- Stalin and the Soviet Science Wars
Joseph Stalin is known by many titles: "Uncle Joe," "the Generalisimus," "General Secretary," "the Man of Steel." Less well known is Joseph Stalin, "the coryphaeus of science." Ethan Pollock has written an important book that reveals Stalin's paramount role in shaping and directing the Soviet scientific establishment. Based on extensive research in Soviet archives, his account reveals a dictator who had an image of himself as "a man who united political power and intellectual acumen" (p. 1). In fulfilling his vision of himself as a great thinker, Stalin managed to divert precious time from the tricky business of guiding the world revolution to intervene in a number of scientific disciplines.
The imposition of politics on Soviet science is a well-known story. Pollock's unique contribution is to document and explain Stalin's personal and active role in "the Soviet science wars." Along the way, he makes a surprising claim: Stalin intervened in numerous scientific controversies in the name of promoting debate rather than restricting it. Far from being another propaganda ruse, Stalin's espousal of "a free exchange of opinions" was based on a genuinely held belief that debate would nurture a scientific enterprise essential to Soviet success in the cold war. Discussions were designed to "strike the proper balance between the Party's role in determining the outcomes of debates and the importance of scholarly participation" (p. 8). Even when Stalin intervened, as he often did, his pronouncements were sufficiently opaque to allow continued interpretation and discussion among scientists as well as among the gatekeepers of ideological purity.
The book's six main chapters follow six separate debates in which Stalin intervened: philosophy, biology, physics, linguistics, physiology, and political economy. A clear and concise introduction mentions the crucial role of World War II in the development of Soviet attitudes toward science, when the invention of radar, nuclear weapons, and antibiotics illustrated the importance of science in national security. Moreover, the Soviet vision of itself as a successful modern polity required a demonstration of scientific achievement. As a result, scientists received material privileges and scarce resources, as well as increased political attention. It was expected that "Soviet intellectual achievements could serve as symbolic measures of the superiority of the Soviet system" (p. 5). Finally, a fear of ideological backsliding during World War II prompted Stalin to reemphasize the role of ideology in Soviet life after the war, which in turn set the stage for the series of debates that Pollock so ably discusses.
Of course, there was no small irony in "Stalin's dictating answers in the name of the free exchange of opinions" (p. 135). And Stalin's interventions [End Page 488] often had the opposite of the intended effect: rather than encouraging scholarly debate, they caused most scientists to either keep their mouths shut or to express their views in a way that most approximated (they hoped) the party's often obscure and vague political demands. One of Pollock's central points, supported by his sources, is that Stalin believed what he said. This challenges a longstanding assumption among many historians that Stalin's ideological pronouncements masked more conventional and less revolutionary motives—a Machiavellian desire for power or vengeance, for instance. On the contrary, Stalin genuinely believed his claim that the objective search for truth would simultaneously benefit science and enhance Soviet politics. Stalin felt that Marxist philosophy and science were mutually reinforcing, so much so that he thought scientists should be free to conduct their own investigations without undue political interference—except his own, of course.
Stalin seems not to have entertained the possibility that "objective" scientific truth might contradict or challenge Soviet ideology, since Marxism Leninism, in his view, was also an objective science. According to Pollock, Stalin's belief that the pursuit of scientific truth could only dovetail with Soviet political goals had unexpected implications for the post-Stalin era. Science became "a subject beyond the party's ideological reach" (p. 221). After Stalin's death, none of his successors intervened...