Aravindan Neelakandan
Encounters With Science: Of The Marxist Kind – Part 3
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(The first two parts of the series can be found here)

After Marxism wrested state power new developments in science and technology needed to testify for the infallibility of dialectical materialism. In the practical side, scientific superiority of Marxist state was to be proved by technological marvels. In the case of biological sciences, an opportunity for such a technological marvel was offered by the death of Lenin. Lenin had died under rather suspicious circumstances.  Joseph Stalin decided to embalm the body of Lenin as a show-piece of Soviet technological triumph. However, it was whispered within the upper circles of power that it was also done to avoid the awkward question of the absence of autopsy given the thick rumours of Stalin having poisoned Lenin.

Two biochemists were hand-picked for embalming Lenin’s body: Boris Zbarsky and Vladimir Vorobiev. Both were Jews. They both knew the risks involved and the anti-Semitic mindset of the Marxist dictator. Interestingly, while trumpeted as a ‘scientific’ marvel abroad, at home, Stalin was actually playing on some of the deep-rooted religious sentiments of Russian Orthodox Christianity. A seminary drop-out, Stalin, sought through the preserving of Lenin’s body a sanction for Marxist government in the collective religious mind of Russia. The Orthodox Russian Church doctrine considered incorruptibility of a dead body a sign of sainthood. Immortalized by the science of embalming, body of Lenin in Moscow transformed this mortal Marxist dictator of short stature into St.Lenin of Mother Soviet.[1] Today, embalming of dead bodies has become a symbolic power ritual in all Marxist ruled states. But the irony that was lost on Marxist dictators is that in doing this Marxism – the supposed science of the future man – was actually re-enacting a 5000 year old religious ritual of Egyptian pharaohs. It was more a throwback than a future statement.

However, the Marxist desire to exploit science in order to create a Marxist deity did not end with the miracle of the embalmed mummy of Lenin. Stalin now had a brilliant idea. Brain science should announce Lenin to be an exceptional genius and preferably the announcement should be done by a foreign scientist. Soviet Union ultimately zeroed in on Oskar Vogt – a German neuro-scientist. He was chosen not only for his science but also because Clara Zetkin, a Communist member of the Reichstag, recommended Vogt as a person whose, ‘convictions correspond, so to speak, with those of a communist.’[2]  Vogt accepted the proposal to study Lenin’s brain. On April 16 1925 he signed the agreement. Vogt received US $1000 for each of his stays in Moscow. By first half of 1927, 31,000 sections were made on Lenin’s brain. Vogt now had to satisfy the ‘expectations’ of his sponsors without compromising heavily on his scientific integrity. Vogt not only should not reveal any unfavorable medical conditions like the much rumoured syphilis attack from which Lenin was said to be suffering in his last days. He also had to reveal some physical neurological evidence for the ‘genius’ of Lenin. [3]  Vogt’s biographers Klatzo & Rhein capture the dilemma of Vogt in the following words:

“[Vogt] realized that he was facing an extremely complex and difficult problem. Lenin owed his successes primarily to historical events. They created for him situations in which, with the luck of a gambler combined with the ineptitude of his enemies, and the application of merciless terror, he was able to secure victory for which the masses adored him. Nevertheless, it would be difficult to single out in Lenin’s personality any particular extraordinary talent or feature of his mind, which would put him in a genius category.”[4]

Even as his Kremlin sponsors were getting impatient for expected results, Vogt struggled to find some redeeming special feature in the dead brain tissues of Lenin. His labours did not go in vain. For he was relieved to note, at last, one exceptional feature in Lenin’s brain – unusual number and size of pyramidal cells in the third layer of cerebral cortex. Vogt interpreted these cells, which he called ‘association neurons’, as involved in the ‘imaginative rational and quick thinking’ faculties of an individual. So it came to pass that, five years after the death of Lenin, on November 10th 1929 in the Pantheon Hall of Moscow Brain Research Institute, Oskar Vogt, the great German brain scientist announced:

“…I found in many cortical areas in the 3rd layer, and especially in its deeper portions, the pyramidal cells in size and number as I had never seen before…With all these considerations, our brain anatomical findings allow us to recognize Lenin as an ‘Association Athlete’…”[5]

Vogt also declared in his paper that the Moscow institute was already in possession of 13 brains already collected from various outstanding intellectuals, and had a ‘racial’ collection of 39 brains out of which 16 were from Russians and 23 from various other ethnic groups in the Soviet Union.[6]

