by Isabel Jacobs
One of the most influential Soviet philosophers, Evald Ilyenkov is usually not read as an ecological thinker. In fact, he never wrote about ecology as such. However, his project of “intelligent materialism” holds numerous interesting potentials for ecology today. Ilyenkov was uniquely invested in exploring the interactions between humans and their environment in socialism, both philosophically and through his work in deaf-blind education. While Ilyenkov’s 1960 landmark study Dialectics of the Abstract and the Concrete in Marx’s Capital is still appreciated, his radical theory of personality as a collective thinking body is less well-known.
Drawing on models from Soviet ecology, I sketch out how Ilyenkov envisioned the cosmic relations between the human mind, social activity, the environment, and non-human living beings. Ecology also holds interesting lessons to reassess Ilyenkov’s contemporary relevance. We will see how, despite its shortcomings, his dialectical materialism—reflecting a turn to Marxist humanism in the Soviet 1960s—can make an interesting contribution to contemporary plant philosophy.
Early Soviet ecology was driven by an extractive utopianism, as captured in Andrei Platоnov’s planetaryvision of transforming the climate on earth:
Man is not only Columbus, he is also the mechanic of his planet. Siberia without ice! A warm country on the shores of the Arctic Ocean!
Platоnov was not only a well-known Soviet writer but also an engineer. Stationed in Southern Russia and Central Asia in 1922, Platоnov assisted in the electrification and irrigation of the region, organizing the draining of swamps and the construction of a hydroelectric plant. He drew on those experiences when writing “On the Improvement of the climate” in 1923-26.
Platonov’s vision of a tropical Siberia echoes Russian Cosmism; not only can humans transcend the limits of their bodies but even their environment. Such a project is one possible ecology of socialism: to transform the planet and make Siberia tropical. Stalin himself was inspired by those ideas when he proposed his Great Plan for the Transformation of Nature in the late 1940s.
As with many visions from the early revolutionary period, the 1970s saw a sobering reality check. Now, Soviet climatologists were able to model the environmental conditions on earth. In 1972, Mikhail Budyko predicted global warming as an effect of anthropogenic climate change. Budyko stated that by 2050, the Arctic would no longer be covered by ice year-round—Platonov’s dream became a dystopian reality. Budyko’s first book, Heat Balance of the Earth’s Surface, published in 1956, attracted the attention of leading scientists, both in the Soviet Union and abroad.
A year later, the first artificial Earth satellite Sputnik was launched. Soviet planetary ecology had become cosmic. At that time, the young Ilyenkov wrote the enigmatic essay “Cosmology of the Spirit,” never published during his lifetime:
It’s clear that sometime in the dark future of times to come, humanity will cease to exist. Earth itself will be scattered into the dust of cosmic space and will be dissolved into the eternal big circle of universal matter . . .
For Ilyenkov, the earth and human beings are merely one form of life in the cosmos. By realizing communism, thinking materially manifests itself as a cosmic event. Communism is therefore a crucial stage in the development of the universe. Drawing on Friedrich Engels’s Dialectics of Nature (1883), Hegel and thermodynamics, Ilyenkov visualizes the cosmos as a circular system that gradually cools down. Ultimately, the earth will die in what Alexei Penzin has called “a gesture of self-destruction on the part of communist reason.”
Though not conceived as an ecological model, Ilyenkov’s cosmology can be productively read in the light of contemporary environmentalism. In Solar Politics (2022), Oxana Timofeeva interprets Ilyenkov’s cosmology as a shift towards non-human, solar sovereignty. Ilyenkov’s vision of the cosmos as a circular, spherical system was clearly modeled after Vladimir Vernadsky’s Biosphere:
The biosphere [is] the only terrestrial envelope where life can exist [. . .]. In our century the biosphere has acquired an entirely new meaning; it is being revealed as a planetary phenomenon of cosmic character.
For Vernadsky, human beings are inextricably entwined with their environment. Among the first to develop the idea of an ecosystem, Vernadsky is an important forerunner of contemporary discourses of the Anthropocene. Interestingly, notions such as “milieu,” “environment,” and “Umwelt” featured prominently in Soviet ecology—somewhat suggesting the idea of a rolling revolution across species boundaries. We will see later how this image of a cosmic web of social interrelations shapes what I call Ilyenkov’s ecology of personality.
Let us first take another look at Ilyenkov’s cosmic expansion of consciousness. In his 1968 sci-fi parable On Idols and Ideals (Об идолах и идеалах), Ilyenkov developed a new theory of thinking as the result of collective activity. On his journeys through the cosmic biosphere, the new Soviet man would potentially encounter intelligent extraterrestrial comrades:
In the age of cosmonauts [. . .], couldn’t a highly organized and thinking being not have some kind of physical appearance completely unexpected by you? Why couldn’t it look like an octopus, a mushroom, an ocean, like a mold spread out over the stones of some far-off planet? Must it have a nose and two eyes?
In the fantastic stories that follow, we meet non-human thinking machines, including a brain on spider legs, a lazy flying saucer, a deaf ear, a brainless set of hands and a sticky film of mold. In their communist gatherings, the machines celebrate the overcoming of the human. In this post-humanist thought experiment, the very concept of thinking becomes unstable. Can those vegetables think? And do machines think? Can they be comrades?
