Joining Hegel and Ilyenkov in “the realm of thinking”

A presentation by Corinna Lotz on 15 December 2022 to the Third International scientific conference “Hegelian studies” in Kyiv[i]

Hello dear colleagues and comrades

Thank you for inviting me to speak to you from London and for organising your conference under the constant threat of missile attacks by Putin’s regime on your country’s citizens and infrastructure.

For the International Friends of Ilyenkov and myself Ilyenkov has been an inspirational figure, in particular his championing of Hegelian dialectics from a materialist standpoint.

Evald Ilyenkov opposed the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. I am sure he would also have opposed Russia’s invasion and ongoing war against Ukraine.

Young IIyenkov

In 1954 Evald Vasilevitch Ilyenkov and his colleague Valentin Korovikov, then junior lecturers at Moscow State University (MGU), caused a sensation with their theses on philosophy, which were discussed at an open meeting of their department.

Eleven months later the Scientific Council of the Philosophy Faculty at the university passed six resolutions denouncing the young scholars. What was their crime? “dragging us into the realm of thinking”.

By the early summer of 1955 Korovikov was sacked and Ilyenkov was suspended from teaching, charged with the crime of “Hegelianism”. Their theses included a passage from Hegel’s Philosophy of Right to back their challenge to the prevailing dogma of Marxist philosophy as the assertion of general laws of dialectics to living phenomena. [ii]

In his 1962 essay called The Ideal, Ilyenkov continued to investigate the nature of thought itself. But now, “enter the individual” as David Bakhurst has remarked: “The subject of thought becomes the individual in the nexus of social relations”.[iii]

In 1974 Ilyenkov prepared for the international Hegel conference in Moscow but was too ill to attend. His contribution was never published in his lifetime.

His paper, The High point, the end and the new life of dialecticsHegel and the end of Old Philosophy[iv] was a passionate defence of the revolutionary potential of Hegel’s dialectics. 

Ilyenkov unequivocally defends – and develops – Vladimir Lenin’s approach in the latter’s philosophical notebooks and his Conspectus of Hegel’s Science of Logic.

It is not surprising that, not only did Ilyenkov not attend that conference, but his essay was never published until 1991, at the end of the Gorbachev era. For an English translation we had to wait another 27 years until 2018.

“To be a creative, thinking Marxist, in a state at the head of which were Marxists, was the most dangerous thing of all,” as the late Vadim Mezhuev has said.

In this text, not only does Ilyenkov openly attack Stalin and Mao, as guilty of a “perversion of thinking”, but he also critiques other “Marxists” East and West, as producing a dialectics without materialism, as well as an “anti-dialectics”.

Quoting from Ukrainian-Soviet philosopher Mark Rosenthal, Ilyenkov insists on dialectical contradiction as “the difference not from something other, but from itself” (Pavlov, 2019):

Ilyenkov insisted on the objective reality of things, including, and specifically, contradictions, outside our consciousness. Contradiction, he says, quoting Hegel, is the “criterion of truth, the lack of contradiction is the criterion of error”.

He defends Engels’ position regarding the dialectics of nature. Dialectics is not simply in thought but in all material reality, in nature itself. At the same time, there are special laws of motion in the forms and laws of development of human thinking as examined by Hegel in Phenomenology of Mind.

Ilyenkov critiques Hegel for his deification of real human thinking – which “is presented falsely as a cosmic force that is only ‘expressed’ in human beings, and not as an active capacity of that very human being.”

In this respect Ilyenkov’s concept is entirely consistent with Hegel’s dialectic:

“Negativity as the quality of things has a deeper meaning: the other, the opposite of the given thing is not an external other, but its own other, its own other.” (Rosenthal 1974 [emphasis in the original])  

It is this internal contradictory nature of things that is the impulse, the source of change and development, and the arising of something new.

In the mid-1970s Ilyenkov completed his essay Dialectics of the Ideal but it doesn’t get into print until 2009. (In English not until 2014). Here again, he examines Hegel’s concept of ideality, fulfilling Lenin’s aspiration to develop Hegel in a materialist way – or as Marx put it, to turn Hegel on his materialist feet.

Here he proposes the process of cognition) in which the Ideal as a capacity and a reality, the vanishing but intensely real moments of conscious human activity – the activity of thought and physical body as a dialectical unity.

This takes us to Ilyenkov’s final book, Leninist Dialectics and the Metaphysics of Positivism, his last major contribution before his suicide in 1979.

