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Fourth International, February 1942


Larissa Reed

The Evasions of a Scientist


From Fourth International, vol.3 No.2, February 1942, pp.62-63.
Transcribed, Edited & Formatted by Ted Crawford & David Walters in 2008 for the ETOL.


QUEST, The Evolution of a Scientist
by Leopold Infeld
Doubleday, Doran & Co., Inc., 1941. $3.00. 342 pages.

Infeld’s book opens with the headlines he read in an American newspaper, September 1939: “Nazis Enter Cracow.” Cracow is his birthplace. He realizes that the old Europe is finished and there is no going back. “Rows of soldiers, guns and a stream of blood lie between me and the world of my youth,” he mourns. Fearfully he looks into the future of a shrinking world of safety. “Here I am, safe, free, for the first time living a seemingly sheltered life. A goal for which I fought bitterly through many years seems to be reached ... I chose it in my childhood and achieved it after twenty difficult years of struggle against odds.” Yet around him, shattering his seeming safety, he observes familiar and alarming symptoms: “Anti-Semitism is increasing in America ... Am I witnessing here the beginning of a process of which anti-Semitism is an external sign? ... Is there a harbor, is there a haven for me and thousands of others? Am I now safe behind a wall which is large and strong enough to resist the impact of hate?”

Flight from the Ghetto

From his earliest days in the ghetto, Infeld struggled to build a wall between himself and anti-Semitism. Failing to grasp that racial hatred is not a local or accidental phenomenon but the inevitable product of the existing social and economic system, he cannot see that there is no harbor of safety for individuals in a day when mechanical science has turned oceans into lakes and reaction is sweeping over all walls.

As a child Infeld yearned to escape from his stifling medieval ghetto life and schooling. His father, a middle-class merchant in the ghetto, prevented him from attending the Gymnasium – a Gentile school which would have been the “door to the outside world” and the means of escape from his environment. In spite of this setback, Infeld began his emancipation by discovering “all kinds of books”; among them books on the science of physics. He set for himself a difficult program of self-education in this science, with the objective of taking the examinations which would make him eligible for higher education. “What I loved in physics,” he writes, “was the rigorous character of its reasoning; it seemed most wonderful to me that so many complicated facts can be deduced from so very few simple principles.”

Although some of the books he discovered dealt with socialist ideas, Infeld was not impelled to investigate the simple principles which governed the contradictory circumstances of his personal life. He did not investigate the economic relations that made his people despised and persecuted and which condemned them to live – in a capitalist society – in a remnant of medievalism, the ghetto. He did not investigate why his racial feelings as a Jew were in conflict with his Polish nationalism, while both conflicted with the nationalisms of other countries. He writes that in the Poland before the first World War be could “create a protective layer ... by living in an atmosphere of abstract scientific problems and diminish the impact of my own environment and the impact of social problems carried to my world on the waves of anti-Semitism.” Today he is perplexed because this “protective layer” is no longer possible.

Before the first World War, when Poland was divided between Russia, Germany and Austria, Infeld lived in the least oppressed section under Austrian control. When the war broke out, he was conscripted into the Austrian army – a few days after he had successfully passed the university entrance examinations. This event, he writes, “was supposed to have marked the end of an old life and the beginning of a university career. Instead it marked the end of my civilian life.” It also pointed to flickers of social consciousness in Infeld. He observes: “The Austrian machinery was great, disorderly, corrupt through and through, becoming worse with each day that the war progressed. I was degenerating rapidly to the level where hate reigns ... I wanted to annihilate the whole rotten Austrian army machinery. Everyone hated the war. Nobody knew what was the purpose of the war. I nursed the same naive thoughts as millions of others – why did the war go on? Who were the few criminals who prolonged the war and uttered meaningless sentences about the future glory of the Austrian and German empires?”

Moreover, as the war progressed, Infeld saw the class-conscious methods used by the imperialists to crush the uprisings of the angered peoples: “Hungarian soldiers were moved toward Cracow and Polish soldiers toward the Ukraine. It was simpler to keep the empire intact by letting the Hungarian soldiers shoot the Polish civil population and the Polish soldiers shoot the Ukrainians.” Infeld drew no political conclusions from this “divide and rule” policy of the imperialist masters.

