Peter Fryer

Lenin as Philosopher

(September 1957)

From Labour Review, Vol. 2 No. 5, September–October 1957, pp. 136–147. [ PDF ]
Transcription/Markup by Martin Fahlgren in 2017 for the Marxists Internet Archive.

In the first issue of The New Reasoner there is a discussion article by E.P. Thompson called Socialist Humanism: An Epistle to the Philistines. One section of this article, entitled Questions of Theory [1], includes a reference to Lenin’s philosophical work Materialism and Empirio-Criticism. The author seeks to show that several of the features of Stalinist ideology have their roots in Lenin’s contribution to Marxist philosophy – that they can be traced to “ambiguities in the thought of Marx and, even more, to mechanistic fallacies in Lenin’s writings”, these “fallacies” being due to “his concern with the first premise of materialism.” Lenin is accused in particular of holding a “passive”, “automatic” theory of knowledge, of losing the concept of human agency in a “grotesque” “determinism”, of transforming the Marxist view of the relationship of freedom and necessity into a theory whereby man’s “‘freedom’ becomes slavery to ‘necessity’”, and of being so “absorbed in philosophical nuances” that he “removed the cause of social change from the agency of man to the agency of economic necessity.” Thompson’s attack is summarized in these words: “Lenin’s inspired political genius was not matched by an equal genius in the field of philosophy.”

In my opinion Thompson is here waging, under the cloak of correcting Lenin’s “mechanistic fallacies”, an all-out assault on the philosophy of dialectical materialism. It is an assault on the dialectical materialist theory of knowledge, on historical materialism, on the Marxist conception of human freedom and how it is won, and, not least, on the dialectical method. Many such assaults have been made in the past, and one of the first duties of Marxists is to meet them. This is not an academic question of preserving the purity of an immutable doctrine, but a class duty, for dialectical materialism is above all else a tool in the hands of the working class for use in refashioning society, and whoever blunts the keen edge of this tool, no matter how slightly, is doing a disservice to the working-class movement. The working class needs a consistently materialist world outlook because only such an outlook can show it what its historical tasks are and how it can perform them. The entire history of the fight for materialism against idealism demonstrates that the slightest concession to idealism, under whatever fashionable and novel guise it presents itself – positivism, pragmatism, empirio-criticism, or even socialist humanism – has its own fatal and compelling logic, which leads inevitably into the swamp of subjectivism and solipsism. Between the various shadings of idealism there are no impassable logical barriers: the only barrier is that between dialectical materialism and all other philosophical trends and schools, which in the last analysis serve the interests of exploiting classes by helping to justify, disguise and perpetuate their rule.

To E.P. Thompson, who has been waging a sturdy and admirable battle against Stalinism, these may sound “hard” and dogmatic things to say. But when we are discussing materialism and idealism and their irreconcilability, we are in the realm of basic principles, where the requirements of the class struggle impose the need for complete clarity, firmness, consistency and partisanship. It would be in the highest degree improper to transfer eclectically methods which often have an important place in the political struggle – concessions, detours, alliances – to the philosophical field, for fear of being accused of “dogmatism.” This would help neither the fight against Stalinism nor the fight against capitalism, both of which require the utmost firmness on principles and the utmost flexibility on other matters.

Besides that concern with the first and other premises of materialism which should animate every Marxist one further consideration has prompted the writing of this article. Not only must Marxist philosophy be defended from its revisers, but Lenin’s immense and extraordinary contribution to it must be defended and fully appreciated, for Lenin the man of action cannot be properly understood in separation from Lenin the philosopher. How far some of Thompson’s remarks spring from the fact that there is as yet no English edition of Lenin’s remarkable Philosophical Notebooks I do not know, but it is hard to see how he would have written in the way he did if he had been at all familiar with this fundamental work.

I. The Theory of Reflection

According to Thompson, the first fallacy in Lenin’s Materialism and Empirio-Criticism is “the repeated lumping together of ideas, consciousness, thought and sensations as ‘reflections’ of material reality.” He adds in parentheses: “But a sense-impression, which animals share with men, is not the same thing as an idea, which is the product of exceedingly complex cultural processes peculiar to men.”

It is important to understand that Thompson is here attacking not merely Lenin’s views, but those of Marx and Engels too. This, of course, does not in itself make Lenin right and Thompson wrong, but it must be made clear that Lenin’s theory of knowledge is no different from that of Marx and Engels, and that when Lenin writes that “mind is secondary, a function of the brain, a reflection of the external world” [2], he is not adopting some new terminology. [3]

Levels of Consciousness

Now Thompson, in the very act of accusing Lenin of “lumping together” ideas, consciousness, thought and sensations as reflections of material reality, himself loosely “lumps together” four disparate categories. Consciousness is a generic term for the relationship of animals (including men) with the external world that is brought about by the activity of the brain; it includes sensations, the elementary form of consciousness, perceptions (which Thompson unaccountably omits) – the fitting together of sensations into a complex but concrete representation of the complex relationships of complex objects – and ideas, which reproduce the properties and relations of things in abstraction, and which are, as Thompson says, specifically human. [4] Thought is the name we give to this higher form of consciousness, where ideas are produced and manipulated.

