The struggle for ecology under socialism

Models of Nature
By Douglas R. Weiner
University of Pittsburgh Press, 2000, 1988.

Review by Ben Courtice

November 28, 2013 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- The USSR was not known, in the West, as a pioneer of ecology. Unfortunately, it was known more for the Chernobyl nuclear power station accident, for acid rain and air pollution, and oil spills and the pollution of unique environments such as the Aral sea.

What if the USSR had been different? What if it had tried to preserve its natural ecosystems, after the tsar was overthrown?

It is little known today, but there was a small yet promising movement of scientific ecology and nature preservation in Russia, with roots in the tsarist order of the 19th century, which flourished in the revolutionary USSR of the 1920s.

Douglas Weiner's book, first published in 1988 (while the USSR still existed) pays homage to the creative and resourceful scientists who led this movement, and uncovers some lessons that still have relevance today. At the same time it provides a fascinating window through which to observe the degeneration of nascent Soviet democracy and civic participation (and even the sciences) through the 1920s and 1930s as Stalin consolidated his grip on power.

In the 1920s, modern scientific ecology was in its infancy. I'm not well enough versed in ecology's history to comment much on the discoveries and discussions of those early Soviet ecologists. No doubt many of them have been superseded by new theories and discussions, since ecology as a science has risen to prominence in the latter half of the 20th century. Nevertheless, interesting and innovative research was conducted.

Although the subject of ecologists' studies is not the main point of the book, it is the basis of the political struggles the ecology movement found itself waging.

Much of the scientific ecology movement was focused on preserving and studying natural ecosystems in a system of reserves. One of the most prominent was Askania-Nova, a small reserve of steppe grassland in the Ukraine, preserved by its aristocratic owner under the tsar, and kept partly as a scientific nature reserve under the Soviet government.

One scientific director of Askania-Nova was the scientist V.V. Stanchinskii. One innovation he put forward was a system for studying the energy flows in nature, from the harvest of energy by plant life, up to the top of the food chain. This method sought to provide a way of quantifying the available energy, with potential agricultural applications. It also, for example, suggested other ways to aid in the understanding of the species that make up the ecosystem.

For example, applying the second law of thermodynamics (entropy), Stanchinskii gave a theoretical explanation for the relative lack of larger predators. Since each conversion of energy from one level of the food chain to the next necessarily loses energy in the process (animals must expend energy to get their food, not to mention to do the other things necessary for survival and reproduction), at higher levels of the food chain less energy is available to sustain the apex predators.

Other scientific debates and theories were perhaps less promising, but to be expected in their time. “Phytosociology”, for example, was a school that attempted to explain inequality as inevitable in society due to its inevitability in nature.

Defining and refining ways to delimit and recognise “biocenosis” (a word roughly translating to “ecosystem”) was a major theoretical debate. How does one define where one biocenosis ends and the next begins? How do we describe the characteristics of a distinct biocenosis – by the floristic composition, perhaps, or by energy flows, as suggested by Stanchinskii?

These intricate debates over abstract categorisation were at times obtuse. Yet they seem to have also been the result of a real movement of ecology.

This Soviet ecological movement of the 1920s was driven by science, but perhaps (less obviously) guided also by a cultural (or aesthetic) appreciation for nature. The high regard in which the Communist government held all things scientific (quite genuinely, at first) gave pre-eminence to the  research-oriented ecologists.

However, Weiner makes it clear in the Afterword (to the 2000 edition) that an aesthetic or cultural attachment to nature was often an underlying motive, sometimes quite explicitly, but equally, at times well hidden.

We see aesthetic motivation quite explicitly in the work of pioneering ecologist, also a classicist and poet, A.P. Semenov-tian-shanski. An accomplished entomologist, he exemplified both sides of the enlightenment coin (as Australian writer Ross Macleay has put it): both romantic and scientific love of nature.

