."

Thus are the fables of Lysenko exalted above the work of Fleming, Florey and Chain.

It is however important not to attach too much weight to isolated incidents or to statements by particular individuals. There is no great political or religious movement without its scandals due to the ignorance and stupidity of some of its followers. The history of Science in Western Europe shows many instances of the persecution of scientists and the inept handling of scientific matters, and it is easy but misleading to make an impressive catalogue of such incidents. The important issue is whether they are accidental events attributable to human weakness, or whether they are the results of the inexorable working out of the fundamental principles of the movement under examination.

It is thus important to assess, in an objective way, the world standing of science in the Soviet Union. Is it what would have been expected of a super-power, comparable with the United States of America in so many other respects? In an attempt to answer this question John Baker (Science and the Planned State 1945, p.80), an Oxford biologist, asked seven of his colleagues, lecturers in the departments of Physical Chemistry, Organic Chemistry, Botany, Zoology and Physiology, to make a list of the two dozen most important discoveries made between the two great wars, giving no reason for his request. He included two socialists, and of the others two adhered to no party, and he did not know the political views of the remainder. The countries where the work was done was pre-eminently the United States, Germany and Britain. There was no mention of any work done in the Soviet Union, in spite of all the propaganda for Soviet science.

Another way of assessing the standing of Soviet science is to make use of the scientific literature. One of the hallmarks of scientific distinction is to be invited to give a major lecture at a large international conference. The total numbers of such lectures from various countries invited to four large conferences in Paris, Tokyo, Munich and Berkeley are USA 54, West Germany 10, Great Britain 10, France 11, USSR 11, Japan 18, Denmark 6 and so on. Another index is the number of times articles from different countries are published in those journals specialising in the rapid publication of new results. Some figures for 1982 are: USA 114, West Germany 42, Great Britain 19, France 18, USSR 7, Japan 14, Denmark 6, Switzerland 22, Italy 14, Poland 6 and so on. If these figures are now divided by the total populations of the countries concerned, the conclusion is inescapable: the quantity of first-rate science coming from the Soviet Union is among the lowest of all the countries with substantial research programmes. In absolute quantity, it is comparable with that from a medium-sized European country.

These figures are open to several criticisms. There is a tendency for an untypically large number of speakers to be drawn from the host country, although this is not always the case, particularly when the organisations of the conference is in the hands of an international committee. None of the conferences used to obtain the above figures was held in the Soviet Union, so this may be part of the reason for the low Soviet representation. However that fact is also significant in another way. Large international conferences are seldom held in the Soviet Union, mainly because of the difficulty of obtaining entry visas, and indeed the impossibility for the nationals of several important countries. This in turn reduces the opportunities of younger Russian scientists to meet scientists from other countries. These restrictions have been chronicled in detail by Z. Medvedev.

The international journals used to obtain the above figures were published in the United States and Holland, and this again might give a bias against the Soviet scientists. They do indeed tend to publish in their own journals, but some of them do publish in the international journals used in this survey. It is thus not forbidden to do so, and indeed might well be encouraged as it is a source of some prestige to have a paper accepted by such journals.

It might possibly be said that one of the reasons for the poor quality of Soviet science is the devastation suffered by that country during the second world war. This would be a plausible excuse for a decade or so after the war, but not when these surveys were made. Western Germany suffered a similar devastation, and a whole generation of scientists were lost or fled into exile during the Nazi years. But now German science has recovered its former strength, as is evident from the figures quoted.

A revealing comment was made in Physics Today (January 1984, p. 192) by a most respected theoretical physicist. In an editorial in Physics Today, Professor Robert Marshak, the President of the American Physical Society, discussed the perils of curbing scientific freedom. He asks 'why has the Soviet Union found it necessary to rely so heavily on Western technology? Science education in the Soviet Union is a source of envy to those of us who are concerned with the crisis in our own schools. Individually, Soviet scientists are as dedicated and creative as any in the world. The Soviet government is generous in its support of basic and applied science. And yet, experimental science in the Soviet Union is scandalously bad. Much of the explanation, I believe, is in the fact that the Soviets have created barriers to free communication for their own scientists not unlike those that some would like to impose here.'

This is the objective measure of the state of science in what was once one of the great super-powers of the world, a country that exalts science, that has numerous huge universities where scientific studies have high priority, that honours its scientific Academicians with lavish favours, that founded science cities, that poured out ceaseless propaganda praising the excellence of its scientific achievements, that poured scorn on the decadent science of the West, that claimed to found its ideology on scientific principles and to be the one nation able to lead mankind to a glorious and scientific heaven on earth.

The failure of Soviet science was indeed one of the principal factors that led to its collapse. It was simply not able to keep up technologically with the West. This disparity was particularly notable in the field of modern electronics,especially in the fast computers that are now essential in so many areas of our lives. Unable to make their own, they made great efforts to import or smuggle computers and microchips into the Soviet Union from the West, but this proved to be quite inadequate. The final verdict on Marxist science is: By their fruits you will know them.


J.R. Baker, Science and the Planned State. Allen and Unwin, 1945.

J.D. Bernal, The Social Function of Science. Routledge, 1939.

J. Bernstein, Hitler's Uranium Club: The Secret Recordings at Farm Hall. American Institute of Physics Press, 1995. Alan Bullock, Hitler, a Study in Tyranny. Pelican.

D.C. Cassidy, Uncertainty: The Life and Science of Werner Heisenberg. Freeman, 1992.

S.A. Goudsmidt, Alsos. American Institute of Physics Press, 1995.

Max Heilbron, The Dilemmas of an Upright Man: Max Planck. University of California Press, 1987.

K. Hentschel (Ed), Physics and National Socialism: An Anthology of Primary Sources. Birkhauser, 1996.

J. Huxley, Soviet Genetics and World Science: Lysenko and the Meaning of Heredity. Chatto and Windus, 1949.

K. Mendelssohn, The World of Walter Nernst: The Rise and Fall of German Science. Macmillan, 1973.

Z.A. Medvedev, The Medvedev Papers. Macmillan, 1971.

H.J. Muller, The Destruction of Soviet Genetics. Readings in Russian Civilisation. 709. University of Chicago Press, 1964.

M. Polanyi, Personal Knowledge. Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1958.


Purchase This Course                               << Previous               Next >>                                   Return to Top