Thompson’s description of ideas as “the product of exceedingly complicated cultural processes” is over-simplified and misleading. In comparison with the activity of animals many specifically human processes are undoubtedly complex. But there are manifold levels of complexity in human cultural (and other) processes, and corresponding to these there are a great many levels of abstraction in ideas (and hence in language), from elementary ideas (and words) that directly reflect the relationship of the thinker with other men and with objects and that relate to concrete activities and things directly perceptible by the senses, through concepts of varying degrees of abstraction, reflecting activities and things not directly perceptible by the senses, and their properties and relations, right up to such highly abstract and often far-fetched, illusory, mystifying, fantastic and inverted reflections of men’s social relations as religious, philosophical and political concepts and their elaboration in ideologies. But neither the abstract nature of ideas nor the apparent remoteness from reality and “false consciousness” of ideological illusions make them any less reflections of material reality.

That ideas as well as sensations and perceptions are reflections of material reality is not a materialist dogma; though science has still much to find out about the brain all that it has found out so far serves to confirm the materialist theory of knowledge; and fresh proof is always being added. Anyone who wishes to show that ideas, as distinct from more elementary forms of consciousness, are not reflections of the objective universe, is not merely abandoning the materialist view of the relationship between object and subject; he is abandoning science. He is free to do so – but it is surely incumbent on him to explain in what sense ideas are not reflections of the objective world, how such ideas arise and what function they perform.

The Contradictory Nature of Concepts

Thompson’s confusion on the question of the relationship between the more advanced and the more elementary levels of consciousness tends in particular to blur one important aspect of their relationship, an aspect seemingly paradoxical but of great importance in understanding the nature of concepts and the genesis of philosophical idealism. At one and the same time concepts are closer to the objective reality they reflect and more remote from it than are sensations and perceptions. They are closer to objective reality because they reflect, with of course only approximate accuracy, the essential, internal relationships of phenomena, their laws of motion. Yet they are more remote because between nature and the abstract thought which reflects it there operates a series of mediations – language, technique, etc. – which, far from rendering concepts any less a reflection of reality, are indispensable for this reflection. These mediations express both the power of social practice and also its limitations, its relative lack of power at each given stage of social development. From this flows the dual, contradictory character of conceptual consciousness, in which are intermingled the true and the illusory, the scientific and the mystical, the known and the unknown (or rather yet to be known, and therefore guessed at, dreamed about), that which is tested and proved a million times a day and that which is fantastic and chimerical. Men’s power to change their world progressively crystallizes out and perfects the scientific element in their concepts; their relative helplessness on the other hand gives rise to the tendency of abstract ideas to fly away from reality and weave themselves into marvellous, internally consistent systems of myth and illusion, from which the real world and real relationships of men to nature and men to men are then deduced. This mediation of human consciousness implies that the subject can never fully embrace the object, that concepts can never give a full, total, direct reflection of reality, can never contain the whole richness of the properties, qualities, relations and contradictions of the objective world. Theory need never be exactly “grey”; but the most exact, splendid and exciting theory can never glow with the warmth, colour and immediacy of sensations and perceptions, whose content is the appearance, the phenomenon, not, as with concepts, the “calm reflection” [5]of the phenomenon in its essence, in its laws.

The contradiction within concepts themselves between the element of knowledge and the element of fantasy and illusion runs through the history of human thinking, and will do as long as class or caste preconceptions require the maintenance of systematic deception and self-deception of people. It is a contradiction which is continually being reinforced by the gap between the subjective reflection of reality in concepts and the objective reality they reflect. If concepts were anything other than reflections of reality then this seed of the conflict between materialism and idealism that has dominated and shaped the entire history of philosophy could neither have existed nor germinated.

Consciousness as Creator

The dialectical materialist view of the origin of ideas would indeed be mechanistic if it vouchsafed to ideas no active role in life. But dialectical materialism sharply opposes the view that ideas are a mere epiphenomenon, a useless froth on the surface of human activity, playing no more part in the direction of human affairs than the steam plays once it comes out of the locomotive funnel. When Thompson uses the words “passive” and “automatic” – “passive mirror-reflection of social reality”, “passive ‘reflection’”, “automatic ‘reflection’” – he is doing a grave injustice to the Leninist theory of knowledge, which places enormous stress on the active part played by ideas. [6]

Many quotations could be given to show that Lenin saw the process of the reflection of reality in the human brain, not as something “passive” and “automatic”, but as a complex, contradictory, zigzag, dynamic process, in which a capital part is played by human practice; in which the mind passes from the reflection of the appearance of things to the reflection of their essence, their inner laws of motion; and in which knowledge tested and corrected in practice becomes more accurate and more profound. I will confine myself to five quotations.

