Over its more than 80 years in print, the Journal of the History of Ideas has accumulated a pretty large archive. Oftentimes, that archive is representative of the history of intellectual history—its trends, priorities, methods. Sometimes, it involves scholarship that, by virtue of appearing once-in-a-while, cannot quite get either the visibility or the relevant context in which to be seen.
With the Virtual Issues initiative on the JHIBlog, we propose to recall earlier articles from the JHI that fit with a particular subject or theme, and to place them in a new and current context. We do not pretend that the JHI could ever be comprehensive on these themes, and we are well aware of the limits of the journal’s success in addressing particular subjects. But as with every archive, all sorts of surprises await. With Virtual Issues, we bring out work that has some connection to current concerns, and to recall ways in which authors engaged a particular theme, including ways that may now be out of fashion but that are suggestive of past trends. Each Virtual Issue—the second being East European Intellectual History, to appear in several installments—features an introduction that resituates these articles. Anyone interested in curating such an issue together with us should contact the lead JHIBlog editors with a proposal and a list of relevant articles.
— Stefanos Geroulanos, on behalf of the Executive Editors
By Artur Banaszewski & Isabel Jacobs
In the first installment of our series on East European Intellectual History, we sketched out how imaginary maps of the 18th century translated into what was later envisioned as the iron curtain, a mental demarcation line shaped by the ideological frontlines of the Cold War. We revealed how concepts of “East” and “West” were used as floating signifiers rather than denoting precise boundaries.
However, in the mind of Western anti-communists, including Isaiah Berlin and Hannah Arendt, the iron curtain remained an ultimate barrier “separating the light of Christian civilization from whatever lurked in the shadows.”
The image of an impenetrable wall described more than an economic and political divide: it symbolized a discontinuity of European civilization, where the Western, Judeo-Christian tradition was replaced by the dogmatic doctrine of Marxism-Leninism-Stalinism imposed from Moscow. From this perspective, the bayonets of the Red Army violently cut Eastern Europe’s cultural and historical ties to the rest of the globe.
While the political split between East and West was unquestionable, Winston Churchill’s acclaimed metaphor bore little correspondence to the reality of intellectual history during most of the Cold War. After all, Marxism was a quintessentially global phenomenon that, after World War II, inspired labor unions and anti-colonial movements alike. Despite the dramatic political circumstances, the circulation of ideas between East and West did not come to a halt.
Between 1965 and 1973, the Yugoslav Marxist journal Praxis attracted international readership and featured distinguished Western scholars like Herbert Marcuse, Erich Fromm, and Jürgen Habermas. Based in the small Croatian island Korčula, the yearly summer school organized by Praxis was a crucial point of contact between Marxist thinkers from East and West.
On Korčula’s beaches, French theorists Henri Lefebvre and Lucien Goldmann, the latter Romanian-born, went for a swim with Ágnes Heller, Karel Kosík, and other non-conformist thinkers from Eastern Europe. Through Korčula, new theories were freely migrating toward both east and west, unveiling the permeability of the iron curtain.
The controversial anti-communist magazine Encounter, infamously sponsored by the CIA, paid close attention to intellectual developments in Eastern Europe with the goal to undermine the appeal of Soviet ideology. At Western campuses, East European thinkers evoked genuine interest as having first-hand knowledge of the alternative system, its official ideology, and its faults.
In the post-war decades, American academia was shaped by the impact of émigré scholars from Central and Eastern Europe, many of them Jewish, such as Hannah Arendt, Alexandre Koyré, and Aron Gurwitsch. Throughout the Cold War, global debates about political and social change could not take place without considering the East European experience of “real socialism.”
Consequently, in our second virtual issue we suggest conceptualizing Marxism not as obstructing but, on the contrary, facilitating Eastern Europe’s transnational dialogues. In the Cold War intellectual landscape, Eastern Europe played a prominent role as a source of productive criticism and practical engagement with Marxist ideas.
Simultaneously, the status of the region was profoundly intertwined with global cultural politics. Therefore, we suggest that “Marxism in dialogue” provides a compelling lens through which Eastern Europe can be situated within global intellectual history of the twentieth century.
East European Marxism was not only in dialogue with the world but also with discourses across disciplinary boundaries: theology, the natural sciences, analytical logic, and political economy. While scouring the archives, we discovered that many articles published in the Journal of the History of Ideas during the 1960-70s presented East European Marxists as valuable inspirations to Western scholarly audiences.
