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The Strange Story of The Soviet Spinoza

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The Strange Story of The Soviet Spinoza

Lesley Chamberlain on the Spinozists’ dangerous dance with the Bolsheviks.

When after 1991 the Soviet archives were briefly opened, a surprising suicide note was found among the papers of the Defence Ministry. One of the country’s leading philosophers had planned to kill himself in 1931 under pressure from Stalin, and the cause of his despair was that he had preferred Spinoza to Lenin as a teacher. His name was Abram Moiseievich Deborin, and, had history taken a different course, Spinoza might have become the Soviet Union’s default thinker. It might not have changed the political reality, but philosophy itself would have survived as something more than explicating Marxist-Leninist fantasy.

Spinoza in Russia

Deborin left an interesting story behind him, hardly known in the West. Born in 1881, he graduated from Bern University, in Switzerland. He seemed to Lenin in the mid 1920s to be the best philosopher in Russia.

In truth by then there weren’t many left to compare him with, for many leading academics in philosophy, sociology, and economics had been forcibly exiled by Lenin on the famous ‘philosophy steamer’ in 1922. With their families, together with outstanding religious philosophers, those unwanted scholars and academics filled two ships, with a total payload of over two hundred people forced into exile.

In their absence, Lenin found himself in a quandary when looking to staff Moscow’s recently founded Institute of Red Professors. Deborin seemed uniquely capable of teaching at the right level, yet he wasn’t quite trustworthy. The problem was he had begun as a Menshevik, and Menshevism was a path Lenin had already left behind. Lenin had once idolized the Menshevik leader Georgy Plekhanov; but then Menshevism seemed too close to German social democracy and lacking in revolutionary potential. So, said Lenin, Deborin had to be watched.

That was the crucial moment for Spinoza too, because Plekhanov had admired him. Was this Spinoza endorsed by a Menshevik to be tolerated in the new Soviet society: and if so, to what degree? The debate would last ten years, during which Deborin, together with his colleague and only real rival at the Institute, Lyubov Akselrod, would be alternately privileged and threatened.

Deborin and Akselrod were both Marxists who taught courses in the history of Western philosophy. Akselrod believed Spinoza’s claim that there are logically necessary laws of the universe, while Deborin thought that Spinoza’s optimism, feeling for collective wisdom, and concern with how to live a good life offered the kind of philosophy Soviet Russia needed. Just like a good Marxist, Spinoza was a materialist and atheist, they argued; and in a way that was uniquely suitable because he could give a systematically reasoned account of why these ideas were necessary and true. Trotsky agreed. He freely admitted that a problem for revolutionaries when ideologically underpinning the new state was that Marx and Engels, though masters of polemic, were hardly systematic philosophers. Unfortunately, Trotsky would soon turn out not to be the most suitable political ally. But he was a sincere Spinozist.

Deborin agreed with Trotsky that the Soviet Union needed philosophy as a core discipline. The role of philosophy was to help clarify the values and guide the actions of the new state. But in fact, it’s not so easy to defend the claim that Baruch Spinoza was a materialist and an atheist. Born in 1632 in Amsterdam, Spinoza was part of the Portuguese Sephardic Jewish community there, and a regular synagogue-goer (until he was expelled). He often wrote affirmingly of God. His materialism however might be conceded. Spinoza taught that the world was one substance or entity, ‘God, or Nature’. But critics would say his philosophy was still metaphysical, if not in some more obvious sense religious. Another problem was that Spinoza hadn’t passed through the school of Hegel as Marx had done. So unlike for Hegel and Marx, his necessary universe was static, for he had no account of historical change. But the country that would become the Soviet Union in 1924 needed a dynamic philosophy of historical progress.

The early Soviet Spinozists tried to answer these national requirements while battling to distinguish themselves from Western readings of Spinoza. Spinoza in the West was a great rationalist and humanist, and seen as somehow associated with the French Revolution. In Soviet Russia, 1789 wasn’t a bad date; but it marked the triumph of the bourgeoisie, not of the newly emancipated Soviet and worldwide proletariat.

