HISTORY OF PHILOSOPHY IN THE USSR: Debate on Menshevising Idealism (1930-31)

This article is a continuation to a previous article “HISTORY OF PHILOSOPHY IN THE USSR: Mechanism VS Dialectics (1920s)”.

Less than a year after the condemnation of mechanism by the dialectical school headed by Deborin, the Deborin school itself came under severe criticism. They were accused of ‘menshevising idealism’ or idealistic mistakes and slipping towards menshevik positions:

“In point of fact, it was before the first controversy had ended, while Deborin and his followers, during its closing years, were definitely gaining the upper hand, that a feeling arose among a large group of thinkers that neither of the contending schools was working out the kind of philosophic program and structure that were really needed. The feeling was that Deborin, and those who thought with him, had performed a necessary and valuable service in contending against the mechanists and exposing their errors, but that their own philosophical outlook suffered from… grave defects… they had lost touch with the very rapidly, and, indeed, momentously developing social and economic situation of the whole Soviet experiment, particularly, the problems centering round the introduction of the first Five Year Plan, and the building up of the collective farm movement. This area of problems found little reflection in the work of Deborin and his group (any more than in the work of the mechanists); hence arose the charge of the divorcement of theory from practice.

It was the intention to accuse Deborin not so much of outright, full fledged adherence to “menshevism”… but of a tendency, inclination or movement in that direction. It was as much as to say, if he is not a menshevik, he is at least talking like a menshevik; he is menshevising, and if we do not stop him, he will become, once again, a complete menshevik… before the revolution, he had been in fact a genuine menshevik. Philosophically, this meant an adherence to the views of Plekhanov, the intellectual leader of the menshevik faction, rather than to those of Lenin, the leader of the bolsheviks. It meant the belief that Plekhanov was the guiding philosopher of the movement rather than Lenin.” (Somerville, Soviet Philosophy: A Study Of Theory And Practice, pp. 221-223)


“The character of the group which rose up in opposition to Deborin… emphasized… the social and political contribution which they felt the philosophy ought to make to the currently developing reality. They were rather strict Leninists, and inclined to show little leniency towards the shortcomings of Plekhanov. Among their leading figures were Mitin and Yudin…

It was… Deborin’s lack of a sharp orientation in the social and political sense that made Mitin accuse him of idealistic tendencies, that is, tendencies to deal with ideas apart from their connections with things.

We noted at the outset that one of the principal objections made to the work of Deborin and his followers was that they allowed theory to become divorced from practice. To understand this charge, we must go back to the event which had originally set the ball of controversy rolling. This event was the now famous speech delivered by Stalin at the Conference of Agrarian Marxists. This conference took place in December, 1929, in the midst of the titanic struggles to collectivize the land… In the course of his talk, which was mainly devoted to theoretical questions, or rather to the relation between certain theories and certain matters of practice, Stalin took occasion to make the remark which became so well known, and played such a large part in the philosophical discussion.” (Somerville, pp. 224-225)

Stalin said:

“But if we have reason to be proud of our practical successes in the field of socialist construction,” he said, “it is quite impossible to say the same about our theoretical work in the field of economics in general, and in rural economy in particular. More than that: it is necessary to recognize that our theoretical work is not keeping up with our practical successes, that there is a gap between practical achievements and the development of theory. Meanwhile, what is necessary is that theoretical work should not only keep pace with the practical, but should move in advance of it, arming the practitioners in their struggle for the victory of socialism.” (Stalin, Concerning Questions of Agrarian Policy in the U.S.S.R., Speech Delivered at a Conference of Marxist Students of Agrarian Questions, December 27, 1929)

“What this meant in reality was the relation of philosophical work to the great practical problems.” (Somerville, p. 226)

“In this speech Stalin was severely critical of a number of theories at that time current in Soviet cultural life, for instance the mechanist theories of ‘equilibrium’ and ‘samotek’ [or automatism]… “ (Gustav Wetter, Dialectical Materialism, pp. 132)

The theory of equilibrium was Bukharin’s mechanist distortion of dialectics, which he took from the revisionist Bogdanov. The theory of samotek was another mechanistic theory which implied that history progresses inevitably and automatically regardless of consciousness. That is a one sided theory as it doesn’t understand that although history progresses due to material conditions, those conditions are expressed in ideas. For the proletariat, and in socialist society, this is even more the case. As Marx said:

“theory also becomes a material force as soon as it has gripped the masses.” (The Introduction to Contribution To The Critique Of Hegel’s Philosophy Of Right)

“It was the opinion of Mitin and his group that… neither the Deborinites nor the mechanists understood the gravity of the social situation; both were insensitive to their philosophic obligations in the face of it. They were not doing their part… “to find the laws of the transitional period,” i.e., the transition from NEP to socialism. It was that situation around which, as Mitin felt, the philosophic work should mainly revolve, whereas the Deborinites were principally preoccupied with problems of interpreting the history of philosophy. Meanwhile, in regard to sociological matters, it was Bukharin’s theories which, by default, as one might say, were left to stand in the field… It was such conditions that gave rise to Mitin’s charge of divorcement of theory from practice, and “scholasticism” on the part of the Deborin group.

