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The State of Philosophy in the USSR

by V.B. Shneider and R.N. Holstinin

[This article was written just before the recent demise of the USSR, but much of what it says applies equally to the new Commonwealth. Ed.]

The main aim of this article is to describe briefly the state of philosophy in the USSR and how it has been affected by the recent change in ideological context. In accordance with this we shall try to consider the following: (1) the so-called ‘official’ philosophy, (2) philosophy as a subject in the system of social education, (3) philosophy as a sphere of scientific activity and (4) philosophical fashion of the last few years in the Soviet Union.

When we say ‘official philosophy’ we mean the philosophy of the Soviet State, philosophy which expresses the interests of the Power and which is regulated by the Power. From the time of its foundation and during a long period afterwards, Marxism-Leninism was the official philosophical doctrine in the USSR. Or, more exactly, there was interpretation (sometimes probably popular or free) by Communist Party leaders of Marxism’s classic texts. Thus the policy of the CPSU strictly determined the state of philosophy in the USSR both in the educational system and in the field of philosophical investigations. It was only Marxism- Leninism and nothing else. All the alternatives were drowned in a strong stream of negative criticism or were simply excluded from the sphere of cultural information. But now in the period of Perestroika the situation has changed. The change of the State ideological concept to democracy and pluralism exerted great influence on philosophy in the Soviet Union. For one thing, the political ideals of the CPSU were modified (for example, such an important principle of Leninism as the priority of class interests to the interests of humanity was eliminated); for another, the position of the CPSU in the State government changed. Negative phenomena in the economy and social sphere of the country obviously showed that from the point of view of social practice something was wrong in Marxism- Leninism or in its former interpretations. Thus it became clear to every intelligent person: either some new understanding of Marxism was needed or else something radically new. Now it is very difficult to speak about official philosophy in the USSR because the processes of Perestroika have not finished, the political situation in the country is unstable and certainly it is simply impossible to fix modern official philosophy as a paradigm. After the August 1991 coup d’etat when the ‘communist idea’ was compromised once again we would do better to abstain from prophecies. Maybe ‘official philosophy’ in a really democratic country is nonsense, but in the USSR (where policy and philosophy were mixed in Marxism-Leninism) it was reality and so we spoke about it.

Now let us turn to the nature of philosophy in the educational system in the USSR. Traditionally in the Soviet secondary school programme philosophy was included in the so-called course of social subjects which began from studying the basics of the State and of law and finished with sociology. The course consisted of political economy, philosophy and ‘scientific communism’. It was all done in accordance with Lenin’s “three origins and three components of Marxism”. The course of political economy presented the contents of the first volume of K.Marx’s ‘Capital’ in very popularized form (with special accent on “the revealing of the mechanism of capitalist exploitation”) and included a very simplified description of socialist economic theory. ‘Scientific communism’ was devoted to the theory of class struggle between bourgeoisie and proletariat and to the building of ‘communist society’. The authors of the textbooks promised “golden mountains” in the communist future and certainly did not forget to stress all possible and impossible negative sides of capitalism.

The philosophical programme in secondary schools described in general the struggle of two philosophical lines: materialism and idealism. Philosophy was defined as the science of the most general laws of nature, society and thinking. Philosophers and philosophical schools were divided into materialists and idealists in accordance with their answer to the main question of philosophy: “What was the first: substance or consciousness?”. But what are substance and consciousness? In the textbook one can find Lenin’s answer: “substance is objective reality given to us in our sensations”, that is, that which is not consciousness. But consciousness is that which is not substance. Here we can also find a strict evaluation: all idealist systems (besides Hegel’s because of his dialectical method) are regressive and simply bad from the point of social humanity and, on the contrary, materialist systems are progressive. Then the attributes of matter: space, time and motion are described in the text. And after that (without any basis for distinguishing them) the textbook presents a classification of the forms of motion: mechanical, physical, chemical, biological and social. The last chain of the scheme consists of three dialectical laws: unity and struggle of contrasts (ie contradictions) (concerned with the origin of development), the law of quality and quantity transformations (concerned with the mechanism of development) and the law of ‘negation of negation’ (concerned with the direction of development). After that, the philosophical programme is over. Probably because the direction indicated is clear – towards communism; but this is a prerogative of ‘scientific communism’.

