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Vladislav Lektorsky (conceptual address)
Ilyenkov and the Renaissance of Soviet philosophy in the second half of the 20th century
My reflections about philosophy in my country and in the world, the role of Ilyenkov in contemporary philosophy and my personal recollections of him.
Vladislav Lektorsky is professor and principal research associate at the Institute of Philosophy, Russian Academy of Sciences. He is co-editor of Philosophical Thought in Russia in the second half of the 20th century (2019); and many works on epistemology and cognition. He knew Evald Ilyenkov personally. Vladislav A. Lectorsky (iphras.ru)
David Bakhurst (keynote speaker)
Ilyenkov, Education and Philosophy
From the outset of his career, Ilyenkov saw himself as an educator, seeking to reform and renew Soviet philosophers’ conception of philosophical inquiry and its role in the building of communism. But at first, he did not theorize education. He maintained, contrary to Soviet orthodoxy, that philosophy is the science of thought, but in his early writings he embraces a conception of logic that treats thought impersonally, focusing on the forms and movement of thought and the logic of scientific inquiry. In this, thought is understood as a socio-historical reality, but the focus is not on the individual thinker. This begins to change with Ilyenkov’s famous writing on the ideal, which opens up space for a conception of individual formation, a conception that plays an important role in the creative, humanistic Marxism so often associated with Ilyenkov’s legacy. My paper explores the reasons behind this change of emphasis and examines its expression in Ilyenkov’s often-neglected contributions on education, from his participation in the ill-fated Komsomol’skaya Pravda roundtable in 1967 to his passionate defense of education as “learning to think”. I aim to show how both the theory and the practice of education were central to Ilyenkov’s life and work.
David Bakhurst is George Whalley Distinguished University Professor at Queen’s University, Canada. He is the author of Consciousness and Revolution in Soviet Philosophy (Cambridge, 1991), The Formation of Reason (Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), and numerous articles in books and journals. His next book, a collection of his essays on Russian thought, will be published by Brill in 2023 under the title, The Heart of the Matter: Ilyenkov, Vygotsky and the Courage of Thought. Bakhurst is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and the Executive Editor of the Journal of Philosophy of Education.
Ezequiel A. Di Paolo (keynote speaker)
Dialectics of the abstract and the concrete in the enactive approach
The enactive approach to life and mind has seen significant advances over the last decade. It offers a well-developed embodied and situated alternative to mainstream perspectives in cognitive science and neuroscience which are based on the brain-as-computer metaphor. Enactive theory puts forward a series of tools to uncover the continuities between life and mind, between personhood and history through key concepts of agency and sense-making. Several of these ideas are dialectical in nature. Enactive interventions have recently moved into questions of human becoming, language, mental health, ethics, and the arts. However, one could say that the foundations of the enactive approach, and not just its applications, continue to be under development. Part of this development consists in revealing convergences and complementarities with other schools of thought. One perspective with strong resonances with current work in enaction is Evald Ilyenkov’s philosophy. Some of these resonances have inspired recent developments in the enactive approach, particularly as it moves from central ideas of autonomy towards the historicity of linguistic bodies. The latter concept is developed through an explicitly dialectical model where social interactions move from the abstract to the concrete via a series of transformations of internal tensions.
In this talk I will cover some of these ideas and illustrate some of the parallels between the enactive perspective and Ilyenkov’s own work and later scholarship. These parallels include Ilyenkov’s reflection on biology, on the concept of activity, on the relations between dialectics and historicity, and on the concept of the ideal. This by no means will fully account for all the potential convergences, complementarities, and possible tensions, but I hope it will allow me to make the case that this dialogue is fruitful for the development of a critical, non-dualistic, non-individualistic account of human life and mind better suited for facing our current global challenges.
Ezequiel A. Di Paolo is a Research Professor at Ikerbasque, the Basque Science Foundation in Spain and a Visiting Professor at the University of Sussex, UK. He obtained an MSc in Nuclear Engineering from the Instituto Balseiro in Argentina and a DPhil in Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence from the University of Sussex. His interdisciplinary work on embodied and enactive approaches to life, mind, and society integrates insights from cognitive science, psychology, neuroscience, phenomenology, philosophy of mind, philosophy of biology, AI, and computational modelling. He is the (co)author of over 180 academic publications including the books Sensorimotor Life: An Enactive Proposal (2017, Oxford University Press) and Linguistic Bodies: The Continuity between Life and Language (2018, MIT Press). His recent research focus is on embodied intersubjectivity, language, and the use of dialectical thinking for advancing on unresolved ethical and political questions in biology and psychology.
Ilyenkov’s legacy in Ukraine
There are two common myths regarding Evald Ilyenkov. The first one is that he was “a solitary misunderstood genius” and the second one is that his legacy and influence was spread across Russia and has just begun to spread worldwide. As for the latter myth, there are organizations like International Friends of Ilyenkov who help to spread his legacy to English-speaking countries and there are many prominent scientists admitting philosopher’s prominence in psychological and philosophical academical communities. But what is about Ukraine’s perception of Ilyenkov?
On the first glance, Ukraine as many other post-USSR has adopted a positivism fashion in philosophy and discarded Marxist philosophy, especially after 2014. However, in fact Ilyenkov was much more popular in Kyiv than in Moscow and his legacy has spread much farther than just an academic society. As a matter of fact, Kyiv hosted Ilyenkov’s readings in 2006 and 2010 and these conferences gathered hundreds of scientists, students and people interested in philosophy.
Ilyenkov was never alone. He had a friend Valery Bosenko (1927-2007), who was also a prominent Soviet and later Ukrainian philosopher. Bosenko came from Mariupol to Kyiv State University where he introduced a system of circles for students and young scientists. His proficiency as an organizer and deep knowledge in philosophy allowed him to maintain the dialectical tradition of philosophy in Ukrainian institutes. His correspondence and personal meetings with Ilyenkov helped him to develop his unique pedagogical approach and to write The general theory of development which is sometimes dubbed by readers as Hegel’s materialistic science of logic. Thanks to Bosenko and Pavel Kopnin (1922-1977) Ukraine has managed to fulfil Ilenkov’s dream about university courses of dialectical logic for students. Even now there are students who learn this course in the National Technical University of Ukraine.
There is also a figure of Anatoly Kanarsky (1936-1984) – another Ukrainian philosopher under Ilyenkov’s influence. Ilyenkov was an opponent for Kanarsky’s thesis dedicated to the dialectical theory of aesthetics. Kanarsky himself had a number of students and his understanding of art, feelings and sensuousness has become a basis for literature and aesthetic tradition in Kyiv’ circles.
Even during the war, Ukrainian philosophers aim to translate Ilyenkov to Ukrainian and develop his legacy. Academic cooperation with Russian and Polish textological circles bring these nations together and work against the imperialism dividing people.
Sergey Alushkin, received a PhD in philosophy from Kyiv, Ukraine. He studied philosophy in the circles of the National Technical University of Ukraine and graduated from the department of philosophy in 2020. Sergey defended his PhD dissertation “Desire as the origin of social activity of the subject of history” in 2021. His main scientific interests are dialectical logic, classical German philosophy, psychoanalysis and aesthetics.