The issues were discussed at length in a philosophical conference which met for three days in October, 1930. Everyone concerned presented his views. Among the leading speakers on one side were Mitin and Yudin, and on the other, Deborin, Karev and Sten. The closing stages of the discussion were marked by Deborin’s admission that his leadership had been faulty, and that he had not carried out his philosophic obligations in the face of the very serious social problems confronting the people. The consensus of opinion was that philosophic work should proceed along the lines indicated by Mitin’s group.” (Somerville, p. 227)

“On 25th January, 1931, in its resolution concerning the journal Pod znamenem marxizma [Under the banner of Marxism], the Central Committee of the Party condemned both mechanism and Deborinism, and demanded of the new philosophical leadership a war on two fronts in philosophy also:

‘In the field of philosophy the journal must wage a relentless struggle on two fronts: against the mechanist revision of Marxism, as the chief danger at the present time, and also against the idealist distortion of Marxism on the part of comrades Deborin, Karev, Sten and others.’

The Deborinists were accused, above all, of having separated philosophy from politics, theory from practice. They were rebuked for not having understood that Leninism represents a new epoch in philosophy, a reproach directed at their high opinion of Plekhanov. All the same it is noteworthy that it was mechanism which was described as the ‘chief danger’ at the present time.” (Wetter, p. 135)

“Lenin… had prescribed a critical attitude towards the Hegelian dialectic, and called for it to be reformed on materialist lines and applied to the concrete reality of the proletarian struggle for existence. Deborin, however, had done neither the one nor the other. In the first place the Deborinists had taken over the Hegelian dialectic as it stood, without transforming it into a materialist dialectic. They had supposed that in Hegel’s philosophy it was only the system that was idealistic, the method itself being a materialistic one…

In addition to their unmodified acceptance of the Hegelian dialectic, the Deborinists had committed a further error in taking an entirely abstract view of the dialectic, without applying it to the concrete problems of Soviet reality. Their whole activity had been occupied almost exclusively with Hegel’s Science of Logic, without taking any account of the questions of the day, the problems of politics and economics, the dictatorship of the proletariat and its struggle for the establishment of socialism. For them it was only the dialectic of logic that counted, not the dialectic of reality and the social struggle…

But it was not only in this Hegelian conception of dialectic that the idealism of the Deborinists presented itself… Their conception of matter is almost equally erroneous. They banish from it, indeed, everything which constitutes, in the Leninist view, the essential nature of matter, namely its character as an objective reality independent of our consciousness which gives rise to our sensations. The nature of matter in this sense is misrepresented in the definition given by Deborin, whose book Lenin the Thinker begins by framing the concept of matter correctly enough, but then goes on: ‘In the broader sense matter is the whole infinite concrete totality of “mediations”, i.e., ties and relationships’.” (Wetter, pp. 155-156)

“under [Deborin’s] direction the Hegelianizing of Marxism had reached such a point that for three or four years the whole work of the philosophical section of the Institute of Red Professors had been devoted to Hegel’s logic, and the last three or four courses had given no opportunity even for making acquaintance with the work of Feuerbach, let alone that of Marx and Engels.” (Wetter, p. 135)


The Deboring group was seriously criticized for their view on Lenin and Plekhanov. They held the widespread position among ex-mensheviks, that Plekhanov had been the real theoretician while Lenin had only been a practical leader. They did not understand that Leninism was a higher stage of Marxism. They also did not see any flaws in Plekhanov’s theory and did not see any meaningful disagreement between Lenin and Plekhanov. In reality, Plekhanov was a great theoretician, but he also made many serious mistakes.

