Marxism in Power


Helena Sheehan

This is the beginning of chapter 4 of  from my book Marxism and the Philosophy of Science: A Critical History (Humanities Press International 1985 and 1993).  Also online is the section of the chapter on Lysenko and Lysenkoism, as is the end of the chapter on the purges and Soviet intellectual life.  Other extracts are on the  Bernal  Haldane and Caudwell, as well as sections on the formation of the Comintern and its end.

The Early Days of the Revolution

 In October 1917 the revolution came, transforming utterly the whole context for every debate and giving birth to unanticipated new ones.

Under the leadership of the bolsheviks, the Soviets took state power, nearly without opposition; resistance came only from a handful of cadets and a women's death battalion. The provisional government was dissolved and a new government was formed with Lenin as chairman of the Council of People's Commissars at its head.

The new soviet government immediately issued a flurry of decrees, giving land to the peasants, nationalising key industries, proclaiming the equality of women, and announcing an imminent end to the war.  The bolsheviks went from town to town and from village to village, proclaiming the soviet government and calling on peasants to confiscate land, on soldiers to arrest counter-revolutionary generals, and on workers to assume state functions.  And so they did.

It was an extraordinary time. There had never been a time like it before, nor could there ever be a time like it again.  It was the world's first socialist revolution and as such it had no precedents. They were doing something that had never been done before, opening up a new line of historical development.  There seemed to be unlimited scope for human creativity in this monumental enterprise of building from scratch a whole new social order.  The air was alive with possibilities and everything was up for grabs.  It was challenging and exhilarating.  Lenin exhorted:

Comrades, working people!  Remember that now you yourselves are at the helm of state.  No one will help you if you yourselves do not unite and take into your hands all affairs of the state.... Get on with the job yourselves; begin right at the bottom, do not wait for anyone.1
And many took him up on it.

But this heady experimentation with previously unknown and untested forms of social organization quickly came up against the sobering fact that the revolution had not yet been won.  People were still hungry.  Industry was at a standstill.  Indeed the whole economy had virtually collapsed.  There was widespread chaos and all the while german troops were advancing. The army was so beaten down and demoralised that it could not even continue a fighting retreat. The treaty of Brest-Litovsk gave the regime a breathing space, although the terms, involving annexation of huge territories under soviet rule, were exceedingly harsh.

At first, the bolsheviks had stalled, appealing to the workers of the world to unite for the last fight they had so often sung about in the Internationale and hoping that the german regime would soon go under beneath a great revolutionary upsurge in Europe.  But as month followed month and no such world revolution came, their hopes receded and Lenin realised it was necessary to yield space in order to gain time.

Then came the "white terror" of civil war, aided by foreign intervention. The new red army fought against tremendous odds on seventeen fronts simultaneously.  Not only that, but there was no food.  People were fainting in the streets.  Workers were dropping over onto their machines.  Babies were whimpering in their cots.  The old and sick were simply dying. And the kulaks were hoarding grain.

In this period of war communism, every aspect of life was subordinated to the central authority. There was enforcement of compulsory purchase of food and there was swift treatment of suspected saboteurs. Amidst all this, there was mounting evidence of treachery on the part of the other leftist parties, and, after Lenin was shot in an assassination attempt by one of their members, the bolsheviks moved against them, raiding their offices and suspending their newspapers.

The civil war lasted for three years.  Although finally it had been won, the country was nevertheless torn apart from one end to another and, on top of everything else, stricken by famine.  Production had come to a halt. The working class had been decimated: killed fighting at the front, massacred in towns taken by the whites, or driven back to the land by massive unemployment.  In the one country on earth ruled in the name of the proletariat, the proletariat was hardly there.

Proposals to accomplish these tasks of reconstruction through the continuation and intensification of the measures associated with war communism were debated, but Trotsky's call for the militarisation of labour was defeated and a very different course was taken.  Lenin's new economic policy carried the day, giving the regime another breathing space by making economic concessions.  Restrictions on small business and private agriculture were relaxed in order to consolidate power and to increase productivity before embarking on a full programme for the socialisation of industrial production and the collectivisation of agriculture.