He explicitly voiced an aesthetic distaste for modern industrial society, capitalist or socialist”, Weiner writes. He quotes Semenov-tian-shanski writing that industrial society was “disrupting the harmony of nature's picture ... that grand tableau which serves as the inspiration of the arts”. A further quote has him warning that “in snuffing out the hearth of Nature's life, in plundering and squandering her basic stock, we are digging our own graves, preparing a miserable future for our progeny”.

Semenov-tian-shanski was, judging by Weiner's account, able to merge his scientific and cultural appreciation of nature into a sophisticated appraisal of industrial society's shortcomings. In a 1919 speech, he said that “free nature undefiled in all of its portions by mankind is a great synthetic museum, indispensable for our further enlightenment and mental development, a museum which, in the event of its destruction, cannot be reconstructed by the hand of man”.

Many modern environmentalists are familiar with the Bolivian government's granting rights to nature (“Pachamama” or Mother Earth) in its constitution. This would have been welcomed by Semenov-tian-shanski. In Weiner's words, the philosopher thought that “humans would have to surrender their pretensions to ontological superiority over the rest of nature and recognise that living nature had rights in and of itself”.

While Semenov-tian-shanski's approach was not dominant, it must have been well known in the small community of ecological scientists. Yet he went silent through the 1920s, as a more narrowly scientific view took centre stage.

The communist government's education minister, Lunacharskii, and even Lenin on occasion, proved to be firm allies to those scientists who, in the early years, petitioned to set up nature preserves. In the free and undogmatic atmosphere of the New Economic Policy, with the hardship of the war and civil war behind them, it must have been a hopeful and optimistic time.

Reminescent again of Bolivia today, the early Soviet republic was heavily reliant on extractive industries – particularly timber, and also furs were very important for earning international currency. To set aside nature reserves for study, let alone for preservation for their own sake, must have seemed a luxury to many.

The conflict between scientists (who wanted to study pristine, “virgin” nature) and the needs of agriculture, forestry and game industries was real and important for these reasons. Tension was widespread between these industries, and the ecologists who wished to preserve wild nature to study it.

This led to real and complicated bureaucratic wrangling. Askania-Nova saw a series of conflicts over the proportion of its lands allocated for scientific study, and that allocated for agricultural activities throughout the 1920s – well before the consolidation of Stalin's power in Soviet life – with a brief respite when Stanchinskii became scientific director in 1929, representing a temporary victory for the ecologists.

Parallel to the material conflicts over resources, a rising tension between the state monopoly on ideology, and the intellectual freedoms of the scientists became evident as the 1920s wore on. The ruling Communist Party inceasingly denounced “science for science's sake”. On the other hand, many leading scientists were never members of the Communist Party, and as the intrigues of the rising bureaucracy began to reach into all institutions, non-party intellectuals often had their loyalty to the state and revolution questioned.

With these pressures, the ecological movement had to become increasingly defensive. Weiner describes a strategy of “protective coloration” in which scientists dressed up their aims and activities in the political rhetoric of the day. At first this required only the language of “dialectical materialism”, which had become the official state ideology. Later, as the five-year plans emerged and Stalin declared his aim of out-producing the West, the camouflage strategy meant they had to go through further contortions to justify scientific nature preserves in terms of what they contributed to the plans for industrialisation and growth.

Finally, in the 1930s the dogmatic “dialectical materialism” of the Soviet state under Stalin found its own leader for the sciences in the person of Trofim Lysenko, a crank who found favour with Stalin by peddling quack Lamarckian theories. Lysenko has been exposed as a fraud for a long time, but it's not well known that he (and his offsider, Izaac Prezent) sharpened their dogmatic polemics, first arguing within then against the scientific ecology movement of the 1920s.

The attraction of Lamarckian theory was that it made promises that animals and plants from other climatic regions could be “acclimatised” to Russian conditions, and thereby improve agricultural output. The theory was based on one idea of 19th century biologist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, already thoroughly discredited by 1930, that species could adapt to a new environment, then pass on the traits of this adaptation to their offspring. Experiments in acclimatisation ranged from the optimistic to the bizarre, including apes in one experiment, but more destructively, many animals that did prosper in the Russian environment were also introduced, such as musk rats for fur.

