On Materialist Understanding of History

Screen Shot 2013-10-09 at 11.19.07 AMI was reading a very odd small book from 1931 this morning – Toward the Struggle for the Materialist Dialectics in Mathematics – one of those volumes from early Stalinist period that called on science to get with the socialist construction program. It was the sign of times to make sure that all the scientists were doing their science from “Marxist-Leninist” (and later “Stalinist”) point of view. This one is odd because it is about mathematics, one objective science that, one would think, be impossible to bend into any philosophical direction.

The interesting part is the preface where the Marxist understanding of the relationship between society and science is stated and then almost immediately forgotten (by interpreting it away). The issue was that from Marxist point of view the development of science is determined by the development of forces and relations of production. The collection states that and then immediately moves to say that we, proletarian scientists, must change the science in order to make sure it conforms with the tasks of the socialist construction.

So which one is it then? Do the changes in the economic “base” bring about changes in science (and philosophy) or do the changes in science (and philosophy) simply reflect the changes that already took place? This is one challenge of Soviet understanding of the way history works “materialistically-dialectically” – most of the time the confusion is obvious because there is a sense of passivity when it comes to overall changes in forces and relations of production then influencing “superstructure” of science, but the active tasks of molding the new country into something different would not really allow for such (Marxist) passivity.

The second issue is the role of individuals and ideas – Soviet philosophy was of course notorious for taking Marx-Lenin-Stalin as revolutionary heroes who could potentially be wrong but who were sort of super-thinkers and their ideas molded reality around them. Take your usual discussion of Lenin: without his correction understanding of Marxism (and his constant fights against deviations) there would not have been a coherent theory of socialist revolution and therefore there would not have been a revolution. It’s as simple as that – ideas determine reality. Of course, Soviet writers were able to say things like “but Lenin’s theory came as a result of the experience of the masses and the correct perception of the changes in material reality” but still the issue remained. Great men and their ideas determined history, not, as Marx seemed to have suggested, changes in material conditions determined ideas…


Revolutions and Resurrections: A Workshop on Russian and Soviet Culture (The New School, November 9th)

Revolutions and Resurrections: A Workshop on Russian and Soviet Culture

 The New School for Social Research,
80 5th avenue Room G529
November 9th, 2012

With the cold war over, and the archives fitfully opening, the extraordinary richness of Soviet era philosophy and culture is slowly coming to light. In this workshop, we focus on ‘Lenin’ rival’, Alexander Bogdanov, a founding figure in Soviet science fiction and a highly original Marxist thinker. Boddanov had a select but faithful following after 1917 in Soviet culture. His influence was erased in the Stalin era. Surprisingly, he was not rehabilitated by the new left in the west.

Our workshop will examine what the archive can tell us about the context of his work in the 1920s, the evolution of his philosophical framework before and after 1917, and the relevance today of his systems theory approach to both the natural sciences, social sciences and culture. This workshop is the first of what we hope will be an ongoing dialogue on Russian and Soviet philosophy culture and its western analogues at the New School.

Inessa Medzhibovskaya (The New School for Social Research)
Concepts and Theories of Resurrection in the Bolshevik-Marxist Aesthetics.
This presentation will address key elements of Bogdanov’s thought considered in direct exchanges and in imagined dialogues with Russian religious and Marxist philosophers, critics and ideologues of his era.
Evgeni V. Pavlov (Metropolitan State University of Denver)
Toward Cultural Liberation of Humanity:
Alexander Bogdanov’s Vision of the Future Proletarian Revolution.
Alexander Bogdanov’s influence in the matters surrounding the notions of “proletarian culture” and “cultural revolution” is indubitable. However, the specifics of his proposals, both in his early pre-1917 political activity and his later post-1917 cultural and scientific work, are still not fully explained and made available to the English-speaking educated public. The talk will trace the evolution of Bogdanov’s earlier views on the matter of political, economic and cultural revolution to the later reformulations of the various aspect of the future proletarian revolution in terms of universal organizational science.
McKenzie Wark (The New School for Social Research)
“And worsened the climate for decades.” Bogdanov, systems theory,
critical theory and climate change.
What strikes the contemporary (nonspecialist) reader of Alexander Bogdanov’s Red Star and Essays in Tektology is that in both these texts that wayward Marxist writes about climate change, and gets the scientific principles more or less right. This rather strange surface feature of his writings led me to wonder whether it might be possible to revive a road not taken in 20th century critical theory one that passes through Bogdanov’s Empiriomonism and Tektology, to addressing this most pressing issue of our time. Bogdanov’s work is of considerable interest in reconstructing the intellectual history of twentieth century Russian and Soviet life, but in this presentation I want to explore his relevance for our times.

Preface to Yakhot’s history of early Soviet philosophy

The entire Translator’s Preface published here:

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.