‘Philosophical Thought in Russia in the Second Half of the Twentieth Century: A Contemporary View from Russia and Abroad’ by Vladislav Lektorsky, Marina F. Bykova (ed) reviewed by Corinna Lotz

Reviewed by Corinna Lotz

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Corinna Lotz’ book Finding Evald Ilyenkov – How a Soviet Philosopher who stood up for …


Philosophical Thought in Russia in the Second Half of the Twentieth Century edited by Vladislav Lektorsky and Marina Bykova is a ground-breaking book combining recent Russian archival research with inspiring contributions from key thinkers from around the world. Lektorsky and Bykova’s volume has a Tolstoyan breadth of action. This, together with Dostoevskian reflection, makes the volume an epic and absorbing account of philosophy in the Soviet era and beyond.

Describing the period in question, Mikhail Epstein, cultural theorist at Emory University in the US, notes that,

Rarely in the history of thought has philosophy been such a liberating force as it was in Russia from the 1960s to the 1980s. The Soviet State had generated a rigid system of proven and irrefutable ideas that aimed to perpetuate its mastery over individual minds. For this reason, philosophical thinking, which by its nature transcends the limits of the existing order and questions sanctioned practices, was an act of self-liberation, via an awareness of the relativity of the dominant ideological discourse (48-49).

These achievements, in response to the problems of the Soviet and Russian philosophers whose dramas are played out, can be understood and felt in a deep way as a movement in time. For that alone we must be grateful to the editors, authors and translators.

Not that the editors’ understated, quietly defensive style prepares you for the complex narratives that will unfold as the plot thickens and new characters come on the scene. In 25 chapters, contemporary contributors offer powerful insight into the wide-ranging views, not only of well-known historical figures like Merab Mamardashvili and Evald Ilyenkov, but also their own, 21st century, viewpoints.

The book was first published in Russia by Rosspen in 2014, but it has been translated into English and brought up to date to include new research by Vladislav Lektorsky, David Bakhurst and Elena Illesh Ilyenkov. Essays range from the measured scholarly to the partisan Marxist and anti-communist. Included are sardonic, surreal, revealing and sometimes hilarious rants, such as that by Karen Swassjen. Abdusalam Guseynov evokes Alexander Zinoviev’s darkly misanthropic ‘Teachings on Life,’ drawing on the satirical novel The Yawning Heights that caused Zinoviev to be expelled from the Soviet Union in 1976. (He was at first a fierce anti-Stalinist but in exile became embittered, coming full circle to condemn perestroika and defend Stalin.) Swassjen, who once worked at the Institute of Philosophy in Yerevan, now based in Basel, writes of the Stalinist ideological custodians: ‘If anything was to be banned, it should have been the books by Marx, just like the Roman Catholic Church forbade the unrighteous to read the Bible during the reign of the great Pope Innocent III.’ (82) While some contributors, including Tom Rockmore, conflate the early Soviet period with its subsequent destruction by Stalin, describing everything concerned as ‘Soviet’ and/or ‘Marxist,’ most writers accurately highlight the contrasting phases of history: the early Soviet times, the Stalin terror, the post-war Thaw, the ‘re-freezing’ under Brezhnev, the perestroika and glasnost years, and finally, the end of the USSR in 1991.

The bureaucratic Stalinist state apparatus relied on a dogmatic version of Marxism to enforce its rule. Those who sought to challenge this were subject to ideological and physical repression. They were helped in this by ideologists who used their positions of power in academe and elsewhere to pressurise and even break people. Theorists who looked for the new, the unexpected, the problematic – Marxist or non-Marxists – were of course immediately suspect.
What united thinkers such as Genrikh Batishchev (1932-1997) and Vladimir Bibler (1918-2000), however, was precisely their interest in the ‘instant of beginning’, Victor Malakhov writes of the Khrushchev Thaw. Malakhov, until recently at the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences and now an independent scholar living in Israel, says the world outlook of that time made him and his contemporaries susceptible to the novelty of the world – and to its future, an attitude sharpened by “the premonition of its tragic fate”. (303) Many of those who had the courage to resist made significant contributions to 20th century thought. Amongst other insights, it becomes clear that when it came to transforming human and social relations, reductive forms of materialism are totally insufficient. Thinkers like Mamardashvili, Batishchev and Bakhtin, who explored self-reflection, may at times have come close to idealism but, as Lenin remarked in his Philosophical Notebooks, ‘Intelligent idealism is closer to intelligent materialism than stupid materialism’.

