Finding Evald Ilyenkov is a bit of a detective story, charting the rediscovery of long-buried events and writings by a remarkable Soviet-era philosopher.
Much of his work is only now becoming available in English and other languages, as the imperative to study his thought becomes more urgent and widespread.
Evald Ilyenkov never wanted to write for the drawer, but too often his work was either not published or published in a censored form. It is astonishing that even with these problems, when people outside the USSR encountered his writings, they were excited and impressed.
As a young philosophy student, he battled to rescue Marxism from the dead hand of official formulae and the triviality of Soviet neo-positivism. This book explains how he was discovered in Britain, America and the Nordic countries, and how his influence continues to grow.
Ilyenkov (born 1924 and died by his own hand in 1979) is increasingly seen as a crucial 20th century thinker. He made an entirely original contribution to philosophy in the USSR – “the hardest country in which to be a Marxist”, as a Russian theorist has noted.
His achievement shows that whilst the victory of Stalinism in the Soviet Union appeared complete and hegemonic, there was an underground of Marxists who continued to work on concepts for a socialist future.
He and his co-thinkers fought for the acceptance of philosophy as a special study, not in a purist way but as Marx did – as a theoretical guide to practices to bring about a communist society.
He denied claims that the Soviet Union had fully achieved socialism and was on its way to being a communist state – a fantastically brave thing to do. He did it not as a politician or a dissident but as a communist and a philosopher.
He was one of the Sixties generation, who believed that the Khrushchev Thaw would make it possible to regenerate Soviet Marxism. In that spirit he joined battle with the dogmatic materialists of the Soviet academy and the crude positivists who dominated science and social science.
This approach is seen in his courageous letter to the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party, written in the late 1960s as the shutters were again coming down. He boldly stated that Marx’s and Lenin’s actual thought had practically zero influence in Soviet philosophy; that neo-positivism was rampant grafting ideas taken from cybernetics into philosophy, and that Soviet economists knew a great deal more about the economies of the US and Europe than they did about their own economy.
Philosophy can seem remote from practical problems in the sciences, pedagogy or politics. And yet, this book – written simply for Marxists and non-Marxist to understand – shows that the concepts which Ilyenkov championed can help us to understand the complex world of today from the standpoint of changing it.
He offers powerful assistance to activists who are battling the hegemony of neo-liberal capitalism whether in politics, education or the social sphere.
For those who prefer to stick to the “pre-Capital” Marx of the Economic Manuscripts – the so-called “humanist” Marx – Ilyenkov offers little comfort. He is focused on the Marx of Capital and sees his task as developing Marx’s method in philosophy – the book Marx could not find time to write.
The Ideal, Dialectical Logic, the Ascent from the Abstract to the Concrete – these key concepts were researched by Ilyenkov as active principles, with real force in the movement of nature, society and thought. He was concerned with the development of theory as a collective human endeavour; he completely disallowed the reduction of thinking to matter whilst also denying it as an activity solely taking place inside the head of the human individual.
The importance of human thought and ideas exchanged and developed with others in a co-operative and creative way – this was what Ilyenkov provided in his classes, in his home and in his work on the education of deaf/blind children.
In the age of burgeoning artificial intelligence and logarithmic data mining by social media giants, Ilyenkov’s championing of the importance and uniqueness of human thought is poignant and relevant.
In his essay on the Ideal and in his study of the concept of ‘substance’ in Spinoza he offers a brilliant way of understanding the dialectical relationship between social being, social consciousness, thought and the individual. In the era of “fake news” and the rising right, it offers a key to understanding how populism can take hold, as an aspect of degeneration of culture and society arising from the crisis of neoliberal capitalism.
A new ideal of human society is, willy nilly, being created out of this crisis. Ilyenkov with his focus on theoretically guided practice and collective action suggests how we can counter social and political degeneration. It is the actions and practical achievements of actual human beings, working in politics, economy, social and cultural initiatives – that can co-create an alternative ideal to that which is required for the continued existence of capitalism.
In the book, contributions by practitioners from a wide range of fields explain how they first encountered Ilyenkov, and what his work means to them in their different fields. You get a sense that Ilyenkov would have thoroughly enjoyed participating in their work which makes it all the more sad that he was prevented from participating in international researches in his lifetime.
The International Friends of Ilyenkov, jointly co-ordinated by the author of this book, offers exactly the kind of collective and supportive atmosphere Ilyenkov fostered in his life. The difference is that we are able to include people from across borders and continents.
From neoliberal hegemony to the development of AI to the purpose of education, IFI hosts online seminars with presentations from researchers and activists and positive, open discussion. There are occasional face-to-face conferences – so far in Helsinki and Copenhagen and. . . watch this space. When you’ve read this book, hopefully you will feel inspired to join this expanding global conversation.
Finding Evald Ilyenkov by Corinna Lotz (£5) can be ordered here.