This series of articles will discuss the development of philosophy in the Soviet Union.
DEBATE BETWEEN MECHANISTS AND DIALECTICIANS (1920s)
“The period of the twenties in Soviet Russia was marked by an extended controversy in science and philosophy over the relative merits of dialectical and mechanistic materialism. There were actually two prongs to the discussion. One issue was whether or not the principles of dialectics, part of the official Marxist philosophy, were applicable to the natural sciences. The other issue was the actual definition of the principles of dialectics.
The initiative in this controversy was taken by a group of natural scientists who maintained that natural science discovers its laws by empirical research, and should not be subject to the imposition of preexisting philosophical laws. Their early spokesman, O. Minin, said that philosophy had to be thrown overboard together with religion… [and his slogan was] “overboard with philosophy… In addition, they favored the models of mechanics as the basis for scientific explanation, and many of the scientists believed that the principles of dialectics could actually be expressed in terms of mechanics. In this contention they found support from Bukharin in his Historical Materialism…
Resistance to this attack was organized among a group of philosophers led by A. M. Deborin at the Communist Academy, an organ of the Central Committee of the Party. A Society of Militant Materialist Dialecticians was organized, and support was gained from philosophers at the Lenin Institute, the Marx-Engels Institute, and the Institute of Red Professors… The position of the dialecticians was given further valuable support in 1925 by the Marx-Engels Institute’s publication of two important fragmentary works, Engels’ Dialectics of Nature and portions of Lenin’s philosophical notebooks.” (Raymond A. Bauer, The new man in Soviet psychology, pp. 24-25)
The debate between mechanists and dialecticians centered around the following main topics:
1. Many mechanists considered that philosophy was unnecessary and the only thing needed was natural science, or that the role of philosophy was very small, while dialectical materialists considered philosophy to be very important.
2. Mechanists considered that motion was mechanical, i.e. simple and not contradictory, while dialectical materialists considered that motion was due to contradictions and interactions.
3. Mechanists considered that motion was external to objects and phenomena while dialectical materialists considered motion to be inherent inside objects and phenomena.
4. Mechanical materialists were fatalistic determinists, considering that freedom doesn’t exist. Dialectical materialism holds a dialectical view of freedom and necessity.
5. Mechanical materialists were a heterogeneous group of revisionists and many also held vulgar materialist views and anti-marxist views in general.
MECHANISTS BELIEVED THAT PHILOSOPHY NEEDED TO BE GOTTEN RID OF
“mechanists… believed that the positive science had virtually eliminated the need for philosophy.” (Stephen F. Cohen, Bukharin and the bolshevik revolution, p. 114)
O. Minin distorts the view of Lenin and Plekhanov, claiming their discussions of philosophy were mere “slips of the pen”:
“Both V. I. Lenin, and Plekhanov also, employ old-fashioned terms such as “the philosophy of Marxism”, “the philosophical implications of the natural sciences” and so forth, but these terms as used by Lenin and Plekhanov are merely slips of the pen and nothing more. In fitting out and trimming the ship of science we must take care to throw, not only religion, but also the whole of philosophy overboard.” (O. Minin, Overboard with Philosophy, 1922, quoted in Wetter, Dialectical Materialism pp. 129-130)
IS THE SOURCE OF MOTION INTERNAL OR EXTERNAL?
