Review: Evald Ilyenkov’s “Intelligent Materialism”

In a sentence, Intelligent Materialism is Ilyenkov’s attempt to defend the standpoint of a future, communist cosmology. In one sense, Ilyenkov’s cosmology is classical (following the pre-Socratics) as inquiry into the logos of the cosmos. However, the triad Spinoza-Hegel-Marx makes up for the anemia of prior, purely contemplative cosmologies. First, common to all three, we can only discover the logos of the cosmos through practice, considered not as individual but only as the impersonal collective agency of social totality through social practice. Labor, the mediating link between society and nature, is the historical process whereby we discover the rules of the non-human world which we must obey to produce specific effects that suit our purposes (the project that Marx called the naturalization of man and the humanization of nature, that Engels called the administration of things). This demystifies knowledge, which is why Ilyenkov doesn’t concern himself with epistemological handwringing common to skeptics and neo-Kantians about the possibility of knowing the world, given the non-exhaustive but sufficient knowledge humans have already had to develop through social practice to survive this long as a species. Second, specific to Marx and Hegel, the logos of the cosmos not only explains the development of individual organisms, objects, or processes within the cosmos but, ultimately, is the logos of the self-development of the cosmos, which evolves by way of contradiction, conflict, and deadlock.

Intelligent Materialism elaborates a Spinozist-Hegelian critique of abstraction (cf. chapter 7, “Understanding of the Abstract and the Concrete in Dialectics and Formal Logic”) according to which particulars are abstract when taken in isolation from the relationships that constitute them. The project of thought is to express something concrete through language, which in each case means expressing the concrete universality of systems of relations (or totalities) that generate particulars as moments, which purely descriptive science (the object of critique for Hegel, Marx) presents as static facts and descriptions. The challenge is, as always in Hegel, to think speculatively and grasp opposite determinations (alive/dead, day/night) in their processual unity (in the life cycle of an organism, in the rotation of the earth on its axis in its orbit around the sun) as they necessarily transform into one another (the moment of dying, the moment of twilight). As Ilyenkov pulls from Rosenthal, our knowledge is never adequate for Hegel until we know the non-being of every being, the negativity that chases a thing to its own, specific end. This is just the Hegelian notion of determinate negation, such that night becomes day and not “rain or a candle or Sputnik,” as Ilyenkov puts it. Though Ilyenkov doesn’t explore it, this is the difference that makes a difference between Hegel and Spinoza. For Spinoza, if Deleuze is right, death is always a bad encounter with a body that disagrees with mine, overpowering my conative drive to preserve myself in my being. For Hegel, your death (and not that of another) comes from inside, from the internal difference between yourself and yourself that drives your growth and, eventually, your decay. This is the significance of Ilyenkov’s insistence that dialectics is the study of internal difference in the development of real things. (This, incidentally, is the real strength of the German Idealist critique of Spinoza, which has been caricatured as a bunch of Christians complaining that Spinoza denies freedom or something like that, when the actual story has more to do with Kant’s study of the self-organization of living things in the third critique grounded in late 18th century debates around the possibility of biological science. This, the idea of internal purposiveness, is what Hegel credits to Kant as his greatest service to philosophy, since it establishes the foundation for Hegel’s philosophy of the self-organization of spirit. Schelling pursues the critique of Spinoza’s failure to think death from the inside in his Freedom essay, where he takes human beings for a cosmic perversion, real evil, for refusing to play their part in larger, organic wholes.) The other methodological insight Ilyenkov has is about the priority of the logical to the historical, so far as we can only generate a relevant history of the present if we understand the logic of the present (Marx: “the key to the anatomy of the ape is the anatomy of the man” etc.). (cf. chapter 8, “The Logical and the Historical”)

The last two essays, chapters 9 and 10, “Lenin’s Idea of the Coincidence of Logic, Theory of Cognition, and Dialectics” and “Materialism is Militant and Therefore Dialectical,” are better as criticisms of neo-Kantianism than rallying cries to resume beating the dead horse of Machist neo-positivism. Cosmology is only impossible, Ilyenkov argues, if we accept Kant’s assumption that science is the pursuit of contradiction-less truth, given the principle of the prohibition against contradiction. Hegel shows us a way out–even one that wasn’t available to Spinoza–by making contradiction the criterion of truth, and the basis of the scientific thinking that produces truth. Consequently, Ilyenkov clears the way for a cosmological thought that sees Kant’s antinomies not as an indication that reality lies forever beyond our ken in a transcendent elsewhere which we make hypothetical (as if) claims about (and virginally, erotically long to touch), but that reality is itself riven with contradictions (unities of opposites in which opposites necessarily pass into one another, through determinate negation). In this sense, Ilyenkov wants cosmology without a scientific worldview, or a self-critical cosmological thought that doesn’t fail by discovering contradiction but learns more about the logos ordering the cosmos through the contradictions it discovers. (Echoes of the pre-Socratics again, Heraclitus in particular.) If the goal is to find the logos of the cosmos, dialectical materialism must learn from older philosophical cosmologies it rejected as superstition AND open itself to the possibility that its precious formulas (like “one divides into two” and “the transformation of quantity into quality”) do not exhaust the logic of the entire universe.

