Freedom of research and the quest for freedom: The case of Nicolai Vavilov in the USSR

Capitalism has become an absolute fetter on the development of the productive forces. This also affects the development of science, which is geared to the profit motive. After the October 1917 Russian Revolution the arts and science experienced a short-lived period of freedom, as the Bolshevik leadership under Lenin and Trotsky understood that this was the only way of moving forward. But as the revolution, isolated in a backward country, underwent degeneration under Stalin, this also affected these recently won freedoms. The fate of Nicolai Ivanovich Vavilov, a brilliant Russian geneticist who ended up in Stalin’s gulags highlights this process.

This year marks 70 years since the death of Nicolai Ivanovich Vavilov, an important but unfortunately long forgotten Russian scientist. Several conferences have been devoted to his works, but only for professional scientists. This is a pity, as this would have been a good opportunity to discuss why capitalism can no longer develop science as it did in the past, but also to discuss the abominations that the Stalinist bureaucracy inflicted on Soviet science, after the revolution had created the conditions to catch up with Western research starting from a situation of medieval backwardness.

As Marxists we believe that it is worth commemorating the life and death of Vavilov, the founder of the All-Russian Institute of Cultivation and the Institute of Genetics of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR. The story of Vavilov is particularly enlightening as it highlights the relationship between science and revolution It is an example of how a complete change in society can free scientific research and then, ultimately, humankind.

Studying the life and works of Vavilov, this forgotten Soviet scientist, is of interest for it allows us to discuss not only biology but every aspect of society, of the present society and the society we want to build. In the light of these issues, we think it is our duty to pay tribute, albeit a modest one, to one of the most able scientists the Bolshevik Party was able to win to the working class cause in Russia. Vavilov’s life was dedicated to science in the belief that a genuine workers’ democracy could lead Russia to levels of knowledge and development never achieved before. We think this is the highest aspiration a scientist can have.

The revolution opens the door to science

“All development of genetics in our country dates from the establishment of the Soviet regime.” (N. Vavilov, 1939)

Before the victory of the Bolshevik Party, Russian agricultural science reflected the backwardness of the means of production in rural life. No wonder that the scientific debate around agricultural science and botany developed under a hood of confusion. Floriculture was developed mainly with traditional methods. Mendelism and Darwinism were not so widespread.

After the October revolution the young workers’ democracy desperately needed economic and social development to overcome Russian historical backwardness. Agriculture was particularly primitive. Peasants used traditional methods, also because they lacked any education. The Bolshevik Party tried to introduce modern methods of production exploiting the benefits of planning. As the Russian economy was so primitive, the Bolsheviks started out in the first place by following the highest peaks of bourgeois methods. From then, Soviet democracy would allow the working class to build new heights of culture on new and different foundations. The condition for this was the development of the productive forces, which is the development of industry and agriculture.

The leadership of the Bolshevik Party was forced to rely on bourgeois experts in many sectors. For instance during the civil war, more than fifty thousand old Tsarist officers were used in the Red Army under the political control of the party. Often, these specialists and scientists were eager to collaborate with the new regime for a number of reasons. Many were sincere “fellow travellers” that wanted to help society to move forward. The party, to help the development of the productive forces, gave priority, among the supporters of the revolution, to those who had a direct experience of the most advanced scientific research worldwide.

Nicolai Ivanovich Vavilov was one of these scientists. Born in Moscow in 1887, he graduated at the Agrarian Institute in Moscow in 1911. Before 1917 Vavilov had developed his scientific expertise in Europe, working closely with the great British geneticist William Bateson. Bateson was the first scientist to reorganize biological research around the ideas of Mendelian genetics and coined the term genetics for this new scientific discipline.

Since the early studies, his attention was captured by the geographical origin of the species of crop plants. From 1913 to 1917 he toured Europe specifically to collect specimens and to study the processes of plant immunity, that is, the mechanisms by which plants adapt to new environments. This setting would prove invaluable to initiate future research projects for the lines of crop plants in Russia.