With these doctrinal conflicts, the ecologists found their conflicts over scientific and agricultural/resource priorities implicated in a greater drama involving a power struggle and the state ideology. The fate of the ecology movement – nearly extinguished under Stalin, with a number of leading figures arrested, sent to gulags and even executed in the 1930s purges – is an interesting case study of the degeneration of Soviet politics as Stalin's dictatorship entrenched its power.

In the early years of the Soviet republics, the needs of the ecological preserves and their scientific guardians were not always given first priority, but were understood at high levels to have importance even if they did not contribute directly to economic prosperity. Increasingly, the bureaucracy of other government departments sought to eliminate the rival (real or potential) that they identified in the ecology movement.

As the state ideology ossified and became a dogmatic cult of “Marxism-Leninism”, during what Weiner terms the “cultural revolution”, an upstart generation of apparatchiks, fancying themselves Marxist-Leninist cadre, with perhaps some university-learned Marxist doctrine, found their way into the bureaucracy. Many would attack the ecology movement for all sorts of imagined crimes like romanticism, “pursuing science for science's sake” and the (alleged) bourgeois class origins of many leading scientists – many of whom had been professional scientists well before the revolution.

A witch hunt was brewing, and perhaps what is most surprising is how long the ecologists managed to hold their ground, as various factions of dogmatic “Communists” struggled against each other in the state departments, the academy and the sciences. Perhaps this is testament to the grounding in true science that continued to guide the ecologists, as opposed to the increasingly nonsensical abstract dogma that passed as “scientific socialism” in the official Communist academy.

Other studies have been written to explain how the democratic and genuinely progressive revolutionary leadership of the Communist Party degenerated into a dogmatic, bureaucratic and despotic cult of personality. This book does not tell that story in whole, but it provides a unique angle on the drama that unfolded.

The insights about the damage done by dogma in service of mercenary and material interests are worth considering. Not just because new generations could, perhaps, fall prey to such misappropriation of “science” to justify despotic or foolish actions. In the modern world, the misuse and suppression of science to justify ecologically destructive industries is pervasive and ongoing. Witness the “debate” between climate science and climate deniers for example, or the promotion of “scientific” genetically engineered crops by supposed supporters of science on the other hand.

Equally, many modern “Marxists” are too comfortable with a literary style of political ideology, learned by rote, dogma in fact. Some of the scientists in this book point out (controversially, at least in the context they faced at the time) that science may be best when separated from politics. Equally, we could add, a scientific approach to politics is anathema to dogma and ossified ideology.

The most enduring lesson from the book is that, even in a post-revolutionary society and economy, it cannot be taken for granted that ecology will be respected, or that ecosystems will be preserved.

The ecology movement in Russia was a creative and initially promising response to this reality. Faced with demands from industries run by bureaucrats who had not an inkling of the needs for environmental preservation, ecologists tried to educate the public and mobilise a movement in defence of ecology and nature. Initially, at least, they had promising results, with some enlightened supporters in high places aiding them.

The book outlines the various bodies that constituted this movement, which drew on students and local officials, and at times included officials from nominally conflicted bodies such as the hunting and game associations. Movement organisations published magazines and mounted public protests such as letters from prominent scientists to public newspapers.

A fascinating mass organisation, the “Central Bureau for the Study of Local Lore” is outlined in the book, but not described in as much detail as we may like. It seemed to fill some of the role of the modern land care movement, being composed of local chapters, but more detail would be needed. Nevertheless, it is clear the various facets of the movement sought to organise people on their side.

This post-revolutionary political movement underlines for socialists not just the need for future decision making to be informed by up-to-date considerations from scientific ecology, but the need to educate and mobilise public opinion in defence of nature.

Socialism is a better system than capitalism, certainly, but it cannot end all conflicts and problems with a wave of a magic red wand, and ending class conflict does not remove all other conflicts of interest from society. 

[Ben Courtice is an activist with the Socialist Alliance in Melbourne.]

(Written in 1997.)

