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“The Last Soviet Marxist”: Alexei Tsvetkov

1940s: Dialectics of the Artillery

The son of a famous Soviet writer, a friend of Zabolotsky’s, Ilyenkov went to Berlin as an artillery officer and at the first opportunity set off to pay his regards at the tomb of Hegel. He earned two orders and many medals at the front but more often than not would show to guests a file with the German eagle entitled “For the Fuhrer only” which he kept as a trophied souvenir.

Between battles the artilleryman read “The Phenomenology of the Spirit” in the original German. For him the Second World War was an armed conflict between Left and Right Hegelianism and at Hegel’s gravestone he thanked the philosopher for the fact that Soviet Hegelianism was the more reliable one raising its own flag over the German capital rather than vice versa.
Ilyenkov remained a teutophile all his life: he translated Kant and Lukacs, typed his books on a German typewriter that he had kept as a war trophy, drew his own decorations to Das Rheingold and was personally acquainted with all the living performers of Wagner, the scores of whom he would read before going to sleep so as to keep his mind in order.

1950s: Thermonuclear conflagration in the university

After Stalin’s death, Ilyenkov taught at the Moscow State University and would write his own Cosmology. From his frontline greatcoat (shinel’) which he for so long he would refuse to exchange for an overcoat a whole ”family” of the best Soviet intellectual of the 1960s were to emerge, as well as many future dissidents and emigres.

What did he teach them? That inner contradictions were the prime mover of any development. The borders move within things and phenomena and the great rule of living, the conditions of existence were a clash between any phenomenon with itself.
Nothing was the more general form of something. Space and time are essentially only means by which quality becomes quantity.
To correctly and profoundly understand an infintesimal part of the world signifies the ability to understand all our entire reality.

But Ilyenkov’s favourite idea was the delegation of his thought as the condition of every phenomenon. Everyone becomes ‘themselves’ only when leaving those limits and borders assigned to him, like when an actor in a theatre becomes himself only by portraying another. A person becomes a human being only as a result of his activity.
In its most common form such logic leads the philosopher to the alarming idea (which he didn’t articulate in front of his students but which is expounded in his Cosmology) the final meaning of a reasonable life in the cosmos is realised only after the self-identification of this life and this very cosmos. The meaning of material existence is displayed under during the thermonuclear conflagration. The hundred per cent atheist Ilyenkov wrote a Marxist Apocalypse, his own programme for the end of the world.

Cooling, deceleration, extinction, entropy, loss of power- that is the main law of the cosmos. Reason appears in the universe as the inverse process to entropy, as a challenge to doom able to return reality to the condition of its original plasma explosion and “reset” all the comsic energy, not leaving a single atom in its former place. To give the world another “fiery youth”. Humankind is a unique instrument of the self knowledge, self destruction and self-expression of the Universe. The exploitation of atomic energy is merely the first hint of our great mission: a great sacrifice for the sake of which we are here.

Few were those who, with such dauntless precision expressed the phallic revolutionary pathos of the modern, erasing the border between the dead and the living in an act of demiurgic destruction. Ilyenkov’s cosmologyreturns us to the pathos of the Vedic Hymns : Shiva dancing with fire with her multitude of arms, creating and setting the world aflame a countless number of times. But in Shiva’s place, a person from the classless future, free of illusions about spiritual redemption and the fear of death replaces her. The human being as the most paradoxical figure of atomic construction, scattering it all for the sake of a return of energy in the world.

Students of the Thaw period, absorbed in Roerich and yoga, circulated typewritten copies of the “Cosmology” among themselves. It was Ilyenkov’s own logic which allowed the dissident mathematician Shafarevich to unmask communism as a secret cult of nothingness and as denial of life’s foundations.

The thermonuclear conflagration of the final revolution could not possibly be looked upon favourably by the Soviet censor.
In Italy it was Feltrinelli, known to us as the publisher of “Doctor Zhivago” who intended to publish his book. In Europe Feltrinelli is remembered as the “red millionnaire” who hated capitalism and dreamt of a world revolution. The red millionnaire was attracted by the Hamletic-style existential emotions of Ilyenkov’s texts.

1960s: Communism in Twenty Years.

He is finally allowed into Europe. But even there he will smoke only strong Cuban cigarettes supporting as he does tropical socialism rather than western tobacco corporations. In the jiving, rebellous world of the sixties Marxism experienced a second birth. Marcuse, Fromm, Adorno, Habermas … Ilyenkov was almost the only Marxist on the Soviet side who could discuss with them on the same level.

It was so easy to be seduced by their bohemian radicalism. Surrealists and rock stars were amongst their acolytes. They were cited by the rebelling students in meetings. They would juggle feminist, structuralist and psychoanalytic catchphrases, sitting in fashionable cafes discussing commodity fetishism which organises our inner worlds along the principles of a supermarket with its hierarchy of goods. Or they would talk about the culture industry which would co-opt any form of protest but do not function as protest in themselves. The Soviet Union for them was “a deformed bureaucratic workers’ state” or even “state capitalist” which didn’t reach socialism and was constrained every day to pass off the wish for the reality training all its citizens to accept the accustomed ritual lies. In any case the USSR would abidingly take its place in the market ‘world system’, ceding its revolutionary role to Maoist China.

