Who was Bakhtin? Marxist Materialist, Christian Mystic, or rampant plagiarist? - Does the 'Crisis' in Bakhtin Studies have any implications for Cognitive Analytic Theory?

Pollard, R., 2003. Who was Bakhtin? Marxist Materialist, Christian Mystic, or rampant plagiarist? - Does the 'Crisis' in Bakhtin Studies have any implications for Cognitive Analytic Theory?. Reformulation, ACAT News Spring, p.x.

The native (Russian) researcher… who becomes acquainted with foreign textual and extra-textual 'discourses' in general and with interpretations of Bakhtin in particular at times feels as though he is in a dream (Makhlin, 1995).

Although Bakhtin was little known during his lifetime, since his death in 1975, he has achieved immense popularity amongst academics in the West, a phenomenon that Hirshkop (1999, 2001) variously refers to as the Bakhtin industry or the cult of Bakhtin. His influence has extended well beyond the fields of literary criticism and philosophy, to more or less all the humanities and social sciences and even further to the practice of psychotherapy and, in particular, to Cognitive Analytic Therapy. As Pechey (1989) observes, one of the interesting characteristics of Bakhtin’s ideas (or Western interpretations of them) is their capacity to migrate across national and disciplinary boundaries and make themselves at home in very different fields of intellectual endeavour. Partly as a result of Bakhtin’s influence, CAT is itself in a process of migration from its origins in the cognitive tradition, moving in the direction of the post-modern and narrative therapies which have a social and linguistic understanding of consciousness.

Bakhtin’s influence in cognitive analytic theory needs to be understood in the wider context of his evolving reputation. It can be tempting to idealise and romanticise Bakhtin as, compared to many of his relatively comfortable contemporaries in the West, he is seen as having led a heroic life, in tragic circumstances, daringly opposed to Stalinist orthodoxy whilst producing a prodigious body of work, for which he got little recognition, under conditions of extreme hardship and persecution. In stark contrast to Bakhtin's penury, Bakhtin studies in the West have been the springboard for many academic careers as well as a money-spinner for numerous publishers and conference organisers. Everyone, it seems, from Marxists to feminists, from postcolonial theorists to theologians, from sociologists to linguists, from students of literature to psychotherapists, wants a bit of Bakhtin.

So what is it about this once obscure Russian intellectual that accounts for such a diverse and enthusiastic following?

According to Hirschkop (1999), it was the fashion for literary theory that took off during the 1970s, that fuelled the interest in Bakhtin. And Bakhtin is himself often credited with having anticipated subsequent developments in linguistic, cultural and literary theory. For students in the social sciences the concept with which Bakhtin is most widely associated, dialogism, offers a warmer, more human alternative to what can seem like the cold anti-humanism of post-structuralism. It allows for a ‘self’ formed through social processes, which is at the same time, embodied, dynamic and creative (Gardiner, 1998). Dialogism is also a highly elastic term which can encompass a range of meanings and interpretative functions. And the perceived subversive and anti-authoritarian connotations of Bakhtin’s other well known concept 'Carnival', derived from his study of Rabelais, have a more general appeal for radical thinkers across the board.

However, research in the Bakhtin archives in Russia, only recently made available, has raised serious questions both about Bakhtin's reputation and the ways in which he has been interpreted.

A Contested Legacy

Bakhtin's legacy has always been highly contested, not least between those who wish to claim him for Western philosophy and some Russian scholars who believe his rightful place is in the Slavic tradition. Advocates for Marxism, post-structuralism, the Russian Orthodox Church and American liberalism have all staked their claims to Bakhtin.

Critical voices have also been raised about the current enthusiasm for Bakhtin. Renfrew (1997) queries the wisdom of Western appropriations of Bakhtin when the Bakhtin canon is so unstable. Bosenko (1993/4, cited in Adlam, 1997) attributes Bakhtin’s popularity to a decline in general philosophical culture and the deceptive ease with which his work can be understood. Bakhtin is often studied in isolation from his intellectual context, a deficit that is not helped by his apparent failure to acknowledge some of his sources that has led to ideas being regarded as unique to Bakhtin when they originated elsewhere (Lock, 2001).