Knowledge is the process by which thought endlessly and eternally draws nearer to the object. The reflection of nature in human thought must be understood, not in a “dead”, “abstract” fashion, not without movement, WITHOUT CONTRADICTIONS, but in the eternal PROCESS of movement, of the birth and resolution of contradictions. [7]

In other words, consciousness is not a stereotype or mirror-image, but the dynamic reflection of a dynamic universe, which, if it were not reflected, would not be knowable. The dialectic of knowledge is

an endless process of the deepening of men’s knowledge of things, phenomena, processes, etc., proceeding from appearance to essence and from essence less profound to essence more profound. [8]

When the (human) intelligence grapples with a particular thing, draws from it an image (= a concept), that is not a simple, direct, dead act, it is not a reflection in a mirror, but a complex, twofold, zigzag act ... [9]

Knowledge is the reflection of nature by man. But it is not a simple, direct, total reflection; this process consists of a whole series of abstractions, formulations, formations of concepts, of laws, etc. – and these concepts, laws, etc. ... embrace relatively, approximately, the universal laws of an eternally moving and developing nature. Here there are really, objectively, three terms: (1) nature; (2) man’s knowledge = man’s brain (as the highest product of nature) and (3) the form in which nature is reflected in human knowledge; this form is the concepts, laws, categories, etc. Man cannot seize = reflect = reproduce nature in its entirety, in its “direct totality”: all he can do is eternally draw closer to it by creating abstractions, concepts, laws, a scientific picture of the universe, etc., etc. [10]

And lastly – and least “mechanistic”, “passive” and “automatic” of all! – “Human consciousness not only reflects the objective world but also creates it.” [11] From Lenin the author of “mechanistic fallacies” this may sound startling; but from the point of view of dialectical materialism it is as little an “idealist fallacy” as Lenin’s insistence on the secondary and derivative nature of ideas is a “mechanistic fallacy”. There is no contradiction here. Lenin is calling attention to the part played by human practice in the development of knowledge – and by knowledge in the development of human practice.

Practice and Knowledge

Social practice – production, experiment, industry, class struggle – is both the source and the criterion of knowledge. There is, according to Marxists, a sequence something like this. On the basis of their social practice, their immediate, direct experience in changing parts of material reality (and so changing themselves) men elaborate ideas, partly a true and accurate reflection of reality, partly a false and inaccurate or distorted reflection of it. On the basis of these ideas men then improve their practical activity, so testing and correcting their ideas, and sifting out truth from error, knowledge from illusion. This improved practice gives rise to further ideas, which approximate more closely to objective reality, to the essence of things – which are, in a word, more scientific. This is a never-ending process, in which consciousness develops through acting on the universe which gave rise to it, hence through changing the universe, hence in a sense through creating the universe.

It is social practice which enables men to pass from sensations and perceptions to ideas, since only our activity in changing material reality makes it possible for us to gain knowledge of it, to dig below the superficial aspect of things to their essence. It is ideas, thought, knowledge, which permit men so to shape and organize their practical activities as to change material reality more successfully and more fruitfully.

The word “reflection”, as used by Lenin of human consciousness, signifies active reflection, penetrating through social practice deeper and deeper into the inexhaustible vastness and richness of reality, and offering to thinking men the possibility of bringing reality more and more (but never completely) under their conscious control.

It might be asked why such a theory is called by Marxists the “theory of reflection”, since this terminology gives critics the opportunity to talk about “passive” and “automatic” “mirror-images”, about “the passive connotation sometimes attached by [Marx and Engels] to the concept of ‘reflection’.”

First, the word “reflection” is the proper word because it draws attention to the most essential aspect of consciousness. Without an object to reflect there could be no reflection. Without a material universe there could be no consciousness.

Secondly, understood dialectically, the word “reflection” as applied to consciousness signifies the specific form that the universal interaction and mutual dependence and determination of phenomena take in the case of organisms with a nervous system. Marxists mean by reflection in general not merely a subjective process in human consciousness, but first of all the unity and interdependence of every aspect of the infinite universe with every other aspect, the reciprocal interaction of everything with everything else. Every particle of matter is connected with the rest of the universe in manifold ways, at different levels of organization of matter, and reflects by its different forms of motion – mechanical, physical, chemical, etc. – and by its obedience to the laws of these different forms the whole of the universe which environs, conditions and determines it. With the transition to living matter, this property of “reflection” takes qualitatively new forms, connected with the relationship of the living organism with its surroundings: new forms, which nevertheless continue on a higher plane, on the plane of consciousness, this universal interaction and interdependence. Where Lenin uses the word reflection he is using it in its deeper, dialectical sense.

