Don Cuckson and Cyril Smith

Freedom, Subjectivity and Lenin’s Philosophy

Lenin is one of the very greatest names in the history of revolution, and certainly the most important of the twentieth century. This brief note does not intend to question this, but to re-examine those of his writings which deal with basic questions of philosophy. Of course, these will remain important historical documents, because of their authorship and because they bear on the political contexts in which they were written. However, the immense authority with which they used to be invested, remains, we believe, a major obstacle to the regeneration of the revolutionary movement today. In particular, we are going to look again at Lenin’s philosophical writings to see how they relate to Marx’s notion of freedom.

Hegel and Marx

Hegel put freedom at the centre of his understanding of humanity, its history, its political life and its self-consciousness. One strand of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment had believed that freedom belonged to the individual citizen. Hegel, with the benefit of the experience of the French Revolution, showed that this kind of freedom, simply the absence of restriction on the unrestricted free play of independent individual will, had shown its inadequacy: it was mere arbitrariness (Willkür). In a society of property-owners, wills necessarily clash, so that the outcome of their actions does not turn out to be what any of them had intended. Individualist freedom, which is purely formal and abstract, is ultimately tyrannical. For Hegel, concrete freedom was possible only in a political state in which Reason, reflecting on social life, showed how the millions of colliding wills were actually reconciled. Only in the modern state can the spirit of a nation unfold its potential and uncover its truth. ‘The state is the actuality of concrete freedom.

At every point Marx, simultaneously agrees and disagrees with Hegel. He bases his work on a very different conception of freedom. He supports Hegel’s criticism of the Enlightenment, but sees that Hegel’s analysis of the modern world ultimately tries to reconcile us to its inhumanity. In bourgeois society, based on the existence of private property in the means of production and the exploitation of the commodity labour-power, the collision between individuals and between classes enslaves them all to social relations over which they have no control. Under the domination of alien forces – powers like money, capital and the state – humans are condemned to live inhumanly. But that same social formation brings about material conditions which make it possible for humanity to liberate itself from these forces. When the proletariat fights against the oppression and exploitation of capital, it is demanding recognition of its humanity, and thus opening the way for the whole of society to free itself from all forms of alien social power. Humans, collectively and individually, will consciously make their own social forms, and this was the meaning of the entire history of class struggle. The communist revolution would bring about ‘universal human emancipation’.

Communism, ‘a free association of producers’ (Capital), will transcend private property and the state. The free development of each individual will be the condition for the free development of all (Communist Manifesto), that is, of those social productive powers through which humans made themselves. Under all conditions, ‘in changing nature, man changes his own nature’ (Capital), but now this becomes a conscious act, ‘the free development of individualities’ (Grundrisse, German Ideology). Social individuals, each of them consciously embodying the sum total of the achievements of history, will live in a society ‘worthy of and appropriate to our human nature’ (Capital, Volume 3). The opposition between will and reason will be overcome, not in a philosophical system, but in revolution.

What the ‘Friends of the People’ Are

Something that we ex-Stalinists and ex-Bolshevik-Leninists often forgot about Lenin and Trotsky was that they received their basic Marxist education as members of the Second International. In general, the parties affiliated to the International were indifferent to philosophy, and Marxism was thought of chiefly as an ‘economic doctrine’. What discussion of philosophy there was took the form of a vague assertion that ‘matter was prior to consciousness’, a crude atheism, and some kind of ‘economic determinism’. Even Karl Kautsky, the theoretical leader of the International, had little more to offer on philosophical matters than a ‘materialist conception of history’. The Russians were the exception, and Plekhanov was one of the few who contributed to philosophical questions. In 1891, his article ‘On the 60th Anniversary of Hegel’s Death’ introduced the term ‘dialectical materialism’ for the first time, and in the International it became fashionable to repeat it as if it represented the ideas of Marx.

