L. I. Akselrod

Life and Works of a Marxist Philosopher and Literary Critic


            To the extent that Liubov Isaakovna Akselrod (Ortodoks) is known to the English-speaking reader, it is due to her role in the philosophical debates in the Soviet Union in the 1920s and early 1930s. In these debates, she spoke as a representative of the “mechanists,” who were opposed by the “dialecticians,” led by A. Deborin. The significance of this debate has been described by I. Iakhot in his untranslated book, “The Suppression of Philosophy in the USSR (1920s-1930s).” By this time, Akselrod, who used the name “Orthodox,” had been in the revolutionary movement for about forty years.

            Born in 1868, Akselrod joined a Populist group in 1884, and then emigrated to France in 1887. Soon she moved to Switzerland , where she was to remain until returning to Russia in 1906. In Switzerland, she met Plekhanov and joined the Emancipation of Labor group. From then on, she was Plekhanov’s close assistant and able defender in the political and philosophical battles which lay ahead. In 1900, Akselrod received her doctorate in philosophy at Bern University. Soon she was publishing important works on philosophy and literary criticism.

            At the II Congress of the Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party in 1903, the party split into two main factions, with Plekhanov and Akselrod both joining the Menshevik faction. Akselrod remained with the Mensheviks through 1917, when she joined their central committee and then the central committee of Plekhanov’s “Unity” group.

            Soon after the October revolution of 1917, Akselrod shifted her focus to writing and teaching. In April 1921, Sverdlov University asked Lenin if Akselrod and Deborin (who also had been a Menshevik) should be allowed to teach courses on philosophy. Lenin responded that both should be asked to outline an extensive series of courses and publications on the history of Marxism and philosophy. In Akselrod’s case, this might seem curious due to her sharp criticism in 1909 of Lenin’s main work on philosophy, “Materialism and Empirio-criticism.” Akselrod soon showed, however, that she could make a major contribution to philosophy in the Soviet Union. Her books, “Philosophical Essays” and “Against Idealism” appeared in several editions, and she lectured widely at several universities.

            From 1922-1925, Akselrod published a series of articles on historical materialism and on the materialist understanding of art in the journal edited by A. Voronsky, “Krasnaia nov’,” [Red Virgin Soil]. Voronsky and Akselrod shared many theoretical interests: Akselrod’s dissertation had been on Tolstoy, the subject of some of Voronsky’s best articles; Akselrod had collaborated closely with Plekhanov, whom Voronsky treated almost with reverence as the “father of Russian Marxism.” A close friendship formed, which was later expressed in a not insignificant way. After Voronsky had been expelled for the last time from the party in 1935, and arrest seemed imminent, one of the few people who regularly visited Voronsky’s family at the “House on the Embankment” was Liubov Akselrod. Unlike Voronsky, she had not been, as far as can be determined, connected with activity in the Left Opposition. But her defense of  Plekhanov’s heritage must have been suspect at a time when Stalin was greatly downplaying Plekhanov’s role in the formation of the Marxist movement in Russia . Visiting Voronsky displayed considerable courage for those times.

            Akselrod’s last published book was “The Idealist Dialectic of Hegel and the Materialist Dialectic of Marx,” which appeared in 1934. She did not fall victim to the Great Terror of 1936-38, and died on February 5, 1946 .

The Goal and Structure of this Web Site

The main goal of this web site is to gather information about Akselrod’s life and writings. Whenever possible, texts and translations will be supplied. Since her archives in Russia have not been studied closely, there are considerable gaps in her biography which we hope to fill in future years. We would appreciate any information supplied by readers of this site.

Frederick Choate
Berkeley, 2005

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