Marxist philosophy, enriched and transformed by other disciplines, provided some of the most original theories and arguments of the twentieth century. During the Cold War, powerful Marxist voices like Evald Ilyenkov or Karel Kosík, today largely forgotten, had a truly global outreach, inspiring Italian anti-fascism and Mexican Marxists alike.
This does not mean that all East European intellectuals were Marxists or even had remotely communist sympathies. On the contrary, émigré thinkers Isaiah Berlin and Leszek Kołakowski formulated compelling critiques of Marxism which helped establish the canon of Cold War liberal thought.
What made such critiques so powerful was their embeddedness both in Marxist discourse and the personal experience of socialism in Eastern Europe. Even for anti-communist Eastern Europeans, Marxism provided the ground of their theories and the context in which their ideas were received by a global public.
Our virtual issue captures this dissent and intersects it with an analysis of the JHI’s editorial policy during the Cold War. As the recent virtual issue on the JHI in the Early Cold War has shown, in the 1940-50s the Journal promoted anti-communist and anti-Marxist approaches that endorsed the position of the United States as a liberal world power.
Some of the articles we selected for our issue continued this strand of thought and criticized Marxism directly. However, during the archival work, we discovered that in the 1960s-70s, the Journal also published a surprising number of articles sympathetic to a pan-European project of Marxist revisionism.
For instance, a recurring theme was criticizing orthodox Soviet Marxism and exposing its differences to the original writings of Marx and Engels. At first glance, this may appear as a startling change in the JHI’s editorial policy, which became appreciative of Marxist inputs to the history of ideas.
However, this adjustment can also be explained by cultural policies implemented by the US government during the Cold War. Following the 1950s, American authorities began supporting anti-communist advocacy groups that fostered ideas and intellectuals associated with the non-communist Left.
Associations like the CIA-funded Congress for Cultural Freedom promoted revisionist and non-orthodox voices to subvert an overall coherence of Marxist theory. One of the objectives of the Congress and its successors was exposing East European intellectuals to Western anti-communist ideas.
Elements of this close proximity strategy are evident in several of our selected articles. Our discoveries in the archives support the hypothesis that the JHI was both informed by and played an active part in America’s Cultural Cold War.
While aiming to showcase various voices from Eastern Europe, we noticed an astonishing gap of female commentators on Marxism. As a result, we had to neglect the powerful impulses of Marxist feminist thinkers in Eastern Europe, from Alexandra Kollontai to Yugoslav feminism in the 1970s.
With the supposed global decline of Marxism as an intellectual force, Eastern European intellectuals became strangely absent from the mental maps of the international scholarly public. Already from the 1970s onwards, the region gradually ceased to be an interlocutor, turning into a mere case study of social and ideological failure.
Crucial intellectual debates within and beyond Marxism that often opened up spaces for ambiguous dissent have largely been neglected ever since. Once communism has fallen, the tale of an ultimate victory of liberal capitalism goes, the force of East European Marxism vanished too – for the problems it instigated were resolved once and for all.
In 1989, the crowds in the streets of East European capitals became an ultimate proof that the end of history was nigh. Although liberal apologists championed these revolutions as an example to the rest of the globe, Eastern Europe lost its previous intellectual appeal. The only legitimate concern left for the region was to “catch up” with the West.
Recreating liberal norms and institutions became Eastern Europe’s ultimate horizon of political imagination. The fall of communism was intrinsically intertwined with the global triumph of liberalism. Both events were decided in Eastern Europe, yet the intellectual history of the region’s place in the contemporary liberal weltanschauung remains to be written.
In our virtual issue, we present East European intellectual developments from the 1960s onwards as equal to those of Western academics. Further, we suggest that some of Marxism’s forgotten dialogues, such as the collision between Marxist thought and analytic philosophy in post-war Poland, have the potential to stimulate intellectual debate today.
- Isaiah Berlin. “Marx’s Kapital and Darwin.” Journal of the History of Ideas Vol. 39, No. 3 (Jul. – Sep., 1978), p. 519.
- Truman B. Cross. “Young Marx, Marxism: Viktor Chernov’s Use of the Theses on Feuerbach.” Journal of the History of Ideas Vol. 32, No. 4 (Oct. – Dec., 1971), pp. 600-606.