Part, though by no means all, of the explanation for the disputes around Bakhtin lies in the mystery that surrounds the facts of his life and the haphazard way in which his work has become available to Western readers, often subject to heavy editorial manipulation, mistranslation and with an uncertain chronology (Renfrew 1997, Morris, 1994). A long running dispute amongst Bakhtin scholars has been over the authorship of some of the texts, signed by Voloshinov and Medvedev, that are often attributed to Bakhtin. In the absence of documentary evidence, opinions as to the authorship of these texts often seem to reflect the writer’s preferred interpretation of Bakhtin1.

A major question is to what extent Bakhtin’s work was shaped and distorted by external events in the Soviet Union and can he be understood apart from the history he lived through?2 The collapse of the Soviet Union and access to the Bakhtin archives have thrown much previous Bakhtin scholarship into question, particularly with regard to Bakhtin’s relationship to his sources. On a biographical level, they show that Bakhtin lied about his education, claiming degrees that were awarded to his brother, Nicolai, and his friend, Matvai Kagan (Hirshkop 2001), which seems to make his claim to have written the Voloshinov texts more problematic. Expediency or exigency perhaps meant that Bakhtin fabricated degrees he didn't have and wrote things he didn't agree with or published under other peoples' names in order to survive under conditions of Stalinist censorship and terror. The account by Nikolai Pan'kov (2001) of Bakhtin's Dissertation Defence shows just how hard it was for Bakhtin to gain acceptance in the Soviet Academy and therefore how hard it was for him to make a living.

Plagiarism and the 'disputed texts'.

A far more serious charge is that of plagiarism: - Brian Poole, a Canadian scholar with access to the Bakhtin archives has found that both Bakhtin and Voloshinov plagiarised a little known German Jewish3 neo-Kantian philosopher, Ernst Cassirer, copying passages from his books directly into their own works. Their notebooks reveal that Voloshinov read Cassirer first and that as soon as Bakhtin started to read him, it became evident in his writing. Poole also found that Bakhtin drew extensively, without citation, on the phenomenology of another German philosopher, Max Scheler, in his earlier works4. As a result of his research, Poole (2001) has also revised the dating of Bakhtin's earlier work and, on the basis of the influence of Cassirer in their texts, concludes decisively that Bakhtin did not write Voloshinov's work (p. 127)5. Poole seems to be unusual amongst Bakhtin scholars in that he uncouples the issue of authorship from interpretation. Another scholar, Ruth Coates (1998), on the basis of a thorough intertextual analysis of works by Voloshinov, Medvedev and Bakhtin, reaches the same conclusion about authorship.

Marxist or Christian?

If Poole and Coates' research is accepted and Bakhtin did not write the Voloshinov books, 'Freudianism, a Marxist Critique' and 'Marxism and the Philosophy of Language', then the case for Bakhtin being a Marxist appears considerable weakened. Coates (1998), argues against a Marxist interpretation of Bakhtin, not only on the basis of authorship but on the basis of the aversion found elsewhere in Bakhtin's work to prescriptive philosophy and his commitment to a phenomenological method. She further argues that Bakhtin was averse to the ultimate abstractions of historical materialism, the reductionist as opposed to pluralist nature of Marxist ideology and its claim to be the final answer. I believe that Bakhtin intuited from the dogmatic and reductive nature of this ideology, indeed from the very fact that Marxism is an ideology, that 'monologism' had to follow….Bakhtin was averse to conclusion, to the ultimate finalisation that monologic discourses imply (p. 82) Coates claims to be the first scholar to focus entirely on Christian motifs in Bakhtin and to trace their evolution throughout his work. She is critical of other Bakhtin scholars who have, in her view, ignored or failed to see this dimension in his writing.