It is his most controversial book of all. In my contribution to Ideals and Futures ifi.2022, I emphasised that Ilyenkov used Lenin’s work to expose the positivist dogmas that were counterposed to creative dialectics by the Soviet or rather Stalinist-led philosophical establishment.

Lenin’s Materialism and Empiriocriticism is often viewed as crude polemics without dialectics. But Ilyenkov punctures the myth of “two Lenins”, according to which Lenin didn’t embrace Hegel’s dialectics until 1914. This myth is still perpetuated, along with attacks on Lenin’s supposed “crude reflection theory”. Sadly, Slavoj Zizek too engages in this stereotype-meme, thus merging Stalinist dogma with Lenin’s positions.

Ilyenkov emphasises the dialectical process itself as a unity, conflict, interpenetration and transformation of self-related opposites, as emphasised earlier by Rosenthal. Thus, ontology and epistemology are intertwined in mutually developing self-relation, as indeed are the historical and the logical.

Thought develops in relation to its object and the object develops in relation to thought. But for Ilyenkov, as for Lenin, the object of cognition exists independently of individual and collective sensations. This “object” may be an ideal, mental object or process, or a physical thing or process

He describes the essence of the internally dialectical relationship of matter and mind, or consciousness, as follows:

“Dialectics consists in not being able to define matter as such; it can only be defined through its opposite, and only if one of the opposites is fixed as primary, and the other arises from it.”

Thus, he makes a clear distinction between materialism and idealism: “for materialism, matter – the objective reality given to us in sensation, is the basis of the theory of knowledge (epistemology), at the same time as for idealism of any type, the basis of epistemology is consciousness”.

Ilyenkov emphasises the complex journeys of consciousness and thought, opposing what the Anglo-Indian philosopher, Roy Bhaskar called “monovalent”, i.e. reductive approaches.  (Bhaskar was the author of Dialectic the Pulse of Freedom[v]).

Ilyenkov says: “It is also not true that the world is cognised in our sensations. In sensations the external world is only given to us, just as it is given to a dog. It is cognised not in sensations, but in the activity of thought, the science of which is after all, according to Lenin, the theory of knowledge of contemporary materialism.” [my emphasis]

The “activity of thought” is quite the opposite of a mechanistic theory of reflection.

Ilyenkov’s theory of knowledge comprises the complex dialectic between the universal, the individual and the particular. The relationship with the object of our activity must be, to use Spinoza’s expression, “under the aspect of eternity”.

By emphasising these self-related distinctions, Ilyenkov re-interprets Hegel’s “immortality of the spirit” as “the aggregate spirit of humankind”.

To sum up: developing a concrete, objective understanding of phenomena is through the activity, the practice of thought in relation to its object. And it is through time and space.

This embraces dialectical logic, tracing the journey through the self-related opposites of semblance, appearance and essence, as outlined by Hegel. By grasping the relativity of human knowledge through our practical activity we can and do prove the materiality of our thought.

This is why, as Vladislav Lektorsky told our symposium in his conceptual address, Ilyenkov really is our contemporary. He encourages us to approach each phenomenon afresh, without preconceptions, without assumptions, as Lenin proposed in his Elements of Dialectics. To search for the new, as a self-developing material process within which we act as the conscious element.  That’s the revolutionary potential of Hegel’s philosophy, which Marx and Engels, Lenin and Ilyenkov made the very essence of their philosophy and political practice. 


[i] organised by the Ministry of Education and Science of Ukraine; National Technical University of Ukraine, Igor Sikorsky Kyiv Polytechnic Institute; Faculty of Sociology and Law, Philosophy Department, Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv; Faculty of Philosophy, National Pedagogical Dragomanov University; Faculty of History and Philosophy

[ii] David Bakhurst provides a full description of these events in his essay Punks versus Zombies, Philosophical Thought in Russia in the second half of the 20th Century, V Lektorsky and M Bykova, eds. Bloomsbury 2019.

[iii] In his presentation to Ideals and Futures ifi.2022 Symposium, London and online November 2022.

[iv] Published in English for the first time in Intelligent Materialism, Essays on Hegel and Dialectics by Evald Ilyenkov. Edited and translated by Evgeni V Pavlov. Brill 2019.

[v] Roy Bhaskar, Dialectic, The Pulse of Freedom, Verso 1993.

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