It should be stated that after the controversy Deborin did his best to correct his mistakes and made a thorough self-criticism. There were a lot of criticisms, but they were fruitful in the end. Deborin said in 1937:

“To speak concretely, let me cite my earlier views on the relation of Lenm and Plekhanov. A number of years ago, I used to be of the opinion, as my published writings show, that Lenin was our great political leader while Plekhanov was our great philosophic leader. I now see that this whole view of the situation sprang out of a false conception of the relation of theory and practice. I now see that Lenin was not only our political leader, but our theoretical leader as well — as a theoretician, greater by far than Plekhanov. Take, for instance, Lenin’s whole theory of imperialism. Plekhanov never worked out any comparable doctrine of the basic aspects of present day capitalism. Then take Lenin’s theory of the state — the whole concept of the Soviet state, which was of such critical importance in the building of socialism. It was Lenin who rose to that occasion in 1917, and not Plekhanov. Again, it was Lenin and not Plekhanov who understood the nature of the imperialist war, and who, consequently, never wavered in his attitude towards it, whereas Plekhanov completely lost his bearings, and adopted a chauvinist position.” (Quoted in Somerville, pp. 223-224)

“Deborin… had taken Plekhanov, the theoretician, as a complement to Lenin, the man of action; he had constituted himself the uncritical apologist of Plekhanov’s entire ouvre” (Wetter, p. 135)

“Long before the Revolution, Deborin’s book, An Introduction to the Philosophy of Dialectical Materialism, had appeared with a friendly preface by Plekhanov which was in great contrast to the remarks which Lenin penned in relation to the work. They were found in the margins of Lenin’s copy of one of Deborin’s chapters, printed in 1909 in advance of the full work. Lenin was greatly given to writing comments in margins, and among the remarks with which he sprinkled Deborin’s chapter were: “inexact,” “clumsy,” “fibs,” and “ne plus ultra of clumsiness.” There is only one favorable comment, “right,” next to an underlined passage.” (Somerville, p. 224)

“the objection was that… Deborin takes over from Plekhanov precisely what is least valuable in him, his apology for Feuerbach, the application of Feuerbach’s anthropological principle to epistemology, the discounting of Lenin’s theory of knowledge (the ‘copy-theory’ [aka. the theory of reflection]), the attempt to solve the epistemological problem of the subject-object relation in terms of purely metaphysical categories without regard for historical and revolutionary reality. The whole nonpolitical, unrevolutionary spirit of Deborin’s philosophy resembles that of Plekhanov’s.” (Wetter, p. 157)

“Elsewhere, in his Introduction to Volume IX of Lenin’s Selected Writings, Deborin modifies his opinion to some extent, maintaining that Lenin and Plekhanov represented different stages in the development of Marxism:

‘There is a difference between Plekhanov and Lenin which reflects what is peculiar to the historical phases of development in the revolutionary movement and the class-struggle of the proletariat.’

To this the [Marxist-Leninists] objected that the most important works of Plekhanov and Lenin, and not only the philosophical ones but also others, such as the polemic against the Narodniks, belong to the same period. Another well-known Deborinist therefore deals with the question in a rather different fashion. In an article in the magazine Pod znameneni rnarxizma he writes:

‘Plekhanov and Lenin are representative . . . not of different periods in the workers’ movement, but of different currents in it and in Marxism, a different type of insight into the same thing.’

But even this approach found no acceptance from the [Marxist-Leninist] point of view. To speak of different currents and tendencies in Marxism is to abandon Marxist-Leninism. It would mean reverting to the standpoint of the Second International, which looked on Marxism as an agglomeration of movements, tendencies, etc.” (Wetter, p. 158)


“the mechanists were accused in their day of having interpreted the negation of the negation to signify a restoration of equilibrium; Bukharin, for example, thought of synthesis, not as the negation of the negation, but as a ‘reconciliation’ of opposites:

‘a unifying position, in which contradictions are reconciled’. [see Bukharin, Historical Materialism, p. 74]

The same objection was also brought against ‘menshevizing idealism’, Deborin, for example, having seen in dialectical materialism a reconciliation of empiricism and rationalism,’” (Wetter, p. 358)

“Mitin… makes it a further objection to Deborin that the latter’s view of dialectic represents a reconciliation of opposites, not a struggle between them. In discussing Kant’s antinomies, Deborin writes:

‘Kant opposed the thesis to the antithesis and attempts to show that the thesis excludes the antithesis, and hence that they cannot be reconciled or resolved. The positive dialectic, on the other hand, sees in thesis and antithesis opposites which are not mutually exclusive, but reconciled one with another.’