In principle the same educational scheme was repeated in the university philosophy programme. Certainly only in principle because the programme of social disciplines in universities was incomparably wider. Yet until recently students had to study for a year a great course of history of the CPSU before studying philosophy. The philosophical programme included dialectical materialism, historical materialism, scientific atheism and scientific communism. Also students studied political economy of capitalism (by Marx) and socialism (the only authorities were economic documents of the CPSU). At special philosophical departments the philosophical programme was rather wider. There were such subjects as ethics, aesthetics, logic, history of philosophy, criticism of modern bourgeois philosophy and some special courses. But all the materials were given from the point of view of Marxism-Leninism. Probably traditional formal and mathematical logic was the only one subject which, because of its specificity, evaded politicoideological pressure.

Such was the situation with philosophy in the sphere of social education in the USSR before Perestroika and during the early years of reform. But what changed during the last few years? First of all we have to note a gradual decrease in the amount of political pressure from State structures on the system of humanitarian education. The directive structures of the CPSU lost their power and authority. If earlier almost all the teachers of philosophy both in secondary school and in university were communists then during the last years of Perestroika there was a tendency for intellectuals to get out of the Communist Party. But now after the events in August 1991 when the CPSU in any event compromised itself it is very doubtful whether communist ideology has any real influence in social education.

Thus Marxism-Leninism, or its former interpretation which was indissolubly bonded with the Communist Party, began to lose its authority to a large degree. Marxism-Leninism came in for critical analysis. At the same time the amount of negative criticism of its philosophical alternatives began to decrease. In accordance with this there were some alterations in humanitarian education. Some courses were eliminated from the educational programme (first of all – ‘history of the CPSU’). Some courses were replaced by others. For example: ‘historical materialism’ by ‘sociology’, ‘scientific atheism’ by ‘philosophy of religion’, ‘criticism of modern bourgeois philosophy’ by ‘modern Western philosophy’ etc. Several new philosophical textbooks were published, with different plans for presenting material. But all of them contained more real philosophical content than the former ones. Manifestations of the Marxism-Leninism classics lost their power of ultima ratio. Lecturers in their teaching became free from ideological prescriptions and control by State political structures. These particular changes in philosophical education and the unstable political circumstances in the country caused the very interesting consequence that now we have not any serious and common philosophical programme at all. The situation is very unusual especially in comparison with the former philosophical programme which was monolithic and universally accepted. Here we would not estimate the situation but only state the fact. The contents of philosophical lectures and teaching plans may differ considerably from one philosophical cathedra to another, from one teacher to another. But in spite of the fact that to criticize Marxism became a rule of good form long ago, the main contents and basis of lecture materials were Marxist till now. This may be explained on the one hand by inertia in the educational system and among philosophers (particularly of the old generation who were brought up in the spirit of Marxism-Leninism), on another – by the shortage of philosophical materials and programmes generated on the alternative grounds. Certainly such a conservative system as social education (especially the secondary school programme) which normally functions in a stable society cannot react quickly enough to keep up with a political situation which changes so quickly as in the USSR now. So we hope that taking in the consideration the last political events probably soon there will be more radical and interesting changes in philosophical and in humanitarian education as a whole.

Now let us consider the state of philosophy as a sphere of scientific investigations. First of all here we intend to outline the main trends and specificity of philosophical texts produced by professionals in particular fields of philosophical investigation in the USSR.

As with philosophical education, philosophical investigations operated for a long period under the pressure of Communist Party policy and the conceptual norms of the Marxist paradigm (the grounds of investigations could only be Marxist; conceptual quotations of Marxist classics texts were obligatory and became the informal norm of the philosophical community; quotations of alternative texts were permitted only for purposes of negative criticism). However, some years before Perestroika and especially after its declaration, when ideological influence and control began to decrease, philosophical thought slowly began to release. So we would like to illuminate in general terms some main directions of philosophical investigations and their modification under the influence of ideological context changes.

