Evald Vasilyevich Ilyenkov: A Marxist philosopher who confronted the Stalinist bureaucratic system

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Finding Ilyenkov: How a Soviet Philosopher Who Stood Up for Dialectics Continues to Inspire
By Corinna Lotz
Lupus Books: London, 2019.
64 pp. £5. ISBN: 978-1-916031-81-4.

Reviewed by Jason Devine 

January 12, 2021 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — Evald Vasilyevich Ilyenkov tragically took his own life in 1979, but he has continued to live on through a handful of published writings and websites dedicated to presenting his ideas and work. Still, his name is not broadly known in the global Marxist movement outside a relatively small circle of academics and interested activists. Indeed, when the question of dialectics is broached, the common names referred to, beyond Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, are Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong, and even Leon Trotsky. Therefore, the publication of Corinna Lotz’s booklet is most heartening. It serves to both publicise Ilyenkov and broaden the discussion on dialectics.

Ilyenkov once noted that the “most promising means of resolving any scientific problem is the historical approach to it.”[1] In regards to providing a popular, but thorough overview of the work and influence of Ilyenkov, Lotz has heeded the latter’s advice. Finding Ilyenkov highlights the major milestones in Ilyenkov’s political-intellectual life and his later reception outside the Soviet Union. He was born in 1924 and served in the Red Army during World War II before starting his academic career in earnest. Unfortunately, Ilyenkov’s journey in the world of Soviet philosophy had a very inauspicious beginning. 

In Chapter 1, Lotz uses the long-lost, but recently published “Theses on Philosophy” as a springboard to discuss his initial and now-legendary confrontation with the Stalinist philosophical authorities.[2] In 1954 Ilyenkov and his colleague V. I. Korovikov presented a series of theses at the Moscow State University. The two men argued that Marxist philosophy was not a mere pragmatic tool aiding the natural sciences, but rather a separate academic discipline in its own right. Its subject of study was defined as the process of human cognition, viz. thought, along with its forms and laws. In other words its focus is on formal logic, dialectics, and the theory of knowledge. As these theses presented a critique of the ruling dogma of dialectical materialism (diamat), it is no surprise that they brought forth a torrent of denunciations and abuse. Korovikov gave up working in philosophy, while Ilyenkov was prevented from teaching and was marked for the rest of his life. His career was fortuitously saved by the subsequent Khrushchev Thaw. Yet, despite the opening, Ilyenkov always faced barriers and attacks. This only worsened with the Brezhnev era, a period of reaction and stagnation. Lotz further details Ilyenkov’s major published works and his key areas of study during this time: Marx’s method of dialectical logic in writing Capital, the nature of the Ideal in class society and in Marxist philosophy, and the essence of contradiction as the core of scientific dialectics. 

Chapter 2 gives an immensely interesting account of how it exactly was that Ilyenkov was first discovered in the English-speaking world. Until the 1977 publication of the English translation of Dialectical Logic: Essays on Its History and Theory, only four articles by Ilyenkov had appeared in the West. In a dialectical twist of fate, it was a section of the Trotskyist movement, specifically in the form of the Workers’ Revolutionary Party (WRP) in Britain, who first “found” and sought to promote Ilyenkov’s works. The WRP encouraged the study of Ilyenkov among its membership and the wider public. In fact, it was the WRP who translated and published Ilyenkov’s last book Leninist Dialectics and the Metaphysics of Positivism in English via its New Park Publishing house in 1982. On a personal note this was actually the first book of Ilyenkov’s I ever came to own and study. Although that edition is long out of print, it is available online at the Marxists Internet Archive, among other Ilyenkov writings, thanks to Andy Blunden. It is likewise included in the 2009 Ilyenkov collection The Ideal in Human Activity, edited by Blunden. To a great extent, were it not for the efforts of the WRP, Ilyenkov’s philosophy would be even less known than it is today.