Before August 1914, Lenin was an enthusiastic supporter of Kautsky and his ‘orthodox Marxism’ on almost every issue, and, despite political disagreements, he took his philosophical lead from Plekhanov. In 1893, his book What the ‘Friends of the People’ Are was devoted to an attack, entirely on Plekhanovian lines, on the ‘subjectivism’ of the Narodnik Mikhailovsky. From the time when Plekhanov founded it, Russian ‘Marxism’ had based itself on the idea that capitalism was going to develop in Russia, whatever anyone wanted. This was in opposition to the Narodnik belief that this development could be by-passed by the actions of the Russian people. It was also quite the opposite of Marx’s own view, who had great sympathy with ‘People’s Will’, the Narodnik organisation.

In the 1890s, finding a philosophical foundation for such views was very important for the Russian revolutionary movement. In his book, Lenin wants to demonstrate the way that historical change is ‘law-governed’ and can be studied ‘scientifically’. He vigorously rebuts Milhailovsky’s attacks on the ideas of Marx, describing the latter as ‘scientific sociology’, resting on ‘the conception that the development of the formations of society was a process of natural history’. Lenin contends that Marx’s outlook was based on ‘the reduction of social relations to production relations and of the latter to the level of the productive forces’. In contrast, his opponents, the ‘subjectivists’, ‘came to a halt before man’s social ideas and were unable to reduce them to material social relations’. [1]

Lenin leans very heavily upon the Second International’s mechanical interpretation of the celebrated passage from the 1859 Preface to Marx’s Critique of Political Economy. This presents Marx as an ‘economic determinist’, where the word ‘determined’, (in German, bestimmt), is given the meaning ‘caused’, although actually Marx uses it to mean ‘limited’.

This is what Lenin, following Plekhanov, thinks is meant by Marxism being a science.

The analysis of material social relations at once made it possible to observe recurrence and regularity and to generalise the systems of the various countries in the single fundamental concept: social formation. [2]

Lenin calls historical materialism a ‘hypothesis’, one which Marx was supposed to have confirmed by means of empirical observation. So Marxism is taken to be an ‘exact science’, something like physics or chemistry, abstracting ‘laws’ from historical data and testing ‘hypotheses’.

To make this plausible, Lenin distinguishes between ‘ideological social relations (ie such as, before taking shape, pass through man’s consciousness)’ and ‘material social relations (ie ... those that take shape without passing through man’s consciousness)’. [3] But in the 1859 Preface, Marx says nothing at all about historical laws. He does say that humans ‘enter into definite (bestimmte), necessary relations, independent of their will’, and that ‘their social being determines their consciousness’. But this is all in the course of ‘the social production of their life’, that is, in activity which certainly ‘passes through man’s consciousness’. As the Preface points out, in considering such transformations,

a distinction should always be made between the material transformations of the economic conditions of production, which can be established with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, aesthetic or philosophic – in short ideological – forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out.

In any case, Lenin forgets that the entire passage in the Preface is about an inhuman ‘pre-history’, which comes to an end with the overthrow of bourgeois society. It was actually in a well-known letter to the journal of this same Milhailovsky that Marx had denied that his historical analysis in Capital applied to Eastern Europe, or that he was propounding ‘a supra-historical theory of history’. [4]

What does Marx mean by social relations being ‘independent of the will’ of the individuals who live under them? These relations have not been consciously determined by those individuals. ‘Men make their own history, but they do not do it just as they please, they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves’, as Marx put it on the first page of The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon. Social relations have been produced by the actions of millions of other people in the past, and take forms like money and capital, which are out of the control of anyone. The social forms in which people live do not cause them to act in ways which can be predicted like the phases of the moon – a notion quite foreign to Marx. Different individuals might live under similar ‘conditions of existence (Existenzbedingungen)’ but at the same time differ from each other in all kinds of ways. Each of them is a unique subject, even though treated as a thing by the power of capital.

In class society, consciousness and will are set against each other, and cannot be reconciled by Reason, as Hegel claimed. Thus the consciousness of these individuals is false consciousness. In such social forms, they are certainly limited by historical laws. But the necessity of these laws, Marx explains, is a ‘vanishing necessity’ (Grundrisse). Freedom has to be won through a struggle which challenges these laws, and communism means their disappearance.