II. Social Being and Social Consciousness

Thompson finds that “Lenin slipped over from Marx’s observation ‘social being determines social consciousness’ to the quite different (and untrue) statement that ‘social consciousness reflects social being’.” The use of the term “reflection” as an “observation upon the way in which men’s ideas have been determined by their ‘social being’ in their history” does not, he says, “follow from the first premise” – i.e., that “sense-impressions ‘reflect’ external material reality which exists independently of human consciousness.” “Because a sense-impression may be described (metaphorically) as a ‘reflection’ of material reality, it by no means follows that human culture is a passive mirror-reflection of social reality.” [12] Thompson suggests that Marx and Engels “tended ... to enquire very little into the problem of how men’s ideas were formed, and wherein lay their field of agency.” [13]

This is rather confused. To begin with, Thompson seems far from sure whether he is criticizing Marx or attempting to play off “partially true” Marx against “untrue” Lenin. It must be said that the latter is not a very fruitful undertaking. The suggestion that Lenin “slipped over” from an observation of Marx’s – “social being determines social consciousness” (the actual quotation is: “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness” [14]) – to the “quite different” and “untrue” observation of his own, that “social consciousness reflects social being” is demolished instantly when we pick up the book from which Marx’s observation is taken and read a little further. Soon we find Marx writing about the “ideological forms in which men become conscious of [the] conflict [between forces of production and relations of production] and fight it out.” We cannot, Marx adds, judge of a period of social transformation by its own consciousness; “on the contrary, this consciousness must be explained rather from the contradictions of material life.” [15]

Again, because Marx and Engels held the same opinion, and employed the same method of studying history, as Lenin, does not imply that they and Lenin were necessarily right and Thompson is necessarily wrong – but that Lenin “slipped over” in good company.

Marxism and Culture

While historical materialism views social consciousness as the reflection of social being, it should be pointed out that no Marxist has ever suggested that human culture is “a passive mirror-reflection of social reality.” This is a caricature of Marxism. It is perfectly true that in a letter to Mehring in 1893 Engels made clear that he and Marx had been bound to lay the main emphasis on the derivation of ideology from basic economic facts and that in doing so “we neglected the formal side – the way in which these notions come about – for the sake of the content.” [16] But this is something quite different from their having suggested that art and literature passively mirrored social reality. On the contrary, Marx went out of his way to stress “the unequal relation between the development of material production and art”:

It is well known that certain periods of highest development of art stand in no direct connexion with the general development of society, nor with the material basis and the skeleton structure of its organization. [17]

Marx, Engels and Lenin did indeed see human culture as a reflection of material reality, but as a reflection in the dialectical sense, not as a direct, immediate, mechanical, automatic, passive reflection. Certainly Lenin wrote an article called Leo Tolstoy as a Mirror of the Russian Revolution – but almost every line is a refutation of the “mechanical” and “passive” view of artistic reflection and a striking affirmation of its profoundly contradictory nature.

Can you use the term mirror of something which obviously does not reflect phenomena correctly? ... If it is a really great artist we have before us, his works are bound to have reflected at least some of the essential aspects of the revolution .... The contradictions in Tolstoy’s works, views, teachings and school are glaring indeed .... On the one hand we have the brilliant artist who has produced not only incomparable pictures of Russian life but also first-class works of world literature. On the other hand we have a country squire acting the fool in Christ .... On the one hand we have a ruthless criticism of capitalist exploitation ... on the other hand we have the fanatical preaching of “non-resistance to evil” .... The contradictions in Tolstoy’s views are really the mirror of those contradictory conditions in which the historical activity of the peasantry was placed in our revolution. [18]

To Marxists there is in fact a constant and complex interaction among all the elements of the ideological superstructure, and, not least important, a constant and often extremely powerful reaction of men’s ideas on the social and economic causes which give rise to them. The suggestion that because Marxists deny any independent historical development to ideological spheres they therefore deny them any effect on history was described by Engels as “fatuous”. [19] He attributed this idea to a lack of understanding of dialectics, to a metaphysical conception of cause and effect as rigidly opposite poles, to a “total disregarding of interaction.” It is equally fatuous to suggest that Marxists believe that works of art are no more than a reflection of economic needs and processes. If so they would surely have a higher regard – to take one obvious example – for Zola, the Left-wing writer, who believed that a good novel could be written by the methods of a journalist, who consciously carried realism to the point of naturalism, to the point of “the direct, mechanical mirroring of the humdrum reality of capitalism” [20], than for Balzac, the royalist, the legitimist, the reactionary. And Lenin would surely have had a higher regard, say, for Mayakovsky than for Pushkin. Marxism would indeed be an impoverished and sterile dogma if it had no more understanding of the process of artistic creation than Thompson gives it credit for.

The Illusions of the Epoch

Thompson’s denial that social consciousness reflects social being prompts immediately the questions: what does social consciousness reflect if it does not reflect social being? What is the content of social consciousness, whence is it derived, what part does it play in life, if it is not essentially the expression in ideas of the social practice carried on by men in a given set of social relations? Or has the mind of the ideologist, the philosopher, theologian, legal theorist or artist, some special spring from which flow rich and wonderful ideas that do not reflect some real aspect of the objective world? Are ideologies spun out of ideologists’ heads? If so, how? And how is their peculiar character to be explained?

