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Dwight Macdonald

Sparks in the News

(27 June 1939)

From Socialist Appeal, Vol. III No. 45, 27 June 1939, pp. 5 & 6.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Kremlin Kultur

“It seems to me that our intelligentsia are living in a particularly happy time ... The Soviet system alone gives the intelligentsia an opportunity to unfold its creative powers ... We shall release such forces that the mere thought of it makes us breathless. (Applause.) Comrades, on December 12 we shall all vote for the Communist Party, for him who expresses the aspirations of the people, Comrade Stalin. (Stormy applause, turning into an ovation. Shouts of ‘Hurrah!’) For the Soviet intelligentsia! For the creative work of the Soviet intelligentsia!” – Speech by M. Kalinin, president of the Soviet Union, before the representatives of the Soviet Toiling Intelligentsia of Leningrad, Nov. 26, 1937. (Quoted from International Literature, No. 1, 1938.)

There is an aged joke about some state legislature which once repealed the law of gravitation. It now appears that in the Soviet Union, where anything can happen these days, something of the sort is actually in process. According to Harold Denny’s report in the N.Y. Times for June 15 last, Socialist Agriculture, the official organ of the Commissariat of Agriculture, has just published a letter from twenty-four agricultural students denouncing as “bourgeois formalism” both the Mendelian law of heredity and the theory of genes and chromosomes for which T.H. Morgan was awarded the Nobel Prize. “The concept of the gene contradicts dialectical materialism,” write the students. “We share the opinion of Academician Lysenko when he says, ‘To my mind it is high time to extract bodily Mendelianism and all its equivalents from the courses of higher educational institutions.” Denny points out that “the fact the editor of Socialist Agriculture publishes the letter under the heading, ‘CHASE FORMAL GENETICS FROM THE UNIVERSITIES’ strongly indicates that that is just what will be done – that the Mendelian law, so far as the Soviet Union is concerned, will be repealed. Unless the editor of Socialist Agriculture made a fearfully bad guess.”

The Philistinism which has laid waste Soviet culture under Stalin appears clearly in the invidious comparison the students’ letter makes between “formal” and “modernistic” genetics – which is dismissed as academic hocus-pocus, mere theory – and “practical” genetics. The “formal” school of Mendel-Morgan is led by N.I. Vavilov, an internationally famous plant expert. The “practical” school is led by T.D. Lysenko, who is in high favor with the Kremlin (and unknown outside the U.S.S.R.). Lysenko is thoroughgoing in his Philistinism, rejecting not only Mendelianism but even the science of genetics itself, which he terms “merely an amusement, like chess or football.” (N.Y. Times, Dec. 14, 1936.) Lysenko and his followers charge the Mendel-Morgan-Vavilov school with placing a “fascist” emphasis on hereditary factors, and insist that any good Bolshevik must put the emphasis on environment. Several years ago they kicked up such a row that Vavilov was arrested as a “Trotskyist” and the Seventh International Congress on Genetics, which was to be held in Moscow in the summer of 1937, was abruptly cancelled on orders from the Kremlin.

Denny comments on the “remarkable” fact that such a controversy, involving cardinal points of political doctrine, should have been allowed to drag on for three years – indeed, that it should take place at all. I agree it is remarkable, and suggest that the Kremlin finds itself in a difficult position. For the more national consciousness the Kremlin finds it expedient to stimulate, the more expedient also it must find it to emphasize heredity over environment. And so, while on the whole inclining towards Lysenko’s doctrines, the Kremlin cannot quite bring itself to summarily outlaw Vavilov.

For these very special reasons, the Vavilov school has been allowed to survive and even to dispute publicly with the dominant school. But this is a unique situation. In other fields of culture, the Kremlin never hesitates to lay down the law swiftly and with finality. In his intellectual pretensions, if not in other ways, Stalin is a twentieth-century Leonardo Da Vinci, settling out of hand the most abstruse problems of science and esthetics, turning his attention from astronomy to cubism to the expressionistic theatre – and with the most devastating effects in each field. Below I have catalogued a few of the Kremlin’s more spectacular recent exploits in such matters. They will perhaps give some faint impression of what the intellectual atmosphere must be like at present in the Workers’ Fatherland.


“Purification of Soviet art from ‘decadent modernistic influences’ as well as the ‘sticky sweetness of romanticism’ was demanded today in Izvestia ... ‘Neither French impressionism nor post-impressionism nor bourgeois romanticism in the art of the French revolution, nor the spirit of eighteenth century painting, can harmonize with Soviet art.’ The philosophical basis of Soviet art was defined thus: ‘New ideas, new spectators and new beauty are the principal accessories of socialistic art. Its basic morality is Soviet humanism.’” – N.Y. Times, Sept. 3, 1938.