In Chapter 3, Lotz discusses the reception of Ilyenkov among academics working in education and psychology in the United States and Scandinavia. These educators and researchers found Ilyenkov’s application of activity theory very amenable for studying concept learning and the practice of teaching, among other topics. The focus of Chapter 4 is on the efforts of the Finnish academic Vesa Oittinen. In the late 1970s Oittinen had accidentally come across Ilyenkov’s book Dialectical Logic. To him the work seemed radically different than the run-of-the-mill works on diamat, and so he set about studying it, leading to a life-long engagement with the thought of Ilyenkov. This culminated with the very first international Ilyenkov symposium, which Oittinen organised in Helsinki in 1999. The papers presented there were edited and published the following year under the title Evald Ilyenkov’s Philosophy Revisited. Oittinen quite rightly recognizes that his efforts in this direction greatly boosted Ilyenkov’s international reputation after David Bakhurst’s brilliant work Consciousness and Revolution in Soviet Philosophy: From the Bolsheviks to Evald Ilyenkov (1991).

Chapter 5 concludes the booklet with an overview of sundry international efforts to bring Ilyenkov to public attention from the fall of the Soviet Union to the 2000s. It further brings the decades-long global and collective Ilyenkov project up to date with references to the recent publications of Ilyenkov’s hitherto untranslated writings, and the important efforts of the International Friends of Ilyenkov (IFI) group to encourage the study of Ilyenkov and research into current issues.[3] Lotz finishes with a final rousing call to not merely study Ilyenkov, but to apply his ideas and actualize his insights in our crisis-ridden times. As Ilyenkov was never an ivory tower intellectual, but rather a committed communist who sought to build and participate in the struggle for a world without oppression and alienation, he would undoubtedly be comforted knowing his work is alive in the activity of others.

The most valuable aspect of Lotz’s booklet is in its detailing of the global growth of Ilyenkov’s influence across philosophy, revolutionary politics, and pedagogy. For in doing so she has revealed the extensive relevance and applicability of his work on dialectical logic. Thought only moves and develops because of the ongoing collective endeavour of human activity, i.e. the real basis of cognition. And just as each new generation confronts a pre-existing ideal world of culture with which to build upon, so the cooperative labour of many hands and minds have maintained and developed Ilyenkov’s work as an essential aspect of the larger revolutionary project. Thus the booklet itself stands as an excellent example of Ilyenkov’s activity approach. 

The only downside to Finding Ilyenkov is that the discussion of Ilyenkov’s key concepts is all too brief. Of course, within the confines of a short, popular overview, there are constraints on how complex and extensive a theoretical engagement can be developed. However, an absolute beginner is likely to be a little mystified as to the full significance of the different areas of Ilyenkov’s research and how exactly they are connected and, indeed, unified. One of the reasons why his work stood apart and above from other Soviet philosophers, to say nothing of standard works on diamat, was not merely his critical stance, but the actual virtuosity and subtlety that characterised his writing. This weakness is, to an extent, counter balanced with the booklet’s extensive bibliography and in-text emphasis on Ilyenkov’s most important writings, as they point the interested reader directly to the sources for deeper study. Regardless, this small limitation does not detract in any way from the work’s fundamental value.

Undoubtedly one of the reasons why such a diverse crowd has been drawn to Ilyenkov over many years is the basic story of his life and character. Here is a person who fought for Marxism against the Stalinist bureaucratic system from within and who courageously pointed out that the Soviet Union was neither socialist nor communist. His consequent suffering and tragic end cannot be forgotten. But, as Lotz quite rightly argues, the real import is to go beyond honouring Ilyenkov’s memory as possibly the greatest Soviet philosopher, towards continuing the revolutionary project of not only interpreting the world, but actively changing it. It cannot be emphasised enough, then, that Lotz’s booklet is a fine introduction to Ilyenkov and hence a welcome addition to the growing literature on that mighty thinker.


[1] E.V. Ilyenkov, Dialectical Logic: Essays on Its History and Theory (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1977), 11.

[2] This is, happily, available online at the Marxists Internet Archive: E. V. Ilyenkov and V. I. Korovikov, “Theses on the Question of the Interconnection of Philosophy and Knowledge of Nature and Society in the Process of their Historical Development,” accessed 19 December 2020, https://www.marxists.org/archive/ilyenkov/works/articles/ Theses.pdf.

[3] The IFI have an online presence with group page on Facebook and their own website: https://ilyenkovfriends.org.