Soviet Historiography of Philosophy: Review Essay

by Ralph Dumain

Zweerde, Evert van der. Soviet Historiography of Philosophy: Istoriko-filosofskaja Nauka. Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1997. (Sovietica; v. 57) Hardbound, ISBN 0-7923-4832-X, November 1997. Price: 136.50 EUR / 172.00 USD / 103.75 GBP.

1. Three Perspectives on IFN.
2. Soviet Philosophical Culture.
3. The Development of IFN (1920s-1980s).
4. IFN, a Soviet Philosophical Discipline.
5. The Practice of IFN.
6. Soviet Theory of the History of Philosophy.
7. Coming to Terms with the Past (IFN 1986-1989).
List of Abbreviations.
Index of Names and Subjects.

Note: IFN = Istoriko-filosofskaja Nauka.

Note: There may be a few inconsistencies in the transliteration of Russian names (my fault). Letters followed by a carat/circumflex (^) are my clumsy way of rendering East European alphabetical characters (sounds) normally written with a hacek (inverted circumflex) atop their respective letters. Examples: c^ = ch, s^ = sh, z^ = zh.


Surveys of Soviet and East European philosophy in English or English translation appeared periodically throughout the Cold War. They vary primarily by country, time periods covered, or subject matter.

I would add my suspicions that there are inherent limitations to such studies, due to the effects of accessibility and prominence of various intellectuals positioned in the Soviet bureaucracy. I also get the impression that there was philosophical work going on in sciences and mathematics completely divorced from the institutional organization of philosophy. We who cannot read Russian are handicapped, as only a handful of Soviet philosophers ever appeared in books in English.

A comprehensive survey of fairly recent vintage is James Scanlan's 1985 Marxism in the USSR. Scanlan was willing to concede that there was genuine philosophy to be found under the rubric of Marxism, with the implication that it was genuinely philosophical in spite of the Marxism which it was required to adhere to officially.

The next important general study in English is David Bakhurst's 1991 Consciousness and Revolution in Soviet Philosophy: From the Bolsheviks to Evald Ilyenkov. [1] This seems to be very different from the usual survey, as it delves more deeply into the nature of Soviet philosophical culture and its most interesting aspects. [2]

However, now that the USSR is but a memory, we finally have what promises to be a unique as well as the most in-depth study of Soviet philosophical culture. This completes the one area neglected in prior surveys, i.e. Soviet historiography of philosophy. This volume apparently concludes the now-discontinued Sovietica series that gave us most of our surveys of Soviet philosophy. This extremely important book, like so many from Dutch academic publishers like Kluwer, is so prohibitively expensive, the likelihood of being able to get it at an affordable price even as a used book is close to nil. This may nonetheless be the one book on the subject most worth having. This summary of the book's contents should indicate why. The summary information presented here will be in plain text; my evaluative commentary will appear in boldface.

This book also confirms my hunch that the one area where official dogma could not destroy a more objective and at times even generous appraisal of differing philosophies was in history of philosophy. I got this impression from reading Theodor Oizerman, whose historical work was interesting though he officially adhered to the standard Marxist-Leninist ideology. The author of this book explains how this came to be.

There are a number of reasons to study this philosophical culture, including but not limited to the author's perspective. It is interesting that such a rigid and incompetent police state would bulldoze—though not completely—the most creative work of its citizens, and would most oppose the expression of what constituted the greatest threat to it: creative and independent Marxist thought. My hunch could well be borne out that the salvaging operation of what was useful in Soviet philosophy is still grossly incomplete (pace the discontinuation of Sovietica) due to a too shallow engagement of the West with its full range.

However, in addition to institutional considerations of this philosophical culture, its nature—even with the bureaucratic distortions that hampered its development—is pertinent to some vital questions both specific and general:

(1) Hegel plays a prominent role in this history, and the potentials and limits of Hegel's synoptic view of philosophy may be revealed in this scenario.

(2) Soviet philosophy attempted to be coherent and synoptic rather than anarchic, piecemeal and disorganized: granted that its organization was distorted, we may yet learn something if only—but perhaps not only!—by way of negative example of how to come to a comprehensive assessment of the state of the art, to determine what philosophy has done, where it stands, and what remains to be done.

(3) Questions of trans-national dissemination and popularization apply: a few specialists know to greater or lesser extent this subject matter, but why should they just sit on their information while the rest of us may have a vital interest in appropriating this information ourselves?


First, from the blurb on the back cover:

`Scientific history of philosophy' was one of the professional branches of Soviet philosophy, and a place where philosophical culture was preserved in an often hostile environment. Situated between the ideological exigencies of the Soviet system with its Marxist-Leninist `theoretical foundation' and the need for an objective account of philosophy's past, Soviet history of philosophy displays the characteristic features of Soviet philosophy as a whole, including a forceful reappearance of its Hegelian background. This book is the only Western monograph on this important part of Soviet philosophy, thus filling the last main gap in Western `Philosophical Sovietology'. At the same time, it offers the first survey of Soviet philosophy after the disappearance of the Soviet system itself, embarking on an historical and meta-philosophical investigation of Soviet philosophical culture.

Next, the full text of the Conclusion:

'Is philosophy a science?' Most contemporary Western philosophers will find it difficult to give a definite answer to this question, even if they tend do so in the affirmative. The reason for this, I think, is that it is a pseudo-empirical question: the affirmative answer, 'Philosophy is a science', as well as the negative answer 'Philosophy is not a science' are not mere descriptive statements, but they state a norm. Philosophers who hold that philosophy is a science will draw a line between 'good' (scientific) and 'bad' philosophy. This applies to analytical philosophy and phenomenology alike, and it also applies to Soviet philosophy. In all three cases, the affirmative answer to the question 'Is philosophy a science?' founds a field of intellectual activity that is as close to 'normal science' as philosophy can get.

The definition of philosophy as a science answers a more fundamental 'metaphilosophical' question: 'What is philosophy?' Obviously, every scientific discipline presupposes an answer to this 'What is ... ?' question, but it is only in the case of philosophy that the question about the discipline is a question of the discipline at the same time. Philosophy is reflexive in a way no other discipline is: every act of philosophical thought is a self-determination of philosophy, and it therefore is no wonder that the question 'What is philosophy?' has become a fundamental, perhaps even the most fundamental question of philosophy.

