Oizerman, Tedor

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Teodor Oizerman (1914–2017)

From the late 1930s to the mid-2010s, Teodor Ilyich Oizerman was a witness to and actor in many significant events in Soviet and post-Soviet philosophical culture, as well as—because of his travels abroad and participation in international forums beginning in the 1970s—its face before the world. Born in the Odessa region of Ukraine, he completed a vocational school in Dnepropetrovsk and worked in industrial plants for several years while preparing to enter university. He graduated from the prestigious Faculty of Philosophy of the Moscow Institute of Philosophy, Literature, and History (MIFLI), which existed from 1931 to 1941. Oizerman defended his kandidatskaia dissertation (equivalent to a Ph.D.) at MIFLI in 1941 and began teaching at Moscow State University (MGU), but then joined the Red Army as a volunteer that same year. After the end of the Second World War, he returned as a lecturer at MGU. Oizerman consolidated his position in the academic world by writing expeditiously, and in 1951 he defended his habilitation thesis, entitled The Development of Marxist Theory Based on the Experience of the 1848 Revolutions (Razvitie marksistkoi teorii na opyte revoliutsii 1848 g.). Between 1954 and 1968, Oizerman headed the Department of the History of Foreign Philosophy at MGU, which under his leadership became among the most well-respected sub-departments of philosophy in the country. He held a number of Soviet state distinctions, as well as titles and appointments from the University of Jena, the GDR Academy of Sciences, the International Institute of Philosophy in Paris, the University of Bonn, and the University of Munich. He was co-author and member of the editorial board of the six-volume academic History of Philosophy (Istoria filosofii, 1957–1965) as well as of other, now classic, Soviet editions such as the Mysl’ Press series History of Dialectics (Istoria dialektiki). At the Institute of Philosophy of the USSR Academy of Sciences, to which he moved in 1968 and where he remained until his death in 2017 at the age of 102, Oizerman also held a senior position for many years—as head of the Sector of the History of Western Philosophy (1971–1987).

Oizerman was not one of the charismatic and legendary figures of Soviet philosophical culture, such as Losev, Ilyenkov, or Mamardashvili. He belonged to a category of Soviet intellectuals who were not oppositionists or victims of the regime, nor was he among the professional Communist Party functionaries who used philosophy as a pretext for their career aspirations (such as Mark Mitin or Mikhail Iovchuk). Rather, without entering into conflict with the regime, Oizerman tried to secure for himself and his colleagues a zone of relative normality where they could produce the “average-level scholarship” that is so vitally important for every scholarly community. Through his teaching, research, and administrative activities, he contributed to the professionalization of Soviet philosophers and historians of philosophy, and thus facilitated the crucial transformation that took place in Soviet philosophical culture in the 1960s and 1970s. The department he headed at MGU was known for being the most progressive of its time, and Oizerman singlehandedly played a foundational role in supporting a new generation of thinkers, including hiring Evald Ilyenkov at MGU and supervising the postgraduate work of Piama Gaidenko, Alexander Zinoviev, Merab Mamardashvili, and Nikolai Lapin. Oizerman held leverage with Soviet officials and was therefore able to promote the work of these younger, and sometimes more original and controversial thinkers.

Oizerman’s extensive oeuvre, spanning seventy-five years, can be categorized within the fields of theoretical philosophy and history of philosophy. Broadly speaking, his work addresses the following areas: 1) history of Marxism; 2) critique of bourgeois philosophy (with an emphasis on the critique of neo-Thomism, which he undertook in the 1950s and 1960s); 3) history of German classical philosophy (he devoted separate monographic studies to Kant, Fichte, and Hegel); 4) theory of philosophical historiography; and 5) theory of knowledge. Oizerman self-identified as a proponent of dialectical materialism, even past the collapse of the Soviet Union (Oizerman, “On a Critical Reflection”; first published in 1998), after which this kind of philosophical work became extremely unpopular in Russia and was seen as a sign of backwardness. The style of Oizerman’s work, his commitment to Marxist analysis, and the remarkable length of his life solidified his reputation in the post-Soviet decades as the figurehead of the “old guard,” or those thinkers who attempted to defend the relevance of dialectical materialism and Soviet Marxism for contemporary thought. At the same time, the testimony of philosophers working in the late Soviet period confirms his crucial contribution to the gradual improvement of the quality of Soviet historical-philosophical studies in the decades after the publication of the first of the six volumes of the academic History of Philosophy. Oizerman continued publishing actively after 1991, including undertaking a large-scale revision of his own interpretation of Marxism. His centenary was celebrated with the publication of a five-volume edition of his selected works, and a section featuring several articles devoted to him in the journal Problems of Philosophy (Voprosy filosofii, no. 5, 2014).