“To the mechanist the concept of force is the means of explaining causal relationships in the world. Since his theoretical model is that of a machine which responds or adjusts to external force, there would be no initial motion in the system without the application of external force. The mechanist sees the world as consisting of rigid, isolated elements, so that if force is applied at one point it is transmitted by these rigid elements to other elements and so on. If forces equal in magnitude but opposite in direction are effective on the same point, no motion results but an equilibrium is established… Bukharin’s conception of equilibrium was a good example of this approach. To him society was a system which adjusted to the natural environment. The internal structure—the state of equilibrium within the system— is a function of the system’s external equilibrium. In such a scheme, the initiative always rests in external factors. This is illustrated by Bukharin’s statement: “We may say of a system that it is in equilibrium if that system of itself, without the application of external energy, cannot change its condition.” [N. Bukharin, Teoriia Iistoricheskogo materializma, p. 76]”
Bukharin talks about two kinds of contradictions, ones internal to the system and ones between the system and its external environment. He says the external contradiction is primary, while the internal is only secondary:
“It is quite clear that the internal structure of the system (its internal equilibrium) must change together with the relation existing between the system and its environment. The latter relation is the decisive factor” (Bukharin, Historical materialism, p. 79)
That is a completely anti-marxist position! Bauer sums up the criticism of the dialecticians correctly:
“The dialecticians argued that motion is an inherent property of matter, while the mechanists considered motion to be a property that is imparted to matter from without. The dialecticians contended that the mechanists’ position involved the positing of a prime mover to set matter in motion, and thus led to such concepts as God… This difference in interpretation of the nature of force is a key to understanding how certain Marxists who considered themselves to be dialecticians were criticized as being mechanists.” (Bauer, pp. 26-27)
The classics of Marxism understood the source of motion to be internal contradictions:
“A motionless state of matter is therefore one of the most empty and nonsensical of ideas — a “delirious fantasy” of the purest water.” (Engels, Anti-Dühring)
“Contrary to metaphysics, dialectics holds that internal contradictions are inherent in all things… and that the struggle between these opposites… constitutes the internal content of the process of development” (Stalin, Dialectical and historical materialism)
“The condition for the knowledge of all processes of the world in their “self-movement,” in their spontaneous development, in their real life, is the knowledge of them as a unity of opposites. Development is the “struggle” of opposites… [this view] alone furnishes the key to the “self-movement” of everything existing; it alone furnishes the key to “leaps,” to the “break in continuity,” to the “transformation into the opposite,” to the destruction of the old and the emergence of the new.” (Lenin, On the Question of Dialectics, in his Philosophical Notebooks)
Dialectical-Materialism holds that motion and development are constant and absolute, while rest and balance are only relative and temporary:
“The unity… of opposites is conditional, temporary, transitory, relative. The struggle of mutually exclusive opposites is absolute, just as development and motion are absolute.” (Lenin, On the Question of Dialectics, in his Philosophical Notebooks)
“All rest, all equilibrium, is only relative” (Engels, Anti-Dühring)
The classics of Marxism held that matter is uncreated, uncreatable, indestructible and eternal. It does not need a creator because it has always been:
“Thus we have once again returned to the point of view of the great founders of Greek philosophy, the view that the whole of nature, from the smallest element to the greatest, from grains of sand to suns, from protista to men, has its existence in eternal coming into being and passing away, in ceaseless flux, in un-resting motion and change, only with the essential difference that what for the Greeks was a brilliant intuition, is in our case the result of strictly scientific research in accordance with experience, and hence also it emerges in a much more definite and clear form.” (Engels, Dialectics of Nature)
“the eternally repeated succession of worlds in infinite time is only the logical complement to the co-existence of innumerable worlds in infinite space… It is an eternal cycle in which matter moves, a cycle that certainly only completes its orbit in periods of time for which our terrestrial year is no adequate measure, a cycle in which the time of highest development, the time of organic life and still more that of the life of beings conscious of nature and of themselves, is just as narrowly restricted as the space in which life and self-consciousness come into operation; a cycle in which every finite mode of existence of matter, whether it be sun or nebular vapour, single animal or genus of animals, chemical combination or dissociation, is equally transient, and wherein nothing is eternal but eternally changing, eternally moving matter and the laws according to which it moves and changes. ” (Engels, Dialectics of Nature)
