Preface to Yakhot’s history of early Soviet philosophy

By Frederick Choate
25 June 2012

Yehoshua Yakhot’s The Suppression of Philosophy in the USSR (The 1920s & 1930s) is essential reading for an understanding of the devastating impact of Stalinism on philosophy in the Soviet Union. The translator’s preface published today provides an introduction to this new English translation. To order your advance copy, click here.

bookAlthough twenty years have passed since the collapse of the Soviet Union, hardly any aspect of the society that arose after the socialist revolution of October 1917 has been exhausted by historians. To be sure, there was a flood of historical material in the half decade of perestroika before the Soviet Union was dissolved in December 1991. And, although many archival sources have become available since the early 1990s, little consensus has been reached regarding the overarching question: Was there an alternative to Stalinism?

In order to begin to answer this question, it has first been necessary to conduct extensive and painstaking work to restore the names erased from Soviet history in virtually every area: politics, literature, science, economics, and lastly, the subject of this book, philosophy. In each of these realms, the results have been uneven and incomplete, yet significant gains have been made by many researchers from the former Soviet Union, including writers such as Yehoshua Yakhot.

YakhotYehoshua Yakhot

Although Yakhot’s book was serially published in the fall of 1991 in a major Soviet journal, Voprosy filosofii [Problems of Philosophy], it had appeared ten years earlier in an edition printed by Chalidze Publications in New York. Yakhot had been forced to emigrate from the Soviet Union just a few years before, in 1975. Prior to that time, he had been a respected professor of philosophy at the Moscow Finance Institute. With remarkable courage, Yakhot began writing a history that directly challenged the official narrative dominating Soviet histories of philosophy, and he did so before leaving Moscow to spend the last years of his life in Israel.

There is a slight danger that the title of Yakhot’s book might be misconstrued: for before philosophy was suppressed in the late 1920s and 1930s, it had arisen under difficult conditions in a few short years after the end of the Civil War in Russia. It is this early period of Soviet philosophy that Yakhot presents for the first time in greater detail than any other Soviet historian of philosophy had ever done. He names the founders of Soviet philosophy even though many of them had long since been condemned by Stalin as “enemies of the people” and executed during the Great Terror of 1936–1938. He denounces the Stalinist “leaders in philosophy” who occupied major positions in the academies, institutes, and publishing houses for decades. Many of them rose to power by vilifying their mentors and deliberately making false accusations that led to dismissal, imprisonment, or death.

Some of this history has been addressed in Western accounts over the years. But few authors have been as familiar with the Soviet sources as Yakhot, and even fewer have written from a Marxist perspective. This latter point is a crucial and complex issue.

Brief Historical Background

Since Marxism arose with the early works of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in the 1840s, its history now embraces almost 170 years. Neither of its founding fathers lived to see the first socialist revolution, although they laid many of the theoretical foundations that led to its triumph in Russia. The main theoreticians of the Second International, Georgy Plekhanov and Karl Kautsky, were both alive in 1917, although they denounced the Bolshevik-led regime that established the first workers’ state in world history. The two most prominent leaders of the Bolshevik Party were Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky, who not only led the October Revolution, but had vigorously defended the theoretical heritage of Marxism against the renegacy of Plekhanov and Kautsky during World War I, when the latter rejected proletarian internationalism and adopted chauvinist or defensist positions.

Both Lenin and Trotsky were unsparing in their criticism of Plekhanov and Kautsky when their former teachers abandoned theoretical positions they had defended for years. But they also acknowledged the enormous role each had played in battling the philosophical revisionism of Bernstein and others within the Second International at the end of the 1890s and in the first decade of the twentieth century. During this period, in 1909, Lenin wrote a major work devoted to philosophical questions: Materialism and Empirio-Criticism. Although usually derided by Western academics for its polemical tone, Lenin’s work is a comprehensive exposition of the materialist foundations of Marxism. In the early years of World War I, Lenin also returned to a thorough study of Hegel’s Science of Logic and other works. The notes Lenin made while reading the great German philosopher were published in English translation in 1962.

Unfortunately for the fledgling Third International, founded in 1919, Lenin’s theoretical contributions came to an end not long after he suffered his first strokes, in May and December 1922. He died on 21 January 1924, a few months short of his 54th birthday.