From this point of view, Vavilov was also one of the few scientists in Russia that had personally verified the superiority of the ideas of Mendelian genetics, which are the ideas at the base of modern genetics. Only these ideas seemed to be able to explain the phenomena of adaptation and selection, generation after generation. Years later, Vavilov recalled his initial scepticism but that his belief gained after collecting scientific evidence:

“At the beginning of my work I too doubted the truth of Mendel’s laws. Working at first chiefly on the problem of immunity of plants to infectious diseases, I went to England in order to study in this field under Professor Biffen whose works on the application of Mendelism to immunity were considered classical at that time. However, I came to doubt the Mendelian conclusions of Biffen. In the course of experimental study I became convinced that in many cases physiological properties depend upon many genes, that they cannot be disposed of in terms of simple relationships.”[1]

In these last lines Vavilov points out the crucial importance of genetics to explain the inheritance of characters from one generation to another, without excluding the presence of other factors, however minor. Vavilov returned to Russia at the dawn of the seizure of power by the Bolsheviks. He settled in Saratov, where he began teaching at the university. In fact, until the victory of the Bolsheviks, politics did not interest him. However, his research and the data he had brought from Europe had begun to give him an international reputation through his first publications and, at the same time, a certain interest in his methods among Russian scientists. It is worth emphasizing the innovation represented by the introduction of genetics in Russian agronomy.

Until then, in fact, the idea was that plants or flowers could adapt to any condition in virtue of their own innate plasticity. Experiments of crossing were very frequent, but the laws governing these processes were completely unknown. Generalized by the laws of genetics, Mendel’s experiments were ignored until 1900, when the research group of Morgan and Bateson rediscovered them. After the publication of the Origin of Species they opened a second revolution in science and the evolution of plants and animals acquired a solid foundation.

Mendel generalized the results of his experiments in three famous laws that overtook Lamarckian theory forever. In his view, the traits of a plant were given by pairs of “factors” (factors that Bateson would call “genes” distributed in pairs of “alleles”) equally distributed between the parents and were divided equally to the formation of pollen or animal gametes (egg or sperm). The offspring would present the dominance of certain traits with a precise statistical regularity. According to these laws, two lines of plants, genetically homogeneous (defined scientifically as homozygous), would give an offspring with the characteristics of the dominant genes (I). Secondly, the segregation of these pairs of alleles would be independent from each other and therefore with a certain process of random recombination (II). And thirdly, in sexual cells, the gametes, genes would be randomly distributed (III). These laws were the result of the generalization of the statistical data collected by Mendel through the intersection and the study of generations of pea plants with different characteristics.

In other words, the theory explained the source and mechanisms of variability distribution by natural selection. Initial opportunities of life are given by chance, then the environment selects the best features for reproduction.

These laws had a profound impact on crop production in Europe and soon related studies came out to help the preparation of industrial varieties through a scientific method. From then, it was sensible to study the origin of the plants to exploit the evolution of their characteristics. In turn, the application of genetics to agronomy changed dialectically the original distribution of many plants, in addition to their characteristics. Today the plants of agricultural interest are called “varieties”. These plants are selected for their characteristics. Over the years, whole species change, permanently shaped by artificial selection.

The most important aspect of this process is that it allows a more efficient use of the crops, modifying their characteristics. The laws of natural selection gave to humankind the possibility of a more precise artificial selection.

This revolutionary approach had not been fully accepted in Tsarist Russia. When the Bolsheviks took power, the need to develop a modern agriculture became apparent. Within a few years, genetics became the main branch of investigation of Soviet biology. Vavilov recalls:

“In the Soviet Union, which is now building up socialism and socialistic agriculture, we are interested in the problem of the origin of agriculture, and of the origin of cultivated plants and animals chiefly from the dynamic viewpoint. By knowledge of the past, by studying the elements from which agriculture has developed, by collecting cultivated plants in the ancient centres of agriculture, we seek to master the historical process.”[2]

The scientific career of Vavilov took a turn in 1924, a year that was to prove to be a watershed for the October Revolution. In that year he became director of the Pan-Soviet Academy of Agricultural Sciences in Leningrad. This was also, of course, the year in which Lenin – who had supported the international success of Vavilov, a fellow traveller of the revolution – died.

For Marxists, the role of the individual in history is closely tied to the material circumstances in which he or she operates but the individual also conditions these conditions dialectically. The October Revolution could never have succeeded without Lenin and Trotsky, but their role could not be fulfilled in a vacuum, that is, without a revolutionary party, and without particular social circumstances. Even such great revolutionaries and the Bolshevik party could not win without passing through the historical awakening of the Russian working class. For the same reason Lenin’s death was not the sole cause of the degeneration of the Soviet Union, but it was nonetheless an important factor.

