Inicio > ¿Qué leer?, Psicología marxista > «Consciousness and revolution in Soviet philosophy: from the Bolsheviks to Evald Ilyenkov»: David Bakhurst

«Consciousness and revolution in Soviet philosophy: from the Bolsheviks to Evald Ilyenkov»: David Bakhurst

David Bakhurst, Consciousness and Revolution in Soviet Philosophy: From the Bolsheviks to Evald Ilyenkov. Modern European Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991. xi + 292 pp. Index. Cloth.
There are only a few books in English on Soviet philosophy. Some are by ‘sovietologists’ like Wetter (1958) and Bochenski (1963), others by philosophers in the Marxist tradition like Marcuse (1958) and Kolakowski (1978); but they all agree that after the 1920s, philosophy in the Soviet Union became pure Party ideology, devoid of intellectual merit. ‘Soviet philosophy’, as the joke has it, is a contradiction in terms. Bakhurst challenges that view in this important and interesting book, which is almost unique in the literature on Soviet philosophy in taking it seriously as philosophy.

The scope of Bakhurst’s book is not as broad as its title suggests. It begins with a brief account of the philosophical debates between the `mechanists’ and the followers of Deborin in the 1920s.

Then there is a clear and useful account of the work of Vygotsky, and a brief review of Lenin’s contribution in philosophy. However, the purpose of these initial chapters is to sketch in the background to what is the main topic of the book: the work of the philosopher E.V. Ilyenkov (1924-79).

Ilyenkov receives barely a mention in the existing literature on Soviet philosophy. Nevertheless, he is the most important and original Soviet philosopher of the postwar period. He develops a Hegelian and dialectical interpretation of Marxism which is of enduring relevance and interest.

He criticizes the dualism and empiricism of the mechanistic Marxism which dominated Soviet philosophy after the rejection of Deborin’s ideas in the early 1930s. Drawing on Hegel’s philosophy and the concept of `objectification’ of the early Marx, he develops a highly original and suggestive account of `ideal’ phenomena: moral values, language, mind and the self. These he portrays as social and objective phenomena, though ultimately the results of human activity.

As Bakhurst shows, Ilyenkov’s ideas have clear continuities with the work of Deborin and
Vygotsky; and they have exercised a major influence on subsequent Soviet philosophy.
A number of Ilyenkov’s works are available in English. However, the translations are so poor
that they have had only a limited impact. Bakhurst succeeds in bringing Ilyenkov’s philosophy to life in a way that these translations of Ilyenkov’s own words fail to do. He gives an outstandingly clear, vivid and compelling account of Ilyenkov’s ideas, and defends them
persuasively against criticism. His account falters only on the topics of dialectic and
contradiction (ch. 5), where he is radically out of sympathy with Ilyenkov’s Hegelian approach.

Bakhurst demonstrates that Ilyenkov’s work constitutes an original contribution of major
importance to the Hegelian tradition of Marxism. He makes useful, though sporadic, attempts to relate Ilyenkov’s thought to current discussion in analytical philosophy. In particular, he shows that Ilyenkov develops and clarifies certain Hegelian themes concerning the social character of values and the self, recently defended by writers like Charles Taylor, Sandel and MacIntyre.

Ilyenkov’s philosophy has an even greater relevance to the controversy within Western Marxism between dialectical and analytical approaches. An attempt to relate Ilyenkov’s ideas to this debate would constitute a valuable extension of Bakhurst’s account.

Although Ilyenkov was a sincere and committed Marxist, his ideas were always regarded with suspicion by the Soviet authorities. Bakhurst gives only a brief account of his life, which gives little idea of the extremely difficult conditions with which he had to cope. For example, his major work, The Dialectic of the Abstract and the Concrete in Marx’s «Capital» (based on his doctoral dissertation), had to be rewritten four times each time to dilute its philosophical content  before it was accepted for publication; and he more or less deliberately drank himself to an early death.1

Bakhurst does not mention these things. His book is addressed mainly to other philosophers, and his primary concern is with the philosophical content of Ilyenkov’s work. Nevertheless, his book raises some important questions for Soviet studies. Bakhurst shows that writers like Ilyenkov and Vygotsky made original and important contributions to philosophy, even in the apparently impossible conditions imposed by Stalinism. Why, one is led to ask, has it taken so long for the value of their work to be appreciated in the west? Perhaps, as Bakhurst suggests, it is only now, with the ending of the cold war, that it is becoming possible to reach a true estimate of Soviet philosophy.

