Forwarded from Jim Farmelant (Soviet philosophy)

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Mon Sep 23 06:38:42 MDT 2002

Probably the most important debate that drew the attention of Soviet
philosophers during the early years of the USSR was the debate between the
"mechanists" and the "dialecticians" or Deborinists. This debate at first
began as a discussion within the philosophy of science but over time came
to encompass most aspects of philosophy. Furthermore, despite the fact it
was formally settled in 1929, the issues underlying the debate never went
away, and recurred in different forms over time. Indeed, since the issues
at hand were among the most important ones concerning Marxist philosophy,
they in fact have never really went away.

By the early 1920s Soviet philosophers were debating what conception of
materialism provided the best philosophical basis for Marxism. One school
held that a mechanistic conception of materialism was acceptable. Most of
the advocates of this view either came straight out of the natural
sciences, or they were philosophers who had been closely associated with
natural science in some way. Among the leading advocates of this school
were A.K. Timartizev, Timianski, Axelrod, and Stepanov.

These people were staunch empiricists. They did not deny the validity of
dialectics but maintained that dialectics must limit itself to what was
observable and verifiable by the methods of natural science. Dialectics
must follow science, and not pretend to be able to lead it. Materialism for
these people meat a strict and thorough reliance upon the methods and
findings of the natural sciences. These philosophers embraced the label of
"mechanists" as a designation for their school of thought, and they
insisted that a mechanistic outlook was valid not only for the natural
sciences but also for the philosophy of history and of society as well. For
these people, a Marxist philosophy therefore had to root itself in the
natural sciences and to follow the findings of natural science. In their
view, it was illegitimate to posit a Marxist philosophy that would attempt
to dictate to the sciences.

Closely allied to the mechanists, though not entirely agreeing with them
was the prominent Bolshevik, N.I. Bukharin. Thus Bukharin in his
*Historical Materialism* embraced a positivist interpretation of Marx's
materialist conception of history, emphasizing that the goal was to develop
causal explanations of history, which would take the place of teleological
explanations. Furthermore, Bukharin argued that "It is quite possible to
transcribe the 'mystical' (as Marx put it) language of Hegelian dialectics
into the language of modern mechanics." Bukharin thus maintained that
Marx's materialist conception of history should over time lead to the
development of a positive science of society that would be mechanistic in
character and in which the concept of equilibrium would play a central role.

The mechanists maintained that the dialectical conception of nature,
properly understood, was the mechanist conception. Indeed, Stepanov once
wrote an article bearing the title "The Dialectical Understanding of Nature
is the Mechanistic Understanding" in case anyone should be confused about
his position.

As the mechanists saw it, Soviet philosophy was torn by a debate between
those who maintained that dialectical method was one to be used insomuch as
it was fruitful for revealing new facts about nature and society, versus
those who looked to the dialectical philosophy of Hegel to provide
themselves with ready-made solutions to problems. The mechanists charged
their opponents (i.e. the dialecticians) with offering a priori solutions
to problems in the philosophy of nature and the philosophy of history.

Opposing the mechanists were the so-called dialecticians or Deborinists.
These people had a much higher regard for Hegel than did the mechanists.
Furthermore, they maintained that the mechanists misunderstood how Marx &
Engels had reconstructed Hegelian dialectics on a materialist basis. Th
dialecticians were vigorous defenders of what Marxists call the "dialectics
of nature." They maintain that the laws of dialectics as described by
Engels in such works as *Anti-Duhring* and "The Dialectics of Nature* are
actually found in nature. Dialectics reflects the natural world. The
dialecticians argued that the mechanists were positing a narrow, rigid, and
lifeless conception of nature. Whereas, the mechanists tended to be either
natural scientists or philosophers close to the natural sciences, the
dialecticians tended to be professional philosophers with a strong
background in Hegelian philosophy. The leading dialectician was the
philosopher Deborin, who had been a protoge of Plekhanov (the "father of
Russian Marxism"). Like, his mentor, Deborin had been prior to the October
Revolution a Menshevik.

