Marxist philosophy, Russian and Soviet

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-E055-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 21, 2021, from

Article Summary

The history of Russian Marxism involves a dramatic interplay of philosophy and politics. Though Marx’s ideas were taken up selectively by Russian populists in the 1870s, the first thoroughgoing Russian Marxist was G.V. Plekhanov, whose vision of philosophy became the orthodoxy among Russian communists. Inspired by Engels, Plekhanov argued that Marxist philosophy is a form of ‘dialectical materialism’ (Plekhanov’s coinage). Following Hegel, Marxism focuses on phenomena in their interaction and development, which it explains by appeal to dialectical principles (for instance, the law of the transformation of quantity into quality). Unlike Hegel’s idealism, however, Marxism explains all phenomena in material terms (for Marxists, the ’material’ includes economic forces and relations). Dialectical materialism was argued to be the basis of Marx’s vision of history according to which historical development is the outcome of changes in the force of production.

In 1903, Plekhanov’s orthodoxy was challenged by a significant revisionist school: Russian empiriocriticism. Inspired by Mach’s positivism, A.A. Bogdanov and others argued that reality is socially organized experience, a view they took to suit Marx’s insistence that objects be understood in their relation to human activity. Empiriocriticism was associated with the Bolsheviks until 1909, when Lenin moved to condemn Bogdanov’s position as a species of idealism repugnant to both Marxism and common sense. Lenin endorsed dialectical materialism, which thereafter was deemed the philosophical worldview of the Bolsheviks.

After the Revolution of 1917, Soviet philosophers were soon divided in a bitter controversy between ‘mechanists’ and ‘dialecticians’. The former argued that philosophy must be subordinate to science. In contrast, the Hegelian ‘dialecticians’, led by A.M. Deborin, insisted that philosophy is needed to explain the very possibility of scientific knowledge. The debate was soon deadlocked, and in 1929 the dialecticians used their institutional might to condemn mechanism as a heresy. The following year, the dialecticians were themselves routed by a group of young activists sponsored by Communist Party. Denouncing Deborin and his followers as ‘Menshevizing idealists’, they proclaimed that Marxist philosophy had now entered its ‘Leninist stage’ and invoked Lenin’s idea of the partiinost’ (‘partyness’) of philosophy to license the criticism of theories on entirely political grounds. Philosophy became a weapon in the class war.

In 1938, Marxist-Leninist philosophy was simplistically codified in the fourth chapter of the Istoriia kommunisticheskoi partii sovetskogo soiuza (Bol’sheviki). Kraatkii kurs (History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Bolsheviks). Short Course). The chapter, apparently written by Stalin himself, was declared the height of wisdom, and Soviet philosophers dared not transcend its limited horizons. The ‘new philosophical leadership’ devoted itself to glorifying the Party and its General Secretary. The ideological climate grew even worse in the post-war years when A.A. Zhdanov’s campaign against ‘cosmopolitanism’ created a wave of Russian chauvinism in which scholars sympathetic to Western thought were persecuted. The Party also meddled in scientific, sponsoring T.D. Lysenko’s bogus genetics, while encouraging criticism of quantum mechanics, relativity theory and cybernetics as inconsistent with dialectical materialism.

The Khrushchev ‘thaw’ brought a renaissance in Soviet Marxism, when a new generation of young philosophers began a critical re-reading of Marx’s texts. Marx’s so-called ‘method of ascent from the abstract to the concrete’ was developed, by E.V. Il’enkov and others, into an anti-empiricist epistemology. There were also important studies of consciousness and ’the ideal’ by Il’enkov and M.K. Mamardashvili, the former propounding a vision of the social origins of the mind that recalls the cultural-historical psychology developed by L.S. Vygotskii in the 1930s.

However, the thaw was short-lived. The philosophical establishment, still populated by the Stalinist old guard, continued to exercise a stifling influence. Although the late 1960s and 1970s saw heartfelt debates in many areas, particularly about the biological basis of the mind and the nature of value (moral philosophy had been hitherto neglected), the energy of the early 1960s was lacking. Marxism-Leninism still dictated the terms of debate and knowledge of Western philosophers remained relatively limited.

In the mid-1980s, Gorbachev’s reforms initiated significant changes. Marxism-Leninism was no longer a required subject in all institutions of higher education; indeed, the term was soon dropped altogether. Discussions of democracy and the rule of law were conducted in the journals, and writings by Western and Russian émigré philosophers were published. Influential philosophers such as I.T. Frolov, then editor of Pravda, called for a renewal of humanistic Marxism. The reforms, however, came too late. The numerous discussions of the fate of Marxism at this time reveal an intellectual culture in crisis. While many maintained that Marx’s theories were not responsible for the failings of the USSR, others declared the bankruptcy of Marxist ideas and called for an end to the Russian Marxist tradition. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, it seems their wish has been fulfilled.

    Citing this article:
    Bakhurst, David. Marxist philosophy, Russian and Soviet, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-E055-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
    Copyright © 1998-2021 Routledge.

    Related Searches




    Related Articles