In 1895, Lenin read The Holy Family, copying out many pages from the book, which had been published by Marx and Engels fifty years before, as part of their battle against the ‘Left Hegelians’. Lenin notes, for example, the passage where Marx comments on the struggle between materialism and speculative metaphysics. The latter, writes Marx,

will be defeated for ever by materialism, which has now been perfected by the work of speculation itself, and coincides with humanism. But, just as Feuerbach is the representative of materialism coinciding with humanism in the theoretical domain, so French and English socialism and communism represent materialism coinciding with humanism in the practical domain. [5]

Lenin offers no opposition to these ideas, although there had been no sign of Marx’s humanism in What the ‘Friends of the People’ Are, including the idea that materialism has been ‘perfected by the work of speculation’. Nor does he object to the comments on the materialism of Hobbes, which Marx condemns as ‘geometric’, ‘mechanical’, ‘one-sided’, ‘misanthropic (Menschenfeindlich)’ and ‘ascetic’. In Hobbes, says Marx, ‘knowledge based upon the senses loses its poetic blossom, it passes into the abstract experience of the geometrician.’ ‘Power and freedom are identical.’ We shall see soon, however, that Lenin’s later philosophical ideas come nowhere near to Marx’s humanised materialism.

‘What is to be done?’

The corollary to Lenin’s heavy stress on ‘objectivity’ was that it left no room for subjectivity, for human values, that is, for freedom. But then how is revolution possible? In ‘What is to be done?’ (1902), Lenin has to discuss the political activity of the revolutionaries, that is, their subjective activity. His answer – ultimately, the only possible answer such an outlook can give – is to adopt Kautsky’s formula about the revolutionaries bringing socialist consciousness into the proletariat ‘from without’. However, neither Lenin nor Kautsky ever discuss how this consciousness itself develops. Later Leninists, who made much more of this booklet than Lenin himself had done, were to talk of the Party being ‘the subjective factor’ in the socialist revolution, setting subjective and objective conditions for socialism in opposition to each other.

Subjectivity was squeezed out of Marx’s account of society, presented as an ‘objective explanation of history’, while the activity of the revolutionaries seemed to be devoid of objective foundation. Basing themselves on this opposition between will and consciousness, the theorists of the Second International, Lenin among them, excluded the possibility of Marx’s central idea: ‘universal human emancipation’. Thus they walled themselves off from Marx’s conception of social practice, an activity which is simultaneously subjective and objective, combining will, intellect and imagination, and whose most important instance is revolution.

Materialism and Empirio-Criticism

After the defeat of the 1905 revolution in Russia, the Bolshevik faction was wracked by acute philosophical battles. Bogdanov, a leader of Lenin’s ‘Bolshevik’ faction from its beginning, wrote a great deal on philosophical questions, leaning towards the ideas of the philosophers of science Mach and Avenarius. Lenin agreed that such matters were outside the discipline of the faction. Then Plekhanov, in his book Materialismus Militans, launched an attack on Machism and its opposition to ‘dialectical materialism’, accusing Lenin’s faction of ‘subjectivism’. In 1908, Lenin responded with Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, his own parallel attack on Bogdanov and his co-thinkers, defending what he understood by materialism.

The book begins by claiming that ‘Marx and Engels scores of times used the term dialectical materialism to describe their philosophical views’. [6] Of course, it cannot offer a single reference, for there are none. Lenin continually asserts the centrality of materialism, which he says is the primacy of ‘matter’ over consciousness [7], and identifies idealist philosophy with religion and ‘ghost stories’ [8].

