Thursday, June 14, 2018

A communist view of Lysenko

Some sectors of bourgeois media are upset that a "Flat Earth Society" seems to be experiencing a renaissance. I suspect today's Flat-Earthers are drolly trolling the gullible among bourgeois pen-drivers.

Lysenkoism was a far more serious expression of unscientific venom, placed at the service of personal careerism and the ideological rationalizations of an anti-worker caste whose main representative was Joseph Stalin, then Khrushchev.

Below, Stephen Bloom gives a Marxist assessment. (If you are interested in defending Lysenko, you can go to town here.

Lysenko: Pseudoscience and Pseudo-Marxism
By Stephen Bloom
The Militant, Vol. 41/No. 1

Trofim Denisovich Lysenko, who dominated
agricultural and biological sciences in the Soviet
Union for more than thirty years, and who was
responsible for the destruction of the work,
careers, and even lives of many world-famous
scientists, died in the USSR on November 20,

Lysenko's theories, which belong more in the
realm of pseudoscience than of science, are not
taken seriously today by anyone, either inside or
outside the Soviet Union. None of his once
heralded "breakthroughs" are still applied in
Soviet agriculture.

Lysenko believed that the environment of a
plant or animal, not genetic inheritance, was the
dominant factor in its development. He also
believed that inherited characteristics were not
caused by any basic genetic structure and could
be altered in subsequent generations by environ-
mental influences on the present generation.
This latter part of his theory is popularly known
as the inheritance of acquired characteristics.
Lysenko first came to prominence in 1929, as a
result of an experiment done at his father's farm
near Poltava in the Ukraine. There he developed
his famous process of vernalization of grain,
which was to launch his career.

Briefly, vernalization consisted of the treating
of seeds under controlled conditions of tempera-
ture and humidity for a period of time before
planting. Lysenko claimed that this could signifi-
cantly reduce the growing time of the crops (thus
reducing the dangers of drought or frost) and
increase yields. This became a major project for
agriculture that was introduced extensively in
the Soviet Union.

Basing himself on his experience with vernali-
zation, Lysenko began to generalize about the
effects of environment on plant growth and
developed his theories concerning genetics.
When the Russian plant experimenter Ivan
Michurin died in 1935, Lysenko declared himself
a follower of "Michurinism" and began to
denounce the believers in genetics as followers of
"Mendelism-Morganism," which he claimed was
bourgeois and anticommunist. Gregor Mendel
was an Austrian priest who first postulated the
existence of genes; Thomas Hunt Morgan was an
American scientist who also subscribed to the
theory of genes.

Michurin himself, while he was alive, did not
claim any theoretical contributions in the area of
plant breeding. His work was that of practical
experimentation with different techniques of
growing plants and increasing yields. He did not
counterpose his activities to the ideas of genetics
or the work of Mendel. Nevertheless, Lysenko
attached the name of Michurin to his theories in
order to give them increased prestige.

By 1936, Lysenko was the director of the
Odessa Genetics Institute. He took over as head
of the Lenin All-Union Agricultural Academy in
1938, and the next year he became a member of
the Academy of Science and head of the
Leningrad Plant-Growing Institute. He became
head of the Institute of Genetics in 1940, capping
his rise to complete dominance in the area of
plant breeding and agricultural science.

1948 Genetics Debate

The involvement of the Soviet Union in World
War II brought about a lull in scientific debate.
But with the war's end, Lysenko began to
broaden his theories, extending his ideas into
other areas and creating new frictions with
established scientists. This new conflict led to the
notorious genetics debate at the 1948 session of
the Lenin All-Union Academy of Agricultural

At this session, Lysenko gave a report outlin-
ing his theories of biology. He did not reveal that
Stalin had given prior approval to his ideas until
after his opponents had committed themselves to
their opposed theories. He proceeded to politically
destroy his scientific opponents, and his support-
ers took over every major position in the
biological sciences and related fields.

With Stalin's death in 1953, Lysenko came
under attack and his influence, while not
eliminated, was greatly reduced. His star. rose
again briefly under Khrushchev, but with the
latter's fall from power in 1964, Lysenkoism in
Soviet biology became a thing of the past.
Lysenko's challenge to the growing science of
genetics was not, in and of itself, unusual in the
late 1920s and 1930s, when he began his rise to
fame. There were many doubts and questions
about the genetic theory of inheritance among
scientists, not only in the USSR, but in other
parts of the world.

What was different about Lysenko was that he
did not base his disagreements with geneticists
on scientific evidence. He was unwilling to put
his theories to the test of rigorous experiment,
and he drew sweeping conclusions based only on
the most superficial observations.

A brief look at the process of vernalization will
illustrate this point. Lysenko's original claims
for this process were based on the observation of
one planting of vernalized wheat and its compar-
ison with yields in previous years.