Vavilov’s career as a scientist, together with his best scientific achievements, developed in the decade following the death of Lenin. This was the period which saw all the stages of consolidation of the bureaucracy. He also suffered all the consequences of the deformation of scientific research caused by the bureaucratization of the Soviet state also because of the direct importance of his studies. In the years after Lenin’ death, the destruction of Soviet democracy proceeded through different and contradictory stages linked to the ebb and flows of class struggle all over the world. This, for a period, saved the innovative genetic theories of Vavilov.

Genetics against famine

From the outset, Vavilov applied results and methods he had learned in Europe to genetic research in Russia. Soon he realized that the first need was to catch up with the leading capitalist powers. The first step was to retrieve decades of research in the field of genetics. As he recalls:

“All the practical advances connected with the application of hybridization to seeding plants, all the varieties introduced by way of hybridization, were obtained in the last decades by the application of the laws of Mendel” [3]

And again:

“What greater miracle can we imagine in our biological science, comrades, than we are witnessing in the transformation of completely sterile hybrids into fertile seed and pollen bearers, accompanied by a reduplication of the chromosomes under the influence of specific factors.”[4]

From the mid-1920s, Vavilov literally toured the world organizing scientific expeditions to collect seeds of crop varieties to study their origins and evolution. All the material was taken to Leningrad that, over the years, had become the largest and best stocked botanical garden in the world. In 1924, he climbed the Hindu Kush with no maps or guides. He was the first European to explore the borders of Afghanistan. In 1926 he visited Ethiopia. In the same year he was the first scientist to receive the Lenin Prize, the highest honour granted by the bureaucracy. In 1929, he visited China and Japan to collect plant varieties. In the same year he became president of the Institute of Genetics Academy of Sciences of the USSR.

Vavilov collected plant specimens from more than 24 countries worldwide. The Soviet Institute of Applied Botany reached 20,000 employees working in botanical stations all over the country. This huge collection of data was used to develop an innovative bio-geographic theory, according to which the maximum variation of cultivated plants coincides with eight centres of ancient civilization: China, Indonesia, Central Asia, Middle East, Mediterranean, Ethiopia, Mexico and the Andes. This allowed the Vavilov centres to identify the origin of the plants from their centres of diversity.

During his lessons he often brought up the example of wheat in Ethiopia, which, although present in many varieties, cannot have been born there because it had no biological parents. The presence of wheat in a country like Ethiopia, then, must be due to an early introduction of wheat and a number of successive crops by the local population.

These studies took a long time. They were driven by the idea of finding the best variations for growing plants able to survive even in the most difficult environment. The combination of science and planning produced huge gains in the development of the productive forces of the Soviet Union. Above all, the young Soviet democracy made a major contribution to combating the problem of famine:

“During the systematic study of a number of species it became evident that so far neither the botanist, nor the agronomist, nor the breeder has yet, with any degree of completeness, approached the study of the world’s resources even of the most important cultivated plants, whose centres of evolution, as investigations have shown, are located chiefly in ancient agricultural countries”[5]

Shortly after the conquest of power, the Bolsheviks had to face the wrath of the capitalist world, which invaded Russia with 21 armies. The Civil War put in danger the very basis of Soviet power and contributed to worsening the economic dislocation stemming from the historical backwardness of Tsarist Russia and from the participation in the First World War. The danger of famine threatened the October Revolution. In 1920 harvests had collapsed to less than half the average before the war. The situation was desperate. In his book, Russia: from Revolution to counterrevolution, Ted Grant remembers those moments:

“Inflation spiralled out of control. 1921 marked a year of further economic decline. The harvest reached a mere 37.6 million tons, only 43 per cent of the pre-war average. As a consequence, millions more perished of starvation and disease. According to Pierre Sorlin:

“Epidemics spread easily. Contagious diseases that had not been brought under full control at the beginning of the twentieth century again spread rapidly. Between 1917 and 1922, about 22 million people contracted typhus; in 1918-19, the official mortality for this disease was 1.5 million, and the census was probably incomplete. Cholera and scarlet fever caused fewer deaths but affected 7 or 8 million Russians. The death rate was astronomical É and, in the country as a whole, É doubled. The birth-rate, on the other hand, declined considerably, barely reaching 13 per thousand in the important towns and 22 per thousand in the country. Between the end of 1918 and the end of 1920, epidemics, hunger and cold had killed 7.5 million Russians; world war had claimed 4 million victims.” (Quoted by M. Liebman, Leninism under Lenin, p. 346.)”[6]

The Bolshevik Party was forced to introduce the NEP to try to restart agricultural production, thus retreating from the idea of a harmonious economic planning, to save the revolution.

The bureaucratization of science

“It is better to know less, but to know just what is necessary for practice.” (Trofim Lysenko)

Under conditions of material and cultural backwardness, in a situation of political international isolation, the bureaucracy of the USSR took more and more control of the state out of the hands of the workers. What was initially an unconscious process took a conscious form in the new political direction of the party.

After the October Revolution, Russian scientists tried to bridge the gap with western research. Science enjoyed a freedom stemming from the revolutionary purposes it was used for. Even in a situation of extreme material misery, workers’ democracy gave to science a freedom Tsarism could never have conceded. Many of the scientists who joined the revolution devoted their basic research to solving the problems of the young workers’ democracy.

From 1925 to 1931, however, the process of bureaucratization made a quantum leap. The bureaucracy became gradually aware of itself as a separate caste and of the need to defend its power, prestige and privileges. Every defeat of the proletariat in other countries was a blow to the Russian workers, who were more and more exhausted and demoralised.

This process began to be reflected in the scientific field. The bureaucracy could not tolerate a frank debate, political or scientific; it could only accept propaganda. The official media, like Pravda, were cleansed of any real discussion and became a tool of internal consensus. At the same time the results of the first five-year plan, which was declared complete in 1931 after only four years, rocked a world that was mired in a deep crisis and presented the image of an apparatus that was really capable of moving society forward.

However, the Soviet economy was far from full recovery, especially in terms of agricultural production. From this point of view, the then young Ukrainian agronomist Trofim Lysenko was the man of the moment, that is, the man of the apparatus. In the words of the science historian Helena Sheehan:

“But Lysenko was the man of the hour, suited as he was to step into the role of the man of the people, the man of the soil, who had come up from humble origins under the revolution and who directed all of his energies into the great tasks of socialist construction. He knew well how to whip up massive peasant support, how to woo journalists, and how to enlist the enthusiasm of party and government officials. He began to be pictured as the model scientist for the new era. He was credited with conscientiously bringing a massive increase in grain yield to the Soviet state, while geneticists idly speculated on eye colour in fruit flies.”[7]

In 1927 he published his first “results” on the cultivation of peaches in the Transcaucasus that he tried to grow after cotton. Lysenko attributed these results to a completely Lamarckian agriculture: a concept by which characters acquired by the plants during their life could be transmitted to the next generation. Lysenko believed that plants able to acclimatise to the cold of Siberia would have been able to pass on to their offspring these features and that it was sufficient to select and plant them. It was not important to him that the results to back up such a theory were scarce.

These positions were opposed to the results of the mainstream genetic theories. Lysenko refused to distinguish between the ability of a plant to “acclimatise” to cold temperatures and to “adapt” to these conditions. The difference is immense: the individual diversity in a population means that a particular kind of plant does have a number of individuals able to acclimatise to any condition. It is a physiological, not a genetic process, similar to that of birds that migrate through different latitudes and climates during migration. These features are not inheritable. The case of plants which according to their genetic characteristics are sufficient to provide variety able to sow and grow in the cold is completely different.

Lysenko based himself on the most conservative part of the scientific community. However, his real ally was the bureaucracy and its need for propaganda. Pravda emphasized his results as sensational. Lysenko’s rise coincided with increased pressures on Vavilov’s research centres to give immediate results. Vavilov had set up a ten year research plan. It was a very short period of time vis à vis the technical possibilities of the Soviet Union at that time. In fact, it was based on the organization of all the research that he had completed over the years. The leadership of the Bolshevik Party, after the revolution, shared this outlook, as the approach of Lenin and Trotsky was to give to scientific research the time it required to develop. The advancement of workers’ democracy would be the result of actual scientific advances. The issue was real scientific and social progress not short term propaganda.