“Whereas only ten years ago the great basic law of motion, then recently discovered, was as yet conceived merely as a law of the conservation of energy, as the mere expression of the indestructibility and uncreatability of motion, that is, merely in its quantitative aspect, this narrow negative conception is being more and more supplanted by the positive idea of the transformation of energy, in which for the first time the qualitative content of the process comes into its own, and the last vestige of an extramundane creator is obliterated.” (Engels, Anti-Dühring)
“Motion is therefore as uncreatable and indestructible as matter itself” (Engels, Anti-Dühring)
“It already becomes evident here that matter is unthinkable without motion. And if, in addition, matter confronts us as something given, equally uncreatable as indestructible, it follows that motion also is as uncreatable as indestructible.” (Engels, Dialectics of Nature)
Engels further says “the creation and destruction of motion… presupposes a creator.” (Engels, Dialectics of Nature)
Lenin and Stalin both referred to Heraclitus’s statement:
“Speaking of the materialist views of the ancient philosopher Heraclitus, who held that “the world, the all in one, was not created by any god or any man, but was, is and ever will be a living flame, systematically flaring up and systematically dying down”‘ Lenin comments: “A very good exposition of the rudiments of dialectical materialism.” (Stalin, Dialectical and Historical Materialism, quoting from Lenin’s philosophical notebooks)
ACCIDENT AND NECESSITY
“The mechanists were criticized for being rigid determinists. They argued that chance or accident were merely the products of our ignorance: “. . . in reality they think that only necessity exists. Accident is a product of our ignorance, and therefore exclusively a subjective phenomenon.” To the extent that the dialectic view of accident can be disentangled from Hegelian terminology it is this: Certain elements in a situation are more relevant than others for the problem at hand. The analyst concentrates on these elements, and factors external to his scheme of analysis, but which may impinge on the events with which he is dealing, he calls “accidents.” “Hence the accidental may be defined as a cause which is not directly related to the lawful inner development of a given phenomenon. It appears as something external in relation to it. That is to say there may be two or more quite independent series of causes and effects which may intersect, and this intersection is accidental.”
The mechanists, in holding to the view that chance is incompatible with causality, are accused of failing to distinguish between the relevant and the irrelevant. The essence of the difference is that to the person looking into the past, “complete” determinism makes sense since the relevance of events can be judged on the basis of the effect they have produced. The person looking into the future does not have such wisdom of hindsight, and he must make some decision before the fact of the relevance of the factors involved since he cannot take all conceivable variables into consideration.” (Bauer, pp. 30-31)
As Engels explained, in trying to deny accidents mechanical materialism actually lowers everything to the level of mere accidents:
“chance is not here explained by necessity, but rather necessity is degraded to the production of what is merely accidental. If the fact that a particular pea-pod contains six peas, and not five or seven, is of the same order as the law of motion of the solar system, or the law of the transformation of energy, then as a matter of fact chance is not elevated into necessity, but rather necessity degraded into chance” (Engels, Dialectics of Nature)
Mechanical materialism was perhaps the most serious threat in the history of Soviet philosophy. The debate between mechanists and dialecticians started in the realm of philosophy of science, because most of the mechanists were natural scientists and not philosophers. They advocated a simplistic position which underestimated the importance of philosophy. They had a tendency of saying that the “simple facts” discovered by science should be accepted at face value, and philosophy should simply repeat those findings. They did not question the methodology they had inherited from the capitalist class, and instead of developing a methodology of science based on Marxism-Leninism, they wanted to twist Marxist dialectics into the typical mechanism used by non-dialectical capitalist scientists and philosophers of science. However, the Soviet mechanists still claimed to support dialectics and claimed that in fact they were the real dialectical materialists. This confusion is exemplified by their slogan that “dialectics is mechanist”.
The mechanists also seriously underestimated the subject matter of philosophy. They believed that philosophy can only closely follow the findings of natural sciences, and thus it was only an appendage to science instead of having any possibility to develop relatively independently. Of course materialist philosophy must base itself on science and make generalizations based on scientific findings, but as Marx and Engels noted, philosophy has often been very much ahead of natural science, and philosophy at the end of the day is a separate and theoretical discipline. Most philosophical discussions and debates do not in fact merely summarize recent scientific findings, but discuss much more broad theoretical topics.
