Introduction to the Cuban edition of
A People’s History of Science
(Historia Popular de la Ciencia)
By Clifford D. Conner
A CubaNews translation.
Edited by Walter Lippmann.
When I learned that an edition of A People’s History of Science would be published in Cuba, it occurred to me that in no country in the world would readers be more likely to appreciate its central theme, which is that science is not and never has been the exclusive province of a few elite geniuses. President Castro himself made that point very succinctly in a National Science Day speech on January 15, 1992. In Cuba, he said, “there are hundreds of thousands of scientists. Even the individual that manufactures the small parts and looks for solutions is a scientist and an investigator of a sort.”
This book is a general survey of a very large subject, and does not pretend to be all-inclusive. One particular area to which it accorded insufficient attention was the science of the twentieth century, and especially the relationship of science to the great revolutionary events that occurred in Russia, China, and Cuba. I will try to at least partially remedy that deficiency now.
Throughout history, revolutions have tended to create positive conditions for the development of science by removing obstacles to innovative thought and practice. In the process of “turning the world upside down,” revolutions have typically eliminated censorship and broken the institutional power of entrenched intellectual elites that stifled science. Furthermore, by liberating subordinate social classes, revolutions have brought many more actors onto the stage of history. The resulting vast increase in the number of people able to play an active role in shaping their lives has enhanced all fields of human endeavor, including science.
Revolutions in the twentieth century have also encouraged the development of science in other ways. From Russia to Vietnam, science became a major governmental priority wherever revolutions guided by Marxist parties occurred. The socialist revolutions that replaced market-controlled economies with centrally planned economies have been able to marshal resources and focus attention on scientific goals to an unprecedented degree and with unprecedented results. “National liberation” revolutions in poorer countries have broken the chains of imperialist domination that had previously restricted them to the low-tech role of raw-materials suppliers. Being free to create their own modern industries naturally stimulated their interest in modern science and technology.
Science and the Russian Revolution
“The Bolsheviks who took over Russia in 1917,” Loren Graham writes in Science in Russia and the Soviet Union, “were enthusiastic about science and technology. Indeed, no group of governmental leaders in previous history ever placed science and technology in such a prominent place on their agenda.” The results proved to be momentous. “In a period of sixty years the Soviet Union made the transition from being a nation of minor significance in international science to being a great scientific center. By the 1960s Russian was a more important scientific language than French or German, a dramatic change from a half-century earlier.” The Soviet Union’s ascension to international scientific leadership was strikingly confirmed when it became the first country to launch an artificial satellite and to put an astronaut into orbit.
Lenin’s appreciation of the value of science-based technology is apparent in his famous definition of communism as “Soviet power plus the electrification of the entire country.” But despite Lenin’s desires and intentions, scientific development got off to a slow start in the early years of the Soviet Union. Efforts to promote research were severely hampered not only by the war-ravaged country’s shortage of material resources, but by a deficiency of scientific talent caused by the exodus of many scientists who were hostile to the revolution. Nor did it help that a large proportion of the scientifically and technically trained specialists who did not emigrate were unsympathetic to the Bolshevik regime. More than a decade after the 1917 revolution, fewer than two percent of the Soviet Union’s engineers—138 out of about 10,000—were Communist cadres.
Nonetheless, Lenin believed it would be counterproductive to try to forcibly impose the Bolshevik will on the recalcitrant scientists and engineers. Totalitarian control of scientific institutions was not his policy but Stalin’s. At the end of 1928 the Imperial Academy of Sciences, a Czarist institution, not only continued to exist but was still the most prestigious of scientific bodies, and not one of its academicians belonged to the Communist Party. It was not until the 1929–32 period, when Stalin was well on his way toward assuming complete command, that the Communist Party took over the Academy and reorganized it.