At that time the question of opposition parties asserted itself again in a situation in which other left-wing parties, associated in people's minds with the defeat of the autocracy and the ideals of social progress, would be immensely popular, yet they did not have the liability of having been responsible for the crippling hardships of the past few years. In 1921, discontent was rampant, symbolised by the Kronstadt mutiny, which the bolsheviks forcibly suppressed, and the opposition parties made the most of it.

Martov had already emigrated to Germany where he had given a searing anti-bolshevik speech at the Halle congress of the USPD.  Lenin issued a stern warning to the remaining mensheviks that they could either join Martov or go to prison, if they persisted in opposition to the soviet regime.  Menshevik leaders departed for Berlin, with obstacles placed in their way, and the rank and file either renounced their views or abandoned political activity altogether. The social revolutionaries, however, proved more recalcitrant and thirty four of its leaders were brought to trial on charges of conspiring against soviet power. The existence of these parties was not yet illegal, but from this time they effectively disappeared from soviet political life.

This was not; however, the end of political dissent, but from this time on it became concentrated within the party. A debate centering around the workers' opposition emerged. This group demanded that the workers be given direct power and protested against the employment of bourgeois specialists, the appointment of managers in industry, and the organisation of the army on the basis of traditional military discipline.

One of its chief spokesmen, the fiery feminist Alexandra Kollontai, a central committee member at the time of the revolution, castigated the party for not immediately bringing in such measures as free medical service, free education, and subsidised rent. The position of the majority on the central committee was that these demands made an impossible claim on scarce resources and that the immediate task was to begin the economic and social reconstruction that would provide a firm foundation for such measures in the future. Factions within the party were banned at the 10th party congress, a measure which was to have serious consequences for the future of soviet political life.

 Cultural revolution

It was against the background of all these events that soviet intellectual life began to take on its own distinctive form.  From the first days of the revolution, there was immense ferment in virtually every discipline.  Marxism, for the first time, was in power.  It was no longer an opposition current, but the official ideology of the new soviet state.

The time had come to bring this vision to fruition and to extend its influence into all areas of life. This meant interpreting the relevance of the theory to the new situation and developing it further in light of new experience.  But when it came to discussing just how to do so, there was great divergence of opinion, opening the way to raging controversies in every field of thought.

There were debates about the strategy for industrialisation and its relation to the strategy for the collectivisation of agriculture; debates about nationalities policy; debates about the nature of the state and the status of law under socialism; debates about the nature of proletarian morality; debates about the liberation of women, "free love," and the future of the family; debates about avant-garde educational theories; debates about different schools of literary criticism and the forms of proletarian culture.  And, of course, there were debates about philosophy, about the natural sciences, and about the philosophy of science.  There were debates about nearly everything. There were so many ideas to be sifted through and there was so very much at stake.

In their struggle to come to terms with these issues, especially when it came to necessary policy decisions, the bolsheviks were up against enormous odds.  For to arrive at such decisions and to implement them, they needed expertise.  They needed economists, scientists, technicians, managers, lawyers, university professors, school teachers, writers, and artists.  The problem was that the overwhelming number of supporters of the regime were uneducated and uncultured, whereas most of the experts, the highly educated and the highly cultured, tended to be hostile to the regime.  Lenin felt the problem deeply and he declared that the lack of culture was the major obstacle to the building of socialism.

The bolsheviks, or the communists as they soon came to be known, therefore embarked on a two-pronged strategy, a struggle on two fronts.  On the one hand, they sought to win over the existing intelligentsia, to win them to co-operation with the soviet regime and, if possible, to intellectual commitment to marxism.  On the other hand, it was necessary to begin to create a new intelligentsia drawn from the proletariat and peasantry and firmly communist in its outlook. The task was to carry out a "cultural revolution."

