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The October Revolution and the Sciences

The October Revolution's impact on the scientists went far beyond the narrow confines of the Soviet Union.
October Revolution

There are two major ways that the October Revolution changed the world of sciences. First, was that science and technology can be planned; it is through planning of science, technology and the industry that a backward feudal country like Russia could organise its society and catch up with the far more advanced west in only a few decades. That it could combat Nazi Germany in the Second World War was due in part to the rapid industrialisation Russia had done in the 20's and 30's. The second was that the October Revolution created a different way of looking at science, technology and society (STS), creating even a new discipline of STS studies. Not that the ones who practice STS studies talk about their debt to Marxist thought and the October Revolution;  even though they reluctantly admit that JD Bernal, the brilliant Marxist and an outstanding British scientist, was the founder of this discipline.

For those who talk about how the Soviet Union failed to compete with the West – the US, colonial or ex-colonial European powers – often forget that the birth of the first socialist State was in an extremely backward and largely rural country. Apart from fighting off immediately after the October Revolution, the attack of the Western colonial powers, the Soviet Union had to recover from the First World War, and then industrialise rapidly. The Soviet Union was also facing an economic blockade from the Western powers for much of this time. It was clear to the leadership of the Soviet Union that if they failed to build up their industrial, and consequently their military strength, they would not be able to fight the imperialist powers.

It is difficult to imagine today how backward Russia was in 1917. About 80 percent of Russians were illiterate, there were only 90 institutions of higher learning with only about 1,12,000 students. By 1941, it had grown to 800 institutions, with more than 6,67,000 students. Not only had the numbers gone up dramatically, these institutions were also closely connected to Soviet Union's drive for heavy industries and manufacture.

Not only did the young Soviet State invest heavily in science and technology, it also located its planning within the larger context of planned development of the Soviet Union. It was the marrying of science and technology institutions to the industry that led to the rapid development of both.  The electrification of the Soviet Union and the building of its aviation industry, was the result in no small measure of this marriage.

It was this rapid development of Soviet Union's industrial strength that made possible the defeat of the Axis powers led by Nazi Germany. If we read the account of the history of the Second World War from western authors and mainstream media, the Soviet Union's role in bearing the main brunt of the war and its huge loss of lives is almost erased. They neglect to mention that four-fifth of the Axis forces fought against the Soviet Union in the eastern front: it is here that Nazi Germany's military might was effectively destroyed.

During the War, the Soviet Union's war industry also outproduced a far more advanced Germany. Not only did the Soviet Union produce most of its arms and equipment domestically, it also successfully relocated most of its industry and its scientific institutions to the east from the more industrialised western part of Russia, which came under the occupation of the Axis forces.

How did a nation which could not even make light bulbs before the October Revolution, manage to do all of the above? It was not just the huge investments it had made in building industries virtually from scratch, but also the investment in its people. Soviet Union had invested heavily in a young generation of scientists and technologists, who were closely integrated with its industrialisation. Industrialisation was as much about factories and machines as about the people and their knowledge. And all this could be achieved through planning, which made the socialist economy different than contemporary capitalism, which extolled the supremacy of the market.

For a brief while after the war, the Soviet Union outperformed the West in certain areas in science and technology. It took the lead in sending a man to space. In mathematics and physics, the Soviet Union was seen as a major new force, pioneering basic technologies such as laser, creating advanced computing techniques such as linear programming, developing an understanding of dynamics of non-linear systems (later “rediscovered” in the West as chaos/fractal theory) and a whole host of other advances. It also had one notable stumble: promoting a plant breeder Lysenko's theories over the emerging discipline of genetics in biology. Apart from this one deviation, Soviet science had many more accomplishments that are today sought to be written out of history.

Where Soviet Union failed, was not that its scientists and technologists did not deliver in their disciplines, but its inability to carry these advances into the industry. What we now know is that the Soviet Union's advances in military and space technologies came at a huge cost. It could advance in narrow areas – such as the space and military production – where it concentrated its resources, but fell behind in most of other areas. It simply lacked the resources of a far more industrialised West to carry out the constant changes that new developments in technology demanded.