Thompson makes no attempt to answer these questions. Yet he does not hesitate to bring grist to the mill of all the many opponents of Marx and Lenin who oversimplify or vulgarize their views when he suggests that Lenin deduced the reflection of social being in social consciousness from the physiological fact that consciousness reflects being. Marxists have in fact made this generalization – the only consistently materialist generalization about the origin of ideologies – from a detailed, concrete study of social consciousness as it has evolved at widely different periods of history. If Marx’s and Lenin’s own writings are studied it will be seen that there are no “ambiguities” in the thought of the one, or “mechanical fallacies” in that of the other, on this question.

An examination of the history of human thinking shows that social practice, as determined by each specific set of social relations, is reflected in ideologies, not consciously, deliberately and accurately but spontaneously and often in an inverted fashion. Spontaneously, because ideological illusions constantly and irresistibly well up in men’s minds out of the soil of their social relations. The ideologist seems to himself to be operating with “pure” concepts; very often (and this is the more frequent, the more remote a particular ideological sphere is from the economic structure of society) the thought material with which he works contains little that is new, but is largely traditional material taken over from his predecessors; it is because its connexion with the real relationships in his own or earlier societies is unknown to the thinker that we speak of his “false consciousness.” We do not thereby reproach him. He does not, generally speaking, set out to build a system of false ideas with which to deceive the exploited masses – or where he does he himself is just as profoundly deluded by fundamental preconceptions of whose real roots he has no inkling. Each generation of thinkers finds in existence a set of production relations without which society could not exist, which are independent of the will of the men who make up that society and of the ideas in the minds of the thinkers. These relations appear, not as historically determined and transitory, but as eternal and immutable. And again and again they colour the thought of the philosopher or artist, however original and brilliant he may be, stamp his work indelibly with the peculiar flavour of an epoch, seep into the remotest and most fantastic channels of thought. The characteristic illusions of each epoch [21] are at bottom the refraction of the social relations of that epoch through the prism of the ideologist’s mind.

In this process of refraction reality is inverted. Men fancy that they have created their social relations in the image of their abstract ideas, and that their actions, institutions and conflicts are the practical expression of these abstract ideas. Social being seems to be the reflection of social consciousness. The harsh facts of class exploitation and class domination are disguised and sweetened by a vast body of illusory ideas which portray the existing state of affairs as just, heaven-decreed and permanent.

If it is “untrue” that social consciousness reflects social being, then a long series of the most dramatic instances of correspondence between the development of ideology and the development of social relations is crying out for interpretation, explanation and analysis. To work, Comrade Thompson! Let us have your explanation of the philosophy of Heracleitus of Ephesus if it is not in essence the ideological reflection of new-born commodity production. Let us have your interpretation of the divine hierarchy of Thomas Aquinas, if it is not ultimately the reflection of the feudal hierarchy of his time. What is the mechanical materialist view of the world as a collection of discrete material particles interacting according to the laws of mechanics if it is not essentially a reflection of the need of the rising bourgeoisie for the smashing of feudal ties and the development of a free market? How are the materialism and humanism of Spinoza to be understood if not as the most logical and most profound expression of the interests of the revolutionary bourgeoisie of Europe’s most advanced capitalist country in its struggle against feudal superstition and obscurantism – so logical and profound that the class for whom he spoke repudiated him? What was the basic content of Puritanism if not a reflection of a conflict in contemporary society in the minds of the revolutionary bourgeoisie of England?

Did Lenin Neglect Human Agency?

But historical materialism does not stop there. It seeks to show, in each specific case, how these ideological reflections are functionally involved in the further development of the social structure which gave rise to them, often determining to a very great extent the form of a particular social transformation and the speed with which it takes place.

Thompson accuses Marx and Engels of tending to neglect the problem of the field of agency of men’s ideas, and he implies that Lenin neglected it still more. This is a truly amazing charge. What on earth is What Is To Be Done? about if it is not a polemic against those who bowed to the spontaneity of the Labour movement and belittled the role of socialist ideas? Lenin took up arms precisely against those who said that the spontaneous movement of the workers gives rise to socialist ideology. On the contrary, he said, socialist consciousness must be brought to the working class from outside. “Without a revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement.” [22] If Lenin “lost” the concept of human agency and underestimated the role of human consciousness why did he spend his entire life building and educating a revolutionary party instead of sitting back and letting the revolution make itself? Perhaps Thompson is referring to some other Lenin: perhaps the Lenin he attacks for “slipping” into the “fallacy” that “a passive ‘reflection’ [can] initiate, plan, make revolutions” was a harmless fellow “absorbed in philosophical nuances” and no relation to the man who spent thirty eventful years disproving in practice his namesake’s alleged “fallacies.”

