German Joys Book Review: La Mythologie Scientifique du Communisme

Lucian Boia, a Romanian historian and historiographer who specializes in the history of the imagination, originally wrote La Mythologie Scientifique du Communisme ("The Scientific Mythology of Communism") in 1993.  The French publisher Les Belles Lettres republished it in 1999; here’s the book’s website. As no translator is credited, it appears Boia wrote the book in French.

Boia’s subject is the role of science in Communist mythology. It was a relationship of mutual influence: Communism trumpeted its inherent superiority to "idealistic" or "bourgeois" Western thinking by stressing its roots in the objective, materialist scientific laws of social organization discovered by Marx and Engels. Once established, Communism, in turn, attempted to use scientific achievement, like sporting prowess, to demonstrate the inherent superiority of Communist society to the decadent West.

The problem, though, was that Communist thinkers and apparatchiks were driven by two foolish ideas. The first was that scientific procedures such as the scientific method and peer review were tainted by their bourgeois origins. The second, related mistake, was imagining that many limits on progress imposed by human nature, the natural environment, or even the laws of physics were artifacts of the ideology of capitalism and could be transcended with enough Stakhanovite effort.

Once these artificial ideological bourgeois shackles were cast off, the "Glorious March of Reason" (the title of the book’s first chapter) could resume. As Boia demonstrates, Communist scientific thinking had a millenarian turn. The march had a definite destination, the New Society, in which social injustice and class division would be finally abolished — soon to be followed into oblivion by money, religion, and even the State itself.

In the future, clever socialist machines would do most of the work, and humans, freed of the bonds that shackled them to their jobs, would develop their personality without hindrance. "We are here clearly in the presence of a mythology," Boia notes, "[i]ts lack of modesty or scale betray it. Only mythologies and religions offered simple, global, and ineluctable answers to the multitude of questions that torment the human spirit. Where science searches in a process without pause or end, mythology already knows the answer."

The most important architexts of the mythology, were, of course the Founding Fathers: Marx, Engels, Lenin, and to a lesser degree Trotsky and Stalin. Withing the eerie Führerkult of Marxism,a passing comment by one of these "scientific" demi-Gods on some aspect of biology or psychology could influence research for generations. Engels is one of the key figures. Marx only hinted at the potential application of dialectical reasoning outside in other contexts than social criticism. Engels, however, saw it as his duty to demonstrate that a dialectical-materialist analysis of historical forces explained the emergence — and charted the necessary future — of a variety of social institutions.

Manual labor, for instance, was essential to Engels’ thinking, because, in his understanding, monkeys advanced to a higher level of development by using their hands. There was thus a dialectical relationship between manual labor and intellectual development that could form the basis of new socialist societies. It’s easy to laugh at Engels’ pomposity until you realize that these passages of his Anti-Dühring provided an ideological basis for the later emergence of manual-labor based re-education camps in Communist nations. Of course, it wasn’t the only basis for the work camps; every Communist dictator could understand the desirablility of turning potential opponents and "undesirables" into an exploitable, expendable work-force. And through this scientific "re-education" through manual labor, socialist governments could correct what they called the "errors of nature" (inconveniently-located deserts, forests, or patches of tundra). Entire rivers could be diverted, gigantic dams built, and mines operated without the need for pesky safety measures.

Boia observes that the "harder" the science, the more resistant it was to ideological distortion. Geologists and physicists were pretty much left alone, and the Soviet space program, of course, recorded extraordinary achievements. One exception to this rule was the life sciences. Socialism could hardly accept the ruthless competition of Darwinism, and one of the fathers of modern genetics was — good grief — an Augustinian monk Gregor Mendel. How could a proper Socialist biology be built on this stinking bourgeois-clerical foundation? Stalin found his biologist in the "peasant" scientists Trofim Lysenko, whose invented jargon ("vernalization"), crackpot theories, and confabulated research results dominated Soviet biology for decades. Boia mines the Lysenko story for its many absurdities delicious ironies, while also noting that Lysenko abused and oppressed scientists who didn’t agree with him, and his "Lysenkian" experiments sometimes led to mass hunger.

Boia’s book is a delight to read. It’s not a comprehensive history of science under socialism; it’s rather a well-integrated series of essays arising out of that history: the fraught relationship between scientific and socialist thought, socialist theories of human development and personality, socialism’s self-proclaimed mission to correct "nature’s mistakes."  Boia writes with essayistic verve and wears his research lightly. You could be forgiven for thinking that Boia wrote the book primarily to savor human folly. He’s especially fond of quoting Western commentators and scientists (such as George Bernard Shaw, and innumerable obscure Frenchmen) who were taken in by Communism’s persistent claim to be the only truly "scientific" ideology created by humankind. Shaw himself praised Stalin’s collectivization and harshly criticized "bourgeois" agriculture precisely as millions of peasants, unknown to the Englishman, were starving to death.

Cringe-making, darkly humorous episodes like this help make Boia’s argument: always distrust utopian visions of human perfection and progress, whatever form they take.

2 thoughts on “German Joys Book Review: La Mythologie Scientifique du Communisme

  1. There are so many scientific theories that are overthrown by new knowldege, new methodes etc… But these theories are often published as entire truths. That’s the problem. Communism and science, yah, they had their time. It’s over now.

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  2. Autsch,I’ve postet Denglish after midnight – These ideologies of the 20th century were founded on a primitive concept of biology and ecology. Simple opinion about nature, claimed as scientifically proofed. Still people try to understand biology with the concept of physics and chemistry. Worse to read Ernst Mayr: This is Biology. ‘It might be’!!! The book is full of it. This is science. It might be.

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