Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Bolshevism & Botany

It might seem that there is little relationship between plants and communism. Botany is not a high priority for socialist thinkers. However, plants are an essential part to our material reality. We depend on them for housing, clothing, medicine, food, and many other things. Since our lives depend on plants, plant science will certainly be an important field for any socialist country, as it had been for those countries that attempted to build socialism in the past. Through those countries we can get a glimpse of the potential direction of plant science in a socialist society. Aside from the plant science developed in these countries, it is useful to explore the power of plants as a symbol of socialism and workers, which is where I will begin this talk.

Flowers have symbolic meaning in our lives. We give them on anniversaries, death, weddings, dates, holidays, etc. We grow them in our gardens for their beauty. Socialist movements and communist countries recognized that flowers were symbolic. To begin with, red flowers were a symbol of revolutionary socialism. Red was the color of communism, the color of the blood of the working class, and therefore, any red flower conveyed this meaning. The red carnation was a symbolic flower in particular. Carnations originate in southern Europe along the Mediterranean Sea and were popular for some time before being adopted as a symbol of socialism in 1889 in Paris at an International Socialist congress. It was decided that the world would celebrate International Workers Day on May 1st, and German workers wore red carnations on their shirts during the first May Day protests there. That is how the red carnation in particular became associated with the labor movement. The red carnation was the official flower of the Soviet Union and was used as a symbolic flower in Portugal in 1974, in the Carnation Revolution against the long standing dictatorship there. The red carnation is also associated with Nikos Beloyannis, nicknamed the man with the carnation. He was a Greek communist who was executed by the Greek government in 1952 for his involvement in the illegal Communist Party of Greece and the accusation that he had transmitted information to the Soviet Union. The red carnation therefore, has long been an important symbol to those on the left.

Another flower symbol worth mentioning is the rose. Most roses originated in Asia, but have been popular in European gardens and symbolism. Politically, roses have meant various things. For instance, the black rose is a symbol of anarchy, though few people might be aware of that. It comes from an Irish song of resistance against the British called Black Rose. The white rose is a symbol of pacifism, as it was used as a symbol of non violent resistance against Nazi Germany. However, the most famous rose symbol is the red rose. The red rose, often held in one hand, is a symbol of socialism. It is used as a symbol of socialist and labor parties in various countries including Finland, Sweden, England, Spain, Norway, Bulgaria, France, and others. The rose became a symbol of labor struggle during the Lawrence Strike, a 1912 textile strike in Lawrence, Mass. This strike was also called the Bread and Roses strike because of signs that the women carried that said, “We want bread, but we want roses too.” This strike inspired the poem entitled Bread and Roses. Thus, the red rose is a symbol of worker struggle for basic material needs, but also for beauty.

Flower symbolism is taken to an extreme in North Korea. The propaganda of the country features three different flowers. One is the national flower, the dogwood tree flower, a white flower that is carved into a monument near the DMZ. Another symbolic flower is the Kimjongilia, a red begonia that was developed by the Japanese botanist Kamo Mototeru. The flower was a birthday gift for Kim Jong Il, given to him on his 46th birthday. It is used in propaganda to symbolize the Juche ideology. Another symbolic flower is the Kimilsungia. This magenta colored orchid is said to have been discovered by Kim Il Sung in a Botanical Garden in Indonesia. It was an unnamed orchid which struck his attention and which he named after himself. The flower is used in propaganda to represent the president. In my recent visit to the country, I found that these flowers were depicted everywhere, in flower symbolism taken to an inescapable extreme. Never the less, they are pretty, and the image of flowers beautifies the country.

The symbolism of flowers appeals to our desire for beauty, but, it is not plant science. What then, was the nature of botany in the Soviet Union and other similar countries? To understand this, it is useful to examine some of the scientific accomplishments of these countries. Thus, to begin, I will examine the most accomplished Soviet Botanist, Nikolai Vavilov.

Nikolai Vavilov was born at the turn of the 1800s and saw many changes in his lifetime. He was born into a farming family and endured famine as a young child. The famine of 1892 resulted in the deaths of 400,000 Russians, including three of his siblings. The Czarist government did nothing for the starving people and actually sold grain reserves abroad rather than feed the starving people. This stuck with Vavilov and shaped his decision to study plant science when he was older. He wanted to prevent famine. His research was dedicated to that singular goal and to its end, he accomplished several great things. Firstly, at age 20, he began what would become the first and largest seed collection in the world. He also travelled to 64 countries and undertook 115 research expeditions in search of seeds and the origins of modern domesticated plants. He also worked with and studied peasants to learn and preserve their agricultural techniques. In travel and research, he was the first scientist to identify that loss of agricultural biodiversity was a threat to food security.
Since he first articulated that in 1926, the world has lost 3/4s of its agricultural biodiversity. He also theorized that the plants of modern agriculture originated in mountainous areas, not flood plains, because of the biodiversity that mountains have on account of elevation changes. He theorized that plants were brought to plain areas from mountainous ones. He mapped the origins of food plants so accurately, that the Meyers Map developed in 1988 varies little from the map he developed in the 1920s and early 30s.

