Evald Ilyenkov: A Philosopher Under Suspicion

A dear friend and comrade of mine has been yammering on  for as long as I have known him (and is currently in the midst of translating some Ilyenkov) about a largely unknown Soviet philosopher, Evald Ilyenkov, who in the 1960’s was effectively a philosophical leader of a dissident strain of Marxist philosophy in the Soviet Union. And recently he and I, and another friend, have been reading one of his major works, “The Dialectics of the Abstract and the Concrete in Marx’s Capital“, which has been a very productive and exciting experience. Ilyenkov is an interesting figure as he speaks to a Soviet Spinozist tradition that has been largely overlooked by people interested in Spinozist Marxisms (for example Antonio Negri, Louis Althusser, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari etc). I am especially interested in reading Ilyenkov next to Althusser and Deleuze, especially in regards to the Spinozist concept of ‘substance’ and its relationship to capital.

Ilyenkov challenged the Lysenkoist-Stalinist orthodoxy, which interestingly parallels the anti-Lysenkoism of the Althusserian school (one of Althusser’s students Dominque Lecourt famously wrote a critique of Lysenkoism entitled Proletarian Science), that prevailed within philosophical circles in the USSR which advocated a crude materialist relationship between base and superstructure, also known as ‘reflection theory’, which argued that the ideological superstructure corresponded to a material base and that consciousness was simply a product of brain activity (unfortunately this has often become synonymous with ‘dialectical materialism’). Simply, Ilyenkov argued that through human activity  upon the world, of which itself was already a part (Ilyenkov was heavily indebted to Spinoza), one immanently produced the superstructure.

I am posting below, thanks to the blog Marxist Update, an article written by a student of Ilyenkov’s, Sergei Mareyev, entitled. “A Philosopher Under Suspicion” which provides a very good overview of Ilyenkov’s life and philosophy. If you are interested in reading Ilyenkov’s works in English (which is a small fraction of his overall output) online you can find them at the Evald Ilyenkov Archive. If you are interested in purchasing his two most famous books the Indian publisher Aakar Books has reissued them.

A philosopher under suspicion

The Soviet philosopher Evald Ilyenkov, who died in 1979 following a renewed witch-hunt against him by the authorities, defied Stalinist dogma and made a priceless contribution to the creative development of the Marxist method. This profile of Ilyenkov’s life and work is by philosophy scholar Sergei Mareyev. It first appeared in the Journal of Moscow State University, Volume 7, No. 1 in 1990. It is published in English for the first time.

Translation by Angela Landon

In 1989 we marked two dates associated with one name – 65 years from the day of his birth, and 10 years from the day of Evald Vasilievich Ilyenkov’s death. He belonged to the small group of leading Marxist philosophers who creatively developed revolutionary science in spite of the regime imposed 60 years ago in the Soviet Union, and despite having the least possible support.

Probably the attitude of the official scientific side was best expressed by his former comrade A.A. Zinoviev in a friendly cartoon, when they were still making the famous Moscow wall newspaper of the Institute of Philosophy (USSR Academy of Sciences).

Ilyenkov is there depicted as conjuring over a “black box”, but from his portrait Hegel-Fedoseyev is watching suspiciously with an oblique squint. Ilyenkov was a philosopher under suspicion, even though this suspicion came solely from the fact that he, like Socrates, offered his fellow-citizens one message: “know how to think, Athenians!” But in those days hard thinking was not an obligation. The science of thought, as it is called these days, was considered unnecessary. This state of affairs was typical. It was shared with Ilyenkov by L.S. Vygotsky and V. F. Asmus, A.N. Leontiev and M.A. Lifshits, A.F. Losev and D. Lukacs – everyone in their own way. With all these people, except the first and last named, Ilyenkov had quite close and friendly relations. Even today we have to consider it surprising that it was permissible to treat the intellect of the country in such a fashion.

E.V. Ilyenkov was born on the February 18, 1924 in Smolensk. He was named Evald in accordance with the custom of the day, to indicate the fact that he was unbaptised. In the orthodox book of saints no such name existed. It was around this time that large numbers of Genriks, Ninels, Vladlens, Oktyabrinas and so on, appeared. Once, I was even introduced to someone called Mauzer. This was the extent of the radical rejection of the “old world” in which, as we shall see, not everything merited a total denial.

