[Marxism] Freedom’s Laboratory: The Cold War Struggle for the Soul of Science

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Jul 23 06:56:49 MDT 2019

LRB, Vol. 41 No. 14 · 18 July 2019
Pissing in the Snow
by Steven Rose

Freedom’s Laboratory: The Cold War Struggle for the Soul of Science by 
Audra J. Wolfe
Johns Hopkins, 302 pp, £22.00, January, ISBN 978 1 4214 2673 0

Steven Rose is commemorating, together with Hilary Rose, the 50th 
anniversary of the British Society for Social Responsibility in Science.

As a young researcher applying for a US visa to go to a conference in 
the mid-1960s, I presented myself at the fortress-like embassy in 
Grosvenor Square and ticked the boxes affirming that I was not nor ever 
had been a member of the Communist Party and did not intend to attempt 
to overthrow the US government by force. But then I was summoned 
backstage into a private office, where I faced a humourless consular 
official who began by asking me to list all the organisations I’d ever 
belonged to, starting, it seemed, with the school chess club. ‘My, 
you’re a joiner,’ he sighed as I went through the list. When I asked why 
I had been singled out, he explained that I’d said I was a biochemist 
and ‘you biochemists are a left-wing lot.’ To issue the visa, he needed 
to get clearance from the CIA’s European office in Frankfurt. Would I 
pay for the call? The visa arrived just in time for my meeting, along 
with a receipt for the cost of the call – in case, the embassy informed 
me, I wished to claim it against business expenses.

When I told the Biochemical Society that it was regarded as a CP front 
organisation, a senior colleague suggested this was a tribute to the 
legacy of J.B.S. Haldane, biochemist, geneticist, Communist Party member 
and regular contributor to the Daily Worker through the 1930s and 1940s. 
If so, the CIA’s files needed updating. By the 1950s Haldane had left 
the party after the furious international dispute among geneticists 
surrounding the claims of the Russian agronomist Trofim Lysenko to have 
dramatically and heritably improved crop yields by simple environmental 
manipulations that flew in the face of conventional genetic 
(‘Mendelian’) theory. Soviet geneticists critical of Lysenko’s claims 
were imprisoned or executed. Their fate was seen in the West as evidence 
of an irreconcilable clash between science in the ‘free world’ and in 
the Soviet Union. It is with the Lysenko affair that Audra Wolfe begins 
her history of the CIA’s covert role in promoting the allegedly neutral, 
objective nature of scientific inquiry as a Western value.

Since the 17th century, Western scientists and their philosophical 
supporters had insisted that science and its method of acquiring 
knowledge about the world were value-free, the royal route to truth, 
best pursued by independent researchers unimpeded by outside direction. 
That assumption was challenged by Marx, and more emphatically by his 
followers in the young Soviet Union in the 1920s. They argued not only 
that the questions scientists asked about the natural world and the 
methods they used to answer them were shaped by the needs of capitalism, 
but that the reductionist theoretical framework in which they were 
located was specific to bourgeois society. A socialist science would ask 
different questions about the world, and provide a different theoretical 
framework through which to answer them. The vigorous Soviet debate about 
what a socialist science might look like was embraced by communist 
scientists in the West, above all by Haldane (who wrote a preface to the 
English translation of Engels’s Dialectics of Nature) and by the 
crystallographer J.D. Bernal in his 1939 book The Social Function of 
Science. By then, however, Stalin had dragooned science and scientists 
in the USSR into following a rigid party line, and in 1946 theory was 
ossified in the claim by Andrei Zhdanov, the secretary of the Central 
Committee of the CP, that the world was divided into two camps: one 
Soviet and ‘democratic’; the other US-led and ‘imperialistic’. Science, 
according to the Zhdanov thesis, both reflected and contributed to these 
different worldviews.

Historians of the Soviet Union have documented the significance of the 
two camps thesis for Russian science. Wolfe shows that it was endorsed 
by the US too. According to American propaganda, just as Nazi Germany’s 
‘Aryan science’ had failed to produce an atomic bomb, so the Soviet 
state’s official endorsement of Lysenko’s fraudulent claims demonstrated 
that science could flourish only if pursued freely and without 
ideological constraints.