The way of thinking of the mechanists “might be characterized as an extreme empiricism. The word “extreme” here would have reference not only to a total exclusion of opposing philosophic tendencies, but also to a certain “untheoretical,” literal minded quality which attached to their conceptions and methods… “Materialism” to them meant a thorough reliance upon the methods and findings of
experimental and exact natural science, which alone, in their view, was capable of coming to close grips with “matter” in its various phases. They did not hesitate to refer to themselves as “mechanists,” and to advocate the mechanistic terminology, not only in the philosophy of nature, but in the philosophy of history and society as well.” (Somerville, Soviet Philosophy: A Study Of Theory And Practice, pp. 213-214)
The mechanists claimed that only natural science could reach an understanding of matter. But matter is a philosophical category. A narrow empiricist might list various forms of matter: “matter is particles”, “matter is energy”, “matter is waves”, “matter is electro-magnetism”, but those things do not exhaust the category of matter. As Lenin said:
“Matter is a philosophical category denoting the objective reality which is given to man by his sensations, and which is copied, photographed and reflected by our sensations, while existing independently of them.” (Lenin, Materialism and empirio-criticism)
One of the leading mechanists was the future leader of the Right-Opposition, Nikolai Bukharin. He explicitly claimed that dialectics can be adequately explained mechanistically:
“It is quite possible to transcribe the ‘mystical’… language of Hegelian dialectics into the language of modern mechanics.” (Bukharin, Historical Materialism, p. 75)
Lenin had always maintained that Bukharin did not understand dialectics. During the trade union debate of 1921 Lenin said that Bukharin replaces dialectics with eclectics, i.e. mere mechanical combination:
“Bukharin’s fundamental theoretical mistake, which is substitution of eclecticism (especially popular with the authors of diverse “fashionable” and reactionary philosophical systems) for Marxist dialectics.” (Lenin, Once Again On The Trade Unions, The Current Situation and the Mistakes of Trotsky and Buhkarin)
Lenin had consistently attacked Bukharin’s mechanism and his use of revisionist and capitalist theories. Lenin particularly criticized Bukharin’s reliance on the anti-dialectical empirio-criticist Bogdanov:
“Lenin… particularly disliked what he called the use of “Bogdanovist gibberish” instead of “human language,”… Over and over again he greeted them with “ugh!”, “ha, ha,” “eclecticism,”” (Cohen, p. 114)
“Bukharin came out openly in favor of certain aspects of mechanism in his book, Historical Materialism… his opponents attacked not only his nomenclature, but his basic conceptions and theories, particularly the doctrine of social equilibrium, as being mechanistic.” (Somerville, p. 219)
“Precisely what the mechanist group asserted was that the dialectical conception of nature, properly understood, was the mechanistic conception. Thus [mechanist] Stepanov flatly entitled one of his articles, “The Dialectical Understanding of Nature Is the Mechanistic Understanding.”” (Somerville, p. 215)
THE DEBATE ON SPINOZA AND HEGEL
“The mechanists had gone so far as to advocate, for instance, that the study of the history of philosophy be scrapped in higher institutions… Just as the mechanists were prone to “play down” the study of the history of philosophy as such, they were inclined to belittle the role of classic philosophers in relation to the development of dialectical materialism. These tendencies came out with particular clarity in the voluminous discussions centering around Hegel and Spinoza… they probably would have been glad to forget all about Hegel. But they were not permitted to do so. Hegel became an issue. The “dialecticians” accused the mechanists of failure to comprehend the significance of the fact that Marx and Engels had built on Hegel, had profited immensely from the study of Hegel, and had advised everyone to do likewise.” (Somerville, p. 218)
“the contributors to [the philosophic journal] Pod Znamenem Marksizma must arrange for the systematic study of Hegelian dialectics from a materialist standpoint, i.e., the dialectics which Marx applied practically in his Capital and in his historical and political works” (Lenin, On the significance of militant materialism)
“In the discussion centering around Spinoza, the main question concerned the significance of his work for the philosophic constructions of dialectical materialism. The mechanists— in particular, writers like Axelrod and Timianski— were disposed to make short shrift of the matter by declaring Spinoza an outright idealist. Deborin and his group, however, were inclined to see great value in Spinoza, both as a dialectician and as a materialist. Properly taken, they argued, that is, taken in the light of his historical movement and direction, Spinoza belonged to materialism. They were ready to hearken back to Plekhanov’s conception that dialectical materialism could be characterized as a certain form of Spinozism.” (Somerville, pp. 218-219)
THE MECHANISTS ARE DEFEATED
“In 1929 the controversy came to a head. The immediate occasion of the crystallizing of the long debated views was the meeting in April of the Second All-Union Conference of Marxist-Leninist Scientific Institutions. This was a gathering made up of delegates (229 in number) from all the important scientific institutions of the country. All the leading figures were present and took part in the debates… The leading report was delivered by Deborin, and, in the end, as part of its proceedings, the conference voted a resolution on it which acted as a kind of official condemnation of mechanism.“ (Somerville, p. 220)
Points 6 and 7 of the resolution contain the direct and concrete reference to the mechanist position:
“The most active revisionist philosophical tendency during latter years has been that of the mechanists (L. Axelrod, A. K. Timiriazev, A. Variash, and others). Carrying on what was in essence a struggle against the philosophy of Marxism-Leninism, not understanding the foundations of materialist dialectics, substituting for revolutionary materialistic dialectics a vulgar evolutionism, and for materialism, positivism, preventing, in point of fact, the penetration of the methodology of dialectical materialism into the realm of natural science, this tendency represents a clear departure from Marxist-Leninist philosophical positions.