Bakhtin's biographers, Clark & Holquist (1984), also promote a Christian interpretation, despite arguing for Bakhtin's authorship of the Voloshinov texts, dismissing their Marxist rhetoric as mere window dressing to bypass Soviet censorship. They assert that Freudianism is a parable in which Bakhtin disguises the gulf he feels between his own religious and metaphysical ideas and Soviet ideology as the gap between the official and unofficial consciousness (Voloshinov's alternative to the Freudian conscious and unconscious). They claim that Bakhtin's apparent interest in defending Soviet psychology and dialectical materialism against a degenerate 'Freudianism' was just a way to send out a coded message from the catacombs (p.185.)

Morson & Emerson (1989) are scathingly dismissive of Clark & Holquist's thesis, arguing that far from being window dressing, Voloshinov's texts are sincerely Marxist…. and represent a particularly complex and rewarding form of Marxism (p47) which, whilst inspired by Bakhtin, nevertheless represent a sophisticated monologisation of Bakhtin's thought. They are adamant that Bakhtin is neither a Marxist nor a semiotician and was resistant to systems or isms of any kind.

Hirschkop (1999), who also accepts Voloshinov's authorship of the disputed texts, is both sceptical of Christian interpretations of Bakhtin (and even more so of attempts to claim Bakhtin for American liberalism, an accusation he levels at Morson & Emerson) and argues that Marxism is not the issue. For Bakhtin and Voloshinov, Marxism like neo-Kantianism was part of their intellectual environment. The issue was a theoretical not a moral one. Hirschkop maintains that Bakhtin was not a Marxist but that did not mean that he was not equally concerned with sociological issues.

Bakhtin, Voloshinov or Cassirer?

If the separate and distinct authorship of Voloshinov is accepted, then the differences as well as the similarities between Bakhtin and Voloshinov can begin to emerge. Some of these differences may turn out to have implications for cognitive analytic theory. However opinions vary as to how significant these differences are.

The differences brought to the fore by Gerald Pirog (1987) and Caryl Emerson (1991) are based on the assumption of separate authorship and also reflect an agenda on Emerson's part to disassociate Bakhtin from Marxism and, for Pirog, to defend Freud against Voloshinov's critique of psychoanalysis whilst reconciling psychoanalysis, as interpreted by Habermas, with Bakhtin's dialogical model of communication and understanding. Space does not allow for a full discussion of their arguments but the differences they draw attention to could be summarised as follows: Voloshinov (1976) argues for a Marxist psychology that should be 'objective', language based and have a social focus. He believed that it is possible to find an objective explanation for all subjective experience. Bakhtin was deeply suspicious of anything including Marxism and (versions of) Freudianism that was either determinist or purported to be scientific. He was against psychology as such and thought that psychological insight was gained not through determinist theories or systems whether Freudian or semiotic, but through polyphony, centrifugal rather than centripetal forces, an open ended world view that could guarantee the radical singularity of the person, and maximum, non clinical access to that person's world (Emerson, 1991, p.42)

Voloshinov was a semiotician whereas Bakhtin rarely refers to signs in his work.6 Voloshinov believed in dialectics as an objective mode of study. Bakhtin believed in dialogue and thought that dialectics is a technical abstraction. Voloshinov defines inner experience as another version of outward experience so there is no gap between the psyche and ideology. Social interaction and therefore consciousness are bound up with material production. The laws governing these processes can be discerned through the 'objective' methods of dialectical materialism. Pirog (1987) goes so far as to suggest that Voloshinov is no less deterministic than the caricature of Freud he attacks. Bakhtin's emphasis on freedom and unfinalizability and his project to establish a phenomenology of human interaction has no room for underlying laws governing anything to do with subjective experience.

Hirschkop (1999) in contrast both understates the Marxist element in Voloshinov's work and sees the differences between them as complementary rather than conflicting. He credits Voloshinov with being the first to recognise the healing power of language in general, as opposed to Bakhtin's religious focus, and the first to interpret dialogism in linguistic terms. He regards the stress on the social and objectivity in Voloshinov's texts not as a form of positivism but as an impassioned defence against individualistic interpretations of culture, whether psychological or biological. Similarly, Lorrigio (1991) sees a complementary relationship between Bakhtin's ideas and those of Voloshinov but does draw out Bakhtin's greater emphasis on heterogeneity and the difference or outsidedness of individual subjectivities in relation to other subjectivities.

