Ilyenkov, Evald

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Evald Ilyenkov (1924–1979)

The ability to see the world like a human means to see through the eyes of another person, through the eyes of all other people. (Ilyenkov, Ob idolakh i idealakh 100)

Famous for his analysis of Marx’s dialectical method, Evald Vasilyevich Ilyenkov (1924–1979) was one of the most influential thinkers of the late Soviet era. His radical fusion of Spinoza, Hegel, and Marx transformed Soviet intellectual life in the 1950–70s. Ilyenkov’s work sought to reinvent the study of materialist dialectics in the Soviet Union, challenging its inherited foundations in the state doctrine of dialectical materialism (Diamat). His broad interests include political economy, logic, cybernetics, science fiction, epistemology, and aesthetics. On his 100th anniversary, Ilyenkov continues to shape Marxist philosophy, radical pedagogy, activity theory, and psychology globally.

Ilyenkov was born on February 18, 1924 in Smolensk. His father was the well-known writer Vasily Pavlovich Ilyenkov. Not long after his birth, the family moved to Moscow. From a young age, Ilyenkov loved art and was fond of Richard Wagner. In 1941, he studied philosophy at the Institute of Philosophy, History, and Literature in Moscow (IFLI). Through his teacher Boris Chernyshev, Ilyenkov encountered Hegel. In August 1942, he was conscripted into the army, fighting as an artillery lieutenant in Kaliningrad and Belarus. He joined the battle for Berlin and served in the occupying forces in Germany in 1945 (Bakhurst, The Heart of the Matter 109). A photograph from those days shows his visit to Hegel’s grave. The traumatic experience of war left a young man scarred for life; he was to end his own life three decades later.

After the war Ilyenkov attempted to enroll into art school in Moscow but was denied admission. Eventually, he continued his philosophical education at MGU. There, he had a lasting influence on a growing circle of students, including Vladislav Lektorsky and Lev Naumenko. Ilyenkov’s legacy is associated with the transformation of dialectical materialism following Khrushchev’s 1956 speech. Reflecting the optimistic spirit of the Thaw, his philosophy can be situated, in the words of his student Sergei Mareev, in the “‘subterranean’ current in Soviet Marxism” (Levant and Oittinen, “Ilyenkov in the Context of Soviet Philosophical Culture” 84). This philosophical underground, largely sustained in oral culture, was non-dogmatic, creative and lively (Bakhurst, The Heart of the Matter 17). Reacting to a global shift towards Marxist humanism in the 1960s, Ilyenkov developed a critical view on the role of science and education in socialist society.


Revolutionary Romanticism

The late 1950s saw a philosophical Renaissance in the Soviet Union. Previously banned thinkers and ideas briefly flourished. Hegel and the Romantics returned as forerunners of Marxism-Leninism. Ilyenkov soaked up this spirit of renewal; he later published numerous essays on Hegel’s logic (Ilyenkov, Intelligent Materialism). In the spring of 1956, he organized in his apartment a reading group of the Phenomenology of Spirit, which had just been published in Russian. Led by Ilyenkov, together with Lev Naumenko and Helmut Seidel, the so-called “Friends of Hegelian Philosophy” studied Hegel’s writings and György Lukács’ The Young Hegel.

Intending to translate the book, Ilyenkov, Naumenko, and Seidel published excerpts and co-wrote a review for Voprosy filosofii (1956). Lukács’ Romantic Hegel left deep marks on Ilyenkov; he even wrote to Lukács to clarify some concepts. In turn, Lukács suggested contacting Mikhail Lifshits in Moscow (Lifshits, Dialog s Eval’dom Il’enkovym 13–14). As Lifshits recalled, he unexpectedly found in Ilyenkov “an ally just at the time when the élan of the educated and thinking Marxist youth of the ‘thirties remained only a happy memory” (Lifshits 13–14). Upon reading Ilyenkov’s book on Capital, Lifshits “understood that the years of the war and the postwar events had not completely eliminated the best of the previous decades” (cited in Bakhurst, Consciousness and Revolution 137).