Conceptual Development and Knowledge-production
John Stachel (2012) states that there is a need for radically reformulating the basic question of epistemology: “where is knowledge?” is the question but not what it is.
Such a reformulation does away with the myth of knowledge as an individual “belief” of some kind stored in someone’s head and emphasizes the sociality of knowledge as a particular product. A proper reconstitution of this question requires the analysis of the relation between concepts, thinking, and knowledge as (at least theoretical) knowledge is realized in the form of conceptual tools with the aid of sign systems. To this end, I will rely Evald Ilyenkov’s philosophical analysis of concepts.
Knowing involves use of tools; genuine knowledge requires devising and deploying tools that facilitate solving a problem. Knowledge is tool-mediated. A specifically human tool for thinking, problem-solving and thus knowing is concept.
New concepts arise in the face of questions that are not resolvable with the existing conceptual stockpile just as new tools should be deployed in face of technical questions irresolvable with the use of the existing tools. Concepts always refer to some former or new contradiction and thus bare its mark. As Ilyenkov (2007) puts, contradictions are signals that activate human thinking. Thinking in face of a contradiction means to device a concept in order to resolve it—this forms the first step into genuine scientific knowing.
Concepts are contradictory in two senses. They are contradictory as they form the middle term that relates a set of known (formerly resolved contradictions) facts, say A, to some unknown (a question that is irresolvable with the existing conceptual means) fact, say B (not-A). As Ilyenkov aptly puts, the whole growth of knowledge is making the unthinkable thinkable (2007, 24), i.e., expanding the limits of the thinkable. Concepts are contradictory also in the sense that they mediate human interaction with social nature—concepts not only “impose” a particular order onto nature, but also, as tools of activity, impose a particular form of behaviour on human beings. Through concepts nature is humanized as much as human is naturalized.
What is distinguishing about the modern scientific activity is its reliance of what I call “conceptual machines”. Just as machines appear as if they have a soul of their own and employ the workers, it appears as if scientific conceptual machines are independent of human’s mode of activity—a situation that is the source of the idealistic conceptualization of scientific theories and reality, that “take thought as primary, and identify the concept of the object with the object” (Stachel 2012, 407). Concepts and conceptual machines are tools of groping the reality; the knowledge that is produced with their help resides in the social universe. Concepts are meaningful only within activity just as machines are significant in the process of production. Out of their use in the social universe, they become mere things devoid of any significance just as idle machines turn into rusting insignificant material.
Siyaves Azeri is a professor of philosophy and the dean of the School of Advanced Studies, University of Tyumen in Siberia, Russian Federation. Previously, he was a visiting researcher at the Archives Henri-Poincaré-Philosophie et Recherches sur les Sciences et les Technologies (AHP-PReST), Université de Lorraine in Nancy, France from 2018 to 2020, and a visiting scholar at the Ecole Normale Superiure—Paris from 2017 to 2018. He is also an associate of the Thesis Twelve: Mardin Value-form Circle. Azeri writes on a large gamut of subjects in different international journals and books. His areas of interest include Hume’s empiricism, Kant’s transcendentalism, Marxian materialism, the problem of consciousness, philosophical psychology, and the critique of epistemology.
Logic, History and the Germ Cell
In his book on Capital, Evald Ilyenkov introduced the idea of “concrete historicism.” This notion, otherwise unknown to social theory, shows how to use the study of history to understand what is essential in the present historical conjuncture in some social formation. Ilyenkov’s understanding of the relation between logic and history, his application of the idea of “germ cell” to the study of history and his specific style of genealogy will be outlined.
I will briefly review Hegel’s view on the relation between logic and history and what Marx drew from Hegel’s conception.
I will review the sources of Ilyenkov’s idea in Marx’s Capital and contrast this with the genealogy of Michel Foucault, to bring out the importance of determining the point of origin from which analysis must begin.
The method involves a back and forth movement in the examination of history with the aim of determining the point of origin of the simple class relation which has become the foundation of the present social formation. Two examples will be cited: (1) the emergence of capitalism in Britain and (2) the Islamic Republic in Iran.
Andy Blunden is an independent scholar in Melbourne, Australia. Andy is an recognised expert in Soviet Activity Theory and the Psychology of Lev Vygotsky and has published on Activity Theory, Collaboration, Collective Decision Making and Hegel’s philosophy.
The neglected role of ‘causal powers realism’ in Ilyenkov’s philosophy and political economy
According to ‘causal powers realism’, the powers of a thing are necessarily possessed in virtue of its intrinsic structure or nature. Thus H2O is the real essence defining the natural kind termed water, explaining its power to quench my thirst, boil at 100 degrees and so on. Causal powers realism can be traced to Aristotle and was addressed in different ways by Descartes, Spinoza, Locke and Hume as the burgeoning literature on causal powers realism reveals. As regards Ilyenkov then it has been argued that casual powers realism is important for (i) Ilyenkov’s theory of mind; (ii) Ilyenkov’s interpretation of Marx’s value form theory. It makes sense to bring together and develop, in one paper, these two previously separate lines of argument (on i and ii) to explore the extent to which they mutually reinforce one another. That is the purpose of this paper.
The paper reveals a common structure to Ilyenkov’s theory of mind and to his interpretation of Marx’s value form theory. In each case, Ilyenkov starts with a simple application of causal powers realism, showing that this simple application resonates with common sense. For the theory of mind this is the common-sense idea that brain is the organ (potentially containing the real essence) of thought just as the heart is the organ of blood circulation. For the theory of value this is the idea that exchangeability is a natural property of the commodity (with a natural real essence). In each case he goes on to show that there is a deep contradiction within the simple application of causal powers realism. As regards mind then its non-spatial character contradicts the possibility of defining a spatial real essence of mind. As regards the commodity then the determinate abstraction from all natural material properties in exchange rules out the possibility of defining a natural real essence of value. Ilyenkov goes on, in each case, not to reject causal powers realism but to retain and develop fundamentally (‘dialectically’) causal powers realism, beyond everyday common-sense ideas, to achieve adequate explanation and comprehension. This development becomes highly complex in each case. It takes up the bulk of Ilyenkov’s masterwork Dialectical Logic in the case of the theory of mind, and the three volumes of Capital in the case of Ilyenkov’s interpretation of Marx’s value form theory.
The paper concludes by urging more work relating causal powers realism and Ilyenkov. Such work holds out the happy possibility not only of furthering our understanding of philosophy and political economy but of bringing together the hitherto rather disconnected respective literatures on each.
Andrew Brown is Professor of Economics and Political Economy at the University of Leeds. He has published on a range of different systems of provision, (such as waste services, energy, ICT, and transport) and on the general character and trajectory of the global economy (issues of value, wellbeing, financialisation, and job quality). He has also published on issues of philosophy, method, and measurement, with specific interest in realist and dialectical approaches, and is winner of the Sage Prize for Innovation / Excellence. He works closely with the policy world and has led approaches to economics and interdisciplinarity on a wide range of collaborative projects.