A Case of Quotation-Carving

In order to make some semblance of a case against Lenin, Thompson is not always careful in his use of quotations. In one passage in particular he not only quotes from Lenin’s summary of an argument of Engels without making clear that the thought is Engels’; he follows this by carving up a quotation from Materialism and Empirio-Criticism in such a way as to omit words which specifically take into account and answer the very objection which Thompson raises! Here is the passage from Thompson in full (a) in order to be fair to Thompson and (b) in order to demonstrate his technique of quotation-carving:

(4) From this [i.e., from the statement that “social consciousness reflects social being”], he slipped over to the grotesque conclusion that “social being is independent of the social consciousness of humanity.” (How can conscious human beings, whose consciousness is employed in every act of labour, exist independently of their consciousness?) (5) From this it was a small step to envisaging consciousness as a clumsy process of adaptation to independently-existing “social being.” “The necessity of nature is primary, and human will and mind secondary. The latter must necessarily and inevitably adapt themselves to the former.” (S.W. 11, p. 248). “The highest task of humanity is to comprehend the objective logic of economic evolution ... so that it may be possible to adapt to it one’s social consciousness ... in as definite, clear and critical a fashion as possible”. (p. 376)

Two quotations, two examples of carving. The first quotation (S.W. 11, p. 248) is from a passage in Materialism and Empirio-Criticism where Lenin is summarizing an argument in Anti-Dühring and explaining its epistemological premises, and doing so quite fairly. The words immediately following the quotation chosen by Thompson are: “Engels regards this as so obvious that he does not waste words explaining his view.” [23] Here is one of the “grotesque”, “mechanical”, “clumsy”, “emotive” fallacies that Lenin “slipped over” into – yet we find that, after all, it is only a paraphrase of something that Engels regarded as a commonplace of the materialist world outlook.

The second quotation, which Thompson splits into two without making clear he is doing so, leads him to ask a question, which I have emphasized above. Now here is the full passage from Lenin, with the words omitted by Thompson restored and emphasized:

Every individual producer in the world economic system realizes that he is introducing a certain change into the technique of production; every owner realizes that he exchanges certain products for others; but these producers and these owners do not realize that in doing so they are thereby changing social being. The sum-total of these changes in all their ramifications in the capitalist world economy could not be grasped even by seventy Marxes. The paramount thing is that the laws of these changes have been discovered, that the objective logic of these changes and their historical development have at bottom and in the main been disclosed – objective, not in the sense that a society of conscious beings, men, could exist and develop independently of the existence of conscious beings (and it is only such trifles that Bogdanov stresses by his “theory”) but in the sense that social being is independent of the social consciousness of men. The fact that you live and conduct business, beget children, produce products and exchange them, gives rise to an objectively necessary chain of events, a chain of development, which is independent of your social consciousness, and is never grasped by the latter completely. The highest task of humanity is to comprehend this objective logic of economic evolution (the evolution of social life) in its general and fundamental features, so that it may be possible to adapt to it one’s social consciousness and the consciousness of the advanced classes of all capitalist countries in as definite, clear and critical a fashion as possible. [24]

Note how Thompson’s question is answered in the words he himself omits. Note how Lenin makes it absolutely clear that he is not talking about the crude idea, the “trifle”, that “a society of conscious beings, men, could exist and develop independently of the existence of conscious beings”, that “conscious human beings, whose consciousness is employed in every act of labour [could] exist independently of their consciousness” – which is the way Thompson picks up and brandishes this “trifle”, for all the world as if Lenin had never mentioned it.

If Lenin’s philosophical writings have to be mutilated and tampered with in this way before his lack of philosophical genius and his “fallacies” can be demonstrated, may this not indicate that the “fallacies” exist only in the imagination of the critic? No one would wish to suggest that Thompson has deliberately falsified what Lenin wrote – but he seems to have reread a difficult text in haste in order to find confirmation in isolated sentences of his impression that this text contains the seeds of Stalinism. This impression has no real foundation, as Thompson himself would, one hopes, admit if he were to read Materialism and Empirio-Criticism and the Philosophical Notebooks with the care they deserve.

The example Lenin gives here is one of great interest and dialectical beauty. Of course, he is saying, the men who produce and exchange are conscious. No one but a fool (or a “trifler”) would carry on the argument at that level. But they are conscious only of the appearance of the activities they are engaged in. The essence, the objective laws which govern the ultimate results of their productive and commercial efforts are hidden from them (precisely because human consciousness does not give an immediate mirror-reflection of reality!) and can only be brought to light through scientific research. It was this scientific research which Marx carried out in Capital . Here, through the “force of abstraction”, the essential laws of capitalist economy are revealed, the transition from appearance to essence, from phenomenon to law, is accomplished, and human consciousness is deepened, enriched and made more scientific as a result. No one but a fool or a “trifler” would suggest that men are anything but conscious of the appearance of their economic activities; no one but a fool or a “trifler” would suggest that, before science has probed below the surface, they are anything but unconscious – or at best conscious in the most rudimentary and sketchy way – of the essential “social being” (value, surplus value, etc.) which exists independently of this limited consciousness. Whoever has not grasped the importance of this transition “from appearance to essence and from essence less profound to essence more profound” [25] has not begun to appreciate the richness, complexity and scientific value of dialectical methodology – and is destined to be misled again and again by impressionism.