Wolfe has interviewed the surviving actors and dug deep in the archives 
to trace the turf wars between the US State Department, the CIA and a 
variety of military intelligence-gathering agencies that had sprung up 
during and immediately after the war. Part of the campaign was overt; 
the propaganda benefits of Marshall Aid, along with its economic 
benefits to US industry, were explicit. It was a bonus that the Soviet 
Union and its satellites declined the public offer of aid. But part was 
covert, and here the CIA won out, channelling funds through a mix of 
apparently charitable foundations to support journals, conferences, the 
anti-communist pronouncements of prominent scientists and the ostensibly 
independent National Academy of Sciences. Among the front organisations 
were the Asia Foundation, supporting science textbooks for emerging 
Asian economies, and the Farfield Foundation, best known in Europe for 
its funding of the Congress for Cultural Freedom.

The CCF established an office in Paris with a CIA agent as its executive 
secretary and launched Encounter, initially edited by Stephen Spender 
and Irving Kristol. It attracted a host of leftish public intellectual 
luminaries as contributors, including Arthur Koestler, who in 1950 
inaugurated the CCF at its opening congress in Berlin with a ‘Manifesto 
for Freedom’. Koestler, along with Spender and other ex-communists, also 
contributed to The God That Failed, a 1949 book edited by the Labour MP 
Richard Crossman. He went on to foster a series of CIA-funded seminars, 
populated by Encounter contributors, in the Austrian ski resort of Alpbach.

Koestler’s adventurous past in the Spanish Civil War, along with his 
explorations of cosmology (The Sleepwalkers) and of the Stalin purges 
(Darkness at Noon), had made him something of a hero for me, and when in 
1961 Hilary Rose and I were invited to a party at his Alpbach residence 
we jumped at the chance, sublimely innocent of the CIA connections. 
Despite his by then passionate anti-communism, Koestler was fascinated 
by the Lysenkoist prospect of the inheritance of acquired 
characteristics, and had a surprising enthusiasm for parapsychology, 
mysterious coincidences and extrasensory perception; he quizzed me 
extensively on them. It didn’t take long to recognise that my erstwhile 
hero had feet of clay, as he waxed sentimental over schmaltzy Hungarian 
gypsy music and dragged his male guests out to gaze at the moon while 
pissing in the snow.

In the early Cold War years, ex-communist scientists were especially 
useful to the propaganda campaign. Haldane kept quiet, simply not 
renewing his Party card, eventually favouring Gandhian non-violence and 
moving to India. But others were angrily outspoken. The US geneticist 
Hermann Muller had emigrated to the Soviet Union in the early 1930s, 
where he was put in command of a large research group. Wolfe sees him as 
something of an opportunist. A committed Mendelian and eugenicist, 
Muller offered to dedicate one of his books, Out of the Night, to 
Stalin. In it he argued for improving the quality of the human race by 
selective breeding with the sperm of eminent men, including Lenin (any 
woman, he assured his readers, would be delighted by the opportunity). 
Stalin was unimpressed, rejecting Muller’s proposal for being too close 
to Nazi race science and for giving primacy to genetic rather than 
environmental means of modifying humanity. Muller skipped the country 
just ahead of the great purges, returning to the US as a vocal 
anti-communist. In 1946, amid widespread public and scientific concern 
over the lasting genetic effects of radioactive fallout from Hiroshima 
and Nagasaki, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for his work on the 
mutational effects of radiation. This made him particularly attractive 
to the CIA, and its front organisations promoted his lectures. His 
staunch eugenicism was undimmed, but he removed Lenin from his list of 
eminent possible sperm donors in the later editions of Out of the Night.

In 1939, Bernal had argued for state planning in The Social Function of 
Science. In response the Oxford geneticist John Baker set up a Society 
for Freedom in Science, with a passionate attack on any attempt to tell 
scientists what they should work on or the methods they should use. The 
conflict between Bernalian and Bakerian views of science runs throughout 
Freedom’s Laboratory. As Wolfe observes more than once, the claim that 
science is non-political is itself a political claim.

Baker was joined by Michael Polanyi, a Hungarian-born, Manchester-based 
physical chemist turned anti-positivist philosopher of science. Through 
the CCF’s Paris office, the CIA approached Polanyi with the proposal 
that he edit an occasional newsletter, Science and Freedom. Polanyi’s 
son and daughter-in-law, George and Priscilla, ran it from Manchester 
and proved surprisingly resistant to sticking to their funders’ 
anti-communist script. Instead of focusing on attacking the Soviet 
Union, Science and Freedom took on ‘the problems of the academic 
community in maintaining its independent status’ in both communist and 
non-communist societies. Early issues included reports of protests at 
the University of Göttingen over the appointment of a neo-Nazi as 
rector, and critiques of university administrators in Alabama, Tasmania 
and Cape Town. It’s hard, especially in today’s bleak university 
climate, not to cheer the Polanyis on. Wolfe confines herself to 
enjoying their blithe refusal to acknowledge the stream of memoranda and 
directives from Paris until, inevitably, the newsletter was allowed to 
die, to be replaced by a more formal academic journal, Minerva, which, 
cast free from its CCF origins, continues to flourish.