Sean Sayers
University of Kent


1. Information from Georg and Maria Márkus, who were graduate students of Ilyenkov in the early 1950s.
Bochenski, J.M. (1963). Soviet Russian Dialectical Materialism (Diamat). Tr. Nicolas
Sollohub, rev. T.J. Blakeley. Dordrecht: Reidel.
Kolakowski, L. (1978). Main Currents in Marxism. 3 vols. Tr. P.S. Falla. Oxford: Oxford
University Press.
Marcuse, H. (1958). Soviet Marxism. A Critical Analysis. New York: Columbia University
Wetter, G.A. (1958). Dialectical Materialism. A Historical and Systematic Survey of
Philosophy in the Soviet Union. Tr. Peter Heath. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.




Acknowledgments page
A note on translation, transliteration, and references … xi

1. Introduction … 1
Introducing Ilyenkov … 5
Orthodoxy and history … 11
Ilyenkov and the Anglo-American tradition … 17
Ilyenkov’s legacy in the age of glasnost’ and perestroika … 21

2. Deborinites, Mechanists, and Bolshevizers … 25
The beginnings of Soviet philosophy … 27
The composition of the two camps … 31
The substance of the debate … 33
The defeat of the Mechanists … 45
The aftermath of the debate: The defeat of the Deborinites … 47
How were the Bolshevizers possible? … 50
The philosophical significance of the controversy … 52
Conclusion … 56

3. Vygotsky … 59
The critique of the prevailing climate … 61
Vygotsky’s functionalism … 66
Thought, speech, and «unit analysis» … 68
The independence thesis … 72
Internalization and the convergence of thought and speech … 76
Internalization and the critique of Piaget … 81
Inner speech and thought … 84
Conclusion … 86

4. Lenin and the Leninist stage in Soviet philosophy … 91
The Leninist stage in Soviet philosophy … 92
Lenin’s critique of Empiriocriticism … 99
Lenin’s materialism … 108
Ambiguity in Lenin’s materialism … 111
Lenin’s philosophy as politics … 123
Conclusion … 134

5. Ilyenkov and dialectical method … 135
The method of ascent from the abstract to the concrete: A synopsis … 138
Ilyenkov versus the empiricist … 144
Concrete totality and materialism … 154
Concrete universals, historicism, and particularism … 157
Ilyenkov on contradiction … 167
Conclusion … 172

6. The problem of the ideal … 175
Ideality, moral properties, and the «ban on anthropocentricity» … 176
The insight about artifacts … 181
Agency and the humanization of nature … 186
Alienation and objectification … 189
Ideality and the possibility of thought and experience … 195
Ilyenkov, radical realism, and the critique of «two-worlds epistemology» … 200
Materialism and the final refutation of idealism … 212
Conclusion … 215

7. The socially constituted individual: Rethinking thought … 217
Meshcheryakov and the blind-deaf … 221
«Brain and Mind»: Dubrovsky versus Ilyenkov … 227
«Mind and Brain»: Ilyenkov’s reply to Dubrovsky … 231
Ilyenkov on the ideal: The dismissal of Dubrovsky … 236
The defence of the antireductionism and antiinnatism theses … 244
Conclusion: The polemical and the political … 253

8. In conclusion … 259
References … 267
Index … 285


This is the first critical history of the philosophical culture of the USSR, and the first substantial treatment of a modern Soviet philosopher’s work by a Western author. The book identifies a significant tradition within Soviet Marxism that has produced powerful theories exploring the origins of meaning and value, the relation of thought and language, and the nature of the self. The tradition is presented through the work of Evald Ilyenkov (1924‑79), the thinker who did the most to rejuvenate Soviet philosophy after its suppression under Stalin. Professor Bakhurst sets Ilyenkov’s contribution against the background of the bitter debates that divided Soviet philosophers in the 1920s, the «sociohistorical psychology» of Vygotsky, the controversies over Lenin’s legacy, and the philosophy of Stalinism. He traces Ilyenkov’s tense relationship with the Soviet philosophical establishment and his passionate polemics with Soviet opponents. This book offers a unique insight into the world of Soviet philosophy, the place of politics within it, and its prospects in the age of glasnost and perestroika.

Bibliographic information

Title Consciousness and Revolution in Soviet Philosophy
Author(s) David Bakhurst
Publisher Cambridge University Press
Publication Date April 14, 2003
Subject Philosophy
Format Paperback
Pages 304
Dimensions 5.50 x 8.50 x 0.69 in
ISBN 0521407109

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