Soviet philosophy, too, presupposed an answer to this question, defining philosophy as 'science of the most general laws of development' or as 'scientific-philosophical worldview' [2.i, 2.iii]. In the case of Soviet philosophy, this self-determination of philosophy was dogmatic, and the question itself was excluded from discussion: the scientific nature of the philosophy of Marxism-Leninism was as much part of the ideology of Soviet philosophy as was the notion of 'partisanship [partijnost]' that legitimatized the inclusion of philosophy in the Soviet political system and its subordination to a primarily ideological function [2.i.iv]. This explains why Mamardas^vili, permanently raising this question, could only do so in the margin of Soviet philosophical culture []. And when the question 'Is philosophy a science?' was raised, in 1989, this already marked the end of Soviet philosophical culture [2.viii].

This culture depended, from its foundation in the 1920s and 1930s, on a dogmatic, politically secured answer to the 'basic question' of philosophy, an answer given—or supposed to be given—by a 'system' of dialectical materialism that colonized the field traditionally covered by two central philosophical disciplines: metaphysics and epistemology [2.i2.iii]. As a result, creative philosophical thought took place in a number of specialist disciplines, where fundamental philosophical questions could be evaded or addressed indirectly [2.vvii]. One of these disciplines, increasingly important as a 'niche' where a certain level of philosophical culture was preserved, was istoriko-filosofskaja nauka, IFN [, 4.iii].

IFN was not only one of the applications of dialectical and historical materialism, it also was the concluding part of the Soviet philosophical system, yielding its 'historical self-awareness' and, at the same time, part of its ideological self-defence. IFN accommodated the heritage of the klassikimarksizma-leninizma, who had not left an elaborated Marxist theory of the history of philosophy, but a set of tendentially conflicting impulses (l.iii, 3.iiv]; it investigated, with an increasing level of professionalism and 'ideological neutrality', a considerable part of the history of philosophy in all parts of the world [3.v, 4.iii-iv, 5]; and it developed a theory of the history of philosophy, as a process and as a discipline, that determined in the sense of limiting and founding IFN as part of Soviet philosophical culture [6].

The value of the theoretical conceptions of philosophy's history, developed within the framework of IFN, for a better understanding of the historical nature of philosophy is limited but real, especially since these conceptions, departing from the reductionism present in the Marxist heritage, arrived at a restoration of philosophical problems, theories, and, finally, individual philosophical thought as the proper subject matter of the history of philosophy as a discipline [6.ii]. A focus on individual philosophical thought as the necessary condition and the concrete realization of philosophy means the reintroduction of the fundamental question 'What is philosophy?', a question that has to be answered, implicitly or explicitly, dogmatically or not, by every philosophizing individual [7.ivv]. In this sense, the development of IFN led to a restoration of philosophical thought at the expense of the 'system', but this restoration could only fully manifest itself in the period of perestrojka, showing the hidden tendencies at work before [7.i, 7.iii, 7.v].

Istoriko-filosofskaja nauka scientific history of philosophy, history of philosophy as a science. Is history of philosophy a science? What is its status as a discipline [l.i]? If history of philosophy is an historical discipline, then it is scientific to the extent to which history is a science. If it is a philosophical discipline, it is scientific if philosophy is a science. If it is both, it contains a tension which must and will manifest itself in every philosophical culture that allows the free development of conflicting philosophical positions [l.i]. Soviet philosophy was not such a philosophical culture, which explains why, in trying to prevent such a development of conflicting perspectives, it gradually returned to a 'Hegelian' conception of the history of philosophy, reimporting both its strong and its problematic sides [6.iii].

Hegel's conception of the history of philosophy, as a process and as a discipline, has remained a major point of reference, positively and negatively, in philosophy of the history of philosophy [I.ii]. Hegel arguably was the last Western philosopher who conceived of philosophy as a system of scientific disciplines, and who conceived of history of philosophy as a concluding part of a philosophical system, in which it looks back upon the historical development that led to 'knowledge [episteme, Wissen]'. From this angle, Soviet philosophy in general, and IFN in particular, presented an anachronism in the 20th century. It was a unique example of a specific type of philosophical culture, tied up with an oppressive sociopolitical system, but also realizing a conception of philosophy that, whether we like it or not, lies at the heart of the Western philosophical tradition. For this reason alone, it continues to deserve our attention. [pp. 191-192]


This study as a whole aims to fill the only remaining gap in Western scholarship with respect to Soviet philosophy: all other branches of Soviet philosophical culture have been the subject of studies within the tradition of 'philosophical sovietology'. At the same time, it embarks upon an endeavor that differs from the 'sovietological' perspective on one significant point, namely the historical investigation of Soviet philosophy: it is only after the end of Soviet Marxist-Leninist philosophy as an 'influential school of thought in the contemporary philosophic scene,' that Soviet philosophical culture can appear as an historical phenomenon. In that respect, the history of Soviet philosophy is yet to be written, and with this book I hope to make a first step in that direction. [p. x]

Soviet philosophy is dead and buried, according to the author, but three reasons for studying it are outlined, the most positive of which "is that the actual contribution of Soviet philosophers to philosophical thought in general is yet to be assessed." The other reasons have to do with the ineliminable place of Soviet philosophy in the history of Russian philosophy, and the place of a philosophical culture in a totalitarian system itself claimed to be based on a philosophical theory. [pp. x-xi]

The author goes on to specify his conceptions of philosophical culture and ideology. Ideology is not a type of theory or a type of consciousness, nor is it necessarily untrue; it is functional.


The author reviews the history of philosophy as a discipline. A distinction is made between 'philosophy of the history of philosophy' and 'history of the history of philosophy'. While some work on the 'philosophy of the history of philosophy' has been done in other languages, e.g. German and to a lesser extent French, the Anglo-American world is severely underdeveloped in this area, and it completely ignores the serious Soviet work. [p. 2] Here is a classification of the distinctions [p. 3]:

1. 'philosophy's history' ('history of philosophy as a process'): the totality of historical facts and events that can be called 'philosophical';

2. 'historiography of philosophy': the totality of accounts of philosophy's history;

3. 'history of philosophy as a discipline,' comprising:

a. theoretical conceptions of philosophy's history (philosophy of the history of philosophy);

b. theory of history of philosophy as a discipline

c. methodology & didactics;

d. a history of the history of philosophy (as a discipline).

