[Marxism-Thaxis] Mechanists versus Dialecticians in early Soviet philosophy

Jim Farmelant farmelantj at juno.com
Mon Sep 23 04:21:52 MDT 2002


Probably the most important debate that drew the attention of
Soviet philosophers during the early years of the USSR was
the debate between the "mechanists" and the "dialecticians"
or Deborinists.  This debate at first began as a discussion
within the philosophy of science but over time came to
encompass most aspects of philosophy.  Furthermore,
despite the fact it was formally settled in 1929, the issues
underlying the debate never went away, and recurred in
different forms over time.  Indeed, since the issues at
hand were among the most important ones concerning
Marxist philosophy, they in fact have never really went
away.

By the early 1920s Soviet philosophers were debating
what conception of materialism provided the best
philosophical basis for Marxism.  One school held
that a mechanistic conception of materialism was
acceptable.  Most of the advocates of this view either came
straight out of the natural sciences, or they were philosophers
who had been closely associated with natural science
in some way.  Among the leading advocates of this
school were A.K. Timartizev, Timianski, Axelrod, and Stepanov.

These people were staunch empiricists.  They did not
deny the validity of dialectics but maintained that dialectics
must limit itself to what was observable and verifiable
by the methods of natural science.  Dialectics must
follow science, and not pretend to be able to lead it.
Materialism for these people meat a strict and thorough
reliance upon the methods and findings of the natural
sciences.  These philosophers embraced the
label of "mechanists" as a designation for their
school of thought, and they insisted that a mechanistic
outlook was valid not only for the natural sciences
but also for the philosophy of history and of society
as well.  For these people, a Marxist philosophy
therefore had to root itself in the natural sciences
and to follow the findings of natural science.  In
their view, it was illegitimate to posit a Marxist
philosophy that would attempt to dictate to the
sciences.

Closely allied to the mechanists, though not
entirely agreeing with them was the prominent
Bolshevik, N.I. Bukharin.  Thus Bukharin in
his *Historical Materialism* embraced a
positivist interpretation of Marx's materialist
conception of history, emphasizing that
the goal was to develop causal explanations
of history, which would take the place of
teleological explanations.  Furthermore,
Bukharin argued that "It is quite possible
to transcribe the 'mystical' (as Marx put it)
language of Hegelian dialectics into the
language of modern mechanics."  Bukharin
thus maintained that Marx's materialist 
conception of history should over time
lead to the development of a positive
science of society that would be mechanistic
in character and in which the concept of
equilibrium would play a central role.

The mechanists maintained that the dialectical
conception of nature, properly understood,
was the mechanist conception.  Indeed,
Stepanov once wrote an article bearing
the title "The Dialectical Understanding of
Nature is the Mechanistic Understanding"
in case anyone should be confused about
his position.  

As the mechanists saw it, Soviet philosophy
was torn by a debate between those
who maintained that dialectical method was
one to be used insomuch as it was fruitful
for revealing new facts about nature and
society, versus those who looked to the
dialectical philosophy of Hegel to provide
themselves with ready-made solutions to
problems.  The mechanists charged their
opponents (i.e. the dialecticians) with offering
a priori solutions to problems in the philosophy
of nature and the philosophy of history.

Opposing the mechanists were the so-called
dialecticians or Deborinists.  These people
had a much higher regard for Hegel than
did the mechanists.  Furthermore, they 
maintained that the mechanists misunderstood
how Marx & Engels had reconstructed Hegelian
dialectics on a materialist basis.  Th dialecticians
were vigorous defenders of what Marxists call
the "dialectics of nature."  They maintain that
the laws of dialectics as described by Engels
in such works as *Anti-Duhring* and "The 
Dialectics of Nature* are actually found in
nature.  Dialectics reflects the natural world.
The dialecticians argued that the mechanists
were positing a narrow, rigid, and lifeless
conception of nature.  Whereas, the mechanists
tended to be either natural scientists or philosophers
close to the natural sciences, the dialecticians
tended to be professional philosophers with
a strong background in Hegelian philosophy.
The leading dialectician was the philosopher
Deborin, who had been a protoge of Plekhanov
(the "father of Russian Marxism").  Like, his
mentor, Deborin had been prior to the October
Revolution a Menshevik.  