Lenin and Trotsky first met in 1902 in London. At times during their relationship, and especially prior to 1917, they differed sharply on the complex political questions of building the Social Democratic movement in Russia and abroad. They had differing perspectives in their assessment of the Revolution of 1905, in which Trotsky first developed his views on permanent revolution in contrast to Lenin’s slogan of a “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry.” From the moment of Trotsky’s return to Russia in May 1917, however, their political collaboration was extremely close, despite later assiduous efforts by many Stalinist historians and others to argue otherwise. Most importantly, Lenin’s April Theses of 1917, which called for preparing socialist revolution rather than participating in the bourgeois provisional government, vindicated Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution and paved the way for Trotsky’s entry into the leadership of the Bolshevik Party. Most of the “Mezhraiontsy” (four thousand socialists including Trotsky, Joffe, and Uritsky) entered the party in August 1917 and played key roles in the October Revolution, especially in Petrograd, “the cradle of the revolution.”

During the Civil War from 1918 to 1920, when Trotsky led the Red Army, he and Lenin shared nearly identical perspectives on both domestic and foreign policy. They wrote most of the founding documents and collaborated closely in the first four congresses of the Third (Communist) International. After a brief clash during the Trade Union Debate of 1920, they worked hand in hand to introduce the New Economic Policy. In the last months of Lenin’s life, they agreed on the nationality question, defense of the monopoly of foreign trade, and the need to rein in the growing bureaucratism of the party. Most essential of all, they shared a consistent internationalism that linked the survival of the Soviet regime to the extension of the socialist revolution into the advanced capitalist countries of Europe. In sharp opposition to their views, Stalin’s nationalist theory of building socialism in one country would only be articulated in the fall of 1924, after Lenin’s death.

From the fall of 1923, Trotsky led the Left Opposition within the Communist Party. His supporters opposed the growing privileges of the bureaucracy within Soviet society and violations of democratic procedures within the party. In his assessment of the defeat of the German Revolution in 1923, and of the bureaucracy’s increasing attacks on the theory of permanent revolution, Trotsky entered into a fateful struggle against the Stalin-Kamenev-Zinoviev faction of the party. Some of the strongest support for the Opposition lay in the Red Army, in the major industrial centers (Moscow, Leningrad) and among students, including significant numbers at the Communist Academy, Institute of Red Professors, and the Philosophy Institute described in this book. As a historian of these institutions writes:

“On 16 December 1923 the triumvir Kamenev and the oppositionist Radek faced off at the institute [IKP], and in a highly charged meeting that lasted until 6 a.m. the next day, the students voted for the opposition’s resolution 83-47. … A separate resolution specifically condemning Stalin for his articles in Pravda was passed 90 to 40.” [1]

Stalin used all the levers of power in the Orgburo, Central Control Commission, and Politburo to conduct a purge of the students who supported the Opposition. Expulsions from the IKP and other institutes were carried out from March into the fall of 1924. Workers in the factories were purged just as ruthlessly if they expressed support for the Left Opposition. As grim as the impact of these reprisals against students and workers was, matters would get worse in the next years.

The defeats of the British General Strike in 1926 and the Chinese Revolution in 1925–1927—caused in large part by Stalin’s subordination of the British CP to the TUC [Trades Union Congress], and the Chinese CP to the bourgeois-nationalist Kuomintang —severely demoralized sections of the party in the Soviet Union. The Stalinist bureaucracy fed on these moods and moved to politically isolate the proletarian internationalists in the Left Opposition, and eventually to drive them out of the party in December 1927.

From May to December 1927, over 3,000 people signed the Platform of the Joint Opposition. Meanwhile, in Moscow and Leningrad, significant numbers of IKP students or graduates participated with Oppositional slogans and placards in parades celebrating the tenth anniversary of the October Revolution. Reprisals were swift. Then, in the wake of mass expulsions of Oppositionists from the party after the Fifteenth Party Congress in December, some people capitulated and tried to reach a modus vivendi with the Stalin majority in the party. Those who did not were imprisoned, sent into exile in remote areas of the Soviet Union, and harassed in countless other ways. As difficult as the early 1930s were for these victims, by 1936–1938, membership at any time in the Left Opposition became a virtual death sentence. In Vorkuta, a remote prison camp near the Arctic Circle, several hundred genuine supporters of the Left Opposition were shot in the space of a few weeks in March 1938 by Stalinist executioners. Olga Tankhilevich, a former student at the Institute of Red Professors, was spared execution because she was pregnant; many of her classmates and comrades at the Institute were shot.