History of Marxism

The history of Marxism occupies a central place among Oizerman’s interests. He devoted numerous publications to this subject. These include his first monograph, The Rise of Marxism: The Revolutionary Turn in Philosophy (Vozniknovenie marksizma: revoliutsionnyi perevorot v filosofii), co-authored with Vasily Svetlov and published in 1948; The Making of the Marxist Philosophy (Formirovanie filosofii marksizma, 1962); and his voluminous books from the post-Soviet period, Marxism and Utopianism (Marksizm i utopizm, 2003) and Justification of Revisionism (Opravdanie revizionizma, 2005). Oizerman’s works on the history of Marxism are said to be among those that inspired the “philosophical awakening” of the 1960s and 1970s and the formation of the generation of the so-called Soviet Sixtiers (shestidesiatniki) and their rediscovery of Marx “in his genuine philosophical foundations.” This rediscovery was realized as a “movement from Lenin (and, in part, Engels) towards Marx” and it was undoubtedly encouraged by Oizerman’s university course on “The Making of the Marxist Philosophy,” which he taught between 1947 and 1955 at MGU (Guseinov 45). The eponymous book based on these lectures, initially published in 1962, had several subsequent editions and was translated into several languages. In 2010 it was published in a revised version as The Rise of Marxism (Vozniknovenie marksizma).

The Making of the Marxist Philosophy is guided by the view that, in the first stage of the creation of their system, Marx and Engels were interested above all in the field of philosophy, whilst in the next stages they devoted themselves to economic and political problems (The Making of the Marxist Philosophy, 1981). Their philosophical views took shape before scientific communism and the political economy of Marxism were formed (13). Oizerman traces the formation of the philosophical views of Marx and Engels, analyzing their early works of the 1830s and 1840s until the publication of The Poverty of Philosophy and the Manifesto of the Communist Party. His analysis includes, among others, some works published only in the 20th century, such as Marx’s Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 and Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. These works were unknown to Georgy Plekhanov, for one, who otherwise was the first theoretician to codify the philosophy of Marxism in Russia.

Oizerman’s view on the history and content of Marxism in The Making of the Marxist Philosophy, his best-known book, is entirely orthodox. He explicitly places his book in the same line of continuity as the works of Plekhanov, Lenin, and Mehring. This work is also fully in line with the Soviet tendency to conduct the ideological struggle through a “critique of bourgeois philosophy,” to which Oizerman devotes some pages here, but in which he engages more seriously in a number of articles and monographs (e.g., Neotomizm, 1959 and Krizis sovremennoi burzhuaznoi filosofii, 1962). One of the aims of this book is to disprove attempts made by western philosophers to reassess Marx’s legacy in the light of his early writings. In this aspect, and in opposition to Erich Thier, to name but one of a legion of authors, Oizerman considers it important to show that not any work penned by Marx and Engels can be recognized as Marxist, but only those written after the theory of Marxism had been formulated may be identified as such, while their early writings should be considered as stages in the process of shaping that theory. The Making of the Marxist Philosophy, however, differs radically from other Soviet philosophical works of the same period because of Oizerman’s expertise in the field of German idealism, his research approach (consisting above all in close readings of the texts), and his refusal to present philosophy in a “popular mode,” i.e., to simplify the content so as to make it understandable to philosophically unprepared reader.

In later publications, for example in his post-Soviet Justification of Revisionism, Oizerman writes that in order to avoid becoming dogmatic, every theory must undergo innovation. His 1962 monograph turned out to be innovative for Soviet Marxism of the Khrushchev and Brezhnev eras, both because of the author’s above-mentioned professionalism and also because of his method of conducting strict, historical readings of the philosophy of Marx and Engels. Historical reading as such can have two kinds of, to some extent opposite, effects. On the one hand, putting a theory in historical perspective lends it density and specificity, and provides a strong foundation. This is what Oizerman means when he writes:

As one follows Marx and Engels’s advance from the idealistic teachings of Hegel and the Young Hegelians, and from Feuerbach’s anthropological materialism to dialectical and historical materialism, one gains a deeper understanding of the revolution in philosophy which Marxism brought about. (Opravdanie revizionizma 21)

On the other hand, if the theory in question has served an ideological and dogmatic function, putting it in historical perspective automatically relativizes the validity of the dogma and weakens the ideological aspect in it.