Ilyenkov embodied the revival of the Romantic Marxism of the post-revolutionary years. However, de-Stalinization did not mean that he was able to publish his unorthodox texts. Fragments from this period, “Notes on Wagner” (“Zametki o Vagnere”) and “Cosmology of the Spirit” (“Kosmologiia dukha”), remained unpublished during his lifetime. Evidenced by his scathing 1964 review of American pop art (“Chto tam v Zazerkal’e?”), Ilyenkov was occupied with art throughout his life. Ilyenkov’s first love was Wagner’s music, in which he found traces of an anti-capitalist cosmology. “Notes on Wagner” reads the Ring cycle as a musical Phenomenology of Spirit. Ilyenkov emphasizes the revolutionary spirit of Siegfried, a redemptive hero doomed to death. Wagner is appropriated as a radical socialist and a Romantic counter-figure to Marx (“Notes on Wagner” 2024).


Cosmology of the Spirit

Ilyenkov’s most important early text is the phantasmagoric “Cosmology of the Spirit.” He read it to friends and visitors in his apartment over decades. Drawing on Friedrich Engels’ Dialectics of Nature, Ilyenkov’s text plays with ideas of intelligent materialism and humanity’s self-destruction. Through communism, thinking materially manifests itself as a cosmic event—a crucial stage in the circular evolution of the solar system. Ultimately, an excess of energy leads to the universe’s thermal death. To defy the fatal law of entropy, humanity commits a collective suicide, “a gesture of self-destruction on the part of communist reason” (Penzin). This bizarre vision rests upon a new reading of dialectical materialism that argues that matter cannot exist without thinking.

In different places of the universe, matter becomes conscious. Thinking is the “highest flower” of matter (Ilyenkov, “Cosmology of the Spirit” 184). The “thinking brain appears as one of the necessary links, locking together the universal [vseobshchee] big circle of universal [mirovoi] matter” (170). Ilyenkov’s text incorporates scientific theories and innovations, such as thermodynamics, the Soviet space program, or the construction of the first nuclear power plant near Moscow in 1954. One subtext is Russian Cosmism, as represented by Nikolai Fedorov and Konstantin Tsiolkovsky. Ilyenkov drew on ideas of his friends: Pobisk Kuznetsov’s theory of the origin of life (Mareev, E. V. Ilenkov: zhitfilosofieii 157) and Igor Zabelin’s sci-fi notion of the “anti-entropic function of life” (Penzin). Arguably, “Cosmology” also engaged with Soviet ecology, Vladimir Vernadsky’s biosphere in particular (Jacobs).

Ilyenkov’s opaque “Cosmology” has been variously interpreted: as “a revival of the Aztec religion of Quetzalcoatl” (Groys, cited in Penzin); a Marxist apocalypse in which reason tragically repays its debt to Mother Nature (Vivaldi 195); a dystopian vision of life as “a sailor who climbs the mast of a ship that is sinking” (Mareev, E. V. Ilenkov: zhitfilosofieii 257); an “exercise in communist subjectivity” (Penzin); and as “a symptom of a fatal flaw in the entire project of Western Marxism” (Žižek). For thinking is “an infinite substance of the universe,” and the death of thinking matter in the universe is nothing but a release of energy that initiates a new cosmic cycle (Ilyenkov, “Cosmology of the Spirit” 190).


“15 Theses”

A few months after Stalin’s death, in autumn 1953, Ilyenkov defended his dissertation on Marx’s critique of political economy. He was appointed to the Institute of Philosophy at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow, where he worked until his death. In April 1954, Ilyenkov and Valentin Korovikov presented their “15 Theses” on philosophy, which caused a scandal at MGU. The original manuscript, along with proceedings from the hearings, was only recently discovered by Ilyenkov’s daughter Elena Illesh (Bakhurst, The Heart of the Matter 114). Accused of anti-Marxism, gnoseology, and Hegelian idealism, Korovikov and Ilyenkov underwent a series of interrogations in front of party officials. A year later, Ilyenkov was suspended from teaching. It was the beginning of his lifelong struggle with the official institutions of philosophy in the USSR.

What kind of thinking could cause such a furor? From today’s view, the explosiveness of Ilyenkov’s “Theses” might not be clear at first glance. As Bakhurst argues, however, they posed a severe ideological threat to the “old guard” (The Heart of the Matter 123). At that time, philosophy was a dangerous activity. Broadly speaking, the “Theses” were the call of two junior scholars for philosophy to be a universal method. Rather than a meta-science, they saw in dialectical materialism an independent field of scientific inquiry. The object of philosophy were the logical categories of scientific thought, its activity, laws, and historical development.

Against the orthodox view that philosophy was a science of the most general laws of nature, Ilyenkov and Korovikov envisioned philosophy as a method of investigating the logical structure of thinking. Such an endeavor would open Marxism-Leninism to other fields of knowledge, including classical German philosophy. For the rest of his life, Ilyenkov devoted himself to developing this method, which he came to describe as the “dialectics of the ideal” (Maidansky, “Reality of the Ideal” 126).


