KEYNOTE David Bakhurst: Punks versus zombies: Evald Ilyenkov and the battle for Soviet philosophy

Keynote speech
Tuesday Aug 29   09:30 AM to 10:30 AM (1 hour)
In May 1954, Evald Ilyenkov and his friend Valentin Korovikov presented a number of “theses on philosophy” to a large audience at Moscow University, where they were both junior lecturers. The subsequent furor pitched Ilyenkov and Korovikov against the Soviet philosophical establishment, controlled by philosophers who had come to prominence at the height of Stalinism. The establishment cast Ilyenkov and Korovikov as “punks”, contemptuous of orthodoxy and indifferent to the class character of philosophy.  In turn, Ilyenkov, Korovikov and the students they inspired saw the old guard as brain-dead automata, motivated by ideological dictates rather than the deliverances of free thought. The ensuing confrontation, which lasted some eighteen months, had a significant effect, not just on Ilyenkov’s own philosophical development, but on an entire generation of Soviet philosophers. While the controversy was long known to have occurred, the text of the theses was lost, and all accounts of events were anecdotal.  This situation changed dramatically in 2016, with the Russian publication of fascinating archival research by Ilyenkov’s daughter, Elena Ilesh.  Drawing on this recent work, this paper tells the full story of the famous theses, examines the provocative conception of philosophy that they defended, and reveals the incident’s long-lasting, and ultimately tragic, influence on Ilyenkov’s life and work.
Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario
Professor of Philosophy

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