People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 45

November 11, 2007

Science For The People: A New Vision


Sputnik in orbit



Dinesh Abrol


THE intertwining of science and politics becomes particularly visible during social upheavals that upset existing power structures and relations: revolutions and wars. The British revolutions of the 17th century, the French revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries, the Russian revolutions of the 20th century -- not to mention a number of local and two world wars --each brought the interrelations between science and politics into sharp focus. But nowhere were the interactions of the revolution with science more momentous than in the case of revolution led by Bolsheviks.


The Great October Socialist Revolution had a major impact on the development of science in the USSR and elsewhere in the world. The intensity and significance of these interactions stemmed from both, the historical coincidence of science undergoing its own revolution and the importance communists assigned to the development of science. The period of Great October Socialist Revolution coincided with the period of transformation of science from a small-scale enterprise of individual researchers and their students -- making their own simple instruments and often financing their own endeavours -- into a huge industry-like process that involved hundreds of workers, complex machinery, and more and more resources. Scientists all over the world desperately sought patrons and partners to provide the support and funding necessary for this emerging enterprise. In the USSR, they found such a partner --- the Bolshevik state.




Attitude of the scholarly community was initially hostile and one of distrust of Bolsheviks, and the community was a divided house during the period of civil war. With the civil war raging, the Bolsheviks adopted an economic policy of “war communism” that featured the nationalisation of industry. The nationalisation of all private enterprise made the Bolsheviks the sole patron of science. The premium the state set on science also made it an eager patron. During their first few years of power, the Bolsheviks were primarily concerned with winning the war and restoring the national economy. Though this concern got them to take the instrumental, utilitarian goals quite seriously, their support for fundamental research was generous. At the very beginning of the revolutionary takeover, in January 1918, the People’s Commissariat of Enlightenment (Narkompros) issued “Proposals for a Project to Mobilise Science for the Needs of State Construction,” and a few months later, the leader of the Bolsheviks, V I Lenin, drafted a “Plan for Scientific-Technical work” in the nation. These documents demonstrated the central role accorded to science in the Bolsheviks plans and created the basis for scientists’ collaboration with the new state. Within a remarkably short period of time, most Russian scientists, even those who had been hostile to the Bolsheviks, joined the Bolshevik government in its efforts to revive and expand science in the USSR.


The government moved almost immediately to structure a new system for science, creating special agencies within its ministries. Narkompros, in charge of all universities and institutions of “pure” science, created a science section. The Supreme Council of the National Economy (VSNKh) founded a Department of Scientific Institutions, which oversaw the development of “applied science”. Similarly, there were structures created in the Ministries created for Health and Agriculture to bring about the rapid growth of the science system. Not only had almost all Russian scientific institutions survived the revolution, but in the course of 1918-19 alone, in the midst of the civil war, the government supported the creation of 33 new research institutions: these included several that were later to acquire worldwide renown, including the Central Aero and Hydrodynamic Institute founded by the pioneer of aeronautical research, Zhukovskii; A F Ioffe’s Leningrad Physical Technical Institute; and the Karpov Physical Chemical Institute. One of the first institutes organised on (April 1, 1918) was the Platinum Institute, a clear response to the need for precious metals to buy grain and equipment abroad. Yet the Bolsheviks also funded institutions that had no immediate “practical” value: in 1919, a famous animal trainer and owner of Russia’s largest circus, Valdimir Durov, received support for the scientific formulation of his achievements in animal training.




The government also took steps to preserve the nation’s scientific potential. During the civil war, the scholars too were hit hard; the Bolsheviks followed a policy which sought to nurture and use the bourgeois science heritage rather than to destroy it. The Bolsheviks demonstrated their goodwill by creating a number of privileges for scientists: enlarged food rations, immunity from confiscation of property, and exemption from compulsory physical labour and military mobilisation. In 1921, when the civil war had spent its fury, the Bolshevik regime moved into the New Economic Policy phase (NEP). In December 1922, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR) was formed. Relations between the Soviet government and the scientific community were particularly uncertain. There were ultra-left views seeking from the government to withdraw support to the bourgeois scientists. However, Lenin and A V Lunacharsky, the head of the Commissariat of Education, and other leaders of the Communist Party were aware of the risks of tampering with science, and they frequently expressed themselves against ultra-left views. Lenin underscored the importance of retaining and nourishing the most important institution in science, the Academy of Sciences. Lenin, in particular, was even highly skeptical of the proletarian culture movement’s belief that science in the new era would be radically different from traditional science, and he repeatedly called for the preservation of establishment of centers of scientific and technical expertise.


A V Lunacharsky and many others who were active in the Academy of Sciences were well convinced of the policy of retaining and expanding the existing centers of strength in science. Therefore, the Soviet government adopted even the compromise reflected in the policy of strengthening the universities for teaching where the new “communist” intelligentsia from the working class was to be educated and nurtured, and establishing separately the scientific research institutes for the purpose of research. This compromise was presumably undertaken to save the new intelligentsia from the undue influence of bourgeois scientists.


However, it needs to be mentioned that the division between research and pedagogy that developed in the Soviet Union by the early thirties was never absolute. Many members of the Academy of Sciences taught in the universities, while the universities also developed new laboratories. Research in some fields, for example, mathematics, remained strong in the universities. Furthermore, after 1930, when communist influence within Academy institutes had become more secure, the Academy developed a system of graduate study (aspirantura). Nonetheless, the resulting pattern of research and education was based on a degree of separation of the two that was much greater than in Western states, particularly the United States and England.