Evald’s father, later to become a prominent Soviet author, Vassily Pavlovich Ilyenkov, moved to Moscow soon after the birth of his son. The family quickly settled in one of the first writers’ communes in a courtyard of the Moscow Arts Theatre. Today (next to the huge thermometer) memorial plaques are hung there in honour of the Soviet poets Nikolai Aseyef and Mikhail Svetlov. In this home, Evald Vasilievich spent most of his life, with the exception of the years that the war took away.

Evald Ilyenkov was an extremely peaceful man, and for him, military service, as for many of his contemporaries, was a very harsh experience, even though it was recognised as a necessity. Being by no means a physically strong man, he came through the severe trials of the Great Patriotic War with honour, as the commander of a gun-battery. He took part in the liberation of White Russia and the taking of Konigsberg, and later also Berlin. The war did not make him any more of a militarist, but it taught him to hate all kinds of obscurantism, both evident and of the kind covered by a demagogic phrase. Although on the whole a soft and delicate person who easily forgave ordinary human weaknesses, he was absolutely unshakeable when it came to the principal questions of Marxist ideology. Because of this he was often accused of being impatient and unself-critical. Because of this again, today’s liberal intellectuals almost feel ashamed of their earlier friendships with him.

In his youth Ilyenkov showed a strong inclination towards the arts, literature, music, especially the music of German composer and thinker Richard Wagner. In all his oeuvre, he was most drawn to the grand scale of his work: the idea of the tragedy of absolute power and of the power of gold which destroys all organic human connections; the bonds of friendship, love and blood. Later he himself expressed the idea that “The Ring of the Niebelungs” is Karl Marx’s Das Kapital set to music: the same idea of alienation, if we are to use this somewhat vague term, which, according to M.A. Lifshits, became the object of “scientific plundering” after the so-called early works of Marx became famous.

In any case, having got into the Moscow Institute of Philosophy, Literature and History in 1940, Ilyenkov had no special intention of studying philosophy. It was the then famous professor Boris Stepanovich Chernyshev, the head of the department of the History of Philosophy at MIFLI and lecturer on Hegel’s logic, who taught Ilyenkov to love philosophy; most of all the German Classical philosophy and especially Hegel’s dialectics. Later Chernyshev’s lectures were published, and if you are to judge by the given text, the professor did not rush – as is the custom with a treatise on the positive aspects of Hegel’s dialectics – into adding a significant “BUT…”, after which usually follows: Hegel “was an idealist” and that is why his dialectics contradict the idealistic system… All this even young men very easily learned to spout – not being endowed with great philosophical talents. However there is a kind of love for dialectics, but in this case no compulsion to speak the truth.

When Ilyenkov returned after the war to the faculty of philosophy at Moscow State University (which had separated from the earlier MIFLI in 1942) Professor Chernyshev no longer was there: he had died in 1944. But Ilyenkov’s love for Hegel and his dialectics stayed with him all his life.

However, this philosophical love, even though it was his first and Ilyenkov never lost faith in it, was not the most important. His main philosophical love was Spinoza. Anyone questioning this need only glance at the beginning of his great work on Spinoza, which Ilyenkov was aiming to write all his life but never completed, for their doubts to disappear instantly. For Ilyenkov, Spinoza represented the peak of pre-Marxist materialism. Indeed he believed that this materialism could reach no higher. To this day, by no means everyone is agreed about this. But to explain this opinion merely as an infatuation with Spinoza clearly must not be done. In any case, there is here a serious question linked to the understanding of the nature of thinking. Ilyenkov thought that Spinoza gave for the first time a distinct materialistic definition of thought not as a manifestation of a separate spiritual substance but as an activity of a special material body – an activity upon the logic of objects outside this thinking body.

No thinker had really given such a definition before Spinoza. Ilyenkov thought him to be the direct forerunner of Marxism. One can of course argue with this and regard the Marxist materialistic understanding of the nature of thought as consisting of something else; for example, in receiving, storing and reworking “information”. But this merely shows us that arguments about the historical value of the contribution of one thinker or another become theoretical arguments themselves. Similarly, theoretical arguments cannot move out of the frame of abstract theory until they rest on historical fact. It was here that Ilyenkov saw the organic link between theory (or logic) and history, and in this he searched for answers to theoretical questions.

