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Igor Rostislavovich Shafarevich, RIP
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The Russian mathematician Igor Shafarevich died last week, aged 93. There is a biography at the University of St. Andrews website.

As well as being a significant mathematician, Shafarevich was also a notable dissident of the late-Soviet era—of the generation of Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Andrei Sakharov (who were five years and two years older than him, respectively).

It was in that aspect that I first encountered Shafarevich, when I was reading my way through Soviet dissident literature in the early 1980s. His book The Socialist Phenomenon made a strong impression on me. (You can read it online. There is a foreword by Solzhenitsyn.) I have quoted from it more than once: here, for example, when writing about the 2000 Presidential election:

Human society is nothing but the human soul at large, and a part of the human soul yearns for its own extinction. This yearning has been most powerfully voiced in poetry: Tennyson’s “Tithonus,” Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale,” and the lovely song in Cymbeline are its finest expressions in English. It finds its political outlet in utopianism, the longing for a society of perfect equality, perfect peace — conditions that can actually be attained in only one place. Standing at the graveside while they buried his Down-Syndrome child, Charles de Gaulle murmured: “Now she is like all the others.”

The bluntest expression of this theme was given by the mathematician Igor Shafarevich in his book The Socialist Phenomenon. Using “socialist” as a synonym for “utopian,” Shafarevich surveyed the utopian impulse down through the ages to his own time in Brezhnev’s Soviet Union, concluding that: “The death of mankind is not only a conceivable result of the triumph of socialism — it constitutes the goal of socialism.” He went on:

There is no doubt that if the ideals of Utopia are realised universally, mankind, even in the barracks of the universal City of the Sun, shall find the strength to regain its freedom and to preserve God’s image and likeness — human individuality — once it has glanced into the yawning abyss. But will even that experience be sufficient? For it seems just as certain that the freedom of will granted to man and to mankind is absolute, that it includes the freedom to make the ultimate choice — between life and death.

Lesser folk have apprehended the same truth by even more direct experience. A Buddhist Cambodian interviewed in Francois Ponchaud’s book Cambodia: Year Zero, lone survivor of a horrible massacre by the utopian Khmer Rouge, described them with innocent accuracy as “servants of the Prince of Death.” [’Twixt Heaven and Earth by John Derbyshire; National Review, December 4th 2000.]

Shafarevich was a strong Russian nationalist. His later essay “Russophobia” [PDF, 8.6 MB] (that link loads v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y) aroused accusations of antisemitism, accusations I don’t think the content of the essay justifies.

(I cannot forbear pointing out the relevance of that essay to the question posed in my podcast the other day about why we are currently supposed to regard Russia as an enemy.)

American mathematician David Mumford casts a similarly skeptical eye on those accusations of antisemitism in an obituary post on Shafarevich, from which I borrowed that link to “Russophobia.”

Mumford is a transnationalist liberal by temperament and upbringing, although not, so far as I can discover, Jewish. In this same obituary post he has some thoughtful reflections on the current nationalist-globalist conflict:

As I see it now, there is a major conflict, not to be papered over, between the tolerant international liberal viewpoint and the passion with which each culture maintains its traditions and passes them on generation after generation. I grew up completely committed to the former and my whole life working freely with colleagues from every part of the world reinforced this. But now I hear and read more and more voices that say “not so fast”. Our culture, our jobs, our very identities are vanishing. The rapidity with which technology is advancing and the immense growth of international wealth, private and corporate, all support only the “one per cent” and the educated with ties to multiple countries.

And I should say that I got the link to Prof. Mumford’s blog, and the news of Shafarevich’s death, from Not Even Wrong, the blog of Columbia mathematician Peter Woit, whom I tossed and gored the other day on Radio Derb for his anti-Trump ravings.

There you see the problem with being interested in math and the physical sciences: Most of the good bloggers on these subjects are political imbeciles.

Cathy O’Neil, who runs the excellent Mathbabe blog, is another case. I have a review of her recent book Weapons of Math Destruction in the upcoming issue of Claremont Review of Books.


My stock explanation for this phenomenon is that math and the physical sciences are so very intellectually taxing, their practitioners have no cognitive energy left over for serious thinking about politics. They just inhale the noxious political vapors of the colleges and universities in which they mostly dwell, vapors emitted by the departments of the “soft” sciences and humanities.

Those disciplines are nothing like as mentally strenuous as math and science, so their practitioners have plenty of time and intellectual energy left over for vapor-production.

Finally, in passing — as a mere curiosity with no relevance to anything else — I note that Shafarevich’s birthday was the same as mine.

(Republished from VDare by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Ideology • Tags: European Right, Russia 
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  1. Randal says:

    accusations of antisemitism, accusations I don’t think the content of the essay justifies

    Well there’s shocking surprise – accusations of antisemitism that aren’t justified.

    If there’s a single category of accusations of crimethink and speechcrime more overused than those comprising the regular pantheon of “racism”, “homophobia” and “islamophobia”, it’s certainly “antisemitism”.