- Henryk Skolimowski. “Analytical-Linguistic Marxism in Poland.” Journal of the History of Ideas Vol. 26, No. 2 (Apr. – Jun., 1965), pp. 235-258.
- David Joravsky. “Soviet Marxism and Biology before Lysenko.” Journal of the History of Ideas Vol. 20, No. 1 (Jan., 1959), pp. 85-104.
- Maxim W. Mikulak. “Darwinism, Soviet Genetics, and Marxism-Leninism.” Journal of the History of Ideas Vol. 31, No. 3 (Jul. – Sep., 1970), pp. 359-376.
- Eliyahu Stern. “Marx and the Kabbalah: Aaron Shemuel Lieberman’s Materialist Interpretation of Jewish History.” Journal of the History of Ideas Vol. 79, No. 2 (April 2018), pp. 285-307.
- Erazim Kohak. “T. G. Masaryk’s Revision of Marxism.” Journal of the History of Ideas Vol. 25, No. 4 (Oct. – Dec., 1964), pp. 519-542.
- Julius Kovesi. “Marxist Ecclesiology and Biblical Criticism.” Journal of the History of Ideas Vol. 37, No. 1 (Jan. – Mar., 1976), pp. 93-110.
- Charles F. Elliott. “Quis Custodiet Sacra? Problems of Marxist Revisionism.” Journal of the History of Ideas Vol. 28, No. 1 (Jan. – Mar., 1967), pp. 71-86.
Our issue opens with Russian-Jewish philosopher and intellectual historian Isaiah Berlin’s one-page note, published in 1978, concerning whether Marx dedicated or not his Capital to Darwin. A remarkable historical document, Berlin’s note is a scathing commentary on “Western Marxology,” while revealing his links to Soviet Marxist research. Critically reacting to Margaret A. Fay’s review of his intellectual biography of Marx, Berlin insists on Marx’s close relationship to Darwin.
Fay had argued that there was no evidence Marx offered to dedicate the Capital to Darwin. Berlin, on the other hand, refers to resources at the Marx-Engels-Lenin Institute in Moscow that he had consulted while writing his book in the 1930s. Further, Berlin suggests Western Marxologists should educate themselves with the Russian Biokhronika of Marx’s life, the “fullest and most authoritative source for the facts of Marx’s life as well as for his writings.”
In his article, Truman B. Cross sets the tone for our issue by emphasizing the complex legacies of Marx’s epistemology. In his work as a theoretician and translator, Viktor Chernov, one of the founders of the Russian Socialist-Revolutionary Party, noted a discrepancy between the “old” and the “young” Marx’s views on epistemology. For Chernov, Marx’s writings from the 1870-80s aimed to discover “objective” economic laws of the historical process, which he conceptualized as the ultimate causes of social change.
However, Chernov noted that in the 1845 Theses on Feuerbach, Marx stressed the active role of the individual in perceiving material reality, which implied that knowledge was not objective but dependent on one’s psychosocial development. Therefore, Chernov credited Marx with discovering the social generation of truth criteria, a kind of pre-sociology of knowledge.
Chernov also scolded later Marxists, particularly Engels and Lenin, who ignored the young Marx’s views on epistemology for the sake of historical positivism and economic determinism. As Cross demonstrates, Chernov’s argument prefigured later debates in Marxism, for instance regarding the relation of the individual to society and the problem of praxis.
Polish philosopher Henryk Skolimowski’s groundbreaking article discusses the revival of analytical philosophy and its collision with Marxist theory in Poland in the 1950-60s. Analytical philosophy in Poland, known as the Lviv-Warsaw School, had been a dominant school before its near extinction during World War II.
When Marxists attempted to subjugate all other philosophical schools in the 1950s, Marxist doctrinal epistemology turned out to be inadequate to discredit more sophisticated theories by analytical philosophers. This lively, productive debate between Marxists and analytical philosophers resulted in what Skolimowski calls “analytical-linguistic Marxism.”
Skolimowski examines how Polish Marxists, most notably Leszek Kołakowski and Adam Schaff, applied highly semantic categories and approaches in their work. Kołakowski, for instance, used an analytical view on Marxism to argue for the compatibility of individual responsibility and historical inevitability. Similarly, Adam Schaff criticized Sartre’s famous essay Between Existentialism and Marxism using tools from an analytical philosophy of language.
