Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Stalin as Reviewer #2

(Of historical interest mostly, though I think it’s a good story).

Most people reading this blog probably know about Trofim Lysenko, who, with Stalin’s help, set back Soviet genetics in the late 1940s, preventing any discussion of Mendelian inheritance. Yet Stalin’s influence on Soviet scholarship after WWII was much more far reaching. He intervened in disputes concerning philosophy, physics, physiology, linguistics, and political economy; in fact one of the epithets by which he was sometimes referred in the press was “the coryphaeus of science”, i.e., the leader of the chorus of Soviet science. (Lysenko himself used the term in his eulogy for Stalin in 1953, though it was first used in 1939).

Most of these interventions were editorial in character. He edited pre-publication drafts of articles and books, often in close consultation with their authors and at great length (he was actually a decent editor), and occasionally provided feedback on published and unpublished work. And he did this despite the fact that he was the undisputed ruler of one of the victors of World War II, a country that was facing the gigantic task of reconstruction after one of the most destructive conflicts in human history. In short, he was the editor and reviewer from hell.

The story of Stalin’s intervention into Soviet linguistics is particularly funny, at least in the morbid way that anything from that time can be funny. And it also brings out some interesting points about how official ideological commitments both constrained and enabled Stalin and Stalinism.

Some context here. In the late 1940s, the Soviet government set in motion a number of campaigns to reduce “foreign” influence on Soviet science. Some of these campaigns involved harassing scholars who cited too many foreign scientists or wrote in English too much, while others attempted to stress the distinctiveness of socialist science.

In linguistics, the standard socialist position was represented by the work of N. Ia. Marr, who had argued in the 1920s that class struggle explained the development of language. Marr, like Pavlov, had been pretty much canonized by the Soviet academic establishment, so nobody bothered to attack his views, despite the fact that they had some obvious weaknesses, and Marr wasn’t around to defend them. In any case, one would think Marr’s view was sufficiently socialist – sufficiently Soviet – to be safe from attack.

But in 1949, a Georgian linguist, Arnold Chikobava, convinces the First Secretary of the Georgian Central Committe, Kandid Charkviani, to send a letter to Stalin arguing that Marr was wrong. According to Ethan Pollock (from whose piece on Stalin’s scientific interventions in the post-war years I am getting most of this), Stalin reads the letter carefully and agrees with Charkviani:
The letter pointed out that if all languages were class-based, as Marr claimed, it became impossible to explain the use of language during primitive communism, when classes had yet to form. Marr also suggested that languages went through stages of development along the lines of modes of production. Contemporary languages represented various points along this uni-directional progression towards an advanced stage, which according to Marr had already been reached by Semitic and modern European languages. Charkviani pointed out that this challenged the particular linguistic and ethnic development of individual national cultures. Further, Marr posited that all languages could be traced back to four fundamental sounds. Charkviani countered that Marr had presented no credible evidence in defence of this idea. Marr argued that the main goal of Soviet linguists was to work towards a single, world language; Charkviani cited a quotation from Stalin supporting the notion that nations and national languages would persist in the first stage of the worldwide dictatorship of the proletariat. In the name of bringing about a world culture, Marr supported the imposition of Latin alphabets throughout the Caucasus. Charkviani saw this as an insult to the ancient languages of the region. In sum, Charkviani argued that Marr was a rootless ‘cosmopolitan’. What appeared revolutionary and Marxist in the 1920s, now foolishly disregarded the importance of national traditions and interests. (pp. 274-275)
The charge of “rootless cosmopolitanism” is notable; this is just before the high tide of Stalinist anti-semitism. But Chikovaba (via Charkviani) is also clearly pointing to some obvious problems with Marr’s views, and the overall thrust of the criticism suggests a way of reconciling the universalism of Marxism with Stalin’s conviction of the importance of national cultures. And Stalin is clearly looking for a way to shake up Soviet linguistics in this direction, and is thus receptive to these criticisms of Marr.