Through a series of fortunate accidents, augmented by skillful maneuvering with friends or paid agents, Infeld was able to escape prolonged participation in the war. He incorrectly evaluates his own powers in these maneuvers. “Single-handed I had to fight this monstrous machinery (of the Austrian army) to find my way through the maze of its rusty wheels, to steer cautiously toward freedom. Sometimes I think that no scientific work which I have since done required as much concentration as the problem of leaving the Austrian army.” In reality, his resistance to the war was an individual manifestation of mass resistances at various points of the war process. At the very time that he was conducting his individual struggle to escape participation in the “senseless” imperialist war, across the border in Russia the whole mass of people was rising against the same war, and by establishing the first victorious workers’ state helped put an end to the first World War before it had also consumed Infeld. He did not perceive the international significance of this event, he saw only the immediate result of the war – that the newly created Polish buffer state was blessing God and Wilson instead of God and the Kaiser.

In Post-War Germany

The consequences of this victory of the “democracies” and their arbitrary establishment of new capitalist state boundaries by the Versailles Treaty struck directly at the half-emancipted Infeld. “Now I found out what anti-Semitism meant,” he writes. In the new Poland, as elsewhere, the mounting capitalist antagonisms found their first outlet in the suppression of the Jews. Organized attacks began against the Jews and pogroms broke out in which hundreds of Jews were killed. “Anyone reading the Polish newspapers at that time would have thought that the new country had but one burning problem: What to do with the three and a half million Jews.” Infeld decided to leave Poland where the pressures were forcing him back to the ghetto. With the help of his father, who feared his induction into the Polish army, he went to Germany to enter a university and earn his Ph.D.

However, this was not simple in a Germany defeated by the first World War. “I learned that it was impossible for a Pole to be admitted to the University without powerful outside influence,” writes Infeld. Moreover, in trying to secure this influence, he was at a double disadvantage; “to the Germans I was a Pole who had grabbed Danzig and the Polish Pomorze. But to the German Jews, enjoying the blessings of the superior German culture which spread order and obedience everywhere, I was an ‘East Jew,’ lowering by my appearance the high level of their lives and thoughts.” Only through the kindly assistance of Albert Einstein, whom he met for the first time, did Infeld secure special permission to study at Berlin University.

“In postwar Germany,” declares Infeld. “In the hot atmosphere of class struggle and bitterly divided parties, the social problems could not be ignored?” He especially cultivated the friendship of a man named Joseph, who was a member of the German Communist Party. “Why don’t you belong to the Socialist Party if you wish to save mankind?” Infeld asked Joseph. “It has the same aims and it is much more respectable.” Joseph explained to him at length the basic differences between revolutionary and reformist parties and also gave him a bundle of books. Unwilling, however, to abandon his petty-bourgeois path toward education, Infeld derived no benefit from these books. “I was afraid of Das Kapital and too busy with my scientific studies,” he apologizes.

Eight months in Germany produced some progress in Infeld’s political understanding. “I overcame my Jewish nationalistic feelings, nourished by the anti-Semitism in Poland. I realized that suppression and hate is directed not toward Jews alone. Secondly I understood the danger of social isolation in the ivory tower which scientists like to build around themselves. I understood that a scientist ignoring his social duties and refusing to see the ties which bind him to society, may find himself a victim of forces whose existence he has ignored.” In spite of this consciousness, however, Infeld did not remove himself from the ivory tower he condemns but remained tied to his petty. bourgeois training and outlook. He apologizes for his inertia: “At least I have a bad conscience about it, and if that is the only difference between me and the others, I still believe that it is an essential difference.” Actually, however, this difference to not only negated, but becomes its opposite, since “complete detachment” from the struggle against the forces of reaction becomes an involuntary form of support for the reaction.

Return to Poland

At the age of 30, Infeld’s future was still bounded by the Polish ghetto, where he returned to teach school first in the provinces and then in Warsaw. With all outside doors closed to him, this became the highest post to which he could aspire. Moreover, even this position became untenable after a student Communist demonstration occurred in his class, against his protests, for which he was victimized as a Jew. However, a short time previously he had married an understanding woman whose father was a wealthy Jew. After many difficulties, with the assistance of his father-in-law’s money and the “first insignificant signs of scientific recognition,” he obtained a post at Lwow University.