Mitin contrasts this view of dialectic with that of Lenin, according to which it is not the unity, but the opposition, which plays the primary role in the dialectic: the unity of opposites is relative, temporary, transient; whereas the conflict between mutually exclusive opposites is absolute, like development and movement itself.” (Wetter, p. 166)


“To sum up, we may say that menshevizing idealism is condemned… firstly as an idealistic tendency in that it offers too many hostages to Hegelianism, adopts the Hegelian dialectic without transforming it materialistically, separates form and content and misconceives the nature of matter; secondly, as a menshevizing tendency, in that it represents a revival of the traditions of the Second International, separates theory from practice, philosophy from politics, failing thereby to practise partisanship in philosophy, over estimates Plekhanov, and underestimates the importance of Lenin in the development of philosophy.” (Wetter, p. 158)


“Since the above-mentioned condemnation of ‘menshevizing idealism’ by the Party Central Committee (25th January 1931), Deborin, having… acknowledged his ‘errors’, has been able thereafter to occupy leading positions in the scientific work of the U.S.S.R. In November 1935 he was elected secretary of the Social Sciences division of the Academy of Sciences, in 1938 we find him on the Council of the Philosophical Institute of the same Academy of Sciences, while in 1939 he was elected to the Presidium of the Academy itself. At present [in the early 1950s] Deborin is a member of the editorial board of the Vestnik, the official organ of the Academy of Sciences of the U.S.S.R.” (Wetter, p. 159)

Mitin and his collaborators received some criticism in the mid 1930s for not keeping up with the development of the political situation, but despite this, Mitin was considered a leading Marxist-Leninist philosopher:

“On the occasion of his nomination to ordinary membership of the Academy of Sciences [in 1939], Mitin’s services to Soviet philosophy were appraised by the Vestnik of the Academy as follows: Mitin is ‘one of the foremost researchers in the field of philosophy. For the past 10 years he has been engaged in investigating the problems of dialectical materialism and of the history of philosophy. Among the deepest inquiries devoted to the problems of dialectical materialism are works such as his Boevye voprosy material is ticheskoy dialektiki (Burning Questions of Materialist Dialectics), Engels i dialektichesky materializm (Engels and Dialectical Materialism), Materialist icheskaya dialektika—filosopya proletariat a (Materialist Dialectic—the Philosophy of the Proletariat), Stalin i rnaterialisticheskaya dialektika (Stalin and the Materialist Dialectic). As regards the history of philosophy, particular importance attaches to those works of Mitin which outline the interrelation of ideas between Marxism and classical German philosophy, more especially the philosophy of Hegel (Hegel i materialisticheskaya dialektika (Hegel and the Materialist Dialectic), Istoriya fdosofii Hegelya (Hegel’s History of Philosophy), Filosofiya prava Hegelya (Hegel’s Philosophy of Right). Translations of a number of Hegel’s greatest works are appearing under M. B. Mitin’s editorship (Science of Logic, History of Philosophy). In combination with his scholarly activities, Mitin pursues a thorough-going campaign against mechanist and idealist theories in the field of philosophy. In addition to his academic work, Mitin displays great activity as a lecturer and publicist. He is in charge of the philosophical and socio-political journal Under the Banner of Marxism and is at present Director of the Marx-Engels-Lenin Institute.’ (Vestnik Akademii Nauk SSSR, 1939, No. 2/3, p. 181.)” (Wetter, p. 179)

In this article I have discussed and criticized Plekhanov and Deborin at great length. However, I want to re-emphasize that Plekhanov was a great theoretician, and Lenin praised some of his philosophical works highly. Certain works of Plekhanov such as “The Development of the Monist View of History” and “The Role of the Individual in History” are classics of Marxism. In other words, it is good and useful to read and study Plekhanov. Plekhanov still failed to understand certain aspects of dialectics and made serious opportunist mistakes in politics, so his work must be read critically.

Deborin also wrote many good works and I also encourage people to study Deborin. Needless to say he also made many mistakes (some were serious, many were not so serious) but this article hopefully can serve as a guide to avoid many of them. But as Lenin said:

“It goes without saying that nobody can be blamed for making mistakes” the problem is when one chooses to persist in them. (Lenin, The Vperyodists and the Vperyod Group)

I also recommend reading the works of M. B. Mitin. You can find some of them collected on this page.


Somerville, Soviet Philosophy: A Study Of Theory And Practice

Stalin, Concerning Questions of Agrarian Policy in the U.S.S.R., Speech Delivered at a Conference of Marxist Students of Agrarian Questions, December 27, 1929

Marx, The Introduction to Contribution To The Critique Of Hegel’s Philosophy Of Right

Gustav Wetter, Dialectical Materialism

Bukharin, Historical Materialism

Lenin, The Vperyodists and the Vperyod Group


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