In any case, Stalin is sufficiently impressed with the letter that he summons both Georgians to his dacha to discuss the matter. (Think how unusual this is – among his many duties, Stalin believes it’s important to discuss the correct Marxist-Leninist position on the development of language!). The discussion goes well, and Stalin asks Chikovaba to write an article for Pravda, a draft of which Stalin edits “line by line, at times eliminating or adding words, sentences, or paragraphs”, and stressing in his comments that “languages were national in character, not class-based.” Revise and resubmit! Chikovaba sends another draft a few days later (nothing like having Stalin as your editor and reviewer to put the fire in your belly) which Stalin again discusses with him extensively and finally approves for publication, sending a note to the Politburo saying that there should be a “free discussion” of linguistic issues.

But when the article is published, it was not immediately obvious what Soviet linguists were supposed to do. The article didn’t come from Stalin, after all; and Chikovaba was attacking the orthodox position. So it seemed like he was doing something very risky, or else that he was a provocateur (perhaps the article was intended to expose the enemies of the orthodoxy to later punish them?). In any case, genuine discussion ensues for a time: some linguists publish articles in Pravda attacking Marr, others defending him, and others going for some sort of compromise. This is not quite what Stalin wanted, so eventually he publishes his own series of articles indicating the proper Marxist approach to the controversy (‘On Marxism in Linguistics’). The reaction from linguists is immediate and panicked:
In their wake came a chain reaction of people dissociating themselves from the views of Marr. Pravda began to receive not letters but express telegrams. “Please insert in my article immediately corrections of the following content: in any class society, language reflects not the class structure but the national culture. The remainder of the article may be left as it is.” “I beg you not to publish my article on the linguistic question and to return it.” “After the articles of Comrade Stalin I reject the fundamental propositions of my article and beg you not to publish it.” “I beg you to withhold my article ‘For the Complete Defeat of the Idealists and the Metaphysicians in Linguistics.’ … I consider this article erroneous and harmful.” “After the brilliant article of Comrade Stalin it is no longer necessary to publish my article.” “Do not publish my article on the linguistic question. I will send another in a few days.” (Elena Zubkova, Russia After the War, p. 127)
No disinclination to retract one’s findings here!

Stalin’s intervention posed new problems, however, since it seemed to contradict things he had said in the 1930s. So people wrote letters asking for guidance: how do you reconcile the contradictions between Stalin’s “cosmopolitan” position then and his “national” position now? Is it ok to speak or learn Esperanto? What about foreign loan-words? And Stalin (and the newly empowered anti-Marrist faction) either had to answer or to ignore these questions – some of which raised even more complicated issues about the relationship between science and the class structure. But, as Pollock notes, “there was no accepted method of continuing discussion after the time for official discussion had concluded. Stalin’s decisive role only deepened the quagmire” (p. 282) by pre-emptively establishing a new orthodoxy.

Yet Pollock makes a good case that Stalin really wanted some genuine discussion and criticism as a way of furthering the progress of science, at least in some fields (though he underplays the connection of Stalin’s views on linguistics with his interest in strengthening national identities and making use of patriotic fervor), and goes on to make the more (speculative) claim that Stalin’s repeated assurances that science only progresses via discussion, and that it is not necessarily class-based, account at least in part for “science’s rising prestige in the post-Stalin decades”. Stalin really needed (some) science to work well in the coming competition of the Cold War, and dimly understood that this could not happen if dogmatism reigned everywhere. Yet as long as he was alive, no such discussion could take place. His influence was like that of an enormous gravitational body; once he intervened (or was even suspected of intervening), the space of discussion became completely warped.

Dogmatism was safety: one needed to know where to stand in order to get on with life. Wherever the orthodoxy was unclear, best not to tread.

1 comment:

  1. David Marjanović7:16 AM

    Dogmatism was safety

    On the other hand, the end of Marrism saved the lives of several linguists whose research results weren't Marrist enough (e. g. Vera Cincius, famous nowadays for her work on the Tungusic languages). The biologists whose results were insufficiently Lysenkoist had no such luck in Stalin's lifetime.