Theory of the History of Philosophy and Meta-Philosophy

Oizerman’s move from the history of Marxism to the theory of the history of philosophy was motivated by his conviction that “the scientific history of philosophy, as a theoretical concept about the development of philosophical knowledge, is an organic component of the philosophy of Marxism” (Problemy istoriko-filosofskoi nauki 11). Oizerman distinguishes two methods of studying the history of philosophy—a historical and a logical one. The first reconstructs the development of human thought over time, while the second is used to establish the laws governing the historical development of philosophy, i.e. with its help philosophy’s “historical development is reproduced logically” (Dialekticheskii materializm i istoria filosofii 7). He understands the term “scientific history of philosophy” to refer both to historical-philosophical practice, i.e. the study of the past of philosophy, and to the tracing of the logic of the historical-philosophical process.

Oizerman regards Hegel as the first author to combine historical research with a logical method that reveals the main stages and laws of the development of philosophical knowledge. In this, Hegel is guided by the principle of the unity of the historical and the logical, a principle of his own formulation. This principle states that, in its entirety, the historical-philosophical process reproduces the logical development of the basic philosophical categories whose system constitutes the last, final stage of philosophical development. Ultimately, however, Oizerman assesses Hegel’s logic as “faulty” because it is founded on “the false notion of the self-development of philosophy” (30). It was only Marxism, he writes, that discovered “the sociological dimension” of the historical-philosophical process (37).

Looking back half a century later, we can conclude that Oizerman’s contribution in this field to Soviet philosophical culture is in that he calls into question the categorical, hard-and-fast tenets of the “official position” regarding the history of philosophy. He relativizes the imposed historiographical scheme and the materialism/idealism dichotomy that are the premise of, for example, the aforementioned six-volume History of Philosophy. Oizerman conducts this “operation” in his monographs Problems of the History of Philosophy (Problemy istoriko-filosofskoi nauki, 1969), The Main Trends in Philosophy (Glavnye filosofskie napravleniia, 1971), Dialectical Materialism and the History of Philosophy (Dialekticheskii materializm i istoria filosofii, 1979), and Principles of the Theory of the Historical Process in Philosophy (Osnovy teorii istoriko-filosofskogo protsessa, 1983), the latter of which he co-authored with Aleksei Bogomolov.

In particular, The Main Trends in Philosophy played an important role in the partial liberalization of the official Soviet interpretation of philosophical theories and of the methodology of historical-philosophical research. In it, Oizerman examines problems which, in the Soviet philosophical context, “are usually only treated in textbooks, i.e. that do not constitute the subject of research” or of debate at all, since they are assumed to be axioms (6). Such is the basic philosophical question regarding the primacy of being (nature, matter) or of consciousness (spirit, mind), and the notion that there are two camps (of materialism and of idealism) in philosophy. Oizerman claims that according to the perspective of the scientific history of philosophy, “the basic philosophical question, and likewise the problem of the main trends in philosophy, are not truisms” but specific problems: “[T]he Marxist proposition about the basic philosophical question is not simply a statement of an empirically obvious fact, but a theoretical formulation of a certain discovery made by Engels” (The Main Trends 6–7; translation modified by author). Here Oizerman criticizes the simplified way in which this “basic question” was typically expounded in Soviet textbooks, as if everything regarding Engels’ formula was clear and required no discussion or further research. A significant aspect of Oizerman’s “strategy” is his choice to refer to materialism and idealism as “trends” instead of using the Engelsian term “camps” in philosophy (see: Van der Zweerde, 151). For Oizerman, materialism and idealism are the main but not the only trends in philosophy. He devotes a significant part of his book to a discussion regarding the diversity of philosophical trends and the way each one of them is related to materialism and idealism.

In addition, another large section of this work falls within the broader practice of what Oizerman calls meta-philosophy, i.e. to discussions on the subject matter and various possible definitions of philosophy. He wrote significantly on the topic of meta-philosophy and in 2009 published a special monograph entitled Meta-Philosophy: Theory of the Historical-Philosophical Process (Metafilosofia: Teoria istoriko-filosofskogo protsessa). Although he leaves room for the historical approach and recognizes the importance of historical knowledge, Oizerman nevertheless values most of all the contribution of the history of philosophy precisely to meta-philosophy.

It is worth noting that opinions on the contributions of Oizerman’s theoretical works have differed radically. A review by Vasily Sokolov, written in 1969 but published only half a century later as an appendix to his memoirs, points out a number of weaknesses in his method, ranging from terminological inaccuracies and factual errors to “subjectivism bordering on arbitrariness of entirely random associations” (126) to verbosity and “vacuous philosophizing” (“durnoe rassuzhdatel’stvo”) (130). But in Sokolov’s view, the book’s main flaw seems to be “negligence in the use of historical-philosophical material” (122). As an example of such negligence and of the author’s “unhistorical approach,” Sokolov cites an analogy made by Oizerman between the teachings of the Eleatics, Aristotle, “the metaphysical systems of the Middle Ages and the Modern Era,” Hartmann, Jaspers, and Heidegger (128). Critics have also pointed out the somewhat logically inconsistent theses in his theory itself (analyzed in detail by Maija Soboleva in 2018).