In 1927, the 250th anniversary of Spinoza’s death, Deborin travelled to a conference in the Hague, with a view to orienting himself in the implicit east-west ideological debate about the thinker. He heard a speaker from the League of Nations praise Spinoza as a seeker after peace whose philosophy was compatible with Christianity. The Russian was outraged. Sitting in the audience, he mused, “You are impudent liars… The contemporary proletariat is Spinoza’s only genuine heir” (Spinoza in Soviet Philosophy, George L. Kline, ed, 1955). The idea was that the Soviet Union should lay unique claim to Spinoza as its guiding philosophical light.

Russian philosophy had just experienced its own October Revolution, as marked by those steamer expulsions five years earlier. To set a new civilization on course, the philosophy that had to be expelled was metaphysical idealism, and indeed any remnants of metaphysics, including religious belief. The parallels here with the Logical Positivists in Vienna, and Bertrand Russell’s Cambridge at about the same time, are obvious. Just as in the West in the first half of the twentieth century the temptation arose to call metaphysics ‘nonsense’ and see it as holding back general enlightenment, so Russian philosophy, on behalf of Russia herself, was working out the same story. But in Russia it wasn’t only a matter of scholarly debate. Livelihoods and lives were at stake.

Spinoza the Atheist Materialist

How Spinoza was discussed in 1920s Russia shows us today how, from proposition to proposition, an optimistic social collectivism and a faith in scientific progress became cornerstones of the Soviet mentality. Spinoza was admired as the archetypal modern thinker, who, in opposition to Descartes, had closed the gap between mind and world, and in doing so had closed off the possibilities of relativism and scepticism. Deborin liked the power Spinoza invested in human possibility, while for Akselrod the Spinozan universe with its necessary laws embracing both the human and the universal was exactly what made Spinoza scientific.

They considered the defence against a charge of ‘metaphysics’ easy. Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-1872) had called Spinoza a ‘rationalist monist’, and surely that was what he was. Unpacked, what that meant was that when Spinoza referred to ‘God, or Nature’ as two names for ultimate reality, he had in mind two aspects of the same materiality. There was nothing that touched on a mysterious higher power at all. It was a clever move on the part of the Soviet Spinozists to loop back to Feuerbach, because it highlighted where Marx, who rejected Feuerbach, had left philosophy behind. These fresh Soviet thinkers, who really knew their history of philosophy, went back to the last moment when God was still in the picture, which on Feuerbach’s understanding was as a projected human need for a better world. So they chose on behalf of Russia the Spinozan monist route forward: one world, in which we think and act according to necessary laws. They rejected Marx’s materialist dialectic, of changing material conditions changing the human mind as both progressed along a predetermined path. Perhaps they simply didn’t believe it was philosophy, for, as Russia borrowed it, it contained a great deal of wishful thinking.

Deborin and Akselrod were genuine enough thinkers to know that any future philosophy had to be able to accommodate Darwin and Einstein. But they felt that their Spinoza could accommodate change. For Spinoza, the world caused itself according to its own laws. Ergo if the world changed, the task was to understand how and why. This was their answer to the dialectical materialism the Soviet Union would eventually adopt as its sole ideology. Yet only dialectical materialism could argue for necessary historical change in favour of the proletariat. And so the conflict between philosophy and ideology brewed.

The two Russian Spinozists helped determine the values of the anti-individualist, socially collectivized Communist state. They both admired Spinoza’s rejection of free will and subjectivism. Both believed Descartes’ view of an isolated thinking ego was inherently mistaken. It could be argued that Spinoza’s Ethics left no room for individual critics of the system and rebels against the necessary way of things, and that suited their vision for the future society well.

But then differences opened up between their two camps. In 1924 Akselrod argued that natural science, not a priori logic, discerned nature’s laws. She admired Spinoza’s rationalism and universalism, and liked the way his Jewish heritage seemed to encourage that position. But she couldn’t accept his non-empiricism. Hers was an honest but uncomfortable position which was promptly labelled ‘mechanicism’. That associated her thinking with the experimental science of the French eighteenth-century materialists such as La Mettrie and Condillac, and dissociated it from Hegel and Marx.

Deborin for his part would not concede that science made Spinozan logic superfluous. Spinoza’s ethics, though not a matter of empirical science, could yet be proved logically and applied to guide humanity to a happy life, of the right and true (Soviet) kind.

