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Riemann and the Red Scare: The Story of Dirk Jan Struik

< APPENDIX ONE "Machines of Communism": The USSR, Cybernetics (and the CIA) | SMILING MAN FROM A DEAD PLANET: THE MYSTERY OF LYNDON LAROUCHE | APPENDIX THREE Monad Man: The Curious Case of Technocracy’s Howard Scott (Plus an Apology to the Grand Dragon) >

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APPENDIX TWO TO LYNDON IN WIENER WORLD

Lyndon LaRouche's description of his "creative breakthroughs" in the late 1940s and early 1950s avoids any mention of the broader cultural and political world of Boston. This elision extends to the extraordinary events that engulfed MIT during the early years of the Cold War.

When LaRouche returned to the Boston area in 1946, the American Communist Party dominated the academic left. In the late 1940s the FBI was especially concerned about the "abnormally large percentage of communists at MIT."1 In 1953 MIT's math department chairman William Ted Martin and vice chairman Norman Levinson were even called before HUAC. The FBI had at least five informers inside MIT who fed information to Hoover on real or suspected communists. One reason MIT's math department attracted CP members was that for many years one of its most prominent members was an avowed Marxist named Dirk Jan Struik (pronounced "stroyk") who first joined MIT's faculty in 1926 at the personal invitation of Norbert Wiener who was one of his closest friends.2

Born in Rotterdam in 1894, Struik – who would live to the age of 106 and only die in 2000 – entered Leyden University in 1912 where he studied under Einstein's close collaborator Paul Ehrenfest and the famous Dutch physicist Hendrik Lorentz. In 1922 the Berlin house Springer published Struik's dissertation on the Riemannian geometry of manifolds under the title Grundzüge der mehrdimensionalen Differentialgeometrie in dirkter Darstelling. Besides being fluent in Dutch, German, and English, Struik also read Latin, Greek, Italian, French, Russian, Rumanian, Portuguese, and Swedish, all of which helped him in both his scientific and political work.

In the 1920s Struik became friends with Tullio Levi-Civita, a leading expert in what Levi-Civita called "the absolute differential calculus" but what Einstein and Marcel Grossmann dubbed "tensor calculus." Einstein heavily relied on tensor calculus to develop general relativity theory. Struik's knowledge of tensor calculus led Levi-Civita and the University of Göttingen's Richard Courant to recommend that he be awarded a Rockefeller-funded International Education Board traveling fellowship. The grant took Struik and his wife Ruth (who earned her doctorate in mathematics from Prague's Charles University) to Rome, Paris, and Göttingen. While at Göttingen, Struik first met Norbert Wiener who recommended Struik to MIT in order to have a leading expert on tensor calculus on the faculty. Struik remained at MIT from 1926 to 1960 and in 1940 he became a full professor. In 1934 he also became an American citizen. Throughout the 1930s, Struik specialized in work relating to Riemannian and other manifolds. Struik and Wiener also began collaboration

on a five-dimensional formalism for a unified field theory that linked general relativity to quantum mechanics via Schrödinger's equation. They also established the joint Harvard-MIT mathematics colloquium, despite the indifference of Harvard's leading mathematicians. Struik admired the brilliant but eccentric Wiener all his life.3

Struik also was an expert in the history of mathematics, a topic that had interested him since the early 1920s. In 1948 he published two Dover Press books that became classics. In Yankee Science in the Making: Science and Engineering in New England from Colonial Times to the Civil War, Struik studied innovations in technology, science, education and engineering that helped inspire the advanced industrialization of the region.4 Struik's second book, A Concise History of Mathematics, reviewed the works of giants in the field concluding with David Hilbert's work at the very end of the 19th century. A Concise History has now been translated in 18 languages.

In his work Struik was also following the lead of the Marxist-influenced Social Relations in Science movement made famous by the works of England's J. D. Bernal.5 Other writers in this field included Norbert Wiener's close friend J.B.S. Haldane as well as Lancelot Hogben, author of Mathematics for the Millions. Struik's decades long exploration of the history of mathematics resulted in his being awarded the Kenneth O. May Prize for the History of Mathematics from the International Commission on the History of Mathematics in 1989.