Who Thinks Concretely?

Published in Voprosy filosofii in 1955, shortly after the “Theses” row, “On the Dialectic of the Abstract and the Concrete in Scientific-Theoretical Thought” (“Dialektika abstraktnogo i konkretnogo v nauchno-teoreticheskom myshlenii”) marked the beginning of Ilyenkov’s public career. The essay was a springboard for future work on epistemology and logic. Drawing on Hegel, Ilyenkov describes philosophical truth as unity in diversity, i.e. concreteness (concretus = composite; fused). Abstraction, by contrast, points to one-sidedness and fragmentation (abstractus = extracted; withdrawn). In the dialectical process of thinking, abstract and concrete are inextricably entwined. Concepts, in a Hegelian-Marxist sense, are not abstract but concrete; they reflect an objective reality.

Thinking concretely, therefore, means reflecting rather than creating reality in thought. Ilyenkov insists that thinking is a totality of concrete facts. As an example, he takes a rabbit. By dissecting the animal to analyze its individual parts, one will never understand it concretely, as a living whole. Similarly, thinking cannot be broken down into a series of neurological processes in the brain. In Ilyenkov’s conscious materialism, the human mind joins a process of collective meaning-making. Interconnectivity is crucial to Ilyenkov’s epistemology. Thinking is a communal activity, “not a mental act that is taking place in the skull of the individual, in the secret spaces of the brain’s grey matter” (Ilyenkov, Intelligent Materialism 53).


Marx’s Capital

In 1958, Ilyenkov contacted the Italian publisher Feltrinelli to suggest a book on the logic of Marx’s Capital. He withdrew his proposal after learning that Feltrinelli had just released Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak, persona non grata in the USSR. After yet another scandal, Ilyenkov was forced to abandon the original concept of his book. An abridged version appeared in 1960, titled The Dialectics of the Abstract and the Concrete in Marxs Capital (Dialektika abstraktnogo i konkretnogo v ‘Kapitale’ K. Marksa). This landmark study brought Ilyenkov fame both at home and abroad. It swiftly appeared in Italian (1961), Spanish (1971), German (1979), and English (1982), leaving deep traces in Italian and Latin American Marxism.

Ilyenkov’s book explores Marx’s dialectical method as a form of cognition that sublates contradictions. In Capital, contradictions are the “springboard for a decisive leap forward” (Ilyenkov, The Dialectics of the Abstract and the Concrete 251). Building up a dynamic motion, dialectical thinking rises from the abstract to the concrete. Ilyenkov’s reading of Marx aims to reconstruct that ascent. Capital analyzed concrete forms of labor as the substance of value. The logic of capitalism is thus a web of relations between abstract and concrete. Ilyenkov saw great value in Marxist dialectics beyond the sphere of a political economy of capitalism (Bakhurst, The Heart of the Matter 135). He considered dialectics a universal “method for understanding history, including explaining the failures of building ‘developed socialism’” (Mareev, cited in Levant and Oittinen, “Ilyenkov in the Context of Soviet Philosophical Culture” 83).


Dialectics of the Ideal

The 1960s saw Ilyenkov’s most innovative and productive period of writing. In 1965, he was awarded the Chernyshevsky prize for his contributions to dialectical materialism. After another clash with the authorities, sparked by his anguished letter to the Central Committee of the Communist Party, Ilyenkov successfully defended a second dissertation on German classical philosophy in 1968 (Mareev, Vstrecha s E. Ilenkovym 11). He then shifted focus from the concrete to what he coined the ideal (idealnoe). Like the concrete, the ideal does not exist in the head but outside the subject. The ideal is a stamp pressed on nature by human activity. Ilyenkov’s seminal “The Ideal” (“Ideal’noe”), published in 1962 in the five-volume Philosophical Encyclopedia (Filosofskaia Entsiklopediia), explored non-material entities in a material reality.

The ideal resides at the threshold of mind and social activity. It “is not a thing, but part of a process that involves the human representation of things in the body of other things” (Levant 8). Ilyenkov’s ideality (ideal’nost’) is a category to study how thinking is embodied in forms of collective activity. Thinking is shaped by ideals, similar to the form of a jar growing under the hands of a potter (Ilyenkov, Dialectical Logic). The ideal is situated neither in the piece of clay nor the body of the potter. It arises from the activity of transforming the clay into a jar. Thinking happens within the interactivity of hands, clay, and tools. Such a conception of a transindividual thinking body transcends any material-social or mind-world dualism.

