From today’s perspective, the most interesting European Marxists of the twentieth century were those who tried to break out of the duality of Soviet-style dialectical materialism and the Western Marxist elevation of social practice into the transcendental horizon which overdetermines our entire approach to reality, nature included. These thinkers tried to locate human practice in a wider frame of cosmology, but without regressing to a naïve realist ontology.

If we leave aside Walter Benjamin, who deserves special treatment, we should mention at least Ernst Bloch, who deployed a gigantic edifice of an unfinished universe tending towards the utopian point of absolute perfection. In his masterpiece The Principle of Hope, he provides an encyclopedic account of humankind’s and nature’s orientation towards a socially and technologically improved future.[1] Bloch considered Marx’s comments about the “humanization of nature” (from his early Economico-Philosophical Manuscripts) of key importance: a true radical utopia should embrace the entire universe, i.e., utopias that are limited to the organization of society and ignore nature are no better than abstractions. In contrast to late the Lukács, Bloch thus proposes a full future-oriented cosmology, inscribing teleology into nature itself (in contrast to our emphasis on the unorientables). He thereby overcomes the transcendental circle, but the price is too high—a return to premodern utopian cosmology.

The radical counterpart to Bloch’s progressive cosmology was provided by Evald Ilyenkov, the only Soviet Marxist to be taken seriously, in his early manuscript on the “cosmology of spirit.”[2] Provocatively relying on what is for Western Marxists the ultimate bête noire – Friedrich Engels’s manuscripts posthumously gathered in Dialectics of Nature, as well as the Soviet tradition of dialectical materialism –, and combining them with contemporary cosmology, he brings the dialectical-materialist idea of a progressive development of reality from elementary forms of matter through different forms of life to (human) thought to its logical Nietzschean conclusion. If reality is spatially and temporally without limits, then there is overall, with regard to its totality, no progress. Everything that could happen always-already happened: though full of dynamics in its parts, the universe as a Whole is a Spinozan stable substance. What this means is that, in contrast to Bloch, every development is circular, every movement upwards has to be accompanied by a movement downwards, every progress by a regress: movement is “the cyclical movement from the lowest forms of matter to the highest (‘the thinking brain’) and back, to their decomposition into the lowest forms of matter (biological, chemical, and physical).”

Ilyenkov supplements this vision of the universe with two further hypotheses. First, the movement in cosmos is limited downwards and upwards; it takes place between the lowest level (chaotic matter) and the highest level (thought), such that nothing higher than thought is imaginable. Second, thought is not just a contingent local occurrence in the development of matter; it has a reality and efficiency of its own, a necessary part (a culmination) of the development of the entire reality. And, then, comes Ilyenkov’s most daring cosmological speculation: “the cyclical development of the universe passes through a phase involving the complete destruction of matter — through a galaxy-scale ‘fire’.” This passage through the zero-level which re-launches cosmic development does not happen by itself, but needs a special intervention to re-channel the energy that was radiated during the cycle of matter’s development into a new “global fire.” The question of what (or who) sets the universe on fire is crucial. According to Ilyenkov, it is the cosmological function of thought to provide the conditions to “relaunch” the universe, which is collapsing due to thermal death. It is human intelligence which, having achieved the highest potency, has to launch the big bang. This is how thought proves in reality that it is a necessary attribute of matter.

To make the key speculative moment clearer, let’s quote a passage from Ilyenkov’s own text:

“In concrete terms, one can imagine it like this: At some peak point of their development, thinking beings, executing their cosmological duty and sacrificing themselves, produce a conscious cosmic catastrophe—provoking a process, a reverse ‘thermal dying’ of cosmic matter; that is, provoking a process leading to the rebirth of dying worlds by means of a cosmic cloud of incandescent gas and vapors. In simple terms, thought turns out to be a necessary mediating link, thanks only to which the fiery ‘rejuvenation’ of universal matter becomes possible; it proves to be this direct ‘efficient cause’ that leads to the instant activation of endless reserves of interconnected motion.”

