The Copenhagen interpretation of Ilyenkov’s relevance

ifi.2018 symposium report by
Corinna Lotz & Signe Juhl Møller

ifi.2018 attendees

The challenges facing us in the age of neoliberal rule are considerable. But the International Friends, taking inspiration from Ilyenkov himself, have not shirked from tackling the knotty questions of theory and practice. Holding our second symposium to bring us together in person was never going to be easy but it has been long-cherished aim and this June we achieved it. The conference theme came from a question posed by Ecuadorian IFI member David Añazco Ojeda.

Thanks to the hospitality of Enhedslisten, the Danish Red-Green Alliance, we had an excellent venue in the centre of Copenhagen, where most of our sessions were held. The conference was co-sponsored by the Real Democracy Movement and generously supported by the Danish 15 September fund charity.

The conference revealed that the largely “underground” current of work carried out by Evald Ilyenkov during the Soviet era has a great deal to offer for today’s researchers and political activists.

Some 27 supporters and members of the IFI from Denmark, Finland, South Africa, USA, Scotland, England, Wales, Germany, Brazil, Russia and Sweden took part.

After a welcome by Signe Juhl Møller, Penny Cole and Corinna Lotz outlined their paper on the essential nature of neoliberal hegemony and its ideals. The Ideal of democracy was not the sole property of today’s power holders. It enshrines pre- and post-capitalist practices and aspirations. Thus neoliberal hegemony, whilst monolithic in appearance, has deep internal contradictions which can drive revolutionary social and political practices from the Ideal to the Real.

Professor Morten Nissen of Aarhus University’s Department of Education introduced The dialectics of concepts aesthetics and politics in social work. He spoke about the importance of concepts in relation to the “emergent realisation of universals”. He referenced French philosopher Bernard Stiegler’s notion of the Pharmakon as both toxin and cure. Neoliberalism reduced humans to “wantings”, through its management of desires. This was reflected in new public management structures.  Liberal governance controls behavior ”outwardly through nudgings and incentives and inwardly through coaching rational choices”. Masters students Thomas Gylling Andersen and Sebastian Tobias-Renstrøm later shared their fieldwork with youth social workers, based on the revolutionary concept of an ”anti-method that insists on holistic views of person and society”.

Sascha Freyberg, a research scholar at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin, said the “There is No Alternative” TINA totalisation needed criticising. Popper had given a false image of political holism. Dialectics is not an “external tool, not a theory to be applied to certain objects but a way of grasping the movement of the thing itself”, he said. Paradoxes revealed the totality of life.  The whole contained all attributes of a thing which were in movement and, arising from that, contradiction. Spinoza had posed the challenge of thinking the whole and giving it a higher identity.

Dr Seth Chaiklin of University College Copenhagen, raised the importance of universal concepts and the contradictions between appearance and essence. It was important, Freyberg said, to develop holistic concepts in today’s society – right wing politicians made advantageous use of them.

In The Pedagogy of Daring, IFI co-organiser Signe Juhl Møller (University of Helsinki) analysed the results of two studies of children’s decision-making using moral scenarios through Ilyenkov’s concepts of thinking and knowledge. She showed the connection between pedagogy and neoliberal public management systems in Danish state schools.

After a sandwich lunch, we adjourned to Copenhagen University’s psychology institute, where associate professor Jytte Bang welcomed us to the Person, Practice, Development, and Culture research group. Seth, working through key passages in Ilyenkov’s writings, [see abstract and background readings] suggested that having a theoretical approach could mean that the external world could become a rich source of stimulation rather than a distraction. In his presentation he sought to answer the question: Can school knowledge be reconstructed theoretically? It was important to educate the educator in new ways of conceptualising education.

Seth Chaiklin addressing ifi.2018

Seth Chaiklin addressing ifi.2018

Seth saw Ilyenkov’s philosophy as based on Marx and Hegel’s dialectics. Through his reconstruction of Marx’s theory of value, Ilyenkov “stood where there is no ice”. Interrogating the thing itself, rather than reproducing others’ thoughts was crucial. Drawing on key passages in Ilyenkov’s essay Knowledge and Thinking and his ground-breaking book, The Dialectics of the Abstract and Concrete in Marx’s Capital, Seth emphasised the “real unity of the universal, the particular and the individual” – through the “object’s internal relation to the object itself”. Collaborative work amongst friendly people was necessary in order to develop independent thought.