RED PROFESSOR

Struik was as passionate a radical as he was a mathematician. In 1915 he was recruited by his high school math teacher into the Dutch SPD, a Marxist splinter group from the Dutch social democratic SDAP. The SPD was led by Dr. W van Ravesteyn, although its most famous member was the Dutch astronomer Anton Pannekoek.6 Struik's faction of the Dutch Left strongly identified with Rosa Luxemburg's wing of the German SPD and fully supported the Bolshevik Revolution. During this period, Struik became an active Marxist and he remained a Communist Party supporter until his death.7 In 1936 he helped found Science and Society, a leading Marxist intellectual journal that maintained close ties to the American Communist Party intelligentsia. He also wrote regularly for CP publications like New Masses and the Daily Worker. Struik served on the board of many CP front groups including the Council of Soviet-American Friendship. He also was listed as a sponsor of the famous Cultural and Scientific Conference for World Peace held at the Waldorf-Astoria in April 1949.8

In spite of his background, Struik worked during World War II for some undisclosed branch of the American government, apparently on intelligence issues. In his brief recollections for the Festschrift For Dirk Struik, he coyly writes that after the U.S. entered the war: "For some time I spent weekends in Washington at one of the Netherlands desks in connection with the war effort." 9

FROM MIT TO HUAC

In the late 1940s Struik became front page news in Boston thanks to Herbert Philbrick, a voluntary infiltrator of the Boston CP for the FBI. In April 1949 Philbrick identified Struik as a member of a secret CP cell for professionals as well as a lecturer at the Samuel Adams School of Social Studies.10 (Philbrick later wrote a famous book on his experiences entitled I Led 3 Lives.)11

The Sam Adams School first opened its doors in 1944 as the Boston branch of the CP-organized popular education movement that also included the well-known Jefferson School in New York. Struik regularly lectured at the Sam Adams School and served on the board of trustees. Philbrick – who says he heard Struik lecture at the school a number of times – recalled that he "could hold a class of Communists and non-Communists alike absolutely spellbound, reeling off names, dates, facts and figures in accurate detail without even glancing at his notes."12 In 1947-48 then-U.S. Attorney General Tom Clark listed the Sam Adams School as "a subversive institution." When asked about the school, Struik rather disingenuously told the New York Times that the purpose of the Sam Adams School was "training citizens for responsible positions in government."13

On 12 September 1951, Struik – who refused to affirm or deny that he was a member of the Communist Party and also refused to testify before HUAC – was indicted in Boston under a 1919 Massachusetts sedition law.14 When Struik was indicted, Norbert Wiener wrote a letter to then-MIT President James Killian in which he threatened to quit MIT if it didn't support Struik:

I know Struik to be a person of the highest character and honesty. . . . He had neither the personality nor the intentions of a conspirator. . . . if . . . his relations with MIT suffer, unless there is far more damming testimony against him . . . I shall regretfully be forced to submit to you my resignation from MIT.15

As a compromise, MIT suspended Struik from teaching but continued to pay his full salary. When the charges were finally dropped in May 1956 after the U.S. Supreme Court declared such state laws invalid in a similar case in Pennsylvania, Struik returned to his teaching duties.

Whatever one thinks of the anti-Communist purges, it is undeniable that Struik and his fellow CP colleagues at MIT worked at an institution which received extraordinary amounts of money to conduct top secret classified research for organizations like the CIA and the Office of Naval Research (ONR). It is also clear that Struik personally maintained high level connections to Communist Bloc scientists in both Europe and the Soviet Union. It is inconceivable – at least to me – the Struik wouldn't discuss scientific research with them that he thought important that was being done at MIT or anywhere else. That is not to say that Struik was in any conventional sense a trained "Soviet spy." Nor did he have to be. He was far more important than an ordinary spy; he was a window on the most advanced scientific research in the West that could be used for both civilian and military purposes.

It is even possible that Struik never formally joined the American Communist Party as a "card-carrying member." Struik, for example, was intimately involved in questions involving the mathematics of general relativity theory. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, the official Soviet "line" on relativity theory declared it a capitalist plot to introduce idealism and deism and attack materialism. Soviet philosophers and scientists who continued to defend relativity theory (who were frequently linked to the "Deborinites" in philosophy) were condemned. Some like Boris Hessen died in labor camps.16

MARGARET SCHLAUCH AND THE "A BOMB SPIES"

Clearly Struik didn't condemn relativity theory in the 1930s just because Moscow said so. Like other members of the Science and Society world, Struik seems more like the once famous medieval language expert and NYU English professor Margaret Schlauch. Schlauch, for example, had no trouble defending James Joyce's high modernist Finnegan's Wake in the pages of Science and Society against Moscow-based critics who had labeled it an example of proto-fascist irrationalism.

Struik and Schlauch almost certainly knew each other. Schlauch's father taught mathematics at NYU while her sister married the great Polish physicist Leopold Infeld, one of Einstein's closest collaborators. Infeld taught at the University of Toronto from 1939 to 1950. In 1950, however, Infeld fled to Warsaw amid claims that he may have been linked to some Soviet atomic spy network.