Soviet IFN covered the whole range. Comparable coverage in the west can be found in Martial Gueroult, Lucien Braun, Vittorio Hosle, Ulrich Johannes Schneider, or Jorge Gracia. [p. 3]

The history of views of the history of philosophy is briefly summarized. The major leaps in the conceptualization of same come first with Kant, and then decisively with Hegel. These views are evaluated, with a lengthy treatment of Hegel.

The classical Marxist thinkers are then dealt with: Marx, Engels, Lenin. Six themes concerning history of philosophy introduced by Marx and Engels are cited. The points of convergence and divergence from Hegel's conceptions are noted. Finally, Lenin's views are summarized.


The author makes a sharp distinction between his approach and that of previous Sovietologists. Others in the West have viewed Soviet philosophy primarily as a philosophical theory or school of thought, to be condemned or occasionally praised on a variety of grounds. Zweerde on the other hand views it as a philosophical culture in an ideological context. This is not merely a negative appraisal. This means that the reality of Soviet philosophical culture was not what it claimed itself to be, and therefore needs to be understood for what it concretely produced underneath its legitimating function. [pp. 26-27] The covert philosophical "counterculture" is also a product of this philosophical culture. [pp. 28-29] The ideological situation in which soviet philosophy was produced is analyzed in some detail.

Following that is a summary of the history of Soviet philosophy such as we know from elsewhere: Lenin's views, the institutional installation of Marxist philosophy allowing only for pluralism within Marxism, the controversy between the Deborinites and the mechanists, and the establishment of an officially mandated Marxist-Leninist philosophy by dictat in the 1930s. While the thugs of the New Turn—Mitin and Judin—were the powers at this stage, such a dictatorial approach was already a strategy well in place throughout the 1920s thanks to Deborin, who was the first victim of the New Turn (but who adapted himself to it rather than suffering imprisonment or execution).

Zweerde makes a very important observation about this outcome:

Why was it so important for the Party to make philosophy a constituent part of Marxist-Leninist ideology? Why did the line that claimed to represent a Marxist(-Leninist) philosophy gain the upper hand over the tendency to do away with philosophy altogether and replace it by science? Why did Deborin succeed, and why did Mitin and Judin adopt his position with regard to philosophy? Neither because Mitin and Judin had such a high opinion of philosophy, nor because Stalin had such a high opinion of Mitin and Judin, and certainly not because they thought that philosophy would actually provide Soviet ideology and policy with a scientific foundation, but because to include philosophy in Marxist(Leninist) ideology meant to exclude philosophy, esp. Marxism, as a legitimate independent activity. This is highlighted in Leszek Kolakowski's distinction between intellectual and institutional Marxism, the first indicating the conviction that Marxist theory contains methodological principles which are a) specifically Marxist, and b) of value in the analysis of social phenomena, the second being a formal concept .... [p. 34-35]

We resume with the reign of Stalinism in its prime:

Even if Marxism continued to be a motivating force, too, this was dangerous rather than helpful from the perspective of the Soviet regime, hence the need for Stalin and his allies to neutralize Marxism, to destroy its critical potential, and to replace all convinced Marxists by apparatc^iki. [p. 36]

Zweerde spends several pages enumerating the properties of Soviet Marxism-Leninism: combination of inflexible dogma and dogmatic flexibility; a developing and unified system; partisan dichotomy: all philosophy as 'them or us'; Marxism and Leninism merged; eternalization (immutable principles); absolutization of Lenin's statements; assumption of theoretical superiority and practical success.

"Soviet Marxism was ideology, but it was not the ideology it said it was." It was presented as a world-view, as a motivating rather than legitimizing ideology, and transparent. These moves immunized the ideology, neutralized Marxism's critical potential, and monopolized all discourse. Marx's early works and Lenin's philosophical notebooks were off-limits. Legitimacy was narrowed to the limitations of official presentation (the ideal of a single textbook). Though philosophical discourse was narrowed, it was still vigorous until 1936. The great purges and the infamous 1938 Short Course instituted a dead period in Soviet philosophy, 1938-1946. [pp. 38-39]

The next period covers 1947-1954. Qualified scholars and teachers were needed after World War II, even though ideological control was tightened up and made even more fanatical under the supervision of Zhdanov. The demand for higher intellectual quality resulted in a struggle of serious philosophers with hacks, out of which emerged real philosophers such as Asmus, Kedrov, and Kamenskij, but also hacks who dominated the field until the 1980s, Konstantinov, Fedoseev, and Iovc^uk. There was a sizable growth in the philosophical industry, and some decentralization took place with new institutions springing up dispersed through the Soviet republics. However, this period was also the most brutal and repressive. Aleksandrov's history of philosophy did a lot of damage. [pp. 40-41]

The next period is the thaw, 1955-1966. There were beginnings of appearances of Soviet delegations abroad, and a few western philosophers, such as A.J. Ayer, were invited in. There was a bit more breathing space, but access to non-approved material was limited. Forbidden literature (e.g. Losskij, Sartre, Marcuse, Heidegger) was available sub rosa, distributed among the party elite for their titillation. [pp. 42-43]

In the 1960s a new generation of specialists emerged, a more sophisticated intelligentsia. Even more intelligent party philosophers came to the fore, associated with Khrushchev: Il'ic^ev, Spirkin, Gott, Frolov. Independent, more genuine philosophers emerged as well: Ilyenkov, S^c^edrovickij, Mamardas^vili, Batis^c^ev, Bibler. The original texts of Marx, Engels, and Lenin also reappeared. Hence the inner logic of Soviet philosophical development began to kick in once more. This led to a row in 1970 between the 'epistemologists' (Ilyenkov, C^udinov) and the 'ontologists' (Narksij et al). The latter, more orthodox position, won. [pp. 44-45] This sort of activity came about due to the contradictory need to both stimulate and contain genuine philosophical work.

