There were two major factors which contributed to the ruining of Soviet agriculture from the 1930’s into the 1950’s. First, Stalin accused wealthy farmers of withholding production from the state. This led him to institute a policy of force collectivization where small-scale farms were forced to be managed as single large-scale productions. The government would take the amount of grain it thought it should have while also placing peasants in work camps to complete the ideal of big time farming for the community. Unfortunately, it was from these peasants, not the few wealthy farmers, where grain had been taken. This discouraged workers from producing more; those in camps tended to die. The ideal of people working for the good of the group had been undermined by what was effectively slavery; workers were forced into collectivization and had no power to determine working conditions (thank goodness for unions in the U.S.).
Second, and far, far, far more importantly, Trogim Lysenko emerged to become a major political figure (though he called himself a scientist). The government recognized that its policies of the late 20’s and early 30’s had failed to produce more output, and now they needed to find a way to not only fix their political liabilities (angry and disenchanted peasants), but they also needed to make their land produce more.
The big deal with Lysenko was that he rejected Mendelian genetics, instead favoring Lamarckism. This seemed intuitively sound on an extremely immature and scientifically ignorant level; it was that intuitive appeal that helped convince Stalin:
But that is not the point just now. The point is that our practice, our reality, is providing new arguments against this theory, but our theoreticians, strangely enough, either will not, or cannot, make use of this new weapon against the enemies of the working class. I have in mind our practice in abolishing private ownership of land, our practice in nationalising the land, our practice which liberates the small peasant from his slavish attachment to his little plot of land and thereby helps the change from small-scale peasant farming to large-scale collective farming.
Stalin was using “theory” in reference to political theories, but we can see clearly that he was willing to favor his own ideology (“practice”) over anything remotely abstract. That is why Lysenko became so political successful. His own theories jived with the Soviet ideal of forced collectivization; perform a little biological magic on some crops and voila! everyone has enough food and an angry peasantry isn’t all that important.
During the years Lysenko’s ideas reigned, Soviet agriculture suffered tremendously. He was ignoring how evolution works; populations are not permanently improved through environmental changes. Change may happen through epigenetics, but as Jerry Coyne explains, this does nothing to alter the basis of biology. In order to improve agriculture, practice (not in the ideological sense) has its role, but ultimately we must be sure our ideas fall within the theoretical (in the scientific sense) framework we have established – especially since we know it is true.
Filed under: Evolution | Tagged: Agriculture, Epigenetics, Jerry Coyne, Marxism, Soviet, Stalin, Trofim Lysenko | Leave a comment »