Lysenko, instead, promised superior results in four years. With his theory of “vernalization” of plants he convinced the bureaucracy of the possibility of eradicating the scourge of crop failures and famines in no time for the science and technology of the epoch, but even for those of today. For this “scientist”, it was sufficient to submit to cool temperatures the seeds of plants growing in the summer to ensure resistance to winter in future generations. The Ukrainian Commissariat of Agriculture, in the hope of raising productivity after two years of famine, ordered the massive use of the vernalization technique.

Vavilov was a scientist; Lysenko was an upstart puppet of the apparatus. Unfortunately, Vavilov thought he could deal with his rival on equal terms as he viewed it as merely a scientific dispute and was confident that he would be able to prove the results of Lysenko as unscientific and that therefore they could not be accepted by the scientific community. As Helena Sheehan points out:

“Lysenko’s theory developed in a pragmatic and intuitive way as a rationalisation of agronomic practice and a reflection of the ideological environment surrounding it and not as a response to a problem formulated within the scientific community and pursued according to rigourous scientific methods. But the impression was created that Lysenko achieved results at a time when there was a great demand for immediate results and a growing impatience with the protracted and complicated methods employed by established scientists in achieving them.”[8]

Vavilov had not realized that the debate with Lysenko was not to be played out on fair or scientific terms. He personally paid a heavy price for his political naiveté. The bureaucracy wanted immediate results. If the workers’ democracy had been well disposed towards freedom of research, the bureaucracy forced the research to achieve technical results immediately. Again the historian Helena Sheehan noted:

“Lysenko’s voluntarist approach to experimental results and to the transformation of agriculture was the counterpart of Stalin’s voluntarist approach to social processes, undoubtedly a factor in Lysenko’s managing to capture Stalin’s imagination in this period.”[9]

And again:

“His habit was to report only successes. His results were based on extremely small samples, inaccurate records, and the almost total absence of control groups. An early mistake in calculation, which caused comment among other specialists, made him extremely negative toward the use of mathematics in science.”[10]

The bureaucracy created a specific scientific magazine, Yarovizatsiya (“Vernalization”), to promote Lysenko’s results and to convince all research institutions to adopt the new theory as it was part of “socialist science”, i.e. of the bureaucracy’s propaganda.

A new qualitative leap was when Lysenko, in 1931, published a devastating article against modern genetics in the prestigious journal Ekonomicheskaya zhizn (“Economic Life”), with a harsh attack on the thesis and the work of Vavilov. At the same time, Russian geneticists who cooperated with Vavilov were branded as “Menshevik idealists”.

The bureaucracy purged science as it had done with the party and launched a witch-hunt against the scientists. Vavilov was an international scientific personality, he enjoyed the support of the fathers of the October Revolution and the results of his research were acknowledged at the international level. And yet, he had no chance of surviving this attack. On the contrary, the more Vavilov was right and the bureaucracy’s scientific puppets wrong, the more he was doomed.

The death of hunger of a hungry enemy

“We shall go the pyre, we shall burn, but we shall not retreat from our convictions. I tell you, in all frankness, that I believed and still believe and insist on what I think is right... This is a fact, and to retreat from it simply because some occupying high posts desire it is impossible.” (N. Vavilov, 1939)

The beginning of the attacks coincided with the peak of the international fame of Vavilov. In 1932, the Sixth International Congress of Genetics elected him vice-president. However, Vavilov was no longer able to continue his work.

In December 1936, Lysenko called a conference at the Lenin Academy of Agricultural Sciences with the formal pretext of reunifying the two “points of view”. Just as the bureaucracy that, in the name of Lenin, had destroyed the legacy of the revolution, shooting the best elements of the party as “Mensheviks” or even “Fascists”, Lysenko’s followers used the name of Darwin to attack the followers of modern genetics, defining them as “Mendelist-Morganists”. The bureaucracy invented a friction between Darwin’s theory and the new work of Morgan in genetics. Vavilov decided to keep the dispute within the boundaries of a scientific debate, with a misunderstanding of what was at stake. Although formally it was a scientific conference, there was nothing scientific about it.