He gives two completely contradictory definitions of ‘matter’. In the first, ‘matter is that which, acting upon our sense-organs, produces sensations’ [9], while in the second, ‘matter is a philosophical category denoting the objective reality which is given to man by his sensations and which is copied, photographed and reflected by his sensations, while existing independently of them.’ [10] But how can a philosophical category ‘produce sensations’? Such categories are the product of human thinking, and therefore cannot be ‘primary’ in Lenin’s sense of the term, when he writes: ‘The existence of matter does not depend on sensation. Matter is primary’ [11]

Lenin is also wrong when he says that ‘matter’ acts upon our sense-organs. Firstly, it is not ‘matter’ which we perceive by means of our sense organs and our brains. I eat a fried egg and then I eat an apple. According to Lenin, the apple and the egg are both ‘matter’, which produces the sensation of taste. So why don’t they taste the same? The answer is simple. When I eat a fried egg, I taste a fried egg, NOT ‘matter’. As we all know, Lenin included, an egg is not an apple, and yes, surprise, surprise, they do taste differently. Nobody ever had either indigestion or constipation from eating a philosophical category.

Lenin is also wrong from the standpoint of Marx’s First Thesis on Feuerbach, when he writes that ‘matter’ acts on our sense organs. This is precisely the view of what Marx calls the ‘old materialism’, for it conceives the object ‘only in the form of contemplation’. Marx rescues subjectivity from Idealism. He conceives of looking, listening, touching, tasting and thinking as forms of human social activity, by means of which we change the world. For Lenin, as for the old materialists, sensation always seems to be a matter of the mental activity of isolated individuals.

Since he has evaded the question of subjectivity, Lenin is open to all the conundrums of bourgeois philosophy, especially the so-called ‘mind-body problem’, which return to haunt any such ‘theory of knowledge’. Subjectivity and freedom, the way that humans create their own life-conditions, changing their own nature in transforming nature (Capital), are totally ignored. Of course, Lenin never had the opportunity to read Marx’s 1844 Paris Manuscripts. But we can guess at his amazement if he had read this, for instance:

Man appropriates his comprehensive essence in a comprehensive manner, that is to say, as a whole man. Each of his human relations to the world – seeing, hearing, smelling, feeling, thinking, observing, experiencing, wanting, acting, loving – in short, all the organs of his individual being ... are the manifestation of the human reality. [12]

For Marx, ‘the forming of the five senses is a labour of the entire history of the world down to the present’. And what could Lenin’s materialism have made of the statement that ‘the abolition of private property is therefore the complete emancipation of all human senses and qualities, ...because these have become, subjectively and objectively human’? [13]. Nor did Lenin have the opportunity to read the German Ideology, where Marx and Engels explain where they start:

The premises from which we begin are ... the real individuals, their activity and the

material conditions under which they live, both those which they find already existing and those produced by their activity. They are the real individuals, their activity and the material conditions of their life, both those which they find already existing and those produced by their activity. These premises can thus be verified in a purely empirical way.[14]

There is no mention of ‘matter’ by Marx, for whom ‘material conditions’ comprise social relations, for instance, ‘unsubstantial substances’ like value, which do not contain a speck of matter. (Capital, Chapter 1.)

Plekhanov and Lenin liked to refer to the second of Marx’s Theses, which is assumed by Lenin to make what he calls practice into a ‘criterion for truth’.

The question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but is a practical question. Man must prove the truth, ie the actuality and power, the ‘this-sidedness’ of his thinking in practice. The dispute over the actuality or non-actuality of thinking that is isolated from practice is a purely scholastic question.

In Materialism and Empirio-Criticism and elsewhere, Lenin appears to identify practice with the activity of material production, guided by natural science. This effectively reduces ‘practice’ to the activities of individuals. But for Marx it means the total practical life of society, especially the active relations between people, which is today perverted by bourgeois property relations. In reality, the thinking of the isolated individual, engaged in their own isolated activity, has no truth, no ‘actuality and power’. Only when social practice is collectively comprehended by a community of social individuals, will their knowledge, be united with free activity, at once individual and social.

Lenin includes a brief section headed ‘Freedom and Necessity’ [15], based entirely on Engels’ well-known remark that ‘freedom is the appreciation of necessity’.

Engels attributes to Hegel the idea that ‘necessity is blind, only insofar as it is not understood’. (Actually, Hegel has rather more to say than this.) Engels distinguishes between ‘laws of external nature’ and ‘those which govern the bodily and mental existence of men themselves’. Unfortunately, Engels does not develop this distinction, beyond the suggestion that these are ‘two classes of laws which we can separate from each other at most only in thought but not in reality’. [16] Necessity for

Lenin is never distinguished from natural necessity. But communism means overcoming a different kind of necessity, the inhuman workings of the alienated world of capital, by instituting the conscious, collective control of social forms.

