Mbeki and AIDS – Is this the new Lysenko-ism

Thabo Mbeki’s continued defence of his outrageous views and policies on HIV/AIDS took me back to this article which I wrote 10 years ago and was published by the  UKZN Centre for Civil Society. It should be remembered that many in the ANC who have since found their voices remained silent during this period. But their silence they remain complicit in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people and those who live with a disease which was preventable!

. . . . .

It has often been asked why a seemingly intelligent man, an international statesman, and the leader of such a noble liberation movement would hold such bizarre views on HIV and Aids. These views would be regarded as iconoclastic in any other society. But in a society which has the highest number of those living with HIV and Aids, it approaches tragedy. Nay it becomes willful neglect. Pushing it to the extreme – it could be seen as being accomplice to mass murder. Sadly, for all his stupendous achievements, Thabo Mbeki will be remembered for his bizarre views on HIV and Aids.

Why he holds such views is debatable and open to speculation. Could it be to assert his independence as a thinker? Or to assert his anti-imperialist (or nationalistic) credentials by viewing the HIV issues as being driven by multi-national corporations and by “western science”? Alternatively could this threat to the African renaissance (or revolution) drive his Aids denialism?

As frightening as Mbeki’s views is the silence of leading ANC and government figures. Instead they support Mbeki’s position, if nothing else, by their silence. Not long ago a senior figure in the ANC Health Desk was castigated for deviating from the ANC view on HIV and Aids by supporting the anti-retroviral campaign. This rebuke came from the Minister herself. This suggests that there is an ANC view on this issue – which remains hidden from the public and the ANC membership. That this ideological position contradicts accepted science has not deterred its adherents sticking to it as a fundamentalist position. Those trained in the natural sciences obviously employ cognitive dissonance to adhere to their scientific training while toeing the contradictory party line.

Historically many world leaders have held iconoclastic views and Mbeki is in illustrious company. United States President, George W Bush holds such views concerning global warming and its impact on the environment. His administration continues to deny these effects despite incontrovertible scientific evidence, including from the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) – an agency established and wholly funded by the US Government. The evidence from this agency – that global warming exists, is a result of human activity, and has significant public health, economic and other consequences that will affect the lives of millions – is hidden from public view or discounted because it fails to fit in with the ideological position of George Bush – whose commitment to the advancement of capitalist enterprise cannot be fettered by any concerns, including environmental ones. Bush’s response: it’s just a “document put out by the bureaucracy” and he then proceeded to put out the EPA Director, Christie Whitman to New Jersey in virtual exile.  If science does not fit in with Bush’s politics, then the science must be wrong.

However, Mbeki’s most illustrious compatriot is none other than the past hero of the SACP, Joseph Stalin, who also displayed astounding political arrogance and scientific ignorance.

The 1940’s debate concerning nature versus nurture had scientists pitted against each other viewing these as polar opposites. Some scientists believed that genetics alone determines human character and behaviour – a theory supported and propagated, amongst others, by many American racists. On the other hand other scientists believed that the social environment could entirely determine human consciousness and behaviors – a view supported by largely bycommunists. The truth probably lies somewhere between these positions.

Within this context a Soviet agrobiologist, Trofim Denisovich Lysenko (1989-1976) propounded the theory – which received the support of Josef Stalin –  that Darwin’s theory of evolution and Mendel’s theory of heredity were wrong, represented  “bourgeois science,” and was not fit for a communist state. Lysenko had bought into the quack theory of earlier scientists – Ivan Vladimirich Michurin (1855-1935) and Jean- Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829) who first postulated these views. What Lysenko lacked in scientific rigour, he made up for in political savvy – knowing exactly what the Soviet dictator wanted to hear. Stalin’s, whose self-serving brand of communism relied on absolute loyalty and deference,  believed in the absolutist theory that human consciousness was a blank slate that could be totally molded by the social environment.  Lysenko, not being a geneticist applied this social theory to biology by insisting that genetics had no role to play in Soviet agriculture, and that it is environmental conditions that determine the crop type. In other words, organisms are not genetically constrained. In the right environment he claimed, wheat seed can produce rye; winter crops could be grown in the spring, and that similar crops do not compete against each other and therefore could be grown in clusters – “the transformation of nature” was what it was called. Moreover,  he claimed that evolution occurred by acquired characteristics being transmitted to future generations – despite the lack of evidence and the glut of evidence proving the contrary. It seems that both Lysenko and Stalin had the singular capacity to ignore facts that do not suit them – being blinded by the potential that this theory represented for the Soviet Union and for Soviet agriculture. Obviously impressed by this ideologically driven science, Stalin put Lysenko in charge of Soviet science, including the National Academy. Lysenko’s theories were adopted as the pivot of all natural sciences by the Academy of Sciences of the USSR in 1948. Those who disagreed with Lysenko’s theory were purged resulting in the cream of the Soviet scientific community, including the renowned geneticist Nikolay Ivanovich Vavilov (1887-1971), losing their jobs and, in some cases, being sent to the gulag or executed. More importantly however, it had disastrous consequences for Soviet science – where no genetics texts were published nor was it taught to students, for soviet agriculture – with huge crop failures, and for the soviet economy – some of these experiments, such as cluster planting wasted over a billion roubles.

Of course it could be argued, as it is by Robert Young, that Stalin’s position vis a vis Lysenko was not only driven by power and patronage – but by historical circumstance and a conjunction of ideological, political and material conditions. It could be argued, in Stalin’s defence, that it was an attempt to consolidate the October revolution in the scientific arena – as it was being consolidated militarily, culturally and politically (also accompanied by purges that saw heroes of the revolution such as Leon Trotsky sent into exile). These include the pressures to feed an enlarging proletariat, to generate a surplus to fund industrialization, to engender national pride and national soviet science as opposed to the hegemony of western or colonial science, and to present proletarian science as opposed to bourgeoisie science. Lysenko, whose origins lay in the peasantry, also assumed power because he was committed to the revolution and its ideology, unlike the bureaucrats, scientists and technocrats inherited from Tsarist times – who however skilled they were, did not necessarily subscribe to the communist ideal. They however had to be retained because, much to Lenin’s dislike, he had to compromise with these “bourgeois scientists” in order for the revolution to survive. Thus Soviet agriculture required an ideological leader – unswerving in his commitment to the ideology of the ruling party, whatever the consequences. These reasons however noble do not mitigate the catastrophe that ensued.

Karill Rossiyano presents evidence from archival material that Stalin served as Lysenko’s editor – editing his speeches and scientific manuscripts and indeed influenced Lysenko’s thinking on the debates between creationists, geneticists and those who believed in the notion of inheritance of acquired characteristics. Stalin’s behaviour in this realm was simply a reflection on the Soviet regime under him: hierarchical organization being the dominant feature. Stalin in a sense also moved from editing texts to attempting to edit nature itself. His failure is there for all to see.

Coming back to Mbeki – the parallels with Stalin speak for themselves without painfully reiterating them, except to beg the question: is he threading on ground where Stalin failed – both in his political style as well as his intervention in science? Is Manto Tshabalala-Msimang and her coterie of third rate scientists the new Lysenkos? The experiments of Stalin and Lysenko, but more importantly its results, should serve as a dire warning to us all, not least of all to Mbeki  himself. The salient lesson is that those who ignore history are doomed to repeat its failures.

Shuaib Manjra

December 2005







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