Thursday, January 03, 2013

Lysenko Affair analysis by Helena Sheehan

I've always had difficulty understanding the varying histories or recommendations about the history of the USSR. "Stalin good"; "Stalin bad, Trotsky good"; Koestler's "Darkness at Noon"; George Orwell's "Animal Farm"; "a Stalin led USSR defeated the Nazis"; "Stalin 70/30"; "Read more recent post archive opening histories"; "History is written by the winners" etc. Call me naive. You might think you understand it but I never have.

The author's or recommender's POV (Stalinist, Trotskyist, anti-marxists, liberals, humanists) always seem to overwhelm the complexity of the data. For many years I have put these questions into the too hard basket and remained a "doubtist".

So, what appeals to me about a scientific history is that the data and hence the interpretation is relatively harder. Science has clearly progressed a lot in the past 150 years (going back to Marx and Engels) whereas "progress" in economics and politics, it could be argued, is more like heading off in tangents or going around in circles. Progress in science can't be denied (even though the philosophy of science remains a difficult area) whereas progress in economic and politics is debatable eg. standard of living has gone up but the gap b/w rich and poor has widened.

Helena Sheehan has been strongly influenced by marxism and also remains open minded to different interpretations. As argued above I think her general framing of how to assess the history of marxism and the philosophy of science is a good one.

I'd strongly recommend Chapter 4, The October Revolution: Marxism in Power (the book is here). [So far I've read Chapters 1 (Engels) and 3 (Lenin's Materialism and Empirio Criticism) as well,which are also good]. In Chapter 4 she traces the evolution of the various currents that eventually led to Soviet State support for Lysenko's phoney science. Briefly, Lysenko promoted Lamarkism and opposed Genetics. After 1935 in the USSR ideological demogoguery progressively replaced useful, scientific, vigorous debate - at great and tragic cost.

It does make for grim reading in parts. It has helped me assess a part of history I've always felt uncertain about. It reveals the sorts of arguments and thinking behind them, used by both sides of the science debate, before the crude politics of power took over. I plan to delve into the style of discussion more: arguments that sound good at the time but turn out to be wrong (not finished yet). My motivation is an interest in what it means to have a scientific understanding of the world in a broad sense - and how that sometimes or often becomes derailed.

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