Power and Thought in the Soviet Union

By | June 8, 2021

Guest post by Mikhail Epstein

My book, The Phoenix of Philosophy, is about philosophy at one of its most dramatic historical moments, at the boundary of two epochs: the formation of the ideocratic Soviet state—and its destruction.  

​What is philosophy? There is no simple and universal definition, and many thinkers consider it impossible to formulate one. According to A. N. Whitehead, “the safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of series of footnotes to Plato.” 

​If so, Russian thought must be viewed as an important, though underestimated, part of the philosophical heritage: it provides perhaps the most elaborate set of footnotes to Plato’s most mature and comprehensive dialogues, The Republic and The Laws. Nowhere have Plato’s teachings on the relationship of ideas to the foundation of the state been incarnated so vigorously and on such a grandiose scale as in communist Russia. To philosophize reality, to transform it into a transparent kingdom of ideas, was considered the goal of history. This is why philosophy itself, in the very moment of its triumph, became a prisoner in the Crystal Palace that Soviet ideocracy erected on a Marxist foundation. In the Soviet state, more than anywhere else in history, philosophy became a supreme political and legal institution, acquiring the power of a supra-personal, universal reason. In its unrestricted dominion, it was in fact equivalent to madness, and itself ruthlessly victimized individual thinkers. In the 20th century, Russia suffered not from a lack, but from an excess of philosophy.​

Nikolai Berdiaev wrote of this paradoxical combination: Russians love to philosophize, yet the fate of the philosopher in Russia is painful and tragic. This applies even to the relatively tranquil and “vegetarian” period of Soviet history that followed Stalin’s death. Nearly all the thinkers featured in this book, including those who were relatively fortunate and managed to avoid arrest and persecution, were silenced for years or decades, or forced to chop up their thoughts to fit the procrustean bed of the state’s governing “reason.”

The relationship between power and thought in the Soviet Union is well illustrated by the fact that, of the 37 thinkers to whom this book’s respective chapters are devoted, 14 were subjected to arrest and imprisonment: Amalrik, Bakhtin, Belinkov, Brodsky, Esenin-Volpin, Golosovker, Khazanov, Konrad, Likhachev, Losev, Mikhajlov, Nalimov, Pomerants, and Sakharov. If we exclude Marxists, this represents a full half of the list of prominent thinkers covered. Nine opted or were forced to emigrate to the West.

​Russian intellectual history is a history of thought fighting desperately to escape the prison of a political system created by the strenuous and sacrificial efforts of thought itself. What makes Russian thought so remarkable is its internal tension, its struggle against itself, against its own ideational constructions and political extensions. One speculative capacity, the “intelligentsia,” opposed itself to another speculative capacity, the “ideology”—but the former also created its own versions of the latter. This self-contradictory movement of thought, shattering its own foundations, is what lends Russian philosophy its unprecedented, at times “suicidal” character.

Thus, the philosophical thought of the late Soviet period (1950s–80s) played no less a role in the collapse of the communist system than had Marxist philosophy in its formation. The Russian intellectual scene of that period is unique in world philosophy: it is a history of thought struggling desperately to escape its own self-imprisonment—the shackles of an ideological system created by the efforts of thought itself. 

Indeed, the relatively brief Soviet period of just over seventy years sums up the two millennia of Western thought that followed Plato’s quest for the world of ruling ideas. Among these footnotes to Plato, late-Soviet philosophy appears to the attentive eye as the final entry, signifying “The End.”

Mikhail Epstein is Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Cultural Theory and Russian Literature at Emory University, USA. From 2012–2015 he was Professor of Russian and Cultural Theory and Founding Director of the Centre for Humanities Innovation at Durham University, UK. His research interests include new directions in the humanities and methods of intellectual creativity, contemporary philosophy, postmodernism, Russian literature, and philosophy and religion of the 20th–21st centuries. He is the author of 39 books, including The Transformative Humanities: A Manifesto (Bloomsbury, 2012), and more than 800 articles and essays. His work has been translated into 24 languages.

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