Saturday, 1 January 2000

Philosophy in Soviet Russia (1946)

From The Philosopher, Volume XXIV



By John Lewis

In 1999, the Editor added:

This unusual account reflects a particular time in the history of not only of the Society, but of Europe. The prevailing feeling in Britain was of solidarity and gratitude to 'Uncle Joe' in the Soviet Union, and if, even as this was written, the 'Iron Curtain' was about to be [er...] drawn in the occupied territories, there is no sense in this essay of the cold war conflict that was about to come, (Save perhaps that the author bemoans the lack of interest in 'Bergson, Bradley and Bosanquet'... )

Professor Whitehead has recently warned us that:

 'Mankind can flourish in the lower stages of life with merely barbarian flashes of thought. But, where civilisation culminates, the absence of a co-ordinating philosophy of life, spread through the community spells decadence, boredom and the slackening of effort.' 

Too often,we hear it lamented that we have today no confident philosophy for the human race, and "If the trumpet give no certain sound who shall prepare himself for battle." However that may be in West, there is no doubt about the fact that the Soviet Union, covering one-fifth of the land surface of the earth and comprising 200,000,000 people has a very definite, optimistic and 'coordinating philosophy of life, spread through the community.'

We know little about it here, and what we think we know is usually wrong! But east some information has reached us in an address delivered by the Academy of Sciences of the U.S.S.R. by Professor Mitin in 1945, and in reviews of several new works of Soviet Philosophy, notably Alexandrov's new History, of Philosophy. We learn that philosophy is widely taught and, as in Scotland, is a compulsory subject for all higher education courses even in purely technical subjects. It would appear that the Soviet Union is heeding Plato's advice that the only hope for human social happiness lay in the possibility that kings (shall we say the sovereign people?) might become philosophers and philosophers kings.

The large circulation of the works of the classical philosophers offers surprising evidence of the wide popularity of this study. Between 1917 and 1938 over 200,000 copies of the works of Hegel have been distributed, 78,000 copies of Aristotle, 48,000 copies of copies of Einstein, 65,000 copies of Spinoza. Soviet philosophers have produced works on Democritus, Aristotle, Hobbes, Descartes, Leibnitz, Locke, and others. Not so much has been done in translating recent British, American and French philosophy into Russian. They seem to know little of Bergson, James, Whitehead, Bradley and Bosanquet.

Needless to say the philosophical writings of Marx, Engels, Lenin and other dialectical materialists are in great demand. The Russians claim that this 'great contemporary philosophical doctrine gives people a straightforward, clear-cut world outlook, enables them to understand the laws underlying historical events and arms them with a theoretical weapon for practical use.' But as we have seen the world classics of philosophy also play an important.part in the cultural growth of Soviet people. Engels stated that the history of philosophy is one means of ideological training, that the study of the history of Philosophy is a splendid way of learning to think theoretically. But there is another reason for this great interest in philosophy. The peoples of the Soviet Union regard themselves as the real and lawful heirs of the whole of world culture and are most anxious to spread the knowledge of it not only among the elite but amongst the wise masses of the people.

The result is great intellectual liveliness, among students especially. Mr. Foster Anderson in his Borderline Russia describes how he spent a long evening discussing philosophy with some of the students of Moscow University. His comment is revealing: 'The atmosphere of that small group of men and women with whom I mixed had a quality of the search for truth and.a belief in the human mind to grasp it which I have not met in any other University'.

It would be interesting to know more about the content of Soviet philosophical teaching. No doubt many of us would find ourselves stimulated to violent criticism if we knew more about it; but truth is only found in the clash of opposites, as.Hegel (and Marx!) have long taught us. It might be to our profit to know a good deal more about philosophy in Soviet Russia.

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