[xmca] Ilyenkov in A Stetsenko's articles

From: Victor (victor@kfar-hanassi.org.il)
Date: Thu Nov 03 2005 - 23:16:30 PST



On the issue of object relatedness in CHAT:

It has been for some time now that the CHAT model has appeared to me to be to be so strongly objectivist in approach that it was difficult to impossible to utilize it for the analysis of conflicts inherent within all forms of social organization.

 My area of interest is mostly in organizational systems in which conflict is not only inherent but so salient a feature of social interaction that is impossible to ignore subjectivity as a active force in the formation and development of the system, e.g. in economics and politics. As long-time student a sometimes teacher, my impression of the classroom situation and of educational systems in general (subjects more often discussed here in this forum than economic and political relations) has ever been one of conflict and precarious compromise where the unifying socio-cultural system is often more evident by its weaknesses rather than by its strengths. In general my impression of CHAT theories of the educational system have been notably lacking in the determination of the unity of the system as a function of the concatenation of the operation of many conflicting wills. I would surely welcome a CHAT that addresses more attention to the operation of subjectivity and intersubjectivity in the accounting of the outcomes of social interaction.


On your paper:

Most of your paper concerns the works of Leont’ev and Vygotsky. Leont’ev’s works I’ve read only a few times and so I’ll have to accept your commentary on his works as is. I agree with your comments on Vygotsky with a few reservations that are not important to your main thesis so no discussion on his work is called for here. However, your description of Ilyenkov’s ideas concerning the relation of object to subject and on the significance of subjectivity in the development of social life appear to me to be seriously in need of correction.


     Ilyenkov’s discussion on the relation between subject and object though widely distributed throughout his works, is the especial focus of his “The Concept of the Ideal” (1977) and of Chapter8, “The Materialist Conception of Thought as the Subject Matter of Logic”, of Dialectical Logic (1974). Ilyenkov is certainly not an easy writer to understand; his logic though very good is often unsystematic, he peppers his works with unexplained allusions to material that he does not cite, and his treatment of critical concepts is often diffident and even hidden. Another difficulty of Ilyenkov’s works is that much of his writing is in a Marxist-Leninist mode that’s special to the language of revolutionary communist literature, and is quite different from the language of academic philosophy. The result has been in my view an array of egregious misinterpretations of Ilyenkov’s works, especially by Anglo-Saxon academic philosophers without much grounding in dialectical analysis. The idea that Ilyenkov’s works tend towards objectivism and towards a neutral contemplationist concept of scientific endeavor are precisely among the errors disseminated by these recent interpretations of Ilyenkov’s works.


Ilyenkov’s concrete formulation of the meaning of the ideal in “The Concept of the Ideal” does refer repeatedly to one of the properties of the ideal as being “significant objects”. However in this very same article Ilyenkov also reiterates in a number of passages that the comprehensive meaning of the term, ideal, is the necessary dialectical unity of the significant object and of subjectivity. The ideal object is described as only the embodiment of conscious, willed activity, i.e. subjectivity, and that subjectivity is no less an essential component of the ideal than the object that represents it. But this is not all.


When, in his 1977 article, Ilyenkov finally gets around to describing the difference between the Marxian and Hegelian concept of the ideal (paragraph 93, 103, and here and there in between), he finds it in their respective theories of the genesis of the ideal relative to subjectivity. His argument in brief runs as follows:

For Hegel subjectivity, the notion, i.e. subjective cognition, and objectification are the prerequisite conditions for the emergence of the ideal, the ideal being the consequences of the development of categories of knowledge.

For Marx (and Ilyenkov), subjectivity, the object, and the ideal develop simultaneously as the outcome of the special conditions of human sociality; the voluntary (in the sense here of non-instinctive) collaboration of mostly if not entirely socialized individuals for the purpose of producing the means for satisfaction of collective and individual needs.

 Ilyenkov infers from this that while for Hegel objectification is an embodiment of pure activity in the ideal object, Marx regards the embodied activity as labour or productive activity. The importance of this difference is not very evident in the 1977 article, but examination of Ilyenkov’s interpretation of labour activity in paragraphs 44 to 51 (sorry I do not have a paginated version of the book) of chapter 8 of Dialectical Logic is very instructive in this regard. Here he makes the point that labour, i.e. the creative interaction of the agent with natural conditions, is never be entirely encompassed by the objectification of the activity (in paragraph 51). In effect Ilyenkov is saying here that subjectivity can never be entirely subsumed by the object and as such remains a significant element in the prosecution of human sociality whatever the concrete conditions of that sociality.

