Isaac Deutscher 1954

Ferment of Ideas in Russia: II:
More Liberal Outlook in Education

Source: The Times, 17 November 1954. Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

Perhaps the most important reform has just been decreed in education. The educational system is being freed from the grip of authoritarianism, and pedagogy is encouraged to take up again those experimental and more libertarian conceptions which animated the Soviet school in the early years of the Soviet regime. Under Stalin the educational system give the pupil, apart from technical training and Politgramota ('political literacy’), the habits of unquestioning obedience. The relation of teacher to pupil was one of old-fashioned paternalism, a reflection of Stalin’s own paternalistic attitude towards ‘his’ people. Austere classroom discipline, obligatory uniforms, a multiplicity of severe and highly formal examinations had made the Stalinist school almost indistinguishable, in the manner and style of teaching, from the school and seminary of the Tsarist era. Co-education was, of course, frowned upon and eventually forbidden. The ghost of Pobedonostsev, the famous reactionary ideologue, seemed to stalk the school-rooms and smile with malignant contentment.

Under the new reform co-education has been rehabilitated and reintroduced. The curriculum has been broadened and made less rigid. The number of examinations is substantially reduced, and school discipline is to be less formal. The paternalistic system is giving place to one in which more emphasis is placed on the formation in the pupil of an independent mind and character. And, after an interval of nearly a quarter of a century, the Soviet school is now resuming the experiment in ‘polytechnical education’, which aims at bringing the classroom close to the industrial workshop and farm, and at combining brain work with manual labour.

Changes are also introduced in ‘inner-party education’ – that is, methods by which the collective mind of the party is shaped. Stalinist techniques of indoctrination are being partly abandoned in favour of a more sober and open-minded propagation of pristine Marxism-Leninism, as Stalin’s successors understand it. To people in the West, inclined to lump together all those isms, the difference may seem too subtle to be of practical political significance. To Soviet citizens, however, the idea of a restoration of original Marxism-Leninism has a peculiar appeal, comparable perhaps to that which the Protestant rediscovery of the Bible once had to Western Europeans surfeited with the scholasticism of medieval theology.

Objectivism Forgiven: The new outlook in Russia since the death of Stalin has been most remarkable in academic life, especially in those branches of science where the teaching has a direct bearing on economic efficiency. Already the appointment last year of G Alexandrov to the post of Minister of Culture augured a new departure. At the height of the Zhdanov period Alexandrov had been dismissed from his post as the chief officer for ideological instruction, and remained eclipsed till the end of the Stalin era. In his History of Philosophy he was alleged to have sinned with ‘objectivism’ and ‘kowtowing’ before Western philosophy. In truth, his History was written well within the party tradition, but as an academic textbook it baldly but objectively, without the admixture of much polemical invective, outlined the main trends of classical and modern philosophy. This was an unpardonable offence only a short time ago. Alexandrov’s appointment to the Ministry of Culture foreshadowed therefore encouragement for conscientious academic inquiry and a reappraisal of the achievements of Western science.

This reappraisal has since found its expression in a series of debates on the fundamentals of philosophy and science which are still in progress in all Soviet seats of learning, and in the scholarly periodicals, from where the controversy has overspilled into the national press. Recently, for instance, an eminent Academician, Professor SL Sobolev, surveyed in Pravda the problems of Russian academic life in terms which amounted to a severe indictment of the Stalin era and to a fervent plea for the restoration of intellectual integrity. The glorification of all things Russian and the drive against ‘kowtowing before the West’ had, according to Sobolev, led Soviet academic bodies to ‘ignore the new physics’ developed in the West. Sobolev castigated the obscurantist attitude prevalent until recently towards the work of Einstein.

This was only one of very many voices which could be heard recently pleading for the abandonment of the black-and-white approach and for the revival of the art of fair and dispassionate debate. In the fields of social and political sciences, however, there has been almost no sign of any ‘clash of opinions’ or freedom to criticise. True, the political outlook too is more sober and rational than it was in Stalin’s days, but it continues to be ‘monolithic’.

The politically-minded citizen finds, however, a sort of substitute for political controversy in recent literary debates. Something like an explosion of discontent occurred in literary circles soon after Stalin’s death. The distance between literature and politics is, and has always been, extremely short in Russia, where art for art’s sake has never found much response. Russians have always expected their novelists, poets and literary critics to act as their social conscience and to produce the political message of their time; and they still expect them to do so.

To outsiders it may appear odd that the debates reached the highest pitch of political passion when one literary critic, V Pomerantsev, published an essay saying that the test by which a work of literature must be judged is whether it expresses a sincere emotion or not. To treat sincerity as the criterion of artistic value is hardly a new or a very sophisticated idea. An essay like Pomerantsev’s would scarcely have given rise to a cause célèbre outside Russia. But in Russia his exaltation of sincerity has had the effect of a bombshell. After the terrified hush-hush of so many years, Russia’s political acoustics have become very sensitive, so that now even fairly innocent words may sound like a call to revolt.

Test of Sincerity: Implicitly, Pomerantsev has denounced the literary output of the Stalin era as a product of hypocrisy; and this alone would have been enough to set against him multitudes of axe-grinders. He has also tried to substitute the test of sincerity for the accepted tests of ideological reliability and political loyalty. Unwittingly, perhaps, he suggested that for a Soviet writer to be loyal meant to be hypocritical, or, at any rate, that disloyalty may be redeemed if there is a sincere emotion behind it.

Pomerantsev has been silenced and denounced, although the denunciation has been couched in terms far less severe than those that were customary in Stalin’s days. The party spokesmen argue that they take the need for sincerity for granted but that it is intolerable that the test of sincerity should be set against the tests of truth and devotion to the Communist cause. And hosts of propagandists and writers are engaged in a drive against ‘Pomerantsevism’. Nobody who does not wish to forfeit respectability will now come out to defend that old frail lady, sincerity.

But before the drive against Pomerantsev had begun sincerity was by no means defenceless. To her rescue rushed enthusiastically the undergraduates of the universities of Moscow and the Komsomoltsy (members of the Young Communist League). They swamped the desk of the editor of the Komsomolskaya Pravda with letters ardently supporting Pomerantsev’s ‘thesis’. The letters were printed; and for weeks the lecture halls of the universities and the clubs and locals of the Komsomol resounded with passionate pleas for Pomerantsev.

Youthful Protest: This seems to have been the critical point of the story. The Komsomoltsy protested not only against the stereotypes of the Soviet novel, its lifeless heroes, its unconvincing plots and its ‘ideologically correct’ happy endings. By allusion, or perhaps even directly, they also criticised the accepted conventions of political life, conventions equally artificial and equally ‘lacking in sincerity’. They blamed the literary mirror and also the political reality it mirrored. Older people had taken the new promise of a freer era with a dose of incredulity and caution: they had burnt their fingers before. The ‘teenager’, on the contrary, reacted with an ardour and flamboyance by which the party leaders were taken aback. (Official spokesmen have, in fact, declared that the last occasion when a similar outburst of youthful rebelliousness was seen in Moscow was thirty years ago when undergraduates applauded Trotsky’s tirades against the ‘degenerate’ party bureaucracy.) Despite its crudity, this adolescent riot will probably be remembered as a blow struck by Russia’s youth at the Byzantine hypocrisy bequeathed by Stalinism.