To even begin work on the second front, however, it was necessary to achieve some success on the first, for the "bourgeois specialists" were necessary to train the new generation of "red specialists." M.N. Pokrovsky, historian and leading figure in the transformation of higher education, outlined the dangers of being overly conciliatory towards the intelligentsia of the old order on the one hand or of being too dismissive of what they had to offer on the other.  Looking back after the first ten years, he explained:

We were faced with two dangers: on the one hand, there was the danger of remaining in the old rut, since we had a certain fear of too abrupt and decisive a demolition, and, as a result, we could be held prisoner by bourgeois specialists… on the other hand, the danger consisted in the fact that there were some comrades who said: "All bourgeois education is worth absolutely nothing. It is necessary to throw this out and to begin anew."2  
The problem of achieving a correct balance between the old and the new was a theme that recurred in a multitude of forms during these first years. Lenin felt the need to address himself to it on a number of occasions.  He vigorously criticised those who took a nihilistic approach to the cultural and intellectual heritage of the past.  It was the task of communists, he believed, to critically assimilate, to make fully their own, the best knowledge, the best technique, the best art that had been achieved by human effort over the centuries and to carry it forward in a creative and revolutionary way.

However, Lenin did not approve of those who took an uncritical or uncreative attitude towards the past and he admonished them that they were revolutionaries and not archivists.  The stock of human knowledge was not only to be drawn on, but to be radically remolded in building the new society. Within this scheme, a pre-eminent position was accorded to science.  Marxism had from the first staked its lot with science and in this tradition Lenin and the bolsheviks believed firmly that science was essential to socialism.

Lenin, in these first years of the revolution, was at his best. Even when the very existence of the Soviet state was in jeopardy and sheer survival was an achievement, he displayed an impressive breadth of vision.  He was the architect of the revolution, and, as such, it was his lot to have to apply his mind to an extraordinarily wide number of issues: from problems involving military tactics, food supply, and sabotage, to problems of religious belief, women's rights, homeless children, communist morality, and the philosophy of science.

Amidst the welter of details and the monumental tasks, he never lost a sense of perspective and he brought to every issue reflection, balance and sanity.  He often had to restrain the overzealous and shortsighted.  There was, for instance, the question of the status of religion in a socialist society. Although he was an atheist of the most militant sort, he spoke out against a certain wildness, a certain hooliganism, in the anti-religious campaign and forbade komsomol members on one occasion from holding an anti-easter demonstration.  His view was that religion must be a private matter vis-a-vis the state, although certainly not vis-a-vis the party.  It was vital to win people over to atheism and to a scientific view of the world by intelligent argumentation and he criticised the crudity of the propaganda that was often employed.

On other questions also he took his stand against those who went to extremes and became myopic, forgetting the many-sidedness of things. Thus his opposition to proletkult*, to the workers opposition, indeed to the views of all those who wished to sweep aside the existing intelligentsia, the "bourgeois specialist," claiming that the proletariat stood alone and had to build socialism entirely from its own resources.

Lenin insisted that it was necessary to embrace bourgeois culture, its science, its knowledge, its art, and to critically reshape it.  In doing so, it was vital to make the fullest use of the "bourgeois specialists" who were the of that culture. Thus too his very wise advice to komsomol members advocating a "glass of water" approach to sexuality: "Be neither monk Don Juan, but not anything in between either, like a german philistine." 3 was an integrated way of thinking that he brought to bear on every subject that came up for discussion.

* Proletkult was a rnovement for "proletarian culture". A section on its ideas and its fate follows in later pages.
  The bolsheviks, the scientists and the philosophers
Because of his concern for winning over the existing intelligentsia and because of his special interest in the philosophy of science, Lenin was particularly interested in gaining the support of natural scientists.  When the distinguished biologist K.A. Timiriazev announced his fervent loyalty to the new regime, Lenin was overjoyed.  The bolsheviks received him with open arms and named a research center after him: the State Timiriazev Scientific Research Institute for the Study and Propaganda of Natural Science from Point of View of Dialectical Materialism (mercifully reduced to Timiriazev Institute in all but the most formal references to it).

