WHO WILL REMEMBER BULGARIAN PHILOSOPHERS FROM THE TOTALITARIAN ERA, AND HOW?
author: Dobrin Todorov
title: Philosophical Publicity in Totalitarian and Post-Totalitarian Bulgaria.
Sofia: Ciela, 2009, pp.605.
The context in which this amazingly comprehensive study is situated is the identity crisis of Bulgarian philosophers after 1989. More than twenty years later, the questions about the assessment (and self-assessment) of philosophers in Bulgaria as well as about their work during the totalitarian era remain quite sensitive and controversial. They are easier to ignore than to address. On the one hand, this is due to the understandable desire to unambiguously denounce anything that may be labelled ‘totalitarianism’ or ‘Marxism-Leninism’. But, on the other hand, it is impossible to simply ‘cross out’ the work of several generations of Bulgarian philosophers who happened to be born and to work at that time. Those two opposite tendencies explain why any attempt to analyze philosophy in Bulgaria from the totalitarian period is so difficult, and they clearly show the need for conducting an in-depth, serious analysis before making final judgments and conclusions. Dobrin Todorov’s book offers an analysis that is unprecedented in terms of the collected source material, methodological consistency, and last but not least, passion and force with which the author defends his theses. Todorov himself rightfully describes his study as a ‘generalization’ which offers a comparatively ‘full picture of philosophical life in Bulgaria in the last few decades’ (p. 8). In this connection, it is also worth mentioning Todorov’s earlier book, published in 2002: Prolegomena to the History of Bulgarian Philosophical Culture in the Totalitarian Era (As Reflected in the Journal Filosofska Misal), Sofia, LIK, 340 pp. (in Bulgarian). It clearly shows his long-term interest in the subject as well as the path along which it developed in order to find its complete form in the book under review here.
The subject of Philosophical Publicity is deliberately confined by the author to the narrow field of professional (i.e. connected with scientific and educational institutions) philosophy. This, however, does not mean that the book is of interest only to those who are connected with those institutions, with their history and development. I think that one of the major merits of this study is that it shows the spirit of the totalitarian era in a unique way. It reveals not only the specific mechanisms through which certain ideological doctrines changed reality but also the specific human motives and conditions that made possible that which is described and analyzed in the book. That is why this book will be very useful to a much wider range of readers. Among its other extraordinary merits is the vast, systematically collected and presented, empirical material accompanied by a rich bibliography and name index.
Todorov takes an analytical approach to the different possibilities of making sense of philosophy in Bulgaria during the totalitarian period. It would be most logical to assume that the development of the philosophical tradition in Bulgaria is a continuous process within which one can identify different stages. Thus, the totalitarian era ought to be viewed as one of those stages, as a part of the whole with its own specific characteristics and duration. This approach indeed sounds logical and it has its supporters among contemporary historians of philosophy in Bulgaria. But herein lies the main thesis of the author, who criticizes this approach and offers a radical and provocative alternative. Todorov denies the existence of continuity in the development of modern Bulgarian philosophy. According to him, Bulgarian philosophy in the era of totalitarianism had such unique characteristics that it is impossible to speak of it as ‘philosophy’ proper. Thus, what we uncritically refer to as ‘philosophy’ in the totalitarian period cannot be conceived of as part of the modern philosophical tradition in Bulgaria. It is no coincidence that Todorov invents and uses the term and concept of ‘philosophical publicity’ or ‘philosophical public sphere’ (filosofska publichnost) which, in turn, is very closely related to another concept – ‘philosophical culture’ (filosofska kultura), which is used as a main methodological tool both by him and by other scholars in the field under review. The concept of ‘philosophical culture’ was introduced by Mihail Bachvarov back in 1983 to account simultaneously for philosophy as a purely theoretical phenomenon and for the accompanying, external to philosophy, social, political and cultural factors that have an impact on philosophical theory and its dissemination. The concept of ‘philosophical publicity’ or ‘philosophical public sphere’, defined in Todorov’s study, is related more to the second aspect of philosophical culture. It refers to the socio-political factors that dominated philosophical theory and dictated its forms and content in the period of totalitarianism. Through this concept the author articulates his thesis that there was a specific interruption or stop in time in the development of the tradition, a departure from normalcy whereby philosophy ceased to be philosophy and became ‘an element of another cultural form: of ideology’ (p. 17). In the same vein, the end of the totalitarian period is conceived of as a return to normalcy, as a restart of the tradition.