Counterposing scientific freedom with state planning was always going to 
be a tricky argument, especially as the US government had been 
responsible for the most costly scientific and technical endeavour ever, 
the Manhattan Project. In 1953, Eisenhower launched the Atoms for Peace 
campaign to inhibit other nations from building their own bombs. But the 
claim that only free science could deliver the goods soon ran into 
tougher headwinds. The Soviet Union was proving unexpectedly successful, 
testing its first atomic bomb in 1949, years ahead of US estimates. Then 
in 1957 came the shock of Sputnik, the Earth’s first orbiting satellite, 
which prompted Kennedy to commit to placing a US astronaut on the moon 
by the end of the 1960s. Meanwhile, to the distress of the CIA, the 
Atoms for Peace campaign was taken up by Western physicists who called 
for the abolition of all nuclear weapons. In the US this led to the 
launch of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, and in Britain to the 
birth of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. In the Soviet Union, the 
dangers of nuclear fallout led the geneticists who had criticised 
Lysenko and survived, now tactfully rebranded radiation biologists, to 
emerge into the daylight, though Lysenko would not be officially 
repudiated for many years.

In the interests of nuclear disarmament, and galvanised by the 
Russell-Einstein Manifesto of 1955, which spelled out the dangers of 
mutual nuclear annihilation, Western physicists tried to make links with 
their Soviet counterparts. A prime mover was Joseph Rotblat, the only 
scientist known to have resigned from the Manhattan Project on moral 
grounds. He persuaded a Canadian philanthropist, Cyrus Eaton, to bring 
together leading Western and Soviet physicists for an arms control 
conference at Pugwash, a small Nova Scotian seaside village. This 
presented the US administration with a dilemma. Should they allow their 
physicists to go, even those openly critical of US nuclear policy? They 
settled, somewhat uncomfortably, on a two-track approach. Pugwash, and 
its annual successor meetings, would be a channel for back-door 
diplomacy, and could be cautiously supported by the State Department 
even though the CIA saw the conferences as communist propaganda 
exercises and closely monitored the US attendees.[*]

After the Cuban Missile Crisis, recognition began to dawn on both sides 
of the slowly rusting iron curtain that if nuclear holocaust was to be 
avoided then intergovernmental communication must be improved. The 
informal links provided by Pugwash were superseded by official meetings, 
and the State Department authorised carefully vetted exchange visits 
between senior scientists, administered through the National Academy of 
Sciences, though carefully monitored by the security services. On both 
sides, the ‘two camps’ rhetoric was muted: the NAS was anxious to avoid 
any hint of criticism of Soviet methods, and Stalin’s successors quietly 
buried the Zhdanov doctrine. In theory the only science now was the 
‘free’ kind endorsed by Western orthodoxy. In practice, the demands of 
the arms race absorbed an increasing proportion of the science budgets 
of both the US and USSR – and of the UK, still determined to ‘punch 
above its weight’ militarily.


The CIA’s cover was finally blown in 1967, when the radical West Coast 
magazine Ramparts exposed its funding of the National Student 
Association just as the wave of campus activism against the Vietnam War 
was building. In damage-limitation mode, President Johnson declared a 
deadline for the CIA to end its secret subsidies to private US 
organisations, leaving a clutch of ‘orphan’ charities, several of which 
ended up being openly funded through the State Department. As for 
Encounter, with the CIA’s long-suspected funding of it confirmed, 
Spender resigned his editorship. Despite other resignations and the loss 
of funding, the magazine staggered on until 1991.

