Some Musings on Soviet Philosophy

The last few days have been one of those periods when three no. 57 buses have just gone past and you’re waiting and waiting for another one to come along – i.e. a bit of a drought in suitable blogging stories. So I thought I’d muse a little about what I’m reading, and about to read, at the moment.

As I progress in studying the subject of Russian liberalism, I have finally more or less completed my research into the Imperial period, and so have moved into the Soviet era, a time that was not at all conducive to liberal thinking. But something that one could call liberalism did appear in the USSR in the 1980s under Gorbachev. So where it did it come from? I don’t think that it makes sense to imagine that it just appeared out of nowhere fully formed some time around 1987. Clearly, some intellectual shifts had been going on for a while that then got a major boost by Gorbachev’s perestroika and glasnost. Which makes me wonder whether is something that could rightfully be called ‘Soviet liberalism’.

It’s with that in mind that I got hold of Mikhail Epstein’s recent book The Phoenix of Philosophy: Russian Thought of the Late Soviet Period, 1953-1991. I’ve got as far as reading about a guy with the name of Vladimir Lefebvre, who I’d have guessed was a Frenchman if Epstein didn’t tell me that he’s actually Russian.

Lefebvre emigrated to the USA in 1974 where he came up with a theory of two systems of ethical cognition – Western liberal, and Soviet totalitarian. Roughly speaking, I learn, Lefebvre said that Westerners and Soviets made ethical judgements differently. Westerners were process-oriented; Soviets goal-oriented. To the former the means mattered more than the ends; to the latter, the ends justified the means.

Hmm. Call me a bit of a sceptic. I’d like to see some empirical justification for this claim. It smacks a little of the old Homo Sovieticus theory to me, and suggestive that Soviet people were ethically inferior.

George Washington University professor Stuart Umpleby describes it like this: imagine two castles made out of paper, each of which is attacked by a fire-breathing dragon. Castle A sends out someone to negotiate with the dragon, only to have it breathe out fire and kill everyone. Castle B instead sends out a hero to fight it, but with the same results. If asked which castle they’d prefer to live in, says Umpleby, the closer you are to Moscow, the more people say castle B, and the closer you are to California, the more people say castle A. Umpleby says that this demonstrates the different ethical perspectives. Personally, though, I don’t see the difference – either way, you die!

Lefebvre, like the inventor of Homo Sovieticus. Alexander Zinoviev, was a member of something called the Moscow Methodological Circle, founded in 1952 by graduate students at Moscow State University. Another member of the circle was the guy in the bottom right of Epstein’s book cover above, Merab Mamardashvili. I’d never heard of him until a few months ago, when the conservative Russian website Russkaia Ideia polled readers to identify the most influential Russian philosopher and Mamardashvili topped the bill (to the consternation of some who pointed out that he was neither a conservative nor a Russian). Anyway, it seemed like a good reason to look him up, so next on my reading list is this new book of Mamardashvili’s works translated into English by Julia Sushytska and Alisa Slaughter.

Epstein says that ‘Mamardashvili’s influence cannot be overstated,’ though it seems more due to his enormously popular lectures than to anything he wrote. Epstein says also, ‘The theme of his reflection was philosophy itself, which he regarded as a moral imperative to question the identity of all values.’ If I get that right – and I’ve yet to study him – his influence was largely in terms of prompting Soviet intellectuals to question, which in the Soviet Union was a somewhat dangerous thing to do.

Beyond that, I’ve also read that he helped manifest a new openness to European ideas, having spent some time in Prague prior to the 1968 ‘Prague Spring’, working at the journal Problems of the World and Socialism. Flicking through the Mamardashvili book, I read the following from one of his later essays:

Today we talk about the need to take care of our common European house, but for this, at minimum, we first need to reinstate our membership in this house. The main task that confronts social thinking and the citizens of the Soviet Union is reunification with their homeland, and this homeland is irreversibly Russia’s European fate. … At one point this problem had already begun to be solved, but we were derailed and became feral. Now … if we want to go back to our European house and have a right to talk about it as its defenders, we ourselves have to first become civilized – more civilized or at least civilized people.

Mamardashvili wasn’t the only influential figure working at Problems of the World and Socialism. Another was Anatoly Cherniaev, who became one of Mikhail Gorbachev’s close advisors. At this point, things are beginning to come together, in the sense of philosophy and politics uniting to produce Gorbachev’s ‘new thinking’. As it turns out, Problems of the World and Socialism wasn’t the only journal, or institution, laying the ground for the future. From the mid-1950s onwards, a number of Soviet research institutes similarly acted as incubators for new ideas within the communist system.