In his 1999 monograph Philosophy as a History of Philosophy (Filosofia kak istoria filosofii), Oizerman notes that his earlier studies, i.e. the works of the “trilogy” (Problems of the History of Philosophy, The Main Trends in Philosophy, and Dialectical Materialism and the History of Philosophy) are flawed in that they view “the pluralism of philosophical doctrines” as a historical transient process which necessarily ended with the creation of the philosophy of Marxism: “It is this—wrong, from my present perspective—view that I have tried to overcome in this book” (13). Further, he described his approach as “self-critical Marxism,” whereby Marxist scholars must “recognize the legitimacy not only of dialectical materialism, but also of other philosophies no matter how much they may differ in content” (“On a Critical Reflection”). In other words, although Oizerman continued to work within the method of dialectical materialism until the end of his life, much of his work after the collapse of the Soviet Union was focused on freeing this approach from  dogmatism. The ideological manipulation of the Soviet period “made the Marxist project exclusive and less interactive with other philosophical doctrines [and] which often led not only to misconceptions, but deviations from the principles of dialectical materialism” (“On a Critical Reflection” 118). The trajectory of Oizerman’s career is distinctive both because he was outspoken about the way his earlier theoretical work was influenced by Soviet ideology, and also because he remained committed to working in the same research field even after the collapse of this ideological system.

Iva Manova, October 2020

(Translated by Katerina Popova)


Bogomolov, Aleksei and Teodor Oizerman. Osnovy teorii istoriko-filosofskogo protsessa. Nauka, 1983. (English translation: Principles of the Theory of the Historical Process in Philosophy. Progress, 1986.)

Dynnik, Mikhail et al. Eds. Istoria filosofii v 6-i tomakh. Iz-vo Akademii nauk SSSR, 1957–1965.

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http://vphil.ru/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=955&Itemid=52. Accessed Aug. 10, 2020.

Oizerman, Teodor and Vasilii Svetlov. Vozniknovenie marksizma: revoliutsionnyi perevorot v filosofii. Gospolitizad, 1948.

Oizerman, Teodor. Dialekticheskii materializm i istoria filosofii. Mysl’, 1979. (English translation: Dialectical Materialism and the History of Philosophy. Progress, 1982.) 

—. Filosofia kak istoria filosofii. Aleteia, 1999.

—. Formirovanie filosofii marksizma. (Sotsekgiz, 1962) Mysl’, (1974) 1986. (English translation: The Making of the Marxist Philosophy. Progress, 1981.) 

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—. Izbrannye trudy v 5-i tomakh. Ed. Il’ia Kasavin. Nauka, 2014.

—. “Krizis sovremennoi burzhuaznoi filosofii i fideizm.” Teodor Oizerman and Ivan Frolov. Eds. Sovremennye religiozno-filosofskie techeniia v kapitalisticheskikh stranakh. Akademia nauk SSSR, 1962, pp. 3–51.

—. Marksizm i utopizm. Progress-Traditsiia, 2003.

—. Metafilosofia: Teoria istoriko-filosofskogo protsessa. Kanon+ – Reabilitatsiia, 2009.

—. Neotomism: filosofia sovremennoi reaktsionnoi burzhuazii. Sotsekgiz, 1959.

—. “On a Critical Reflection on Dialectical Materialism,” Russian Studies in Philosophy 55.2 (2017): pp. 98-121. 

—. Opravdanie revizionizma. Kanon+ – Reabilitatsiia, 2005.

—. Problemy istoriko-filosofskoi nauki. Mysl’ (1969), 1982.

—. Razvitie marksistkoi teorii na opyte revoliutsii 1848 g. Gospolitizad, 1955.

—. Rossiiskaiia filosofia prodolzhaetsia: iz ХХ veka v ХХI. Ed. Boris Pruzhinin. ROSSPEN, 2010.

—. Vozniknovenie marksizma. Kanon+ – Reabilitatsiia, 2010.

Soboleva, Maja. “What History of Philosophy Do We Need, or, Is Soviet Scientific Approach to the History of Philosophy Really Scientific?” Rivista di storia della filosofia, vol. 73 (2018), no. 2, pp. 235–249.

Sokolov, Vasilii. Filosofskie stradaniia i prosvetleniia v sovetskoi i postsovetskoi Rossii. Vospominaniia i mysli zapozdalogo sovremennika. Vorobyev A.V., (2014) 2016.

Van der Zweerde, Evert. Soviet Historiography of Philosophy: Istoriko-Filosofskaja Nauka. Kluwer, 1997.


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