What didn’t Ilyenkov write: That which he could have and perhaps should have written?


For Hegel the objectification of subjective activity, i.e. the notion, does not in itself produce the ideal. The ideal only is realized when the objectified notion or acquired concept, first negates Life, i.e. the actual extant conditions which are the prerequisites of the formulation of the objective concept, and then joins it in the realization of desirable (good) outcomes. For Hegel the acquired concept cannot be one with life, because formulation and employment of the objective concept is implicitly informed by the yet unsatisfied subjective goals of the agents of the concept.


The Marxian concept of the ideal (as interpreted by Ilyenkov) has no real need for the counterpoising of the objective concept to Life, it has a much more material target, namely the social practices from which it emerges and of which it is a representation. This need not be understood to mean that the formulation of an ideal is necessarily a broad rejection of current communal practice, it can be quite a modest affair such as the representation of the “legitimate” rules of a game, the right price for a dozen eggs, and the proper way to eat peas with a fork. The ideal is invoked when an agent, individual or collective, mobilizes an objectified concept to change the extant practices of others to realize a social or material goal that she wants satisfied. The outcome of her employment of ideas will be dependent on complexes of material factors, of production, of organization and the co-existence of other invoked ideals, but this is a different problem altogether.


Why didn’t Ilyenkov write this?


  1.. The “idealist” bogeyman: The presentation of a fully practical theory of the ideal must posit that the ideal is not only a consequent of social practice, but at more concrete levels of analysis must be regarded as a prerequisite of social practice (see chapter 2, section 3 of Dialectics of the Abstract and the Concrete in Marx’s Capital (1960) for more details). An explicit presentation of the reciprocal effect of the ideal on social relations would have provided his intellectual and political opponents with powerful arguments for labeling him as an “idealist”.

  2.. Border conditions and focus of analysis: Ilyenkov was very fastidious of the “border conditions” of his work. Most of his efforts were devoted to the elucidation of the later works of Marx and of Lenin’s theoretical works. The focus of these works is nearly entirely on political economy, and on political economy writ large. Subjectivity finds a place in these works either as descriptions of the rational activity of generic members of classes or as descriptions of the social activity of groups. When Ilyenkov approaches the “borders” of the system of the relations of production, the issue of the historical development of the forces of production in see chapter 2, section 3 of Dialectics of the Abstract and the Concrete in Marx’s Capital, or the “borders” of the abstract theory of the ideal, the relation of the individual to social organization in “The Concept of the Ideal” he draws back and “hands over the subject” to others. Ilyenkov is surely aware that borders between subjects of analysis are relative, in dialectical theory the relations of all concepts are essentially conditional and relative rather than causal and absolute, so his fastidiousness is unlikely to be a matter of research domains consecrated by professional custom. It is more likely that this fastidiousness reflects Ilyenkov’s regard for theory as a function of practical goals, and that his decision to limit his theorizing to the social interactions of collectivities and to the theory of political economic states is the outcome of his practical research aims rather than a universal law of theory.

  3.. The political limitations on conflict theory in the USSR: From the point of view of all established elites, including the academic elite, Marxist theory has all the endearing features of atomic weaponry. The unity of subjectivity and objectivity implicit in the dialectical approach to culture and history has produced a theory of society that is inherently dynamic. It presents society as fundamentally unstable and changeable without respite. Stalinist theoreticians, and not only Stalinist Marxist theoreticians, worked very hard to modify Marxist theory (including effecting changes in the population of Marxist theorists) so as to “stop” the dialectical process with the formation of the Soviet Social Republic. The critical implications of Ilyenkov’s theory of the ideal (as well as his studies in dialectics in general) for the official ideology that social development ends with the establishment of the Soviet State were not lost on the political authorities of his day, and he hardly was permitted to go as far as he did.

As I see it Ilyenkov was hardly an “objectivist” theoretician. A reading of his two major works; Dialectical Logic (1974) and Dialectics of the Abstract and the Concrete in Marx’s Capital (1960) show Ilyenkov as severely critical of “contemplationist” theory and a firm, consistent partisan of theory as a function of practice and of practice as the test of theory. Ilyenkov is hardly reticent in declaring his own objectives; paragraphs in Chapter 8 of Dialectical Logic and his articles “Activity and Knowledge” (1974) and “From the Marxist Point of View” (1967) clearly indicate of what he thought the current task of theory should be; the critical review of the failures of the Soviet bureaucracy in realizing the aims of socialism and the development of means to correct them.


Thanks for the article,


Victor Friedlander-Rakocz
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