The Philosophical Debates

Yakhot vividly describes the early efforts to gather instructors for philosophy courses in the fledgling Soviet regime. Two major figures stand out: Liubov Isaakovna Akselrod and Abram Moiseevich Deborin, both disciples of Plekhanov and graduates of the philosophy program at Bern University, in Switzerland. Perhaps surprisingly, they became leaders of two opposed factions, the “mechanists” and “dialecticians” (or Deborinists), who fought over what Marxist philosophy actually is and what its tasks should be. The apparent defeat of the mechanists coincided chronologically with the struggle against the Right Opposition (or “deviation”) in the party, led by Bukharin, Rykov, and Tomsky. During this inner-party struggle, some attempt was made by Stalin’s supporters to associate the Bukharin opposition with the mechanists in philosophy, although that was not the main course of attack. More immediate questions of complete collectivization in agriculture and rapid industrialization were central. By the end of 1930, however, Stalin turned his attention to philosophy, where he suddenly encouraged criticism of both the already disgraced mechanists and the seemingly secure Deborinists. The ensuing “offensive on two fronts” in philosophy echoed the earlier attacks against the Left and Right Oppositions in the party. During this campaign, Deborin and his supporters were charged with “Menshevizing idealism”; ostensibly they had “Hegelianized Marxism,” separated theory from practice, and failed to “expose the philosophical foundations of Trotskyism.” The relatively young philosophical cadres brought in to replace both the mechanists and the Deborinists zealously implemented Stalinist policies that did untold theoretical damage to Marxist philosophy over the next several decades. Most of their opponents on the philosophical front did not survive the Great Terror of 1936–1938.

Yakhot’s Contribution to Restoring Historical Truth

One of the many tragedies of the Great Terror is that, after people were executed, they were virtually erased from history. Their books were removed from libraries, their names disappeared from any account of the activities in which they had been central participants, and a taboo was placed upon mentioning them in any positive light.

In this book, however, Yakhot breaks through the taboo and presents the true historical role of many of Stalin’s victims. The starkest example is Trotsky himself. Any student of Soviet philosophy is familiar with Lenin’s letter of 1922, “On the Significance of Militant Materialism” [See Appendix 2]. To the discomfort of later falsifiers, his letter opens with the words: “Comrade Trotsky has already said everything necessary, and said it very well, about the general purposes of Under the Banner of Marxism in issue № 1-2 of that journal” [see page 233]. Lenin clearly endorses Trotsky’s call for the new generation of working class youth in the Soviet Union to be trained in the materialist world outlook. He then elaborates in more detail the need to study the Hegelian dialectic, despite the difficulty of the task, from a materialist standpoint. Yakhot correctly notes that the two letters taken together constitute the program of the newly launched philosophical journal. In addition, Yakhot characterizes Trotsky’s “Passing Thoughts on Plekhanov” as “not only an ‘analysis,’ it is a brilliant philosophical portrait, drawn by a master” [see page 11].

It is hard to overstate how unusual such a statement was from someone born and raised as a Soviet citizen. From the mid-1920s until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, no man on the planet was more vilified by official Soviet authorities than Leon Trotsky. Literally thousands of books and articles published in countless editions were devoted to falsifying the life and heritage of this outstanding figure, who was one of the two main leaders of the October Revolution. Everyone connected to him, however tangentially, was likewise condemned. Yet Yakhot brushes aside these mountains of falsification and calmly establishes the historical record—well populated with people erased by Stalinism.

After 1991 in Russia, most of the former official historians and ideological spokesmen of the Soviet regime completely renounced any connection to Marxism. For the Volkogonovs, Tsypkos, Afanasievs, Yakovlevs, and legions of lesser figures, Stalinism emerges ineluctably from the October Revolution itself. For them, Lenin and Trotsky are no less to blame than Stalin for the Great Terror and the gulag. Indeed, why stop there? Marx himself, if not most of the great thinkers since the time of the Enlightenment, should be condemned for trying to create an egalitarian society based on human solidarity and a scientific understanding of social development.