However the significance of the authorship dispute and the differing interpretations of Bakhtin's relationship with Voloshinov's work seem to fade in relation to the potential implications of Poole's research. This confirms the similarity that some older Bakhtin scholars had long maintained between Bakhtin's work and German neo-Kantian philosophy, not only at the level of ideas but at the level of text. This has caused some embarrassment amongst Bakhtin scholars who had failed to spot the… copying, plagiarising and other forms of textual parasitism… that has forced the Bakhtinian moment to its most interesting crisis (Lock, 2001 p4)

Hirschkop acknowledges that Voloshinov's work was also spliced with passages taken from Cassirer and, according to Poole's research, both Bakhtin and Voloshinov plagiarised Ernst Cassirer to an extent that leads Lock (2001) to conclude that The fame of Bakhtin depended on the occlusion of Cassirer and others. (p2)


The above discussion has only touched on a tiny fraction of the confusion, controversy and chaos that abounds in Bakhtin studies, so any conclusions drawn are necessarily tentative.

The significance of these disputes and the recent research of Bakhtin scholars lies not so much in discrediting Bakhtin or diminishing the importance of his ideas - there seems to be too much that is not known and not understood to reach any sort of final conclusion - but to relativise him, to see him in a wider historical and intellectual context, as part of a well established philosophical tradition as well as a major contributor to it. The detractors from Bakhtin's perhaps overblown reputation, far from suggesting that Bakhtin is reducible to his sources, argue for a revival of intellectual history (Lock, 2001) and for a more critical self-reflexive approach towards his appropriation in Western contexts (Adlam, 1997).

If Bakhtin and Voloshinov do not speak entirely with the same voices (or voices) their distinctiveness needs to be clarified, particularly as Voloshinov's contribution to cognitive analytic theory seems to be as significant if not more so than that of Bakhtin. If, as Pirog (1987) suggests, Voloshinov' s semiotic determinism and his socialisation of consciousness is so pervasive as to leave no room at all for any individual subjective experience that could not be accounted for in terms of dialectical materialism, it is difficult to reconcile with Bakhtin's emphasis on unfinalizability and alterity.

Bakhtin's phenomenological or descriptive method accords with an ethic of respect in psychotherapy that does not pathologise or diagnose, that recognises the uniqueness of each individual as well as the constitutive role of social interaction in consciousness. But it also raises questions about the boundaries between disciplines and the continued sustainability of the territory that psychology has marked out for itself as separate and distinct from philosophy. Alternatively it suggests that that knowledge of philosophy and literature may be far more relevant to the practice of psychotherapy than knowledge of academic psychology.

However given the current state of uncertainty about Bakhtin and Voloshinov's legacy and the fact that many Western scholars as well as ordinary readers are disadvantaged by their reliance on translations, subject to editorial manipulation, as well as the fog of historical uncertainty, maybe the uses to which Bakhtin is put in psychotherapy should proceed with caution.

Rachel Pollard


Adlam, C. (1997), In the name of Bakhtin: Appropriation and Expropriation in Recent Russian and Bakhtin studies, in Exploiting Bakhtin, ed. A. Renfrew, Strathclyde Modern Languages Series, No2.

Clark, K. & Holquist, M. (1984) Mikhail Bakhtin. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Coates, R. (1998), Christianity in Bakhtin, God and the Exiled author, Cambridge University Press.

Emerson, C. (1991), Freud and Bakhtin's Dostoevsky: Is there a Bakhtinian Freud without Voloshinov? Wiener Slawistischer Almanach, 27, 33-44.

Gardiner, M. (1998), The Incomparable Master of Solipsism: Bakhtin and Merleau-Ponty, in M. Bell & M. Gardiner, M. Bakhtin and the Human Sciences, London, Sage.

