Einstein and Soviet Ideology

By Gordin, Michael D. | Canadian Slavonic Papers, March-June 2003 | Go to article overview

Einstein and Soviet Ideology


Gordin, Michael D., Canadian Slavonic Papers


Alexander Vucinich. Einstein and Soviet Ideology. Stanford Nuclear Age Series. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001. viii, 291 pp. Notes. References Cited. Index. $60.00, cloth.

Alexander Vucinich's recent study of the reception of Albert Einstein's theory of relativity in the context of Soviet ideological interpretations of dialectical materialism is a thorough intellectual history up to the standards of his distinguished body of work. However, by focusing so narrowly on the intellectual arguments both for and against relativity-what was happening-Vucinich minimizes or ignores entirely the transformations in both science and ideology that explain why Einstein, in particular, became such a lightning rod for ideological interpretations. His stated goal is to trace "the conflict between Einstein's theory of relativity and official Soviet ideology, articulated by dialectical materialism, the Marxist philosophy of nature" (p. vii), but he never explains fully why relativity, and not quantum theory (which Einstein was also instrumental in creating), proved to be so uniquely problematic for Soviet ideology. Vucinich often points to the fact of a particular emphasis by Soviet scientists or philosophers but suggests no explanation for the specificity of their attention. Furthermore, as he recognizes implicitly, both Einsteinian theory and Soviet ideology fluctuated dramatically over the years; yet comparisons with similar "ideological" readings of relativity in other countries are absent, so the reader has no way of appreciating the historical uniqueness of the philosophical discomfort with relativity the Soviet ideologues experienced.

Yet, Vucinich's typology of the four main periods of ideological interpretations of relativity theory is well-articulated. Before the advent of general relativity in 1916, Russian physicists and mathematicians paid little attention to Einstein's ideas. The coincidence of this theory and the Revolution, however, sparked an explosion of interest, as a younger generation of (mostly Jewish) physicists entered physics faculties and research institutes with an enthusiasm for the "new physics" and political allegiances far to the left of their former mentors (a sociological break which Vucinich mentions only in passing). The first stage of Soviet attitudes to Einstein encompasses the pre-Stalin period, when the Soviet state interfered minimally with the work of the scientific community, both because it was preoccupied with survival and because it was too weak to impose an incoherent dialectical materialism. This period is marked by a heterogeneity of views of Einstein, most prominently among Marxist philosophers, although joined by an array "idealists" as well. Physicists worked hard not so much to popularize the theory as to articulate its concepts and importance clearly, most notably in A. A. Friedmann's important cosmological work; contact with philosophers was held to a minimum.

The second stage was the period of Stalin's rule, which Vucinich treats more or less monolithically even though it divides into two phases: the pre-war elimination of dissent in the philosophy of science, and Andrei Zhdanov's post-war anti-cosmopolitan campaign. As of the late 1920s, it was quite clear that compatibility with relativity theory was one of the main unresolved issues in dialectical materialism, and the status of physics placed ideological coherence at a premium. (Here Vucinich does address the issue of quantum theory, although he does not explain its appearance in a book on relativity. …

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