[Review] Science Under Socialism

(This review was supposed to appear in Isis in 2001 but for some reason never did. It appears here for the first time.)

Most students of the history of science are familiar with the effect that Lysenko’s application of his political beliefs to scientific research had on genetic research and the economy of the USSR in the middle of this century. Equally well known is the supposed influence of Stephen Jay Gould’s Marxism on his theorizing, and works such as Levins and Lewontin’s The Dialectical Biologist. In the work under review, thirteen contributors from Europe and the United States attempt to examine the pervasive influence of state-sponsored Socialism on the development of science and technology in East Germany since 1945. Using documents from the archives of the East German Communist Party and the Ministry for State Security, we gain useful insight into a number of topics, including the legacy of National Socialism, the effect of the movement of scientists to the West, higher education policy, espionage, institutional such as the Leopoldina & the German Academy of Sciences, and examinations of engineering, chemistry, nuclear research, computer technology & biomedical research. A number of contributions are translated from the original German, and comparative analyses are limited to the FDR, Soviet Bloc countries and the USSR.

The work largely concentrates on the influence of Socialism on the administration of science and technology by the government of the GDR. Little attempt is made to provide an examination of how the theories and work of the various scientists mentioned were, if at all, influenced by their adoption of Socialist viewpoints. An exception to this generalization is Rainer Hohlfeld’s discussion of genetic and biomedical research, yet this too is incomplete in this respect. I suspect that examination of this aspect of the effect of Socialism may prove fertile for future graduate students, as further archives become available and G.D.R. scientists begin to talk about working before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

One must also question how unified a project this volume represents. In her introduction, Macrakis notes a number of editorial differences between herself and Hoffmann, stemming largely from differences in historiographic approaches adopted by the European and American contributors. As it happens, two editions of this work exist – an English version (under review) and a German version (Hoffmann & Macrakis, Naturwissenschaft und Technik in der DDR, Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 1997) with four extra chapters and an extensive bibliography. One has to wonder why this separation was necessary – particularly as the bibliography (even if largely of works in German) would have been invaluable for future researchers. This reviewer at least would have been interested in one of the omitted chapters.

These points aside, the work remains a useful entry point to the study of the effects of Socialism on science and technology. It is (by admission) incomplete, yet will form a valuable springboard for future researchers – if only because of the areas that remain uncovered.

Macrakis, Kristie; Hoffmann, Dieter (editors). Science under Socialism: East Germany in Comparative Perspective. Xiv + 380 pp., index. Cambridge, Mass./London: Harvard University Press, 1999. $55.00. [link]


2 thoughts on “[Review] Science Under Socialism

  1. Interesting – since this was published in 1999 and there has been a lot of opening of archives around the post-communist world since then, do you know if anyone has done a similar survey more recently?

  2. Not that I know of. It’s not something I’m actively keeping up with (and it was a bit of a mystery why I was given the book to review in the first place).

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