Written in the mid-1970s and published posthumously, “Dialectics of the Ideal” (“Dialektika ideal’nogo”) built on such a concept of ideality, to defy both empiricism and subjective idealism. Neither mental states nor things, ideals are the reflection of things in other things; they play an active part in social reality. Rather than mental images within an individual mind, ideals are universal forms in a shared, transindividual reality. As already sketched out in “Cosmology,” ideas are a precondition of materiality; in other words, matter thinks and ideas matter.


The “Zagorsk Experiment”

In the 1970s, Ilyenkov devoted much time to Alexander Meshcheriakov’s radical school in Zagorsk near Moscow, a laboratory for new methods in deaf-blind education [surdotiflopedagogika]. In the footsteps of Soviet psychologists, such as Lev Vygotsky, Meshcheriakov confronted in practice how Diamat excluded deaf-blind children from socialist society. Despite its radically participatory and anti-ableist vision, the “Zagorsk Experiment” was not uncontroversial (Pushchaev). Meshcheriakov believed that deaf-blind children excelled in embodying comradeship rather than being impediments to socialist society. After Meshcheriakov’s death in 1974, Ilyenkov continued his legacy.

One role of the pedagogues in Zagorsk was to explore bodily movements and gestures together, for instance holding a spoon in one hand and guiding it to the mouth (Almborg). Gradually, through shared embodied activity, the children learned how to eat, dress, smile, and finally speak through their hands and with the help of a teletaktor, a machine that converts sound into vibration. Many of Ilyenkov’s students learned foreign languages and later enrolled at the Faculty of Psychology at Moscow University—proof of the success of his method. As an educator, Ilyenkov did not teach his students what but how to think, enabling them to flourish as a whole person embedded in their community.

In the “Zagorsk Experiment” the very nature of human thinking was at stake. Where did the mind come from in subjects bereft of essential senses such as seeing and hearing? For Ilyenkov, deaf-blind children were living proof that human consciousness was born from social interactions alone. The human mind was conditioned by the objects surrounding it, themselves created by humans, such as spoons, towels, tables, or chairs. The brain is shaped into an organ of thinking by the child’s interaction with these things and with other human beings. The intellectual abilities deaf-blind people laboriously acquired in Zagorsk were, for Ilyenkov, proof for the social rootedness of thinking. Language, too, does not arise from an individual mind but manifests itself through a complex system of communal activity, i.e. culture. In his essay “Where Does the Mind Come From?” (“Otkuda beretsia um?”), Ilyenkov recalled how one of his students, Aleksander Suvorov, was asked the following question after giving a speech:

Your case contradicts the old premise of materialism, according to which all that gets into the mind is necessarily developed and provided by the senses. If your senses are damaged, if you cannot hear or see, how could your mind develop?” The question was transmitted to Suvorov via tactile alphabet, and he answered into the microphone: “and why do you think that we do not hear and see? We are not blind and deaf, we see and hear by the eyes of all our friends, all people, all humankind. (Cited in Chukhrov 70)

The aim was therefore not only to enable deaf-blind children to lead a more independent life. Rather, Meshcheriakov envisioned to turn them into members of a society that they communally co-created. Enriched by his work in Zagorsk, Ilyenkov’s conscious materialism radically diverged from Western metaphysics and its fetishization of the individual. For Ilyenkov, thinking is a process of communion [obshchenie]; we can only see the world through the eyes of all people.


Thinking Bodies

This vision of a collective thinking body drew on Spinoza, Ilyenkov’s favorite philosopher and “alter-ego” (Maidansky, “Reality of the Ideal” 141). Fragments from his unfinished book project on Spinoza were published in 1987, on the occasion of Spinoza’s 350th anniversary (Mareev, Vstrecha s E. Ilenkovym 70). Among other seventeenth-century thinkers, Spinoza occupied a special place already in Ilyenkov’s first book on Marx’s Capital. His dialectics of the ideal likewise relied on a “Spinozist understanding of the human soul as an idea of the human body” (73). Finally, a whole chapter in Dialectical Logic was dedicated to Spinoza, which explores thinking as an attribute of substance. Beginning with “Cosmology,” Spinoza’s somatic monism has been crucial to Ilyenkov’s post-Cartesian theory of thinking as an expression of collective, self-conscious activity.

