Friday, 03 November 2017 21:38

Revolution and Science under the Bolsheviks

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 Let Us Unite All the Forces of Science with the Creative Energy of the Working Class
Let Us Unite All the Forces of Science with the Creative Energy of the Working Class
A. A. Kokorekin, 1932

Andy Byford explains how science became one of the centrepieces of the Boshevik revolutionary imagination.

In Russia, 1917 was a year of two very different revolutions. The downfall of tsarism in February was a point of historic rupture – an overturn of history, a momentous departure from the past. The Bolshevik coup in October was a shock takeover – a defiant challenge to history, with eyes set firmly on the future. Science played an important part in the meaning and purpose that the latter, Communist, revolution had forged for itself. If the Bolsheviks grabbed the reins of history to enable the oppressed portion of humanity to finally take charge of its own destiny, then science, through which humanity mastered the production and reproduction of the material basis of life, was crucial to keeping a firm hold on these reins. This was how science became one of the centrepieces of the Bolshevik revolutionary imagination.


Fig. 1 The Soviets and Electrification are the Foundation of the New World (A. N. Samokhvalov, 1924)

It was the Russian autocracy that had, since Peter the Great, institutionalised science in Russia, building it expressly as an instrument of the might of the imperial state. However, the campaign for Russia’s modernisation that Peter triggered so uncompromisingly at the start of the eighteenth century, and in which the development of Russian science and technology was key, is itself commonly interpreted as a ‘revolution from above’. In contrast, Russian revolutionaries had been claiming science as a force of revolution ‘from below’ since at least the 1860s. Key scientists of the day – especially those whose work was embedded in a radically materialist worldview and who emblematised the ability of Man to manipulate the forces of life – were turned into veritable heroes of the struggle for a better society.


Fig. 2 Ivan Mikhailovich Sechenov (1829-1905), ‘the father of Russian physiology’, served as role model to the young Nihilists of the 1860s.

The Russian empire’s scientific profession – which had, by the turn of the twentieth century, grown to a respectable size and made a definitive mark on the international stage – was, in its turn, a staunch defender of the autonomy of science. Its members, for the most part liberal progressives, saw science as vital to improving the lot of humanity and bringing enlightenment to a still backward Russia. They consistently argued that putting Russia on a path of progress required far more investment in science and far greater freedom for science than the tsarist regime seemed prepared to concede. But they also maintained that the logic and values of science were above the fray of politics as such: that science was intrinsically independent of the vagaries of ideology or political will. Which is not to say that they were apolitical. Their sense of civic responsibility, their understanding of themselves as a prominent part of the nation’s social and intellectual vanguard, made them always ready to engage with the burning issues of the day, even when the unfolding political events were out of their control.

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Fig. 3 Ivan Petrovich Pavlov (1849-1936) was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1904 for his contributions to the physiology of digestion; Ilya Ilych Mechnikov (1845-1916) was awarded the same prize in 1908 for his work on immunity.

In the months following the abdication of tsar Nicholas II in February 1917, many members of the Russian scientific profession assumed active roles in the makeshift revolutionary regime that formed around the Provisional Government. They saw their expertise, and the wisdom that came from their dedication to science, as vitally needed if the country’s temporary leadership was to succeed in steering the former empire out of its constitutional crisis. Yet the unexpected seizure of power by the Bolsheviks in October 1917, soon to be followed by a brutal civil war, produced an unprecedented political situation in which pursuing ‘normal science’ could no longer be maintained. In the conditions that overtook the country, science had no choice but to become ‘revolutionary’.

The political leadership of what in 1922 became the Soviet Union seized on science as an essential tool of revolutionary change – an instrument whose power and legitimacy was wielded as decisive to the stream of radical transformations into which the country was imminently thrown. Science was framed as one of the principal means of achieving the grand vision of a new world, and it was also vaunted as a major feature of this promised future.


Fig. 4 Konstantin Yuon, The New Planet (1921)

Like all parts of a revolutionary society, science was mobilised for the purposes of doing the work of the revolution itself: first, dealing with the emergencies of revolutionary upheaval; second, combating the pernicious remnants of the old order (not least ‘religious superstition’); third, building a radically new economic and social infrastructure (with particular focus on supporting industrial labour); and fourth, both materially and symbolically enacting revolutionary advancement as such.

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Fig. 5 Aleksei Kapitonovich Gastev (1882-1939), pioneer of the Soviet science of labour.

The expectation was that, in conditions of revolution, science was going to be practiced as it had never been practiced before. A revolutionary science was science whose powers were (at last) released from the fetters which had been holding it back for so long - namely, the vested interests of the reactionary autocratic state, retrograde feudal nobility, obscurantist clergy and selfish bourgeoisie. Revolutionary science was now free to transcend established institutional boundaries and soar into uncharted waters: old disciplines were jettisoned from the ship of an emergent socialist modernity as new fields of knowledge, with new ideas and methodologies, took their place.


Fig. 6 Vladimir Ivanovich Vernadsky (1863-1945) conceptualised the ‘noosphere’ as the latest phase in the development of the Earth – the phase in which human cognition radically and durably transforms the geo- and biosphere.

Blue-sky thinking and transdisciplinarity were the order of the day, as innovations that promised the most radical transformations on the largest of scales and in the quickest of time were welcomed with particular excitement. Experiments that bordered on miracle-making were accorded the highest prominence in the public arena.


Fig. 7 Sergei Briukhonenko (1890-1960) developed the heart-and-lung machine in widely publicised experiments in which the life functions of a dog’s severed head were temporarily preserved. 