The transmigration of the Ideal: Ilyenkov and Intuitionism
Perhaps, under the purview of both philosophy of education and the philosophy of mathematics, it would be an exaggeration to propose that the limits of demonstration are the beginnings of construction. Nowadays we know, through the history of the failure to demonstrate the parallel postulate in Euclid’s geometrical system, that it was this failure which allowed for the construction of hyperbolic geometry. Foremost among the attempts to do the former was the assumption of the postulate’s negation, and its proof by contradiction.
The general rebuttal of this method was one of the key innovations of intuitionist mathematics, as developed by L.E.J. Brouwer in the early 20th century. Such attitude entailed a refusal of an eternalist formalism in logic and mathematics in general. Poetically and geometrically not so parallel to this, Evald Ilyenkov’s research on dialectics, the ideal, and pedagogy, also rhymes with a refusal of static formalism. I will try to show that his stance on dialectics as the identity of opposites has strong affinities to the constructive intuitionist philosophy in its rejection of the law of the excluded middle. Such rejection brings time into the picture: the intuitionist proposal that there are no absolutely undecidable statements discards epistemological foreclosure, and opens logic to experimentation – to practice, in the human realm of time. On the other hand, Ilyenkov’s resolution of a pseudo-paradox in the question of the ideal “versus” the material, deems the ideal as plastic, by virtue of its social, normative historicity.
In order to illustrate these affinities, I will try to propose that the pedagogy of demonstration can be equated to labor, as distinct from the pedagogy of construction as equated to the concept of human activity. For this aim, I will elaborate on Ilyenkov’s explication of the latter against Soviet psychology’s mechanistic view of the term. From this, I hope to propose a pedagogy of intuitionistic logic as a poiesis, sided with Ilyenkov’s concept of the ideal as the historical and mathematical transformation exercised by human activity. In other words, I hope to be able to suggest that intuitionist logic necessitates the possibilities of realizing dialectics, by virtue of opening the formal to the dialectical, and so, to the concrete; that only through the aid of this theoretical praxis, is the human mind opened to universality.
Filipe Felizardo (Lisbon, 1985), is a philosophy student at the New Centre for Research & Practice. Their research touches upon philosophy of mathematics and pedagogy. In parallel, they develop workshops in musical ludics for the young, and maintain activity in music and visual arts.
Ali C. Gedik
The Dialectics of the Ideal and the Material in Music:
Insights from Ilyenkov for a Marxist Ethnomusicology
Ethnomusicology is mainly the study of music as a social and cultural practice. As an academic enterprise rooted in both cultural anthropology and musicology, its disciplinary history also somehow reflects main theoretical shifts in social sciences and humanities, in various degrees; from cultural evolutionism to functionalism, structural functionalism to structuralism, post-structuralism to post-modernism, interpretivism to post-colonialism. However, the impact of Marxism on the history of discipline have remained limited in comparison to other disciplines in social sciences and humanities.
Once Marxism had a profound impact on ethnomusicology in 1980s, it was only by way of cultural studies which was emerged within Western Marxism in 1960s but dominated by post-marxisms already at that time. If Western Marxism could be defined as a gate to escape from economic determinism, then the arrival point could be defined as cultural determinism, far beyond any kind of Marxism: A journey from the point where the base (material) was simply assumed by focusing mainly on superstructure (ideal) to the point where the material base is completely disappeared by focusing solely on meanings.
Until recently, social sciences and humanities were dominated by this trend, called as cultural turn. In this sense, material turn today, rooted roughly in archaeology and science and technology studies (STS) with its philosophical underpinning in new materialism and its appearance as posthumanism is no doubt a result of dissatisfaction with the cultural turn, which reduces things to meanings.
However, material turn definitely did not correspond to a return to Marxism. On the contrary, Marxism could hardly find a place in material turn which attributes agency, source of value, even intentionality to things, reminding the fetishism of commodity as defined by Marx. Consequently, material turn find its way into the ethnomusicology, especially in studies on music in capitalism.
As a result, our presentation will discuss possible contributions of Ileynkov for a Marxist Ethnomusicology by focusing largely on his text titled, The Dialectics of the Ideal. Ilyenkov does not only resolve the problem of the relation between the material and the ideal but also the dualities dominated social sciences and humanities such as nature vs. culture, mind vs. body and universalism vs. particularism which posthumanism argued to have solved.
All these aspects are no doubt the most fundamental issues not only for social sciences and humanities in general, but for ethnomusicology, as well. Therefore, a brief history of ethnomusicology will be reviewed based on insights from Ilyenkov by focusing especially on recent studies reflecting material turn.
Ali C. Gedik is an associate professor of musicology at Dokuz Eylül University (DEU), İzmir. He is one of the founders of Journal of Interdisciplinary Music Studies (JIMS) with Richard Parncutt published since 2007 and currently acts as sciences editor of the journal. He was the president of Society for Interdisciplinary Musicology (SIM), between 2016-2018. He is the editor-in-chief of yedi: Journal of Art, Design and Science since 2019. He is editorial board-member of Journal of World Popular Music since 2018 and the editor-in-chief of Marxism & Sciences: A Journal of Nature, Culture, Human and Society, founded in 2021. Gedik is the secretary of Turkey Branch- International Association for the Study of Popular Music (IASPM) since 2009 and member-at-large in EC of IASPM since 2021. He is the editor of two books: Marxist Inquiries on Science: Marxism and Two Cultures (2015) in Turkish and Made in Turkey: Studies in Popular Music (Routledge Global Popular Music Series, 2017). He is the author of chapter, titled ‘Popular Music in Times of Neo-Liberalism and Beyond: Marxist Perspectives on Turkish Popular Music’ (Oxford Handbook of Global Popular Music, 2022). He has been playing trumpet in various jazz groups in İzmir since 1999.
The thoughts of Vazjulin and Ilyenkov on what Marx took from Hegel
This paper will look at the contributions of two philosophers in the Soviet Union reflecting on the influence of Hegel’s Science of Logic (SofL) on Marx’s Capital, to help us evaluate the contemporary debate of the value-form school (Heinrich, Arthur etc) critiquing the substantivist accounts of the labour theory of value.
Vazjulin argued for a close homology between the structure of the two works. From Vazjulin we appreciate the continuity of thought categories in their movement from initial appearance to essence to necessary appearance to actualised appearance. This opens up the architecture but not yet the spirit of Capital.
Concentrating on Volume 1 Ilyenkov first highlighted the significance of the dialectic of the abstract and the concrete, emphasising that in commodity production real abstractions take place in practice, that is emphasising the materialist side of Marx’s dialectics. Ilyenkov’s essay on the SofL probed further into the nature of Marx’s inversion of Hegel. He argues that the role of revolutionary dialectics is not to resolve contradictions in theory (here of the capitalist mode of production), but to point out that they can only be resolved by revolutionary practice. Ilyenkov sees a double inversion of dialectical thought from Hegel to Marx, who renders it both materialist and revolutionary. Drawing these two strands together, third inversion that Ilyenkov traces is from the content of logic to the logic of the content.