Marx’s method in Capital

It is no coincidence that Ilyenkov chose for his master’s dissertation (having graduated from the department of philosophy, he was retained to continue with his studies) the problem of the historicity of the Marxist method as applied by him, especially in Das Kapital. The ideas in this dissertation largely laid the foundations for his great study: Abstract and Concrete Dialectics in Scientific-Theoretical Thinking. Ilyenkov wrote this work in 1956 and it was published in a shortened version – after four years of trying – under the title The Abstract and Concrete in Marx’s Capital. At this stage Ilyenkov was already a member of staff at the Institute of Philosophy. But before this, another important event occurred which is worth recalling from the annals of Soviet philosophical thinking.

Some time in the mid-1950s Evald Ilyenkov and another desperate front-liner, Valentin Korovikov, presented what seemed to them simple and clear ideas: there is neither “dialectical materialism” nor “historical materialism”, but instead materialistic dialectics and a materialistic understanding of history. Even today these ideas, in the years of perestroika, can’t possibly develop from their embryonic state and in those days such a speech was tantamount to suicide. “Where are they taking us, Ilyenkov and Korovikov?!” cried the then Dean of the Department of Philosophy, Professor V.S. Molodtsov: “they are inviting us into the stuffy atmosphere of thinking.” In fact, from this remark alone we can judge the state of our philosophy at that time. After this incident, the two friends were forced to leave the faculty of philosophy at Moscow University. One left philosophy for good – he is today the famous correspondent of Pravda, V. Korovikov; the other went to an academic institute.

The problem of cognition and of dialectical logic as a more general and concrete theory of knowledge was always to be found at the centre of Ilyenkov’s attention. In the 1950s many considered this (and a few still do today) as a step away from the Marxist orthodox view which was premised on the view that material existence was primary and thinking only secondary. This basic truth of all materialism Ilyenkov never forgot. But he also realised clearly that no philosophy could grasp all materialistic existence, all nature and all of social life – it was already cramped by the numerous special sciences.

One can of course continue the argument, that from the body of material existence, parts have fallen to the lot of philosophy after the contributions of physics, chemistry, biology and cosmology. But what is beyond dispute is that thinking, in its basic forms and laws, has been, and will continue to be, the subject of philosophy. And here, as they say, there is more than enough work to go round! Concerning material existence – the most objective reality – the basic forms of thinking are in fact a form of reality itself, as it were. Ilyenkov defined them concisely, the objective forms of subjective human activity.

According to him this precise approach secured the indissoluble unity of dialectics, logic and theory of the essence of Marxism which V.I. Lenin championed. The organisation of the problem did not consist of separating the thought process from material being or the other way round, the material being from the thought process, but rather of combining the one with the other to show the “universality” of thought, to prove that it is not “transcendent” to existence, but “immanent” to it.

Today even those who have moved away from Ilyenkov (or who never agreed with him in the first place) in their attitude towards the understanding of the core of the human thought process and consciousness, cannot deny the fact that it was he who largely pointed the direction of Marxist research towards these problems in Soviet philosophy. Before him a similar approach did exist in Marxist psychology and names like L. S. Vygotsky and A. N. Leontiev represent this school. But already by the 1930s, and later in the 1940s and 1950s this was being pushed aside by the more numerous and vocal followers of Pavlov’s reflexology which was officially recognised as the natural-scientific basis of the Marxist theory of perception. For many years to come, humans were reduced to the level of a dog. One should note that this was the time when the idea of operating on the basis of “natural science” predominated in the philosophical consciousness. This is quite explicable, especially judging from the recently published notes of academician V. I. Vernadsky. The majority of “nature-researchers”, who were only familiar with Marxism in a second-hand fashion, understandably gravitated towards so called natural-scientific materialism and, having run into the necessity of somehow squaring this with the official “dialectical materialism”, they interpreted its position in terms and ideas that were akin to natural science: reflexology, Darwinism, the latest physics, and so on. In this way “dialectical materialism” changed into natural-scientific materialism, lightly smeared with Marxist oil, with seasoning from Marxist rhetoric in line with Party dogma, the class system, the irreconcilability of idealism with materialism, and so on.

A paradoxical thing happened – something which is often observed in history: the nation-conqueror becomes assimilated into a more populous culturally enslaved nation. This was what happened in our philosophy. Vernadsky complains about the fact that natural researchers attach themselves to an ideology which is foreign to them and to the methods of the science of “dialectical materialism”. He speaks of the fact that today’s scientist is far closer to natural-scientific materialism.