In the first years of the revolution, an ultra-radical current within the Communist movement demanded the “proletarianization” of science and the dismissal of the “bourgeois” experts. Lenin vigorously opposed this Proletkult movement, which he characterized as infantile and irresponsible. Lenin’s great authority was able to hold the Proletkult campaign at bay for a number of years, but after his death Stalin demagogically manipulated it for factional purposes. In the years 1928–31 he promoted a Cultural Revolution (later to be imitated by Mao Zedong in China) that once again counterposed “proletarian science” to “bourgeois science.” Purges of scientists and campaigns to ensure political conformity caused chaos and disruption within the scientific institutions. Scientific education was paralyzed as the works of Einstein, Mendel, Freud, and others were condemned as bourgeois science and banned from the universities.
Meanwhile, however, the relentless pressure of external threats to the Soviet Union allowed Stalin to rally support, consolidate his power, and impose a program of rapid industrialization and agricultural collectivization requiring significant input from the sciences. Compulsory centralized planning plus massive funding rapidly gave birth to “Big Science” in the Soviet Union. The result was the creation of a powerful, but distorted, science establishment.
The limitations Stalin’s policies imposed on free inquiry acted as a counterweight to the revolution’s great gift to Russian science, which was the ability of the centralized economy to marshal and organize resources. Although the Soviet Union rose close to the top of the science world—second only to the United States—in the final analysis, its record was disappointing. In spite of its success in accomplishing some very impressive large-scale technological feats—hydroelectric power plants, nuclear weapons, earth-orbiting satellites, and the like—the achievements of the Soviet science establishment, given its immense size, fell far short of what might have been expected of it.
The demise of the Soviet Union in 1991 caused it to forfeit the strong position it had gained in international science. A 1998 assessment by the U.S. National Science Foundation reported that with regard to Russia and the other spinoffs of the former Soviet Union, science in those countries is on the edge of extinction, surviving only by means of charitable donations from abroad.
Science and the Chinese Revolution
Just as World War One gave rise to a Marxist-led revolution in Russia, so did World War Two facilitate the victory of a revolution in China under the aegis of a Communist Party. In 1949 the People’s Republic of China was proclaimed and the remnants of the Guomindang regime fled to Taiwan. The revolution brought to power a government that for the first time had the will and the ability to create institutions of Big Science, as had previously been done in the Soviet Union.
Soviet science provided more than simply a model for Mao Zedong’s regime. In the 1950s Soviet scientists and technicians participated heavily in the construction of science in the new China and they created it in their own image. However, there were strings attached—Stalin expected the Chinese to submit to Soviet control—and that led to problems.
Stalin had originally pledged full support to the effort to replicate Soviet Big Science in China, including the development of nuclear weapons. But there were sharp limits to the Kremlin’s spirit of proletarian solidarity. When the Mao regime began to show signs of resistance to Soviet control, Soviet leaders apparently had second thoughts about creating a nuclear power in a large country with which it had a long common border. They reneged on their promise to share nuclear technology, precipitating a deep and bitter Sino-Soviet split.
In June 1960, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev abruptly ordered the withdrawal of all aid from China. Thousands of Soviet scientists and engineers were called home immediately, taking their blueprints and expertise with them. It was a ruthless act of sabotage that dealt a crushing blow not only to Chinese science but to the country’s economic and industrial development as a whole.
Although set back several years, the goal of constructing a Soviet-style science establishment endured. The Soviet formula of heavily bureaucratized central planning plus massive funding produced similar mixed results in China. With very little foreign assistance, strategic nuclear weapons were developed and satellites were launched into space—both extremely impressive feats. Nonmilitary science and technology in Chinese industries and at the research institutes and universities, however, remained at a relatively primitive level.
In spite of the devastating blow caused by the Soviet Union’s withdrawal of support, China accomplished some remarkable achievements in nuclear and space technology—a testament to the power of the planned economy to mobilize and focus resources against all odds. The country tested its first atomic bomb in 1964 and its first hydrogen bomb in 1967, and launched its first satellite into Earth orbit in 1970—number one in a series of scores of space probes leading up to 2003, when China became only the third nation to independently send an astronaut into space. The science establishment, however, has remained highly bureaucratized and focused on military and big industrial projects at the expense of research aimed at improving the lives of the billion-plus people of China.