For Ilyenkov, thinking is not reducible to science; we cannot grasp it by measuring brain waves. We think through many organs, including our bodies, hands, tools and friends. Ilyenkov’s sharp critique of cybernetics and technocratic capitalism gains new relevance in contemporary debates on artificial intelligence. While opening a door to non-human thinking, Ilyenkov ultimately defends the specific capacities of the human mind. Communism, Ilyenkov’s book concludes, “is not a fairy tale about some bright future, but a real movement of modernity.”
At the same time, developing a Spinozist philosophy of the thinking body, Ilyenkov started working in Zagorsk, a radical institution for deaf-blind students. In Zagorsk, collaborating with leading Soviet psychologists, Ilyenkov experimented with methods of enabling deaf-blind children to read, write, learn foreign languages, and speak through their bodies, hands and with the help of tactile machines. In The Becoming of Personality (Становление личности) from 1977, Ilyenkov wrote:
The blind-deaf child is a creature which, as a rule, is immobile and reminds one rather of a plant, of some kind of cactus or ficus, which lives only as long as it is in direct contact with food and water [. . .] It is a human plant (quoted after Bakhurst, p. 92).
At first glance, this seems like a problematic if not unacceptable description. Of course, Ilyenkov does not deny deaf-blind children their humanity. By contrast, he thinks that they embody a revolutionary mode of collective thinking— as if they were plants. The deaf-blind person expands our consciousness of what is possible for a human being to become in a socialist society. In Ilyenkov’s view, disability fundamentally challenges Soviet “diamat,” the orthodox version of dialectical materialism. Influenced by his work in Zagorsk, Ilyenkov developed an alternative conception of dialectics.
Collective thinking cannot be grasped by vulgar materialism; it is shaped by what Ilyenkov calls ideals. Ilyenkov compares the ideal to “the form of a jar growing under the hands of a potter.” This ideal is situated neither in the piece of clay nor the body of the potter. It arises from the activity of transforming the clay into a jar. Thinking does not occur “inside the head”—but through the interrelations of the hands, the clay, and the tools. Ilyenkov’s conception of transindividual thinking breaks up the divide between material and social.
Accordingly, we do not see through our eyes but with a thinking body that is the totality of social activity. Ideals are “transplanted” into our bodies not through our senses but our interrelations. In the words of one of Ilyenkov’s students:
And why do you think that we do not hear and see? We are not blind and deaf, we see and hear through the eyes of all our friends, all people, all humankind (quoted after Chukhrov).
Ilyenkov was interested in processes of what he called, following the Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky, ingrowing (вращивание), that is, the becoming of personality by internalizing social activity. In various places, Ilyenkov described thinking as “trans-plantation”—literally becoming a plant. We find similar ideas in contemporary plant philosophy, for instance, in Michael Marder’s Plant-Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life (2013):
The human who thinks like a plant becomes a plant [. . .]. Let us then try to get accustomed to the idea that [. . .] “non-identical thinking” indicates freedom from the substantive and self-enclosed identity of the thinkers themselves.
In Zagorsk, Ilyenkov nurtured a new type of human personality rooted in one communal thinking body. The subject who thinks here, like the plant, is always an Other, always non-identical. Plant-thinking does not ask the question of who thinks but understands thinking as inseparable from and embedded in the environment.
In Russian, the word “plants” (растения) derives from the same root like the verb “to grow” (расти)—it is a mobile, dynamic thinking being who embodies movement, temporality, becoming, and metamorphosis—whereas the English “plant” suggests a being that is fixed in the ground and rooted in one place.
In his final text “What is Personality?” (Что же такое личность?), written shortly before his death, Ilyenkov explores the possibilities of an ecology of relationships, to use a term by Philippe Descola. Here, Ilyenkov further develops his theory of collective thinking bodies:
Personality (личность) is born as a “node,” emerging from a network of mutual relations which arise between individuals in the process of collective activity (labor) [. . .]. The personality is the totality of human relations to itself as to some “other”— the relation of the self to itself as to some “non-self.” Therefore, its “body” is not a separate body of the «homo sapiens» species, but, at a minimum, two such bodies—“I” and “you,” merged as if they were in one body of social and human ties, relations, interrelations.
For Ilyenkov, personhood arises from communion (общение), both with others and the environment. Personality is collective, cosmic interactivity, a continuous process of becoming someone other than who we are.
Isabel Jacobs is a PhD Candidate at the University of London who specializes in Soviet and French philosophy. Her research is situated at the intersections of comparative philosophy, aesthetics, and the history of science. Her dissertation on Russo-French philosopher Alexandre Kojève is funded by the London Arts & Humanities Partnership (2020-2024). She recently wrote a paper on Kojève and Russian Hegelianism and edited an early book by Kojève on quantum physics. She co-organizes the Reading Groups Late Soviet Temporalities and Who Thinks Concretely? Ilyenkov at 100.
Edited by Artur Banaszewski
Featured Image: Flower photograph by Karl Blossfeldt. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.