The combination of Platonism and Marxism in totalitarian practices and theories of the twentieth century; the philosophical basis of Soviet-style state ideocracy.
According to Alfred North Whitehead, “European philosophy is a series of footnotes to Plato” (39). In this case, Russian thought must be viewed as an important part of the Western philosophical heritage, since it provides perhaps the most elaborate set of footnotes to Plato’s most mature and comprehensive dialogues: the Republic and the Laws. The Platonic tendency to integrate philosophical and social teachings and to implement them politically culminated in twentieth century Russia. In discussing Russian philosophy, especially of the Soviet period, we must inevitably consider the practical reality of “integrative” Platonic conceptions within the final outcome of the Soviet ideocratic utopia, in which philosophy was designated to rule the republic as the supreme political authority. Nowhere has Plato’s teachings on the relationship of ideas to the foundation of the State been incarnated so vigorously and on such a grandiose scale as in communist Russia.
One might even say that, in the Western world, Soviet philosophy embodied the final stage of the development of Plato’s ideas. In this final stage, the project of ideocracy was both fully realized and fully exhausted. In a certain sense, Russian philosophy of the past two hundred years summarizes and explicates more than two thousand years of the Platonic tradition and points a way for a return to foundations that are separate from the idealistic and ideological spheres.
From the 1920s through the 1940s, the tsardom of communist ideas succeeded in equating itself with social reality. However, beginning in the mid 1950s, stimulated by Khrushchev’s denunciations of Stalin in 1956, this “ideal republic” increasingly revealed itself to be illusory and disconnected from reality. Religious and personalist philosophy, culturology, structuralism, scientism and the philosophy of thought—action (mysledeiatel’nost’), phenomenology, liberalism, and nationalism—all of these intellectual movements and methods were attempts to de-ideologize the social sphere. Thought tried to free itself from subjection to ideocracy by putting down roots in authentic, concrete forms of being, such as the empirical credibility of science, the existential uniqueness of personality, faith in a living God, the spiritual integrity of humankind, the rational design of the cosmos, the symbolic meanings of culture, or the organic soul of the nation; or by challenging the master discourse of Soviet ideology through parodic imitation. In its transition to its post-Soviet stage, Russian philosophy ultimately came to a sort of postmodernist skepticism and pluralism, a conceptualist style of thought that ironically reproduces and exaggerates the world of abstract ideas in order to demonstrate their artificial and chimerical nature. All that remained of the principle of ideocracy by the late 1980s was a museum of obsolete ideas, a carnival side-show of ideological oddities. This relatively short Soviet period of just over seventy years sums up the two millennials of Western thought that followed Plato’s search for the world of pure ideas. Among these footnotes to Plato, Soviet philosophy appears to the attentive eye as the final entry, signifying “The End.”
What was the role of Marxism in the Platonic drama of Russian philosophy? Marxism, which deduces all ideas from the economic base of society, would seem to be diametrically opposed to Platonism. But let us remember that Marxism is a reversal of Hegelian idealism, the final moment in the self-development of the Absolute Idea. What is principally new in Hegel, as compared with Plato, is the progressive historical development of the Idea, but the end of this process is postulated as the universal State, presumably conceived on the model of the Prussian monarchy, which embraces the totality of the self-cognizant mind. Both Platonic and Hegelian idealism culminate with the concept of the ideal State. Although Marx removed this ideal from the causality of the historical process, it remains in his system as a teleological motive and grows into a vision of a future communist society (see Popper, 165).
Plato, Hegel, and Marx represent three stages in the development of idealism in its progressive symbiosis with social engineering: (1) the supernatural world of ideas; (2) the manifestation of the Absolute Idea in history; and (3) the transformation of history by the force of ideas. For Plato, ideas are abstracted to a transcendental realm. For Hegel, the Idea is already ingrained as the alpha and omega of the historical process: it generates, and at the same time consummates, history in the course of its progressive self-awareness. Marx abolishes the idea as the alpha of history in order to emphasize the omega-point: the prospect of the historical culmination of unified humanity in the transparent kingdom of ideas, the self-government of collective reason.
Moreover, Marxism potentially proves more staunchly idealistic than even Platonism. According to Plato, the world of ideas exists in and of itself, without necessarily demanding historical embodiment. For Marx, ideas are inseparable from the material process and seek realization and implementation. In Marx’s own words, “theory itself becomes a material force when it has seized the masses” (18). The message of “militant materialism” (Lenin’s term), as realized in Russia by Lenin and his disciples, was that the power of “progressive” ideas should not be abstracted from but rather attracted to material life, even subordinating and transforming the economic base: hence, the institution of five-year plans that subordinated the entire development of the country to idealistic projections. Whereas ideas in Plato and Hegel still soared above the earth, constituting a separate sphere of Supreme Mind or Absolute Spirit, in Soviet Marxism they were grounded in the foundation of material life, from heavy industry to everyday reality, and from the rituals of Party purges to ceremonial cleansings of neighborhoods. In this view, the ruling ideology would not forgive the slightest flaw or deviation from the purity of ideas: ideas had descended into the substance of Being, and they therefore demanded the complete submission of every person at every moment of their life. Soviet materialism proved to be an instrument of militant idealism, craving ever newer sacrifices for the altar of sacred ideas.
For these reasons, the dominant intellectual movement of the Soviet epoch was not only Marxism, but Platonism-Marxism, an idealism that asserts itself as the regulative principle of material life. If Plato, from the idealist assumptions of his philosophy, deduced the system of the communist State, then Marx, proceeding from communist assumptions, deduced a system of severe ideocracy that was realized through the efforts of his most consistent and determined Soviet followers. Materialism became an ideology, and the very phrase “materialist ideology” came to sound perfectly natural to Soviet citizens. No less natural, therefore, are the terms “Plato-Marxism” or “Platonism-Marxism.” Platonism is the underside of Marxism, and the eventual collapse of the Soviet ideocratic state can be viewed as a landmark in the historical fate of both philosophical positions.
Mikhail Epstein, January 2019
Marx, Karl. “Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: Introduction.” The Marx-Engels Reader. Ed. Robert C.Tucker, W.W. Norton & Co, 1972.
Popper, Karl R. The Open Society and Its Enemies. Rutledge and Kegan Paul, 1966.
Whitehead, Alfred North. Process and Reality. Free Press, 1979.