It is undeniable that the centralization and planning made possible by the 1949 revolution is at the root of China’s transformation from a negligible factor to a major player on the international science scene—perhaps even the primary future challenger to the United States’ dominance. Yet the mass of the Chinese population continues to endure a material standard of living far below that of the people of Europe, Japan and the United States. That an orientation more centered on human needs is possible has been demonstrated by a revolution that occurred in a much smaller country.
The people-oriented science of the Cuban Revolution
In the first week of 1959 revolutionary forces under the banner of the July 26th Movement entered Havana and established a new government. As events unfolded, the revolution’s leaders soon found themselves embroiled in conflict with the United States. They came to believe that economic sabotage by pro–United States industrialists operating within Cuba could only be prevented by nationalizing the Cuban economy and declaring a governmental monopoly of foreign trade. As United States–owned firms were nationalized, Cuba’s confrontation with its mighty neighbor deepened, and for protection the new regime entered into an alliance with the Soviet Union.
Once the revolution’s leaders were in command of a fully nationalized economy, they enjoyed the same advantages that had enabled their Soviet and Chinese counterparts to develop powerful science establishments. The situation in Cuba, however, was considerably different: The earlier revolutions had occurred in two of the world’s largest countries, but Cuba was a small island with a population of only about ten million people. Its scientific endeavors, therefore, were not channeled into a quixotic effort to compete directly with the United States in the field of military technology. Instead, Cuba would depend on diplomatic and political means for its national security—that is, on its alliance with the Soviet Union and on the moral authority its revolution had gained throughout Latin America and the rest of the world. That allowed its science establishment to direct its attention in other, less military-oriented, directions.
The USSR and China had both sought to build powerful, autonomous economies that could go head-to-head in competition with the world’s leading capitalist nations. With that in mind, they aimed their science efforts at facilitating the growth of basic heavy industry. The Cubans, by contrast, oriented their science program toward the solution of social problems. Scientific development, they decided, depended first of all on raising the educational level of the entire population. Before the revolution, almost 40 percent of the Cuban people were illiterate. In 1961 a major literacy campaign was launched that reportedly resulted in more than a million Cubans learning to read and write within a single year. Today the literacy rate is 97 percent and science education is a fundamental part of the national curriculum.
In addition to education, universal healthcare was assigned high priority, giving impetus to the development of the medical sciences. A harsh economic embargo imposed by the United States compelled the Cubans to find ways to produce their own medicines. They met the challenge and the upshot was that Cuba, despite its “developing world” economic status, now stands at the forefront of international biochemical and pharmacological research.
As evidence of the success of their medical programs, Cuban officials point to comparative statistics routinely used to quantify the well-being of nations, the most informative measures being average life expectancy and infant mortality. In both categories, Cuba has risen to rank among the wealthiest industrialized nations. Richard Levins, a professor at Harvard University’s School of Public Health, contends that “Cuba has the best healthcare in the developing world and is even ahead of the United States in some areas such as reducing infant mortality.” As for life expectancy, the CIA’s World Factbook statistics for 2006 report that the average lifespan in Cuba of 77.41 years earns it a rank of 55th out of 226 countries, while the United States’ average of 77.85 years puts it slightly higher, in 48th place.
Another key indicator of the quality of a nation’s healthcare system is the doctor-to-patient ratio. According to the World Health Organization’s statistics for 2006, out of 192 countries in the world, Cuba ranks first in that category: There is one doctor for every 170 people in Cuba, compared, for example, with one doctor per 390 in the United States, per 435 in the United Kingdom, per 238 in Italy, and per 297 in France. Most of the nations of the developing world have fewer than one doctor per 1,000 inhabitants.
The abundance of Cuban medical practitioners today is especially remarkable considering that in reaction to the nationalization of medical services in 1960 almost half of the island’s physicians emigrated to the United States, leaving only about 3,000 doctors and fewer than two dozen medical professors. In 1961 the revolutionary government addressed that problem by constructing medical teaching facilities. Today, according to the World Health Organization, thirteen medical schools are in operation in Cuba.
