- Mikhail Lifshitz and the Dialectical Politics of Art in the USSR
Mikhail Lifshitz (1905–83) was born in Melitopol, a small city in present-day southern Ukraine, and in 1923 moved to Moscow to attend the avant-gardist Higher Art and Technical Studios (VKhUTEMAS), an institution that first took shape in 1918, was then officially formalized in 1920, renamed VKhUTEIN in 1926, and closed down in 1930. Within the first few years of his studies, Lifshitz underwent an intellectual crisis vis-à-vis his art school mentors.1 An engagement with that crisis springboarded Lifshitz into his philosophical career, which heuristically can be broken into two biographical stages.
The early stage of Lifshitz’s career took place in the 1930s “High Stalinist” decade. In 1929, after several years of working at VKhUTEMAS as a lecturer on Marxism-Leninism and a strangely “right-wing deviation-ist” scholar of Marxist aesthetics, Lifshitz finally left the art school for the Marx-Engels Institute (IME, which would become the Marx-Engels-Lenin Institute, IMEL, in 1931).2 Decades later, Lifshitz would recall a public discussion from 1930 with IME’s director, David Riazanov, as the moment when he clarified the core of his philosophical subjectivity. At this time, Lifshitz claimed that “aesthetics”—understood broadly as a tragic mode of apprehension of one’s self in a world caught up in the uneven development of history—are an essential attribute of Marxist praxis. For Lifshitz, this “aesthetic” Marxist subjectivity would serve as a guiding principle for articulating effective philosophical action in the context of the tragic reality [End Page 67] of the rise of Stalinism out of the Russian Revolution.3 Indispensable in this argumentation were the works of young Marx. The 1844 Manuscripts were published in Russia at this time; meanwhile, Lifshitz used young Marx’s texts at Rheinische Zeitung, as well as his letters to Engels and others, to reconstruct a coherent “philosophy of art of Karl Marx.” This philosophical reconstruction was first published in 1932 in the “Marx” entry of the Literary Encyclopedia. A slightly expanded version came out as a stand-alone book that was then translated into a number of languages and published in English in 1938. Until 2018, this was the only lengthy Lifshitz text available for English readers.4
A few years into the 1930s Lifshitz developed his dialectical counter-position to mainstream 1930s Soviet aesthetics—a challenge he named “a battle on two fronts.”5 Lifshitz would later recall that he had waged this battle alongside his peers Georg Lukács, Vladimir Aleksandrov (Keller), Igor Sats, Elena Usievich, Alexander Grib, and the writer Andrei Platonov—all of them contributors and editors of the journal Literary Critic, organized with Lunacharsky’s support in 1933 and shuttered in 1940 after a series of polemical spats and official denunciations against Lifshitz’s theoretical “current.”6 Lifshitz’s academic institutional base at this time was at IME/IMEL until 1933, then the Communist Academy and the Red Professors Institute, and finally MIFLI (Moscow Institute of Philosophy and Literature), until the start of the war in June 1941.
The war and the postwar late Stalin years of Lifshitz’s life were difficult and murky. However, perhaps the 1940s’ most consequential event for the coming post-Stalinist cultural era was Lifshitz’s relationship with Alexander Tvardovsky—a student from MIFLI, then a wartime comrade, [End Page 68] and subsequently a friend during the late-Stalinist “anti-cosmopolitan” years, when the philosopher held odd jobs around Moscow, maintained no steady affiliation, and lived in near poverty in the basement of the Tretiakov Gallery.7
The later stage of Lifshitz’s career started in the immediate post-Stalin years. For one, the journal Novy Mir, where Tvardovsky was chief editor, published Lifshitz’s February 1954 article against literary Stalinism, “The Diary of Marietta Shaginian.”8 Moreover, at the request of Tvardovsky, Lifshitz wrote two internal reviews in support of the publication of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Devisovich and In the First Circle.9 In the meantime, in the decades following 1953, Lifshitz regained academic status in Moscow and wrote a number of texts trying to think through the...