This for me is one of the most illuminating of all moments in the history of Soviet philosophy. Others were looking to privilege science over philosophy, and derive from it a guide to the future. But Deborin was searching the history of the discipline for a theory, and a practical guide, to happiness, on behalf of a whole people and a new civilization. Akselrod stood for the integrity of the scientific method, Deborin for philosophy as wisdom in human conduct.

The ultimate question, though, was the looming issue of dialectic. The issue was which arguments in philosophy, suitably tailored, were going to give the Soviet state its philosophical engine. While Akselrod was a ‘mechanicist’, Deborin had managed to associate himself with ‘dialectic’, but it was a tenuous association.

For Hegel (actually inspired by Spinoza), dialectical idealism described how the human mind acted upon the (divine) natural world, and was acted upon by it in turn; and so on and on. The Soviets’ dialectical materialism was the outcome of Marx standing the idealist Hegel the right way up, so deriving a materialist account of constantly evolving history. For Deborin the task was to somehow find those mechanisms of change in Spinoza. So he contended that there was a dialectic of sorts in Spinoza too; and for four years, from 1926 to the crisis of late 1930, his views prevailed. Already in 1922 he had become editor of the authoritative journal Pod Znamenem Marksisma (Under the Banner of Marxism). He was deputy director of the Institute of Marx and Engels. By February 1929, when he was elected a member of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR, he was an eminent figure.

Stalin. The smile of a mass murderer.

But then, late in 1929, Stalin intervened. That Georgian gangster-turned-tyrant disliked the erudite philosophers around Deborin, with their extensive knowledge of Western philosophy. They might trick him. Their knowledge of the West was dangerous in itself. Yet the greatest problem of all was that Deborin dared make philosophy independent of the will of the state and its leader. The time had come for the great theoretician Stalin to decide what Soviet philosophy was to be.

Spinoza versus Stalin

When he left the country in 1981, Yehoshua Yakhot, for many years a philosophy professor in the Soviet Union, wrote an extraordinary book on The Suppression of Philosophy in the USSR, in which he observed the details of this power struggle.

Not unlike the outcome of some great schism in the Christian church, at a pioneering All-Union Conference on Russian Philosophy in March 1930, the organizers issued an edict – that the dialecticians had won against the mechanicists. That was true, and the end of Akselrod’s career; but it was also a smokescreen, since the rest of 1930 saw Deborin and his followers attacked in the press all the more fervently. March 1930 was thus not a victory for Deborin, but the occasion of a trick on the part of Stalin, underpinned by a cunning manipulation of the claims at stake. As philosophy was annexed to become an official prop of the state, both mechanicism, or the authority of natural science, and dialectic, as a way of accounting for man’s place in nature, were stripped of their essential meaning. Stalin announced that dialectic, or the principle of material change (a concession to Deborin) was to be viewed as scientifically sound (a concession to Akselrod) – but this was to be true in the Soviet Union, and thus allowed only under tightly policed ideological conditions.

This new dialectical materialism was in fact a sleight-of-hand combination of Hegel’s metaphysics of progress and Spinoza’s metaphysics of reason. The theory of change came from Hegel, via Marx, and the scientific necessity from Spinoza. In my understanding, ‘Marxist-Leninism’ was a cover name to draw from the history of philosophy a programme (or at least a set of reassurances) for the Soviet future. Under that programme, a Soviet Spinozan universe – an inspired view of humanity’s universal material condition – would become (in line with Hegel’s vision for reason) ever more intelligible to ever more people, and thus deliver a meaningful life for the proletarian masses. Hegel’s logic, moreover, could always explain how the negative could herald the positive to come.

After the 1930 denouncement, Akselrod retired from philosophy. She was fortunate to escape with her life. In an early anticipation of what would become the USSR-wide Great Terror, a number of her disciples were purged. Deborin meanwhile enjoyed success, but only for another eighteen months. When Stalin denounced him as a ‘menshevizing idealist’, he felt doomed. No one had previously heard of that description, but whatever it meant, it was bad. Deborin spent the night of 23rd December 1930 in prison, and then sat night after night in a Moscow park, not wanting the authorities to pick him up at the family flat. Attacks in the Party newspaper Pravda, demands that he publicly apologize for having undervalued Lenin as a philosopher, overwhelmed him. His family remembered him as desperate in the New Year of 1931. And in the (unfulfilled) suicide note, Deborin wrote to his family and colleagues:

“I am weakened, exhausted, destroyed. Life has lost all meaning for me. A voluntary exit is the best way out of what has arisen. I don’t have the strength to sign a document about my anti-Marxism and my menshevizing idealism. I broke essentially with menshevism already in October 1917. I am not in a condition to bear the shameful exclusion from the Party that stands before me.” (My translation.)