Ecology in the former Soviet Union
by Louis Proyect

Polluted rivers, deforestation, noxious smokestack emissions and Chernobyl. That is what comes to mind when we think of the former Soviet Union. Like much of the history of the former Soviet Union, there is another side to the story. Just as there were political alternatives to Stalin, there were alternative possibilities to the way that the planned economy dealt with nature. Douglas R. Weiner's "Models of Nature: Ecology, Conservation, and Cultural Revolution in Soviet Union" (Indiana Univ., 1988) is, as far as I know, the most detailed account of the efforts of the Russian government to implement a "green" policy.

This story starts, as you would expect, with the Bolshevik revolution. While Lenin has the reputation of being a crude "productivist," the actual record was quite the opposite. Although Lenin wanted to increase Soviet Russia's productive power, he thought that nature had to be respected.

The Communist Party issued a decree "On Land" in 1918. It declared all forests, waters, and minerals to be the property of the state, a prerequisite to rational use. When the journal "Forests of the Republic" complained that trees were being chopped down wantonly, the Soviet government issued a stern decree "On Forests" at a meeting chaired by Lenin in May of 1918. From then on, forests would be divided into an exploitable sector and a protected one. The purpose of the protected zones would specifically be to control erosion, protect water basins and the "preservation of monuments of nature." This last stipulation is very interesting when you compare it to the damage that is about to take place in China as a result of the Yangtze dam. The beautiful landscapes which inspired Chinese artists and poets for millennia is about to disappear, all in the name of heightened "productiveness."

What's surprising is that the Soviet government was just as protective of game animals as the forests, this despite the revenue-earning possibilities of fur. The decree "On Hunting Seasons and the Right to Possess Hunting Weapons" was approved by Lenin in May 1919. It banned the hunting of moose and wild goats and brought the open seasons in spring and summer to an end. These were some of the main demands of the conservationists prior to the revolution and the Communists satisfied them completely. The rules over hunting were considered so important to Lenin that he took time out from deliberations over how to stop the White Armies in order to meet with the agronomist Podiapolski.

Podialpolski urged the creation of "zapovedniki", roughly translatable as "nature preserves." Russian conservationists had pressed this long before the revolution. In such places, there would be no shooting, clearing, harvesting, mowing, sowing or even the gathering of fruit. The argument was that nature must be left alone. These were not even intended to be tourist meccas. They were intended as ecological havens where all species, flora and fauna would maintain the "natural equilibrium [that] is a crucial factor in the life of nature."

Podiapolski recalls the outcome of the meeting with Lenin:

"Having asked me some questions about the military and political situation in the Astrakhan' region, Vladimir Ilich expressed his approval for all of our initiatives and in particular the one concerning the project for the zapovednik. He stated that the cause of conservation was important not only for the Astrakhan krai, but for the whole republic as well."

Podiapolski sat down and drafted a resolution that eventually was approved by the Soviet government in September 1921 with the title "On the Protection of Nature, Gardens, and Parks." A commission was established to oversee implementation of the new laws. It included a geographer-anthropologist, a mineralogist, two zoologists, an ecologist. Heading it was Vagran Ter-Oganesov, a Bolshevik astronomer who enjoyed great prestige.

The commission first established a forest zapovednik in Astrakhan, according to Podiapolski's desires Next it created the Ilmenski zapovednik, a region which included precious minerals. Despite this, the Soviet government thought that Miass deposits located there were much more valuable for what they could teach scientists about geological processes. Scientific understanding took priority over the accumulation of capital. The proposal was endorsed by Lenin himself who thought that pure scientific research had to be encouraged. And this was at a time when the Soviet Union was desperate for foreign currency.

In my next post, I will cover the period of the NEP.

Under Lenin, the USSR stood for the most audacious approach to nature conservancy in the 20th century. Soviet agencies set aside vast portions of the country where commercial development, including tourism, would be banned. These "zapovedniki", or natural preserves, were intended for nothing but ecological study. Scientists sought to understand natural biological processes better through these living laboratories. This would serve pure science and it would also have some ultimate value for Soviet society's ability to interact with nature in a rational manner. For example, natural pest elimination processes could be adapted to agriculture.