The next period is that of marginalization and professionalization, 1967-1975.

A new bout of repression kicked in between 1966 and 1968, but 1968 was also considered to be the high point of original Soviet Marxist thought, according to De George. Philosophical dissidents were in a bad position in the 1970s: official rebukes, reassignment of posts, exclusion from the academic world, denial of publication, marginalization, imprisonment, or exile. [p. 47] Marxists were perceived as a much greater threat than non-Marxists. Hence, Losev, whose province was ancient Greek philosophy, was left alone, while Ilyenkov, a convinced, creative Marxist, was suppressed. [p. 48] Others tried to stretch the meaning of officially sanctioned concepts, but still suffered consequences, e.g. Batis^c^ev. [p. 49]

Next comes the period of stagnation, 1976-1985. The ideology from above was completely petrified. Hence two tiers of philosophy could function so long as the upper was not disturbed. Philosophical subcultures and countercultures thus flourished, and autonomous regional centers functioned (where national traditions could be nurtured, or specialties such as semiotics or phenomenology). [p. 51] (Note the situations of Mamardas^vili, Losev, Lotman, Bibler.) Private circles in homes or at institutions were the only places real freedom could flourish. In institutional circles, the discrepancy between official and professional philosophy was nearly absolute. But the real work going on in various specialties could not break through to reform the whole system. [pp. 52-53]

The final period is perestrojka, 1986-1989. 1988-1989 saw Cipko's frontal assault on Marxism itself. In 1987 a collective self-criticism was under way. All kinds of forbidden works were now published, but there was also a huge growth in the production of samizdat (1988-1989). Formerly marginalized figures were rehabilitated; a few now became stars. Official philosophy also attempted to reform itself with the assertion of universal human values (Frolov). [p. 55] Indoctrination programs were also revised. Ethics and religion came in for open discussion once again.


The classics of Marxism had left behind evaluations of past philosophers but no systematic exposition of philosophy's past. Particularly important influences, established from the line leading from Plekhanov to Lenin and Deborin, were Hegel and Spinoza. Spinoza was used by the contending schools of the 1920s. The mechanists used Spinoza against Deborin's Hegelianism. The question of Spinoza's Jewishness and that of contending Soviet philosophers became a sticking point as Stalinism progressed. The first attempts to establish a Marxist-Leninist conception of the history of philosophy came in 1937 with Aleksandrov and Pozner. In the 1930s the history of philosophy was the only area in which any real work could be done. Because real knowledge was needed to do work in this field, it was partially shielded from the usual ideological ignoramuses. Translations abounded during the dead period. Preference was given to 'materialists' and 'dialecticians' but other classic texts were published, Plato alone excluded. However, conditions deteriorated in the 1940s. The 1938 Short Course had a stultifying effect. German philosophy was downplayed during the war, and Russian patriotism magnified. Hegel studies suffered terribly as well, downgraded from Hegel's positive reception in the first half of the 1930s. Russian chauvinism inflated considerably throughout the 1940s. The first comprehensive Soviet treatment was a projected 7-volume series edited by Aleksandrov, Mitin, Judin, and Bykhovskij. The third volume, on German classical philosophy, edited by Bykhovskij, which appeared in 1943, was suppressed. The 'crime', with respect to the fight against fascism, was an overvaluation of Hegel, not stressing his reactionary views. The series was terminated. Aleksandrov wrote another book in 1945, and was forced into a self-criticism of it in 1947, on charges of objectivism and lack of partiinost (over-evaluation of Hegel and a downplaying of Russian philosophy).

However, there was also a precedent for maintaining the notion of the relative independence of philosophy, already present in Aleksandrov in 1937. This is evidence of the double need to encourage and contain objective study. Other factors are the practical difficulty of reducing philosophy to the relations of production [p. 72] and the normative function of Soviet philosophy itself [p. 73] Thus philosophy could not become dissolved into science (historical materialism).

Periodization was also a major problem. The 'Asiatic mode of production' was a stumbling bock, so the five stages of social evolution became official. History of philosophy had to follow this periodization as well.

The Stalinist scheme of IFN had reached an impasse in 1947. The distortions of history were magnified by Zhdanov's anti-cosmopolitan campaign, with the accompanying punitive measures, and IFN was left for dead. In 1947 a 2-volume work was commissioned. A conspectus of this project was published, and the characterization of Russian philosophy was doctored as much as was feasible. The project died with Stalin.

The next period is the liberation of IFN, 1955-1966. This period saw the rise of Oizerman and the qualitative growth of the history of philosophy. There was also a major shift towards the positive appraisal of Hegel, and a revival of studies of Kant and Spinoza. Criticisms of past practice were coupled with more balanced historical appraisals. Hitherto neglected figures received attention, and non-European philosophy, esp. Indian philosophy, received significant coverage.

A third attempt at a universal history of philosophy was made. Six volumes appeared. While there was much to be proud of in the field, there were significant shortcomings in this compendium. Another huge series was planned and never completed, but in the meanwhile a one-volume textbook was published. Overall, the basic problems remained: the alleged universal development of philosophy as related to subsequent modes of production, and the tension between philosophy as a reflection of class-struggle and as a field of theoretical knowledge." [pp. 79-80]

The Soviet thrust to overcome Eurocentrism evoked even the admiration of western anti-communist Sovietologists. [pp. 80-81] However, there was a problem with a socio-cultural, historical materialist approach to philosophy, leveling all distinctions. Once the autonomous history of philosophy as a discipline began to dissolve into culture generally, the specifically philosophical and logical content and value of philosophical contributions melted out of focus. [pp. 80-81]

Hegel even comes in for sharp criticism by the Soviets for his Eurocentrism. [p. 81]

There were problems in terms of squaring this universalism with notions of progress, and in the concern over the struggle between materialism and idealism. There was a certain amount of backtracking on the project of treating all cultures as equals. On the other hand, the fight against Eurocentrism also helped the cause of the Russian philosophical tradition while the aforementioned qualifications helped to put the brakes on excessive slavophilism or any kind of asiacentrism. [p. 82]

A turn from class struggle to philosophical problems also came to pass, at least with the history of pre-Marxist philosophy. Also, the degree to which philosophy was scientific and thus had objective value overrode the usual concern with class struggle. Vulgar Marxist attempts to deduce philosophical ideas directly from material conditions came under fire. Changes in approach from 1947 to 1971 are treated at some length.