This informs understanding the whole point of Marx’s transformation problem in Volume 3. The argument arcs over the first three parts, starting with the commodity as a contradiction between the product of labour and the product (in a different sense) of capital, and ending the tendency of the rate of profit to fall and concluding ‘hence crisis’.
Andy Higginbottom is a recently retired Associate Professor from Kingston University, London. He is an international solidarity activist with focus on Colombia, South Africa and the Eelam Tamils. He writes on British imperialism in mining and oil. He is currently delivery a lecture series on Marx’s Capital Volume 1 with associated reading group (at CSSGJ.org), and in 2020 delivered a programme of lectures on Volume 3, available at Redline.
Returning to Hegel (and forward): Evald Ilyenkov’s On the Dialectic of the Abstract and the Concrete in Scientific Thought
In my paper, I offer a fresh reading of Ilyenkov’s transitional essay On the Dialectic of the Abstract and the Concrete in Scientific Thought, first published in Voprosy filosofii in 1955. My talk is based on a commentary, co-written with Trevor Wilson, that accompanies a forthcoming English translation of the essay. Ilyenkov’s first major publication, this text served as a stepping board for future work on logic and abstraction in Marxist philosophy, culminating in Dialectics of the Abstract and the Concrete in Marx’s Capital several years later. I first contextualise the essay in Soviet Marxist scholarship of the 1950s, then give a brief overview on some of its major discourses, such as the dialectic of concreteness, Ilyenkov’s notion of “conscious materialism,” and his analysis of social interconnectivity. Finally, I emphasise that the essay’s radical potential can only be grasped when read in dialogue with four of Ilyenkov’s crucial interlocutors: Hegel, Marx, Lenin, and Lukács. A particularly interesting document of Ilyenkov’s intellectual trajectory, the article contains both the essential seeds of his mature philosophy and the fecund ambivalence of an early work.
Isabel Jacobs is a PhD candidate in Comparative Literature at Queen Mary University of London. Her dissertation explores Russian-French philosopher Alexandre Kojève’s aesthetics. Her research interests include Soviet and Russian philosophy, global intellectual history, and cinema. She holds a MA in Russian and East European Literature and Culture from UCL and a BA in Philosophy and Slavic Studies from Heidelberg University. She is an Editor at the Journal of the History of Ideas Blog. Her writings appeared in Marx & Philosophy Review of Books, Calvert Journal, Phenomenological Reviews, Apparatus, and the East European Film Bulletin.
Developing an understanding of ‘Personality’; following the path between Evald Ilyenkov’s philosophy to A.R. Luria’s ‘Romantic Science’
Evald Ilyenkov’s The Dialectics of the Abstract and the Concrete in Marx’s Capital was first published in Russian in 1960. A central issue of Ilyenkov’s work was to develop what Marx meant by the ‘abstract’ and the ‘concrete’ and their relationship to each other. Ilyenkov demonstrates how Marx’s understanding of the ‘abstract’ and the ‘concrete’ is far more sophisticated than a crude opposition of the physically material to that which is not. Ilyenkov explored the full implications of Marx’s statement in the Grundrisse that:
“The concrete is concrete because it is the concentration of many determinations, hence unity of the diverse. It appears in the process of thinking therefore as a process of concentration, as a result, not as a point of departure even though it is the point of departure in reality and hence also the point of departure for observation and conception.” (p. 101)
In this context we should understand that taken separately each of the ‘many determinations’ concentrated in ‘the concrete’ is an abstraction. Later in the 1960s, after the publication of Ilyenkov’s work (op. cit.), A.R. Luria, the friend and collaborator of Vygotsky began writing a number of ‘biographical’ pieces which were later developed and published in English for the first time in 1979 as The Making of Mind. One chapter of this book is titled Romantic Science where Luria talks about two case studies he undertook with patients, one of whom had an apparently limitless memory, the other a man recovering from a head wound which left him brain damaged. These two ‘unimagined portraits’ move between distinct levels of analysis and exposition from the neurological to the psychological and the biographical. It will be argued that what Luria is doing with romantic science is in fact an attempt to concentrate some of the important determinants of the psychology of the two case studies to present as concrete a picture as possible. Luria’s romantic science strives to “ascend to the concrete”.
I do not know the extent of contact or awareness of each other’s work between Ilyenkov and Luria but there are striking parallels. The inner logic of Ilyenkov’s work in philosophy, and Luria’s in psychology, led them both in their respective fields to develop a materialist dialectical understanding of the relationship of the abstract to the concrete. An understanding rooted deeply in the tradition of Marx.
Sources referred to
Ilyenkov, E. V. (1982) The dialectics of the abstract and the concrete in Marx’s Capital. Moscow: Progress Publishers.
Luria, A.R. (1979) The making of mind. Cambridge Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
Marx, K. (1993) Grundrisse. London: Penguin.
Dr Ian Jasper is a Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Education and Canterbury Christ Church University. He works mostly in Teacher Education, he has a long experience working in adult literacy projects and he is especially interested in ‘life stories’.
Evald Ilyenkov and the crisis of Soviet Marxism
The paper reacts to the following themes of the symposium:
- Marxist methodology and the dialectics of nature, society and thought
- Ilyenkov’s contribution to contemporary theories of cognition, knowledge and representation
- Soviet ‘Hegelianism’ and/or ‘Spinozism’.
A common trope in the scholarship on the history of late Soviet philosophy distinguishes between official dogmatic “Soviet philosophy” of the party cadres on the one hand, and unofficial creative “philosophy of the Soviet period” on the other. Evald Ilyenkov’s work, which offers a radical criticism of the Soviet doctrine of dialectical materialism, is often considered as representative of the latter current.
While this reading is substantiated by actual historical conflicts between different Soviet philosophers of the time, such a binary opposition serves a constructed memory and by disregarding the connections between “dogmatic” and “creative” authors, distorts the multidimensional history of late Soviet philosophy.
In our presentation, we will try to recover some of that history by considering Ilyenkov’s relation to Soviet philosophical culture (Van der Zweerde, 2000) through a double optic: an externalist approach, which uses sociology of knowledge to shed light on the various administrative mechanisms of the regulation of knowledge production (Bikbov, 2014) and an internalist one (Lewis, 2019), which privileges theoretical arguments over biographical information. This method will allow for an understanding of the intersections between the author’s historical position and his thought, which is particularly useful for the study of Soviet philosophical culture.
The first part will discuss the new tasks that the party nomenklatura set for philosophers after the death of Stalin and try to describe Ilyenkov’s position in relation to them. It will be argued that while Ilyenkov recognizes – not without giving his own definition – some aspects of the party’s new conceptual apparatus (like the notion of personality), he wages a theoretical struggle against other aspects of the same apparatus (as with his criticism of “neo-positivism”).
The second, internalist part will focus on the notion of ontologism as a defining trait of Soviet Marxism (Oittinen, 2009) and argue that while Ilyenkov reproduces the ontologizing tendency in his theory of cognition, the synthesis of ontology, epistemology and ethics that results from his reading of Hegel and Spinoza offers an open perspective that goes beyond the Soviet doctrine of diamat and the technocratic ideal of the Soviet State.
