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Ilyenkov: Dialectics of the IdealWhen Moscow viewed creative Marxism as heresy

The tormented and tortuous publication history of Dialectics of the Ideal by Soviet philosopher Evald Vasilyevich Ilyenkov brings to mind the sagas of other great underground Soviet era classics such as those by Boris Pasternak and Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

Corinna Lotz reflects on a publishing landmark

Some characterise Marxism as a mechanically-determined approach to human nature and activity. And yet, at the heart of Marx’s methodology and his critique of the capitalist system was the dynamic and open-ended spring of dialectics – or, put another way, its soul.

Marx and Engels’ dialectical approach, drawn from Hegel and taken up by later revolutionary thinkers, made it possible to understand both the determined aspects of human life and activity and the moments of revolutionary possibility, choice, freedom and social emancipation.

Alex Levant
Alex Levant

Vesa Oittinen
Vesa Oittinen

One thinker who took this side of Marx’s vast contribution to heart as no other was the Soviet philosopher Evald Vasilyevich Ilyenkov (1924-1979). His 56-page essay The Dialectics of the Ideal is the focal point of a new book by Canadian scholar Alex Levant and the Finnish philosopher Vesa Oittinen.

Ilyenkov’s legacy remained buried in various archives in the former Soviet Union until the early 1980s, just preceding (and heralding) Gorbachev’s perestroika and glasnost. He was brought to the attention of revolutionary activists by British Trotskyist leader Gerry Healy when Dialectical Logic and The Abstract and Concrete in Marx’s Capital first reached England via Progress books during the early 1980s. (These books, which became classics for creative Marxists, were available in Italian and German much earlier, as Levant and Oittinen’s amazingly comprehensive polyglot bibliography reveals).

Just as the Soviet Union was disappearing from history, Ilyenkov was again rescued from obscurity, at least for English-speaking readers, by British-Canadian philosopher David Bakhurst in his 1991 book, Consciousness and Revolution in Soviet Philosophy.

The publication history of Dialectics of the Ideal is tortuous and tormented beyond belief. Indeed, it brings to mind the sagas of other great underground Soviet era classics such as those by Boris Pasternak and Alexander Solzhenitsyn which only reached readers through smuggled samizdat manuscripts and risk-taking journalists.

The manuscript was completed in the mid-1970s but it was not published in its complete form until 2009, some 30 years after the death of its author. In the realm of philosophical writing it was perhaps comparable to another volume said to be “forged in hell”, as a tract published some 300 years earlier, was described by the religious authorities of the day. That was Baruch Spinoza’s Theological-Political Treatise of 1670.

But why did Ilyenkov’s “Ideal”, apparently a work of “pure theory”, prove so troubling to the Stalinist authorities? What enraged the bureaucrats of the Brezhnev years was that Ilyenkov advanced his work on materialist dialectics in opposition to officially-sanctioned positivists from the standpoint of developing Marxism itself. He openly built on the work of those who had gone before, most notably Lenin.

By implication, he was accusing the Soviet philosophical establishment and their supporters in the state, of being non-Marxist. Of course, Ilyenkov was right. The bureaucracy used Marxist phraseology in order to kill Marxism off. In their hands, it became the worst kind of dogma. Ilyenkov’s attack hit the jugular.

“To be a creative, thinking Marxist, in a state at the head of which were Marxists, was the most dangerous thing of all,” notes post-Soviet Marxist Vadim Mezhuev, quoted in Levant’s introduction.

When Ilyenkov and his comrades, encouraged by the Khrushchev thaw, put their heads above the parapet, they were spurred on by that moment of freedom (described by some as a philosophical renaissance in the Soviet Union)1, just as Spinoza had been by the humanist, cosmopolitan spirit afoot in Amsterdam, within the newly-independent Netherlands. But the authorities throughout 17th century Europe immediately bore down hard against Spinoza’s “intolerably licentious book”. And so it turned out to be in the post-Khrushchev period.2


The connection between Ilyenkov and Spinoza runs deep as Oittinen explains in his essay Evald Ilyenkov, the Soviet Spinozist: ”It is just [in] the concept of the ideal, the kernel of Ilyenkov’s own philosophical commitment, where Spinoza’s influence is strongest.”