Lenin’s theoretical statements on these questions have been a complete diversion to the workers’ movement, denying as they do Marx’s ideas about human subjectivity. Millions of people who claimed allegiance to Marxism – including ourselves – were unable to grasp that the ideas of Materialism and Empirio-Criticism and those of Marx’s First Thesis were in fact LOGICALLY INCOMPATIBLE. Lenin’s enhanced reputation as a revolutionary led us to accept his ideas uncritically, and thus to fail to grasp the meaning and significance of those of Marx.

Three Sources and Three Component Parts of Marxism

Among its other implications, acceptance of the work of Kautsky and Plekhanov as authorities brought about great confusion regarding the origin of Marx’s thought. In 1907, Kautsky gave a lecture on ‘The Three Sources of Marxism’, which Marx was supposed to have developed from German philosophy, English political economy and French utopianism. In his 1913 essay, Three Sources and Three Component Parts of Marxism, Lenin developed this notion still further. Marxism is presented as a ‘doctrine’, a ‘comprehensive’ and totally consistent set of ideas:

The Marxist doctrine is omnipotent because it is true. It is comprehensive and harmonious, and provides men with an integral world outlook irreconcilable with any form of superstition, reaction or defence of bourgeois oppression. [17]

This contrasts sharply with Marx’s own assessment of his work, which he always refused to think of either as complete, or as a ‘doctrine’. Indeed, how is it possible for a conception of revolution to be a total, unchanging ‘orthodoxy’?

Lenin begins with the identification of Marxism with materialism, and repeats his contention that ‘philosophical idealism ... always, in one way or another, amounts to the defence or support of religion’. However, says Lenin, Marx ‘enriched’ eighteenth-century materialism with ‘dialectics’, here identified with

the doctrine of development in its fullest, deepest and most comprehensive form, the doctrine of the relativity of knowledge that provides us with a reflection of eternally developing matter. [18]

Lenin goes on to reiterate his contention that Marx’s outlook is like that of the natural sciences and that ideas are a passive reflection of nature and society.

Just as man’s knowledge reflects nature (ie developing matter), which exists independently of him, so man’s social knowledge (ie his various views and doctrines – philosophical, religious, political and so forth) reflects the economic system of society.[19]

What, then, about the ideas of socialism? Are they, too, merely another such reflection of the economic system called ‘capitalism’?

The Essay on ‘Karl Marx’

In 1914, before the outbreak of the war, Lenin began to write an article on ‘Karl Marx’ for the Granat Encyclopaedic Dictionary. In this article the same basic outlook prevails.

Marx and Engels considered that the ‘old’ materialism ... contained the following major shortcomings: (1) the materialism was ‘predominantly mechanical’, failing to take account of the latest developments in chemistry and biology ... ; (2) the old materialism was non-historical and non-dialectical (metaphysical in the sense of anti-dialectical), and did not adhere consistently and comprehensively to the standpoint of development; (3) it regarded the ‘human essence’ in the abstract, not as the ‘complex of all’ (concretely and historically determined) ‘social relations’, and therefore merely ‘interpreted the world’, whereas it was a question of ‘changing ‘ it, ie it did not understand the importance of ‘revolutionary practical activity’. [20]

Lenin here alludes to the first of the Theses on Feuerbach. Plekhanov and Lenin often refer to the Theses, but they have very little to say about the first one, which begins:

The chief defect of all hitherto existing materialism (that of Feuerbach included) is that the thing, actuality (Wirklichkeit), sensuousness, is conceived only in the form of the object or of contemplation, but not as sensuous human activity, practice, not subjectively. Hence, in contradistinction to materialism, the active side was developed abstractly by idealism – which, of course, does not know real, sensuous activity as such. Feuerbach wants sensuous objects, really distinct from the thought objects, but he does not conceive human activity itself as objective activity.

