Evald Ilyenkov, a revolutionary Soviet philosopher

November 9, 2019
Evald Ilyenkov

Finding Evald Ilyenkov: How a Soviet philosopher who stood up for dialectics continues to inspire
By Corinna Lotz
Lupus Books, 2019 
57 pp., $8
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This short pamphlet introduces the thinking of Evald Ilyenkov, a Soviet philosopher who stood up to Stalinism and fought against the deification of Marxism. He made important enemies in the Soviet establishment, who eventually hounded him to suicide, but his thinking is being revived by a circle of activists.

Born in 1924, Ilyenkov grew up knowing nothing but Stalinism. Yet, as a young adult he revolted against the brain-dead academic philosophers who dominated the field. In 1954, he presented his Theses on Philosophy to Moscow State University, co-written with his comrade Valentin Korovikov. It caused a sensation and they were kicked out of the University.

The Theses insisted that Marxism is not a holy writ, handed down from on high, but a living theory of knowledge that is to be developed as the material world it engages with develops.

The Scientific Council of the Philosophy Faculty at the University passed no less than six resolutions denouncing Ilyenkov and Korovikov. The list of their sins included Positivism, Trotskyism, Deborinism, Menshevism, Hegelianism and gnoseology!

Luckily, the political thaw following Khrushchev’s 1956 anti-Stalin speech to the 20th Communist Party congress saved Ilyenkov’s career. The reprieve allowed him to publish many works, which today can be read on the Marxist Internet Archive.

Things turned for the worse during the Brezhnev era. Again, free-thinking intellectuals were witch-hunted. But Ilyenkov continued his battle against formulaic Marxism. 

As Corinna Lotz says, he believed in “grasping objective concreteness, forming dynamic concepts and arriving at rich universals.” To put it mildly that did not match with the world view of stodgy, Soviet bureaucrats.

In 1967, Ilyenkov wrote a letter to the Communist Party Central Committee, in which he said the USSR did not “have the political economy of socialism.”

He also said “ignorance about the method of … Marx’s Capital …is extremely characteristic of economists, and above all for the leaders.” All this was just months before Soviet tanks rolled into Prague to destroy “socialism with a human face.”

In 1974, Ilyenkov’s major work Dialectical Logic was published, but the philosophical establishment renewed its assaults. In 1979, Ilyenkov suicided in despair.

It wasn’t until the Glasnost era of the late 1980s that Ilyenkov’s writings resurfaced in the USSR. By then it was too late to save the Soviet project that he had worked to renovate.

An International Friends of Ilyenkov has been formed to study and propagate his thinking.

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