    • Agree: anarchyst
  2. Jim says:

    Sad news. Igor Shafarevich was a great mathematician and a great man.

  3. Cyrano says:

    That’s beautiful. Socialism is desire for dying. And capitalism is desire for living and expressing individuality. Like voting once every 4 years and having only 2 choices. Which basically means 300 million plus people have only 2 main types of individuality which they can freely express. I guess it is significant – it’s still 100% more than in socialism where you have only 1 main trait of individuality that you are free (or not) to express. Way more choices in capitalism, definitely more desire for living is to be found in that system.

    • Replies: @dearieme
  4. dearieme says:

    Not often that Derb attracts quite such a witless comment.

    • Replies: @Cyrano
  5. Cyrano says:

    I guess I should be put in a witless protection program for daring to speak against such deity like the author of this article, because I might be assassinated by such established authority on witticism like you.

  6. John

    I don’t by this pure Capitalism is Godliness!!!…Socialism is Evil!!! nonesense.

    Now as you are well aware…modern math is painstaking difficult because enormous brain energy goes into defining mathematical concepts(How many people on the Planet understand Mumford’s squiggly diagrams?). And this may explain the epidemic of mathematicians and physcists dying in mountain climbing accidents…They are just trying to get a breath of rejuvenating fresh air. If a very small fraction of a percent of our mortal brain power was applied in the “Great Debate” about what is the meaning of Capitalism…. and the meaning of Socialism?… the extent that you are intellectually honest…you wouldn’t have made some of your comments above…But you did…so I am going to have to accuse you of Alex Jones-Tea Party Tardism!!!…And, trust me Comrade John…it was very very painful to do this.

  7. @War for Blair Mountain

    The Alt Right embraces economic socialism…no apologies…everything else is National Review Cuckservative Cuckholdery War With Christian Russia over Crimea.

    Socialism-economic populism goes to heart of Gut Level Native Born White American Racial Tribalism. And it’s the reason why Milo Pedophilo Alt Light-National Review Girly Boy types hate the Alt Right…and want war with Christian Russia…

  8. I read and studied a good book by Shafarevich, “Geometry and Groups” (in Russian.)
    Pretty good presentation of material, written towards non-professional mathematicians.

    To give an idea.
    Geometry on the surface of a cylinder is locally identical to Euclidean,
    e.g. sum of angles of a triangle still equals exactly 180 degrees,
    but global topology is very different.
    Two geodesics (“straight lines”)
    may intersect each other infinite number of times
    (think about spiral-like geodesics with different inclination with respect to cylinder’s axis.)

    Rest In Peace (Да будет земля ему пухом.)

  9. John

    David Mumford…a White Liberal…finally becomming red-pilled?…possibly…Mumford was a true believer his whole life. Raised in the social-cultural cesspool of Liberalism…Mumford discovers how this gave rise to the Russophobia that Shafaravich accused the West of….and how lethal Russophobia really is…as in Nuclear WW3 lethal…Bill Cuckley’s radioactive wet dream….

    Interesting to see a White Liberal having that Brain-Fuck moment….

  10. Cyrano says:

    There are 2 main types of inequalities as relating to humans and human relations.

    1. God-made Inequalities

    2. Man-made inequalities.

    We are not born equal – despite all the crap in MSM and by western governments. God made inequalities can’t be corrected. Then there are man-made inequalities – those are the ones that can be corrected. That’s where western propaganda is so lethal. They claim that they are so good-hearted that they want to correct God made inequalities.

    Socialism wanted to correct the 2nd type, they didn’t succeed, they just made new set of the same type. Doesn’t mean that it can’t be done, at least they can be improved.

    The phoniness of Capitalism lies in the fact that they pretend to attempt to correct the 1st type, and treating the 2nd type as if it was the 1st type. Which means that they never really intend to do anything about either of them. I guess the really tricky part is to correctly classify which inequality belongs in which group. It can be done, but not with a help of propaganda.

    • Replies: @Oldeguy
  11. In real life, there are no demigods, but great mathematicians come the closest.

    Elegance of insight such as this is not vouchsafed to ordinary mortals —

    Rest in peace, Igor Rostislavovich Shafarevich.

  12. Binyamin says:

    I am currently reading a fascinating book called ‘Stalin and the Scientists’. It is a recent publication. Check it out on Amazon. One of the paradoxes of communism is that despite it being a despotic system it emphasized universal education focusing on science and technology. As a result, by the 1950s the Soviet Union had the most scientifically literate population of earth. Only the tiny state of Israel had comparable number of scientists and engineers per capita. In these countries, science, public life and politics were linked. This is not a coincidence since early communism and modern secular Jewish culture had one thing in common, mainly a belief in the liberating power of modern science and science education. During the Soviet era it wasn’t uncommon to see a frightening ideological commissar carrying out ritual denunciation of comrades in daytime, often leading to their deaths and simultaneously being the head of a nuclear research center. Meantime, in Israel in the 50s, 60s, and well into the 70s the commander of a battalion carrying out a raid behind the enemy line would more often than not turn out to be a world class scientist, some of them winning Nobel prizes. Those days Israel was secular, tolerant and brave.