There is nothing like this in either Lenin or Plekhanov, for whom subjectivity and objectivity are rigidly separate.

A section of his essay is headed ‘The Materialist Conception of History’, which Lenin identifies with ‘the consistent continuation and extension of materialism into the domain of social phenomena’. He also announces that by discarding subjectivism and arbitrariness in the choice of a particular ‘dominant’ idea or in its interpretation, and by revealing that, without exception, all ideas and all the various tendencies stem from the condition of the material forces of production, Marx had been able to remove ‘the two chief shortcomings in earlier historical theories’. Because it knew that ‘all ideas and all the various tendencies stem from the condition of the material forces of production’, Marxism showed how to study ‘the rise, development and decline of socio-economic systems ... governed by definite laws’. [21]

Significantly for the now disintegrating International, Lenin introduces a two-page section on ‘Dialectics’, and this marks the beginning of a new development in Lenin’s thinking. However, the Section as it stands is remarkable for quoting just once from Marx – a single phrase from a letter to Engels (January 8, 1868) – all other references being to the writings of Engels.

Lenin Reads Hegel

August 1914, as the first world war began, marked the most profound crisis for the world socialist movement and for Lenin personally. In one of the most amazing decisions of his life, amidst the ruins of the International, he turned to an intensive study of Hegel’s Science of Logic, supplemented by the final pages of the ‘Smaller Logic’ (the ‘Encyclopaedia Logic’). For three months in the autumn of 1914, he copied extracts from these very difficult books. As his reading progressed, these notes became more and more copious, including increasingly detailed comments. During the following year, he studied some other works of Hegel, including the lectures on the history of Greek philosophy, and the Philosophy of History. He also read Aristotle’s Metaphysics.

As this work proceeds, Lenin’s philosophical conceptions change drastically, in ways which undoubtedly affected all his subsequent theoretical and practical work. He twice wrote to the publishers, asking to amend his Encyclopaedia article. But Lenin’s lengthy extracts and notes on Hegel were never shown to anyone else, and were made public only after his death. (Deborin discovered them in 1925.) We shall not try to discuss them in any detail here. [22]

At first, Lenin tries to assimilate what he is reading to his old philosophical framework. As he says, he wants ‘to read Hegel materialistically’. As he proceeds, this project becomes more and more difficult to carry out. By the time he attempts to summarise his conclusions, in the 1915 fragment On Dialectics, Lenin has started for the first time to question Plekhanov’s philosophical lead, and even to make a mild criticism of Engels’ account of dialectics. [23] Although he still writes that ‘idealism is clerical obscurantism’, Lenin now also sees that ‘philosophical idealism is nonsense only from the standpoint of crude, simple, metaphysical materialism’. [24]

At the time that Lenin was working, hardly anyone understood what Hegel was attempting to achieve in the Science of Logic, which was seen as quite separate from his social and historical works. In fact, this book is a sustained and systematic onslaught on any scheme of thought which somehow sees itself as being external to social life. Lenin appears to have read neither the Phenomenology of Spirit nor the Philosophy of Right, and never saw how Hegel’s thinking about logic was bound up with his notion of human development. Above all, we must not forget that Lenin could know nothing of Marx’s 1844 Manuscripts, with its ‘Critique of Hegel’s Dialectic and Philosophy as a Whole’, or of the German Ideology.

As his Hegel study proceeds, he begins to see the deep connection between the Science of Logic and Marx’s Capital, and he was probably the first person to comment on this since Marx himself. Since he still thinks, like Kautsky, that Capital expounds Marx’s ‘economic doctrines’, he is restricted to noting a few parallels between the methods of Marx’s book and Hegel’s, and remains cut off from the human content of Hegel’s work. ‘Marx applied Hegel’s dialectics in its rational form to political economy’. [25]

Lenin is frequently hampered by an almost superstitious reaction to every mention of God or the Absolute, which, at any rate early on in his work, he merely dismisses as mystical nonsense. And yet, as he goes on, he is struck by the paradox of the ‘idealist’ Hegel’s many very down-to-earth statements, for instance, about necessity and causality, or about appearance and essence, which Lenin interprets as approximations to what he calls historical materialism.