Like Spinoza, Ilyenkov considered the interaction between body and mind as an objective motion in the world. However, the idea of a thinking body is nowhere to be found in Spinoza. It was Ilyenkov’s own appropriation of Spinoza’s “res cogitans, the ‘thinking thing’” (Maidansky, “Spinoza in Late‐Soviet Philosophy” 336). For Ilyenkov, cognition is both sensuous and ideal; it is the dynamic life-activity of bodies. Thinking manifests itself in “the entire ‘non-organic human body’ that stands objectively over and against an individual human being, the body of civilization, including tools and temples, statues and offices, factories and political organizations, ships and toys—all that with which we are involved from the moment we are born and enter the human family” (Ilyenkov, Intelligent Materialism 13).

Body and mind, the “two Cartesian halves” (Ilyenkov, Dialectical Logic), are united in the thinking body, which thinks by molding its own form to shape other bodies. Deaf-blind children, as an example, recreate images of what they “see” through their hands. After walking through a ravine, a deaf-blind girl built a model: she “repeated the spatial contour of the ravine with her body movements and then reproduced it as a plasticine figure” (Maidansky, “Spinoza in Late‐Soviet Philosophy” 339). Her hands and brain only “think” when they are transformed into organs of humanity’s inorganic body. Like blood, thoughts circulate through society’s cells and vessels. Thus, it is not the individual mind that thinks but culture itself.


The Black Box

In the late 1960–70s, Ilyenkov refined his method, turning dialectical logic against scientific positivism and technological optimism (Bakhurst, The Heart of the Matter 109). Ilyenkov was familiar with Western philosophy of science, such as Thomas S. Kuhn’s theory of scientific revolutions and Norbert Wiener’s cybernetics. He was also a sharp critic of what he called Karl Popper’s “belated Platonism” (Maidansky, Reality of the Ideal” 139). Cybernetics and systems theory were enthusiastically discussed in the Soviet Union from the mid-1950s onwards. Though a lover of science fiction, Ilyenkov took a skeptical stance on technology, automation, and artificial intelligence. His sharp critique of cybernetics and technocratic capitalism is gaining urgency in current debates on AI and machine learning.

Written for a general public, the fantasy book On Idols and Ideals (Ob idolakh i idealakh, 1968) defies hopes to solve problems within Soviet socialism by way of self-governing systems and technology. Cybernetic visions of the mind as machine are at odds with Ilyenkov’s theory of the thinking body. Ilyenkov considered cybernetics a false science that had regressed to pre-Marxist materialism. He strongly opposed the idea that thinking machines could be more intelligent than humans. For Ilyenkov, no computer can think dialectically; it can solve problems but not sublate contradictions. A truly philosophical question, only resolvable through further study, always appears as a paradox.

On Idols and Ideals was written under the spell of sci-fi; it even ponders on extraterrestrial intelligence. In the universe, there might be non-human beings who look like “an octopus, a mushroom, an ocean, like a mold spread out over the stones of some far-off planet” (Ilyenkov, Ob idolakh i idealakh 276). These thinking bodies have no nose or eyes or brain. One of the most memorable stories from On Idols and Ideals is “The Mystery of the Black Box.” This post-humanist tale features all sorts of non-human thinking machines, including a brain on spider legs, a lazy flying saucer, a deaf ear, a brainless set of hands. In their communist gatherings, the machines celebrate the overcoming of the human. They worship the Black Box, an advanced thinking machine that resolves every problem. Nobody remembers when or how the Black Box was created; it was always simply there.

If the Black Box is given two mutually inconsistent prompts, it produces no output but remains silent. What is the Black Box’s secret? How does it know the truth? At the end, it turns out that the box is empty; thinking itself has ceased. While he opened a door to non-human consciousness, Ilyenkov ultimately defended the specific abilities of the human mind. Thinking cannot be simulated by machines or grasped by measuring brain waves. We think through many organs: our hands, tools, friends. Idols have to be discarded and ideals brought down from heaven to earth. Communism, he concludes, “is not a fairy tale about some bright future, but a real movement of modernity” (Ob idolakh i idealakh 495).