Deborin and his followers hit hard against the mechanists, arguing that
their conception of science could not adequately make sense out of the new
developments in physics like relativity and quantum mechanics, nor was
mechanism, in their opinion adequate for making sense out of the then
latest developments in biology. The dialecticians attacked the positivism
of the mechanist school which they saw as naive and mistaken. They as I
already pointed out venerated Hegel, in contrast to the disdain that most
of the mechanists had for him. They held that Marxism could not be
adequately understood except in reference to Hegel and Hegelianism. While
the mechanists on the other hand held that Marx had superseded Hegel and
Hegelianism. For them the Deborinists constituted a regression back to an
idealist metaphysics that Marx had transcended.

Besides disagreeing about Hegel, the two schools had quite different
opinions concerning the meaning and importance of Spinoza's philosophy. The
mechanists tended to dismiss Spinoza as an idealist metaphysician. While
Deborin followed his mentor Plekhanov in holding Spinoza to have been a
materialist and a dialectician. For Deborin as for Plekhanov, dialectical
materialism is a kind of Spinozism.

The debate between the mechanists and the dialecticians heated up in the
late 1920s, finally coming to a head in 1929 at a meeting of the Second
All-Union Conference of Marxist-Leninist Scientific Institutions where all
the leading figures from both sides of the debate appeared. Deborin gave
the leading report, and a resolution was passed which condemned mechanism.
The mechanists were condemned as underming dialectical materialism, and
charged with trying to substitute a vulgar evolutionism for materialist
dialectics, and positivism for materialism.

However, the victory of the Deborinists was short-lived, since the
following year controversy broke out over the issue of "idealism" and of
"menshevising idealism." Essentially what happened was that Stalin had
concluded that while the Deborinists had made valid criticisms of
mechanism, they had gone too far in pushing the stick towards a Hegelian
idealism. The application of the term "menshevizing idealism" was a
reference to Deborin's past support for the Mensheviks over the Bolsheviks.
Thus, he was being accused of not just being an idealist but of being a
"menshevizing idealist" which was presumably a lot worse. Stalin moved to
settle the debate between the mechanists and the Dialecticians by fiat. The
critique of Deborin was pressed forward by two young philosophers, Mitin
and Yudin who linked the alleged failings of Deborin to those of his mentor
Plekhanov. Deborin was accused of divorcing theory from practice. His
philosophy was said to be of little use for advancing forward Stalin's Five
Year Plan with its break with NEP. Mitin in particular argued that both the
Deborinists and the mechanists had failed to grasp the dialectics
underlying the transition from NEP to socialism. Thus both schools were
charged with promoting a divorce between theory and practice. The new view
promoted by Mitin (with Stalin's backing) attempted to split the difference
between the two schools. Dialectical materialism affirmed an ontological
materialism as advocated by the mechanists. But the validity of the
dialectics of nature (which the Deborinists had placed great emphasis on)
was also affirmed as well. At a Party conference this critique of the two
schools was officially adopted and Deborin made a show of support for Mitin.

Deborin and just a handful of other Soviet philosophers had the fortune of
surviving the great purges of the 1930s. Axelrod of the mechanist school
also survived while numerous other people from the two schools disappeared
into the gulags and were never heard from again.

This new view provided the basis for Stalin's codification of dialectical
materialism as presented in his *History of the CPSU (Bolsheviks): Short
Course* which became official dogma for all Communists.