Giorgi Kobakhidze is a lecturer in political and moral philosophy at the university of Toulouse Jean Jaurès (France). He is currently working on a doctoral thesis titled “Épistémologie clandestine : le problème de la dialectique dans l’œuvre d’Evald Ilyenkov” at the university of Toulouse Jean Jaurès and the Ca’Foscari university in Venice (Italy). He obtained his master’s degree in philosophy from the University of Toulouse Jena Jaurès and the university of Coimbra (Portugal) with the work titled: “Les hérétiques dans le marxisme : la Logique du Capital dans les lectures d’Evald Ilyenkov et Louis Althusser” and a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Ilia State University (Georgia). He is also engaged in translation projects of Evald Ilyenkov’s works into French. His interests include the history of Marxist thought, the philosophy of the Soviet period and the history of workers movements.
Mikhail B. Konashev
Idols and Ideals: Ilyenkov and the Evolution of “real Socialism”
Ilyenkov understood the nature and main trends of the evolution of Soviet “real socialism” or “developed socialism” better than many other Soviet philosophers. Ilyenkov’s tragedy was threefold. Firstly, he, being a real Marxist, was looking for the truth and found it, and therefore was extremely popular among Soviet philosophers, but it was this popularity that official Marxists could not forgive him, especially in the ideological department of the Central Committee of the CPSU. Secondly, he could not write and talk about real problems and contradictions, about the idols and ideals of “real socialism” openly and had to do it allegorically. Thirdly, he could not move from his truly communist, revolutionary philosophy to the same communist, revolutionary practice. He was forced not only to speak and write, but even more so to act cautiously, caught in the grip of what was officially permissible and permitted. Nevertheless, his contribution to understanding and explaining the phenomenon of Soviet socialism is huge and important, and is extremely relevant at the present time. Especially in the situation that has arisen as a result of what is happening in Ukraine and around Ukraine around the world. The common tragedy of the peoples of Ukraine and Russia, of all the peoples of the former Soviet socialist republics who jointly built a fair society free from exploitation, a new future, communist world is a direct consequence of the treacherous and criminal destruction of the Soviet Union from inside and outside. This tragedy would have been impossible if the communist tendency had prevailed in the evolution of Soviet “real socialism”. But in this evolution, it was not the ideals of communism that prevailed, but the idols of capitalism and anti-communism. In particular, because Ilyenkov’s warnings were not heard and understood on time.
However, Ilyenkov’s ideas influenced not only Soviet philosophy, but also the Soviet intelligentsia as a whole and, thereby, the entire Soviet society. First of all, the very fact that such a philosopher as Ilyenkov exists and operates in Soviet society and, more broadly, the fact that there is a Soviet philosophy that differs in principle from the official Marxist-Leninist philosophy influenced very much. Secondly, Ilyenkov by his very activity proved to his contemporaries that the communist philosopher is able to understand reality, the problems and contradictions of the formation of socialism, despite all the objective and subjective difficulties and appearances (simulacra – in post-Soviet terms). Thirdly, it is precisely this philosophy of Ilyenkov, which differs from official Marxism-Leninism and de facto opposes it, that was perceived and greedily absorbed by his contemporaries, including me, then still a student, as a truly Soviet philosophy, as the philosophy of the communist future in the present.
This Soviet, communist philosophy of Ilyenkov and indeed the Soviet communist philosophy of other philosophers of the “military generation”, the generation of the winners of fascism, Batishchev, Zinoviev, Shchedrovitsky and other philosophers who returned alive from the Great Patriotic War (the main part of World War II), as well as their students, were not liquidated together with the liquidation of the Soviet Union. Ilyenkov’s philosophy and, in general, truly Soviet philosophy have become one of the foundations of the latest Marxist philosophy in post-Soviet Russia and in other countries, and have also had and are having their effects in three ways. First of all, by the irremediable fact that Ilyenkov’s philosophy and, more broadly, Soviet philosophy, which were and are the indisputable and irremediable achievement of Soviet socialism, originated precisely in Soviet society. Secondly, Ilyenkov proved irrefutably to his descendants that the communist philosopher is able to understand reality, the problems and contradictions of the formation of socialism, despite all the objective and subjective difficulties and appearances (simulacra – in post-Soviet terms). Thirdly, thanks to Ilyenkov’s philosophy, its heirs will understand, at least preliminarily and partially, what tendencies and contradictions of Soviet socialism have been developed in post-Soviet reality, including what communist tendencies, which Ilyenkov wrote about in his writings, can and should be developed at the present time, what lessons should be extracted from the positive and negative experience of the USSR and other socialist countries.
Lasting peace and well-being of the peoples in Ukraine and throughout the post-Soviet space is possible only when the truly communist trend of the evolution of Soviet socialism, which Ilyenkov reflected and wrote about, is recreated anew. Its reconstruction consists primarily in the mandatory development and step-by-step implementation of a realistic and comprehensive program of cardinal reforms with the aim of transforming Ukraine, Russia and Belarus, and other former republics of the USSR into truly social states, in the formation of all necessary and sufficient political, economic, ideological and cultural prerequisites for the restoration of Soviet socialism and the USSR in the future. These prerequisites include, first of all, the rejection of anti-Sovietism and anti-communism in all areas of domestic and foreign policy of Ukraine, Russia and other former Soviet republics, the rejection of extremely dangerous attempts to flirt with monarchism, neoliberalism, Vlasovites, Black Hundreds, any radical nationalists, anti-Soviets and anti-communists. The goal of the re-Sovietization program can and should be a genuine and complete realization of the slogan of the Great French Revolution: “Freedom! Equality! Brotherhood!”
Mikhail Borisovich Konashev was born in Leningrad USSR in 1951. He defended his thesis at the Institute for the History of Natural Sciences and Technology, Russian Academy of Sciences in 1985. He is currently a senior researcher, St. Petersburg Branch, Institute for the History of Natural Sciences and Technology, Russian Academy of Sciences. He is a member of the St. Petersburg Society of Naturalists; Russian Philosophical Society; Humanists International. He has written about 150 articles in Russian and foreign scientific periodicals and 2 books.
To the notion of ideals
It is for sure an alluring thing to make future and ideals a topic of a special discussion. One has gone so far to invent futurology – the world of science wishes to distinguish itself from the talk of the general public consciousness about future, and therefore ideals. Not to appear as parascience. High scientific authorities even set up a commission to determine what is science and what is fake, where are flies and where are cutlets. But let’s keep in mind that worms of different kinds are also used to prepare food, as it is pure protein and more environmentally friendly than hooves that are ground into flour for cutlets in capitalist-civilized countries. Lovely cats do not eat all sorts of sausages.
Gennady Lobastov is President of the Russian Philosophical Society “Dialectics and Culture”.
The problem of subjectivity in the context of organisational practices
The era of transformations beyond anyone’s control is problematizing the theme of subjectivity – purposeful activity, free and reasonable goal-setting – with a new urgency. This question is directly related to international solidarity and mutual assistance. The task of thinking humanity becomes the development of forms of resistance to militant rhetoric – theoretical and practical self-organization, capable of nullifying efforts to pit people against each other in the name of interests alien to them.