On a brief trip to Germany, just before Hitler’s conquest of power, Infeld met Joseph again. This Communist leader had married a wealthy woman and was living in “an atmosphere of external splendor and inner tension.” The ten years had produced profound political changes, which were reflected in Joseph. “In the past year,” writes Infeld, “he had been suddenly kicked downstairs ... It had happened because of a phrase in one of his books in which the party saw some Trotskyite tendencies. This phrase implied that Communism in Russia would develop fully only through a revolution in Germany and in the west. He told me ... ‘they were right. The sentence was really bad. But by the time the book was printed the party line had changed. But I guess that if one man has to be blamed, then it ought to be I.’”

Infeld was unable to see, in these few words, that his own fate, the fate of millions of Jews and of the oppressed of all the world were sealed for years to come. The Stalinist bureaucracy had consolidated its reactionary regime and was proceeding to stifle the International revolution. The time was not far off when thousands of revolutionists would be purged and others, like Joseph, would plead guilty to false crimes in the Moscow frame-up trials. The betrayal of the German Communist Party would completely clear the road for the Nazi hordes.

Infeld merely felt the disappointment and resignation in Joseph, which he interpreted in his own fashion. “Don’t you sometimes regret that you left scientific work?” he asked, to which he received the sharp retort from Joseph’s wife: “Is it not scientific work that he is doing?” Infeld’s reluctance to include politics in the realm of science makes him not only unwilling to study its laws and processes, but unable to accept the errors and defeats which he readily admits are inevitable in his own science.

At the age of 35, after the death of his first wife, Infeld secured a Rockefeller fellowship at the English University of Cambridge. Here he became acquainted with a more advanced form of academic life granted in a powerful imperialist country. “In Cambridge,” he writes, “youth is more progressive than its parents. Here I witnessed a student pacifist demonstration, contrasting with the memory of the noisy demonstrations of students in my country who shouted slogans urging hatred, war and the extermination of the Jews.” Infeld vaguely understands that England can afford a tolerance and democracy at home since, unlike Poland and Germany, its empire is supported by the labor of exploited peoples in remote continents. He observes, In this bourgeois democracy, that “The sons of the English Tories relax in Cambridge and furbish their consciences for their future. Progressive and even radical in college, they prepare to serve the British Empire later with the wisdom gained from this radical past.”

Returning to Poland, after his stay in England, Infeld hears the increasingly ominous words: “Anti-Semitism is growing in Poland ... All my plans for the future depended on whether or not this growth would continue.” This growth was inevitable since this anti-Semitism was the national manifestation of a growing international reaction. He feels the immediate effect of this reaction when he is defeated in his attempt to secure a professorship in Wilno University, although he is the only qualified person for the post. Thereupon, Infeld decides to quit the Old World for the New. From one nation to another, from one continent to another, Infeld is fleeing before a mounting and all-engulfing reaction, which today has exploded into the second World Was.

Escape to America

Looking back, Infeld rationalizes his defeat and consequent flight; he “escaped becoming affected by the germ of security to the point of being smug and snobbish as a professor ... who had a peaceful life, quietly turning out two papers yearly, growing automatically in fat and respectability.”

Through the intervention of Einstein, Infeld received a fellowship at Princeton University, where he worked in close collaboration with Einstein. His account of academic life in America is no less illuminating than his descriptions of European university life. Behind the imposing facade of the Temple of Culture, one sees the same petty intrigues, spites and class hierarchies which exist on less lofty levels of society, as a result of similar social and economic pressures. At the termination of his fellowship in Princeton, Infeld’s prospects for a place in American academic life were scarcely brighter than they had been in Europe. He was temporarily saved, financially and professionally, by writing a popular book in collaboration with Einstein.

Will the political experiences of Europe be recapitulated in America to menace him both as a Jew and a scientist? Why is the scientist, so progressive a force in society, retarded, persecuted and defeated? he asks. “The scientist tries to understand the origin of our solar system, the structure of the universe and the laws governing the atom,” writes Infield in self-justification.

But it is not enough to master the laws of nature; man must also learn the laws governing his relationship to his fellow-men. He must participate in the struggle against an outlived system of society which can no longer assimilate science and progressive life and which is ever faster whirling to its own destruction and carrying with it the accumulated wealth of man’s physical and mental labors. Scientists, beginning with the Jews, are merely a fraction of the million masses victimized by this process. Only upon the collective action of the masses of people in overthrowing this destructive system; only in the establishment of a progressive socialist society, can Infeld, together with the rest of humanity, find peace, security and a fruitful life.

Today the evolution of a scientist is inextricably bound up with the revolution for international socialism.

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Last updated on 13.9.2008