While Spinoza was a pivotal figure in the 1920s debates, during the later Stalin era, Soviet philosophy fell largely silent about him.3 But in the post-World War II period, Ilyenkov turned to him again and again, in lectures, articles and in his book Dialectical Logic. So much so that Oittinen describes Spinoza as a “guarantor for the concept of the Ideal”. He examines how Ilyenkov read him “as a philosopher of identity, as a thinker foreshadowing Hegel. Where Spinoza ‘sublated’ the Cartesian dualism, so in a like manner Hegel ‘sublates’ Kant’s dualism”.

Oittinen shows how Ilyenkov has adopted Spinoza’s monism and his concept of an active body, developing these in the light of Hegel and Marx.  For Spinoza what “unites thought and matter was the Substance, in Hegel it was the Spirit, and for Ilyenkov it was the concept of activity”. For him, the figure of action was in bodily movements which “generate thought, and the action is the mediating link between thought and body, rising above their dualism”. Following Marx, Ilyenkov adds the social character of human life to the activity paradigm “and even the ideality must be seen in this light”, Oittinen asserts.

Cartesian dualism had an afterlife in the positivist reductionism of official Soviet philosophy with which Ilyenkov locked horns in what turned out to be mortal combat. Levant’s closing essay returns to this issue and how Ilyenkov’s outlook can help overcome important dualist hurdles in today’s revolutionary practices.

It was not by chance that Ilyenkov so wholeheartedly espoused the heretical Jewish philosopher’s holistic view of the world, in which nature, god and spirit are connected through the concept of substance. It was Spinoza’s approach that allowed Ilyenkov to “cut the Gordian knot”, the conunundrum of Cartesian dualism in which mind and matter are eternally in opposition to each other. Ilyenkov deploys this understanding in his consistent rebuttal of the crude physiological reductionism of Soviet theoreticians like Alexander Bogdanov, Ilya Narsky and David Dubrovsky.

Dubrovsky’s 1968 attack on Ilyenkov’s concept of the Ideal and the ensuing controversy is documented in Andrey Maidansky’s fascinating and thoughtful contribution, Reality of the Ideal. Maidansky’s writings and online archive have in recent years provided an invaluable resource for all those researching Ilyenkov’s ideas.

Like Spinoza, Ilyenkov developed a philosophy that abolished the seemingly insurmountable barrier between ourselves and our Other(s) – the natural and physical world of which we are a part, including that of our fellow human beings. In his Dialectics of the Ideal, as in his other writings, Ilyenkov deconstructs Cartesian-Kantian dualism’s anxiety about accepting the evidence of our sensations and its scepticism about our ability to cognise the world.

This much of Ilyenkov’s contribution to philosophy was familiar since the 1980s to non-Russian readers through those of his books translated and published by Progress as well as New Park Publications (Leninist Dialectics and the Metaphysics of Positivism 1982). But now, thanks to Levant’s fluent translation of the restored full essay, we can explore the dynamic nature and revolutionary potential of Ilyenkov’s view of the Ideal.

Levant, Oittinen, Mareyev, Maidansky and their colleagues provide an expanded and cross-fertilised understanding of the historical setting of his work, placing it in the context of contemporary Soviet philosophical culture. They show how his contribution has enriched key concepts in psychology, political economy and the theory of knowledge.

The theoretical potential as well as the practical value of Ilyenkov’s notion of the Ideal for in human psychology are outlined by cultural-historical theorist and educationalist Birger Siebert in Prospects for a Cultural-Historical Psychology of Intelligence. Tarja Knuuttila of Helsinki university’s Collegium of Advanced Studies in an intriguing contribution notes that Umberto Eco’s A Theory of Semiotics and Ilyenkov’s Dialectical Logic and Dialectics of the Ideal were written contemporaneously and discovers common ground between them. She critiques both Peter Jones and David Bakhurst. She challenges the hypostatisation of “meaning” and the use of the idea of “representation” or “image” in connection with the Ideal, insisting on its continuous movement and activity.

Oittinen and Paula Rauhala’s discussion of the value-form debate and Ilyenkov’s first book The Dialectics of the Abstract and Concrete in Thought (1960) is an eye-opener, especially for all those who are familiar with the 1982 Progress translation. It now turns out this was heavily edited and truncated.  

Although Ilyenkov eventually received the prestigious Chernyshevsky Prize for the book in 1965, it had taken nine years to get it into print, due to opposition from the top ideology bureaucrats in the Soviet Union. In 1958, Ilyenkov finally consented to edit the manuscript radically and shorten it by almost half. Even the title was changed from “in thought” to “in Marx’s Capital”.  But so strong was Ilyenkov’s message that even this stark re-editing could not erase it.

