Gregory Bienstock 1939

Lenin as Philosopher

Source: The Nineteenth Century and After, December 1939. Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

The appearance of the twelfth volume of the Selected Works of VI Lenin completes the task undertaken by Messrs Lawrence and Wishart, in collaboration with the Marx – Engels Institute in Moscow, of introducing the English-speaking public to the most important political and scientific works of the founder of Bolshevism. [1] The varied ideological storms experienced by Leninism during the few years since the beginning of the publication of the English translation of Lenin’s works find an echo, though a faint one, in the work of the editor, about which, of course, only surmises are permitted. The first volume of the ‘Extracts’ is arranged by the Editor, Mr IB Fineberg, the last volume by Mr I Lenin. [2] No reason is given for this change. On the other hand it is stated in the preface to the ninth volume that ‘developments during the past few years... imperatively called for a thorough revision’ of the explanatory notes given in the preceding volumes. [3] For this reason subsequent volumes were held up until the Moscow Institute of Leninism had put together new observations corresponding to the circumstances of the period.

It can of course not be the task of a short review to discuss exhaustively the significance of Lenin in the development of Russian Socialism or in the history of the Socialist idea. For Communists Lenin’s works are a kind of revelation of which every letter is imbued with sacred meaning. One of the oldest suras of the Koran begins with the words: ‘No doubt is there about this Book: It is a guidance to the God-fearing.’ This approximately describes the attitude of the believing Bolshevik to the words of the Master. It can be truly said that few thinkers in history have evolved to such a limited extent as Lenin. In spite of unavoidable contradictions one must say that Lenin’s Weltanschauung bears in fact a monolithic character. He succumbed in earliest youth to the magic of the Marxian metaphysic, with its unequivocal directness so attractive to the primitive mind, and remained true to it to the end of his life.

Lenin at first accepted the metaphysical implications of Marxism as a matter of course. To him, the political publicist and revolutionary leader, ‘philosophy’ appeared, if not superfluous, still as a cura posterior. [4] During his Siberian exile, however, Lenin studied philosophy, above all the French materialism of the eighteenth century and the classics of German idealism. But it was not until after the 1905 revolution that the concern for philosophical problems presented itself to him as an actual political duty. In this period of reaction after 1905 Lenin found himself forced to destroy idealistic tendencies within his own party and particularly in its left wing. To Lenin the Party appeared as a Sect with a Weltanschauung, not merely uniform but absolutely identical. Philosophical materialism was regarded by him as the dogma of the Party, any deviation therefrom as a betrayal of the Party.

AA Bogdanov (Malinovsky), the old Bolshevik and comrade in arms of Lenin, appeared as chief theoretician of the idealistic opposition, who, without adjuring historical materialism subjected the whole methodology of the Marxist philosophy to revision. He was deeply under the influence of Ernst Mach and Avenarius, the founders of the empirio-critical school which achieved great popularity at the turn of the century.

Bogdanov, around whom such old Bolsheviks as Bazarov, Lunacharsky and others grouped themselves, raised the banner of rebellion against philosophical materialism in the name of an ‘Empiriomonism’ which was to signify the overcoming both of materialism and of idealism. Actually Bogdanov created nothing new; his teaching is simply a shade of the agnosticism of Mach and Avenarius which had its roots as far back as Berkeley and Hume. Machism led in its further development to the mathematical logic of Wittgenstein, and the philosophically founded scepticism of Bertrand Russell and to the ‘Logistic’ of Carnap and Philip Frank. These teachings can be defined as dominant in the natural philosophy of today. The controversy, therefore, between Bogdanov and Lenin has kept its actuality even in the present time.

Lenin’s significance as a political leader and statesman has long been recognised, his sociology is less well known and as a philosopher he may be said to be practically unknown. We take the occasion of the appearance of the now complete Selected Works to give a sketch of the metaphysical background of the founder of Bolshevism, with special reference to the eleventh volume which contains Lenin’s great philosophical polemic.

Lenin’s metaphysic is as little original as that of Bogdanov. While the latter was a pupil of Mach and Avenarius the former popularised the primitive materialistic metaphysic of Feuerbach and Engels. For Lenin’s conscientiousness it is significant that with the object of consolidating his polemic against the Russian ‘Machists’ he not only studied the whole of contemporary German, English and French empirio-critical literature, but for the founding of his philosophical counter-offensive went to the original source of dialectic, namely, Hegel. The only great – even the only complete – philosophical work of Lenin, Materialism and Empirio-Criticism: Critical Comments on a Reactionary Philosophy, which appeared in 1908 and which fills the greater part of the eleventh volume of the Selected Works, is completely under the charm of the Hegelian dialectic. Among Lenin’s papers was found, with other philosophical excerpts, a very detailed summary of Hegel’s Logic, together with numerous critical and admiring observations. From this it can be seen what exceptional significance Lenin ascribed to the Hegelian metaphysic. Hegel is, in fact, the only ‘bourgeois’ philosopher the study of whom in present day Russia is not only permitted but practically obligatory.

Bogdanov, in his polemic against Lenin, Faith and Science, which represented an answer to Lenin’s Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, defines Lenin as a metaphysician who believes, religiously, in Absolute Truth. What Lenin really believed in was ‘Holy Matter’. It seemed to him the only reality, and Motion as its only function. The study of the contemporary atomic and electronic theories certainly convinced him that the old ‘material’ conception of matter was obsolescent. Matter was becoming immaterial, transforming itself into energy and taking on the nature of a symbol. Thus by the end of the nineteenth century Natural Science was diverted into an agnostic and relativist channel. In Lenin’s opinion, however, this shook historical materialism to its foundations and therewith also the whole theory of the Messianic role of the revolutionary proletariat. The idea of preserving historical materialism as a basis for revolutionary messianism by renouncing the obviously untenable philosophical materialism, the tendency which lay at the root of all Bogdanov’s and Lunacharsky’s endeavours, was revolting to Lenin.