Wolfe has little to say about the institutional militarisation of 
science in the West, instead concentrating on the efforts of US 
scientists to live up to their claims of independence and 
internationalism. In the Soviet Union, as the memory of the years of 
Stalinist terror slowly retreated, a privileged intellectual elite 
became activist human rights campaigners, demanding respect for the 
formal liberties provided by the Soviet constitution. This was an easy 
cause for US scientists to endorse, and Wolfe devotes a chapter to their 

Many of the Soviet human rights dissidents were scientists, possibly 
because of the privileged position the USSR gave to science in deference 
to the needs of the arms race. Even so, dissident scientists were 
arrested, exiled and incarcerated in psychiatric hospitals. Their 
Western peers campaigned vigorously for their release, to the 
embarrassment of the National Academy of Sciences, which was keen to 
preserve the diplomatic niceties of the formal high-level exchanges. The 
best-known dissident was the nuclear physicist Andrei Sakharov, the 
‘father’ of the Soviet atomic bomb. He argued that the USSR should trust 
America in negotiating a test ban treaty, and in 1964 used his status to 
oppose followers of Lysenko being elected to the Soviet Academy of 
Sciences. Too prominent to be arrested, he was eventually exiled to the 
closed city of Gorky and forbidden to travel to Oslo to receive his 
Nobel Peace Prize.

The courage of these dissidents was matched by their ingenuity. In 1969 
the biologist Zhores Medvedev reopened an old wound by publishing an 
account of Lysenko’s rise and fall, first in samizdat and then in 
translation in the West. Medvedev was diagnosed as schizophrenic – on 
the grounds that he was interested in two things at the same time, 
biology and society – and confined to a psychiatric hospital. The wave 
of international protests that followed led to his swift release. He and 
his twin brother, Roy, a historian, wrote a book describing his hospital 
experience, A Question of Madness. Hilary Rose and I had been in 
correspondence with him over Lysenko (he hadn’t realised we were married 
but thought we were male twins like him and Roy), and in 1971 I was able 
to smuggle copies of the English translation of the new book into 
Moscow. I hadn’t told him where I was staying, but I had barely put the 
luggage down in my hotel room when he appeared at the door. ‘They always 
put up foreign conference delegates here,’ he explained. I asked what he 
would have done if he had not been released. He said that friends had 
arranged to get him a key (‘the same key fits all the doors’) and a 
white coat, and he would simply have walked out. Learning that I had 
received no royalties from the pirated Soviet edition of one of my 
books, he insisted that he accompany me the next day to the publishers, 
and not leave until they had paid me my due according to Soviet law – 
which I then passed over to him in lieu of his own frozen UK royalties.

Defending Soviet dissidents – and Jewish refusniks trying to leave the 
Soviet Union for Israel – was well within the levels of activism 
palatable to the US scientific establishment. Less acceptable was the 
wave of campus activism against the war in Vietnam and against the part 
scientists had played in creating cluster bombs and defoliants. Science 
for Vietnam groups, sometimes led by students but including more senior 
scientists, sprang up across America. In the late 1960s these 
single-issue groups morphed into a wider movement, Science for the 
People, sharing a root-and-branch critique of science under capitalism 
that went beyond the nuclear concerns of physicists or biologists’ 
anguish over the use of chemical weapons.

Similar things were happening in Britain. As Wolfe records, in 1969 ‘an 
elderly Bernal attended the first meeting of the British Society for 
Social Responsibility in Science’ – a group we had been involved in 
setting up. Though partially paralysed by a stroke and almost unable to 
speak, Bernal came back to a party at our house afterwards. To the 
younger generation of radical scientists gathered in the room the visit 
felt significant, as if a legacy was being handed down.

These movements of the 1970s no longer saw science as inherently 
progressive, as scientists in the 1930s had done. Capitalism was not the 
only enemy. Scientific racism had re-emerged and we contested it 
vigorously. Feminist critics, meanwhile, confronted both the entrenched 
patriarchy of scientific institutions and the sexist assumptions 
embedded in masculinist science. Sociologists, philosophers and 
historians of science were inaugurating a new research field, the social 
studies of science; they were questioning the basic ontological claim of 
natural science to be discovering universal truths. All this was of 
endless interest to government agencies, and they weren’t always shy 
about showing it. One of the first science studies units in the UK was 
established in Edinburgh in 1964. Among those attending the opening was 
a delegate carrying an elegant briefcase with the letters ‘CIA’ embossed 
on it.

[*] It wasn’t just the CIA. The FBI was in on the act too, closely 
monitoring scientists – from Einstein and Hans Bethe to Alfred Kinsey 
and Isaac Asimov – for possible communist affiliations. A selection of 
FBI files, released in response to FoI requests, has recently been 
published as Scientists under Surveillance (MIT, £20).

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