Monday, January 25, 2010

Stalin and the Bomb

Stalin and the Bomb by David Holloway - Modern European Intellectual History 12
(The Soviet Union and Atomic Energy, 1939-1956)

 Science was seen in Russia, by both its friends and its enemies as a progressive and democratic force.  But even after it was assimilated into Russian culture, it was mistrusted by many because it was seen as embodying Western values.  We have already seen the influence of the Bolshevik revolution on biology with Lysenko and physics was also at risk of being politicized.  It was saved from that fate because Lenin understood that science and technology were essential for defense and economic security (“it is necessary to master the highest technology or be crushed”).

The first 30 years of the 20th century saw a rising interest in nuclear physics in the West, reaching a peak in the early 30s with the realization of the possibility of fission and the consequent release of energy.  Soviet scientists followed the advances in nuclear physics as well as participating in them, although they were hampered in their research by not always having access to the best equipment.  The State wanted science that would benefit the people, pure research was harder to justify.  Although in the West the notion that nuclear fission could be used to create an extremely powerful bomb was being discussed at this time, in the Soviet Union the primary interest was in the possibilities for power generation.  Physicists in the Soviet Union did not grow concerned about the possibility of the atomic bomb until work in the US, Britain and Germany was already underway.

In 1942, a review of journals by Flerov revealed that articles on fission were no longer appearing and that the scientists doing the research on fission were not publishing on other research.  From “the dogs that do not bark” he determined that research on fission had gone secret in the US, which meant that the Americans were trying to build an atomic bomb.  He wrote to several people, including Stalin.  There was no response.  An ongoing concern in the Soviet Union, however, was the supply of uranium, needed for power plants as well as for bombs and over the years there were attempts by physicists to get the state to organize the search for sources of uranium, with varying degrees of success.

Stalin, it seems did not really understand the significance of the bomb, even when he knew that the Americans possessed one.  (The Soviets had details of the Manhattan project as well as the Maud Commission’s report).  It was not until the US dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima that Stalin took a real interest in it, and only then did the Soviet Union begin a concerted effort to build one of their own.  The detailed intelligence that they obtained was not shown to all the scientists working on the project however, it was only shown to Kurchatov, who was in charge.  He then used this knowledge to help guide the work.  The Soviet Union exploded their first atomic bomb on August 29, 1949.  It had taken them only a little longer to develop than it took the US to develop theirs.

It is important to remember that the relationship between politics and science was not an easy one in the Soviet Union.  Stalin distrusted the scientists, probably because he could not really understand what they were doing, and it is extremely likely that had the test on August 29th been a failure the scientists in charge would have been taken out and shot.

Stalin perceived the US foreign policy as being one of Atomic Blackmail.  After WWII, when the US was the only nation that had the bomb, he expected them to use it to establish an hegemony over the world.  This was something that the Soviet Union must, at all costs, resist.  The only people who feared the atomic bomb were those who had “weak nerves.”  This led to a war of nerves and of atomic brinkmanship, especially once the Soviet Union had their own bomb.  They didn’t want to give in to the US in international affairs, because that would make them look weak, but at the same time they didn’t want to provoke a war. Stalin, however, believed that another war was inevitable so long as capitalism survived in the world.  WWI had heralded the Bolshevik revolution, WWII the rise of the Soviet Union, WWIII would crush capitalism forever.

After WWII, Stalin invested heavily in other military technology besides nuclear weapons, including jet engines, radar and missile technology, the size of the military also increased markedly.  Immediately after building the atomic bomb, the Soviet physicists were set to work on the hydrogen bomb.  In this effort they did not duplicate the work being done in the US, but rather developed the technology on their own.  They tested their hydrogen bomb on August 8, 1953.   Under Stalin’s leadership the command economy, combined with the large defense industry and large military establishment set the Soviet Union on a path of militarized development from which it was unable to escape, even after Stalin’s death.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Francis Galton

Modern European Intellectual History - 11

Francis Galton - Hereditary Genius
Mathew Thomson - The Problem of Mental Deficiency: Eugenics, Democracy and Social Policy in Britain c. 1870-1959

Francis Galton published Heredity Genius in 1869, a second edition was published in 1892.  The point of the book was to show that both the mental and the physical faculties of individuals obeyed the laws of heredity.  To demonstrate the heritability of mental faculties he examines the families of what he calls “eminent men” in England: judges between 1660 & 1865, statesmen, English peerages, commanders, literary men, men of science, poets, musicians, painters, divines and senior classmen of Cambridge.  To demonstrate the heritability of physical faculties he examines the families of oarsmen and wrestlers of the North Country.

In order to do this analysis he must quantify mental and physical faculties, and his solution is to apply the law of “frequency of error,” which is used by mathematicians to estimate the value that is probably nearest to the correct one from a collection of measurements of the same quantity.  This method had been extended to the proportions of the human body by Quetelet on the grounds that differences in something like physical stature could be treated as if they were errors from some norm.