This is the topic of the next book on my to-do list, Robert English’s Russia and the Idea of the West. ‘Ideas mattered’, says English in his introduction. Throughout the 1960s and 70s ‘a broad reformist elite’ came into being sharing a commitment to ‘the early post-Soviet era promise of liberalizing, humanizing, and opening their country to the world.’

In a 2013 article, University of Colorado professor Mark Lipovetsky argued that the main purveyors of this Soviet liberalism were what he called ITRs (inzhenerno-tekhnicheskie rabotniki – engineer/technical workers). It was thus no coincidence that so many dissidents, such as Andrei Sakharov, came from among the ITRs.

ITRs were a natural source of liberal ideas because scientific progress required some degree of free thinking. Lipovetsky argues, however, that ITRs had certain flaws – they were on the one hand believers in the power of reason and science, and on the other hand contemptuous of the ‘idiocy of the masses’ (the latter is beginning to be a bit of a theme). According to Lipovetsky, this helps explain contemporary Russian liberal culture, with its anti-democratic tendencies and its ideological certainty about the scientific correctness of Western models.

Is Lipovetsky right? To help answer that, I’ve bought yet another book – Maria Rogicheva’s The Private World of Soviet Scientists from Stalin to Gorbachev.

According to the blurb, the book ‘explains what motivated the scientific intelligentsia to participate in the late Soviet project’, by means of a study of the scientific town of Chernogolovka. Judging by the blurb, the book doesn’t seem to bear Lipovetsky out. For it says that Rogicheva ‘argues that Soviet scientists were not merely bought off by the system, but that they bought into the idealism and social optimism of the post-Stalin regime.’ It will be interesting to see what the book has to say.

Where does all this leave me? Well, certainly, it seems that the foundations of perestroika were laid long in advance, but went unnoticed by observers who were too focused on external signs of Soviet conformity. It makes one wonder what new ideas are fermenting nowadays underground not just in Russia but elsewhere. I guess that only time will tell.

15 thoughts on “Some Musings on Soviet Philosophy”

  1. > Rogicheva ‘argues that Soviet scientists were not merely bought off by the system, but that they bought into the idealism and social optimism of the post-Stalin regime.’

    This rings true. For a more intimate understanding of the hearts and minds of Soviet ITR, I highly recommend reading Strugatsky Brothers. Their Noon World books (1960’s) present perhaps the most poignant and compelling vision of “светлое будущее” – bright future – compelling even now (or perhaps especially now… ) Their characters – scientists, explorers, wanderers – emotionally complex, ambitious, altruistic, touchingly serious and boyishly naive, so contagious in their camaraderie, their unshakable belief in progress and essential goodness of humanity…
    Strugatsky’s later books become progressively darker, to the point of nightmarishly phantasmagoric, as heartbreaking in their bitter disappointment as the early ones are uplifting in their bright optimism.

    I don’t know anything about the quality of English translations, but I’m not very hopeful. Lots of idioms, wordplay, silly little poems etc… In Russian, it’s a treat, but in a bad translation, it’d be unreadable. So if at all possible, try to read the original!

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    1. Strugatsky’s works offer a unique view into the soul of the eponymous Homo Sovieticus, and I tell this without a hint of irony or hate. This human being has it’s own gods and demons equivalent, except they take forms different from those given by Christianity or other religion. The bright and distant future, a scientific enlightenment and status quo, as opposed by chaos of human soul, mythical experiences and unexplained events. Not just word-to-word bad and good things. Lots of soul-searching too, if you consider the late works and look beyond those “phantasmagoric” metaphors. They are kind of like Bulgakov’s work.

      After all, I grew out of these books as I grew out of the environment of the same intellectual heritage the same way thousands and millions of people born in USSR did.

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    2. An addendum to my comment above re. Soviet ITR and Strugatsky brothers.
      Strugatskys may have become bitter about many things, but one thing the core of Soviet ITR never gave up on was Science.

      I was educated as a lab scientist in Russia in the 90’s. The things we did to continue the work! No alcohol? No problem, buy Absolute in a kiosk at the corner& triple distill it. No ether? Buy a certain gas additive at a gas station, works same or better for a lot of things. Our teachers and professors who set up side hustles and spent all the money on lab supplies and equipment! Us students who’d miss lunch and spend the 200 roubles to pay the glassblower to fix that crucial piece of lab glass, to set up the decisive experiment tonight! The seeds painstakingly preserved over the course of that decade germinated to give us Sputnik V and Poseidons.

