Re: [xmca] Ilyenkov in A Stetsenko's articles

From: Andy Blunden (
Date: Fri Nov 04 2005 - 00:58:23 PST

   Thanks for that Victor.
   It always seemed to me that writers in the SU were unable to write
   explicitly about exploitation, bureaucracy, privilege, struggle,
   conflict, etc., as really existing relations in their own contemporary
   society, and were therefore obliged to utilise very "platonic"
   categories like "labour," "humanity," "activity," etc., which resulted
   in a theory whose outward appearance was very objectivist, though
   nevertheless, the underlying theoretical categories were not at all
   objectivist. I have always thought that this "sanitisation" of the
   theory due to Soviet conditions made it harder for people in the West
   to fully understand it. Unfamiliarity with Marxist terminology is of
   course a further factor. There is a problem of objectivism; but I
   think it's not in the foundations; the foundations are good, as you
   appear to be saying.


     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

     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 acce= pt 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 sam= e 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
     practica= l 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

        2.. Border conditions and focus of analysis: Ilyenkov was very
     fastidious of the “border conditions” of his work. Most of hi s 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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   Andy Blunden, on behalf of the= Victorian Peace Network, Phone (+61)
   03-9380 9435
   Alexander Surmava's Tour - September/October 2006


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