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«The Ideal in Human Activity»: Reviewed by Alex Levant

E.V. Ilyenkov
The Ideal in Human Activity
Marxist Internet Archive Publications (, Pacifica CA, 2009. 396pp. $25 pb
ISBN 9780980542875

The Ideal in Human Activity by E. V. Ilyenkov is a substantial tome consisting of two complete books and three articles, which offers for the first time in the form of a single volume the majority of this renowned Soviet philosopher’s work currently available in English translation. This publication constitutes an important intervention in the problem of consciousness, which has figured prominently in the canon of Western social and political thought from Plato to the present. Theories about the origin and nature of human thought have fundamentally shaped our notions of politics, taking a substantial turn in the nineteenth century in light of the critical significance that Marx ascribed to the role of consciousness in the process of revolution (Lowy 2005, p. 10). Consequently, the key debates on political organization in classical Marxism turned on the question of how to displace the hegemony of ruling ideas produced by false consciousness with the objectively correct perspective articulated by the class-conscious vanguard of the proletariat in the form of the communist party (Lukacs 1971; 2000; Second Congress of the Comintern 1977). But when the organizational innovations ascribed to Lenin (Lih 2005) did not yield in Central and Western Europe the same results ‘as in Russia’, the principal figures of a tradition retrospectively known as Western Marxism (Anderson 1976), set out in the early 1920s to re-examine some of the most foundational concepts on which the problem of consciousness rests in an effort ‘to rescue Marxism from positivism and crude materialism’ (Jacoby 1983, p. 524).

Meanwhile, across the iron curtain, following the Khrushchevite thaw, Soviet philosopher Evald Vasilyevich Ilyenkov likewise returned to fundamental questions of consciousness-formation, as part of another tradition that developed relatively independently from Western Marxism (although with interesting points of contact). Responding to the ‘positivism and scientism that was prevalent in Soviet political and intellectual culture’ (Cole 2009), Ilyenkov became preoccupied with what he called `the problem of the ideal’. He re-read German classical philosophy through Marx, and Marx through German classical philosophy, demonstrating that the dominant Soviet conceptions of the nature of consciousness, which were believed to stand on the solid ground of materialism by identifying the real with the material, in fact rested on a crude pre-Marxist materialism. He reminded his contemporaries of Kant’s well-known example of ‘real’ and ‘ideal’ thalers in the latter’s refutation of the ‘ontological proof of the existence of god’: it is one thing to have a hundred thalers in your pocket, and quite another to have one hundred thalers in your mind; consequently, Kant tells us, one cannot infer that something actually exists from its presence in one’s mind (where all kinds of things exist). Ilyenkov notes, however, that this distinction between the real and the ideal, which may seem somewhat commonsensical, was adroitly ‘deconstructed’ by Marx, who mused what would happen to Kant with his ‘real’ thalers had he found himself in a country where thalers had no value? His real, actual, material thalers would, without any changes to their material form, metamorphose into ordinary pieces of paper.

Ilyenkov was specifically responding to the hegemony of `Diamat’ and `Istmat’ in Soviet philosophy (acronyms for dialectical materialism and historical materialism), which represented official Soviet Marxist philosophy). According to Ilyenkov, Diamat and Istmat advanced an approach equally as undialectical as Kant’s idealism, albeit, in the form of vulgar materialism that reduced consciousness to the material. In a similar vein, he engaged in a famous debate with the Soviet psychologist, D.I. Dubrovsky (Maidansky 2005, p. 294), in which he sought ‘to demonstrate that psychological characteristics are neither “written” in the brain, nor determined, not even in part by its innate structures’ (Bakhurst 1991, p. 231).

In contrast, Ilyenkov argues in this volume that the material is idealized within an objective social environment, produced by the activity of previous generations, which shapes the individual mind in its image, and is reproduced and altered through the latter’s activity. He insists that this understanding of historical materialism and the problem of consciousness is in no way idealist, but genuinely Marxist, recalling that ‘Marx and Engels established above all that the external world was not given to the individual as it was in itself simply and directly in his contemplation, but only in the course of its being altered by man [sic]: and that both the contemplating man himself and the world contemplated were products of history’ (164-5). Following Marx and Engels, he believed that the world takes on the character of an object with significance only in the course of its transformation through human activity. For this reason, ‘the image of the thing is always merged with the image of the activity in which this thing functions. That constitutes the epistemological basis of the identification of the thing with the idea, of the real with the ideal’ (162). This approach stands in stark contrast to both idealist and crude materialist forms of reductionism, which he called ‘neopositivism’. ‘Neopositivists, who identify thought (i.e. the ideal) with language, with a system of terms and expressions, therefore make the same mistake as scientists who identify the ideal with the structures and functions of brain tissue’ (153).