Schemes of periodization, corresponding to socio-economic formations used in 1960 and 1971, go like this [p. 86]:

0. [I] absence of philosophy in primitive communal society

1. [II] philosophy in slaveholding society

2. [III] philosophy in feudal society

3. [IV] philosophy in the period of transition from feudalism to capitalism

4. philosophy in the era of consolidation of capitalism until the beginning of the revolutionary movements (in KIF: until the origin of Marxism)

5. philosophy in the era of pre-monopolistic capitalism

6. philosophy in the period of imperialism until the great socialist October Revolution

7. [V] philosophy in the time of revolutionary transition from capitalism to socialism, of socialist and national liberation movements, of the crumbling of imperialism, of the global triumph of socialism and communism.

A number of problems arose in applying this schema and its variants. [p. 87]

There was a boom in IFN between 1967 and 1975. Aside from the greater freedoms already outlined, the establishment of IFN as a distinct discipline where serious work could be done also became a refuge for philosophers who would have otherwise been marginalized. Party leaders deplored the pervasive turn to history of philosophy away from the general philosophical mainstream, but this came about because of their repressive institutions. [pp. 88-89] IFN was also a haven for survivors from earlier times, doing specialized work, such as Losev, Bakhtin, Asmus, and Bakradze.


This chapter outlines IFN in the period of Soviet stagnation, 1975-1986. This was, however, an unprecedented boom period for IFN, fueled not only by its intrinsic strengths but because it served as a niche to which to escape from the unfavorable conditions of philosophy in general. Zweerde analyzes four aspects of the IFN as a social institution: the place of IFN in Soviet philosophical culture; knowledge and ideology: the functions of IFN; the disciplinary structure of IFN; the content of IFN: translation, textbooks, and teaching.

I have outlined the ideological place of IFN in Soviet Marxist-Leninist philosophy before; I need not recapitulate Zweerde's analysis here. Of note though is the application of the notion of historical laws or lawlikeness to the development of philosophy. [pp. 96-97]

Very briefly, the functions of IFN as Zweerde sees them are [p. 98, exposition follows]:

1. epistemic:

a. historiographical
b. appropriative
c. systematic

2. ideological
3 technical.

Soviet ideology blurs 1b, 1c, and 2, but 1a and 3 remain distinct. [p. 99]

Zweerde then adds a fourth function: the ideological self-legitimation of IFN [p. 100].

The disciplinary structure of IFN is characterized by professionalization and specialization. Kamenskij attempted a conceptualization of the field [p. 101]:

1. an objective process;

2. historiography (empirical and scientific);

3. a science, (also] including:

a. a theory of research into the history of philosophy;

b. a doctrine about the forms and goals of research into the history of philosophy;

c. a methodology of research into the history of philosophy;

d. an historiography of the scientific history of philosophy (the self-awareness of IFN.

Statistics on the academic discipline follow. One of the most impressive achievements was a prodigious publishing program. However, the remaining lapses were egregious. The areas and philosophers concerned are too numerous to list here. Publication of irrationalists like Heidegger was stalled the longest, but Husserl, Habermas, and Ricouer were also not published in translation for general consumption before 1986. Among non-Soviet Marxists, the ideologically safe (CP-ers) were published in Russian, but Lukacs' The Young Hegel did not appear until 1987. Original foreign publications were inaccessible. [pp. 102-104] Statistics on translations are provided [p. 104], from which the gaps are noticeable.

A bit of ideologically doctored history of philosophy was imposed upon all university students as part of mandated Marxist-Leninist indoctrination. Here too, pre-Marxist and post-Marxist philosophy are treated very differently. Oizerman and Mel'vil criticized these programs, but they were in place until 1987. By contrast, history of philosophy in philosophy faculties was a completely different matter. [See statistics on p. 108, discussion of curricula thereafter.] Here new texts came into being to address the biases and shortcomings of older ones. One of the several interesting contrasts mentioned is the opposing treatments of Kuznecov and Narksij of 18th century philosophy: the latter concentrates on the "transformation of rationalism" [p. 110]. Sokolov's coverage of 15th-17th century philosophy is statistically compared to histories of Chatelet, Vorlander, and Copleston [p. 111]. Sokolov is judged to be more traditional than the rest. [pp. 111-112] All in all, pre-Marxist philosophy was dealt with very well, but post-Marx philosophy still suffered from ideological interference. One last table of statistics is given on the areas of publication output [p. 114].


This chapter is a survey of what Soviet IFN produced. IFN was highly specialized, much more so than in the West. Hegel was the most studied philosopher, followed by Kant. Aristotle and Spinoza were also prominent. A table of publications is given covering the years 1985-1987, broken down by category: ancient & medieval philosophy, Renaissance & modern philosophy, KSBF (critique of contemporary bourgeois philosophy), history of Marxist-Leninist philosophy, history of philosophy of Asia & Africa, history of philosophy of the Fatherland, methodological & theoretical questions, translations & editions. [p. 115]

Special attention is focused on ancient and medieval philosophy, early bourgeois philosophy, Hegel and classical German philosophy, critique of contemporary bourgeois philosophy, Nietzsche, history of Marxist-Leninist philosophy, anti-eurocentrism and non-western philosophies, and history of philosophy of the peoples of the USSR.

Scholarship on early bourgeois (what we would call modern) philosophy, as evidenced in a particular survey published in 1983, was refreshingly objective and non-partisan. The contribution of skepticism in particular was highly esteemed. Oizerman's outlook had triumphed. [pp. 121-122]

Kant, Hegel, and Feuerbach received considerable attention; Schelling and Herder also. Hegel occupied a special position in Soviet philosophy; he was the litmus test for the state of orthodoxy. Specialists on Hegel and Hegelianism emerged, in contrast to his entombment by Zhdanov. Soviet philosophers tried to get beyond the impasse of the system vs. method approach to Hegel. Hegel's philosophy of history was also reevaluated. Hegel was even appropriated for economics.

