What if Ilyenkov Had Known Marx’s Notes on Spinoza?

18 Pages Posted: 30 Aug 2012

See all articles by Bill Bowring

Bill Bowring

Birkbeck College, University of London - School of Law

Date Written: May 23, 2012


In the Name Index of the Collected Works of Marx, Engels and Lenin published in English, Baruch (Benedict) Spinoza (1632-1677) is always referred to as “outstanding Dutch materialist philosopher, rationalist, atheist”. The word “outstanding” denotes a special commendation – the highest honour bestowed is “great”. For Moses Hess, Spinoza was the prophet of the French Revolution. My own interest in Spinoza was sparked by reading, in the early 1980s one of the later works of E. V. Ilyenkov (1924-1979), Dialectical Logic (DL), especially Essay Two, “Thought as an Attribute of Extension”. Ilyenkov also made extensive reference to Spinoza in the first two sections of Chapter One of the revised version, for translation into German in 1979, of The Dialectics of the Abstract and Concrete in Marx’s Capital (DAC), first published in Russian in 1960.

Ilyenkov was as far as I know not aware of the fact that in March to April 1841, at the age of 22, Karl Marx made extensive transcriptions from Spinoza. These notebooks were published by Dietz Verlag in the GDR in 1976, a year before Ilyenkov’s death, in two volumes. Volume 1 contains Marx’ transcriptions in Latin and German; Volume II contains translations from Latin into German, and notes, the “Apparat”.

It is a curious fact, to which I will return, that all Ilyenkov’s references in DL but one are to Spinoza’s Ethics, with one reference to On the Improvement of the Understanding (OIU), while all the references in DAC are to Spinoza’s OIU. I wonder whether Spinoza only had Volume 1 of the two volume Selected Works, though this seems unlikely.

Marx on the other hand transcribed at length in Latin, using the 1802 edition of Spinoza’s works published in Jena, from the Theologico-Political Treatise, and from the Correspondence, but not at all from On the Improvement of the Understanding or Ethics.

The following questions arise for consideration in this paper. Were Marx and Ilyenkov reading, in effect, two quite different Spinozas? Or was each of them reading Spinoza instrumentally, in order further to develop their own ideas?

Keywords: marx, spinoza, ilyenkov

Suggested Citation

Bowring, Bill, What if Ilyenkov Had Known Marx’s Notes on Spinoza? (May 23, 2012). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2138128 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2138128

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