“Professor Boris Gerasimovitch, head of the Pulkovo Observatory in Leningrad, was accused today of ‘servility’ toward foreign science by the newspaper Leningrad Pravda ... Professor Gerasimovitch is the foremost astronomer of the Soviet Union, and he possesses an international reputation as one of the world’s greatest astrophysicists ... The current campaign against servility is based on the fact that many Soviet scientists first publish their works abroad.” – N.Y. Times, July 19, 1936.

“Having jailed Director Gerasimovitch of the Pulkovo Observatory and shot Director Numerov of the Astronomical Institute at Leningrad and removed and jailed so many ‘wreckers’ and ‘traitors’ of star-science that no Soviet astronomers could be sent to the recent meeting of the International Astronomical Union at Stockholm, the G.P.U. has now turned its attention to the field of Soviet Art.” – Bertram D. Wolfe, in Workers Age, November 19, 1938.


“On March 17, 1937, the Central Administration of the Photo-Cinema Industry stopped the production of the much talked-of and eagerly awaited film, Bezhin Meadow, on which Sergei Eisenstein, of Potemkin fame, had been working for over two years ... In an article in Pravda, Boris Shumiatsky, the head of the moving picture industry in the U.S.S.R., charged Eisenstein with having failed to ‘learn from life’, with having placed too much faith in his own ‘scholastic profundities’ and with ... ‘harmful formalistic exercises’ ... Eisenstein admitted many of the criticisms. He admitted having been possessed of the intellectual’s quixotic illusion that revolutionary work could be done individually ... ‘Fame came early to me,’ he said. ‘I overestimated myself, and that was a major error. I never advanced beyond the stage of elemental revolutionism ...’” – Joshua Kunitz in Moscow News, March 31, 1927.

“Boris Shumiatsky, chief of the Soviet motion picture industry has been quietly removed ... The magazine Soviet Art charged that his political blindness permitted ‘savage veteran spies, Trotskyist and Bukharinist agents and hirelings of Japanese and German fascism’ to perform their wrecking deeds in the Soviet Cinema ... He was also criticised for introducing the sex element into an almost completely masculine story, Stevenson’s Treasure Island, by transforming cabin boy Jim Hawkins into Jenny Hawkins.” – N.Y. Times, Jan. 17, 1938.


“One of the biggest problems confronting the Bolshevists is to get a comprehensive history of the Communist revolution. None has yet been written, and no one appears willing to undertake the task because of the virtual certainty that whatever line of thought he pursued today would be unpopular five or ten years hence.” – N.Y. Herald-Tribune, Jan. 10, 1936.

“The heavy guns of the Russian Communist Party have now been turned on the works of the late M.N. Pokrovsky, who until his death in 1932 was almost idolized as a Marxist historian, and on the younger Soviet historians who studied under him and now are accused of being active Trotskyists ... Pravda is especially angered by the low estimate of Peter the Great made by Professor Pokrovsky and his followers ... ‘Pokrovsky’s pupils,’ writes Pravda, ‘were fertile soil for all sorts of anti-party hesitations and wanderings ... Many of them became Japanese-German-Trotskyist agents of Rightist dissenters.’” – N.Y. Times, April 18, 1937.

“Nikolai Bukharin and Alexei Rykov, former premier, are denounced along with Leon Trotsky and other one-time Soviet leaders as murderers of Mr. Kirov in a new textbook on the history of the Soviet Union just published. This is the winner of a government competition, ‘and the group of historians who composed it received a premium of 75,000 rubles ... The textbook awards considerable praise to Peter the Great ...” – N.Y. Times, Aug. 25, 1937.

“Joseph Stalin was characterized today as not only a great statesman but as a model historian and. scientist by Emil Yaroslavsky ... ‘Comrade Stalin personally executed a vast amount of the work of compiling A Short Course on the History of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union’, said Mr. Yaroslavsky ‘Isn’t our admiration stirred by this work of Stalin, for which he found time amid gigantic State work? ... The concrete instructions ol Stalin to our historians, and concrete criticisms of their mistakes – all this caused a veritable about-face in our history.’” – N.Y. Times, March 13, 1939.


“Serious charges are faced by Eugene B. Pashukanis, until a year ago regarded as chief-theoretician of Soviet justice ... Mr. Pashukanis had taught that the State was withering away ...” – N.Y. Times, April 4, 1938.


“The Lexicographical Institute in Leningrad is one of the latest institutions in the U.S.S.R. to suffer in the constantly widening purge ... Academician N.S. Derzhavin, editor-in-chief of the dictionary, who enjoys international reputation, has been removed from his post His assistant, Professor Obnorsky and his secretary are likewise accused of ‘counter-revolution’ and ‘wrecking’ and there is no reason to doubt that all three have been arrested ... The entire work will be rewritten under the direction of new editors.