Bourgeois philosophy was officially considered a unified entity, and philosophy was periodized as before and after Marx. A more positive approach to scientifically oriented "bourgeois" philosophy was allowed, but certain philosophers were unequivocally condemned, esp. Nietzsche, who had been widely influential in Russian philosophy and on some Marxist philosophers.

Mel'vil in 1986 distinguished three periods in the critique of bourgeois philosophy: unmasking, serious investigation combined with unmasking, a more positive treatment with respect to real problems (1960s). Knowledge of western/bourgeois philosophy was very limited in the early 1960s, but professionalism had won out within two decades. [pp. 129-131]

KSBF was characterized by extreme division of labor, to the point where different specialties did not communicate with one another. Zweerde claims that "Western philosophers were in a far better position to know something about Soviet philosophy than the other way around: books like Scanlan's Marxism in the USSR or Jeu's La Philosophie Sovietique et l'Occident did not and could not have their Soviet counterpart." [p. 131]

The field was characterized by a mixture of ideological and analytical functions, with the greatest openness preserved for philosophy of science.

History of Marxist-Leninist philosophy was the most sensitive area. Still, real work became possible, mainly Oizerman's influential work. On the other hand, Mamardas^vili's "The Analysis of Consciousness in the Works of Marx", in which he claims that "Marx was the first to place consciousness into the domain of scientific determinism, and to reveal its social transformation and social mechanisms", was condemned. Sometimes critique of non-Soviet Marxists was likely a veiled means of critically challenging Soviet orthodoxy (e.g. critique of Althusser). [pp. 133-134]

In its efforts towards universalism, Soviet IFN paid considerable attention to the philosophical traditions of the East: India and China (also Japan). Other traditions were left to visiting scholars from developing countries. In spite of Soviet anti-eurocentrism, the Soviet goal was to spread European thought funneled through Marxism-Leninism. However, India and China were taken very seriously. Hegel's reduction of oriental philosophy was countered by examining "the different ways in which both philosophy and religion emerge from mythology." [pp. 135-136]

Russian philosophy has a whole history of an opposition tendency between slavophiles and westernizers. Great Russian chauvinism also made it possible to expend a great deal of attention to the Russian philosophical past, in spite of the repository of heresy contained therein. Curiously, the encyclopedic Russkaja Filosofia IX-XIX vv. of Galaktionov and Nikandrov was controversial because it was paradoxicallly too Marxist: its methodology led it to engaging in great concrete detail the actual historical development of Russian thought, including its "undesirable" idealist aspects. [pp. 137-138]

The investigation of the philosophical traditions of the non-Russian people yielded some novel results. Medieval philosophy and scholasticism came in for re-evaluation, and there were implications also for the valuation of Arabic and Iranian philosophy. The Georgian Renaissance also brings some surprises. [pp. 138-140]


The subject matter of this chapter interests me most. I first became acquainted with this material through the works of Oizerman available in English.

To quote form the text; the author distinguishes five positions that can be discerned by the 1980s:

i. a dogmatic official position (the 'line of Iovcuk'), in which there was little or no development: it merely restated the familiar tenets about the 'basic question', the principle of 'partijnost', the 'revolution in philosophy' etc.

ii. a sophisticated position (the 'line of Ojzerman'), expressed in a trilogy by Ojzerman and in Osnovy teofii istorikofilosofskogo processa [Foundations of a Theory of the Historical Process of Philosophy] (1983), jointly written by Ojzerman and Bogomolov;

iii. a professionalist position, closely linked to historiographical practice ('line of Kamenskij');

iv. a number of alternative positions on partial issues;

v. one isolated alternative position, viz. the position of Losev.

A great deal of attention is devoted to the work of Ojzerman and Bogomolov, which successfully mediated between the demands of orthodoxy and the needs of objective scholarship.

The author poses the following questions to be addressed in his exposition:

a. What is philosophy?

b. Why is philosophy historical?

c. What is the history of philosophy about?

i. What is history of philosophy the history of?

ii. Where does this history begin, and why?

iii. Where does it end or lead to?

d. How does philosophy develop historically?

The answer to the fourth question yields a theoretical conception of philosophy as an historical phenomenon [philosophy of the history of philosophy], from which a theory of history of philosophy as a discipline can be deduced:

e. How is history of philosophy to be done, and how has it been done so far (methodology, didactics, history of the history of philosophy)?

Finally, the theoretical conception forms the basis of a critique of other historiographical practices and theoretical conceptions:

f. Why are other theoretical conceptions mistaken?

The detailed exposition that follows is very interesting, but I want to skip to the substantially Hegelian position adopted by O & B. They do a certain amount of juggling to square their position with orthodoxy, and their buffer status allowed their position to become official, with nods to the mandated line but substantively restoring the autonomy and objectivity of historical philosophical research and liberating the discipline to a great extent from rigid partiinost. This quasi-Hegelian position permitted the assimilation of the entire philosophical heritage buttressed by the notion of philosophical development as a logical historical process, with even a conception of the relative autonomy of philosophy allowed. There are divergences from Hegel's own position of course, but one crucial notion in common worked to the Soviet philosophers' advantage: the notion of historical progress culminating in the sublation of all previous philosophy. While some (more than others) Soviet historians of philosophy criticized excessive pretensions of Hegel's own claim to sublate all previously existing philosophy, they could all bow to orthodoxy with the assertion that Soviet Marxist philosophy sublated all previous positions including Hegel's, which still allowed them greater valorization of past philosophy—even formerly proscribed idealist philosophy—than ever before.

The nature of this "sublation" merits closer scrutiny. Also important to realize—and to examine even more closely than previous researchers—is how the institution of Soviet philosophical culture's dogmatic demands warped even the application of an intelligent Marxism. Those of us in capitalist countries not subject to these specific institutional restraints might not be fully conscious of their effects, as the nature of the intellectual inhibitions imposed by our societies are different (although those ensconced in the discipline of Marxist political parties might be subject to comparable dogmatism). Perhaps we never knew immediate worries about the institutional implications of Marxist code words that prevented them from functioning in an autonomous rational manner under Stalinism.