In his speech Vavilov thoroughly criticised Lysenko but, because of his approach, made concessions to some Lamarckian ideas. In the conference he proposed the publication of a magazine to address the debate. Tragically, he did this just as the bureaucracy was preparing his elimination. Vavilov was not so skilled politically to fully understand the material and ideological roots of the degeneration of the Russian revolution under Stalin. The core of his attack was the fact that Lysenko’s ideas had been completely refuted by the whole of world science:

“And now Academician Lysenko appears to tell us that there is no distinction between genotype and phenotype, that it is not fitting to differentiate between hereditary and non-hereditary variables, that modifications are not distinguishable from genetical variations. Furthermore, affairs have gone so far that the People’s Commissariat of Agriculture, which follows attentively the developments in science, as is indeed fitting in our country, has decided to change radically the methods of the selection stations, according to the suggestions of Academician Lysenko who believes that the inherited structure of species can be changed by upbringing, by the influence of agro-technical methods. These changes in methods are being carried out at present under obligation in all our stations, although no experimental data whatever has shown the necessity for the departure from concepts experimentally worked out and accepted.”[11]

And again:

“What is happening is a serious disagreement not only with Vavilov, but with contemporary developments of biological science.”[12]

And:

“I repeat that I do not know of one manual in genetics and selection which would support the views propounded by the school of Academician Lysenko.”[13]

The outcome of the conference was the opposite of the scientific reasoning on the ground. The followers of Vavilov were furiously attacked and, after 1937, one by one, were removed from their positions.

Muralov, Meister and other leading scientists who had worked with Vavilov were first deposed from office and then arrested on charges of boycotting the revolution and collaborating with capitalist countries. Lysenko replaced each of them personally. A whole generation of scientists was arrested at work in a mood of chilling terror. When the director of the Institute of Experimental Biology, A. K. Koltsov, who had worked closely with Vavilov since the time of his first trip, was deposed from office and arrested, the Russian geneticist understood their days were numbered.

In 1938 Vavilov was expelled from the Academy of Sciences of the USSR. With his students he was forced to take refuge in Chernova, Ukraine, to continue his work, probably in the hope that leaving the field to Lysenko, the bureaucracy would have been satisfied. But Vavilov was a threat to the authority of Lysenko and for the bureaucracy not only with his works but with his very existence as a living witness of the revolution in the field of science. Therefore, they had not only to stop him from working, they had to eliminate him.

On the morning of August 6, 1940 the NKVD arrested Vavilov. He was taken to Moscow to give an account of some of the documents found in his office at the Academy of Sciences. Once in Moscow, he was accused of collaboration with the Nazis, of boycotting Soviet scientific research and of Trotskyism. The charges were all moved by the employees of Lysenko who had replaced, in Moscow, Vavilov and his researchers. Vavilov always refused all the charges.

From August 1940 to July 1941 Vavilov was interrogated 40 times, for a total of 1,700 hours. The “confessions” were extracted by Lieutenant Alexei Khvat, which personally followed all the torture to which the scientist was submitted. Vavilov was taken in the night and interrogated for 10 hours. Those who saw him just before the trial found him bruised from the beatings from head to toe.

The trial of Nikolai Vavilov began on the morning of July 9, 1941 and ended seven minutes later. Vavilov rejected all the charges, but the jury based itself on the “confessions” extracted under torture. He was sentenced to death despite pleas to the government, the only authority able to stop the trial. The scientist was conducted to the Butyrsky prison on July 26, 1941 but he was not executed immediately, as was the case with all his employees. Probably the bureaucracy was wondering if it was possible to use him in research for military purposes.

This is what happened with the famous engineer Andrei Tupolev, who, was arrested but, while in prison, continued to work on military projects. Unfortunately, the bureaucracy did not see the point of saving basic research in botany and genetics. On 15 October 1941, Vavilov was transferred to Saratov because the Nazis were at the gates of Moscow. The sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. The bureaucracy tore up his numerous letters to Beria asking to be used in teaching. Also in these desperate circumstances, Vavilov did not fully understand the reasons for his detention. He was not tortured because another scientist had misled the government about his skills but because he threatened the political power of the apparatus. The war played a role in worsening the repression, but an entire generation of scientists was doomed even before World War Two.