As a result, by demonstrating the reconcilability of formal and dialectic logic, Polish philosophers were capable of integrating new methods into Marxist philosophy. Further, their eclectic version of Marxism, largely forgotten, remains highly relevant for contemporary analytic philosophy.
The battle between formal and dialectical logic, shaping analytical-linguistic Marxism in Poland, was also fought in the field of Soviet biology. While Marx, according to Berlin, had offered to dedicate his Capital to Darwin, Soviet Marxist biologists had difficulties reconciling dialectics with evolutionary laws. According to Boris Groys, at the core of this battle was the question of “how the living could be distinguished from the dead, the mechanical, the machinistic” (61).
Soviet scientists, such as anti-geneticist Trofim Lysenko or biochemist Alexander Oparin, debated on how organic life had to be understood, and whether the laws of biology could be overturned by the logic of dialectical materialism. Mendel’s genetics, with its emphasis on inheritance, was suspected of subordinating life to “a dead combinatory of signs.”
A fervent opponent of Mendel’s theory of genetic inheritance, Lysenko developed his own pseudo-scientific theory of the origin and development of life. As Oparin argued in 1951, Stalin’s conception of language had a significant influence on the field of biology, prompting Lysenko to describe life itself as contradictory (61). David Joravsky’s article reflects on these debates and explores the relation between Soviet Marxism and biology in the 1920s, before Lysenkoism gained fame – with catastrophic consequences, including mass starvation due to Lysenko’s agricultural reforms under Stalin.
Joravsky provides an interesting case study on how Marxism became institutionalized in the Soviet natural sciences. According to the author, the decline of Soviet biology began long before Lysenkoism due to politically motivated attempts to create an all-encompassing Marxist theory of biology.
Maxim W. Mikulak’s article, on the other hand, approaches the debate from the other end, proclaiming “the near death of Soviet genetics in Stalinist Russia” (359). Mikulak discusses the influence of Darwinism and Lamarckism on Soviet Marxist natural sciences. 19th-century paradigms in biology had left a lasting imprint on the Marxist philosophy of nature. When later developments in genetics falsified Marx and Engels’ views, Marxist philosophers found it impossible to challenge their outdated views which were still based on approaches from the previous century.
Thus, the reason for the backwardness of Soviet genetics was a kind of reverse presentism: they assessed scientific discoveries of the present using theoretical criteria of the past. While the encounter of Marxism and analytical philosophy proved fruitful, Soviet genetics is an interesting example of a failed dialogue with detrimental effects: dogmatically imposing Marxist views on scientific frameworks, Lysenko was responsible for a severe humanitarian crisis and the temporary decline of Soviet science.
Marxist epistemology not only intervened into the fields of logic and science but also instigated lively debates on political and theological matters. In his article on Marx and the Kabbalah, Eliyahu Stern studies the reinterpretation of Marx in Jewish socialist Aaron Lieberman’s political thought. Most discussions about the Jewish reception of Marx, himself Jewish-born, focus on his “On the Jewish Question” from 1843/4.
However, in the Russian Empire, where the majority of the world’s Jewry resided at the time, a lively Jewish reception of Marx’s ideas began in the 1870s. Such was the case of Lieberman, a founding father of Jewish socialism, who argued that the socio-economic problems facing Jews in 19th-century Eastern Europe rooted in their systemic subjugation to the Russian Empire.
Using arguments developed in Marx’s Capital, Lieberman exposed medieval Jewish scholasticism as an ideological superstructure substantiating the rule of a feudal elite and excluding any possibility of people’s control over their material conditions. Accordingly, Liebermann accused the 19th-century Jewish reformism movement of maintaining the scholastic principle of legitimizing the existing social order.
Instead of supporting liberal policies embedded in divine concepts of mercy and ethics, Lieberman used Judaism to argue for the need for human agency over the world. Therefore, Lieberman’s kabbalistic communism constituted an original, enlightened fusion of religious and Marxist thought, inspired by the concrete experiences of East European Jews.
Czech philosopher Erazim Kohák’s translation of Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk’s article “The Scientific and Philosophical Crisis of Contemporary Marxism,” written almost 70 years earlier, is a remarkable example of the shift in the JHI’s editorial policy. Even more surprising is Kohák’s unapologetically political foreword, explicitly advocating for democratic socialism in an American scholarly journal in the 1960s.