Oizerman tries to come to a systematization of the history of philosophy, recognizing 10 different conceptions of philosophy and their incompatibilities (p. 147):

1. 'philosophy is the doctrine of being as such' (Aristotle, (Neo)Thomism, Hobbes)

2. 'philosophy is a doctrine not of being, but of knowledge' (Buddhism, Hume, Kant, positivism)

3. 'philosophy is a doctrine of everything that exists' (Hegel, Feuerbach)

4. 'philosophy is a doctrine of everything that does not exist, but is opposed to being as an ideal or a value' (Windelband, Husserl)

5. 'philosophy is a theory, i.e. a system of representations, concepts, knowledge, or method, related to (some) reality as its subject matter' (almost all philosophers)

6. 'philosophy is not a theory, but a practice, that has a function, not a subject matter' (Wittgenstein, neo- positivism)

7. 'philosophy is a science, or at least can and should be one' (Aristotle, Descartes, Hobbes, Kant, Hegel, Husserl)

8. 'philosophy is not, nor can or should it be a science' (skepticism, Popper, Ayer, irrationalism (Berdjaev, Marcel))

9. 'philosophy is a worldview' (Dilthey, Jaspers)

10. 'philosophy is not a worldview, either because it is a science, or because science should found world view' (Vienna Circle)

Oizerman's strategy was to develop a broad conception of philosophy and its historical development while explaining the superiority of Marxism-Leninism. Each philosophy is a general theoretical world-view, marked by the bipolarity of man and world (where the basic questions are addressed). World-view is a synthesis of science, historical experience, and shared practice. According to Oizerman: "The scientific-philosophical world-view of Marxism is a radical dialectical negation of philosophy in the old meaning of the term ...." (quoted on p. 148).

By 1986, there were several alternative positions in play as well as Oizerman's (p. 149):

i. philosophy is a general (as opposed to specific) theoretically founded (in contrast with non-theoretical) world-view (Ojzerman, Bogomolov);

ii. philosophy is a systematic rational world-view, having an objective (the historical process of philosophy) and a subjective (its description and investigation) side (Arsenij Nikolaevic^ C^anys^ev (b. 1926));

iii. philosophy is the science of the universal [vseobs^c^ee], of universals, and of general laws (Kamenskij);

iv. philosophy is the science about "the dialectics of the subjective and the objective, consciousness and being," or the relation man-world (Mark Vasil'evic^ Z^elnov (b. 1927));

v. philosophy, or in any case its "logical core [stergen]" is "the history of knowledge, summarizing itself in the development of categories" (M.G. Makarov);

vi. the position of Losev.

Only Losev's position was supposed to be incompatible with Oizerman and Bogomolov.


For IFN, perestrojka began in 1986. Several shadings of position were voiced. By 1988, insistence on the Marxist-Leninist position was dropped. Separation between philosophical theory and pure historiography of philosophy became possible, but publishing opportunities for the latter group became scarce. White spots (e.g. Russian idealism, emigre philosophy, religious philosophy) began to be filled in. Hegel's philosophy in its entirety was now open for treatment. By the same token, Soviet philosophy's close association with Hegel became less popular, Kant more so.

As it was no longer needed as a cover for legitimacy, theory of the history of philosophy stagnated as the professionalist position flourished. Oizerman eased up a bit, but his Hegelian position was criticized in 1986, and the flaws in the Hegelian position were cited (p. 183). Three radical reactions are summarized: Dobrokhotov, Mamardashvili, and Bibler, all united by a de-emphasis of historical progress, in favor of the notion of the recurrence of old philosophical positions in new contexts not dependent on a linear historical sequence. The past becomes the possible thought of the present, according to Mamardashvili. Bibler elaborates a notion of "logical expanse" in which possible answers to philosophical criticism become realized. Both are inspired by Hegel, but in contrast to previous Soviet philosophers, they lay greater stress on the individual act of philosophizing rather than the products of thought. Zweerde sees signs of overreaction here.

Kamenskij is more moderate. He distinguishes between history of philosophy as a philosophical discipline and as a historical discipline. He deploys the notion of a triple determination of philosophy, by (1) subject matter, (2) socio-historical conditions, (3) philosophical tradition as a point of departure. The individual philosopher is still insufficiently individuated in this theory (characteristic of the Soviet tradition) according to Zweerde.

C^anys^ev differentiates between the ideological and epistemic function of philosophy.

Motros^ilova leans towards the autonomy of philosophy and philosophers, while still accounting for the interaction of philosophy with historical development. Her model elaborates three levels: civilization, epoch, and historical situation, the third highly elaborated in her theory.


This concludes my chapter-by-chapter resume of the whole book. I reproduced the concluding chapter at the beginning of this summary. The next step beyond the author is to draw further general conclusions from this body of evidence, assuming its accuracy.

I suggested some implications of this study at the start of my review. First, there are the implications of the centrality of Hegel, in turns suppressed, respected, or transmuted. Questions involved include the realization of Hegel's synoptic aims, and then what he did or did not sublate, and what might sublate Hegel. To these questions Soviet historiography added various conceptions of how to understand the essence and evolution of philosophy, both intrinsically and sociologically (according to various conceptions and applications of historical materialism). Whether the object of investigation be Hegel, Soviet philosophy, or some other slice of philosophical history or philosophy as a whole, we might learn more about what our principles of synoptic assessment and their application can produce.