After Lenin's death, there were all sorts of pressures on the Soviet Union to adapt to the norms of the capitalist system that surrounded and hounded it and produce for profit rather than human need. This would have included measures to remove the protected status of the zapovedniki. Surprisingly, the Soviet agencies responsible for them withstood such pressures and even extended their acreage through the 1920s.

One of the crown jewels was the Askania-Nova zapovednik in the Ukranian steppes. The scientists in charge successfully resisted repeated bids by local commissars to extend agriculture into the area through the end of the 1920s. Scientists still enjoyed a lot of prestige in the Soviet republic, despite a growing move to make science cost-justify itself. Although pure science would eventually be considered "bourgeois", the way it was in the Chinese Cultural Revolution, it could stand on its own for the time being.

The head administrator of Askania-Nova was Vladimir Stanchinksi, a biologist who sought to make the study of ecology an exact science through the use of quantitative methods, including mathematics and statistics. He identified with scientists in the West who had been studying predator-prey and parasite-host relationships with laws drawn from physics and chemistry. (In this he was actually displaying an affinity with Karl Marx, who also devoted a number of years to the study of agriculture using the latest theoretical breakthroughs in the physical sciences and agronomy. Marx's study led him to believe that capitalist agriculture is detrimental to sound agricultural practices.)

Stanchinski adopted a novel approach to ecology. He thought that "the quantity of living matter in the biosphere is directly dependent on the amount of solar energy that is transformed by autotrophic plants." Such plants were the "economic base of the living world." He invoked the Second Law of Thermodynamics to explain the variations in mass between flora and fauna at the top, middle and bottom of the biosphere. Energy was lost as each rung in the ladder was scaled, since more and more work was necessary to procure food.

The whole purpose of the Askania-Nova was to allow scientists to observe such processes without interference from politicians or commerce. Unfortunately, there were already powerful forces being unleashed in Russian politics that would undermine these efforts.

They came from two sources which tended to reinforce one another. One was the sheer need to compete in a hostile capitalist world. This meant that everything was ultimately judged on whether it could be bought or sold. The other hostile force was the Soviet science establishment itself that Stalin was reorienting toward a more "utilitarian" view of nature.

Stalin had very little use for theoretical science. On the 12th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, he said, "All the objections raised by 'science' against the possibility and expediency of organizing great grain factories of forty to fifty thousand hectares have collapsed and crumbled to dust. Practice has refuted the objections of 'science,' and has once again shown that not only has practice to learn from 'science,' but that 'science' also would do well to learn from practice."

(Of course, Stalin never examined the environmental consequences of such grain factories. The dubious lessons of such models are coming under scrutiny today as soil and water are exhausted by agribusiness, just as Marx anticipated in the 1860s.)

Eventually, Stalin and his minions began to view all pure scientists as being nuisances at best and counter-revolutionaries at worst. He sneered that they enjoyed the sort of "protected" status that the ecologists had achieved for the zapovedniki. "During the twelve years of revolution, the scholars of the USSR lived as if in a fastidiously protected zapovednik. In this All-Union zapovednik for the Endangered Species of Bourgeois Scientists, they found cozy corners for themselves...far out of sight of Soviet public opinion."

Stalin adapted a crude version of Marxism based on a "productivist" reading of the Communist Manifesto. Gone was any attempt to view society and nature as in harmony. Instead, man would conquer and tame nature like a hostile beast. Scientists and artists were sensitive to Stalin's new views and helped him find the words to express them. Leonid Leonov wrote a novel called "Soviet River" whose protagonist is the engineer Uvadiev. His antagonist? Nature itself. "From the moment when Uvadiev stepped on the bank, a challenge was cast at the River Sot'...and it seemed as though the very earth beneath his feet was his enemy." Another square-jawed, broad-shouldered hero is the Soviet manager Sergei Potemkin who had a dream to turn forests into newsprint. Leonov rhapsodizes:

"Gradually...his dream had swollen...Potemkin sleeps not; he straightens and deepens the ancient bed of rivers, increasing fourfold their carrying capacity...unties three provinces around his industrial infant...opens a paper college...Cellulose rivers flow to foreign lands, the percentage of cellulose in the newspaper world is tripled. The dreams urge on reality, and reality hastens on the dreams."