This line of reasoning is explored and developed in Dialectical Logic (1974), a complete book that comprises the first 214 pages of this volume. It is a substantial text that takes the reader on a short course through the Western philosophical tradition from Descartes and Spinoza, to Kant, Fichte and Schelling, Hegel, and finally to Feuerbach. Of particular interest may be how Ilyenkov’s reading of Marx is influenced by Hegel’s dialectics and Spinoza’s monism (Oittinen 2005b). The second half of Dialectical Logic offers five essays on specific problems arising out of this tradition, including a critique of objective idealism, and what may be his most influential text: appearing here as ‘Thought as the Subject Matter of Logic’, this is a slight modification of his well-known entry on ‘The Ideal’, originally published in the Soviet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (1962). This article represents an early text in which we see his conception of the ideal take shape, to be developed in his subsequent work, most importantly in Dialectics of the Ideal (2009).

At the other end of the volume, we have the 1982 translation of the final book published during Ilyenkov’s life, Leninist Dialectics and the Metaphysics of Positivism (1979). Here he revisits classic debates in pre-Soviet Russian Marxist philosophy, specifically, Lenin’s intervention against Machism in Materialism and Empirio-Criticism (1908), which parallels Ilyenkov’s own battles with positivism. Some readers may find interesting his critique of Bogdanov’s science fiction novel, Red Star, as an illustration of the limits of Machism. Ilyenkov also argues against the notion of a shift in Lenin’s philosophical thought from crude materialism expressed in Empirio-Criticism to a more properly historical materialism as expressed in his Philosophical Notebooks (1914-16). In contrast, he writes, `the conception of dialectics as the logic and theory of knowledge of modern materialism, which permeates the entire text of Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, was formulated a bit later – in the Philsophical Notebooks. But “implicitly” it is the essence of Lenin’s position in 1908 as well` (375-376). Ilyenkov insisted that his understanding of the problem of consciousness was, in fact, closer to the philosophy of Marx, Engels and Lenin, than what passed for historical materialism in Soviet thought at the time.

He considered himself ‘a communist, a Marxist, and a Leninist, but he was not a Marxist-Leninist’ (Levant 2008, p. 37; Tolstykh 2008, p. 8; Bakhurst 1991, p. 8). In 1954, then barely a junior lecturer, Ilyenkov famously declared to the Chair of Dialectical Materialism at Moscow State University that in Marxism there is no such thing as ‘dialectical materialism’ or ‘historical materialism’ (referring to Diamat and Istmat), but only a materialist conception of history (Mareev 2008, p. 8; Bakhurst 1991, p. 6). Challenging the hegemony of the Diamatchiki (proponents of Diamat) cost him his position, forcing him to relocate to the Institute of Philosophy. He became a leader of a new group of theorists, part of the Shestidesiatniki (of the 60s generation), who began to challenge the dominance of Diamat. As contemporary Russian Marxist philosopher Vadim Mezhuev writes, ‘It is to him that my generation owes the conscious break with dogmatic and scholastic official philosophy’ (Mezhuev 1997, p. 47). Similarly, Guseinov and Lektorsky identify this period as a ‘philosophical Renaissance in the Soviet Union’ with Ilyenkov as one of its leading figures (Guseinov 2009, p. 13; Tolstykh 2008, p. 6). In fact, some readers may find Ilyenkov as interesting for his contribution to the problem of consciousness, as he is as a lens on the complex history of Soviet philosophy, which remains a subject of enduring scholarly debate.

Sandwiched between these two books, we have three essays from the mid-1970s. Of special interest is ‘The Concept of the Ideal’ (1977). Translated by Robert Daglish, this is a partial and heavily edited translation of another partial text that was never published in Ilyenkov’s lifetime, `Dialectics of the Ideal’, which he regarded as his definitive articulation of the concept of the ideal (Maidansky 2009, pp. 3-5). The saga of the publication of this work is well chronicled by Andrey Maidansky in his introduction to a special edition of the Russian journal of philosophy, Logos, which in 2009 for the first time published the complete article. Nevertheless, the present translation currently provides for the English reader the only window into this important work. This window, however, is quite partial as approximately half of the original text remains out of sight, including the important discussion about his response to Dubrovsky on the relationship between thought and the physical brain. The translation starts about one-third of the way into the original piece, and substantial parts have been summarized and completely rewritten, presumably by the translator. However, despite these limits, this volume contains about two thirds of the entire corpus of Ilyenkov’s work currently available in English translation (with the exception of Dialectics of the Abstract and the Concrete in Marx’s Capital (1960) and two other articles).

Ilyenkov’s own fate has been well documented. A tragic figure who, despite being quite influential in Soviet philosophy, was also a target of the establishment he had come to challenge. His conception of ideal phenomena, as forms of human activity, conflicted with the official view of materialism, placing him on a collision course with the Diamatchiki (Guseinov 2009, p. 15). He was called a ‘revisionist’, and eventually prevented from teaching. In 1979 he took his own life.

