E.V. Ilyenkov and Creative Soviet Theory: An Introduction to ‘Dialectics of the Ideal’

in Historical Materialism
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This article aims to introduce E.V. Ilyenkov’s ‘Dialectics of the Ideal’, first published in unabridged form in 2009, to an English-speaking readership. It does this in three ways: First, it contextualises his intervention in the history of Soviet and post-Soviet philosophy, offering a window into the subterranean tradition of creative theory that existed on the margins and in opposition to official Diamat. It explains what distinguishes Ilyenkov’s philosophy from the crude materialism of Diamat, and examines his relationship to four central figures from the pre-Diamat period: Deborin, Lukács, Vygotsky, and Lenin. Second, it situates his concept of the ideal in relation to the history of Western philosophy, noting Ilyenkov’s original reading of Marx through both Hegel and Spinoza, his criticism of Western theorists who identify the ideal with language, and his effort to articulate an anti-dualist conception of subjectivity. Third, it examines Ilyenkov’s reception in the West, previous efforts to publish his work in the West, including the so-called ‘Italian Affair’, as well as existing scholarship on Ilyenkov in English.

E.V. Ilyenkov and Creative Soviet Theory: An Introduction to ‘Dialectics of the Ideal’

in Historical Materialism



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Guseinov and Lektorsky 2009p. 13.


Tolstykh (ed.) 2008p. 6.


Mareev 2008p. 8; Bakhurst 1991 p. 6.


Mezhuev 1997p. 47.


Oittinen 2010p. 191.


Bakhurst 1991p. 96.


Guseinov and Lektorsky 2009p. 12.


Bakhurst 1991p. 96.


Mezhuev quoted in Levant 2008p. 31.


Ilyenkov 2009ap. 9.


Ilyenkov 2009ap. 14.


Ilyenkov 2009ap. 15.


Ilyenkov 2009ap. 11.


Ilyenkov 2009ap. 18.


Ilyenkov 2009ap. 21.


Ilyenkov 2009ap. 21.


Ilyenkov 2009ap. 61.


Ilyenkov 2009ap. 36.


Ilyenkov 2009bp. 153.


Guseinov and Lektorsky 2009p. 15.


Maidansky 2005p. 296.


Ilyenkov 2009bp. 162; my italics.


Ilyenkov 2009ap. 60.


Oittinen 2005bp. 323.


Ilyenkov 1977app. 31–2.


Maidansky 2005p. 290.


Holland 1998.


Oittinen 2005bp. 320.


Bakhurst 1991pp. 91–3.


Bakhurst 1991p. 94.


Bakhurst 1991p. 60.


Mareev 2008pp. 4–5.


Bakhurst 1991pp. 26–7; Oittinen (ed.) 2000 p. 10; Dillon 2005 p. 285.


Maidansky 2009ap. 202.


Bakhurst 1991p. 31.


Bakhurst 1991p. 37.


Bakhurst 1991p. 38.


Bakhurst 1991pp. 45–6.


Bakhurst 1991p. 47.


Bakhurst 1991p. 48. Sten and Karev had been associated with Trotskyism.


Bakhurst 1991p. 49.


Bakhurst 1991pp. 26–7.


Mareev 2008p. 18.


Mareev 2008p. 14.


Mareev 2008p. 17.


Lifshits quoted in Oittinen (ed.) 2000p. 10. Ilyenkov became a friend of Lifshits after a correspondence with Lukács who directed Ilyenkov to contact Lifshits.


Mareev 2008p. 42.


Deborin 1924p. 4.


Rees 2000p. 25.


Grigory Zinoviev quoted in Rees 2000p. 25.


Lukács 1971p. 337. He writes ‘Freedom . . . is something practical it is an activity. And only by becoming a world of activity [my italics] for every one of its members can the Communist Party really hope to overcome the passive role assumed by bourgeois man when he is confronted by the inevitable course of events that he cannot understand.’


Rees 2000pp. 20–1: ‘All this is beyond Deborin who can see only the labour process as the site of practice: “the one-sidedness of subject and object is overcome . . . through praxis. What is the praxis of social being? The labour process . . . production is the concrete unity of the whole social and historical process.” Again this is formally correct but in fact returns us to the old Second International insistence on the inevitable onward march of the productive process as the guarantor of social change whereas Lukács without ignoring this dimension is concerned with political practice and organisation as well’.


Levant 2008p. 37; Tolstykh (ed.) 2008 p. 8; Bakhurst 1991 p. 8.


Ilyenkov 2009app. 25–6; Ilyenkov 2012 p. 164.


Ilyenkov 2009ap. 22; Ilyenkov 2012 p. 162.


Ilyenkov 2009app. 23 47; Ilyenkov 2012 pp. 163 181. Neither of these passages appear in the Daglish translation.


Bakhurst 1991p. 122.


Mareev 2008p. 34.


Oittinen (ed.) 2000p. 13.


Oittinen (ed.) 2000p. 15.


Ilyenkov 2009bpp. 375–6.


Bakhurst 1991p. 218.


Vygotsky 1978p. 35.


Vygotsky 1978p. 32.


Vygotsky 1978p. 56.


Ilyenkov 2009ap. 54; Ilyenkov 2012 p. 186: ‘Consciousness and will become necessary forms of mental activity only where the individual is compelled to control his own organic body in answer not to the organic (natural) demands of this body but to demands presented from outside by the “rules” accepted by the society in which he was born. It is only in these conditions that the individual is compelled to distinguish himself from his own organic body. These rules are not passed on to him by birth through his “genes” but are imposed upon him from outside dictated by culture and not by nature.’


Ilyenkov 2009ap. 11.


Ilyenkov 2009ap. 55.


Ibid; Leontyev 1975p. 134.


Bakhurst 1991p. 61.


Jacoby 1983p. 524. This critique of positivism scientism and reductionism continues in contemporary Marxist theory in the West. The journal Open Marxism for instance sought to ‘emancipate Marxism’ from positivism and scientism ‘to clear the massive deadweight of positivist and scientistic/economistic strata’ (Bonefeld Gunn Holloway and Psychopedis (eds.) 1995 p. 1).


Oittinen 2005ap. 228.


Oittinen 2005app. 227–8. As Oittinen explains the manuscript of Ilyenkov’s first book Dialectics of the Abstract and the Concrete in Marx’s ‘Capital’ (1960) had been smuggled into Italy before it was published in the USSR; however it remained unpublished until its publication in the USSR so as not to make ‘life too difficult for Ilyenkov’. Oittinen writes ‘the Foreword to the Italian edition was written by Lucio Colletti a disciple of Galvano della Volpe who expressly wanted to develop a non-Hegelian version of Marxist philosophy. Such a position is extremely difficult to reconcile with Il’enkov’s Hegelian stance which far from abandoning dialectics strives to make it the main tool of a reformed Marxism. So both the Della Volpe school and Ilyenkov moved away from Diamat but unfortunately they went in different directions’.


Maidansky 2009cp. 3.


Ilyenkov 1979a and 1979b.


Maidansky 2009cp. 4.


Ilyenkov 1977b.


Maidansky 2005p. 303. ‘A few of the first paragraphs I should venture to guess belong to Daglish not to Ilyenkov.’

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