Another success was the N.I. Vavilov, who was put in charge of a whole network of biological institutions. The physicist A.F. Joffe had actually joined the anti-bolshevik exodus of scholars to the Crimea in 1917, but returned to Petrograd, resolved to connect his fate with that of the land of the Soviets, although it was by any means clear that the civil war would be won.  He became a member of the Leningrad soviet and doyen of soviet physicists, although it was not until 1942 that he joined the party.

There was a concerted campaign to win working natural scientists over to a materialist position in the philosophy of science.  Through such agencies as Union of Scientific Workers, the All-Union Association of Workers Science and Technology for Assistance to the Construction of Socialism (VARNITSO), and the Central Commission for Improving the Condition of Scholars, various societies for materialist natural scientists corresponding to various scientific disciplines,* the bolsheviks fought to win their hearts and minds.

Lenin took the occasion of the second issue of Pod znamenem marksizma (Under the Banner of Marxism), the new journal of soviet marxism launched in 1922 to call for an alliance between communists and natural scientists inclined to materialism. The first issue had not mentioned the philosophy of science in its editorial declaration of its aims and purposes, nor had Trotsky in letter welcoming the new publication. Lenin felt it was necessary to draw attention to the importance of this field. In his article entitled "On the significance of militant materialism," he urged the journal to attend to the philosophical problems raised by the sharp upheaval in the natural sciences and to enlist natural scientists in the work of the philosophy journal in order to decide these problems most effectively.

He called attention to the latest episode the ongoing attempt to undermine the foundations of materialism by appeals modern science by those who were seizing on Einstein's theory of relativity for such purposes.  Unlike A.K. Timiriazev, the physicist and son of the prominent biologist, who wrote a review of a russian translation of Einstein in first issue, Lenin suggested that they should take care to distinguish between Einstein's physical theories and the philosophical speculation sparked by them.  Lenin believed that the natural sciences could not hold their own against the "onslaught of bourgeois ideas" unless they stood on solid philosophical ground. A s to where they should turn for such a grounding:
  Modern natural scientists (if they know how to seek, and if we learn how to help them) will find in Hegelian dialectics, materialistically interpreted, a series of answers to the philosophical problems which are being raised by the revolution in natural science. . . , Without this, eminent natural scientists will as often as hitherto be helpless in ntaking their pliilosophical deductions and generalizations. For natural science is progressing so fast and is undergoing such a profound revolutionary upheaval in all spheres that it cannot possibly dispense with philosophical deductions.4
In his opinion, the editors and contributors to Pod znamenem marksizma should constitute a sort of "Society of Materialist Friends of Hegelian Dialectics."

 *There were, for example, the Society of Materialist Biologists, the Society of Materialist Physicians, and the Society of Materialist Physicists and Mathematicians, organised under the Section for the Natural and Exact Sciences of the Communist Academy.
It was far from the only occasion in which Lenin turned his mind to questions of philosophy. In "Once Again On The Trade Unions," in the context of a criticism of the current political thinking of Trotsky and Bukharin, he put great emphasis on the difference between dialectical thinking and eclectic thinking.  He called upon such comrades to put aside one-track thinking, compulsiveness, exaggeration, obstinancy, and rigidity and to learn to examine all facets of a thing, all its connections and mediacies.  Dialectics, he insisted, required an all-round consideration of relationships in their concrete development, but not a patchwork of bits and pieces.  He asked them to look beyond formal logic that dealt with formal definitions of the sort that drew on what was most common or glaring about a thing and stopped there.

The point was that a really full definition of anything "must include the whole of human experience."5  In the same article, Lenin exhorted communists to engage in a serious study of Plekhanov's philosophical works and insisted that the workers state should demand of professors of philosophy in particular that they have a thorough knowledge of Plekhanov's exposition of marxism.  By this time, Plekhanov was gone, having died in 1918, an unregenerate opponent of soviet power.  Nevertheless, Lenin was magnanimous enough to ensure that his contribution to the development of russian marxism be duly recognised.

By 1924, Lenin was gone as well and thenceforth soviet philosophy had to develop without him. Indeed, many fields were deprived by the loss of his fine mind and the soviet state suffered greatly by the premature death of the great "dreamer in the Kremlin," as H.G. Wells called him.