“The conference considers it necessary to continue the systematic criticism and exposure of the mistakes of the mechanist school from the point of view of consistent Marxism-Leninism.
“The most important problems confronting the philosophy of Marxism-Leninism are the further development of the theory of dialectics, and the thorough application of the method of dialectical materialism both in the field of social science . . . and natural science.
“The crisis through which the contemporary theory of natural science is passing is a continuation of that crisis which has already been analyzed by Lenin. The present successes of natural science do not fit into the pattern of the old, mechanistic, formal logic theories. Here, bourgeois philosophy paralyzes
itself, attempting to utilize the crisis in natural science for its own ends. However, a genuine solution of the fundamental difficulties of natural scientists can be attained only by applying the method of materialist dialectics.” (Quoted in Somerville, pp. 220-221)
“the appearance (in 1925) of Engels’ hitherto unpublished work Dialectics of Nature… heartened the supporters of dialectical materialism… The dialecticians took yet further courage from the first publication, in 1929, of Lenin’s Philosophical Notebooks” (Wetter, Dialectical Materialism, p. 130)
BUKHARIN’S MECHANISTIC THEORIES
“the mechanists see something mystical, teleological, in the notion of dialectic. Bukharin accused Marx and Engels of having bequeathed to the proletariat a world-outlook by no means free from ‘a certain teleological flavour which inevitably clings to the Hegelian formula which speaks of a self-development on the part of “spirit”
In spite of this the mechanists themselves make use of the term ‘dialectic’, though interpreting it in their own mechanistic fashion. Bukharin proposes, in place of the ‘mystificatory’ dialectic, to found Marxism on the ‘theory of equilibrium’, which ‘would constitute a more general formulation, purged of idealist elements, of the laws governing material systems in motion’…
One outcome of this basic conception is the denial of quality, and of the emergence of new qualities. The mechanists taught that phenomena of higher order are attributable to those of lower order” (Wetter, pp. 140-141)
“In the social and political field, mechanism brought forward the theory of spontaneity. The latter represents a radical economic determinism according to which socialism will come about automatically, spontaneously, by natural necessity, in the course of the social and politico-agrarian development of the national economy, in consequence of the socialization process in the towns (industrialization), without the intervention of the collective class-will, without class-warfare in the countryside, without an active struggle for the collectivization of the economy… The class-war and the dictatorship of the proletariat thereby lose their significance…
In the mechanistic theory of samotek [I would translate this as “spontaneity” or “automatism”, the idea that development happens automatically regardless of consciousness] we may see the precise reason why mechanism finds no acceptance in Leninist Bolshevism: the mechanist thesis, which admits only of quantitative changes, leads to the denial of development by leaps and maintains that all such development is continuous. Evolution proceeds steadily, and not in jerks. Mechanism therefore implies the elimination of class-contradictions and avoidance of the class-struggle. Bukharin, the leading exponent of mechanism, was in fact accused of cherishing the hope that the larger peasants [kulaks] would move peacefully over to socialism.” (Wetter, p. 142)
THE MECHANISTS WERE A HETEROGENOUS GROUP OF REVISIONISTS
I quoted various authors who stated that the mechanists were mostly natural scientists and not philosophers. This is true, but the group of mechanists did also include philosophers. These philosophers were actually a very heterogeneous group of revisionists, utopian socialists etc.