      If there is one group of people I’d bend my knee to, no questions asked, it’s them. And the Teachers who continued to teach in spite of not being paid for months. And the Doctors who continued to treat with their bare hands when supplies ran out. Btw, Strugatskys always capitalized Teachers and Doctors in their Noon books.

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      1. Your lab experience reminds me of the creativity of the people in GDR. Something not available, well lets create it somehow. A close second, I loved about them a lot was a special type of irreverent humor.

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  2. > It smacks a little of the old Homo Sovieticus theory to me, and suggestive that Soviet people were ethically inferior.
    Non sequitur on his side. Whether it is “ends justified the means” or otherwise, it has no impact on moral grounds since moral grounds are expected to evaluate both factors, viewed simultaneously.

    > Today we talk about the need to take care of our common European house, but for this, at minimum, we first need to reinstate our membership in this house.
    Living in the European part of Russia but not in the westernmost regions of it, I lack understanding of importance of “European house”, especially since those “European” values have little to no impact on history of this place. I see absolutely no reason to consider some people more “civilized” than others on the sole basis of living closer to the West, or having more money than I do.

    Another words, why should I (and my country) consider membership in the stale, decrepit, crumbling house of old monarchies and republics if I have a larger, fresh and unexplored areas of Eurasian continent not touched by overpopulation and petty bourgeoisie. That would only lead to pointless self-reassurance. I would rather expect the opposite.

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  3. “To the former the means mattered more than the ends…”

    That’s odd. I have the impression that liberal ethics overwhelmingly skewed towards utilitarianism. Maximizing the combined pleasure of all individuals affected and minimizing pain, rationalism. Which is an exact equivalent of colloquial “the ends justify the means”. As opposed to deontological, traditional ethics of duty, moral code, “do what you must, come what may”.

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    1. Sanctions, one of the most favourite foreign policy too of the current collective West, is the embodiment of “the end justifies the means” principle, since their *direct* effect only insreases suffering.

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      1. Sanctions, or rather a straight-forward boycott, refusing to trade with someone, I consider it acceptable. As well as banning the entry to individuals or groups. This all falls under “freedom of association”, imo.

        But what’s also quite common is instigation of violence for the sake of ‘democratization’ of foreign people. It’s a typical argument of “liberal interventionism”. I don’t see any difference here between liberal ethics and revolutionary Marxism.

        It’s interesting that some feel compelled to engage in mental gymnastics, framing war of aggression as deontological “duty to protect”.

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      2. I too have little problems with a straight-forward boycott. Western, especially American sanctions are not limited to that however. They are not restricted to the target, but also extend to everyone else who attempts to trade with the target, effectively sanctioning the entire world. You get cases such as Meng Wanzhou or Iranian tanker arrests, and this type of sanction does objective and significant harm.

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      3. I agree, international bullying qualifies as unscrupulous means. However, unlike “liberal intervention”, I don’t think they’ll admit that it’s what they do.

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  4. Hifalutin theories aside, the main problem with Gorbachov is that he transformed himself into a Dictator. Literally. A sort of low-IQ Julius Caesar. It has been documented how he basically waged one-man rule that Stalin could only dream about, crafted his own foreign policy outside of the Central Committee and even Politburo, jetted around the world meeting with world leaders and promising them things that he was not authorized to promise.

    It was in response to Gorby’s gross usurpation of power, especially in formulating foreign policy on the fly, that the Party loyalists who believed in collegiate decision-making decided to pull in this maverick, via a type of “political revolution”; which went down in history as the so-called “hard-line coup”. Sorry, that’s all I know, or care about this guy, Gorbachov. Whatever philosophy he believed in, whether Liberalism, Conservatism, or the Faerie Queen, it’s all one to me. Politics is the main thing driving ideology!

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  5. Paul, you might want to correct “Viktor’s” name

    https://tinyurl.com/Vladimir-Lefebvre

    Roughly speaking, I learn, Roughly speaking, I learn, Lefebvre said that Westerners and Soviets made ethical judgements differently. Westerners were process-oriented; Soviets goal-oriented. To the former the means mattered more than the ends; to the latter, the ends justified the means. said that Westerners and Soviets made ethical judgements differently. Westerners were process-oriented; Soviets goal-oriented. To the former the means mattered more than the ends; to the latter, the ends justified the means.

    Sounds odd, I agree.
    Two things come to mind, a) the idea that ends justified means triggers Machiavelli, who wasn’t exactly a Russian. b) something I miss knowledge about Pragmatism and Pragmaticism.(Peirce).

    Did the American pragmatic tradition have an influence on Lefebvre?

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