The note was dated 20th January 1931.

Publicly though, in a recantation rather like Galileo’s before the Inquisition, he capitulated. He said he could now see that Plekhanov’s understanding of Spinoza was misleading. Shameful too was the fact that he, Deborin, had ‘forgotten’ to inspire his followers to attack Trotskyism. Lenin was the Soviet Union’s greatest philosopher. No, actually now it was Stalin.

Like Galileo, Deborin’s recantation earned him a reprieve. But in a way of which Russian literature has given us so many examples, his moral soul was destroyed. His first act as a man no longer under threat of death, was to denounce a colleague. He attacked the country’s most eminent scientist, Vladimir Vernadsky, to see if he couldn’t bring him into terminal dishonour, and so show, with renewed zeal, his own good credentials. Vernadsky advocated the freedom of science. Deborin willfully risked getting him killed. Yet Vernadsky was so eminent that he survived. He even went on to win the Stalin Prize in 1943, and eventually to die a natural death.

We know this was what Stalin’s Russia was like; but do we know that the purges began as early as the near-destruction of Deborin in 1930/31? And that one outcome of the Terror was a handful of lucky survivors? Yakhot noted the “hundreds and thousands of scholars [who] fell victim to the executioner”, including more than a dozen of Deborin and Akselrod’s followers. But neither of the leading Spinozists was among them. Deborin survived to become Vice-President of the Academy of Sciences. His now obscure works were even published, and he too died a natural death in 1963.

Spinoza After Glasnost

Even if the Soviet leaders had continued to tolerate the competing interpretations of Spinoza, I doubt that the political reality would have been much different. Genuine criticism of the system would have remained impossible. What comes through, however, is Spinoza’s extraordinary capacity to inspire modern visions of the good life across the ideological board.

During the Cold War, Western philosophers, especially British and American, were all too aware of the early Soviet Spinoza connection. The conservative philosopher Roger Scruton, in one of the best introductions to Spinoza ever published (Spinoza, 2007), lamented it, and urged his readers to see beyond it.

French left-wing philosophers in the 1960s – I’m thinking of the radical Marxist Louis Althusser, and the postmodernist Gilles Deleuze – easily moved between Marx and Spinoza. They saw the combination as promising more hope for reason and progress than the heinous combination of capitalism and Western individualism.

Spinoza was out of favour with Anglo-American philosophers in those days; but after 1990, the year the Cold War ended, his popularity in the West suddenly soared, now that the Soviet taint no longer applied. This was when Jonathan Israel’s 2001 book Radical Enlightenment reclassified the Enlightenment – the ongoing hope of a secular democratic non-metaphysical worldview – into ‘radical’ and ‘moderate’ strains. One moderate had been John Locke, inspiration for the Founding Fathers of the United States. Spinoza was the radical, and inspiration for something else. Of course it was Lockean moderation, which deferred to humanist ideals and even to God, which the 1928 Amsterdam congress had wanted to associate with Spinoza. Cue Deborin accusing the West of a flagrant ideological hijacking of a radical atheist. Cue Jonathan Israel bringing back Spinoza at the head of a radical enlightenment in his 1998 book, Spinoza.

All that was over twenty years ago. These days we are back with the religious Spinoza: a fact that ought to make us just a little bit wary of the independence of our own practice of philosophy in the free world. We too seem to be caught up in an ongoing ideological battle, whether we like it or not.

© Lesley Chamberlain 2022

Lesley Chamberlain is the author of The Philosopher Steamer: Lenin and the Exile of the Intelligentsia (2006), which was published in the US as Lenin’s Private War. The centenary of the expulsions was in August 2022. Her latest book is Street Life and Morals: German Philosophy in Hitler’s Lifetime (October 2021).