Deborin and his followers hit hard against
the mechanists, arguing that their conception
of science could not adequately make sense
out of the new developments in physics like
relativity and quantum mechanics, nor was
mechanism, in their opinion adequate for
making sense out of the then latest developments
in biology.  The dialecticians attacked the
positivism of the mechanist school which
they saw as naive and mistaken.  They as I
already pointed out venerated Hegel, in contrast
to the disdain that most of the mechanists
had for him.  They held that Marxism could
not be adequately understood except in
reference to Hegel and Hegelianism.
While the mechanists on the other hand
held that Marx had superseded Hegel and
Hegelianism.  For them the Deborinists
constituted a regression back to an
idealist metaphysics that Marx had 
transcended.  

Besides disagreeing about Hegel,
the two schools had quite different
opinions concerning the meaning and
importance of Spinoza's philosophy.
The mechanists tended to dismiss
Spinoza as an idealist metaphysician.
While Deborin followed his mentor
Plekhanov in holding Spinoza to have
been a materialist and a dialectician.
For Deborin as for Plekhanov, dialectical
materialism is a kind of Spinozism.

The debate between the mechanists and
the dialecticians heated up in the late
1920s, finally coming to a head in 1929
at a meeting of the Second All-Union
Conference of Marxist-Leninist Scientific
Institutions where all the leading figures
from both sides of the debate appeared.
Deborin gave the leading report, and a
resolution was passed which condemned
mechanism.  The mechanists were
condemned as underming dialectical
materialism, and charged with trying to
substitute a vulgar evolutionism for 
materialist dialectics, and positivism for
materialism.

However, the victory of the Deborinists
was short-lived, since the following year
controversy broke out over the issue of
"idealism" and of "menshevising idealism."
Essentially what happened was that Stalin
had concluded that while the Deborinists
had made valid criticisms of mechanism,
they had gone too far in pushing the stick
towards a Hegelian idealism.  The application
of the term "menshevizing idealism" was
a reference to Deborin's past support for
the Mensheviks over the Bolsheviks.  Thus,
he was being accused of not just being an
idealist but of being a "menshevizing idealist"
which was presumably a lot worse.  
Stalin moved to settle the debate between
the mechanists and the Dialecticians
by fiat.  The critique of Deborin was pressed
forward by two young philosophers, Mitin
and Yudin who linked the alleged failings
of Deborin to those of his mentor Plekhanov.
Deborin was accused of divorcing theory
from practice.  His philosophy was said
to be of little use for advancing forward
Stalin's Five Year Plan with its break
with NEP.  Mitin in particular argued
that both the Deborinists and the
mechanists had failed to grasp
the dialectics underlying the transition
from NEP to socialism.  Thus both
schools were charged with promoting
a divorce between theory and practice.
The new view promoted by Mitin (with Stalin's
backing) attempted to split the difference
between the two schools.  Dialectical materialism
affirmed an ontological materialism as advocated
by the mechanists.  But the validity of the dialectics
of nature (which the Deborinists had placed great
emphasis on) was also affirmed as well.
At a Party conference this critique of
the two schools was officially adopted
and Deborin made a show of support
for Mitin.

Deborin and just a handful of other Soviet
philosophers had the fortune of surviving
the great purges of the 1930s. Axelrod of
the mechanist school also survived while
numerous other people from the two schools
disappeared into the gulags and were never
heard from again.

This new view provided the basis for Stalin's
codification of dialectical materialism as 
presented in his *History of the CPSU (Bolsheviks): 
Short Course* which became official dogma
for all Communists.