However, he left a considerable stamp on Soviet philosophy and psychology, as a leading voice behind a school of thought that came to be known as ‘Activity Theory’ (deyatelnostniy podkhod), which also included philosophers such as Genrikh Batishchev and Yuri Davydov, and which is closely related to the cultural-historical school of Soviet psychology, which includes well-known thinkers like Aleksei Leontiev and Lev Vygotsky (who was a very significant influence on Ilyenkov). In fact, the present volume is one of three books in a series called ‘Classics in Activity Theory’ published by MIA (the others are Awakening to Life by Alexander Meshcheryakov, and The Development of Mind by A. N. Leont’ev).

It is welcome news that this important work has been published. Despite Ilyenkov’s impact within the Soviet Union (which remains a subject of ongoing debate), his insights have ‘to this day remained a Soviet phenomenon without much international influence’ (Oittinen 2005a, 228). There are multiple lines of research that present themselves in the light of this body of work, particularly for those interested in developing a critique of ‘positivism and scientism’ in the study of the problem of consciousness. The publication of this volume will facilitate this research and will generate interest among scholars to help advance this project.

26 July 2011


  • Anderson, Perry. 1976. Considerations on Western Marxism, (London: NLB).
  • Bakhurst, David. 1991. Consciousness and Revolution in Soviet Philosophy. From the Bolsheviks to Evald Ilyenkov, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).
  • Cole, Mike. 2009. Preface to The Ideal in Human Activity, (Pacifica: Marxist Internet Archive Publications).
  • Guseinov, Abdusalam A. and Vladislav A. Lektorsky 2009. ‘Philosophy in Russia: History and Present State,’ Diogenes 56; 3.
  • Ilyenkov, Evald. 2009. Dialektika Idealnogo [Dialectics of the Ideal], Logos, Volume 69, No. 1, pp. 6-62, (Khimki: Moment).
  • Jacoby, Russell. 1983. ‘Western Marxism’, in A Dictionary of Marxist Thought, ed. Tom Bottomore, (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press).
  • Levant, Alex. 2008. The Soviet Union in Ruins, (Saarbrucken, Germany: VDM Verlag).
  • Lih, Lars T. 2005. Lenin Rediscovered: What Is to Be Done? In Context, (Leiden: Brill).
  • Lowy, Michael. 2005 [1970].  The Theory of Revolution in the Young Marx, (Chicago: Haymarket Books).
  • Lukacs, Georg. 2000 [1925]. A Defense of History and Class Consciousness: Tailism and the Dialectic, (London: Verso).
  • Lukacs, Georg. 1971 [1923]. History and Class Consciousness, (London: The Merlin Press).
  • Maidansky, Andrey. 2005. ‘Metamorphoses of the Ideal’, Studies in East European Thought. Volume 57, pp. 289-304.
  • Mareev, Sergey. 2008. Iz Istorii Sovetskoi Filosofii: Lukach –Vygotskii–Il’enkov [From the history of soviet philosophy: Lukach–Vygotskii–Il’enkov], (Moscow: Kul’turnaia revoliutsiia).
  • Mezhuev, Vadim. 1997. ‘Evald Ilyenkov and the End of Classical Marxist Philosophy,’ in Drama sovetskoi filosofii [The Drama of Soviet Philosophy], pp. 47-54, (Moscow: The Russian Academy of Science Institute of Philosophy).
  • Oittinen, Vesa. 2005a. ‘Introduction,’ Studies in East European Thought 57, pp. 223-231.
  • Oittinen, Vesa. 2005b. ‘Evald Il’enkov as interpreter of Spinoza,’ Studies in East European Thought. Volume 57, pp. 319-338.
  • Second Congress of the Communist International. Minutes of the Proceedings. 2 Volumes. New Park Publications, 1977.
  • Tolstykh, V.I. (ed.) 2008. Eval’d Vasil’evich Il’enkov [Eval’d Vasil’evich Il’enkov], (Moscow: ROSSPEN).

Alex Levant

Alex Levant is an academic mercenary who sells his lecturing skills to various departments in the social sciences and humanities, including Political Science at York University and Communication Studies and Global Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University, Canada. He currently lives in London on a postdoctoral fellowship in Sociology at Goldsmiths, where he is translating Ilyenkov’s Dialectics of the Ideal.


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  1. 16/01/2013 a las 11:43

    Is he a «mercenary»? Why do you insult Mr. Levant?

    Alex Levant is an academic mercenary who sells his lecturing skills to various departments in the social sciences and humanities, including Political Science at York University and Communication Studies and Global Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University, Canada.

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