The Rise Of Lysenkoism
The movement emerged as Joseph Stalin's "revolution from above" (1928–1932) forced peasants into collective farms, where the dream of a leap to scientific agriculture suffered practical failure. Lysenko saved the dream with a string of recipes for quick solutions of long-standing problems. He was a poorly trained agronomist with great talent for snap judgments, grand claims, and celebrity. "Vernalization," his breakthrough to fame, began as a scheme to moisten and chill seeds for protection against drought and freezing, with tests on a few plots, crude theorizing about stages in plant development and about heredity, testimonials by some agricultural officials, a rush to mass use on collective farms, journalistic hype—and telltale silence on long-term results. Yet the movement thrived until the 1950s.
Farm bosses quietly discarded Lysenko's recipes, but he had new ones, with crude theorizing pitted against standard science to justify mass campaigns for rapid triumphs that could not otherwise be won. Lysenko argued that the Soviet Union could not afford to lose time conducting preliminary small-scale testing, but had to keep moving forward, applying theories to the masses while still working out the methods in the laboratory. His view of theory and practice fit in with Stalin's "great break," a leap from reasoned arguments over planning to furious drives toward blue-sky goals, most famously summed up in Stalin's 1931 speech to business managers: "We are fifty or a hundred years behind the advanced countries. We must race through that distance in ten years. Either we do it, or they will crush us." In 1941 Nazi armies that had subdued Western Europe struck the Soviet Union, winning a victory that proved the wisdom of berserk modernization. Pragmatists who would dispute that logic must confront tyrannical pragmatism in a context of backwardness: willful drive combined with brush-off or jail (or death) for specialists offering reasoned warning. That is how farming by fiat gained the reassurance of science in Lysenkoism, until long-term self-defeat grew obvious to political bosses, who rehabilitated standard science and its specialists, posthumously in some cases.
By 1939 Lysenkoists ruled many institutes of biological science; universal rule was decreed in 1948, at a highly publicized conference where Lysenko announced that the Communist Party's Central Committee endorsed his speech. Stalin himself had edited the speech, but Lysenko was not allowed to boast of that. Long after, when the system fell apart and archives opened, a historian found Lysenko's draft with red lines and marginal notes by Stalin. Stalin deleted, with sarcasm, a claim that science, like ideology, is divided into bourgeois and proletarian camps. In 1950 he published that rule: science is not divided by class conflict. He ignored his own much-publicized urging of practical men to tolerate no caution from specialists, to "smash" what is "old and dying in science." Such zigzags between willfulness and restraint are blips on a Communist trajectory through faith in swift modernization and social justice to frustration and apostasy.