It is also interest that the issues underlying
the debate between the mechanists and the
Dialecticians appeared in other disciplines
as well such as in Soviet psychology.  The
reflexology of Ivan Pavlov can be seen as
representing a mechanist approach to
psychology in which behavior was broken
down into reflexes - both unconditioned and
conditioned.  In contrast the Soviet psychologist
Lev Vygotsky attempted to construct a psychology
directly from the premisses of dialectical materialism.
He developed Genetic approach to the development of 
concepts in early childhood and youth, tracing the transition 
through a series of stages of human development, based 
on the development of the child's social practice.  His work
eventually impacted Western psychology especially
through his influence on the thought of Jean Piaget.
However, under Stalin Vygotsky's work was considered
to be heretical while Pavlov's work became the basis
for official Soviet psychology.  Indeed, in the later years
of Stalin's regime, it was made the official Soviet
psychology and most other schools were
suppressed.  Thus, while mechanism was
rejected as a general philosophical outlook,
it was embraced in psychology.


Soviet philosophy thus became frozen for the
next couple of decades, until the death of
Stalin.  Upon the ascension of Khruschev 
there was a "thaw" in Soviet intellectual and
cultural life, and during the "thaw" a revival
of Marxist philosophy broke out.  And some
old issues got revisted, with new ground being
broken.

Thus, the Soviet philosopher E. V. Ilyenkov, 
developed Marx's method and his idea of social phenomena 
as 'objectified' activity. Ilyenkov, treated our forms of thought as
being objectified in our mode of interaction with nature and in 
the form our activity lends the world. Children acquire consciousness 
through the internalization of this externalized 'spiritual culture'. 
In this analysis, Lyenkov drew upon Vygotsky's research
on cognitive development in children. 

Like Deborin in the early Stalin era, Ilyenkov pushed
an interpretation of Marxism that emphasized its
Hegelian roots.  And in that sense he can be viewed
as attempting to bring Soviet Marxism more into
line with the Western Marxism of such people
as Georg Lukacs (*History and Class Consciousness*),
Herbert Marcuse (*Reason and Revolution*), Karl
Korsch, or even Sidney Hook (*From Hegel to Marx*).
Ilyenkov was a stauch foe of positivism and scientism
in Soviet philosophy and Soviet intellectual life
generally.  He was a passionate critic  of reductionism 
and naturalism in the philosophy of mind.  And
in the end he eventually ran into resistance from
the Soviet establishment which grew more
conservative after the ouster of Khruschev.
He is probably best known for such works
as *Dialectics of the Abstract & Concrete*( 1960),
*Dialectical Logic* (1974), and
*Concept of the Ideal* (1979).

In another work, *Leninist Dialectics & Metaphysics 
of Positivism* (1979), he revisists the
controversy that broke out in the Bolshevik
faction between Lenin and Alexander Bogdanov
over the empirio-criticism of Ernst Mach
and Richard Avenarius.  As a true-blue Soviet
philosopher Ilyenkov opts for Lenin over
Bogdanov, and comes down hard on Bogdanov's
attempt at reinterpreting Marxism in terms of
Machist positivism.  However, underlying 
Ilyenkov's book is the not so subtle implication,
that a positivism, not unlike the kind that
Lenin had codemned had taken charge in
Soviet intellectual and cultural life.  Ilyenkov
dissects Bogdanov's science fiction novel
*Red Star* and pokes fun at Bogdanov's
attempt at depicting a future communist society,
and he knocks Bogdanov's scientism and
technocratism, while implying in not
so many words, that the very sort of scientism
and technocratism which was attributed
to Bogdanov, was in fact rife in the Soviet
society of Ilyenkov's time.  Thus, Ilyenkov
pushed what in Stalin's time would have
been condemned as a "Menshevizing idealism"
into a general critique of not just Soviet
intellectual and cultural life, but also
implicitly of Soviet society itself.  Not too
surprisingly, Ilyenkov found himself
in increasing hot water, and in 1979
he took his own life.

During the same period other Soviet
thinkers were advancing views that
were more than a little reminscient
of the 1920s mechanists.  Many Soviet
scientists were more or less positivistic
in their philosophical outlooks.  During
the 1960s and 1970s Western philosophies
including analytical philosophy and
logical empiricism began to make
a mark in Soviet thought.  Very often
these philosophies were presented
using the language of dialectical materialism,
but the underlying substance might bear
more than a passing ressemblence to
the ideas of a Rudolf Carnap or a 
Bertrand Russell.

 
Jim F.


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