    Notice the contrast with modern day America (and this pattern is repeated elsewhere in the Western world). Scientists, engineers and mathematicians have low social status and very few of our very bright youngsters are attracted to careers in these fields. Most want to study law, finance, medicine or the academically dubious subject of business administration at university. Is it any wonder top high tech firms are forced to look elsewhere, in Shanghai, Taipei, Seoul, Bangalore, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore and other places for top notch talents in the areas of computer science, net security and more cutting age areas such as quantum computing and cloud based database design? Therefore next time the so called ‘immigration patriot’ starts screeching about the large number of H-1B visas being issued, perhaps they should channel their energy towards persuading their children and grandchildren to train in physics, maths, computer science or electronic engineering?

  13. I think the reason that many scientists, and perhaps mathematicians in particular, are transnational liberals by temperament is largely explained by selection bias. They work on something of universal validity to which every population can, to a greater or lesser degree, contribute. So in their professional travels they encounter all kinds of people from the right hand of the IQ distribution. They often become close friends with highly intelligent people from different populations and assume these people are representative. On the other hand, most people from their own populations are rather unintelligent compared to their foreign friends. If you are highly intelligent, and interact with less intelligent people mainly at the grocery store, are you really going to notice much difference between an average person from a population of mean IQ 100 versus mean IQ 95 or even 85? I doubt it. What makes a bigger impression is how sociable or good-looking the average person is. And it can very well happen that the average person from a population of mean IQ 85 is more pleasant to deal with or look at than the average person from a population of mean IQ 100. It depends very much on the population. I’ve certainly lived in formerly majority white working class neighbourhoods where I felt more at ease with the immigrants than the traditional locals, even though my genetic distance to the former was greater than to the latter. I’ll take a thin, polite Pakistani over a fat, disgruntled WASP any day, even though I feel rather sorry for the fat, disgruntled WASP. So I think it is not at all strange for scientists to be transnational liberals by temperament. They really do identify more with other highly intelligent people, however distant in race and culture, than with average people from their own race and culture, and really would be more comfortable having their children marry highly intelligent people, regardless of race or culture. I’d be quite happy if my daughter found a good Igbo, for example. So that’s the bias, but I agree that there are valid empirical questions about the long-term effects that mass immigration from low IQ populations has on a high IQ society and that a rational person will want to set aside bias to look honestly at these empirical questions.

  14. Jim says:

    Yes, Shafarevic’s paper proving that every finite solvable group is the Galois group of a Galois extension of the rationals is one of the great accomplishments of 20th century mathematics. In this paper Shafarevic introduced many new techniques in algebraic number theory which have yet to be fully understood and exploited.

  15. Jim says:

    I wouldn’t call Grothendieck an ordinary mortal.

  16. Oldeguy says:

    Very well put- ameliorating number 2 becomes much easier if number 1 is frankly admitted.
    “From whom much is given, much will be expected.”

  17. Sean says:

    MacIntyre had it right in After Virtue. The Enlightenment wanted to abolish morality based on traditions such as country and religion. But liberalism is itself a tradition, so it is ultimately nihilistic.

    There is no doubt that if the ideals of Utopia are realised universally, mankind, even in the barracks of the universal City of the Sun, shall find the strength to regain its freedom and to preserve God’s image and likeness — human individuality — once it has glanced into the yawning abyss. But will even that experience be sufficient? For it seems just as certain that the freedom of will granted to man and to mankind is absolute, that it includes the freedom to make the ultimate choice — between life and death.

    Universal cooperation would enable rapid progress to a technological singularity, which is the most likely explanation for the Fermi paradox. But then atheists are far more likely to believe in extant extra terrestrials, so they’ll never believe it.

    The overlooked wisdom of the eponymous hero of the play Bullshott! who proposed mass global war as a long term solution to the world’s woes has some bearing here. Unending conflict between states is the only thing that can save us . War is God.

  18. I can honestly (and regrettably as it turns out) say that I was never aware of this man until now. It is comforting to know, however, that there were (hopefully still are) a few people in academe who refuse to suffer fools gladly.

    As to Dr. Shafarevich: “Dos Vdanya”

    • Replies: @Seraphim
  19. I too was impressed with Shafarevich, and wrote a review for the newspaper I worked for in 1980 or so about that book. The historical roots of socialism, which he called chiliastic socialism going back to antiquity, were fully revealed , exposing modern socialism as profoundly unprogressive.

  20. Seraphim says:
    @Connecticut Famer

    It should be “Vechnaya Pamyat (Eternal Memory)”. He was a staunch Orthodox Christian.

  21. J. Derbyshire,

    re: Cathy O’Neil and her overhyped book, I posted some information at Steve Sailer’s blog. She makes a lot of mistakes in the subjects where she poses as an expert and covers for that by emphasizing “human factors” and SJW. (et seq)

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