A few months before his death, the international scientific community started to ask about the fate of the Russian scientist, probably because of some personal ties but also because the imperialist powers, although formally Russia was on their side against the Nazis, were trying to learn more of what was happening in the USSR. Vavilov was appointed honorary member of the Royal Society. The British ambassador went to Alma Ata to formally give him the letter but the official response was simply that the scientist had disappeared.

In Saratov people died of cold, hunger and cholera. The physical conditions of Vavilov worsened dramatically, in part because of severe malnutrition. The prison camp at Saratov was the death place of this heroic scientist who wanted to use science to challenge the arguments of Stalinism and its distortions of science.

After the Twentieth Congress of the CPSU in 1956 the documents of the Vavilov trial were made public. It was possible to access the false accusations as well as the report of the doctors. Vavilov was found dead in his cell. According to the autopsy, he died at 7am on 26 January 1943 of pulmonary oedema. Severe malnutrition was recorded, a paradox for a scientist who had devoted his entire life to studying the genetics of plants to fight famine.

Science in a free society

Vavilov was killed by the Stalinist bureaucracy because of his ideas. This was how Stalinism dealt with scientific controversy. Although planning allowed the Soviet Union unprecedented economic growth, without the check of workers’ democracy this led to all kinds of distortions, waste and tragedies. Lysenkoism was a perfect example of distortion, waste and tragedy all joined together.

Science cannot be freer than the society in which it is created and developed. In a deep sense, science and society are the product of each other. This also means that science is subordinated to the needs of the ruling class. As Marx explained:

“The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it. The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas; hence of the relationships which make the one class the ruling one, therefore, the ideas of its dominance.”[14]

This does not mean that science is simply a by-product of capitalist needs and scientists puppets of the system. Class struggle reflects itself in every aspect of capitalism. When Marxists state that contradiction is at the root of society, this is not philosophical jargon, it is a very concrete feature of society as of science and culture. Since the very birth of capitalism, many gifted intellectuals have sided with the proletariat, representing its point of view in the field of science. This was the case with Marx and Engels themselves. What Marxism states is that, in order to understand the society he or she lives in, a scientist must adopt a position, deciding on what to stand for.

The basic characteristic of an ideology is that it is “natural”, that is it seems the only possible way of looking at things. It is like an instinct, something that is unnatural to criticise or to refute. When Hobbes used the metaphor of “homo homini lupus” [Man is a wolf to man] to depict the nascent competition due to capitalism he used a wrong image, as wolves do actually collaborate with each other to survive, but the intended meaning was correct, for capitalism forces human beings to fight each other, and this then becomes the “very nature of humankind”.

If the scientists are not aware of the ideology that they breathe since their birth, they inescapably base themselves on it in their work. Sometimes an open ideological feature comes out even in the natural sciences. Just think of intelligent design, socio-biology or the boson as the “particle of God”. But these examples are less relevant to understand the role of class ideology. Every reasoning person can understand that the Earth is older than 6000 years or that the boson is no more divine than any other particle we already know of. The problem is that what is not visible, what is conditioning the work of scientists behind the scenes, is like an intoxicating gas that has no smell. The power of invisible ideology that seems natural is what is difficult to combat and to defeat.

To refute creationism it is sufficient to be a sensible person, but to understand the role silently played by dominant ideology in science and in society requires a lot more. What is required is a conscious materialist and revolutionary theory, and that is Marxism.

The bourgeois ideology of the “self-made man” is also reflected in the old myth of an isolated genius that finds new theories all on his or her own. Isolated geniuses still exist somewhere, but research is dominated by “big science”, that is scientific research organized as a capitalist enterprise: the same hierarchy, the same ideological thinking behind it. In this sense, science nowadays is an industrial sector just like steel or construction. Of course, there are brilliant scientists now as there were centuries ago, but they are part of a complex organization whose aim is to create marketable goods.

Science, as any activity that must produce profit, is based on long-term projects. Therefore, planning is not alien to science. The question is: which social goals rule the planning? This is true for science as for society as a whole. To oppose science and planning is unhistorical as is lighting a fire with a stone. What failed in the Soviet Union was not planning, but the ruthless rule of the bureaucracy that distorted and destroyed economic and scientific planning, as the case of Vavilov demonstrated so well. Science in the USSR made amazing progress in spite of the Stalinist apparatus that many times put a brake on it, even physically, with the extermination of brilliant researchers.