Yakhot demonstrates that, far from being a continuation of Marxism, Stalinism is a violent reaction against it. It is clear from the material Yakhot presents that the countless Marxists whom Stalin sent to their graves deserve to be honored; their stories must be told and their good names restored. To the greatest extent possible, the theoretical issues with which they grappled should be re-engaged. Yakhot’s book is one of the first works from the former Soviet Union to begin this process.

Interestingly enough, and unbeknownst to Yakhot himself, his book already played a role in a conflict that arose over political and theoretical problems within the International Committee of the Fourth International [ICFI] from 1982 to 1986. [2] Under dispute in the ICFI were the influence of Hegel on the development of Marxist philosophy; the relationship between dialectical materialism and the materialist approach to history (historical materialism); the nature of the Soviet Union and, from 1985 on, whether perestroika would lead to a rebirth of socialism or a restoration of capitalism. In addition, the way that several Soviet philosophers, including Ilyenkov, Oizerman, and Omelyanovsky, presented the materialist foundations of Marxism was an area of sharp debate.

The investigation of these complex issues led, among other things, to a close reading of the early works by Marx and Engels (e.g., The Holy Family, The German Ideology, The Poverty of Philosophy), which illustrate their transition from the radical wing of the Young Hegelians to what would become known as Marxism. It also involved a study of the above-mentioned Soviet philosophers, requiring at times the translation of their works. In 1982, Yakhot’s chapters on Hegel and Marx, as well as earlier chapters on the conflict between the mechanists and dialecticians, showed that the philosophical problems being discussed in the ICFI had been widely debated in the early Soviet state. Yakhot’s book cast new light on this crucial history.

The conflicts over philosophy reflected profound shifts taking place within Soviet society. Their full implications emerged clearly with the dissolution of the USSR in 1991. Those within the ICFI who were presenting a distorted neo-Hegelianism as Marxism eventually ended up embracing Gorbachev as the ostensible leader of a political revolution that would repudiate Stalinism and return the Soviet Union to its revolutionary roots of 1917. Those who rejected the uncritical Hegelianizing of Marxism (i.e., the idealist distortion of materialist dialectics) correctly warned that Gorbachev, Yeltsin, and other proponents of perestroika represented reactionary layers in the Soviet bureaucracy who were bent on capitalist restoration. The collapse of the Soviet Union suggests that the complex interaction between epistemological and political issues is one that deserves the most serious and careful attention.

As the political crisis in the Soviet Union approached its denouement in December 1991, Yakhot’s book, to his surprise, was published serially in the September, October, and November issues of the journal Voprosy filosofii [Problems of Philosophy]. Was the editorial board trying to gain some credibility by publishing this unprecedented work? Was its publication intended to show that the advocates of glasnost [openness] were indeed trying to clean the Augean stables of Stalinism?

While the motivation of the journal’s editors is still shrouded in mystery, it is noteworthy that since 1991, considerable archival material has emerged that completely confirms Yakhot’s narrative of events on the philosophical front. A selection of brief biographies at the end of this book is based on the painstaking research by such historians of philosophy as Sergei Korsakov [3] and Aleksandr Ogurtsov [4]. Without their work, and without memoirs by such people as the philosopher Avner Zis [5], we would not be able to encapsulate even briefly the biographies of many of the figures in this book. It is certainly no accident that Korsakov cites Yakhot’s book several times in his own writings; he clearly respects the ground-breaking work that Yakhot accomplished.

The only comparable work of history to emerge from the former Soviet Union is Vadim Rogovin’s seven volumes, which deal in much greater detail with the question at the beginning of this preface: Was there an alternative to Stalinism? His works provide an irreplaceable historical framework for the events described in Yakhot’s book. While their lives overlap to a considerable extent, Rogovin’s life [6] spanned the years 1937–1998. He was born at the height of the Great Terror, was an adolescent when Stalin died in 1953, experienced the hopes of his generation during the Khrushchev “thaw,” and lived to witness and fight against the wave of Marxist renunciation that occurred in Russia after 1991.