Dialectical materialism. This line of philosophical investigation was intended to solve the most fundamental problems of nature, thinking and culture from the point of view of materialist dialectics. In fact, strict and dogmatic orientation towards the classical works of Marxism blocked creative initiatives (besides some very insignificant attempts at the development of separate dialectical fragments) and took the investigations into a closed circle. The contents of investigations usually reduced to chewing over Hegel’s dialectics from a materialist point of view and attempts at post factum descriptions and the interpretation, in the universal and abstract terms of materialist dialectics, of the different relations between objects of nature and the forms of human activities. The character of philosophical investigations was in some ways more reminiscent of the character of scholastic philosophy, than of 20th Century philosophical and scientific researches. Thinkers, for example, could seriously discuss the problem: is it right or wrong to distinguish such a form of motive matter, as ‘geological’? And if some works in this sphere of philosophical investigations, to our mind, can present some theoretical interest (probably because of their avoidance of political issues), nevertheless it must be noted, that those works had no serious practical applications. There was a world of differences between philosophical investigations and real life.

Now the situation in the area is radically changed. Researches in the philosophy of science are appearing more and more interesting and useful to scientific methodology (unlike abstract dialecticals, which are very far from scientific methodology). There has begun real investigation of those problems which were not (“thank goodness”- as joke Soviet philosophers) dealt with in the Marxist classics or were addressed only in a sceptical or negative fashion. We mean here: formal (logic-philosophical) investigations, philosophy of language, problems of artificial intelligence etc.

Historical materialism. This sphere (now the name ‘historical materialism’ is abolished as incorrect) was dedicated to dialectic-materialist considerations of social reality. Here the investigations were carried out inside the Marxist doctrine of social-economic formations. In monographs and articles the laws governing transitions from one social-economic formation to another or specific laws concerning different formations were presented from the Marxist- Leninist point of view. Traditional topics and obligatory specifics of such works were the comparison of capitalist and socialist societies, negative criticism of capitalism and praising of every aspect of the socialist system. Works in the field of ‘scientific communism’ (now the name is also abolished) were dedicated to similar topics: laws of socialist revolution, class struggle, description of future communist society etc. The contents of such ‘investigations’ often caused frank laughter and perplexity not only in the professional community. Now communist pathos has disappeared from the pages of monographs and articles. Sociology is becoming a more scientific and less political discipline. Applied sociology, and the use of mathematical methods in sociology is becoming widespread.

Ethics and aesthetics. In ethics there was a priority of class values to all-human values, or the idea that exactly the norms of proletarian morals are the norms of all-human morals. In aesthetics priority was given to analysis of ideological content. At the present time these fields of philosophical investigation are active, released from ideology.

On the whole it has to be noted that the situation in the sphere of philosophical investigations is improving and we can looking forward to the appearance of more interesting contributions from Soviet philosophers.

Finishing the article we would like to describe philosophical ‘fashion’ in the USSR, that is the texts and thinkers which are popular and authoritative now in our country among the intelligentsia and reading audience as a whole. These are the works of the thinkers who were earlier in disgrace and were rehabilitated in accordance with new political orientations. There are representatives of religious philosophy, personalism, existentialism and philosophy of life – representatives of humanitarian philosophy. Among Russian national philosophers may be noted such as: N.A.Berdiaev, L.I.Shestov, P.A.Florenskei, V.V.Rosanov, S.N.Bulgakov and some others; among foreign: A.Schopenhauer, S.Kierkegaard, F.Nietzsche, O.Spengler, J-P.Sartre, A.Camus, S.Freud, E.Fromm, M.Heidegger etc. Now different texts of these authors are published in the USSR by great editions (something like 100,000) and are in demand for a very wide audience. But what caused the popularity of these authors in the USSR now? We think that their brilliant and readable (not only for professionals) literary style is neither the last nor the main reason. To our mind, first of all is the strong humanitarian trend of the texts, which is consonant with the contemporary social tone in the country. Exactly in these texts, dedicated to all common problems of man and culture (which touch the spirit of every man) Soviet readers find those things that were not embraced by the bare schemes of the official Marxist-Leninist ideology.

In conclusion we would like to note the following: in accordance with radical changes in the social-political context of the country, philosophy in the USSR is making the following (positive – to our mind) turn:

1) from class ideology to real humanity;

2) from political ambitions and dogmatic manifestations to well-grounded judgements and scientific methodology;

3) from idle speculations to real life of the end of 20th Century and solution of actual vital problems. But what will be later – we shall see.

© V.B.Shneider and R.N.Holstinin 1991

Dr Vladimir Shneider is director of the sociological section of “Policy”, a commercial enterprise in Ekaterinburg (formerly Sverdlovsk)

Robert Holstinin is assistant at the philosophical cathedra of the Ekaterinburg (Sverdlovsk) juridical institute.

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