Now comes Ilyenkov’s craziest ethico-political speculation on the (not only social but) cosmological necessity and the role of Communism. For him, such a radical self-sacrifice can be performed only by a highly developed Communist society:

“Millions of years will pass, thousands of generations will be born and go to their graves, a genuine human system will be established on Earth, with the conditions for activity—a classless society, spiritual and material culture will abundantly blossom, with the aid of, and on the basis of, which humankind can only fulfill its great sacrificial duty before nature … For us, for people living at the dawn of human prosperity, the struggle for this future will remain the only real form of service to the highest aims of the thinking spirit.”

 So the ultimate justification of Communism is that, by way of bringing about a solidary society free of egotist instincts, it will have enough ethical strength to perform the highest self-sacrifice of humanity in its self-destruction and the simultaneous destruction of the entire cosmos:

if humanity is unable to achieve communism, then collective human intelligence will not achieve its highest stage of power either, as it will be undermined by the capitalist system, which is as far as one can get from any self-sacrificial or otherwise sublime motivation.”

 Ilyenkov was well aware of the speculative nature of this cosmology—he referred to it as his “phantasmagoria” or “dream”—, so no wonder that it was later interpreted in a rude historicist or even personal way: as a cosmic extrapolation of the disintegration of the Soviet Union, or even as a foretelling of Ilyenkov’s suicide in 1979. At a more immanent theoretical level, the suspicion immediately arises here that Ilyenkov’s cosmology “expresses archaic, premodern contents wrapped in the language of classic philosophy, science, and dialectical materialism. The indicator of this mythic content is, especially, the theme of heroic self-sacrifice and ‘global fire’.” Along these lines, Boris Groys interprets Ilyenkov’s cosmology as a return to paganism, discerning in it “a revival of the Aztec religion of Quetzalcoatl, who sets himself on fire to reverse the entropic process.” While this is in principle true, one should not forget that once we are in modernity, i.e., after Descartes’s and Kant’s breakthrough, a direct return to pagan cosmology is not possible: every such return has to be interpreted as a symptom of thought’s inability to confront the radical negativity at work in the very core of modern subjectivity.[3] The same holds already for the first systematic deployment of the idea of total destruction in the long philosophical dissertation delivered to Juliette by Pope Pius VI, part of book 5 of de Sade’s Juliette:

“there is nothing wrong with rape, torture, murder, and so on, since these conform to the violence that is the way of the universe. To act in accordance with nature means to actively take part in its orgy of destruction. The trouble is that man’s capacity for crime is highly limited, and his atrocities no matter how debauched ultimately outrage nothing. This is a depressing thought for the libertine. The human being, along with all organic life and even inorganic matter, is caught in an endless cycle of death and rebirth, generation and corruption, so that ‘there is indeed no real death,’ only a permanent transformation and recycling of matter according to the immanent laws of ‘the three kingdoms,’ animal, vegetable, and mineral. Destruction may accelerate this process, but it cannot stop it. The true crime would be the one that no longer operates within the three kingdoms but annihilates them altogether, that puts a stop to the eternal cycle of generation and corruption and by doing so returns to Nature her absolute privilege of contingent creation, of casting the dice anew.”[4]

What, then, at a strict theoretical level, is wrong with this dream of the “second death” as a radical pure negation which puts a stop to the life-cycle itself? In a superb display of his genius, Lacan provides a simple answer: “It is just that, being a psychoanalyst, I can see that the second death is prior to the first, and not after, as de Sade dreams it.”[5] (The only problematic part of this statement is the qualification “being a psychoanalyst”—a Hegelian philosopher can also see this quite clearly.) In what precise sense are we to understand this priority of the second death—the radical annihilation of the entire life-cycle of generation and corruption—over the first death, which remains a moment of this cycle? Schuster points the way: “Sade believes that there exists a well-established second nature that operates according to immanent laws. Against this ontologically consistent realm he can only dream of an absolute Crime that would abolish the three kingdoms and attain the pure disorder of primary nature.”