Ultimately Stalin started growing suspicious of Vogt. After all, Vogt was a foreigner and was beyond the control of the iron fist of the dictator. Even this report by Vogt was not much to the liking of Stalin. Even Marxist theory was having some problem with the diagnosis of Vogt. Historians of science Diane Paul and Costas Krimbas point out that according to Vogt these aspects of Lenin’s brain were genetic and were not affected by social environment. Further Vogt’s report argued for continued mental well-being of Lenin up to the time of his death. This meant that a 1922 personal testament of Lenin, which he dictated soon after his second stroke, in which he was harshly critical of Stalin, had to be explained without attributing it to Lenin’s mind collapsing with his age and stroke.[7]

Soon enough complaints surfaced that Vogt was actually undermining the fame of Lenin because he ‘compares Lenin’s brain with those of criminals and assorted other persons.’ Further, even Vogt’s ingenious attempt at showing the physical correlate of Lenin’s genius was turned out against him. His Marxist detractors now found that “in the German encyclopedia of mental illness a German authority (a Professor Spielmaier) claims that such pyramidal structures are also characteristic of mental retardation.” Stetskii who made these complaints to Stalin lamented “in this connection, a number of evil remarks about Comrade Lenin have been placed in the bourgeois press.”[8]

The whole series of incidents of the use of Lenin’s body and his brain reveal one important aspect of science and technology under a Marxist regime: science should be subservient to ideology and serve the dogma. The Theory itself is a fluid entity that morphed as per the whims and fancies of the dictators, and scientists should adapt their science to suit the Theory or perish.

None realized better these bitter lessons of Marxism than the Soviet biologists of Stalin’s era.  Marxist tryst with biology started with Marx’s own flirting with Darwinian ideas and later preferring other racially biased socio-evolutionary models. Both Marx and Engels favoured the idea that inherited characters accumulate and pass on through generations. This concept of the inheritance of acquired characters was then the only prevailing concept in biology, attributed to the French naturalist Jean Baptistae Lamarck. This Lamarckian concept of inheritance and its influence on evolution became an important part of the memetic structure of Marxist creed just like Newtonian worldview.

However, new developments were happening in biology. In a peaceful monastery garden at Brunn, Gregor Johann Mendel (1822–1884) a humble monk studied the way certain characters were getting inherited in generations of pea plants. His paper published in 1865, six years after the publication of the Origin of Species, went largely unnoticed. However, in 1900, Hugo de Veries, a Dutch Botanist, who independently discovered what are today known as Mendel’s laws in genetics, stumbled upon Mendel’s papers and found that the monk had already discovered his own discovery thirty five years before. De Veries could well have left Mendel unmentioned and claimed credit for the discovery of the laws of inheritance himself. But he preferred honesty to glory. Soon Mendelian genetics led scientists to chromosomes as the seat of genes – the innate factors which are responsible for the inherited characters manifested in living beings.

This new discovery was again perceived as a challenge to Marxist ideology by high priests of Marxism, and then Stalin had ascended to power.   And to Stalin biologists had no visible use unlike the physicists with their promise of nuclear weapons. Hence, they and their science were expendable for ideology. And thus a nightmare began.

[1] Fred Kaplan, He’s Had Work: Preserving the Face of a Revolution, The New York Times, 23-Feb-2010

[2] Susan Gross Solomon, Doing Medicine Together: Germany And Russia Between the Wars, University of Toronto Press, 2006, p.335

[3] Igor Klatzo & Gabriele Zu Rhein, Cécile and Oskar Vogt: The Visionaries of Modern Neuroscience, Springer 2002,p.31

[4] Ibid., p.32

[5] Ibid., p.33

[6] Ibid., p.33

[7] Manfred Laubichler and Sahotra Sarkar,  Flies, Genes and Brains: Oskar Vogt, Nikolai Timofeeff-Ressovsky, and the origin of the concepts of Penetrance and Expressivity, in Mutating Concepts, Evolving Disciplines: Genetics, Medicine, and Society (Ed. Lisa S. Parker, Rachel A. Ankeny), Springer,2002, p.70

[8] Paul R. Gregory, Lenin’s Brain and Other Tales from the Secret Soviet Archives, Hoover Press, 2008, p.29