In Lenin's day, it was not required that a person be "100 % pure" and in agreement with all bolshevik policies in order to make a contribution to the new social order.*  Although every effort was made to persuade natural scientists to look to marxism in matters of philosophy of science, it was not demanded of them.  Willingness to pursue their research within the new order was enough.  They were assured by the highest government officials, confident that communism was being built by everyone working honourably and conscientiously in his own field, that it was their legitimate right not to be marxists.

Indeed, Kalinin, the soviet president, declared that communism was being built even by the man who proclaimed himself against communism, for if he were a doctor and raised the people's health, he was doing communist work. They were convinced in any case that most natural scientists were spontaneous materialists and nearly marxists without realising it.

* Pogodin's famous play Kremlin Chimes, (which was still being performed in Moscow during the period of my research), shows the authorities comiung for a famous engineer. Instead of being under arrest, as he expected, he is brought to Lenin, who enthusiastically explains his plans for the electrification of Russia and invites him to put his skills to work in achieving this great task.
 Soviet leaders did not feel themselves threatened by those who obviously were not marxists, allowing them considerable latitude as long as they showed themselves to be in good faith.

When Khvolson, who had an international reputation both as a physicist and as an exponent of a fideist interpretation of new trends in physics, hesitantly approached the new government with concerning the fate of various research projects that had been given governmental support before the revolution, he found them ready to devote far greater resources to education and research than were their predecessors.  He continued to propagate his views on the reconciliation of the new physics with religious belief, although he was persuaded to remove from the later edition of a very well-received popularisation of physics published in 1922 a passage explicitly rejecting the rather promethean notion of science held by the bolsheviks. Nevertheless, he was awarded in 1926 the title of "hero of labour."

There was also the case of V.1. Vernadsky, a distinguished geochemist with a lively interest in philosophy of science, who had also joined the anti-bolshevik flight to the Crimea. When this last stronghold of the whites fell, he was arrested by the Cheka and brought to Moscow, where Lenin insisted on his release.  He played a leading role in the Academy of Sciences and its organisation of the scientific work of the country, although his opposition to certain aspects of bolshevik rule continued. He respected the bolshevik desire for a flowering of science, but warned them against administrative intervention in the creative process of scientific work and steadfastly refused to consider marxism as a philosophy of science. And there was the mathematician V.A. Steklov, vice-president of the Academy of Sciences, who also put great stress on the importance of academic freedom for the progress of science and, just to reinforce his point, published a popular biography of Galileo in 1923. 6

Academic freedom was, in fact, enjoyed by the Academy of Sciences, although occasionally a strident voice was raised against it, such as that of the anonymous author "Materialist," who, in the pages of Pod znamenem marksizma, castigated the Academy of Sciences as a "reactionary nest. " 7 The soviet government's policy was to finance it generously without infringing on its autonomy.  Its publishing house was the only one exempt from state censorship.  Not that state censorship, where it did exist, was very strict. The scientific section of the state publishing house, Gosizdat, regularly published non-marxist works on the philosophy of science, even works clearly antithetical to the marxist position. In his communication to Pod znamenem marksizma, Lenin had expressed his view that books embodying positions with which he disagreed most should be translated and published.

It was not just in the area of publications that such tolerance was extended even to those hostile to marxism. Outright proponents of idealist and even mystical positions in philosophy were at first allowed to stay at their posts, if they had chosen to remain and fight for their views, rather than emigrate or join the exodus of scholars to white Crimea.  Such philosophers as Berdyaev, Frank, Lossky, Ilyin, and Florensky in fact went on the offensive against marxist philosophy. They established a Free Philosophical Academy in Moscow and a journal Mysi in which they boldly proclaimed their mission to struggle against soviet power in order to protect religion against the brash atheism of the new order.