Important as it might be, the October Revolution's impact on the scientists went far beyond the narrow confines of the Soviet Union. For the first time, it was recognised that science could be planned – something that was rejected by the scientific community in the west. JD Bernal, the British Marxist and polymath, in his book Social Functions of Science argued that the Soviet Union's great advances in such a relatively short period, was possible only because they planned their science, spent a significant part of their budget on research and development (R&D) and integrated it with production. It is this planning model of science and development that became a model for India and most of the newly liberated countries. Not only did India take over the planning model from the Soviet Union, it also developed and invested in its scientific institutions in a planned manner. Bernal was one of India's key advisors in this period, as was JBS Haldane, another leading British scientist and Marxist who migrated to India and even took Indian citizenship. Planning of science became the norm in almost all countries coming out of their colonial yoke.

Bernal was one of the many British scientists who attended the 1931 History of Science Congress in London. It is hard today to understand the impact of Marxist thought on history of science, without going back to 1931, when a team of brilliant Soviet scholars led by Bukharin presented their views to the Second International Congress of the History of Science and Technology in London.  Boris Hessen’s seminal work on Newton, where he presented "the method of dialectical materialism and the conception of this historical process which Marx created to an analysis of the genesis and development of Newton's work in connection with the period in which he lived and worked", had an enormous impact. For the first time, history of science was being presented not as an individual but as a social process. To a band of young scientists, Bernal, Needham, JBS Haldane, Lancelot Hogben, and many others, this was indeed a completely new way of looking at science. The history of science would never be the same again.

The impact of this new thinking on science was not confined to only Great Britain. It encompassed figures like Joliot Curie in France, and many others in different parts of the world. As we have already noted, it became the basis of the development in much of the third world and even the UN institutions.

The planning of science, and looking at the development of science as a historical process, created a new discipline called the Science, Technology and Society (STS) studies. While Bernal was its most influential founder, there were many others. Joseph Needham and his monumental work on the Chinese history of science, Haldane and his work in UNESCO, A Rahman, and a host of others contributed significantly to founding of this discipline.

Not only did the radical scientists of the 30's influence the way we look at science today, the radical scientists also introduced the question of the social responsibility of the scientists. The two world wars – the first with poison gas, and the second with the nuclear weapons – had made clear that while science had the potential to benefit humanity, it also had the capacity to destroy it. The two movements that came out of it were the peace movement and the other, the social responsibility of the scientists. They questioned not only war, but also the increasing appropriation of science by capital through intellectual property rights – patents, copyrights, industrial designs, etc. Much of the free software movement or the health movement's fight against intellectual property is based on this understanding that science belongs to all humankind, and the scientific and technical community has the responsibility to fight for this goal.

The October Revolution made a decisive break in the way scientists and technologists would henceforth look at science. Today, every country and even big corporations plan science. Bernal is rejected as being an anachronism of being a socialist, but his belief that science has to be a planned activity, and the state has to be spend a significant amount in research and development, has now become a part of the capitalist mantra. What Bernal and the Left did not foresee is capital's resilience, and its ability to appropriate any new development in thought.

Much of this history of the October Revolution and its impact is being edited out of mainstream history. Bernal remains, but at the margins. Hessen and his enormous impact on the history of science has been airbrushed out. The history of the Second World War is now “captured” by Hollywood and written in Wikipedia. It is for us to remember the enormous debt we collectively owe to the October revolution.

History can be airbrushed, but it cannot be erased; it is still living in the present as an active, living body of thought.  It helps us understand science and its potential for humanity. It brings together not only the achievements of the October Revolution, but its still growing impact on our current struggles. How do we harness science and technology for the public good? Instead of creating obscene wealth for the few, and the risk of the destruction of our environment and civilisation as we know it, how can it be made to serve the people? While remembering the October Revolution, this is the challenge we need to face today. 

Original published date:

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