III. Necessity and Freedom

The core of Thompson’s attack on dialectical materialism is his attack on the Marxist conception of human freedom and how it is won. Once again, there is the attempt to separate Lenin’s views from those of Marx and Engels. Marx is talking “common sense”; Lenin “slips” into “mystique”:

Marx’s common-sense view that man’s freedom is enlarged by each enlargement of knowledge (“Freedom ... consists in the control over ourselves and over external nature which is founded on knowledge of natural necessity.” Engels) is transformed into the mystique of man’s freedom consisting in his recognizing and serving “the objective logic of economic evolution”: his “freedom” becomes slavery to “necessity”.

One or two preliminary points. First, we have already shown that one of the quotations from Lenin on which Thompson relies is in fact a paraphrase of Engels. But Engels “slipped” a good deal, it seems. For, secondly, here is a bit more of the quotation from Anti-Dühring, only the concluding sentence of which is given in parentheses by Thompson:

Freedom does not consist in the dream of independence from natural laws, but in the knowledge of these laws, and in the possibility this gives of systematically making them work towards definite ends. This holds good in relation both to the laws of external nature and to those which govern the bodily and mental existence of men themselves – two classes of laws which we can separate from each other at most only in thought but not in reality. Freedom of the will therefore means nothing but the capacity to make decisions with knowledge of the subject. Therefore the freer a man’s judgment is in relation to a definite question, the greater is the necessity with which the content of this judgment will be determined. [26]

Ponder that last sentence, Comrade Thompson. Here is “common-sense” Engels calling us “slaves to necessity”!

And thirdly, in the phrase “his ‘freedom’ becomes slavery to ‘necessity’”, Thompson himself “slips”, alas, into the most blatant anthropomorphic superstition. His choice of words betrays the image in his mind: of human beings “enslaved” to natural laws as if to laws of governments, and pining to be “free” of them. To Thompson the path to freedom, it would appear, lies through ending this “slavery”: to Marxists the path to freedom lies through acknowledging the existence of objective laws, getting to know as much as possible about them, and adapting social practice accordingly. No amount of ... “emotive” talk about “slavery” can alter Comrade Thompson’s own dependence on, and the determination of his activities by, a range of objective laws: mechanical, physical, chemical, biological, physiological, social, etc. In practice he is bound by these laws twenty-four hours a day; he calls this “slavery.” Well, let us be frank: Marxism does not admit the possibility of leaping outside the sphere of action of objective laws, of violating them or becoming “free” from them. To Marxists such “freedom” is neither possible nor has it meaning. Yet Marxism alone shows the way to the achievement of real human freedom. Let us try to see why.


The category of necessity is closely bound up with those of essence and law. “Law”, says Lenin, “is the reflection of the essential in the movement of the universe.” [27] The law of a process of natural or social development states approximately the objective regularities, essential relationships and necessary connexions in that process. Scientific laws sum up more or less precisely the causal processes operating in events, tell us what characteristics a particular phenomenon is bound to manifest by its very nature and express the inevitability of its development in a particular way under particular conditions. The materialist recognition of the objectivity of being and its laws is, not yet freedom, but the requisite for all real freedom.

It is of course perfectly true that men act with conscious aims and intentions. But no attempt to explain human history in terms of the conscious aims and intentions, wills and desires of men will advance our understanding very far. Man’s aims clash, and something happens which no one had intended, desired or foreseen. Therefore any scientific understanding of social development has to start from the “inner general laws” [28] which ultimately govern both the development of human society and the aims and intentions, ideas and theories, in people’s heads.

People make their own history. But what determines the motives of people, of the mass of people, that is: what gives rise to the clash of conflicting ideas and strivings; what is the sum-total of all these clashes of the whole mass of human societies, what are the objective conditions of production of material life that form the basis of all historical activity of man; what is the law of development of these conditions – to all this Marx drew attention and pointed out the way to a scientific study of history as a uniform and law-governed process in all its immense variety and contradictoriness. [29]

To be free is not to violate the laws of nature and society, which is not possible. Men are no more the miracle-workers that idealists make them out to be (when they hold that freedom is really independence of the human will in relation to the laws of nature and society, or when they deny that there are any objective laws) than they are the puppets or robots that the mechanistic materialists take them for (when they hold that necessity is quite outside the reach of social practice, that human consciousness cannot take account of it and utilize it, that man is in effect a prisoner of objective laws).

To be free, according to dialectical materialism, is to act in accordance with objective laws. Every step forward in the knowledge of these laws is potentially a step forward in the conquest of freedom. Just as men enlarge their freedom in proportion to their knowledge of, and therefore their power over, nature, so men also enlarge their freedom in proportion to their knowledge of, and therefore their power over, their social life, as they foresee more and more precisely the effects of their social activity instead of being at the mercy of laws which, “blind” and unreckoned with, lead to economic crises. To the extent that men plan their actions with knowledge of the factors involved, they are in a position to win real freedom.