The scientific difficulties of drawing conclu-
sions on the basis of such experience are
enormous. For example, what other factors-
such as rainfall, temperature, quality and variety
of the original seed, time of sowing, attacks by
insects or disease, etc.-might affect crop yields
from year to year?

Lysenko made no efforts to account for such
effects-if vernalized seed resulted in increased
yields then vernalization was the cause. This
failure to take into account all possible variables
was typical of Lysenko's method.

In another case, he presented a paper on the
transformation of winter wheat into spring
wheat. He based this on the observation of the
descendants of a single stalk of wheat of the
variety Kooperatorka. He did not even attempt to
demonstrate the purity of the strain of the
specimen with which he started. Of course, no
scientists either inside or outside the USSR were
able to duplicate Lysenko's results with such

The lack of scientific basis for Lysenko's
techniques resulted in disastrous consequences
when they were applied. Even in the case of
vernalization, his most successful effort, it
resulted in only negligible increases, if any, for
Soviet agriculture. The tremendous amounts of
time, energy, and labor that were devoted to the
process were far out of proportion to the small
increases in yield.

Nevertheless, it often took years before the
counterproductiveness of Lysenko's various
schemes became known and were withdrawn
from use. Even then, the initial fanfare in
introducing them built up Lysenko's reputation
far more than their quiet withdrawal undermined

Effects of Bureaucratic Structure

In addition, the failures of Lysenko's methods
were often hidden by the bureaucratic structure
of the Soviet economy. For example, a new
technique would be introduced for a period of
time to determine its beneficial effect on agricul-
tural production. It would be preceded by a huge
buildup in the press and by the party as a
tremendous agricultural advance. The results of
the test would be based on the reports of
production filled out by the heads of the various
collective farms where the technique was used.
But there was no check on the accuracy of such
reports from the heads of collective farms. These
individuals knew that large increases in production were expected and that it would be a mark
against them if their farm did not increase the
harvest; therefore they reported large crops.
There were cases in which each farm in a given
region would report increases in production, yet
the overall harvest in the region remained the
same or even decreased. Nevertheless, Lysenko
could claim success for his methods based on the
reports from the individual farms.

The important question is, of course, how an
unscientific charlatan was able to attain the
position of control and influence in Soviet science
that Lysenko did. The answer to this flows from
the political and social climate in the USSR at
the time.

At the end of the 1920s and the beginning of
the 1930s, Stalin and the developing bureaucratic
caste in the Soviet Union were consolidating
their grip on the first workers state. No longer
was the most important motivation for political
and economic endeavors the advancement of the
revolution and the needs of the working class.
The principal concern of the bureaucracy was
the improvement of its own privileged position
and the consolidation of the political monopoly
that allowed it to maintain those privileges. It
was not interested in scientific truth any more
than it was in political truth and viewed debate
in this sphere, as in all others, as potentially

Lysenko and his followers took advantage of
this development away from the original goals of
the revolution for their own purposes. They
introduced the Stalinist political polemic into
scientific debate, accusing geneticists of advanc-
ing "bourgeois philosophy," of "Trotskyism,"
and of attempting to wreck Soviet agriculture
whenever they were unable to answer the
scientific arguments.

Among other techniques, the Lysenkoists used
direct lies and distortions of fact; and they made
amalgams between the scientific theories and
political ideas of foreign geneticists, for example
attributing to genetics an inherently racist
content because of the way in which it was
distorted by the Nazis in Germany.
Lysenko's opponents refused to use the same
methods of debate. They correctly pointed out
that scientific questions can only be resolved by
scientific criteria-by the verification of theoreti-
cal models by means of experimental and other

Among these opponents of Lysenkoism were
internationally prominent scientists who were
supporters of the revolution and of Marxism.
Foremost of these was Nikolai Vavilov, who was
president in 1939 of the International Genetics
Congress at Edinburgh, Scotland, and had
formally been head of the Soviet Union's
Leningrad Plant-Growing Institute and the·
Lenin All-Union Agricultural Academy.
Although Vavilov made major theoretical
contributions in genetics, his most important
activity was the organization of expeditions to
all parts of the world to gather plant specimens
for use in creating new varieties specifically
designed to meet the needs of Soviet agriculture.
Vavilov and his supporters understood the
progress that could be made by Soviet agriculture
if genetics were correctly applied. The value of
genetics for plant breeding lies in the possibility
of creating new varieties that combine various
desirable characteristics of already existing
specimens. Through crossing different types of
the same species and then selecting their
offspring for the desired characteristics-such as
disease resistance, rate of maturation, quantity
and quality of fruit, etc.-desirable hybrids could
be obtained.

If the scientific differences between the geneti-
cists and the Lysenkoists had been resolved on
the basis of what would be most productive for
Soviet agriculture, determined by an honest test
of the results of the two methods, then the victory
of Vavilov over Lysenko would have been a

But Lysenko's mimicry of Stalin's pseudo-
Marxist rhetoric and his uncritical support to the
current line of the bureaucracy ingratiated him
and his opinions with the officialdom of the
Communist party, not least of all with Stalin
himself. In addition, Lysenko promised through
his methods extremely rapid advances for Soviet
agriculture. He promised to develop plant varie-
ties in a fraction of the time that geneticists said
was necessary.

