Vulgar Sociologism

Vulgar Sociologism


vulgar sociology, a dogmatic simplification of the Marxist method, found mainly in the fields of history, art criticism, and the theory of art, literature, and other forms of social consciousness. In a broader sense vulgar sociologism represents an abstract understanding of Marxism, leading to a loss of its genuine abundance as well as to false political conclusions; a “caricature of Marxism” (see V. I. Lenin, Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 30, p. 77).

The term “vulgar sociologism” has been used in the Soviet press since the 1930’s, but the phenomenon itself was well known much earlier. Even during the lives of K. Marx and F. Engels, the workers’ movement was joined by many half-educated representatives of the bourgeois intelligentsia who transformed Marxism into a crude scheme leading to opportunism or anarchic rebelliouness. One of the typical representatives of vulgarized sociologism in Russia was V. Shuliatikov. “Shuliatikovism” is a term coined by Plekhanov to characterize vulgar sociologism in the field of the history of philosophy (1909).

After the October Revolution the rapid and extensive spread of Marxism and the adaptation to it by part of the old intelligentsia made vulgar sociologism a noticeable phenomenon and one which represented a serious danger.

With regard to ideology, vulgar sociologism was a general breeding ground for various “left-wing” movements which rejected the heritage of the old culture—from the advocacy of the abolition of museums to the theory of dissolving art in production and in life itself. Thus, it was considered almost as evident that the trends in painting most “in keeping with” the proletariat were the so-called “organized” forms that proceeded from cubism. Easel painting was denied in the name of monumental painting. Literary genres inherited from the old society were also placed under suspicion; there was a theory that tragedy and comedy were dying out. A more moderate current of vulgar sociologism regarded the old culture as an enormous cemetery of formal devices which the victorious proletariat could use for its own utilitarian goals, as long as it observed a certain caution in doing so.

In the field of Russian history, vulgar sociologism often resulted in turning the official schemes of previous historiography inside out. From the vulgar sociological point of view, False Dmitrii and Mazepa were representatives of the revolutionary forces of their times, whereas the progressive importance of the reforms of Peter the Great was questioned. In general, everything connected with national tradition and the old imperial state was doomed to be condemned with a “revolutionary” phrase.

This same kind of logic held true in the field of the history of spiritual culture. Vulgar sociologism saw its goal as the unmasking of the writers and artists of the past as servants of the ruling classes. From this point of view each work of art represents a coded ideogram of one of the social groups which were struggling among themselves for a place in the sun. Thus, Pushkin was transformed into an ideologist of the impoverished barstvo (gentry) or the bourgeoisified pomeshchiks (landlords), Gogol into a member of the small-scale landowning dvorianstvo (gentry), L. Tolstoy into a representative of the middle dvorianstvo in close contact with the higher aristocracy, and so on. The Decembrists were considered to be defending not the interests of the common people but rather the cause of the pomeshchiks who were interested in the grain trade. The task of the proletarian artist was also boiled down to a specific expression of the deep “psychoideology” of his own class.

The naïve fanaticism of vulgar sociologism was in part an unavoidable result of a spontaneous protest against everything old, an exaggerated revolutionary negation inherent in any profound social upheaval. It also revealed an insufficiency in the Marxist training of the intelligentsia and their consequent inability to provide a scientific explanation and a genuinely party-type, Communist evaluation of the complex phenomena of world culture.

On the other hand, it would be erroneous to regard the vulgarization of Marxism as a simple insufficiency of Marxist culture. Many representatives of vulgar sociologism were not at all vulgar but, on the contrary, were overly refined. For them the crudities of the vulgar sociological method were a matter of surfeit, a sui generis kind of philosophy which they accepted consciously or subconsciously. Vulgar sociologism was not a personal phenomenon but a historical one. It was an addition of Marxism to bourgeois ideas, an impact of those social forces which took part in the revolution for themselves and in their own way, and of that petit-bourgeois psychology of the “petty kulak” which Lenin considered to be the greatest danger for a genuine proletarian culture (see Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 36, p. 264). The period of the most extensive spread of vulgar sociologism died out in the 1930’s. The enormous social and political changes which had occurred in the Soviet Union by that time made the expression of the ideas of petit-bourgeois democracy impossible any longer. Historical experience testifies that presentday recidivisms to vulgar sociologism are also linked with all kinds of “left-wing” movements and theories, an abstract concept of the class struggle and revolution, and a negation of traditional forms, as well as a rejection of classical literature and the cultural heritage in general.

If one leaves aside the class phraseology, then from the point of view of method, the basis of vulgar sociologism is abstractly conceived ideas of advantage, interest, and expediency. The entire “ideal” surface of spiritual life is considered to be a pure illusion, which conceals hidden or subconscious egotistical goals. Everything which is qualitatively unique and everything infinite is reduced to the action of elementary forces in a limited environment.