This book flings open wide the gates into that multi-layered, harsh but inspiring world. It explains the complex interaction between the official ‘ideocracy’, to use Epstein’s term, which constituted state sponsored and controlled ideology on the one side, and the existence of original, creative and scientific thought flowing below. Thus, the semblance on the surface of Soviet philosophy was a congealed miasma of ‘diamat’ and ‘histomat’. But that mishmash was actually the foam swirling above a deep sea below, to use Lenin’s metaphor. Or in Hegelian terminology, it was the ‘immediately determinate‘ which stood in dialectical opposition to the essence.

Because of the vacuous nature of the ruling ideology, the philosophers we meet in this book were ‘keenly aware of having belonged to a common movement that was in opposition to the official philosophy’ (29), writes Lektorsky. There was a complex relationship between the most radical thinkers and the ‘ideocracy’. There were also genuine and distinguished researcher-philosophers like Teodor Oizerman and Ivan Frolov who tried to protect their colleagues, for example Ilyenkov, from the worst ravages of the time-serving ideocrats.

The life stories of these thinkers were fraught with small and large personal tragedies. The monstrous mass executions of the 1930s (documented by Yehoshua Yakhot in The Suppression of Philosophy in the USSR) were over. Petr Shchedrovitsky tells the shocking story of how the Central Institute of Labour was closed down during the 1930s. In 1939 its founder-director Aleksei Gastev, a pioneer of scientific management and also a poet, was shot. Even after Stalin’s death in March 1953, Lektorsky notes, ‘any original philosophical concept or theory was in danger of being accused of heretical ‘revisionism’’.

The bottled-up energy of suppressed ideas broke out into the open after Stalin’s death. The notorious Theses put forward by Evald Ilyenkov and Valentin Korovikov in April 1955, were a fiery expression of that moment.
Canadian philosopher David Bakhurst’s outstanding chapter, Punks versus Zombies: Evald Ilyenkov and the Battle for Soviet Philosophy, includes the complete text of 15 Theses unearthed by Ilyenkov’s daughter Elena Illesh in 2016. They had not seen the light of day for 91 years. Merab Mamardashvili, the Georgian philosopher who figures largely among the independent voices of the period, described the ‘atmosphere of communication’ that prevailed between 1953 and 1956 well: ‘Evald Ilyenkov… generated the energy of repulsion: in repudiating his, undoubtedly, interesting thoughts that I found alien to me and of which I was intensely critical.’ (106)

Cultural theorist Vadim Mezhuev notes that Ilyenkov and Mamardashvili were ‘the towering figures of the time for all their polarity with regard to each other’. And it is precisely these polarities which make the accounts and reflections in this book so fascinating. Mezhuev, who makes a strong distinction between Stalinist and anti-Stalinist versions of Marxism, also writes perceptively about the banishment of Marxism, after the perestroika-glasnost period and the 1991 dissolution of the Soviet Union. He, together with David Bakhurst and others, views Ilyenkov as the leading philosopher who continued to believe ‘that the social world, for all its frustrations and falls, is not hostile to man and is, at the end of the day, driven by humanistic goals’. What made this philosophy possible, Boris Pruzhinin, editor in chief of Vopros Filosofi, believes, was the ‘clear consciousness of a community of people sharing a common, albeit variously understood, idea of philosophy being a cultural value in its own right’. (149)

Malakhov uses the expression ‘close remoteness’ to describe the feelings aroused by these thinkers. What did they really think? he asks. There was a strong materiality to their ideas and the problems they studied. Malakhov shows the shared preoccupations of Soviet and Western Marxists with Marx’s Grundrisse and the Critique of Political Economy as well as Hegelian dialectics in East and West, despite the ‘virtual absence of contacts’.