During the 1920s, the Bolsheviks did everything possible to improve the conditions necessary for scientific work. They revived and expanded research institutions and spent large sums of precious hard currency to purchase scientific equipment, secure foreign publications, and send scientists abroad. By the late 1920s, the USSR had generated a large, diversified, and multi-centered network of scientific research institutes. Swift institutional growth reached beyond such traditional scientific centers as Moscow, Petrograd, Kiev, Kazan and Khar’kov; important new centers appeared in Tomsk, Perm, Svedlovsk, Smolensk, and many other provincial cities. By 1929, the Soviet Union had 1263 scientific institutions, including 438 scientific-research institutes and 120 experimental stations.


In terms of increased flow of resources, it is estimated that during the period of 1924-28 there was a general fourfold increase in the research effort of the Soviet Union --- albeit from a small initial size. By 1932, expenditure on science was about 650 million roubles, or three and a half times the 1927-28 expenditure after allowing the salary and price increases. The number of scientists employed in research establishments had grown by two and a half times between the spring of 1929 and the beginning of 1932 and was still increasing, while total manpower was perhaps growing faster still. In 1935, research and development (R&D) expenditure accounted for 0.6 per cent of the Soviet National Income. In terms of relative size, in the mid-1930s this represented a remarkable effort. At the same time the United States was only spending 0.35 per cent of its National Income on R&D. It is also significant that the rate at which the flow of resources was occurring to science in the Soviet Union as compared to other western countries was quite high. It is estimated that the Soviet Union’s expenditure on science in the year 1928-29 was 0.4 per cent of the National Income for that year (in the United States in 1930, 0.2 per cent was spent). This suggests that in six years the Soviet Union had been able to increase the proportion spent on R&D by more than a half.


The revolution radically changed the entire scene for the scientific and industrial research. Before the revolution no prominent Bolshevik leader had ever given the problem of the organisation of science special attention. The stated commitments of the new government to eliminate private capital and to plan the development of the economy as a part of the state policy had also diminished the role of private, philanthropic investment in science. Scientific institutions that had been financed by the private persons before the revolution were now accorded state patronage. For example, before the revolution N Kol’tsov had created the Institute for Experimental Biology with private funds. After the revolution, he secured support for the institute from the state agencies to greatly expand its staff and institutes. Yet, despite its financing of all scientific research, the state’s influence on scientific research was only positive; right through this period the state agencies rarely interfered in the direction, content, or duration of research, the choice of personnel and equipment, or the structure of scientific institutions; these were largely defined by the scientists themselves. Directors of institutes had to present to the financing agency only annual reports and a list of required funds, equipment, and materials.




In the case of industry, Soviet reforms of the establishments for science followed an externalist approach to the development of science and technology that was predicated on the belief that the most important stimulus to the development of science was economic need. The Bolshevik leaders believed that the requirements for the construction of socialism would place demands before the scientists and engineers that would be translated into discoveries and innovations. As Engels had once commented, ‘If a technical demand appears in a society, then it will move science ahead more than ten universities.'


Further, they also wanted to have a solution to the problem of duplication of R&D under capitalism where the laboratories were the individual property of capitalists. During the 1920s and 1930s Soviet academics published many articles and books criticising industrial research in the West, with its industrial secrets, patent laws and wasteful rivalries.


However, the challenge of building the connections of science with industry was a serious one, for the experiment was a first of its kind. The Academy of Sciences was little concerned with the technical sciences until the latter part of the 1920s. The Academy’s first technical research institute was the Power Institute which was founded in 1931. All but a small part of industrial R&D, therefore, was done within the systems of the national commissariats which controlled industry. In the Soviet Union there grew up after the revolution a large number of independent R&D organisations that had the mandate to serve the branch of industry as a whole rather than individual factory. R&D organisations attached to factories played a minor role. There were by the mid 1930s four different types of R&D organisations in industry: research institutes, design organisations, experimental facilities and project organisations. It is estimated that in 1934, put together, there were probably more people employed in such establishments in the Soviet Union than in equivalent American laboratories.


How well did the Soviet science system work? The results were outstanding in respect of achievements. The Soviet Union was the first country in the world to build an atomic power plant, the first to launch an artificial satellite, the first to launch a human being into space, and the first to suggest the now widely accepted Tokmak model for nuclear fusion. In some areas of theoretical physics and mathematics the Soviet Union has been a world leader for decades, and it maintained strong traditions in oceanography, seismology, metallurgy, magneto-hydrodynamics, chemical catalysis, and a variety of other fields.


However, it is also true that there also developed significant weaknesses in the system of science on account of the choices made by the leadership in this period. For example, a visible tension still continued to exist between those who believed that socialism should open up boundless horizons for the unfettered development of scientific research in the physical, biological and social sciences, and those who emphasised that science in the Soviet Union also had a specific obligation: the strengthening of the industrial and military power of the Soviet Union, and science should be centralised to serve the goals of centralised planning. When scientific differences arose among scientists on what course to take, the leadership became party to seeing these differences as political conflicts and arrived at erroneous conclusions at times.