Yakhot, by contrast, was born in 1919. He would have been a young adult during the Great Terror and undoubtedly knew some of its victims. He was a veteran of the Second World War, in which the Soviet Union lost over 27 million people in annihilating Hitler’s fascist regime. Yakhot was finishing his graduate work in philosophy in the 1940s when Stalin launched the blatantly anti-Semitic “anti-cosmopolitan” campaign. He then witnessed a new round of persecution in connection with the so-called “Doctors’ Plot.” He was in his mid-thirties when Nikita Khrushchev began the process of partial de-Stalinization at the Twentieth Congress of the CPSU in February 1956. He lived through the further attempts at limited de-Stalinization at the Twenty-Second Congress, followed by Khrushchev’s dismissal in 1964, and the onset of the “time of stagnation” under Leonid Brezhnev. When he was forced to emigrate to Israel in 1975, he could have attacked Stalinism from the right, i.e., renounced Marxism by identifying it with Stalinism. Instead, Yakhot chose to explore the degeneration of the regime that took place in the Soviet Union under Stalin’s rule; his focus was on philosophy, but it encompasses other fields as well (as can be seen in his brief description of the suppression of genetics).

Yakhot shows how Stalinism was a peculiar ideology in the true Marxist sense, i.e., a series of views that inverted material reality and obscured social relations no less violently than religious views have done in other historical epochs. In demonstrating that the ideology fostered by Stalin did not disappear with his death, Yakhot predicts the theoretical collapse in the Soviet Union that indeed did accompany the collapse of the entire political and social regime only ten years later.

It is significant that Yakhot never renounced Marxism to the end of his life. As he neared his own death, he worked as long as he could on a study of the great Enlightenment philosopher Spinoza. Deborin had viewed Spinoza as the father of modern materialism and even endorsed Plekhanov’s position that Marxism is a form of Spinozism. Akselrod, however, saw significant vestiges of religious views in his world outlook and cautioned against placing Spinoza too close to Marxism. Without studying the manuscript of Yakhot’s research on Spinoza, we may never discover his own assessment of the seventeenth-century thinker. It is highly likely, however, that Yakhot remained convinced that, in times of great social turmoil, the fundamental philosophical questions explored by Spinoza, Marx, and their followers in the fledgling Soviet state would re-emerge, and that today’s reader should study this history once again. His book is not the final word, but it points the way to further debate and investigation that are crucial to today’s social struggles.

Frederick Choate

April 2012




[1] Michael David-Fox, Revolution of the Mind. Higher Learning Among the Bolsheviks, 1918–1929, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997, p. 152.

[2] See “The Idealist Distortion of Dialectical Materialism,” Fourth International, Volume 13, № 1, Summer 1986, pp. 73-76; David North, “A Contribution to a Critique of G. Healy’s Studies in Dialectical Materialism,” Fourth International, Volume 13, № 2, Autumn 1986, pp. 13-25.

[3] See S. N. Korsakov, “Stanovlenie Instituta filosofii i sud’by filosofov pri stalinskom rezhime [Founding of the Institute of Philosophy and the Fate of Philosophers under the Stalinist Regime],” in: Nash filosofskii dom [Our House of Philosophy], Moscow: Progress-Traditsiia, 2009, pp. 95-195; also: Ibid., “Repressirovannye sotrudniki Instituta filosofii [Victims from the Institute of Philosophy],” pp. 508-522.

[4] See Aleksandr Ogurtsov, “Podavlenie filosofii [The Suppression of Philosophy],” in: Surovaia drama naroda [Severe Drama of the People], M.: Politizdat, 1989, pp. 353-374. See also A. P. Ogurtsov, “The Suppression of Philosophy,” Russian Studies in Philosophy, October 2000, Volume 39, Issue 2, pp. 6-34.

[5] Avner Yakovlevich Zis, “Chemu svidetelem byl [What I Witnessed],” in Filosofiia ne konchaetsia... [Philosophy Does Not End...], Book 1, M.: ROSSPEN, 1999, pp. 153-170.

[6] See David North, A Tribute to Vadim Z. Rogovin, 1937–1998, Oak Park, Mich.: Mehring Books, 1999.