This promise of quick results was suited to Stalin's call for a fast collectivization of agriculture and rapid advances in production. Another
appeal of Lysenko's theories for Stalin was the
credibility which they could give to the bureau-
cracy's claim of creating a new "socialist man"

Scientists to Siberia

With the support of the party in the biological
debate, Lysenko's victory was assured .. No
opponents of his pseudoscience would be tolerat-
ed. Stalin, through Lysenko, applied to scientific
debate the method he had perfected in crushing
his Leninist opponents in the Communist
party-the frame-up trial of those who could not
be defeated in open debate. V avilov was arrested
in 1940. He died in prison in Siberia.
Other biologists were also arrested and
charged with anti-Soviet activities for the sole
"crime" of believing in the validity of genetics.
Some who perished were the biologists Karpe-
chenko, Levitsky, and Govorov. Still others
spent years in Stalin's prisons or in Siberian

The Lysenko phenomenon did not represent a
Marxist approach to science, as many who
wanted to discredit socialism and the Russian
revolution maintained. It was a distortion of
science made possible only by the Stalinist
degeneration of the USSR. Lysenko's rout of the
geneticists did not represent the victory of
Marxist philosophy in science, but rather the
victory of Stalin's secret police. Lysenko's ap-
peals to philosophy were in reality appeals to the
delusions of grandeur of the bureaucratic elite.
Stalin imagined that he could decide the laws of
nature the same way he issued laws for Soviet

The basis for Lysenkoism, however, cannot be
found in Stalin's ideas or theories. It is rooted in
the material need of the bureaucrats in the USSR
to defend their precarious privileged position
against all opposition; most of all against the
Soviet workers themselves. To accomplish this,
they must stifle debate in every sphere of Soviet
life, and this means that the party must be set up
as an infallible authority on every question of
political, scientific, and artistic truth, regardless
of whether it has any knowledge or understand-
ing in that area.

This need to stifle the full flowering of human
knowledge and creative energy, which is the
bright promise of socialism, shows this bureau-
cratic caste to be a transitory parasitical forma-
tion, alien to and fearful of the working masses.
Those who would identify the political and
philosophical ideas of Stalin and the Soviet
bureaucracy with genuine Marxism do a grave
disservice to Marx and Engels.

The Marxist philosophy of dialectical material-
ism attempts to generalize the laws of change
that apply in the real world. As a philosophical
method of interpreting reality it has much to
offer the natural sciences. The materialist me-
'thod is still adhered to by many outstanding
Soviet scientists, including some who are far from being conformists to the ruling bureaucracy.

The fundamental goals of Marxist philosophy
are to broaden and expand our knowledge of and
control over the material world, and this corres-
ponds with the goal of an ever broader and more
inquisitive pursuit of scientific knowledge.

Contradiction Facing Bureaucrats

But here the bureaucracy finds itself in a
severe contradiction, as the final outcome of the
Lysenko affair reveals. In order to maintain a
relatively sustained level of economic progress,
the bureaucracy must apply the real advances in
science and technology. Such economic progress
is needed if the bureaucracy is to protect its own
base from military or economic incursions by
imperialism or to grant concessions to ward off
the discontent of the masses.

Real advances in science and technology can only come from free and open discussion and
testing of different theories. The more advanced
and complex the economy becomes, the more
disastrous will be the blunders resulting from the
making of scientific decisions by untrained
bureaucrats. It was the disastrous results of
Lysenkoism on Soviet agriculture which forced a
change in the Soviet attitude toward genetics
and biology.

After the fall of Khrushchev, the new leadership
found it necessary to end Lysenko's dominance
and rehabilitate those biologists who supported
genetic theory. They were forced to allow a freer
debate about biological theory. Similar pressures
had earlier resulted in the lifting of restrictions
on Soviet scientists in other disciplines.
This partial liberalization is a pandora's box
for the Brezhnev regime. Discussion and debate
cannot be permitted in one area of social life
while it is barred from all others. It is not
accidental that many Soviet scientists are
outspoken dissenters from the Stalinist regime.
The bureaucracy is above all a product of the
backwardness and poverty of old Russia. As the
working class grows and industrialization raises
the cultural level of the nation, there is less and
less place for such a monstrosity. The bureaucra-
cy will not voluntarily give up its power. But
every retreat it is compelled to make strengthens
the forces that will one day confront and
overthrow it, instituting a regime based on
socialist democracy.

Only then will science be genuinely free and at
the service of the great majority of working
people. Only then will it cease to serve as a prop
for the power of entrenched minorities, as it does
under both bourgeois and Stalinist rule.


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