Well over half of Lenin’s Notebooks are devoted to the third section of the Science of Logic, on the ‘Notion’ (Begriff = concept), the most ‘idealist’ part, which Hegel calls the Subjective Logic. He copies Hegel’s announcement that this section is concerned with ‘the realm of Subjectivity or of Freedom’, and puts a box round the idea. It is here that he writes his first-known criticism, not only of Plekhanov’s philosophical contribution, but of ‘Marxists ... at the beginning of the twentieth century’, remarking – coming even closer to self-criticism – that: ‘Half a century later, none of the Marxists understood Marx’. [26]

Here, Lenin’s ‘materialist’ translations of passages from Hegel’s book encounter still greater difficulties. When Lenin wants to substitute ‘nature’ for objectivity, and material production for ‘practice’, he misses the point of Hegel’s work. For Hegel’s main subject-matter is precisely the objectivity of social, historical. ethical and conceptual entities, which themselves stand opposed to Nature. (In other places, Hegel uses the term ‘objective spirit’ to mean the life of the state.) Like Aristotle, Hegel sometimes uses examples from productive labour to illustrate what he is doing, but these are little more than analogies. Practice, for both of these philosophers, means chiefly the ethical activity of humans relating to each other in society.

By the time he reaches the very end of the book, the section headed ‘The Absolute Idea’, Lenin is copying almost every sentence into his Notebooks. In the transition to this section, Hegel explains that the Absolute Idea is ‘the identity of the practical and the theoretical idea’. (In the Encyclopaedia Logic, he gives the equivalent passage the title ‘Willing’.)

When Lenin has read almost to the end of the Science of Logic, he turns to the more concise account given in Encyclopaedia Logic, copying out very detailed extracts. However, in each of these books, Lenin stops short of the final sentence. The Science of Logic ends like this:

But in this resolve of the pure Idea to determine itself as external Idea, it thereby only posits itself the mediation out of which the Notion ascends as free Existence that has withdrawn into itself from externality, that completes its self-liberation in the science of spirit, and that finds the supreme Notion of itself in the science of logic, as the self-comprehending pure Notion.

And the last sentence of the Encyclopaedia Logic reads:

The absolute freedom of the Idea, however, is that it does not merely pass over into life, nor that it lets life shine within itself as cognition, but that, in the absolute truth of itself, it resolves to release out of itself into freedom the moment of its particularity or of the initial determining and otherness, the immediate Idea as its reflection of itself as Nature.

These passages, the climaxes of Hegel’s logical works, embody the essence of Hegel’s concept of freedom, and ‘reading them materialistically’ renders them completely incomprehensible. Hegel’s logic has revealed the structure of Freedom, the culmination of the entire movement of Spirit. Or rather, philosophy has ‘looked on’, allowing Spirit in its self-movement to unfold its contradictions, and at the same time to show how they resolve themselves. Hegel’s concept of freedom is mind grasping that it is itself present in the objective necessity of society and nature. But this means that it is Spirit which is free, not the individual human. In Marx’s critique of Hegel’s system this becomes an account of the contradictory way that humanity, having enslaved itself, can collectively and individually achieve its self-emancipation in revolutionary practice. Lenin makes no mention of either of these sentences, neither copying them into his Notebooks nor commenting on their content, even remarking: ‘what comes after ... to the end of the page is unimportant’. [27] Having used his reading of Hegel to change his fundamental ways of thinking, Lenin stops short of this, the essential core of Hegel’s teaching, and thus also of Marx’s work. It is significant that the fragment On Dialectics of 1915, which attempts to summarise what he has learnt, makes absolutely no reference to such questions.