The desire to derive subjectivity from individual, singular existence today forces a thinker as prominent as Slavoj Žižek to search for its form as “purified from” ideological layers and the contingencies of life. In his search for such a form he turns to the psychoanalytic tradition, to the work of Jacques Lacan and to his attempts to formalize the structures of subjectivity in isolation from the universality that generates them as necessity.
This abstract consideration of subjectivity leads him to recognize subjectivity as a “distorting factor” in view of the insurmountable rupture between being and thinking. On a practical level, this means “the refusal to act”. The freedom of the subject can be productively realized only within the semi-conscious “production of discourse,” an exercise in wit about current events.
E.V. Ilyenkov’s takes a different approach to the question of active self-determination. He conceives of personality as universal – its traits are formed in the course of interaction between individuals in the process of producing the means of life. The individual becomes a personality, that is, a subject, appropriating the generic powers of humanity, being included in a system that implies a human relationship to the thing and, through it, to another individual.
Thus, the social-practical orientation is embedded already in the very notion of the subject. Subjectivity is not a crooked optic that distorts reality, but something that is formed as a result of activity, that is, on the basis of real feedback from the outside world. It can and should manifest itself as a force capable of creating the space for activity necessary in a concrete historical datum. In our view, today, this is above all theoretical activity, aimed at making the working majority aware of their interests and historical role, and at mutual recognition, enriching from the outside theoretical thought, closed in national and linguistic boundaries.
1. Slavoj Žižek: The Ticklish Subject: The Absent Centre of Political Ontology. Russian translation: “Щекотливый субъект: Отсутствующий центр политической онтологии.” — М.: Издательский дом «Дело» РАНХиГС, 2014. — 528 C.
2. E.V. Ilyenkov: What is a Personality? Э.В. Ильенков: «Что же такое личность?» http://caute.ru/ilyenkov/texts/personab.html
3. E.V. Ilyenkov: Substance. Э.В. Ильенков: «Субстанция» http://caute.ru/ilyenkov/texts/enc/substantia.html
Natalya Listratenko was born in Moscow, USSR in1990 and educated at Moscow State Linguistic University, Faculty of Economics (2008-2013). She is a member of the Russian Philosophic Society “Dialectics and culture”, “Dialectics” debate club. She has participated in the following conferences:
- XXll International scientific conference “Ilyenkov’s readings”
- International Seminar commemorating S.N. Mareev’s 80th anniversary
- XXlll International scientific conference “Ilyenkov’s readings”
Her research interests: are History of philosophy, theory of activity, soviet philosophy, psychoanalysis.
Ilyenkov’s cry from the heart
Evald Ilyenkov’s last book, Leninist Dialectics and the Metaphysics of Positivism, was published in 1980 shortly after the author’s tragic demise. In it he celebrates the 70th anniversary of Lenin’s still controversial Materialism and Empirio-criticism (1909). Like Lenin’s own book, this final contribution by Ilyenkov is too often dismissed as mere polemic. But as Soviet/Russian philosopher Lev Naumenko noted in the preface: “the fires of the ideological struggle have not weakened”. Ilyenkov’s cri de coeur still stands as a call to the future, our future, as a foundation demanding further development towards a contemporary theory of knowledge for the purpose of social transformation.
Under the protective shield of “Leniniana” Ilyenkov set out his own approach to materialist dialectics as both the science of logic and the logic of revolution. The paper will probe Ilyenkov’s motives, the place of Leninist Dialectics within his oeuvre and why the original manuscript was censored by the Politizdat publishers. Ilyenkov’s defence of Lenin’s view of Marxist philosophy and his challenge to the myth of “two Lenins” was a thinly-disguised attack on the technocratic anti-humanistic ideology that prevailed in the late 1970s Soviet Union.
The paper will explore how Ilyenkov may have directed his work at those in the Soviet bureaucracy who embraced Bogdanov’s viewpoint in relation to the economy. The paper explores Ilyenkov’s conclusion that “dialectics is also the totality of the forms of natural and social-historical development in its universal form” and how he developed Lenin’s concept that Marxist philosophy is cast from a “single piece of steel”, as defined in Materialism and Empiriocriticism. The paper suggests that Ilyenkov’s contribution to materialist dialectics, far from being an historical artefact, can provide philosophical as well as practical avenues to explore, in developing contemporary theories of knowledge. Finally, the paper will discuss how we can take forward Ilyenkov’s conclusion that “the essence of the matter consists in revealing dialectics as the system of the laws of motion of cognition”.
Corinna Lotz co-founded the International Friends of Ilyenkov. Her principal interest is in the development of a Marxist theory of knowledge that can contribute to a revolutionary approach to thought, political transformation and artistic creativity. She created the philosophy component of Rethinking Our Future, an online education course for the Real Democracy Movement, which campaigns for a democratic revolution. Writings include: A Theory and Practice of Cognition for Our Time: Building on Ilyenkov’s Dialectical Logic (Marxism and Sciences Vol.2 Issue 1. 2023); Finding Evald Ilyenkov: How a Soviet Philosopher who stood up for dialectics continues to inspire (Lupus Books, 2019); Time’s Up for Neoliberalism (co-author, 2018); She holds a BA Honours degree in art history from the Courtauld Institute, London University.
Saving Private Spinoza:
Is thinking “a property, a predicate, an attribute” of human body?
The key, though unspoken, idea of the “Metaphysics of Positivism”, as I have already said, is that we are building the Martian socialism that Bogdanov envisioned. There is no place here for the Selbstverwaltung self-activity of the masses; the state and the elites regulate and control social development.
And the true socialism according to Lenin and Marx, es ist das Volk, das selbst und für sich selbst handelt (The Civil War in France. First Draft). Without any interference of market or the state institutes, these machines of alienation.
Andrey Maidansky is Professor in Philosophy at Belgorod National Research University, and Associate Researcher at the Institute of Philosophy, Russian Academy of Sciences. His work focuses mainly on Spinoza, Marx and Russian Marxism. He is the editor of the Collected Works of Evald Ilyenkov (since 2018, with Elena Illesh and Vladislav Lektorsky).
Marxism and the problem of radical negativity: Evald Ilyenkov vs Slavoj Žižek
Dialogue between “opinion leaders” always draws people’s attention – the relatively recent “debate of the century” between S. Žižek and O. Peterson is a prime example. This is doubly true of the attention of researchers who have immersed themselves in the issues under discussion. Marek Siemek, a Polish colleague of E. Ilyenkov who studied the problem of intersubjectivity on the material of classical German philosophy (the concepts of Fichte and Hegel), wrote that for productive dialogue to emerge as a form of human-human interaction, fundamentally opposed to violence, mutual recognition, the detection of each other as Other Selves by the parties is necessary. Dialogue between traditions is important for the production of new meanings which can be found in the points of contact between traditions: this is why such points in Ilyenkov’s work are very interesting to observe (a few but important intersections are mentioned by A. Maidansky).