The doctor-to-patient ratio only tells part of the story, because Cuba’s medical schools in fact produce a large surplus of physicians—far more than can be put to productive use on the island itself. As a result, Cuba has actively exported its doctors to other parts of the world. The itinerant Cuban physicians do not “follow the money”—they go to parts of the developing world most in need of healthcare services. With the stated ambition of becoming a “world medical power,” Cuba offers more humanitarian medical aid to the rest of the world than does any other country, including the wealthy industrialized nations. The Cuban government has more doctors working throughout the world than does the World Health Organization.
A January 17, 2006, BBC News report stated: “Humanitarian missions in 68 countries are manned by 25,000 Cuban doctors, and medical teams have assisted victims of both the Tsunami and the Pakistan earthquake. In addition, last year 1,800 doctors from 47 developing countries graduated in Cuba. . . . Under a recent agreement, Cuba has sent 14,000 medics to provide free health care to people living in Venezuela’s barrios, or shantytowns, where many have never seen a doctor before.” In addition to the medical equipment, medicines, and the services of doctors it has provided throughout the developing world, Cuba has also helped to build and staff medical schools in Ethiopia, Guinea-Bissau, and Yemen.
Cuba’s healthcare successes have been closely linked to the pioneering advances its laboratories have produced in the medical sciences. In the 1980s a worldwide “biotechnological revolution” occurred, and Cuban research institutions took a leading role in it. Among the most noteworthy products of Cuban bioscience are vaccines for treating meningitis and hepatitis B, the popular cholesterol-reducer PPG (which is derived from sugarcane), monoclonal antibodies used to combat the rejection of transplanted organs, recombinant interferon products for use against viral infections, epidermal growth factor to promote tissue healing in burn victims, and recombinant streptokinase for treating heart attacks.
The Cuban biotech institutes focus their attention on deadly diseases that “Big Pharma” (the profit-motivated multinational drug corporations) tends to ignore because they mainly afflict poor people in the developing world. An important part of their mission is the creation of low-cost alternative drugs. In 2003 Cuban researchers announced the creation of the world’s first human vaccine containing a synthetic antigen (the “active ingredient” of a vaccine). It was a vaccine for treating Hib (Haemophilus influenzae type b), a bacterial disease that causes meningitis and pneumonia in young children and kills more than 500,000 throughout the world every year. An effective vaccine against Hib already existed and had proven successful in industrialized nations, but its high cost sharply limited its availability in the less affluent parts of the world. The significantly cheaper synthetic vaccine has already been administered to more than a million children in Cuba and is currently being introduced into many other countries.
The Cuban example offers a particularly clear case study of how a revolution has contributed to the development of science. The Cuban revolution removed the greatest of all obstacles to scientific advance by freeing the island from economic subordination to the industrialized world. The wealthier countries’ ability to manufacture products at relatively low cost allows them to flood the markets of the nonindustrialized countries with cheaply produced machine-made goods, effectively preventing the latter from industrializing. The only way out of this dilemma for the poorer countries is to remove themselves from the worldwide economic system based on market exchange, where the rules are entirely stacked against them. The history of the twentieth century, however, suggests that any countries wanting to opt out of the system have had to fight their way out. The Cuban revolution was therefore a necessary precondition of the creation and flowering of Cuban science and its biotechnology industry.
The scientific achievements of the Cuban revolution testify that important, high-level scientific work can be performed without being driven by the profit motive. They also show that centralized planning does not necessarily have to follow the ultrabureaucratized model offered by the Soviet Union and China, wherein science primarily serves the interests of strengthening the state and only secondarily concerns itself with the needs of the people. Cuba’s accomplishments are all the more impressive for having been the product of a country with a relatively small economic base, and with the additional handicap of an economic embargo imposed by a powerful and hostile neighboring country.
The Cuban revolution has come closest to realizing the noble goal of a fully human-oriented science. Although Cuba’s small size limits its usefulness as a basis for universal conclusions, its accomplishments in the medical sciences certainly provide reason to believe that science on a world scale could be redirected from its present course as a facilitator of blind economic growth (which primarily serves the interests of small ruling groups that control their countries’ economies) and instead be devoted to improving the wellbeing of entire populations.