Masaryk’s article was originally published in the Austrian weekly Die Zeit in 1897. Kohak opens his foreword with the daring assertion that due to the widespread influence of socialist parties and ideas across the globe, “the world in which we live is a socialist world.” In Kohak’s view, democracy can no longer ignore socialism due to a shared existential dilemma: how to transform a revolutionary movement for social change into a lasting reform movement that can enact it?
Kohak argues that the task of transforming revolutionary socialism into social democracy provides new importance to the “revisionists” of the late 19th century, particularly Masaryk who was not only a prolific historian of philosophy but also Czechoslovakia’s first president. The article presents Masaryk as one of the leading figures of socialist revisionism alongside more known authors such as Eduard Bernstein or Karl Kautsky.
In his article, Hungarian moral philosopher Julius Kovesi describes various attitudes towards Marx, which in his view, commonly share religious dimensions. Kovesi is an important Eastern European voice attacking Marxist trends in the 1970s, while drawing from an array of scholars critical of Marxism, such as Eric Voegelin or Leszek Kołakowski.
Kovesi places Marxism within what he calls an ecclesiastical framework. Similar to the tradition of biblical criticism, within Marxism “even the rejection of the ecclesia takes the form of an appeal to the bible” (93). According to Kovesi, another similarity between Christianity and Marxism is the fact that both do not differentiate between an idea and a person: acknowledging Marxism was equal with placing oneself as a participant in the Marxist worldview.
Further, the ecclesiastical framework assumes that the scriptures which gave rise to the church contain perennial and universal truth, which allows it to disregard any other writings inspired by the movement. On these grounds, Kovesi describes Marxism as a “closed system” of ideas opposed to “open systems” which permitted discussion and elimination of arguments based on reason and evidence. Kovesi particularly criticizes György Lukács and the New Left, concluding that the linking of an idea and a person dooms the idea to the risk of social invalidation.
While not discussing Eastern Europe per se, Charles F. Elliott’s article is a revealing document of cultural politics at one of the peaks in the Cold War. As such, it wonderfully concludes our second installment of East European Intellectual History. Elliott’s article, funded by the Ford Foundation, discusses revisions of Marxism made by Bernstein, Luxemburg, and Lenin. The author argues that in their search for the “correct” understanding of Marxism, all three authors heavily revised the original Marxian theory due to its inapplicability to mass democratic politics (the dilemma of the non-revolutionary proletariat).
Although not stated explicitly, the article’s main claim is that due to Marx’s internal inconsistencies and faults, no “correct” interpretation of Marxism can exist; thus all later interpreters had to be revisionists to some extent. The article is indicative of the cultural strategy pursued by the Ford Foundation in the 1950-1960s. In the midst of the Cold War, the Foundation aimed to support non-orthodox interpretations of Marxism to discredit it as a coherent political ideology and school of thought.
Featuring a broad array of scholarly approaches, our second virtual issue on East European Intellectual History sheds new light on the region’s global and transdisciplinary entanglements. We explored how East European Marxism intervened into crucial debates around democracy, political economy, religion, and science. We believe that these debates hold immense potential to further our understanding of the contemporary relevance and versatility of Marxist thought.
Artur Banaszewski is a PhD researcher in the Department of History and Civilization at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy. He holds a Master of Letters degree in Global Social and Political Thought from the University of St Andrews. Artur’s doctoral project titled “Disillusioned with communism. Zygmunt Bauman, Leszek Kołakowski and the global decline of orthodox Marxism” explores Eastern European critiques of socialist thought and intersects them with the global political context of the Cold War. His research interests include global intellectual history, postcolonial studies, political theory, and Cold War liberalism.
Isabel Jacobs is a PhD candidate in Comparative Literature at Queen Mary University of London. Her dissertation explores Russian-French philosopher Alexandre Kojève’s aesthetics. Her research interests include Soviet and Russian philosophy, German-Jewish thought, global intellectual history, and cinema. She holds a MA in Russian and East European Literature and Culture from UCL and a BA in Philosophy and Slavic Studies from Heidelberg University.
Featured Image: 1945 Romanian stamp of Karl Marx with the slogan “Workers of the world, unite!” Wikimedia Commons.