Mikhail Epstein

Relativistic Patterns in Totalitarian Thinking:

an Inquiry into the Language of Soviet Ideology

Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies, Occasional Paper, # 243. Washington: The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, 1991, 94 pp.


Socrates: Then it is not for every man, Hermogenes, to give names, but for him who may be called the name-maker; and he, it appears, is the law-giver, who is of all the artisans among men the rarest. Plato

...The spontaneously evolved speech has been turned into a national language. As a matter of course, the individuals at some time will take completely under their control this product of the species as well. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels

"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less." "The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things." "The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master - that's all." Lewis Carroll

Mastery of language exists only as mastery of its worst and most inadequate possibilities. Martin Walser

Table of Contents


(from pp.77-79)

Marx and Engels used to say that in all pre-communist social formations, there was no such thing as a history of ideas because ideas in those societies served only as false miraculous reflections of economic history. Following this logic, we must conclude that after a socialist revolution, there is no other history than that of ideas - economic history ceases to exist. The entire hierarchy is reversed: ideology becomes the base and economics the superstructure. Under Soviet socialism, the life of ideas is self-sufficient and self-propelling, while economic issues arise out of their ideological foundations. Supposedly, the genuine significance of a "socialist" revolution is not just its reversal of the power of the lower and upper classes in a society, but the reversal of the society's base and superstructure as well. It is hardly surprising, then, that Soviet Marxist ideology has become the underlying force of all economic, political, and aesthetic movements in the USSR, relating to each of them as a whole relates to its parts. Engels and Lenin were clever to emphasize that in different countries and under different circumstances, ideology might take the place of economics as the basic structure of the whole society. This was precisely the case in communist countries - economics and ideology changed roles and ideas, not economics, determined material life and produced the "real."

In Western society, postmodernism is often regarded as a continuation of the logic of "late capitalism," a condition in which all ideas and styles acquire the form of commodities and become "manageable" and "changeable." In the Soviet Union, postmodern relativity of ideas arises from its own ideological, not economic, base. All those concepts previously alien to the essence of communist ideology, such as "private property" and the "free market," are now freely entering this ideological space, stretching it beyond its limits - allowing the ideology to embrace its own opposite. This is a process of de-ideologization, but not in the sense of Daniel Bell's understanding of the phenomenon in his famous book, The End of Ideology. In the Soviet Union, de-ideologization means the end of the "particular" ideology which originally had a definite class character, social ideals, and aimed to inspire the proletariat to launch a socialist revolution and construct communism. The current de-ideologization of Marxism in the USSR is a process of the universalization of ideological thinking as such, its final move from the realm of militant modernism to a more playful, relaxed, postmodern mentality.

This de-ideologization, or super-ideologization, of Soviet Marxism raises a vital question: are there two distinct postmodernisms, one Western and one Eastern, or is there a single, shared postmodernism? The best answer, in the author's view, is that "one-and-a-half" postmodernisms exist. The postmodern condition is essentially the same in the East and West, although it proceeds from opposite foundations: ideology and economics, respectively. Late capitalism and late communism are polar opposites in terms of economic structure and efficiency, but economics alone does not determine culture as a whole. The fundamental underlying patterns of cultural postmodernism in the East are not economic, they are ideological. Communism has proved to be a more radical challenge to capitalism than was originally thought, not only did it change the mode of production, it changed the relationship of base and superstructure in society.

A comparison of capitalist economics and communist ideology is imperative for elucidating the postmodernist traits common to both societies. Such a "cross" examination would be more interesting than a parallel comparison; if one compares communist and bourgeois ideologies, or socialist and capitalist economics, little can be found beyond commonplace oppositions. It is far more relevant even from a Marxist-Leninist perspective to examine the common ground between communist ideology and capitalist economics, as the two perform identical functional roles in their respective social structures. The circulation of goods in capitalist society is essentially identical to the circulation of ideas in communist society. Ideology, like capital, allows for the growth of surplus value, or, in this case, surplus evaluation. In a communist society, every concrete fact of the "material" world is treated ideologically, as evidence of some general historic tendency - its significance increases from one instance of ideological interpretation to the next. The famous formula of a capitalist economy which Marx suggested in Das Kapital is "commodities - money - commodities," or "money - commodities - money." The same formula can be applied in modified form to the ideology of Soviet Marxism: "reality - idea - reality," or "idea - reality - idea." Facts are exchanged for ideas in communist society in the same way as goods are exchanged for money in capitalist societies. Ideas, as a sort of currency, acquire an abstract form of "ideological capital." They do not constitute material wealth, but the "correctness" of communist ideology. This "correctness," or absolute truth, compensates people for their labor ("heroic deeds and sacrifices"), as well as recoups the cost of so-called "particular" mistakes resulting from Party policy.

Totalitarianism was a superlative machine for accumulating and exploiting all sorts of ideas: leftist and rightist, revolutionary and conservative, internationalist and patriotic, etc. However, this machine spawned a phenomenon bigger than itself. Just as capital eventually outgrows the capitalist "machine" and becomes a self-sufficient entity, Soviet ideological capital has outgrown the "machine" of a particular personality or system of ideas and has become an omnipresent mentality, appropriating any fact to serve any idea. Such is the current state of Soviet society under glasnost'. Marxist ideology, the most powerful of all modern ideologies, is losing its identity and becoming only one possible interpretation of reality. The expansion of Marxist ideology overcame Marxism as a form of modernity and created the postmodern condition in the USSR.

A copy of this pamphlet can be obtained free of charge by contacting: Occasional Papers. Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies. 370 L'Enfant Promenade, SW, Suite 704. Washington, D.C. 20024-2518.

Tel. (202) 287-3400

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