East German Marxism: Renaissance and Repression

East German Marxism: Renaissance and Repression

In the postwar era, philosophy in West Germany has mainly been considering the relative merits of Heidegger, Husserl and Kant. As in America, outside the polarity of existentialism and positivism, little has come along to excite either students or scholars. In East Germany, the major emphasis has been on the place of Hegel in philosophic history, particularly as it relates to the Marxian tradition; the philosophic issues generated by modern physics and mathematics; and the relation of symbolic logic to dialectics. This difference in emphasis clearly reflects the ideological conflicts of a divided Germany. Our concern, however, is not a comparative evaluation of philosophic tendencies in Germany. It is our aim to evaluate the consequences of even a circumscribed fermentation in East Germany, which most recently has led to a series of suppressions that points to the profanation of serious thought for some time to come. The events which transformed a fermentation into a repression are of general concern. They help illuminate the consequences of a too close relation of philosophic inquiry to political platitudes.

The ferment resulting from the close of the Stalin era, which culminated politically in the Khrushchev revelations before the twentieth congress of the Soviet Communist Party, socially in the liberalization of Polish life, and militarily in the Hungarian uprising, had naturally enough spread to philosophy. Indeed, the philosophical, being highly attuned to even slight political shifts, reflected the liberalizing tendencies of the new Russian leaders even, before the de-Stalinization policies were formalized. Re-evaluations were made of the history of ideas that were calculated to upset the propositions stated by Andrei Zhdanov in his critique of Alexandrov’s History of Western European Philosophy.

Philosophers who had not been heard from for decades began contributing articles to Voprosy filosoli. Abram Deborin did a convincing piece on Jean Meslier, comparing his naturalist theory of religion most favorably with Voltaire’s deism. Valentin Asmus wrote an essay on Kant, in which Kant was evaluated as one of the great representatives of German democracy and humanism. We also know that an enormous interest in Kant developed between 1954-1956. Dissertations on every aspect of his thought were written. Very careful studies of thinkers such as Mably, Gassendi and even Proudhon began to appear.b To the alert, it became clear that Stalinism and its philosophic alter-ego, Zhdanovism, was being replaced by more mature appraisals of philosophic history and the problems confronting Marxian theory generally.