It was a question of defending at all costs the old philosophical basis of historical materialism: ‘Holy Matter’ must be preserved for the believing Marxist, even at the cost of transforming this conception into a completely empty symbol. Lenin was finally forced to the following definition of matter: ‘... the sole “property” of matter with whose recognition philosophical materialism is bound up is the property of being an objective reality, of existing outside our mind.’ The sole property of matter therefore consists in the fact that it exists! This Lenin affirms still more clearly:

... nature is infinite, but it infinitely exists. And it is this sole categorical, this sole unconditional recognition of nature’s existence outside the mind and perceptions of man that distinguishes dialectical materialism from relativist agnosticism and idealism.

The existence of matter is thus for Lenin a dogma which needs no proof. He decisively attacks agnosticism and pragmatism. It is interesting, too, that in his metaphysic and epistemology he closely follows Engels without taking into consideration the utterances of Marx which show a more or less clearly defined tendency to pragmatism and agnosticism. In the famous Theses on Feuerbach Marx expresses the opinion that ‘the controversy over the reality or unreality of thought if isolated from practice appears as a purely scholastic question’, whilst for Lenin, ‘knowledge is only biologically useful if it mirrors the objective truth which is independent of the human mind’.

Lenin recognises time and space as well as causality as objectively present. There is an absolute Truth which mirrors itself in human minds. Certainly the mind can only occasionally and approximately reflect absolute truth. Only in this way will Lenin admit relatively in human knowledge.

In all these assertions Lenin shows himself purely as a dogmatic materialist, a disciple of the French materialism of the eighteenth century. But he is at the same time an Hegelian and as such a ‘dialectician’. For him dialectic is in the first place nothing but the ‘epistemology of Marxism’. With Hegel, however, dialectic is not only epistemology but at the same time ontology. For the ‘spiritual alone is the real’ and reality is according to Hegel only the ‘Selbstbewegung des Begriffes’. Marx and Engels claim, as we know, to have put the Hegelian dialectic which, in their opinion, was upside down, on to its feet. For Lenin, too, dialectic as epistemology was simply the reflection of dialectic as the theory of the laws of Being. The real world exists – this postulate of Leninist materialism, which after all has no other proof than the ‘unconquerable tendency of our understanding’, is supplemented by the other equally undemonstrable postulate: this real world exists according to the laws of dialectics. While the Hegelian dialectic of the Spirit has in any case as its point of departure a deep psychological experience, the Marxist dialectic of Being is a purely hypothetical assumption which has its roots in an arbitrary generalisation of the results of the natural scientific research of the nineteenth century. Precisely with Lenin it can be seen how the necessities of a political system led to the construction of a corresponding metaphysic. Lenin, the political revolutionary, needed a metaphysic which raised revolution to a cosmic principle. That is the explanation of his partisanship of ‘Dialectic’. But why did he turn so sharply against Bogdanov, who was also a dialectician, but abjured dogmatic materialism? Bogdanov in no way ceased to be a revolutionary through his renunciation of materialism. Quite on the contrary! He and his school advocated much more drastic methods of political struggle than Lenin. The Bogdanov metaphysic was also revolutionary in the sense of the Heraclitean ‘panta rei’ ‘????? ???’, which lies finally at the base of all dialectic. But Lenin was not only a revolutionary, but also an authoritarian revolutionary, and as such he had to decline the extreme relativism of the Bogdanov school.

With sure instinct Lenin perceived in the relativism of Bogdanov, which was inseparably connected with the agnosticism of Mach and Avenarius, the danger of ‘Fideism’. The disciple of Bogdanov, Lunacharsky, who later returned to the bosom of orthodox Leninism and became a member of the first Bolshevik government, quite openly entertained the idea of founding a new religion of the worship of mankind. Such a religion appeared in Lenin’s eyes as a dangerous innovation. Why a new religion when the old religion of ‘Holy Matter’ was sufficient for all claims of revolutionary theory and practice? This religion was on the one hand dialectic and thus revolutionary, and on the other dogmatic and thus authoritarian. It was not relativist as it recognised an absolute, namely, eternal and undying Matter. Lenin knew that a political Church – and as such he regarded the Bolshevik Party – could only be founded on Authority. This highest Authority he saw in himself. But the corresponding metaphysic must also have a firmly rooted dogma as point of departure, namely, ‘Matter’.

One of Dostoyevsky’s characters, an officer given to brooding, finally flung out the question: ‘If there is no God, how can I be a Major?’ In similar manner Lenin feared that the removal of dogmatism in revolutionary metaphysics would lead to the destruction of his authority as Pope of the Party.


Notes are provided by the author and the MIA as noted.

1. VI Lenin, Selected Works in Twelve Volumes (Lawrence and Wishart, about 60/-) [Author’s note]. Volume 12 of the Selected Works contains Marxism and Empirio-Criticism, What the ‘Friends of the People’ Are and How They Fight the Social-Democrats, ‘Karl Marx’, ‘The Three Sources and Three Component Parts of Marxism’, ‘On the Question of Dialectics’, ‘On the Significance of Militant Materialism’ and various others of Lenin’s philosophical works – MIA.

2. Sic, the editor of the latter volumes is actually I Levin – MIA.

3. The first eight volumes of this series of Lenin’s Selected Works contained extensive explanatory notes; the ninth, which featured the explanatory preface cited above, and the following volumes contained no explanatory notes – MIA.

4. Cura posterior – a later concern – MIA.