Todorov’s thesis can safely be called ‘scandalous’ insofar as many of the philosophers who were part of the ‘philosophical public sphere’ in Bulgaria during the totalitarian period are still working in the field of philosophy. One cannot expect that they will readily accept such an interpretation because it, figuratively speaking, expels them from the Bulgarian philosophical tradition. Predictably, before the book was published parts of it were criticized because of Todorov’s radical approach, and soon after its publication it became the subject of critical reviews and even of publicly expressed indignation. This also goes to show that the book is a lively, interesting study that provokes reactions and debates. In my opinion, they are yet to unfold.
Todorov has divided his study into four parts that correspond to four different periods: formation of a totalitarian philosophical public sphere; flowering and erosion; crisis and disintegration; construction of a post-totalitarian philosophical public sphere. The exposition strictly follows the preliminarily delineated by the author ‘elements’ of the philosophical public sphere, which are six in number:
1. The most important one of them, which is central, is defined by Todorov as ‘the activities performed by professional philosophers’ (p. 22). As this definition is clumsy and unclear, Todorov hastens to note that those activities are made sense of through the main tasks which philosophers set themselves and solve; through the types of products they produce; and through the tendencies towards modification and change of the priorities in their work. Against the background of the next five elements, which are defined clearly, this element indeed seems to be the most important but also the most unclearly defined one;
2. Institutions of knowledge reproducing philosophical culture;
3. The philosophical community;
4. Philosophical organizations – formal and informal;
5. Philosophical forums;
6. The philosophical press.
This structure determines the content of the four parts of the book, each one of which is divided into six chapters devoted to the above-mentioned elements. Such systematically structured content is admirable and comparatively rare in the writings of Bulgarian philosophers. On the other hand, it is so exhaustive that one could hardly think of anything to add. This exhaustiveness is particularly noteworthy since thanks to it, the book can safely be used also as a reference book regardless of whether we agree with the author’s radical theses and evaluations or not. There is no doubt that it will serve as a basis and ‘benchmark’ that will set difficult standards regarding the quality of future studies in this area.
Todorov’s radical interpretation sounds strongest and most incontestable in the analysis of the first period, the one related to the formation of a totalitarian philosophical public sphere. The author calls it ‘cult period’ because it coincides with the period of the personality cult – from 1947 to the mid-1950s. The gloomy picture of philosophical life painted by Todorov is not exaggerated, and it is based on well-studied sources. Philosophy became an instrument of the Bulgarian Communist Party (BCP) for ideological propaganda, and philosophical studies in that period are described by the author as ‘monodoctrinal’ and as leaving no room for pluralism and difference of opinion. Of course, there is no way this could be called ‘philosophy’. The term itself was disciplinarily displaced, and replaced with dialectical and historical materialism. The only right view of the world was the Marxist-Leninist one, and any idea that did not conform to it was subject to aggressive, and notable in style, condemnation. The whole philosophical problematics was recast and assimilated into the ideological doctrine. This inevitably led to a dumbing-down simplification of the classical philosophical problems and theories which were understood and evaluated solely in terms of their belonging to the warring philosophical parties of materialism and idealism. Philosophical analysis was reduced to answering ‘the fundamental philosophical question’ of what comes first: matter or consciousness. Todorov offers a remarkably detailed and comprehensive account of the changes in the educational system in that period as well as of the circumstances and goals of the creation of the Institute of Philosophy at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences. In this gloomy account one can see the main directions and mechanisms of development of the philosophical public sphere throughout the totalitarian era in Bulgaria. From this perspective, Todorov unambiguously shows that any underestimation of the importance of the ‘cult period’ is dangerous and unfounded.
