[Marxism] Stalin and Soviet philosophy

Jim Farmelant farmelantj at juno.com
Mon Apr 25 18:41:48 MDT 2016



Some years ago, I summarized the 1920's debate between the Deborinists and the Mechanists along the following lines:

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 1920's, 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, Lyubov Akselrod, and I. I. 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 meant 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. The dialecticians were vigorous defenders of what Marxists call the "dialectics of nature." They maintained 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 Abram Deborin, who had been a protégé 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. It should be noted that one of the leading mechanists, L.I. Akselrod, had a more positive appraisal of Spinoza, than did most of the other mechanists. She, like her adversary, Deborin, had been a protege of Plekhanov, who had been a great admirer of Spinoza.  and she followed her mentor in treating Spinoza as a precursor of dialectical materialism but she gave special emphasis to Spinoza's
determinism, his critique of teleology and his mechanism. Thus, she viewed Spinoza as the precursor of the mechanistic materialisms of La Mettrie and d'Holboch, who, in turn, were the precursors of the materialism of Feuerbach, and hence, of Marx.

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 undermining 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, Mark Borisovich Mitin and Pavel Fyodorovich 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 the 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. Akselrod, 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 later on 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. (People attempted to get around that rather glaring contradiction by arguing that Pavlovian reflexology was really dialectical in character. And indeed, Pavlov,in some moods, had argued that thesis himself).

Soviet philosophy thus became frozen for the next couple of decades, until the death of Stalin. Upon the ascension of Khrushchev there was a "thaw" in Soviet intellectual and cultural life, and during the "thaw" a revival of Marxist philosophy took place. And some old issues got revisited, 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, Ilyenkov 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 staunch 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 Khrushchev. He is probably best known for such works as *Dialectics of the Abstract & Concrete*( 1960), *Dialectical Logic* (1974), and *Concept ofthe Ideal* (1979).

In another work, *Leninist Dialectics & Metaphysics of Positivism* (1979), he revisits 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 opted for Lenin over Bogdanov, and came down hard on Bogdanov's attempt at reinterpreting Marxism in terms of Machist positivism. However, underlying Ilyenkov's book was the not so subtle implication, that a positivism, not unlike the kind that Lenin had condemned had taken charge in Soviet intellectual and cultural life. Ilyenkov dissected Bogdanov's science fiction novel *Red Star* and poked fun at Bogdanov's attempt at depicting a future communist society, and he knocked 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 life.

During the same period other Soviet thinkers were advancing views that were more than a little reminiscent of the 1920s mechanists. Many Soviet scientists were more or less positivistic in their philosophical outlooks. During the 1960's and 1970's 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 resemblance to the ideas of a Rudolf Carnap or a Bertrand Russell.



Jim Farmelant
http://independent.academia.edu/JimFarmelant
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---------- Original Message ----------
From: Louis Proyect via Marxism <marxism at lists.csbs.utah.edu>
Subject: [Marxism] Stalin and Soviet philosophy
Date: Mon, 25 Apr 2016 17:00:18 -0400

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There's some really good stuff in the Crisis and Critique special issue 
on Stalin (as well as some awful stuff, especially Roland Boer). This is 
among the more interesting articles.

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