But the fundamental principles of vulgar sociologism consist in the negation of objective and absolute truth. The Marxist formula “being determines consciousness” here becomes a convenient means for the transformation of consciousness into a spontaneous unconscious product of social environment and class interests. The main criterion is the vital force of a social group, having its own “collective consciousness” enclosed within itself and more or less strongly expressed. One social group is healthier and stronger than another; one writer has expressed the ideology of his own class more vigorously and more significantly than another.

The idea of progressive development is not alien to vulgar sociologism, but it is understood in a purely formal, quantitative sense, that is, beyond the bounds of such criteria as objective truth, social justice, and artistic perfection. Everything is good for its own time and its own class. As a substitute for an objective criterion of value, vulgar sociologism has recourse to an abstract conception of the conflict between the new and the old (the bad is that which has grown old; the good is that which is new). It also has recourse to typological analogies and antitheses of cultures and styles which are formally similar or dissimilar to each other. Such analogies between the “monumental and organized” culture of ancient Egypt and socialism are to be found in the works of the German art historian W. Hausenstein and in those of V. Friche. An objective criterion of truth is replaced by collective experience or class consciousness: everything else is considered to be merely “naïve realism.” It is patently obvious that, in making the transition from the subject-as-person to the subject-as-class, vulgar sociologism has not made a single step forward from idealistic philosophy. If a certain portion of objective content was, nevertheless, recognized by the representatives of vulgar sociologism, then it is only owing to the usual eclecticism which is inherent in such trends. In essence, the remnant of reality in their analysis of social consciousness plays a secondary role in comparison with the “class eyeglasses” (to use A. Bogdanov’s expression), that is, the particular angle of vision characterizing every ideology as a special schematized type.

The place of the reflection of actuality—more or less true, profound, and contradictory, but objective—is occupied for vulgar sociologism by a scheme of equilibrium or a violation of equilibrium between the historical subject and the environment which surrounds it. The violation may originate from the pressure of the vital force of a newly rising “young” class, which provides the basis for a revolutionary romanticism directed to the future. Or it may originate in the deficiency of a decaying social group, from which its inherent mood of weary contemplation and decadence comes. This scheme is joined to the usual stereotypes of dogmatic Marxism of the period of the Second International. According to these ideas, all historical conflicts in general come down to a struggle of the progressive bourgeoisie against the dying aristocracy and the past-bound petite bourgeoisie. The desire, common in vulgar sociologism and linked to the Menshevik tradition, to place the liberal bourgeoisie higher than the peasantry proceeds from this abstraction, as does the mixture of the reactionary form of peasant Utopias with their progressive content. (This is revealed with particular vividness in the treatment of the complex figure of L. Tolstoy.) In general, it relegates any and all criticism of capitalism prior to that of Marx and Engels to the realm of reactionary ideas. Characteristic of vulgar sociologism is a misunderstanding of the profound contradictions of social progress and of the uneven development of world culture, as well as lack of any kind of feeling for reality in the treatment of such great representatives of belles lettres as W. Shakespeare, H. Balzac, and A. S. Pushkin, whose historical importance cannot be exhausted either by their defense of a dying feudalism or by their advocacy of new bourgeois forms of social life.

Another important trait of vulgar sociologism consists in the fact that, following the lead of bourgeois philosophy after F. Nietzsche, it places the will rather than the consciousness in the foreground. Its classification of various sociopsychological points of view reflects the principle of the irrational self-expression of a given social group.

The materialism of Marx and Engels was the first to create the scientific grounds for an objective historical analysis of social consciousness. But this does not mean that every consciousness was for them the blind product of narrow class interests. Marx indicated the relative but nonetheless real boundary between “the ideological component parts of a ruling class, … and the free, spiritual production of a given social formation” (K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 26, part 1, p. 280). The latter is always connected by invisible threads with the common people. Thus, the difference between genuine thinkers, scholars, and artists on the one hand and sycophants of parasitic classes on the other has always existed, regardless of the fact that Pushkin was a dvorianstvo poet and Diderot and Helvetius expressed the rise of bourgeois democracy. Their activity belongs to the priceless heritage of world culture, insofar as it reflected not the struggle for a share of the profits at the summit of the social pyramid but the radical contradiction between the popular masses, whose interests in the final analysis coincide with the interests of society as a whole, and the parasitic upper classes, which are the temporary masters of society and which subordinate that society to a given form of private property and power.

For Marx and Lenin there was no class struggle outside the perspectives of the movement toward a communist society. This path leads through the antagonism of social forces to the elimination of classes and a genuine human communality. Its necessity has always been acknowledged or sensed by the best representatives of world culture in the form of a social ideal, which has often been contradictory and sometimes paradoxical but which has always had its real, historical roots.


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Engels, F. K. Shmidtu, 27 okt. 1890. (Letter.) Ibid.
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