In short, what Sade doesn’t see is that there is no big Other, no Nature as an ontologically consistent realm. Nature is already in itself inconsistent, unbalanced, destabilized by antagonisms. The total negation imagined by Sade thus doesn’t come at the end, as a threat or prospect of radical destruction. It comes at the beginning, it has always-already happened, it stands for the zero-level starting point out of which the fragile, inconsistent reality emerges. In other words, what is missing in the notion of Nature as a body regulated by fixed laws is simply the subject itself: in Hegelese, Sadean Nature remains a Substance. Sade continues to grasp reality only as Substance and not also as Subject, where “Subject” does not stand for another ontological level different from Substance, but for the immanent incompleteness-inconsistency-antagonism of Substance itself. And, insofar as the Freudian name for this radical negativity is the death drive, Schuster is right to point out how, paradoxically, what Sade misses in his celebration of the ultimate Crime of radical destruction of all life is, precisely, the death drive:

“for all its wantonness and havoc, the Sadeian will-to-extinction is premised on a fetishistic denial of the death drive. The sadist makes himself into the servant of universal extinction precisely in order to avoid the deadlock of subjectivity, the “virtual extinction” that splits the life of the subject from within. The Sadeian libertine expels this negativity outside himself in order to be able to slavishly devote himself to it; the apocalyptic vision of an absolute Crime thus functions as a screen against a more intractable internal split. What the florid imagination of the sadist masks is the fact that the Other is barred, inconsistent, lacking, that it cannot be served for it presents no law to obey, not even the wild law of its accelerating auto-destruction. There is no nature to be followed, rivalled or outdone, and it is this void or lack, the non-existence of the Other, that is incomparably more violent than even the most destructive fantasm of the death drive. Or as Lacan argues, Sade is right if we just turn around his evil thought: subjectivity is the catastrophe it fantasizes about, the death beyond death, the “second death.” While the sadist dreams of violently forcing a cataclysm that will wipe the slate clean, what he does not want to know is that this unprecedented calamity has already taken place. Every subject is the end of the world, or rather this impossibly explosive end that is equally a “fresh start,” the unabolishable chance of the dice throw.”[6]

Kant characterized the free autonomous act as an act that cannot be accounted for in the terms of natural causality, of the texture of causes and effects: a free act occurs as its own cause, it opens up a new causal chain from its zero-point. So, insofar as “second death” is the interruption of the natural life-cycle of generation and corruption, no radical annihilation of the entire natural order is needed for this—an autonomous free act already suspends natural causality, and the subject as such is already this cut in the natural circuit, the self-sabotage of natural goals. The mystical name for this end of the world is “the night of the world,” while the philosophical name is “radical negativity” as the core of subjectivity. And, to quote Mallarmé, a throw of the dice will never abolish the hazard, i.e., the abyss of negativity remains forever the unsublatable background of subjective creativity. We may even risk here an ironic version of Gandhi’s famous motto “be the change you want to see in the world”: the subject is itself the catastrophe it fears and tries to avoid.

Back to Ilyenkov! Exactly the same holds for his notion of the radical self-destruction of reality: although clearly a phantasmagoria, it shouldn’t be taken lightly because it is a symptom of a fatal flaw in the entire project of Western Marxism. Constrained by the transcendental role of social practice as the ultimate horizon of our experience, it cannot adequately take into account radical negativity as the crack in the Real, which renders possible the rise of subjectivity; this neglected dimension, foreclosed by transcendental thought, then returns in the real as the phantasmagoria of a total world-destruction. As in the case of Sade, Ilyenkov’s mistake resides in his very starting point: in a naïve-realist way, he presupposes reality as a Whole regulated by the necessity of progress and its reverse. Within this pre-modern space of a complete and self-regulating cosmos, radical negativity can only appear as total self-destruction. The way out of this deadlock is to abandon the starting point and to admit that there is no reality as a self-regulated Whole, that reality is in itself cracked, incomplete, non-all, traversed by radical antagonism.


[1] See Ernst Bloch, The Principle of Hope, vols. 1–3,  Cambridge (Ma): MIT Press 1995.

[2] Alexei Penzin, “Contingency and Necessity in Evald Ilyenkov’s Communist Cosmology,” available online at (All quotes from Ilyenkov as well as from Penzin are from this source.) Ilyenkov’s “Cosmology of the Spirit” (trans. Giuliano Vivaldi, Stasis 5, no. 2 (2017)) was written in the early 1950s and first published in Russian in 1988.

[3] In what follows, I resume the line of thought from the last chapter of my Disparities, London: Bloomsbury 2016.

[4] Aaron Schuster, “The Third Kind of Complaint” (unpublished manuscript).

[5] Jacques Lacan, Ecrits, New York: Norton 2006, p. 667.

[6] Schuster, op.cit.