Leningrad Pravda published a bitter attack on Professor Derzhavin, asserting he subtly introduced heretical Trotskyist theories into circulation ... It cited the definition of the word ‘émigré’ as ‘one who lives permanently outside his own country’ as a sample, pointing out indignantly that the definition ‘said not one word about the treason of such people to their Socialist fatherland’ ... Worse still, ‘comparatively few quotations from Stalin were given’ while they freely relied on quotations from Bukharin, Kamenev, and Radek.

“The editors encountered difficulties a few years ago. They issued the volume, P, with a definition of the word, ‘passport’, explaining the hateful significance of this word under the Czarist regime ... The volume, had gone to press when the Soviet Government suddenly announced the introduction of a law requiring every citizen to carry a passport.” – Manchester Guardian Weekly, August 27, 1937.


“The Soviet Union is purging its writers The tallest reputations to fall so far have been those of V. Kirshon and A. Afinogenov, the two best-known playwrights in the Soviet Union ... They are only two of many. The current purge ... has turned up a nest of ‘enemies of the people’ in nearly every newspaper, magazine, and publishing house ... Until the new ‘party line’ becomes clear, it would be a foolhardy Soviet writer who would advance a new idea. One of them, asked recently why he had written so little recently, quoted an old Jewish proverb: ‘While a pogrom is going on, don’t rush out on the street.’” – N.Y. Herald-Tribune, May 11, 1937.


“Dimitri Shostakovitch officially went into eclipse today as the Soviet Union’s favorite living composer ... Pravda branded his music as ‘unSoviet, unwholesome, cheap, eccentric, tuneless and Leftist’ and pleaded for music with a tune to it that one could whistle on the way home ... His ballet, Limpid Stream, was removed from the repertory of the Bolshoi Theatre. His opera, Lady Macbeth of Mensk, was cancelled on the eve of its opening in a theatre that had been rehearsing it for months.” – N.Y. Times, Feb. 14, 1936.

“Joseph Stalin ... yesterday attended the revised version of Glinka’s nineteenth century patriotic opera, Susanin ... The original version, entitled, A Life for the Czar, glorified Czarism ... The revised version retains the famous finale music but changes the words from ‘Glory, glory to the Czar!’ to ‘Glory, glory to the fatherland!’ ... Mr. Stalin repeatedly applauded his approval.” – N.Y. Times, April 4, 1939.


“Professor Shatkin, who said in a lecture at the Moscow Power Institute that Aristotle had laid down the fundamental principles of Menshevism and that Plato was the father of fascism, has been summarily removed ... This action was followed by a full faculty meeting at which both the Communist Party and the Young Communist organization were represented, as well as the administration of the Commissariat of Heavy Industry ...” – N.Y. Times, Oct. 22, 1938.


“Vsevolod E. Meyerhold, head of the famous theatre bearing his name and long revered by Leftist dramatic groups abroad as a prophet of the revolutionary theatre, has received a terrific, drubbing from Platon Kerzhentseff, chairman of the arts committee of the Council of People’s Commissars ... Meyerhold’s first play in 1920, after he organized his new theatre, Mr. Kerzhentseff says, had a Menshevist traitor for a hero and the second was dedicated to Leon Trotsky.” – N.Y. Times, Dec. 18, 1937.

“The long-expected axe fell today on V.E. Meyerhold ... The arts committee of the Council of People’s Commissars ordered his theatre dissolved and members of his acting company transferred to other theatres ... The arts committee charged ... the Meyerhold Theatre throughout its existence was unable to free itself from the utterly bourgeois, formalistic positions alien to Soviet art, had distorted the classics for the sake of Leftist tricks, and formalistic stunts, and had failed in the production of Soviet plays, such few as it had produced being saturated with ambiguity, even downright.and anti-Soviet sneers.” – N.Y. Times, Jan. 8, 1938.

Et Cetera: Anthropology, Archaeology, Buddhist Lore, Ethnography and Soil Culture

“The directorate of the All-Union Academy of Science has recommended the immediate expulsion in disgrace of Nikolai Bukharin ... The grounds given were that Bukharin presided over the most dangerous counter-revolutionary nest within the academy. According to the report of the permanent secretary, N.P. Gorbunov, who presented the expulsion resolution, many departments of the academy were riddled with counter-revolutionary tendencies which disrupted the work of the scientific institutions ... Mr. Gorbunov’s report specifically condemned the Pulkavo Observatory ... the Soil Institute, Literature Institute, Law Institute, the Institute of Buddhist Lore, which was accused of publishing an organ of the Buddhist lamaist religion, and the Institutes of Archaeology, Anthropology and Ethnography ... He attacked Germany for expelling her best scientists and falsifying science ...” – N.Y. Times, May 21, 1937.

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