Among the number of possible lessons to be learned, I want to stress a perhaps unfamiliar thought. All of this concerns professional philosophy: the output, the content, the ideological slant, but also the institutions and intellectual culture. One could criticize western scholars for their inattention to this field, assuming that inattention rather than lack of accessibility is a real issue. However, whether this is a result of the Cold War or just another case of everyone working one's own turf and ignoring everyone else outside one's circle is just one issue. Most of the books in this area are not only academic books, primarily available in research libraries, but the Dutch academic publishers that produce them price their wares so high (most often from US $100 to $250) that no one will ever see them in a bookstore or order them. Thus they remain practically invisible to a lay audience. Rather than blame anyone for this aspect of the state of affairs, I want to make a different point. I contend that it is scandalous that the world of professionals is sealed off from the world of amateurs, autodidacts, and the general public in this way. By scandalous I don't mean the prices of the books or the acquisition policies of public libraries. These problems may be unavoidable and insoluble. I mean scandalous on a conceptual level. To keep professionals professional is one thing, but to relegate amateurs to perpetual, segregated amateurishness is deleterious. It should matter more to the amateurs than to anyone to understand what the universe of knowledge has to offer, how intellectual production is structured, and how institutions function to foster or stifle it. It may not be the responsibility of mainstream western Sovietologists to be concerned with this, though one could argue they have discharged their responsibility (when not being biased) by publishing their work. The responsibility lies with Marxist intellectuals in the capitalist world outside of the ex-Stalinist countries to be attentive to the problems raised here and to attend to these problems not only for the progress of knowledge overall but to incorporate this knowledge into popular education. Here it is the Marxists who have failed miserably. They either don't know anything, or they sit on what they know, or occasionally they throw out information into the ether without framing its importance for a potential audience. "Western" Marxism—the Frankfurters and others—has done better over the past quarter century, though one must take into account the difficult nature of their texts. Is it too much to suggest that the Marxist parties and the professional intellectuals that belonged to them—the CP-ers, the ultra-Stalinists (pro-Albanians, etc.), Maoists, Trotskyists, etc.—have by and large been dogmatic, inept failures?

Curiously, while there is plenty of presence on the web regarding Soviet philosophers, I don't really see the sort of salvage operation going on in the anglophone world that concerns me, going even beyond the publication of texts on the web [3], to evaluation and popularization. The existing web sites that cover this sort of material could do a much better job. I suspect that people either still don't know how to exploit the Internet properly or they are just acting blindly as they were before.

On the horizon: I want to make some generalizations about the nature of individual work in relation to institutionally derived distortions, both in the case of the USSR and others. Previously I underlined the irony that Marxism itself constituted a serious threat to the Stalinist regimes. There is more to be said about the Soviet case, but it is but one of several permutations of the big question of institutions and intellectual (philosophical) cultures. State control and censorship is one permutation of institutional constraint. Another is the functioning of the free or semi-autonomous market, or of academic hierarchies, influenced by external social factors or by internal ones. Intellectual cultures even without state intervention produce their own constraints. Consider analytical philosophy as an example.

There are intellectual cultures not directly bound to the state or official educational institutions, such as those of political parties or movements. (Philosophy taught by Marxist parties is one case.) One could break it down even further into political grouplets, study groups, and lines of influence. [4]

In all of these cases (broken down by type or not), there remains an unexplored and very peculiar frontier of investigation: the relationship between the ideas of individual thinkers, along with their unrealized potentials, and the institutional or quasi-institutional setting in which they learned, studied, thought, disseminated their ideas, and interacted (directly or just by means of their ideas) with other ideas or persons with ideas. There is a sort of virtual universe of ideas which is out of phase with the materially social organization of ideas at any given moment. Tangible nodes at which ideas congregate respond, ignore, partially acknowledge, wholly or partially assimilate, distort, or call out to one another or to chaos, but the reality of the universe of knowledge ideas comprise—like reality in general—is not just 'who you know'. The unrealized potentials of ideas are not for the future alone; sometimes ideas do not become fully real even to those who generate them, without fertile soil in which they can become fully objectified and enlivened in productive communication (social interaction).

For philosophy as an object of comprehension, in the final analysis we need to learn not only to relate the objective concrete content of philosophical works to the philosophical cultures in which works are produced, but to perceive and to name the gap between them.

Extrapolations from the history of Stalinism, Trotskyism, smaller sectarian formations, and, more broadly, the whole history of Marxism and socialism, and, most broadly, all social instantiations of the formation of ideas, can lead to profound understanding of the brakes that institutions place on the development of the people subject to them and even more importantly to an analysis of what is required to break out of these constraints, with implications for how to navigate through the 21st century.


[1] For an overview on researching Soviet philosophy, and for links to web pages on this and other sites, see Salvaging Soviet Philosophy (1). Specific links to Bakhurst, Ilyenkov, and activity theory on other sites can also be found on this page. [—> main text]

[2] There are other sources of bibliographical information on Soviet philosophy, including this book's bibliography, so I will not review them here. As for continuing interest in the field, I refer to little-known recent work on Ilyenkov: Evald Ilyenkov's Philosophy Revisited: Proceedings of the Ilyenkov Symposium in Helsinki 7th and 8th September 1999, ed. by Vesa Oittinen. Helsinki: Kikimora Publications, 2000. 372 pp. [—> main text]

[3] As books from Progress Publishers are hard to come by, and copyright restrictions are likely moot at this point, one might proceed by putting up on the web a number of books by Oizerman in English, perhaps beginning with: Oizerman, T.I.; Bogomolov, A. S.; translated by H. Campbell Creighton. Principles of the Theory of Historical Process in Philosophy. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1986. 347 pp. [—> main text]

[4] One such example is the Johnson-Forest Tendency and its co-founder C.L.R. James as an individual. As a person who has read and re-read old manuscripts and unpublished documents by James, I have noticed certain patterns whose implications become even more striking with time. One is how deeply opposed James was to the institutionalized character of the Trotskyist movement, and already in the 1930s. The second (noted by others), is how profoundly James's intellectual independence threatened this movement. Even more extreme: James was a threat to his own tendency that treated him in a cult-like fashion. Overall, the totality of James's project (to which his literary and cultural criticism are key) went far beyond the ability of his closest comrades to fully understand or accept, and led to the need for them (comrades who generated or assisted original work that comprised the group's output) as well as subsequent left historians to suppress it. I contend that under the conditions in which they operated, the Tendency's own ideas never became fully real to its members. [—> main text]

Written 14-22 January, 4-5 March 2003
© 2003 Ralph Dumain

Evert van der Zweerde & Ralph Dumain:
Correspondence on autodidacts & Soviet philosophical culture

The Partial Sociology of Philosophies: The Historical Perspective of Randall Collins
(An Unfinished Review)
by Ralph Dumain

Merab Mamardashvili: Selected Bibliography & Web Links

Salvaging Soviet Philosophy (1)

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