This was no cynical use of science for revolutionary propaganda – the Bolshevik leadership was itself keen to believe in the possibility of impossible feats: scientific miracles served as the decisive confirmation of the rightness of the revolutionary act itself. The utopian heights that science was expected to reach became a direct inversion of the depths of deprivation and devastation out of which the Soviet Union needed to rise in the wake of the revolutionary civil war. 

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Fig. 8 Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (1857-1935), the pioneer of Russian rocket science, inspired the beginnings of Soviet cosmonautics and fed into the boom of Russian science fiction (e.g. by authors such as Alexander Belyaev)

In a revolutionary society, imaginaries of science fused with scientific imaginaries: the flourishing of science fiction and popular science became inseparable from the scientists’ own ventures into zones where humanity’s power over life, time and space was constantly being tested. Science was framed as capable of revealing unthinkable truths and curing incurable ills; of bending nature to human will and remaking the human to its own design. In order to master nature definitively, taboos had to be broken and ethical doubts set aside. For humanity as a whole to benefit, ‘human material’ could not be sacred.


Fig. 9 In the 1920s, disciples of I. P. Pavlov, N. I. Krasnogorskii and A. A. Iushchenko, carried out experiments on homeless and sick children in the same way as Pavlov had originally done on dogs. Other researchers, such as V. N. Osipova at V. M. Bekhterev’s Brain Institute in Leningrad, studied the role of reflexes in learning through experiments in which children were exposed to small electroshocks.

The faith built around the powers of science in general came, however, with an important set of specific expectations and demands. The new regime’s support for science was always based on the assumption that science was being harnessed in order to realise the revolution’s primary objective – the construction of a radiant socialist society on the ashes of a dead empire. Indeed, venerated as they were in their own right, the powers of science were legitimate only if poured into the much greater powers of those who had taken it upon themselves to lead the revolution - those who possessed the ultimate truths by virtue of their mastery over History itself.

While revolutionary science was the key part of the arsenal with which the Bolsheviks sought to conquer History, science was not considered immune to History’s own laws. And History’s unfolding was – according to Bolshevik dogma adapted from Marxist theory – determined, ultimately, by the history of class struggle. Indeed, for all their veneration of Science, the Bolsheviks were bound, by ideological commitment, to maintain a systematic suspicion of the scientists – specifically the ‘bourgeois specialists’ who dominated the scientific institutions which the new state had inherited from the preceding social order.

And yet, if the Bolsheviks were to meet the exceptional challenges that they had so brazenly taken on in October 1917, they had little choice but to both support and trust the expertise of the group whose loyalties, based on its members’ presumed class allegiances, they did not think they could fully rely on. There was no contradiction in this apparent compromise of co-opting a scientific community which they considered to be on the wrong side of History: on the contrary, it was exemplary of both the dialectics and the tactics of the Bolshevik revolution.

Despite the exceptional upheaval that the country was going through, the scientists were strategically protected from the worst of the deprivations of the early 1920s. Significant investment in and infrastructural expansion of scientific facilities (now funded strictly from state coffers) allowed scientific work to develop apace and flourish against the odds. Many of the more important scientists established close links with key figures in the new political establishment. They lobbied for funding across different, often rival, state departments and were invited to take part in the proliferating policymaking committees of an expanding bureaucracy.

Although many scientists were wary of the political agendas of those who now wielded power over the state (and thereby over their own work), the profession took the deal that was on the table. Most had little alternative but to cooperate and were ready to adapt for the sake of continuing with their research. Many spied new opportunities in the Bolsheviks’ enthusiasm for science-based interventionism, and some were flattered to be involved in influencing state policy as related to their specialism. The majority would, in fact, have shared the Bolsheviks’ conviction that science had the power, the right and the duty to transform the world, including what it meant to be human, for the ‘better’. And even though many would have had reservations about the imposed ideological framework, the actual undertaking laid before them was aligned with their own sense of duty to advance their country through their science. Scientists, therefore, actively partook in and contributed to the revolutionary spirit of the 1920s.

But in a revolutionary society science itself had to be revolutionised. This, crucially, entailed that the merely transitional cohort of ‘bourgeois specialists’ would soon ‘wither away’ to be replaced by a new generation of scientific labourers who would come from the ranks of the proletariat. A ‘new model army’ of ideologically literate scientific youth were to be trained in a parallel new network of Communist institutions of higher learning that the Bolsheviks started to build over the course of the 1920s. These establishments were designed to produce those who could embody science as labour in a way which was inseparable from the interests of the proletarian class, to which the future ultimately belonged.


Fig. 10 Let Us Unite All the Forces of Science with the Creative Energy of the Working Class (A. A. Kokorekin, 1932).

It was in these institutions that science was framed most explicitly as an ideological weapon of revolutionary struggle. It was here that ‘science’ became split into good (‘Marxist’) and bad (‘bourgeois’), the two pitted against each other in ritualised performances of the battle between ‘materialism’ and ‘idealism’ (or alternatively, between ‘dialectical materialism’ and some other, vulgar or aberrant, materialist worldview). Aside from prompting, towards the end of the 1920s, a wholesale shift in the rhetorical articulation of the sciences in the Soviet Union, this development transformed science from a weapon of revolutionary struggle into a target of a revolutionary ‘siege’. From this perspective, if the proletarian class was to maintain its grip on History, science as a social institution had to be not co-opted, but subjugated. This, however, belongs to the next chapter in the story of Soviet science – the cultural revolution and the Stalinisation of science which began at the turn of the 1930s.


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Andy Byford

Andy Byford is Professor of Russian at Durham University in the United Kingdom. He has published on the history of the human sciences in Russia across the late tsarist and early Soviet periods.