As for Infeld's sister-in-law, on 6 February 1951 the New York Times reported that Margaret Schlauch had sent a letter to NYU announcing that the current political climate had made her decide to abandon the United States and move in Poland. Once in Poland she was immediately awarded the post of chair of the English department of Warsaw University. That same year she joined the Polish Communist Party. The Polish government also awarded her one of its highest distinctions, the Order of Reborn Poland.17

Did Struik also have any overt espionage ties? All we know is that Struik reports that in the late 1940s he came under attack from reporters like Cornelius Dalton of the Boston Post "who mentioned me and many others in his attacks on heretics – supposedly in touch with spies for the Soviet Union, especially 'A[tomic]-spies."18

What is clear is that Struik served as a window to Soviet work in advanced mathematics. In the 1930s he even attended B. Kagan's Moscow seminar on tensor calculus. Soviet mathematical research also proved important for Norbert Wiener. Wiener was particularly taken with the work of the world famous Soviet mathematician Andrei Kolmogorov. In an interview Wiener gave in Moscow in the summer of 1960, he said: "When I read works of Academician Kolmogorov, I feel that that these are my thoughts as well, this is what I wanted to say. And I know that Academician Kolmogorov has the same feelings when reading my works."19

Leading Communist intellectuals such as Struik and J.B. S. Haldane tried to explain Western advances in science and fought against the worst forms of Stalinist pseudo-science. When Wiener, for example, first developed the notion of cybernetics, the official ideological "line" from Moscow immediately declared cybernetics a "bourgeois perversion" to "transform workers into an extension of the machine" and charged that Wiener was "a cigar-smoking slave of the industrialists," a claim that the stogie-loving scientist declared "half right."20 By explaining developments in Western science to their Soviet colleagues people like Struik helped weaken the grip of Stalinist ideological excess and in so doing encouraged the growth of a less paranoid worldview inside Russia. On the other hand, they also helped enable the Soviet military-industrial complex – which had little time for ideology and wanted practical results – to develop ever more sophisticated weapons systems.

CONCLUSION

The history of the postwar purges at MIT and the case of Dirk Struik in particular raises many fascinating questions. For our limited purposes here, it is hard not to wonder if LaRouche ever met Struik or attended lectures given by Struik at the Sam Adams School. Recall that the Sam Adams School was open for at least two years after LaRouche returned to the Boston area. Struik also frequently lectured in other Boston venues. Struik's classic Yankee Science in the Making would also interest LaRouche whose father and grandfather were intimately involved in the shoe industry which played a vital role in the development of manufacturing and technology in New England. Struik also lectured on and wrote extensively about the history of mathematics, a topic LaRouche continues to write about today.

LaRouche says that while he was living in the Boston area he developed his own "Marxist critique" of highly advanced ideas in mathematics based on his supposed understanding of Riemann and Cantor. But as a freshman college physics dropout, LaRouche clearly couldn't have had much in-depth understanding of these ideas simply because he lacked the basic training in such esoteric fields of mathematics. Yet Dirk Struik had just those skills. He not only wrote his dissertation on Riemannian geometry; he was also an expert on "tensor analysis" as well as on the history of mathematical thinking.

I think it is certain that LaRouche at least knew about Dirk Struik given Struik's prominence in Boston in the late 1940s. Did LaRouche also try to copy Struik as well?


Notes:

  1. Flo Conway and Jim Siegelman, Dark Hero of the Information Age: In Search of Norbert Wiener the Father of Cybernetics (New York: Basic Books, 2006), 265.
  2. For background information on Struik I have drawn on two profiles of Struik: David Rowe, “Eloges: Dirk Jan Struik,” Isis (93) 3 (September 2002), 456-59; and Chandler Davis, Jim Tattersall, Joan Richards, and Tom Banchoff, “Dirk Jan Struik (1894-2000),” Notes of the AMS, 48 (6), 584-589. A brief memoir of Struik is also included in Loren Graham, Moscow Stories (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2006) Also see a profile of Struik at http://www.tufts.edu/as/math/struik.html. Struik contributed a memorial to Norbert Wiener in the March-April 1966 issue of American Dialog, a CPUSA-run cultural magazine edited by Joseph North. Struik noted that although Wiener was a classic American humanist and considered Communism just another church with another dogma, he was personally close to the British Marxists J.B.S. Haldane and Hyman Levy (a Scottish mathematician who left the CPGB in 1958) as well as to Struik himself. Struik also noted that Wiener thought little of Hegel, whom Wiener "distrusted." Struik describes cybernetics as Wiener’s unification of the ideas of the French mathematician Henri Lebesque, the philosopher Leibnitz, and the American mathematician and thermodynamic theorist Josiah Willard Gibbs, whom Wiener described as America’s greatest scientist.
  3. Rowe, 457. Along with their mathematical work, in the 1940s Struik and Wiener even joined a local Sherlock Holmes Society called Speckled Band of Boston.
  4. For a historical overview of the book, see Darwin Stapleton, "Dirk J. Struik’s Yankee Science in the Making: A Half-Century Retrospective," Isis (88), 3 (September 1997).
  5. During World War II, Bernal co-invented the famed Mulberry Harbor which helped make the Normandy invasion possible.
  6. From Struik’s introductory remarks in R.S. Cohen, J.J. Stachel, and M.W. Wartofsky, "For Dirk Struik: Scientific, historical and political essays in honor of Dirk J. Struik," Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science, Vol. 15 (Boston: D. Reidel, 1974). On the history of the Dutch Left, see International Communist Current, The Dutch and German Communist Left (London: Porcupine Press, 2001), a book based on doctorate work by Phillipe Bourrinet.
  7. In 1971, for example, Struik edited and wrote the introduction to the International Publishers book, The Birth of the Communist Manifesto.
  8. Steve Heims, The Cybernetics Group (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1991), 199.
  9. Cohn, Stachel and Wartofsky, For Dirk Struik, xvi.
  10. Another member of the CP-connected group of intellectuals in Boston tied to Struik was Wendell Furry, a brilliant quantum physicist who worked at MIT during World War II and who was later called before HUAC. On Furry, see Loren Graham, Moscow Stories. On Struik’s ties to Furry, see Graham, 10, 277.
  11. Herbert Philbrick, I Led Three Lives: Citizen, "Communist," Counterspy (New York: McGraw Hill, 1952). The book also mentions Struik, who, for his part, labeled I Led Three Lives “Philbrick’s novel.”
  12. Philbrick, 240.
  13. 9 April 1949 NYT.
  14. Struik gives his account of the events in Dirk Struik, "The Struik Case," Monthly Review, 44 (8) (January 1993), 34.
  15. Conway and Siegelman, 263.
  16. Struik later tried to investigate Hessen’s fate. See Loren Graham, "The Socio-Political Roots of Boris Hessen: Soviet Marxism and the History of Science," Social Studies of Science 15 (4) (November 1985), fn. 8, 720. Graham’s article is a very interesting study of Hessen as well as the fate of relativity theory in the 1930s Soviet Union. Graham also provides an analysis of the social conditions in the USSR that influenced Hessen’s "externalist" attempt to understand Newton at the famous Second International Congress on the History of Science that took place in London in 1931 when the Soviet delegation ostensibly was headed by Bukharin.

Loren Graham also interviewed Arnost (Ernest) Kolman, a leading Stalinist scientific hatchet man who attended the 1931 London conference as an ideological watchdog. Kolman himself was arrested in 1948 and only resurfaced in March 1952. He made a radical turn in his philosophical position and even endorsed the validity of cybernetic theory in a critical speech in November 1954. Struik obviously had some contact with Kolman as well because in 1966 he co-edited an essay by Kolman entitled "Considerations about the Certainty of Knowledge," which was published by the American Institute for Marxist Studies (AIMS). Kolman also contributed an essay ("The Concept of ‘Simplicity’ in the Physico-Mathematical Sciences") in For Dirk Struik. For a fascinating essay on Soviet science and the history of science, see "Is Science a Social Construction" in Loren Graham, What Have We Learned About Science and Technology from the Russian Experience (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998). Also see Graham’s discussion of Kolmogorov (11-13).

17. 23 July 1986 NYT.

18. Dirk Struik, "The Struik Case," 34. Presumably the FBI was encouraging reporters like Ryan. Struik also recalled one incident during this period: "On Memorial Day, 1953, some young chaps aflame with patriotism tried to burn my house down, but my neighbor saw them and turned his hose on the fire."

19. Slava Gerovitch, From Newspeak to Cyberspeak: A History of Soviet Cybernetics (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002), 58. Also see Slava Gerovitch, "’Russian Scandals’: Soviet Readings of American Cybernetics in the Early Years of the Cold War," Russian Review 60 (4) (October 2001) and Maxim Mikulak, "Cybernetics and Marxism-Leninism," Slavic Review 24 (3) (September 1965). In From Newspeak, Gerovitch also discusses Kolman’s role in the Soviet cybernetics debate.

20. Conway and Siegelman, 315.


< APPENDIX ONE "Machines of Communism": The USSR, Cybernetics (and the CIA) | SMILING MAN FROM A DEAD PLANET: THE MYSTERY OF LYNDON LAROUCHE | APPENDIX THREE Monad Man: The Curious Case of Technocracy’s Howard Scott (Plus an Apology to the Grand Dragon) >

Pdf file downloadable here (182 Kb)

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