(Doesn't this sound a bit like an Ayn Rand novel? Apparently this Russian emigré must have sopped up the culture of such proletarian novels and simply transposed them to the capitalist world.)

Another hater of nature was the hack Maxim Gorky whose novel "Belomor" depicts the great dictator drawing up battle-plans against nature:

"Stalin holds a pencil. Before him lies a map of the region. Deserted shores. Remote villages. Virgin soil, covered with boulders. Primeval forests. Too much forest as a matter of fact; it covers the best soil. And swamps. The swamps are always crawling about, making life dull and slovenly. Tillage must be increased. The swamps must be drained...The Karelian Republic wants to enter the stage of classless society as a republic of factories and mills. And the Karelian Republic will enter classless society by changing its own nature."

The concrete form that subversion of the zapovedniki took was "acclimatization." Stalin and his science whores believed that it was necessary to import species that were not native to a region in order to maximize their value (i.e., commercial value.) This bone-headed idea found its most profound expression in the release of muskrats into various regions, despite the objections of scientists who thought that the result could be as disastrous as the import of rabbits into Australia. Muskrats might adapt well to the steppes, but they could very easily feed on valuable fish roe as well. What good would fur production be if salmon were destroyed in the process?

The justification for acclimatization was the same as that provided by the novelists Leonov and Gorky. It was part of man's historical mission to conquer nature. In 1929, the Stalinist Academician N.F. Kaschenko made a major statement on behalf of the policy. He argued that it would not only reduce the USSR's dependence on imports but "proletarianize" the availability of tropical fruits. The notion of growing pineapples in the Ukraine was as foolish as the proposed muskrat project, but Stalin's followers were not easily persuaded of their errors. Kaschenko's words epitomize the insanity of the anti-ecology assault that was gathering steam in the USSR and which would become official policy in less than 5 years:

"The final goal of acclimatization, understood in the broad sense, is a profound rearrangement of the entire living world--not only that portion which is now under the domination of humanity but also that portion that has still remained wild. Generally speaking, all wild species will disappear with time; some will be exterminated, others will be domesticated. All nature will live, thrive, and die at none other than the will of humans and according to their designs. These are the grandiose perspective that open up before us."

Louis Proyect

(This is the second and final part of Douglas Weiner's "Models of Nature: Ecology, Conservation, and Cultural Revolution in Soviet Union," Indiana Univ., 1988)


I think it's critically important to understand that the problems faced by post-revolutionary Russia and why ecological, as well as democracy, issues were/are such a challenge is not because of socialism, but rather because in fact the economy was, as the Bolsheviks recognized themselves, still very much a capitalist-based one--a supposedly transitional centrally regulated state capitalist model.

Anyone who reads Lenin's Immediate Tasks of the Soviet Government, Left wing communism: an infantile disorder, the Coming Crisis and other reports, as well as economic business plans by Bukharin, Preobrazhensky and others, can see that's what developed there--in addition to the permanent entrenchment of that state capitalist model after Stalin's 1928 coup.

So actually, the capitalistic fundamentals of exploitation of labour, dictatorial master-servant business models, coercive demand-vs-supply relations and sale and profit remained to some degree dominant. And these are of course the same fundamentals that view the ecology as a commodity to be used and discarded in the pursuit of wealth accumulation.

Here's just a few writings from these people on this fact.

Lenin: State Capitalism During the Transition to Socialism

Lenin: State Capitalism as a measure to rebuild the Russian Economy

Lenin: Industrial Management under a State Capitalist Monopoly Framework 1919

Stalin: Five-Year Plans: State Capitalism to Accelerate Industrial Development and Challenge the West

Mao: On State Capitalism--a fiscal framework for building the Chinese Economy 1953