Engels’ counterposition of Hegel’s ‘method’ and his ‘system’ leads Lenin to think that Marx has ‘applied’ Hegel’s ‘dialectical method’, and this has subsequently misled many people. Hegel’s method does not exist outside his entire social and historical outlook, ready for ‘application’ to some other problem. Instead, Marx turns it into its direct opposite, as he states in the ‘Afterword’ to the Second Edition of Capital. Even when Marx employs the same categories as Hegel – quantity, quality, actuality, and so on – they have entirely different significance. In Hegel, they are stages of the development of Spirit, while for Marx they are moments of his communist critique of bourgeois philosophy as a whole. Only in the light of Marx’s critique of Hegel, which is inseparable from his idea of communism, can the real importance of Hegel’s work for understanding Marx be seen

There is no doubt that Lenin’s major contributions in 1915-17 all bear the marks of his Hegel studies. Imperialism, the April Theses and State and Revolution, all mark fundamental departures from the ideas of Kautsky and the Second International. Nonetheless, in Lenin’s approach to Hegel he remained unable to grasp the central concept of freedom. From the middle of 1918 onwards, the desperate struggle for the survival of the isolated revolution pushed back the thinking of all who participated in it. In the statements of the newly-formed Communist International, only the crudest philosophical ideas are to be found.

As we have pointed out, Lenin kept the outcome of his Hegel reading to himself, only referring to it obliquely on two occasions. In the 1920-21 discussion about the role of trade unions in the Soviet State, in his famous simile of the drinking-glass, Lenin tries to illustrate what he means by dialectical thinking: it has nothing to do with freedom. The passage in his Pravda article concludes:

Dialectical logic holds that ‘truth is always concrete’, as the late Plekhanov used to say, following Hegel. (Let me add for the benefit of young Party members that you cannot hope to become a real communist without making a study – and I mean a real study – of all of Plekhanov’s philosophical writings, because nothing better has been written on Marxism anywhere.) [28]

Lenin’s discoveries about Plekhanov’s defects seem to have been entirely forgotten. In 1922, a new journal appeared called Under the Banner of Marxism, and Lenin contributed an essay to Number 2, ‘On the Significance of Militant Materialism’. Lenin stresses the central importance of materialism, and mentions the work of Plekhanov in giving a solid materialist foundation to the Russian revolutionary tradition. Reaffirming the importance of ‘dialectical materialism’, Lenin also calls for ‘the systematic study of Hegelian dialectics from a materialist standpoint’. [29]

In the light of our examination of some of Lenin’s writings, what does his thinking have to do with freedom? The answer must be: ‘nothing at all’. Whatever contribution Lenin’s revolutionary practice might have made towards the liberation of humanity stands in basic contradiction with his philosophical work, which is miles from the ideas of Marx. Anyone trying to re-examine the work of Marx today must look at Lenin’s philosophical writings extremely critically.


1. Lenin’s Collected Works, (LCW), Volume 1, p 140.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. Marx, Letter to the Editors of ‘Notes of the Fatherland’, 1877.

5. MECW, Volume 4, pp 125. 127, 128; LCW, Volume 14, p 41.

6. LCW, Volume 14, p 19.

7. ‘Matter, nature, being, the physical – is primary, and spirit, consciousness, sensation, the psychical – is secondary.’ Ibid., p. 147.

8. Ibid , p 182.

9. Ibid , p 146.

10. Ibid , p 130.

11. Ibid , p 55.

12. MECW, Volume 3, pp 299-300.

13. Ibid., p 302.

14. German Ideology. MECW, Volume 5, p 31.

15. LCW, Volume 14, p 187.

16. Engels, Anti-Dühring, p 157.

17. LCW, Volume 19, p 223.

18. Ibid., p 25.

19. Ibid.

20. LCW, Volume 21, p 52.

21. Ibid., p 57.

22. Kevin Anderson’s Lenin, Hegel, and Western Marxism gives a very useful account, from the point of view of Raya Dunayeskaya.

23. LCW, Volume 38, p 362. See also p 277.

24. Ibid., p 363. See also p 276.

25. Ibid , p 178. By the way, the idea that Marx ‘applied Hegel’s dialectics’ was itself highly misleading.

26. Ibid , p 179.

27. Ibid., p 234.

28. LCW, Volume 32, p 94.

29. LCW, Volume 33, p 233.