But Ilyenkov is not even secretly tempted and disputes in earnest, hunting out the vague areas of their elegant disquisitions. He sees one of the fatal errors of the new generation of Western leftists as their contraposition of the two Marx’s: the young romantic Humanist and the late strict economist.

The late Marx researched the main source of alienation – the contradiction between the collective nature of labour and the private character of the appropriation of that labour. As a result a person goes to a job which he hates in order to buy things which he does not need and brings profits to people who he does not know. It was this feeling that it is not your own life that you are living that in the transmuted forms of mass culture gives rise to the cult of zombies from whom life has been pumped out as though they were the living dead, as well as the vampires and the sinister creatures from outer space who use us for unexplained reasons. Ilyenkov was disturbed by the fact that the New Left would ever more rarely talk about the politico-economic solutions to the problems of alienation and often just set it against the alienation of artistic “estrangement” in new art, directing backwards the automatism of behaviour and perception. In the playful forms of the new art and counter culture the leftist bohemia discovered that which was not permitted to be constituted in reality and could not be realised politically, all the deferred possibilities and futile dreams. So the event of the Revolution is substituted by the Gallery.

He was expelled in any case from Moscow State University for his “perversion of Marxism”. But this didn’t prevent him from writing articles for the thick Soviet encyclopaedias and practise “the science of reflection”. This also didn’t prevent the most faithful students of the Ilyenkov school from having a hand in writing the new Party programme.

And now to the vision of the future. The growth of consumption + the rearing of the new man + the automatization of labour would give us the possibility of reaching communism. They added a few words that this would be possible within a period of 20 years. That which was publically and generally accessible would be so extensive that the sphere of the commodity would disappear, allowing for a scientifically organised distribution of everything and the whole world would be built like one large library. Soviet fantasy would finally become a reality. An anthropological revolution would take place and all relationships would shift from being competitive to being symbiotic. Talent would become the norm and lack of talent a mere aberration. Life expectancy, as Ilyenkov saw it, would reach 130 years.

The Strugatsky brothers of the period Difficult to be a God read him attentively. Although the full influence of Ilyenkov’s Cosmology will come through later in their A Million Years Before the End of the Earth when the scientists understand that their science is inevitably leading to an apocalypse, that the old world is resisting and there is no correct way out of this problem.

The pedagogical innovators who called themselves the “communards” discussed with Ilyenkov how to remake the school programme so as to foster new people within 20 years. Far before that, though, the “Communards” were disbanded and new books by the Strugatsky’s were no longer being published and people like Ilyenkov were no longer allowed to travel back to Europe.

1970s: Seeing Through the Eyes of Others.

After the Thaw in the vacuous Brezhnevian years the general mood of the maturing and aging dreamers was that of retiring into private and professional worlds: to get ahead in their careers, collect something, learn languages and bring up their children to become decent and cultured people, and as regards communism, well we’ll play it by ear.

Ilyenkov has his own way of dealing with this ‘small deeds’ subject. A former student friend suggests that he verify his own theory of consciousness in a practical setting at the Zagorsky Institute for deaf and blind children.

Where does one’s personality come from? How is it assembled? When people would deceitfully pop the question to Ilyenkov as to what percentage a person is social and what percentage biological, the Soviet philosopher would reply “101% social”. Consequently a person is born several years after his physical appearance in the world and usually dies a little before his physical death.

The consciousness of a person can be ‘soldered’ together just like a radio set if one has a scheme in front of one and can understand the principles of action. Ilyenkov loved to gather his own models of tape recorders and television sets, for hours tinkering with the soldering iron and confessed that it was at these times the most precise and original thoughts would come to him. And if they fed him the iron parts, he would take up bookbinding. A damaged person could be bound up once again just like a book.

The main difference between a person and an animal was the ability to use language but language is possible only when a person learns to look at himself through the eyes of other people and ultimately through the eyes of the whole of humanity.
In the Zagorsky experiment this was literally embodied – to teach children to “see” with the eyes of others, and in the most complex of cases to perceive all the external data through people around one.

Hundreds of times he will take their hands in his before they could make an elementary and meaningful gesture. So as to teach them how to think with their fingers so that they could assimilate and learn to read Braille and then to slowly to develop oral language.

Day after day Ilyenkov practices with his boy so as to develop in him a musical ear.
They remembered him as a magician coming through the silence and darkness so as to teach them to transform action in to a gesture, a gesture into a sign and a sign into a word. A magician opening the window of knowledge into their slammed shut universes. He was more proud of this work of his than anything else.