It is also interest that the issues underlying the debate between the
mechanists and the Dialecticians appeared in other disciplines as well such
as in Soviet psychology. The reflexology of Ivan Pavlov can be seen as
representing a mechanist approach to psychology in which behavior was
broken down into reflexes - both unconditioned and conditioned. In contrast
the Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky attempted to construct a psychology
directly from the premisses of dialectical materialism. He developed
Genetic approach to the development of concepts in early childhood and
youth, tracing the transition through a series of stages of human
development, based on the development of the child's social practice. His
work eventually impacted Western psychology especially through his
influence on the thought of Jean Piaget. However, under Stalin Vygotsky's
work was considered to be heretical while Pavlov's work became the basis
for official Soviet psychology. Indeed, in the later years of Stalin's
regime, it was made the official Soviet psychology and most other schools
were suppressed. Thus, while mechanism was rejected as a general
philosophical outlook, it was embraced in psychology.

Soviet philosophy thus became frozen for the next couple of decades, until
the death of Stalin. Upon the ascension of Khruschev there was a "thaw" in
Soviet intellectual and cultural life, and during the "thaw" a revival of
Marxist philosophy broke out. And some old issues got revisted, with new
ground being broken.

Thus, the Soviet philosopher E. V. Ilyenkov, developed Marx's method and
his idea of social phenomena as 'objectified' activity. Ilyenkov, treated
our forms of thought as being objectified in our mode of interaction with
nature and in the form our activity lends the world. Children acquire
consciousness through the internalization of this externalized 'spiritual
culture'. In this analysis, Lyenkov drew upon Vygotsky's research on
cognitive development in children.

Like Deborin in the early Stalin era, Ilyenkov pushed an interpretation of
Marxism that emphasized its Hegelian roots. And in that sense he can be
viewed as attempting to bring Soviet Marxism more into line with the
Western Marxism of such people as Georg Lukacs (*History and Class
Consciousness*), Herbert Marcuse (*Reason and Revolution*), Karl Korsch, or
even Sidney Hook (*From Hegel to Marx*). Ilyenkov was a stauch foe of
positivism and scientism in Soviet philosophy and Soviet intellectual life
generally. He was a passionate critic of reductionism and naturalism in the
philosophy of mind. And in the end he eventually ran into resistance from
the Soviet establishment which grew more conservative after the ouster of
Khruschev. He is probably best known for such works as *Dialectics of the
Abstract & Concrete*( 1960), *Dialectical Logic* (1974), and *Concept of
the Ideal* (1979).

In another work, *Leninist Dialectics & Metaphysics of Positivism* (1979),
he revisists the controversy that broke out in the Bolshevik faction
between Lenin and Alexander Bogdanov over the empirio-criticism of Ernst
Mach and Richard Avenarius. As a true-blue Soviet philosopher Ilyenkov opts
for Lenin over Bogdanov, and comes down hard on Bogdanov's attempt at
reinterpreting Marxism in terms of Machist positivism. However, underlying
Ilyenkov's book is the not so subtle implication, that a positivism, not
unlike the kind that Lenin had codemned had taken charge in Soviet
intellectual and cultural life. Ilyenkov dissects Bogdanov's science
fiction novel *Red Star* and pokes fun at Bogdanov's attempt at depicting a
future communist society, and he knocks Bogdanov's scientism and
technocratism, while implying in not so many words, that the very sort of
scientism and technocratism which was attributed to Bogdanov, was in fact
rife in the Soviet society of Ilyenkov's time. Thus, Ilyenkov pushed what
in Stalin's time would have been condemned as a "Menshevizing idealism"
into a general critique of not just Soviet intellectual and cultural life,
but also implicitly of Soviet society itself. Not too surprisingly,
Ilyenkov found himself in increasing hot water, and in 1979 he took his own

During the same period other Soviet thinkers were advancing views that were
more than a little reminscient of the 1920s mechanists. Many Soviet
scientists were more or less positivistic in their philosophical outlooks.
During the 1960s and 1970s Western philosophies including analytical
philosophy and logical empiricism began to make a mark in Soviet thought.
Very often these philosophies were presented using the language of
dialectical materialism, but the underlying substance might bear more than
a passing ressemblence to the ideas of a Rudolf Carnap or a Bertrand Russell.

Jim F.

Louis Proyect

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