But with this he reveals the secret of the transformation of Marxist philosophy into Stalin’s dialectical materialism, which survived until recent times, by providing a purely ideological prop for all kinds of adventures in the area of natural science, plant-breeding activities, social/public life, and so on.

It was exactly this “dialectical materialism” which Ilyenkov could not accept from the very beginning, and treated at the best of times with irony. Incidentally, cosmonaut V.I. Sevastianov really did Ilyenkov a disservice when he repeated in his epilogue (in the journal Science and Religion [1988]) to the work, Cosmology of the Mind [Spirit], that the ideas in this work “do not contradict ‘dialectical materialism'”. The fact is, they do indeed contradict it, as they are a continuation of the Spinoza-Marx-Engels line of reasoning in the understanding of the substantial unity of thought and “extension”, that is matter and thought, where the latter is understood not as an accidental phenomenon, an “accident”, but as an “attribute”. In other words it is a property necessarily inherent in matter, which it can never lose, as it can never lose its property of “extension”, in short the capacity to be a body. This is essentially different from the “dialectical materialist” point of view, where thought as a whole is reduced to brain “function”, to its purely natural scientific understanding.

In the 1960s Ilyenkov wrote a few essays that were intended for the History of Dialectics which was being planned at the Institute of Philosophy (USSR Academy of Sciences). For various reasons this History never emerged, but on the initiative of P.V. Kopnin (the director of the Institute in those days) Ilyenkov compiled his doctoral thesis, called The Problem of Thought in German Classical Philosophy. This work was successfully defended before a great philosophic audience in 1968. This happened during the final moments, so to speak, of the Khruschev “thaw-period”, following which Soviet philosophy was once more shrouded in darkness. Ilyenkov never lived to see its end: on the March 23, 1979 he was no longer there or, as it was said in one novel, he “ceased to be”.

There is a little-known but interesting episode dating from the late 1960s which sheds light on the essence of the inter-relation of Marxist philosophy as developed by Ilyenkov with other areas of knowledge, and especially with natural science. (Nowadays it is almost officially admitted that Marxism allows some degree of philosophical “pluralism”; this is why we are allowed now to speak of the “line of Ilyenkov”). At that time the journal Communist ordered an article from academician N.N. Semenov on methodological problems in today’s natural science. Usually researchers even lower in rank than N.N. Semenov would think “easy-peasy” – and of course they know their philosophy – but most often would write the most awful philosophical nonsense with an air of superiority. N.N. Semenov’s attitude to this was different; he turned to the Institute of Philosophy, asking them to recommend a consultant. He was given a list of specialists and among them was Ilyenkov, who, after a short acquaintance, gave him most assistance. After this, the venerable scientist punctually visited the flat in the Moscow Arts Theatre not less than once a week for a period of two months and underwent a thorough grounding in materialist dialectics. Anyone can judge the “student’s” achievements and philosophical abilities by reading the article written by N.N. Semenov: The Role of Marxist-Leninist Philosophy in Today’s Natural Science (Communist 1968, No. 10). Later it was published in a book by the same author, Science and Society (Moscow 1973).

This incident, by no means the only one, is a typical example of the fruitful contacts between Ilyenkov and people in the most difficult professions, who had the will and readiness to learn new and interesting things for themselves. In this, evidently, lies the special excellence of the real scholar.

It is an irony of fate that while Ilyenkov was accused in the 1950s of “gnoseologism”, he was later accused of denying “the specifics” of thinking; in other words, he was accused of the opposite crime. This isn’t a reflection of any inconsistency in Ilyenkov’s “line”, but one of the vicissitudes of the destiny of Marxist philosophy, reflecting the vicissitudes of our history.

Here we have another variant of the repetition of history, not in the form of farce but in the form of events in general, also quite dramatic. We have in mind the history of Lenin’s battle with the philosophical revisionism of the theoreticians of the “Second International”, whose logic and theory of knowledge was totally separate from dialectics, and which became as a result a very abstract and one-sided theory of development. This was something that especially occurred in the writings of K. Kautsky. It was exactly that the firm conviction was established that Marxism did not have a sufficient theory of knowledge and logic which could be seen to be shared with contemporary scientists (Mach, Poincaré and so on).