Four of his deaf and blind foster pupils thanks to Ilyenkov’s “sensory motor schemes” learned to speak, write verse and received higher education and even defended their scientific papers in Psychology and Mathematics. Similar results have not been obtained anywhere else in the world.

The kitchen of Ilyenkov in Kamergersky Pereulok (a side street in the Centre of Moscow, off what is now Tverskaya Street and near the Kremlin end Trans. Note) was one of the most interesting intellectual clubs of the Stagnation years. With all the available bards, actors from the Taganka theatre (the most avant-garde theatre of its time trans. note), cybernetic experts, methodologists, writers of science fiction and fantasy works, provincial boffins and foreign guests from the Partisan movements of the Third World. Ilyenkov himself in that kitchen usually listened, however, rather than spoke and winked at the emerald mantids, living there, in the flowers. The philosopher believed that the Mantis was the most gracious of those animals that one could bring home.

When everyone had grown tired of the conversation, they would listen to Galich or Jesus Christ Superstar on Ilyenkov’s home made tape recorders.

As far as the “duff originality” of Western counter-culture was concerned the master of the kitchen remained severe in his judgement and passionately and diligently explained that American hippies were a question of social entropy, deceleration, an agreement with withdrawal from Big History in favour of personal illusions. The meaning of originality consists not in making a mad show of one’s difference from others but in expressing the General in better ways than others. Whereas in Pop Art and Conceptualism Ilyenkov saw a joyful contempt of the bourgeois for himself.

A Bookbinders knife.

Unlike most of his interlocutors (Zinoviev, Shchedrovitsky, Mamardashvili, Pyatigorsky) he never attempted to play the dandy, rather he always conserved a kind of outward appearance of a noctambulist completely indifference to his appearance. And his rather ‘longish’ hairstyle was explicable only by the fact that he rarely remembered to visit the hairdressers.

A Wagnerian dramatism and contrast which he so valued in his existence would show through his facial expressiveness. He had almost reached the stage of being a pensioner. But Ilyenkov was waiting for communism not his pension. And he did everything that he could deliver for the realisation of the party programme.

The New Man did not appear. Alienation and objectification became more and not less common. Commodity relations weren’t disappearing and Soviet state property still have not become authentically owned by the people. Value doesn’t eliminate prices but rather on the contrary they yield to them. The official explanation is that in socialism the prices of goods are ‘fair’ prices while in capitalism they are not, was for Ilyenkov crass Eastern barren fantasy and not Marxism. The following step after Revolution to change society had not been carried out.

The philosopher felt that he was no longer able to produce meaning, no longer fit for the continuation of his cosmic war against the decadence of the universe and the diffusion of elementary light. He fell into a black alcoholic melancholy and instead of replying to any philosophical question he would more often than not he would recite his favourite rhyme ‘And then there were none’.

His maturing university students were buying jeans and suede jackets “like Serge Gainsbourg wears” and became interested in Eastern mysticism and the possibility of emigration and, of course, sniggered at the retrograde Leninism of their teacher and his touching love for “Sophia Vlasevna’ (a common and ironic nickname for Soviet power).

The twenty years of waiting for communism went by and Ilyenkov, it seems, was the last person who remebered this and suffered its absence as a personal defeat. But the prescribed Soviet anti-depressants were hidden under the pillow unnoticed by his family.

The philosopher knew anatomy very well and cutting the artery on his neck was not an action of any great effort for him. He did so with a bookbinders knife which he had sharpened with a saw. By the laws of dialectics any tool could be transformed into a weapon just as a worker could be transformed into a soldier.
Drowning in blood he left of his flat to collapse on the staircase, in his small way accomplishing that which he saw as his final aim of all his rational life. The triumph of dialectics of existence is the moment of restitution to the Big Bang- the plasmatic suicide of reality. A thinking person in his rational activity aims to reproduce all existing nature in its entirety.

His biography alone would be enough for me to explain anyone what the Soviet century was and what is the Modernist project of remaking the world and Mankind itself.

In this Tatlin Tower the red flag is spinning over the Reichstag , his “vision” of the blind children, the intolerable atomic conflagration, inundating the horizon, the portraits of Mao on the walls of student occupied Sorbonne, thermonuclear overkill in a world through the image of final cosmic sacrifice.

As Ilyenkov’s favourite paradox goes, the full meaning of the “Soviet” can only be revealed now after its work has ended and grown faint in the eyes of the viewer.

We do not remember and can’t make use in any way at all of what had been here not so very long ago. And this means that we deserve everything that is happened here with us: everything that happened and is about to happen.

The original Russian article can be found here :
In an article for The Prime Russian Magazine (in its issue based on the theme of Marxism), the poet Alexei Tsvetkov wrote this portrait of Evald Ilyenkov, the last Soviet Marxist and one of the greatest and most original thinkers to work in the Soviet Union. Tsvetkov gives us a portrait of a truly unique figure whose works deserve to be re-read and translated as well as an unusual portrait of the atmosphere and times he lived in.

Traducción de Giuliano Vivaldi


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