Oittinen and Rauhala go on to provide a sweeping overview of Ilyenkov’s ideas in the light of international discussions and controversies about Marx’s method, the nature of value and the logic of capital from the 1960s to the present day. They contrast Ilyenkov’s dialectical and historical, law-governed but contradictory understanding of value as a concrete system of interacting phenomena with those of German theorists Hans-Georg Backhaus and Michael Heinrich.

Evald Ilyenkov
Evald Ilyenkov

Ilyenkov’s creative form of Marxism has languished like a buried jewel in the subterranean vaults of the former Soviet Union for too long. His powerful connection with the early Soviet period through the influence of the brilliant psychologist Lev Vygotsky (who died in 1935, aged only 38) was first documented for non-Russian readers by Bakhurst.  Now, thanks to Levant and Oittinen’s dedicated efforts, his significance for today can and should be explored.

In his closing essay, Emancipating Open Marxism: E.V. Ilyenkov’s Post-Cartesian Anti-Dualism, Levant flings open a door, not only on to a hidden history but to the relevance of Ilyenkov’s ideas. He proposes that there is a significant legacy of creative Soviet Marxism of the post-Stalin period which can enrich the debates of the Open Marxism movement associated with Werner Bonefield, John Holloway, Richard Gunn and Kosmos Pschopedis, amongst others.

Levant considers that Ilyenkov’s dialectical concept of the Ideal can help overcome the objectivism that prevails in some Marxist approaches, while also avoiding the subjectivism that often weakens Open Marxism. 

Alongside Open Marxism we have the challenge of taking his ideas forward in relation to the major ideological and political issues of our own times. His approach in Dialectics of the Ideal can offer a deeper grasp of today’s ideological crises, as we have argued elsewhere.4 Ilyenkov’s Ideal comprises all humanly constructed things and activities, including their origins in human aspirations and practices.  It is a “concrete universal” but in a vanishing, negative form which has its Other in the realm of economic and political reality.

Thus understood, like Spinoza’s “blasphemies”, Ilyenkov’s philosophical penetration into the dialectics of social and individual human thought and practice had the potential to break up and expose the ideologies that keep women and men chained to the system. Ilyenkov did this under the most difficult conditions of the Soviet Union, driven first by hope and then extinguished by ideological repression. Ilyenkov directed his energies at restoring the revolutionary dynamic of the Soviet Union but was short-circuited in his mission. The climate at the Institute of Philosophy where he worked worsened in the 1970s. He was prevented from travelling to philosophical conferences abroad and a former KGB operative Elena Modrzhinskaya persecuted him.5  With nowhere to turn, he took his own life in 1979.

Today, at least in some countries, we are lucky enough to have the freedom to discuss, exchange and publish ideas as well as organise. The challenge is to deconstruct the painfully negative forms of the Ideal in today’s world – the power of reactionary ideologies, east, west, north and south. What lies behind the violent break-up of nation states and the exploitation of globalisation’s extreme discontents and alienation by atavistic forces, for example? They are a distorted reflection in the Ideal world of the deep and insoluble contradictions of a dying system.  The challenge is to widen and concretise Ilyenkov's approach as a collective political enterprise.

27 June 2014

More on Ilyenkov

Ilyenkov – A philosopher under suspicion: A profile of Ilyenkov's life and work by philosophy scholar Sergei Mareyev.

The ‘heretic’ philosopher who challenged Stalinism: a paper on the contemporary significance of both Ilyenkov and Spinoza presented by A World to Win at an international conference in Helsinki.

Dialectics of the Ideal, Evald Ilyenkov and Creative Soviet Marxism, edited by Alex Levant and Vesa Oittinen, is published by Brill, 2014.


1 Guseinov, A and Lektorsky V.A., Philosophy in Russia: History and Present State, Diogenes 56, 2009

2 A Book Forged in Hell: Spinoza’s Scandalous Treatise and the Birth of the Secular Age by Stephen Nadler, Princeton University Press 2011

3 The tragic history of Soviet philosophy in the 1920s and 1930s has been documented by, amongst others, Yehoshua Yakhot in The Suppression of Philosophy in the USSR. English translation, Mehring Books 2012

4 Contradictions within the Ideal, Mediation and Transformation in Global Capitalist Society by Corinna Lotz, Paul Feldman, Penny Cole and Gerry Gold. Presented at University of Helsinki April 2014.

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