The highlight of the evening was a private viewing of the brilliant new documentary film about Ilyenkov made by Alexander Rozhkov.  Dramatic footage shows how Ilyenkov’s theory of knowledge inspired educational work at the Zagorsk institute for multiple sense-impaired children. Interviews with Ilyenkov’s daughter Elena Ilesh, plus students and colleagues brought to life how he flourished during the post-war years of the Khruschev thaw only to be driven to despair by subservient Stalinists in Soviet philosophy institutes during the late 1970s.

Author, editor and journalist Paul Feldman had earlier introduced Time’s Up for Neoliberalism – Manifesto for a transition to a real democracy, the new book produced by the Real Democracy Movement which outlines some revolutionary solutions for discussion, seeking out the hidden but decisive role of the state in promoting and preserving neoliberal hegemony.

Tuesday opened with an discussion about the symposium so far. Then there was a presentation, The ecological crisis, evolutionary theory and alienation by Mikhail Konashev of the Institute of the history of Science and Technology of the Russian Academy of Sciences via video link from St Petersburg. He described two recent “technogenic” fire disasters in Russia. Using stark images showing ecological devastation in the Aral Sea which brought home the urgency of finding solutions and transitioning to a non-capitalist, truly human and moral economy.

Presenting Evald Ilyenkov and the struggle for hegemony in Soviet Philosophy, Arto Artinian, assistant professor of political science at Manhattan Community College, described his personal recovery of historical memory – discovering generations of Balkan philosophers who had been neglected. There was a need to think on different levels – not simply the obvious level of appearance. He explained the difference between intuition – what you experience in the moment and more complex levels of reality, including the subconscious. There is a need for systematic thought.

Arto said that Ilyenkov captured the logic that Marx did not have the time to develop. Ilyenkov was a politically engaged thinker – trying to understand a society in transition towards a new Soviet hegemony. In the early Soviet Union, learning was seen as a constituent element of social life. The Ideal is what makes thinking possible.  The Ideal is not synonymous with consciousness. The fundamental Ideal is that change is possible. Re-making the world to be different is a core aspect of what it means to be human.

A scholar at the Federal University of Parana in Brazil, Marcelo Jose de Souza e Silva’s contribution via video link from on The State and health – the maintenance of capitalism provoked a lively discussion about the nature of the state. He referenced Soviet legal scholar Evgeny Pashukanis’ analysis of the state. Marcelo insisted it was not possible to move forward socially without dismantling the capitalist state. Paul made the point that the state had existed prior to capitalism and that new forms of democratic rule were needed to overcome the power of the alienating state.

The closing session focused on final thoughts and proposals for the future:

Arto: We have created an opportunity to talk about the state philosophically and theoretically.

Signe: We understand bits and pieces about the state but we need to do more work to connect it and construct a bigger picture.

Penny: We need to explore more the idea of theory as a guide to practice. I would like to look at the movement from the real world to thought and back again – semblance, appearance, essence and negation. Also look at the relation of humans and nature – in the context of the end of the commodity, including the commodity of work.

Mike: We need to do more work on the ascent from the abstract to the concrete. Why do we do the work we do – how did we arrive here at this concrete – we should share examples if we have them of how these interconnections work.

Barry: The environmental perspective colours my view of neoliberal hegemony. What can we each do and how – but with the ecological crisis at the top of the list. We need to reflect on it and our time is limited.

Sascha: The idea is very daring, of connecting philosophy and political action. We need to combine thinking and action.

Corinna: We can take our work forward on many levels. Being together face to face has enormous power. We will have the film hopefully and we should use it.

Paul: We need a sort of handbook. A foundational document. A manifesto-like counterblast – setting out an outlook with a connection to political action. Reclaim the communist position in the modern context.

Monica: Relate the notion of freedom with the notion of the ideal and concrete. More writings – more theoretical foundations – but case studies to exemplify.

Marcelo: We need to have a public face – it must be a manifesto for the working class.

Possibilities to explore:

Ask journals for a special issue of their journal, or produce our own journal with papers from this event – Signe and Corinna to take forward.

Be more effective in minuting discussions and publish minutes and documents/papers from our online discussion.

Sascha outlined his idea for a book to go with the film. We spoke about the possibility of raising some money for the film maker.

Possible face-to-face meetings: Arto will look at the possibilities of meeting in Sofia next year 2019. Signe will continue to look at the possibilities of meeting in Helsinki in 2020.

The next online discussion is on 30 July at 15.30 (GMT +1)