This is an archive of the Treatment Action Campaign's public documents from December 1998 until October 2008. I created this website because the TAC's website appears unmaintained and people were concerned that it
was becoming increasingly hard to find important documents.

The menu items have been slightly edited and a new stylesheet applied to the site. But none of the documents have been edited, not even for minor errors. The text appears on this site as obtained from the Internet Archive.

The period covered by the archive encompassed the campaign for HIV medicines, the civil disobedience campaigns, the Competition Commission complaints, the 2008 xenophobic violence and the PMTCT, Khayelitsha health workers and Matthias Rath court cases.

Lysenkoism and Mbeki

By Dr Shuaib Manjra 16 May 2006

It has often been asked why an obviously 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 a strangely idiosyncratic in any other society; but in a country with the highest number of people living with HIV and Aids, it becomes tragedy, or even wilful neglect. Sadly, for all his stupendous achievements, Thabo Mbeki will be remembered for his maverick views on HIV and Aids.

Why he holds such a position is debatable. One could speculate that it may be to assert his independence as a thinker. Alternatively he may wish to assert his anti-imperialist (or nationalistic) credentials by viewing the HIV issues as being driven by multi-national institutions and by "western science". Or the threat that this dreaded disease poses to the African renaissance may drive his denialism.

As disappointing 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, which 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 fundamentalism. Even more unfortunate is the silence by those trained in the natural sciences, who in putting patronage before principle, seemingly employ cognitive dissonance to justify the anti-science party line.

Reflecting on other world leaders who have historically held unusual views on such issues, may provide us an insight into Mbeki's thoughts and motivation. 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 - 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. This dominant scientific view, based on empirical evidence is discounted because it fails to fit in with the ideological position of George W Bush, whose commitment to the advancement of capitalist enterprise cannot be fettered by any concerns, including environmental ones. Bush's response says it all: it's just a "document put out by the bureaucracy" he says and then proceeds to shift EPA Director, Christie Whitman to the periphery in virtual exile. If science does not fit in with Bush's politics, then the science must be wrong.

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

The 1940's debate concerning nature versus nurture as polar opposites had scientists pitted against each other. Some scientists believed that genetics alone determines human character and behaviour - a theory supported and propagated, amongst others, by American racists who believed that black people were genetically inferior. Other scientists believed that the social environment could entirely determine human consciousness and behaviour - a view supported by communists in keeping with their ideological position confirming the pre-eminence of human agency.

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 were not fit for a communist state. Lysenko had advanced the quack theory of earlier scientists - Ivan Vladimirich Michurin (1855-1935) and Jean- Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829) - who first postulated such views. Stalin, 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 moulded by the social environment. Lysenko, whose lack of scientific rigour was more than compensated for by political savvy (knowing what the Soviet dictator wanted to hear), applied this social theory to biology by insisting that genetics had no role to play in agriculture, and that it is environmental conditions that determine crop type. Believing that organisms are not genetically constrained, he claimed that in the right environment, wheat seed can produce rye; winter crops could be grown in the spring, and that similar crops do not compete against each other and could therefore be grown in clusters. The 1917 Russian Revolution's social transformation was thus complimented by what was called "the transformation of nature". Lysenko, not being a geneticist, moreover claimed that evolution occurred through acquired characteristics being transmitted to future generations - despite the overwhelming evidence proving the contrary.

Both Lysenko and Stalin had the singular capacity to ignore facts that did not suit them - being blinded by the potential that their theories represented for the Soviet Union and for Soviet agriculture in particular.

Obviously impressed by this ideologically driven science, Stalin appointed 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 theories 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 gulags 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 cost this struggling economy over a billion roubles.

Of course it could be argued, as it is by the ardent Marxist Robert Young, that Stalin's position vis a vis Lysenko was not only driven by power and patronage as asserted by liberal scholarship- but by historical circumstance and a conjunction of ideological, political and material conditions. It could be viewed as 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 revolutionary challenges included pressures on agriculture to feed an enlarging proletariat, to generate a surplus to fund industrialization, to engender national pride and to promote national Soviet science (proletarian science) as opposed to the hegemony of western or colonial science (bourgeosie science). Lysenko, whose origins lay in the peasantry, rose spectacularly through the ranks because of his commitment to the revolution and its ideology, unlike the bureaucrats, scientists and technocrats inherited from Tsarist times - who regardless of their skills, did not necessarily subscribe to the communist ideal. However these "bourgeois scientists" had to be retained - a compromise that was forced upon Lenin by circumstance - in order to protect the revolution. Thus Soviet agriculture required an ideological leader - unswerving in his commitment to the ideology of the ruling party and its leader.

Stalin was not however simply influenced by Lysenko, but as evidence recently published from archival material by Russian academic Karill Rossiyano, demonstrates, Stalin actively influenced Lysenko's thinking on the debates between creationists, geneticists and those who believed in the notion of inheritance of acquired characteristics. Stalin also served as Lysenko's editor - editing his speeches and scientific manuscripts. Stalin's behaviour in this realm was simply a reflection of the Soviet regime under him: a hierarchical organization based on patronage with absolute control by the leader on all centres of power, including science. Stalin in a sense moved from editing texts to attempting to edit nature itself. The catastrophe that ensued as a result of the political sponsorship of quack science is there for all to see and cannot be mitigated by even the noblest intentions.

Coming back to Mbeki - the parallels with Stalin speak for themselves, without painfully reiterating them, except to beg the question: is he treading 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. How often has it been said that those who ignore history are doomed to reproduce its failures!