Tension heightened as communist students returned from the front and felt resentful at having to accept as teachers the philosophical counterparts of the enemy they had just defeated.  They had sacrificed much to establish the new order and were offended at having to submit to elements hostile to it. In 1922, the government did ask those teachers to leave and join their like abroad.  Thenceforth, they continued their campaign in the capitals of Europe, becoming more and more reactionary.  Berdyaev devoted himself to propagating his "philosophy of inequality," a "new medievalism," eulogising aristocracy and the "arbitrariness of divine caprice."  Others in the same spirit called for the epoch of science to give way to a new epoch of faith.
The new institutions

Meanwhile, it was becoming clearer than ever that new professors were needed. Thus it was that the Institute of Red Professors was set up in 1921*  Indeed, there was a whole network of communist institutions, paralleling the traditional academic institutions, pursuing bolshevik policy on the second front, the recruitment and training of a new socialist intelligentsia.  Workers faculties, attached to the universities, prepared the sons and daughters of the proletariat for higher education.

There were even special universities such as the Sverdlov Communist University in Moscow.  The Socialist Academy of Social Sciences, organised in 1918 as a directing center for marxist research, became the Communist Academy in 1924 and branched out to include the natural sciences as well as the social sciences. Under the academy were such bodies as the Institute of Scientific Philosophy, the Marx-Engels Institute, and the Section of the Natural and Exact Sciences.

*Stephen Cohen has described the Institute of Red Professors as "a milieu combining aspects of a university, a political salon, and a monastery." In its early years, when Bukharin was its dominant figure, it reflected much of the personality of Bukharin, "an aura of Bohemia come to power" (cf. Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution, NY 1975, p.219).

There was another network of institutions midway between the other two, with marxist and non-marxist scholars collaborating, often with the non-marxists in the ascendancy. RANION, the Russian Association of Scientific Research Institutes of the Social Sciences, consisted of some fifteen institutes engaged in research and postgraduate training.  Work in the philosophy of science within the network was concentrated in the Institute of Scientific Philosophy, which, as marxism came into the ascendancy in the institute, was transferred to the Communist Academy.

Even within the communist institutions, where the hegemony of marxism was established, there was scope for non-party marxists to hold prominent positions and indeed there was scope for considerable diversity of opinion.  Even at the Institute of Red Professors, half the teachers were not party members and the same was true of the membership of the Communist Academy.

Sverdlov Communist University referred to the party organizational bureau (orgbureau) the cases of Deborin and Axelrod, who both had menshevik backgrounds, before giving them teaching posts.  The decision was for Deborin and against Axelrod, most likely because Deborin had belonged to the wing of the party that opposed proletarian support for the imperialist war during the debate within the 2nd international, whereas Axelrod, like Plekhanov, came in behind Russia's war effort.  However, being so pressed for qualified professors, the university appealed to Lenin, who replied unhesitatingly in favor of both. Deborin became far and away the most influential soviet philosopher of the 1920s, although he did not join the party until 1928.  He was the leading philosopher, not only at Sverdlov Communist University, but in the Institute of Red Professors and in the Communist Academy.  From 1926, he was editor-in-chief of Pod znamenem marksizma.

Contending positions in the philosophy of science

It was within the network of communist institutions that there was the greatest intellectual vitality and the liveliest clash of contending positions.  In philosophy of science, as in all other fields during the 1 920s, there was struggle not only between marxist and non-arxist views, but among an extraordinary number of conflicting positions battling for recognition as the correct marxist position in the field.

There follow sections on machism, Bogdanov and "proletarian science", Bukharin, Trotsky, Alexrod, Deborin, the "new turn on the philosophical front" in 1931, the soviet delegation to the 1931 international history of science congress, debates in psychology, physics, biology, Lysenko and Lysenkoism, Stalin and the philosophers and finally soviet intellectual life and the purges.

References for this text (pages 151 to 161 can be found in the end of chapter notes pages 240 to 243 of

Marxism and the Philosophy of Science: A Critical History  by Helena Sheehan

Introduction to chapter 4 (Marxim in power)
Conclusion to chapter 4

Introduction to chapter 5 (Intellectuals and the Comintern)
Conclusion to chapter 5

 The Fate of Marxism  (introduction to 1993 edition)

JD Bernal    JBS Haldane     Christopher Caudwell      TD Lysenko

Critical Perspectives on Science

Science Technology & Society

World Views