“the authors reckoned as mechanists… themselves differed considerably in opinion one from another… The mechanists include both the vulgar materialists of the early years of the Soviet regime, such as Minin and Enchmen, and natural scientists… Among the mechanist philosophers, the most prominent is Bukharin, who applied the philosophy of Bogdanov to historical materialism and political economy, and endeavoured to supplant the materialist dialectic by his well-known ‘theory of equilibrium’. Finally, there are various other philosophers who are reckoned as mechanists, such as Axel’rod and Sarab’yanov, of whom the latter, however, is more of a positivist or subjective idealist, and Varyash, who ranks as a disciple of Freud.” (Wetter, pp. 142-143)
Trotsky also supported not only Freud but also a mechanistic view of society:
“Trotsky favored a fusion of Freudian theory and Pavlovian method” (Bauer, p. 54)
“[Marxist-Leninist philosopher] Mitin also draws attention to a further affinity on Trotsky’s part towards mechanism, rightly detecting in him opinions symptomatic of mechanistic materialism… Trotsky maintains phenomena of higher order to be deducible from those of lower order:
‘Psychology, in our opinion, is reducible, in the last resort, to physiology, and the latter in turn to chemistry, physics and mechanics… The same may be said of sociology… Society is just as much a product of the development of primary matter as the crust of the earth or an amoeba. Thus it is that scientific thought, with its diamond-drill methods, can penetrate from the most complex phenomena of social ideology to matter and its constituent elements, the particles and their physical and mechanical properties.’” (Wetter, pp. 173-174)
“The victory of the dialecticians was announced in April 1929, the same month in which Bukharin and other members of the Right opposition were stripped of much of their political power.” (Bauer, p. 26)
In the end some of the mechanists actually realized their mistakes and corrected themselves:
“comrades Perelman, Sarabjanov*, have appeared in the press criticizing mechanistic errors, first of all their own, and so are gradually joining in our common work.” (V. Adoratski, E. Kolman, A. Maksimov, M. Mitin, P. Judin, V. Raltgevitsh, “Questions of the day on the philosophical front”)
*Sarabjanov had already criticized Bukharin’s philosophical views despite himself being a mechanist at the time (Somerville, p. 219)
The physicist A. K. Timiryazev also went on to have a very successful career as a scientist and communist.
Ivan Skortsov-Stepanov died in 1928 right before the condemnation of mechanism, and Stalin praised him at his funeral:
“staunch and steadfast Leninist… Comrade Skvortsov-Stepanov devoted his whole life of brilliant labour to the cause of the victory of the dictatorship of the proletariat.” (Stalin, To the Memory of Comrade I. I. Skvortsov-Stepanov October, 1928)
Bukharin never corrected his erroneous and opportunist views.
Soon after the defeat of the mechanists, the leader of the “Dialecticians” A. M. Deborin, and the entire “Deborin school” were also criticized for idealist and semi-menshevik mistakes – but that will have to be the topic of the next episode. . .
Raymond A. Bauer, The new man in Soviet psychology
Stephen F. Cohen, Bukharin and the bolshevik revolution
Gustav Wetter, Dialectical Materialism
O. Minin, “Overboard with Philosophy”
Bukharin, Historical Materialism
Stalin, Dialectical and historical materialism
Lenin, On the Question of Dialectics, in his Philosophical Notebooks
Engels, Dialectics of Nature
Somerville, Soviet Philosophy: A Study Of Theory And Practice
Lenin, Materialism and empirio-criticism
Lenin, Once Again On The Trade Unions, The Current Situation and the Mistakes of Trotsky and Buhkarin
Lenin, On the significance of militant materialism
Stalin, To the Memory of Comrade I. I. Skvortsov-Stepanov October, 1928
V. Adoratski, E. Kolman, A. Maksimov, M. Mitin, P. Judin, V. Raltgevitsh, “Questions of the day on the philosophical front”