Not long ago Žižek devoted a separate critique to Ilyenkov, in which he made the main claim against the Soviet thinker like this:
«Ilyenkov’s mistake resides in his very starting point: in a naïve-realist way, he presupposes reality as a Whole regulated by the necessity of progress and its reverse. Within this pre-modern space of a complete and self-regulating cosmos, radical negativity can only appear as a total self-destruction. The way out of this deadlock is to abandon the starting point and to admit that there is no reality as a self-regulated Whole, that reality is in itself cracked, incomplete, non-all, traversed by radical antagonism».
In our view this problem constitutes the watershed between the line from Socrates, through Hegel and Marx, to Ilyenkov and the line that opposes it, expressed here in the form of the principles of totality (which, as we know after Lukacs, constitutes the actual principle of Hegel and Marx) and fragmentarity, vividly expressed in a Žižek’s quote, who develops this idea in detail in Parallax View. The theoretical investigation of their connection and the explication of these principles leads to important results, which are the discovery of a way of mediating these principles to remove the abstractness of each of them. The author develops this idea in his own conception of fractality as a logical category which shows exactly how “the Spirit finds itself in its absolute rupture” (Hegel) when history reaches its ultimate goal in the production of personality, returning the lost identity of Mine and Ours to the unity mediated by all the long history of their rupture, and moves away from the relationship of domination-subordination to the genuine relationship of Man to Man and solves the problem of radical negativity in Marx-Ilyenkov’s monistic logic.
 Siemek M. J. Hegel i filozofia. Warszawa: Oficyna naukowa, 1998. SS. 172-202.
 Майданский, А. Д. «Русский европеец» Э.В. Ильенков и западный марксизм // Вопросы философии. – 2015. – № 3. – С. 93-100. (Maidansky, Andrey. The “Russian European” E.V. Ilyenkov and Western Marxism. In Problems of philosophy, № 3, 2015. P. 93-100).
 Zizek, Slavoj. Varieties of the Transcendental in Western Marxism. PROBLEMI INTERNATIONAL, vol. 3, no. 3, 2019.
 Zizek, Slavoj. The Parallax View. The MIT Press, 2009.
 “In the literal sense of the word ‘vseobshchee’ (universal) means ‘obshchee vsem’ (common to all) (Ilyenkov, 2017, p. 223).
Maxim Morozov is a lecturer of philosophy at the Institute of Humanities and Social Sciences (Lyubertsy, Moscow region), member of the Philosophical Society “Dialectics and Culture” and Organizing Committee of the International Conference “Ilyenkov Readings”. Graduated from Bauman Moscow State Technical University (Moscow), did his postgraduate studies at the Department of Philosophy at Moscow State Pedagogical University (Moscow). His main scientific interest is dialectics as logic and theory of knowledge. He is the author of articles on problems of theoretical foundations of pedagogy, philosophy of mathematics, theoretical aesthetics. A monograph in which the author’s concept of fractality as a category of dialectical logic is being prepared for publication.
Dr. Giannis Ninos
Ilyenkov’s contribution to dialectics and the problem of deduction
In my presentation, I will focus on the problem of deduction in dialectical methodology based on Ilyenkov’s analysis in his book The Dialectics of the Abstract and the Concrete in Marx’s Capital. Dialectical methodology consists in the ascent from the abstract to the concrete. This movement of thinking constitutes a peculiar form of deduction. In dialectics, deduction is immanent something that is reflected in the internal coherence and interconnection of the logical categories. The immanent deduction of categories reflects the internal structure of the aspects of the object of cognition. Ilyenkov, in examining the limitations of Ricardo’s method, distinguishes dialectics from formal deduction. In these terms, Ilyenkov’s analysis provides the theoretical framework on the basis of which we can distinguish the basic stages of the cognitive process and identify the differences between analytic, synthetic and dialectical cognition (Hegel, 1969). Thus, in my presentation, I will explain that the “faulty architectonics” (Marx, 1968, 167) of Ricardo’s method lies in its formal deductive character and in its close relation to induction. In this context, I will argue, following Ilyenkov’s analysis, that dialectical deduction is inextricably intertwined with the question of historicity and with the relation between the logical and the historical in dialectical methodology. On the basis of the above, I will relate the question of method to the basic functions of the cognitive process, namely description, explanation and prediction. Thus, I will argue that different methodological approaches are associated with different types of correlation of the basic functions of cognition. In this context, I will highlight the crucial importance of Ilyenkov’s critique of Ricardo’s non-historical approach to capitalism and the fact that the non-historical approach is strictly associated with the formalism of its deduction. In conclusion, I will stress the deep historical aspect of the dialectical deduction and how it is linked to the study of the cognitive object as a self-developing whole.
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich, Hegel (1832) 2010. The Science of Logic. Translated by George Di Giovanni. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Ilyenkov, Evald V. (1960) 2008. The Dialectics of the Abstract and the Concrete in Marx’s Capital. New Delhi: Aakar Books.
Marx, Karl. (ms. 1862–63) 1968. Theories of Surplus Value. Volume IV of Capital. Part II. Moscow: Progress Publishers.
Giannis Ninos is an Adjunct Lecturer in Social Theory in the Department of Political Science and History, Panteion University, Athens. His interests include dialectics, epistemology, contemporary social theory, political economy, sociology, digital studies and history of science. He is the author of ‘The relation between logical and historical in the becoming of dialectical logic. Epistemological investigations in the works of Hegel, Marx and Vaziulin’ (PhD Thesis) and has published several articles on dialectics, epistemology and social theory.
Martin Albert Persch
The Universal Animal – Reason as the active principle of human nature
Since the second half of the 20th century, structuralism has been the dominant theoretical tendency in Amazonian Studies, although since the 1990s, this dominance of the French anthropological school has been exercised by theories that call themselves “post-structuralist”, with Philippe Descola and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro at the head of this movement. This paper will focus on Descola’s gnoseological proposal, for whom the preponderant theme (as for Lévi-Strauss) are the classificatory and cosmological systems, the (misnamed) “ontologies”, which constitute the reality inhabited by the different peoples of the world, and which are analysed in his work with astonishing disregard for ecological variables and the productive and reproductive dynamics of the groups that profess these “ontologies”. Descola seeks to decipher the “mental processes that have always interested philosophers since Plato” (Descola, 2016:20). If we recapitulate Descola’s works with a certain conceptual rigor, we quickly perceive that they do not offer “even the possibility of formulating with exactitude a special philosophical problem already perceived by Plato: the problem of the objectivity of the universal” (Ilyenkov, 2021:162).
The present work aims to reconstruct the logic of cultural diversity in terms of the concrete interaction of each human collective with the forces of the environment, i.e. what Ilyenkov had called “vital activity”. But it is not only the expositions of Dialectics of the Ideal and Dialectical Logic, in which he defines the “ideal” as a specific relationship between a thinking and non-thinking body, that will enable us to clarify the concept of “culture”, which has often been treated in anthropology in an abstract and ambiguous way. While Ilyenkov has nothing immediately to say about the Amazon and the people who inhabit it, it is the claim of this work that the concept of the “idea” and that of “activity” he polished in his works will enable us to better understand not only Amazonian, but all cultures, because they help us integrate them in a universal human project. It is in this sense that also the reflections of the Cosmology of Spirit will help us to reconstruct the universal logic of the objectification of the environment, namely, the form of vitality of our species, which is of particular relevance when constructing emancipatory and intercultural politics.