Vyacheslav Stepin’s chapter on Russian philosophy of science, explains how the 1960s to 1980s became very fruitful and even captivating. Key movers and shakers include Bonifaty Kedrov (1903-1985), Pavel Kopnin (1922-1971) and Mikhail Omelyanovsky (1904-1979). Kedrov and Kopnin in particular suffered persecution. Kopin, who was director of the Institute of Philosophy at the Soviet Academy of Science, developed the activity/praxis aspects of Marxist epistemology and the development of scientific understanding of the objects of research.

Kopnin and his colleagues sought to recover the authentic Marx, Stepin writes, seeking to overcome the damage done to Soviet science by state-organised attacks on genetics and relativity theory. Tragically, Kopnin died at the age of 49, after an illness ‘aggravated by bullying’, Lektorsky notes.

Ivan Frolov (1929-1999), head of the Council for Philosophy and Social Problems of Science and Technology, spurred research into global problems and created new research programmes. He was editor of Vopros Filosofi from 1968-1977. Some Marxists will be familiar with the Dictionary of Philosophy which he edited. The English version was published by Progress in 1984. There are moving tributes to him by US researcher Loren Graham and Toshitada Nakae, editor of Japan’s leading daily, Asahi Shimbun.

Leading scholars of Mikhail Bakhtin’s work, Nathalie Avtonomova and Vitaly Makhlin, seek to rescue this best-known of the oppositional Soviet philosophers from his followers, both in his fatherland and in the West. Makhlin goes so far as to wonder ‘whether it is worthwhile having international fame as the herald of discourse analysis or the pioneer of trans-linguistics’! Makhlin believes that Structuralist and Post-structuralist misinterpretations of Bakhtin can now give way to competent ones, given recently published archive materials.

In his fascinating chapter on human ontology, Alexander Khamidov provides deep insights into Bakhtin’s work on human essence as dialectical contradiction, ‘being in the absolute moment of becoming’, and objectification and de-objectification. Bakhtin, like Ilyenkov, drew on concepts of reification and human essence drawn from the early Marx. Khamidov outlines the complex evolution of Batishchev, who worked on the concepts of ‘objectification’ and ‘disobjectification’. Batishchev sees human beings as ‘transcending’ beings, in the sense that they create a special world – a socio-cultural reality. He emphasises that humans are the subject of culture, acquiring essentially new, previously unavailable possibilities as they create an objective world of culture. [I have paraphrased Khamidov, replacing ‘man’ with ‘human’.] ‘Man is a transcending being: the way of his being in the world is creativity’ (327) in Batishchev’s view. Replace ‘transcending’ with ‘transformation’ and we can see a connection with Ilyenkov’s work on how humans become themselves. This ‘transformational’ view of the formation of the human individual, is set out and defended in Bakhurst ‘s subtle essay, ‘Activity and the Formation of Reason’.

Some of the many outstanding figures discussed in the book include Odessa-born philosopher-psychologist Sergei Rubinshtein (1889-1960). Lektorsky explains how Rubinshtein pioneered concepts of the unity of consciousness and activity in an ‘early variant of the activity approach’. He points to Rubinshtein’s The Principle of Creative Activity, written in Odessa in 1922, but ‘forgotten’ for many years. Rubinshtein was harshly persecuted between 1947 to 1949, accused of ‘cosmopolitanism, reverence for foreign things, underestimation of the national science and culture’. His book The Philosophical Background of Psychology was actually destroyed by the bureaucracy. Rubinshtein shared Bakhtin’s idea that the emergence of the human is an act of ‘ontological significance’ [Khamidov’s emphasis]. He studied the interrelation of activity, thought, self-reflection, communication, the involvement of an individual into activity – in other words, being and consciousness.

