My mother was not obedient to history, so she was punished.
Tatiana, in John le Carré’s Smiley’s People
Only the Israeli managed to ‘tame the desert’, not however on an all too large scale and basically for politico-economic reasons. All over the world where the desert is gaining terrain – from Spain to the Chinese Gobi – man has given up, knowing all too well that he is confronted with powers that should not meddled with. Covering the Moroccan desert with hundreds of thousands sun panels for tapping energy is of course the mere use of that desert, precisely for the very reason that makes its actual taming impossible: solar heat.
So Paustovsky and his friend Yablonski, discussing ‘the taming of the desert’, were a bit befuddled by Soviet technocratic ideology which dominated the first decades of that system. Perhaps that writer should have listened more to the ‘natives’ and not, ironically so, criticize them for their lack of semantic knowledge. I quote again from The Restless Years, a passage in which Paustovsky describes his travels in an old bus through deserty areas, driven by a chauffeur who, so he was told, ‘knows everything’:
– ‘Is this a mirage?’ I asked the driver.
– He looked puzzled. He did not, I discovered, know the word ‘mirage’.
– ‘No’ he said. ‘It’s just the steppe showing you tricks. This is nothing!’
Reading this it sang through my head: ‘Let the desert play her tricks which make us dream; let the icy poles in peace, exuding their incredible silences. Why tame them, when already so much of nature is ruined!’
Anyway, this was not the manner of thinking in those soviet decades. The period was infused with a ‘will to tame’, the socialist version of Nietzsche’s Will to Power.
As incidentally was the ideology of the United States. The first half of the 20th century was dominated by a technocratic belief in almighty man. And if a pious Yank considered this a little too blasphemous, he added to his technocratism a pinch of Creationist salt – an attack on Darwinism. Even if man is all powerful, master of the earth only because God created him to be so, he does not rule the universe. The paradox of those Destined to be Free Americans.
In the Soviet Union a different version of anti-Darwinism came in ideological fashion. Darwin’s theory of natural selection of what is ‘best’ was considered anathema. After all, such ‘bourgeois science’ only sanctioned the bourgeoisie as the ‘ruling class’, of necessity superior to the workers. By contrast, Trofim Lyssenko and other biologists created a ‘proletarian science’, based on Lamarck’s conviction that not only genetic feature but also acquired traits are hereditary. The felicitous idea was blessed by Pope Stalin himself.
Lyssenko also wanted to tame that other Soviet desert – the tundra’s in the North, most of the year an icy universe covered with permafrost. A disgrace, so to say – after all ‘a country cannot afford to have deserts…’ as Paustovsky pointedly noted.
Lyssenko’s solution was rather unique. Betraying Darwin, he decided to have millions of forest trees shoots planted out there, this in bunches, ‘nested’ as it were, a practice based on the ‘theory’ that in this manner quite a few trees would survive the stern Siberian winters, simply because they would be ‘group-wise protected by one another’. And why not call this The Socialism of Life…
Althusser wrote a preface to Dominique Lecourt’s 1979 book Lyssenko. According to him that ludicrous socio-biological theory and its disastrous practice are not our primary interest. What should be analysed first of all is the manner in which an authoritarian system handles its errors. In short: The cocktail of Stalinism en Lyssenkoïsm.
Ideology is ‘lived reality’. The Soviet scientists lived the reality in which they could but think that they were true scientists, many of whom in fact were not. However they were not cheating, they were simply ‘there’ and believed in what they were doing… Why not call this Political Pseudologia Fantastica.
If real scientists would have handled such ‘experiments’, these would have been terminated pretty fast. A scientific experiment after all is theory-informed, intended to be defeated – it concerns trial and error, though hedged by former findings and their theory. Science is not a matter of Wild west tryouts.
When, however, the Soviet State is the motor behind such costly and foolish experiments – thus Althusser – it tends to be silent about failures and this for a very long time, thus prolonging and intensifying these errors. The famous soviet couple ‘Criticism and Self-criticism’, at the time practiced in every communist party in the world, functioned in fact only to criticise the critics of the regime.
So, even a great writer like Paustovsky was but a child of his times. He praised the soviet leaders as he praised Soviet Russia. However, in what superb language!
I cannot suppress my urge to add a personal note to all this. Your chronicler of lyricism and disaster was once and a long time ago, this for more than five years, a member of the Dutch Communist Party now defunct. Terrible years.
Just one anecdote to indicate the predicament of the critical intellectual who joins a club like that from idealistic, though very befuddled motives. At my very first meeting of the ‘cell’ I intended not to say a word, something difficult for one who loves conversation and debate.
At the end of the session the chairman, being polite methinks, asked the newcomer whether he would like to contribute something to the evening. Before going there I had read my evening paper, at the time the best journal in The Netherlands. So I said, using the phraseology of the party:
‘What does The Party think of the strikes of Rumanian miners which we are now witnessing?’
‘Which strikes? You must be mistaken. There is nó such thing happening in Rumania!’
‘But only an hour ago I read this in the NRC…’
‘And you believe what this outright bourgeois journal is telling you? You must be kidding! Read in our own newspaper the truth.’
Which is, quite significantly, also the name of that paper: De Waarheid – The Truth. Now also defunct.