Hirschkop, K. (1999), Mikhail Bakhtin An Aesthetic for Democracy, Oxford University Press.

Hirschkop, K (2001) Bakhtin in the sober light of day, in Bakhtin and Cultural Theory 2nd edition, eds. K. Hirshkop & D. Shepherd, Manchester University Press.

Lock, C. (2001) The Bakhtin Scandal / L'Affaire Bakhtine, www.uwo.ca/modlang/ailc/old31/bakhtin.htm University of Copenhagen.

Lorriggio, F (1990), Mind as Dialogue: The Bakhtin Circle and Pragmatist Psychology, Critical Studies, 2 No.1/2, 91-110.

Makhlin, V.(1995), cited in Adlam, C. (1997) ibid.

Morris, P (1994), The Bakhtin Reader, Selected writings of Bakhtin, Medvedev, Voloshinov, Arnold, London.

Morson, G & Emerson, C. (1989), Rethinking Bakhtin, extensions and challenges, Northwestern University Press, Evanston , Illinois.

Pan'kov,N. (2001), Bakhtin's Dissertation Defence, in Bakhtin and Cultural Theory, 2nd edition, eds. K. Hirschkop & D. Shepherd, Manchester University Press.

Pechey, G. (1989), On the borders of Bakhtin, in K. Hirschkop and D. Shepherd Eds. Bakhtin and Cultural Theory, Manchester University Press.

Pirog, G. (1987) The Bakhtin Circles' Freud: From positivism to hermeneutics, Poetics Today, 8: 3-4, 591-610.

Poole, B. (2001), From phenomenology to dialogue, Max Scheler's phenomenological tradition and Mikhail Bakhtin's development from 'Toward a philosophy of the act' to his study of Dostoevsky. in Bakhtin and Cultural Theory. 2nd edition, eds. K. Hirschkop & D. Shepherd, Manchester University Press.

Renfrew, A. (1997) Introduction: Bakhtin, Victim of whose circumstance? In Exploiting Bakhtin, Strathclyde Modern Languages Series No 2.

Voloshinov, V. (1976), Freudianism: A Marxist Critique (1927), Trans. I. Titunik, eds. I. Titunik & N. Bruss, Indiana University Press.


1 The complexity of the debates around the 'disputed texts' is discussed by Hirschkop (1999) p126-140.

2 For an interesting discussion on this, see Hirschkop 2001 'Bakhtin in the sober light of day''

3 Anti bourgeois prejudice and anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union may have made it more difficult for Bakhtin to get his work published if his sources were acknowledged.

4 'Towards a philosophy of the act' & 'Author and hero in aesthetic activity' Bakhtin does acknowledge the influence of Scheler in his later work on Dostoevsky (Poole,2001)

5 In 1971, a Soviet linguist, Ivanov, declared that all the texts signed by Voloshinov and Medvedev were written by Bakhtin, an assumption many Western scholars have gone along with. Morton & Emerson (1987) and Titunik &Bruss (1976) have argued against Bakhtin's authorship of these texts.

6 As a translator of Bakhtin's writing from Russian into English, Emerson seems qualified to make this assertion.

Rachel Pollard

Full Reference

Pollard, R., 2003. Who was Bakhtin? Marxist Materialist, Christian Mystic, or rampant plagiarist? - Does the 'Crisis' in Bakhtin Studies have any implications for Cognitive Analytic Theory?. Reformulation, ACAT News Spring, p.x.

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Who was Bakhtin? Marxist Materialist, Christian Mystic, or rampant plagiarist? - Does the 'Crisis' in Bakhtin Studies have any implications for Cognitive Analytic Theory?
Pollard, R., 2003. Who was Bakhtin? Marxist Materialist, Christian Mystic, or rampant plagiarist? - Does the 'Crisis' in Bakhtin Studies have any implications for Cognitive Analytic Theory?. Reformulation, ACAT News Spring, p.x.


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