Martin Albert Persch, was born in 1985 in Saarbrücken, Germany. Anthropologist specialized in Economic and Amazonian Anthropology, with higher studies in Education and Neurosciences and a Master’s Degree in Education with a mention in Informatics and Educational Technology at the San Martín de Porres University of Peru. Since 2011 he has been collaborating with the indigenous organisation Central Asháninka del Río Ene (CARE) as head of the Education area, also cooperating with different indigenous and social organizations of the Central Amazon of Peru, and teaching in various educational experiences in the Peruvian Amazon, such as the political training school EGIDA of the national indigenous organization AIDESEP. He has published the following books: Bakunin Decolonial: Emancipación Epistemológica o Teoría Heterodoxa (Terra sem Amo, 2020); Las Deudas de Graeber; Antropología, Economía y Anarquismo (Iliu Yawar, 2021); Evald Iliénkov; Cosmismo y Comunismo (Editorial Horizonte y Gato Viejo, 2021).
Rogney Piedra Arencibia
Ilyenkov and the Problem of Alienation
One of the fascinating aspects of Ilyenkov’s contribution is his approach to the problem of alienation. Such an aspect, however, has received little, if some, attention in the English-speaking world. Ilyenkov saw the key to understanding – and solving – this problem in the practical divorce between the universal essence of the human species and the extremely partial existence of its individuals, deprived, by forces out of their control, of the full enjoyment of human material and spiritual culture. Despite being the products of human activity, these hostile forces, such as the institutions of the market and the state, escape our control, acquiring their own logic of function and development to which we are forced to subordinate our activity regardless of our will and consciousness. Ilyenkov depicts idolatry’s fetichism as the most primitive and crude form of alienation. Thus, one of his main concerns was that Marxism’s communist ideal does not degenerate from a scientifically guided principle of action into an idol object of blind devotion. Concerning this, an exciting idea defended by Ilyenkov is that alienation is not a privative phenomenon of capitalist societies but also an insidious problem in socialist countries. For Ilyenkov, the formal ‘socialization’ of productive forces, i.e., their legal alienation from the hands of the private capitalists to the hands of the state, is just a necessary first step but one that by no means solves the problem of alienation. Where the state replaces the particular capitalists as the universal one, the role of intermediary between the community and the social treasures that it produces is played by a professional politician situated above such a community, who presents himself as an illuminated ‘vanguard’ of society but, in practice, is as dominated by the market as the previous capitalists. That is why for Ilyenkov, the conversion of all individuals into fully developed bearers and participants of the human culture capable of independent and correct thinking is a necessary condition for achieving communism, i.e., for the definitive elimination of alienation as a social problem. A community of such individuals will be able to become the direct masters of their collective activity without the need for a cast of clumsy professional bureaucrats. However, Ilyenkov did not consider some objective conditions for this definitive elimination of alienation under socialist conditions that I will try to address at the end of this paper.
Keywords: Alienation, Evald V. Ilyenkov, Capitalism, Socialism, Communism, Activity Theory
Exploring the Universal
The notion of “universal” (всеобщие), in the sense “common to all”, is central in Ilyenkov’s writings. The purpose of this contribution is to explore the universal from the first principle “The individual is the social being” (Marx, 2007, p. 105). Accordingly, the universal needs to be grounded in two distinct but dialectically related aspects. The “common to all” aspect of the social is the labour process; our “species character”, and the immutable natural conditions of human labour. This process, without which we all would be dead, underpins all specific forms of production – serfdom, feudal, capitalist, socialist, and so on. The specific manifestations of the labour process will be referred to as activity systems in the following.
The “common to all” aspect of the individual departs from the fundamental fact that “brains evolved to control the activities of bodies in the world” (Love, 2004, p. 527). Thus, evolution has equipped humans with a requisite set of neurobiological predispositions for action. Among these are:
- – focusing attention on the object for action
- – foregrounding relevant phenomena and disregarding irrelevant ones
- – spatializing the environment and position phenomena in relation to each other
- – anticipating and executing actions
- – routinizing pertinent actions in recurrent situations
- – refocusing attention from one situation to another.
These predispositions, which I have referred to as activity modalities (e.g., Taxén, 2020), are requisite in the sense that a lesion impacting any of the modalities aggravates or inhibits action. Thus, every healthy infant meets the world, equipped with a neurobiological “infrastructure” by which a fabric of meaning is conferred onto action relevant, external phenomena. Out of the ceaseless stream of sensations arriving through our sensory modalities, we attend objectual, contextual, spatial, temporal, normative, and transitional phenomena in the environment.
Individual predispositions develop into abilities after birth. These are manifested differently depending on the historical and cultural circumstances the individual encounters. However, in all these particularises, there always exist phenomena apprehended as activity modalities, otherwise action would not be possible. In activity systems, where individuals jointly act to achieve a social goal, individual lines of action are fitted together around common identifiers (Blumer, 1969). Such identifiers develop in the process of idealizing activity modality phenomena. For example, the Polaris star acquired an ideal form as a means to navigate at sea (a common identifier for the spatializing and temporalizing modalities).
The upshot of this conceptualization is that the activity modalities can be regarded as a concrete universal: “the genetic root of a concrete whole, the particular component within it that, in the course of its development, determines the nature and function of all the others” (Bakhurst, 1991, p. 158-158). Such development proceeds in two aspects. First, the individual develops from the infrastructure of neurobiological predisposition into a conscious, sentient individual. Second, activity systems develop from the infrastructure formed by cultural-historical circumstances, by the idealization of common identifiers. The underlying universal is the construct of activity modalities. I will illustrate how this understanding may resolve some die-hard conundrums in the Information Systems discipline.
Bakhurst, D. (1991). Consciousness and Revolution in Soviet Philosophy: From the Bolsheviks to Evald Ilyenkov. Modern European Philosophy Series. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Blumer, H. (1969). Symbolic Interactionism: Perspective and method. Englewood Cliffs, N.J: Prentice-Hall.
Ilyenkov, E. V. (2017). The Ideal in Human Activity. A Selection of Essays by Evald Vasilyevich Ilyenkov. Pacifica, Calif: Marxists Internet Archive.
Love, N. (2004). Cognition and the language myth. Language Sciences, 26(6), 525–544.
Marx, K. (2007). Economic and philosophic manuscripts of 1844. (Ed. Milligan, M.) Mineola, NY: Dover Publications.
Taxén, L. (2020). Reviving the Individual in Sociotechnical Systems Thinking. Complex Systems Informatics and Modeling Quarterly, CSIMQ, 22, 39–48. DOI: https://doi.org/10.7250/csimq.2020-22.03
Lars Taxén is an associate professor from Linköping University, Sweden (now retired). In addition to his academic career, he has more than 30 years’ experience from the telecom industry, where he worked with system development methods, processes, information modelling, and information systems. His research interest is focused on the dialectical constitution of the individual and the social, both from a practical and theoretical point of view. He has published a book, several book chapters, and various journal and conference articles.