Galton felt that just as we breed our dogs and our horses for certain traits, so we could influence the mental and physical fitness of the human race and that we owed it to the future generations of humanity to attempt such an improvement.  He coined the word eugenics in 1884.  Two decades later a movement emerged with the formation of the Eugenics Education Society in 1907, which began publication of the journal Eugenics Review in 1909.  The core concerns of the eugenics debate developed within the framework of social Darwinism.

By the end of the 19th century there was widespread concern that modern society was reversing evolution, leading to the degeneration of the English people.  This was partly driven by an increase in the recorded rates of lunacy from 2.26/10,000 in 1807 to 29.26/10,000 in 1890.  By the first decade of the 20th century mental defectives became defined as the central eugenic threat facing the nation.  Greater social awareness plus universal education led to the growing realization of the presence of mentally deficient people in the population.  This heightened awareness coincided with growing fears about the fitness of the population.  In addition, the declining birth rates among the middle class combined with increasing birth rate among the lower class led to the fear of mental defectives breeding without control.  Feeble-minded women were seen to be especially at risk for sexual exploitation by men, which created a link between morality and mental deficiency, leading to the notion of immorality as a sign of mental deficiency.  All of these factors contributed to the growing feeling that the ills of society could be traced back to mental deficiency.

In response to these growing concerns the Royal Commission on the Care and Control of the Feeble-Minded was created.  Their 1908 report contained the conclusion that mental deficiency was in large part hereditary.  In 1913 Britain passed the Mental Deficiency Act, which proposed mass segregation of the ‘feeble minded’.

Among the institutions proposed to deal with the problem of mental defectives in society were colonies, community care and sterilization.  Colonies were seen as ways of segregating mental defectives from society at large in a positive environment in which they could be useful and maybe even educated to some degree. Community care provided supervision, guardianship and occupation centers but with limited resources it was difficult to provide the tight moral and sexual control over the defectives within the community as a separate colony would.  This led, in the 1930s with the notion of linking community care with sterilization.

Sterilization as an option for dealing with mental defectives had been resisted both by the eugenics community and the mental institutions in Britain.  They did not want to separate sex from reproduction and were worried about the sexual exploitation of mental defectives and the spread of venereal disease in the community.  But by the 1930s it had become obvious that segregation was unable to cope with demand, that sterilization could relieve this pressure on the colony institutions as a part of community care and that it would also reverse the current trend of rising mental deficiency and improve the eugenic fitness and social welfare of the population as a whole.

The Eugenics Society failed to get sterilization adopted via legislation, the issue was simply too hot, politically.  Sterilization was used, however, and by the 1960s the legislature approved it as a fait accompli.  The operation was directed at just that class of women that had concerned eugenicists in the 1930s.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Friedrich Nietzsche

Modern European Intellectual History -  10

He was born at Röcken, Prussia, on October 15, 1844 - the birthday of the reigning Prussian King, Frederick William IV, and was named after him.  His father was a minister, and had tutored several members of the royal family.  His mother was a Puritan.  He was raised in a very religious household by women (his father died when Nietzsche was still young).  He read the Bible a great deal, and even read it to others.  This led to him being called by his school mates “the little minister” and described as “a Jesus in the Temple.”

 He lost his faith in the God of his fathers at 18, and spent the remainder of his life searching for a replacement (he thought he found one in the Superman).  At 23 he was conscripted into the military, but a fall from a horse injured him and he was released from service.  His brief experience of the military left him with almost as many delusions about soldiers as he had on entering it–the hard Spartan life of commanding and obeying, the endurance and discipline appealed to him.  He worshiped the ideal of the warrior although he could never become one. Instead he became a scholar.  He earned a Ph.D., and at 25 was appointed to the chair of classical philology at the University of Basle.

This conflict of opposites, of Parsifal and Siegfried, underlie Nietzsche’s philosophy.  In Beyond Good and Evil (1886) and The Genealogy of Morals (1887) he is trying to destroy the old morality and pave the way for the morality of the superman.  He seeks an understanding of the current morality through an understanding of the etymologies of the words and finds two contradictory valuations of human behavior, two ethical standpoints and criteria: a morality of masters and a morality of the herd (or slaves).  The master morality values manhood, courage, enterprise, bravery.  The herd morality was born of subjection and values humility, altruism, and the love of  security and peace.  Honor is pagan, Roman, feudal, aristocratic; conscience is Jewish, Christian, bourgeois, democratic.