The longest, and most diverse in content, period is the period of ‘flowering and erosion’, which began after the famous April 1956 plenum of the Central Committee of the BCP. Although it marked the end of the period of the personality cult, the framework conditions where Marxist-Leninist ideology determined and dictated the development of the philosophical public sphere in Bulgaria remained in place. One should not forget that one of Todorov’s main theses is that the changes in the philosophical public sphere invariably followed and resulted from the political changes in Bulgaria. Hence, every change in the ideological doctrine brought about a change in the philosophical public sphere, but not vice versa. In fact, the opposite was impossible. The period in question saw quite a few changes in the six elements examined by Todorov. Bulgarian philosophers increasingly moved away from explaining and interpreting the ‘sacred’ texts of the classics, and towards greater autonomy and creativity – but again within the framework of the communist doctrine. There was a growing tendency towards planning the work of philosophers which came to be seen as part of the grand plan for building a new social system. Thus, philosophers were no longer ‘soldiers of the party’ but ‘workers’ who worked on the ideological front. There were also a number of changes in the educational models. Marxist-Leninist philosophy became the most important part of the ideological education of the population, and this led to educational initiatives that were unprecedented in scale. This period lasted until 1985, when the successive political change necessitated revising the previous model. This part of Todorov’s book is the most controversial and it is at the heart of the ongoing debate around the book. One cannot accept that in those thirty years there were no talented people among the Bulgarian philosophers who ‘did’ philosophy despite and outside of the ideological framework. Todorov himself never claims this. I believe that those who criticize the book along those lines have not read it carefully. Todorov’s aim is to present a general picture and to identify long-term processes and traits that characterize his subject of study as a whole. Against the background of the general picture, such talented Bulgarian philosophers were a rare exception, not the rule.
Todorov notes that as early as the beginning of the 1980s, philosophical life gradually began to open up towards subjects and problems that were increasingly outside of the Marxist-Leninist ideological framework. After 1985 and the Perestroika, the totalitarian model of the philosophical public sphere described by Todorov began to disintegrate. In this part of the book, Todorov offers an interesting analysis of an article by Sava Petrov published in 1988. He interprets it as a ‘key’ that can help us make sense of the processes underway at the time. Sava Petrov was the first to question the idea of planned direction of research work which, furthermore, ought to be understood as an individual commitment of the philosopher, and not as a collective project of a team of more or less anonymous ‘workers’. The article questioned the rationality of binding abstract philosophy to actual politics, some basic postulates in Marxist theory, the attitude towards non-Marxist theories, etc.
After 1989 there was yet another turn in the development of the philosophical public sphere in Bulgaria. The year formally marks the end of the totalitarian era and the beginning of the so-called transition which is characterized by the lifting of ideological control, chaotic institutional changes, and the quest for new paths that might combine the inherited forms of philosophical publicity with the radically new social and political environment. By the mid-1990s, according to Todorov, it had become obvious that such a combination was impossible. From that moment on, the author embarks upon the last part of his study, titled ‘Construction of a Post-Totalitarian Philosophical Public Sphere’. According to him, this is a period of return to normalcy in which philosophy was de-politicized and stopped being monodoctrinal, becoming pluralistic once again. This part of the study is also impressive for the wealth of statistical data through which Todorov shows the general tendencies in the development of the Bulgarian philosophical community, educational and scientific institutions.
Although some of Todorov’s interpretations are radical, one thing is beyond doubt after reading his book: no matter whether we like them or not, his theses are backed by numerous meticulously researched sources. This inevitably lends them a weight not found in any analysis in this area to date. Such a study is worthy of great respect, for although it is occasionally tiring for the reader, it offers such a wealth of information and researched sources that it is bound to serve as a basis for future analyses not just on the history of philosophy in Bulgaria but also on the totalitarian era in general as well as on the first decades after it.
- Iassen Zahariev
- Dobrin Todorov – Philosophical Publicity in Totalitarian and Post-Totalitarian Bulgaria.