Militant Materialism

In his final works, Ilyenkov elaborated on previous concerns, most importantly to distinguish “intelligent” materialism from positivism. Dialectical Logic (Dialekticheskaia logika) was published in 1974, the year of the first Hegel congress in the Soviet Union. Ilyenkov wrote a paper on Hegel and hermeneutics but ultimately did not participate (Mareev, E. V. Ilenkov: zhitfilosofieii 96). Dialectical Logic coincided with a boom of activity theory. Vladimir Bibler’s Thought as Creativity (Myshlenie kak tvorchestvo) appeared a year later. In Dialectical Logic, Ilyenkov develops a materialist theory of mind that fuses Hegel with Marxist-Leninist dialectics. The book attempts a critical reconstruction of the history of Western philosophy from Spinoza to Lenin. Dialectical Logic is concerned with ideal-material forms of thinking. While the ideal is the form of things, embodied in human activity, the material is the form of the ideal’s expression in the thinking body. The ideal expresses itself materially, being “transplanted” into the human head (Ilyenkov, Dialectical Logic).

Ilyenkov credits Lenin with having first developed a materialist theory of knowledge. His final, heavily abridged book Leninist Dialectics and the Metaphysics of Positivism (Leninskaia dialektika i metafizika pozitivizma) was posthumously published in 1980. It is a defense of Lenin’s Materialism and Empirio-criticism (Materializm i empiriokrititsizm) against all sorts of mystical idealism and “spiritual moonshine,” from Bogdanov’s Red Star to the Machists and God-Building (bogostroitel’stvo) (Ilyenkov, Intelligent Materialism 230). For Ilyenkov, there was no communist future without considering Lenin’s “militant” materialism.


What is a Person?

His first book on Marx’s Capital had defined a commodity “not in relation to another commodity but in relation to itself reflected through the relation to another commodity” (The Dialectics of the Abstract and the Concrete 259). A similar logic resurfaced in Ilyenkov’s last, unpublished text, “What is Personality?” (“Chto zhe takoe lichnost’?”), which describes the communist subject as multilayered and interconnected. In his writings on the ideal, Ilyenkov insisted that the essence of the human being is not “inside”; a person is formed through collective activity and social ties. Human personality is always “outside” of itself, embodying its essence in relation to others. A communist person is a collective thinking body, entwining the subject with its environment and the Other:

Personality (lichnost’) not only exists, but is born for the first time as a “knot” (uzelok), tied in a network of mutual relations that arise between individuals in the process of collective activity (labor) [. . .]. Personality is the totality of a person’s relations to themselves as to some “other” —the relation of the “I” to itself as to some “non-I.” Therefore, its “body” is not a separate body of the species “Homo sapiens,” but at least two such bodies—“I” and “you,” merged as if they were in one body of social and human ties, relations, interrelations. (“Chto zhe takoe lichnost’?” 393f.)

Personality is the collective interactivity of becoming ourselves as another. Torn between a deep commitment to communism and his alienation from the Soviet system, Ilyenkov felt increasingly isolated. On March 21, 1979, he tragically took his own life. Almost immediately after his death a shortened version of the banned “Dialectics of the Ideal” was released in Voprosy filosofii, titled “Problems of the Ideal.” Expanding on his earlier encyclopedia entry, the two-part essay on the ideal became his intellectual testament.


Ilyenkov’s Overcoat

Ilyenkov shaped the course of Soviet and post-Soviet thought in the 1980–90s in many ways. He decisively influenced Vladimir Bibler and Genrich Batishchev. As Bibler put it, echoing Dostoevsky on Gogol, “we all came out from under Ilyenkov’s overcoat” (cited in Bakhurst, The Heart of the Matter 193). Even those who rejected Ilyenkov’s philosophy, such as Merab Mamardashivili, felt indebted to him: “He was important for me because he generated the energy of repulsion: in repudiating his, undoubtedly, interesting thoughts that I found alien to me […]. However, without this energy of repulsion some positive things would perhaps not have happened” (cited in Mezhuev 106).

Drawing on Ilyenkov’s vast archives, his daughter, Elena Illesh, and Maidansky began publishing a complete edition of his works in 2019. Even if Ilyenkov is not “the only Soviet Marxist to be taken seriously” (Žižek), his creative vision deserves special attention. He made a unique contribution to shifting the boundaries between communism in practice and materialistic dialectics in theory. Once again, he is a lively voice in current debates on technology and AI, the threat of unrestrained capital accumulation, systems theory, Eco-socialism, disability, and care. Our imagination of the ideal is the most precious knowledge we have—for “we can only know the direction towards the truth, but never the truth itself” (Ilyenkov, Intelligent Materialism 123).

Isabel Jacobs, February 2024



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