Ilyenkov’s project, which is using the authority of Lenin to authorize a new cosmology, is a critical intervention into dialectical materialism, which, in its orthodox form, was a problem for Ilyenkov not because it was cosmological but because it produced bad cosmology. He presents orthodox diamat as a procedure of reducing the world to a sum of examples for “absolute” dialectical formulas like “one divides into two” and “the transformation of quantity into quality” under which relevant particular cases were to be subsumed. This is, as Ilyenkov remarks, an especially undialectical understanding of dialectics! As if dialectical logic was worked out in theory and “applied” to the world subsequently in the form of an imposition under self-same, immutable formulas. Concisely, Ilyenkov’s critique is that Hegel’s deity, thought thinking itself through the evolution of the Concept prior to the event of creation, is put out of a job in orthodox diamat by the immortalized Marx and Engels. Ilyenkov gives Marxists two reasons to return to Hegel–first, because whenever someone who’s not a Marxist critiques Hegel they’re criticizing Marx by association and implied substitution, second, to avoid repeating Hegel’s error of deifying human thought (whether Marx’s or Marxists’ or anyone else’s).

The most fun I had reading Ilyenkov was during chapter 6, “The Problem of the Ideal in Philosophy,” which isn’t always convincing but takes us through a historical narrative that opens with the claim that the pre-modern ideal of ‘Heaven,’ a dream of social harmony and human perfection, is secularized during the Renaissance and Enlightenment through the new ideal of ‘Human Essence,’ which retains some of the normative demand of afterworldly paradise so far as we can fail to achieve it. As the story continues, Hegel intervenes to identify human essence with actually existing social totality, or the sum of all human-human human-nature relations that constitute particular human beings. After this initial demystification of human essence, Hegel re-idealizes social totality by fiat, presenting modern society as the actualization of humankind’s historical hopes and vocation. This idealization is what Ilyenkov calls deification, and Hegel writes a theodicy for history as follows: thinking, an uncreated cosmic force which creates itself, creates the world as a way to ‘lose’ itself only to ‘find’ itself again (and increasingly) through human thought throughout history after unsuccessful aeons searching for itself in nature. Material reality is supposed to be a series of mirrors in which The Concept sees itself more or less clearly, having achieved perfection independently of the material world of nature and society that finally, by the early 19th century, mirrors itself back to itself adequately in the looking glass of Prussia’s constitutional monarchy. We are constantly solicited to the demiurgic illusion because human thought, purposive activity in real practice, has, at the level of the collective agency of social totality, really created a second nature (‘humanized nature,’ the colossal body of civilization, the inorganic human body) from out of which we can read the imprint of thought in a world of relationships and artifacts. This is what trips Hegel up.

Picking up after Hegel, Feuerbach then reminds Hegel, in a way, of alienation, only this time not of ‘The Concept’ from itself as it loses itself in material reality to discover itself later, but the alienation of humanity from itself in the images of Gods. For Feuerbach, this suggests that the actualization of human life has been deferred, which demands social revolution. The young Marx puts the final materialist touches on Feuerbach’s revolutionary Hegelianism and communism is conceived as the end of the self-alienation of the human species and the beginning of History proper. Unique to Marx, on Ilyenkov’s view, is the demand that alienation can only be solved by the abolition of the social division of labor between mental and manual labor. This social division of labor makes everyone a professional cretin, narrowing the channels increasingly (the ‘order’ or ‘rationalizing’ discipline of the anarchy of the market) for the expenditure of human energy through practical activity, which forces humans to try to escape through various forms of alienated leisure, a pick-your-poison buffet of methods for slow suicide. Even Hegel was a cretin, and as a professional logician took thought (the fund of ideas he inherits) as a given, understanding his job as the work of expanding received knowledge but not asking where it comes from–which would be its origin in the split between intellectual and manual labor, the primacy of practice divided from itself into caste spheres of human activity. Ilyenkov understands Hegel as Marx understood capitalists: just as capitalists take value for granted, and set out to valorize it, Hegel takes knowledge for granted, and sets out only to expand it. Ilyenkov even understands Hegel this way on a homology (“analogy that is more than an analogy”) to the metamorphosis of value in M-C-M’, only in the case of the apparent self-expansion of knowledge the circuit is W-D-W’ (word-deed-word’ or theory-practice-theory’). (cf. chapter 4, “Hegel’s Science of Logic“) The goal of communism, then, is to upend property relations of private property and the social division of labor at once (since those are two different ways of naming the same problem, one from the pov of distribution one from the pov of production), creating the kind of subjects capable of implementing a plan for the expenditure of human activity without a bureaucratic state. Communism demands that everyone become politicized to the effect that they take joint responsibility in consciously organizing human production and communism allows for the development of everyone’s individual personalities in any direction whatever–to chemistry, to art, to dance, to engineering, etcetera. The provocation Ilyenkov offers is that we are condemned to idealism, a byproduct of the social division of labor, and therefore condemned to cosmological confusion until the advent of communism, which alone can make true cosmology possible. From the total transparency of production to every individual in the association of free producers to the terrible transparency of the cosmos to consciousness. Every cook must govern for the world to weep like Heraclitus!

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