But this morality is merely a veneer covering our secret will to power.  Love is a desire for possession, courtship is combat and mating mastery.  This passion for power makes reason and morality helpless.  The Judeo-Christian ethos has subverted the true nature of mankind by exalting the herd morality and suppressing our instincts, which are the most intelligent of all kinds of intelligence.  Moral systems are not universal, different functions require different qualities and the “evil” virtues of the strong are as necessary as the “good” virtues of the weak.  The ultimate ethic is biological:  Good is that which survives, which wins; bad is that which gives way and fails. Morality, as well as theology, must be reconstructed in terms of evolution theory.  The function of life is to bring about “not betterment of the majority, who, taken as individuals, are the most worthless types,” but “the creation of genius,” the development and elevation of superior personalities.” (Schopenhauer as Educator)

The goal of human effort, therefore, is not the improvement of mankind (who exists only as an abstraction) but superman.  At first thought of by Nietzsche as a new species, he later came to think of the superman as superior individuals rising out of the mire of mediocrity, and owing his existence to careful breeding and education.  Such a man would be beyond good and evil because what is good is all that increases the feeling of power, the will to power and what is bad is what is weak.  Mankind should give themselves to this goal of creating the Superman just as Europeans once gave themselves as the means to the ends of Bonaparte.  But the Superman cannot come about from democracy, which was born in Christianity’s rebellion against everything privileged,  only from aristocracy.

Democracy means the worship of mediocrity and the hatred of excellence.  Great men are impossible in a democracy, because they would not submit to the indignation of a system that presumes equality.  Great men are like wolfs among dogs, and the dogs hate the wolf, the free spirit.  Along with democracy, Nietzsche also condemns feminism, by which women become more like men, and socialism and anarchism, which are the offspring of democracy.  If you have social equality, why not economic equality, why have leaders at all?  But nature abhors equality, all life is exploitation and subsists ultimately on other life.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Isaiah Berlin - Two Concepts of Liberty

Modern European Intellectual History - 9

For Isaiah Berlin one of the dominant issues of the world was the question of obedience (Why should I, or anyone, obey anyone else?) and coercion (If I disobey, may I be coerced?), a question that he felt had long been a central one in politics. In investigating the answers to this question Berlin proposes two concepts of liberty, negative and positive liberty. Negative liberty addresses the question: “What is the area within which the subject–a person or group of persons–is or should be left to do or be what he is able to do or be, without interference by other persons?” Positive liberty addresses the question: “What, or who, is the source of control or interference that can determine someone to do, or be, this rather than that?” While these questions are different, he acknowledges that the answers to them may overlap.

Political liberty in the sense of negative freedom (he uses the terms freedom and liberty interchangeably) is the area within which a man can act unobstructed by others. If I am prevented from so acting by the deliberate interference of other human beings I can describe myself as being coerced or even enslaved, depending upon the degree of interference. But for human society to avoid dissolving into chaos, some limits on individual freedom must exist. The question is, then, where are those limits drawn? Where is the line between private life and public authority?

Notions of positive liberty derive from the desire on the part of the individual to be their own master. It is not freedom from, but freedom to–freedom to live as you see fit. These notions may not seem to be very far apart, but Berlin claims that these ideas of freedom historically developed in different directions and ended up coming in direct conflict with each other. This can be seen by examining the question of what it means to be one’s own master. We can be slaves to our nature, or spiritual slaves, just as we can be physical slaves. And we can justify coercion by claiming that we are acting in the best interests of those whom we are coercing, and that if they were but more self-aware they would recognize the probity of our actions. Berlin believed that conceptions of freedom are derived directly from conceptions of what constitutes the self, a person, or a man. Manipulate the definition of what it is to be a man, and you can change the definition of freedom into whatever you wish it to be.

One way of attaining freedom is to liberate yourself from desires for things that you cannot attain. If we cannot change our environment (social, political or physical), change ourselves to suit it. But this attitude results in the reduction of the sphere of negative liberty, and leads Berlin to the conclusion that the definition of negative liberty to do what one wishes will not work. If I can do little of what I wish, I need only reduce or eliminate my wishes and I am free.

Another way of attaining freedom is through knowledge and understanding. This is the rational approach to liberty. If I understand why things must be the way they are then, as a rational creature, I must will them to be that way. Our knowledge liberates us not by offering us more choices, but by keeping us from attempting the impossible. Berlin calls this the positive doctrine of liberation by reason. But is such a rational life possible not just for the individual, but also for society? And if it is, how is it to be attained? I wish to be free and to live my life as my rational will commands, but so does everyone else. How do we avoid the collision of wills? Where is the line between my rationally determined rights and the rationally determined rights of others? And is there only one variety of rational society?

Will our rationality save us from tyrants and oppression? Will it lead us to truths that cannot be disputed, that are universal? There is also a notion here (perhaps naive?) that rational men would not want to oppress or exploit others. But who defines what is rational? And what do we do about those individuals who do not meet that criteria? Can we legitimately coerce them for their own good? Can we educate them or re-educate them, even against their will?

Berlin believed that the positive notion of liberty was at the heart of the demands for national or social self-direction that resulted in the most powerful and morally just public movements of his time. But at the same time he thought that the idea that a single formula could be found that would harmonize all the diverse ends of humanity was wrong. Instead, pluralism, with the measure of negative liberty that it entails, seemed to him a truer and more humane ideal than the goals of those who seek the ideal of positive self-mastery by classes, people, or humanity as a whole. In his view, pluralism is truer because it recognizes the fact that human goals are many and that they are not all commensurate with each other, and that some may in fact be in a state of perpetual rivalry.