Vavilov’s most famous work, however, was the seed bank. The seed bank plays an interesting role in history. For one, it was located in Leningrad, and was of interest to Nazi Germany. So much so, that there was a special SS Unit created to capture the seeds and bring them to Germany. Seeds at satellite seed banks in the Ukraine were captured and studied by Nazi scientists. During the siege of Leningrad, some of the seeds were sent to safety in Estonia, at terrible risk, only to be captured later when Estonia fell to Germany. The seed bank was of such scientific importance, that during the 28 month blockade of Leningrad, some of Vavilov’s assistants died protecting the seeds from rats and people. These assistants starved as they protected edible seeds around them. However, they believed that the seeds were important, as many plant varieties were already disappearing and many more people could die of famines if biodiversity in agriculture was not preserved. Vivilov himself, was not in Leningrad during the blockade. He had been imprisoned before the blockade,

Science had been changing in the Soviet Union. Vavilov was accused by Stalin as being an elitist researcher. He was sent to a prison, starved, and interrogated, sometimes for up to 15 hours a day. This was a turning point in plant science, and science in general during the Soviet Union. Vavilov died in 1943, after languishing in prison for three years. His seed bank, however, survived, and continues to this day in St. Petersburg. However, his replacement was Lysenko, who has become synonymous with pseudoscience.

Lysenko disliked genetics in favor of the idea of environmentally acquired inheritance. He denounced scientists and academics and was seen as a peasant genius in his time. The idea that it was the environment and not inheritance that determined the characteristics of an organism, was not a new idea. It was first proposed by Aristotle and later explored further by a scientist named John Baptist Lemark. Lysenko conducted an experiment involving rats in a maze. It might take the rats 200 times to learn the maze, then perhaps the next generation would take 165 times, and the next generation 50 times, then 20 times, then 10. He believed that it was not that the best or smartest rats reproduced creating a smart rat generation, but that somehow the act of maze solving was improving rat kind. It is not his beliefs that made him a bad scientist, but the fact that his experiments could never be reproduced by other scientists, and that other scientific ideas were suppressed by the state. It was not until the 1960s that Lysenko was denounced and revealed as a fake. This meant that Soviet science had suffered for 20 years, but also meant that those countries following their model, had also been persueing false science. China, for instance, did not reject Lysenkoism until years later.

Lysenkoism aside, the primary concern of botany in the Soviet Union, China, Cuba, and other communist or formerly communist countries was economic botany. The Soviet Union, despite the difficult years of scientific repression, did accomplish much in the way of researching botany as it relates to food security. Aside from Vavilov, Ivan Michurin was another famous Soviet botanist. His work involved creating over 300 varieties of fruit plants. He also studied the medicinal properties of ginseng. He also did work in hybridizing plants from geographically distant places to create hardier plant varieties. He subscribed to Lysenkoist ideas, but, also believed in natural selection. China also pursued economic botany. In 1958, because of food shortages, the government supported a massive survey of Chinese plants. The idea was to mobilize rural people to identify plants with medicinal and food value. Another accomplishment of China was in the study of rice. In the 1970s, Yuan Longping developed the first hybrid rice. 60% of China’s rice production is the hybrid rice that he developed. His rice has increased the rice yield enough to feed 10s of millions of people. His idea of hybridizing rice came during a famine in the 1960s. Like Vavilov, he was motivated by the desire to feed people.

The last example I will explore, is the example of Cuba. Because of the U.S. embargo and isolation after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba has had to develop organic agriculture and urban gardens. To increase output without fertilizers or pesticides, a number of methods have been adopted. These include crop rotation and inter cropping. Inter cropping is planting two crops together to reduce crop failure from pests. So, corn might be grown with taro or cassava, sugarcane with soy, and plantains with cassava. Cuba has been a world leader in developing fungi and plant pathogens to control weeds and insects. For instance, Cuban scientists discovered a fungus that attacks banana weevils. They also developed bacteria that add phosphorus to the soil. It reduces the need of phosphorus containing fertilizers by 75%. Another important policy in Cuba is urban gardening, which is useful in reducing packaging and shipping of vegetables. Schools often also have gardens, which teach children about growing their own food while providing food for the pupils.

Plants provide people with food, medicine, clothes, shelter, and so much of what we need to survive. Beyond this, they provide all life with the means to survive by creating oxygen through photosynthesis and assisting in the water cycle through transpiration. Plants help regulate the climate by storing carbon. In the big picture, everything depends on plants. In the free market, plants only have value inasmuch as they can make money. Plants are used to create medicines that people can’t afford. Plants are used to make homes that are bigger than what people need, and only affordable to some. Forests are destroyed to make room for pastures for grazing animals. Agricultural biodiversity is lost for the sake of creating food more cheaply, but without a long term plan of how to create it indefinitely. Flowers, which are symbols of love and friendship, and given as gifts to celebrate many parts of our lives, are themselves a commodity grown in dangerous conditions by low paid workers. These flowers are doused with cancer causing chemicals to kill insects and keep them fresh, they are shipping across the world and sometimes dyed to look more pleasing. Finally, plants are endangered by climate change, which reduces rainfall in some areas, increases it in others, and changes the normal range of plants. It increases the outbreaks of invasive species as the climate of areas become more suitable for alien species. Plants only have value in how they can be bought or sold, or how they relate to things that are bought and sold.

Socialists believe that the goal of the economy should be to meet human needs. Therefore, socialist botany would be directed at how plants can be used to feed, cure, shelter, clothe, and beautify the lives of humans. The benefits of plants, in terms of medicine, food, and shelter, should be available to all people. A planned economy would consider how to improve farming, while being mindful of the long term benefits of biodiversity. An economy based on human need would be far sighted, since human need does not end tomorrow or a generation from now. Such an economy would value public transportation and work to reduce carbon emissions, since human need can not be met within the context of a destroyed environment. Such an economy could rationally determine how to use and distribute resources. This ideal has not been reached, but those countries that experienced communism made attempts to meet human needs. They were daunted by a hostile world and historical difficulties. However, it does seem that these countries found that botany should be used to meet human needs. Thus, things such as organic agriculture, seed banks, hybrid rice, mapping biodiversity, and so on, were the major contributions of these countries.

> The presentation above was written and delivered at Heather Bradford at Camp Class Struggle in 2010.

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