As for capitalism, planning is no less distorted. The world economy is ruled by a handful of giant industrial and financial conglomerates. They dictate economic policies to governments, deciding the fate of entire continents. But for all their strength and power, for all their strategizing, this kind of planning cannot overcome the anarchy of the market, a monstrous fetter on scientific development. Just think of copyrights, patent rights, corporate only information and so on, which are all means of preventing a free discussion of ideas. More importantly, the aims and topics of research are decided according to the profit motive and many discoveries or ideas are suppressed or misused for profit. Planning is an absolute necessity for the further advancement of science, but it must be a form of planning based on a different society.

What the revolution will do for science

Socialist, democratic economic planning will be the first step towards the liberation of humankind from the slavery of unemployment, misery and ignorance. This complete change of the social ends that rule the economic process will be reflected in scientific research. To deliver, scientific research must be free.

Freedom means, first of all, freedom from economic hardship, poverty, low wages, casualisation and so on. This is valid not only for the people directly involved in research but for society as a whole. The mood created by mass unemployment, misery, brutal exploitation, reflects on any member of society, also on those who do not directly suffer from these ills, as an ideology that tolerates or justifies misery for humankind affects those who live under its spell. Universal social dignity is the indispensable social basis for a gigantic leap in science. This was the case with Russia in the 1920s. This is true now for the world as a whole.

The second aim that planning can achieve is a massive increase of investment in scientific research. New labs, new research centres, free and advanced universities, will be the material basis on which a new generation of scientists will be able to achieve scientific revolutions one after another.

The fading away of social classes and hence of oppression and exploitation, with the connected fading away of antihuman ideologies, in other words, a workers’ democracy on a world scale, will help science to be genuinely free. Of course, even the freest workers’ democracy is a transition period, where the debris of the class struggle is still present in terms of material and ideological limitations. As science will serve the general objectives of the new socialist society, this will mean helping the overwhelming majority of humanity to advance towards material and ideological freedom, and thus science will be immensely freer than under capitalism. Still, complete freedom will only come with the development of a genuinely socialist economy.

Material freedom and ideological freedom will be the two pillars on which a new society and a new science will be built. In doing so, scientists will rediscover the work of Vavilov and many others buried under the Stalinist school of falsification.

Science was not free under the bureaucracy. However, neither can it be free under the rule of capital. We have seen some improvements in the natural sciences because they are vital to the viability of the system, nevertheless these improvements are contradictory and, nowadays, more and more difficult to achieve. Take physics, the science par excellence. If we compare the physical theories of 1920s with those of 1820s we can see colossal advancements. It is sufficient to think of the theories of Maxwell, Boltzmann, Planck, Einstein, Bohr. But is physics so different now from a century ago? Not at all. Social stagnation is weighing on science: “In the two hundred and fifty years that have passed since the industrial revolution, there has never been such a long period of stagnation in theory and technology alike”[15].

This is the real situation of science under capitalism. That is why humankind has to overthrow it.

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See also:

The Problem of the Origin of the World's Agriculture in the Light of the Latest Investigations,

Prof. N. I. Vavilov, 1931



[1] N. Vavilov, Genetics in the Soviet Union: Three Speeches From the 1939 Conference on Genetics and Selection. “Science and society”, Vol. IV, No. 3, 1940.

[2] VV AA, The Problem of the Origin of the World's Agriculture in the Light of the Latest Investigations. Science at the Crossroads: Papers Presented to the International Congress of the History of Science and Technology held in London from June 29th to July 3rd, 1931 by the delegates of the U.S.S.R, Frank Cass and Co., 1931.

[3] Vavilov, 1939, cit.

[4] Ibidem.

[5] Vavilov, 1931, cit.

[6] T. Grant, Russia: from revolution to counter-revolution, 1998, Italian edition, p. 82.

[7] H. Sheenan, Lysenko and Lysenkoism, 1978.

[8] Sheenan, 1978, cit.

[9] Ibidem.

[10] Ibidem.

[11] Vavilov, 1939, cit.

[12] Ibidem.

[13] Ibidem.

[15] Eric J. Lerner, The big bang never happened, 1994, Italian edition, p. 397.