Lenin, when he insisted that dialectics was in fact the theory of Marxist cognition, was too “correct” for people like A. Bogdanov, J. Berman and others, who aimed to create a theory of knowledge and logic corresponding to “modem science”.

If we return to the present, the picture is nearly the same, only the names are changed: quite recently a respected professor proved with great pathos that we have to, so to speak, follow V.I. Vernadsky’s path. What kind of tail-end philosophy is it that continuously follows in the footsteps of contemporary natural science, but is never able to outstrip it? All this can of course be regarded as farce, but it is a farce that gave Ilyenkov, at least, a lot of grief.

Dialectics, logic and the theory of knowledge meet, and are congruent, only on the basis of activity, practice, a function of which is also human thought. In today’s world, the so-called “active” has long since become a distinctive fashion. The attempt to apply it is constantly made, even where it is totally unnecessary. As a consequence of this, the defined boundaries of the notion of “activity” are so wishy-washy as to be totally incomprehensible. As a result, we have some kind of abstract activity in the manner of “bad Fichteanism”.

For Ilyenkov, it was above all labour, and in the first instance, physical work, which creates all material welfare on earth. He always had a genuine respect for work and would willingly spend time preparing and constructing apparatus in order to listen to records by his beloved Wagner. During his last years he successfully mastered the turning of a lathe, and bookbinding.

This does not imply that scholarly activity is not work, but quite simply means that at the foundation of all forms of human activity – knowledgeable and aesthetic, political and spiritually practical – lies physical labour in all its many forms.

The standard Marxist view that work created human beings, which became a general tenet often pronounced with a tone of irony – after all, work has also harmed human beings – Ilyenkov accepted unreservedly. In his opinion this was not merely a general point in Marxist theory, but an important methodological position, which must form the theoretical and practical basis of pedagogics. This is why Ilyenkov paid such great attention to the work of the famous Soviet psychologists and pedagogues I.A. Sokolyansky and A.I. Mesheryakov, on the upbringing and education of blind and deaf children. Their work was based on Marxist methodology; the essential principle of their organisation was above all practical activity, with human traits and in a human world.

Although a Wagnerian personality on the surface, a thinking hermit conjuring with his little glass bottles and retorts, Ilyenkov’s nature was passionate and enthusiastic, in fact, entirely Faustian. His weak health did not always allow him to be in the thick of life’s battles, but his soul was always there.

He was concerned and sometimes vexed by the important events in the social, political and scientific spheres. Even though he was absolutely committed to science, he was irresistibly drawn to life and struggle. Evidently, this is what must happen with all truly great science: it puts its roots down into life and its tree-top is buffeted by all the storms of modem times.

Those who knew him personally and observed him in different situations could easily see that he spent most of his time engaged in matters that were far removed from philosophy in its usual sense. He did not write a lot, and his literary heritage is not very large, if what was left is to be calculated by the number of pages or official publications. But not a single page written by him could be called amateurish or insignificant. He only wrote when he felt an absolute inner necessity, and then only what was heartfelt and achieved after great soul-searching. Not a single word he wrote was misleading. Even his ideological and theoretical opponents could not deny him this.

In recent years, Ilyenkov’s name has started to flicker across the pages of the press. Last year, the writer V. Kozinov reminded us in the pages of Literaturnaya Gazeta that in the late 1950s he belonged to a kind of circle, of which Ilyenkov was the soul: “Different kinds of people met within this circle – J. Davidov, S. Bocharov, Gachev, Paliyevsky, Pazitnov, Karjakin, A. Zionviev who later emigrated, Shragin, and so on.” They were all sorts of people, who came together only as long as their common sun did not die out. And when it did go out, everyone started to light for themselves their own little lamps. But as the poet said, “at times of depravity, brothers, do not condemn your brother”.

M.A. Lifshits, writing in the preface to his book: Art and the Communist Ideal (Moscow 1984) remarked: “In Ilyenkov’s works there is no trace of arrogance, dubious claims to the indisputably new, nor anything akin to the pursuit of philosophical fashion. All this was alien to him, you could even say hateful; even though his youth was only just behind him, he also had an aversion towards dogmatism, and an acquaintance with the varied philosophical and aesthetic views prevailing in the present-day world.”

First published in Socialist Future Summer 1996 Vol. 5 No. 1




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