There are other thinkers whose significance comes to light in this book. They include the Estonian Yuri Lotman (1922-1993), educationalist Georgy Shchedrovitsky (1929-1994) and Crimean-born Mikhail Lifshitz (1905-1983). Like Rubinshtein, Lotman and Lifshitz suffered discrimination as Jews in the last years of Stalin.
Shchedrovitsky was prominent in the Moscow Methodological Circle after 1954, leading the development of Lev Vygotsky’s concepts and pioneering activity theory. He was expelled from the Communist Party in 1968 for supporting journalist Alexander Ginsburg and the poet Yuri Galanskov, both of whom were sent to labour camps. Shchedrovitsky’s son Petr, who heads up today’s eponymous institute, provides an important overview of the development of activity theory since it was first developed by Vygotsky.

In a profound passage, Malakhov criticises what he terms ‘the activity-centred rubrication of existence’ – the reduction of reality around the subject to a ‘mere environment’. This supplies, he says, ‘objects’ for his or her purposeful activity…which ‘leaves no room for the Other’; an accurate and troubling description of the ontological trap of today’s hyper-commodified, alienated capitalist society, which excludes moral or indeed political choice.
This is a hugely important and significant book that provides an almost encyclopaedic but also excitingly fresh overview of a massive subject. Like heteroglossia, the Bakhtian concept of ‘polyphony’ in Dostoevsky’s novels, springs to mind: ‘The essence of polyphony is that the voices here remain independent and, as such, are combined in a unity of a higher order than homophony’.

Developing theory is itself a practical activity indispensable for taking on today’s crises. So, recovering these lost philosophers and understanding as well as critiquing their contributions, can help us grasp and find answers to the seemingly separate but dialectically unified challenges posed at this turning point in human history.

It is to be hoped that an affordable edition of this great and indispensable book becomes available soon. When this happens, some translation glitches need ironing out and the title should be modified. The philosophers in question were not only Russian but from other countries in the Soviet Union (and post Soviet Union) including Georgia, Estonia and Ukraine.

3 June 2019



  1. (Sorry, I’ve corrected typos in my previous text and ask to replace it).
    I enjoyed this review that gives due appreciation to the enormous work accomplished by Lektorsky and Bykova. Thank you, Corinna Lotz, for the most thoughtful and finely balanced approach to so many contributions, including my own.
    To those who are interested in the field of unorthodox Soviet philosophy of the 1950s–1980s, I am glad to refer you to my book coming June 2019:
    Mikhail Epstein. The Phoenix of Philosophy: Russian Thought of the Late Soviet Period (1953-1991).
    New York and London: Bloomsbury Academic, June 2019, 300 pp. ISBN: 9781501316395
    I’ll give here the contents of the first part (out of four overall) devoted to late Soviet Marxism.
    Part I. Vicissitudes of Soviet Marxism
    1. From Lenin to Stalin
    2. Stalin’s Later Thinking. From Class to Nationality
    3. The Renaissance of Early Marx. From Class to Humankind
    4. The Renewal of Dialectics. Evald Ilyenkov
    5. The Philosophy of Human Activity. Genrikh Batishchev
    6. The Renewal of Ethics. Iakov Milner-Irinin
    7. Discussions around Aesthetics. Mikhail Lifshits and Aleksandr Burov
    8. The Philosophy of Science. Technology and Nature
    9. The Marxist Critique of Bourgeois Philosophy
    10. The New Moralistic and Grassroots Turn in Marxism. Arsenii Gulyga and Iurii Davydov
    11. Revisions of Orthodox Marxism in the Era of Glasnost. S. Platonov
    12. The Self-Destruction of Soviet Marxism. Aleksandr Iakovlev
    13. Back from Science to Utopia. Mystical Neo-Communism

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