The supreme example is the working-class struggle for socialism. Is the working class helped by ignorance of economic laws? Is it not rather by acquiring knowledge of its real situation that it becomes capable of revolutionizing society and so winning freedom, since by its very class position it is in itself objectively the dissolution of capitalist society? [30] Is it, in other words, such a terrible thing to tell the working class that its highest responsibility is to adapt its consciousness to the objective realities of economic development “in as definite, clear and critical fashion as possible”? [31] – to equip itself, that is to say, with knowledge of the history and workings of the capitalist system and its own tasks in the struggle for that system’s overthrow? A strange kind of humanism which, at the same time as it stresses the importance of human consciousness, turns its back on this fundamental requirement of any successful working class struggle: that it should be consciously based on knowledge of the realities of society, on the laws of social change. A strange kind of humanism which would disarm the working class by advising it not to acquire such knowledge.

Lenin points to the road to freedom for the workers. Enrich your consciousness, he says, with as accurate knowledge as possible of the laws of social development. Don’t listen to him, cries Comrade Thompson; he wants you to adapt yourselves clumsily to “economic stimuli”; he is absorbed in philosophical nuances ...

Lenin knows full well that the level of consciousness of the working class does not depend automatically on its class position. He knows that the ideological superstructure of bourgeois society fosters all kinds of illusions to sap the workers’ confidence in their strength, to make them think they cannot do very much to improve things, to make them support the capitalist system. He knows that socialist theory depends on knowledge of the essence of capitalism, not its appearance, and that this profound knowledge can only be brought to the working class from outside, by Marxists. Therefore he calls on communists to seek to “adapt” the “consciousness of the advanced classes” to the facts of historical development, i.e., to teach them, to educate them, to persuade them to “adapt” their consciousness to ... the truth. “Such a pattern might be built within an electronic brain,” complains Comrade Thompson, professing, in the best tradition of English empiricism, his outrage at such a grotesque, mechanical fallacy, at such absorption in philosophical nuances ...


To gain knowledge about things it is not enough to sit and contemplate them. We have to put them in the service of man, submit them to his needs and aims, work on them, change them. We get to know the laws of nature and society, not by divine inspiration, but by acting on them. And our knowledge of necessity, derived from our practical activity, applied, tested and made more accurate in further practical activity, is the indispensable premise and pre-condition of human freedom.

Of itself, knowledge of necessity is not enough automatically to confer freedom on us, as Thompson at one point seems to think (“Marx’s common-sense view that man’s freedom is enlarged by each enlargement of knowledge”). It is as yet only the theoretical expression of our relationship to necessity. When, however, we enter into practical relationships with necessity, when we utilize our knowledge in human practical activity, we win freedom thereby.

Until we know a law of nature, it, existing and acting independently and outside our mind, makes us slaves of “blind necessity.” But once we come to know this law, which acts (as Marx pointed out a thousand times) independently of our will and our mind, we become the masters of nature. The mastery of nature manifested in human practice is a result of an objectively correct reflection within the human head of the phenomena and processes of nature, and is proof of the fact that this reflection (within the limits of what is revealed by practice) is objective, absolute and eternal truth. [32]

Freedom is thus men’s power to satisfy their needs and achieve their aims, based on knowledge of what their needs and aims are and how they can be satisfied and achieved. Men are unfree to the extent that they are ignorant of and therefore unable to control the factors which affect the satisfaction of their needs and the fulfilment of their aims. They are free to the extent that they know what these factors are and therefore in practice consciously control them.

Freedom is a specifically human attribute, which is won by men as social beings. In primitive times men faced natural forces blindly, and were therefore at the mercy of nature. They achieved freedom gradually in struggle, winning knowledge of necessity scrap by scrap and applying that knowledge in further struggle to win more knowledge, freedom and material progress.

Throughout class society men have faced their social relations rather as early man faced natural forces. For the most part social forces have appeared to be completely outside human control, and great social events, wars and revolutions and the collapse of empires, have presented themselves as catastrophes no less terrible and uncontrollable than natural calamities. Despite the tremendous increase in knowledge of natural laws in the past hundred years, bourgeois science has now for the most part despaired of foreseeing, explaining or controlling the wars and crises which periodically shake capitalist society to its foundations.

Again, men’s progressive mastery over nature has been of only limited benefit to the masses of the people, because of their lack of social freedom. As long as society is dominated by successive exploiting classes it is possible neither to put forward in its full complexity nor to solve the problem of men’s relationship with nature. An obsolete social system is hampering the proper application of human scientific and technical knowledge, utilizing advanced productive forces for profit and destruction and standing in the way of progress. The road to freedom lies through the overthrow of this system. It is the historical task of the working class, armed with the scientific knowledge of its real situation and tasks which is provided by Marxism, to end the social relations of capitalism which are acting as a fetter on the free development of the productive forces and as a barrier to their utilization for the free satisfaction of human needs. By carrying through the socialist revolution, establishing the dictatorship of the proletariat, building a socialist society and going forward to communism the working class wins social freedom – men’s complete mastery over their own social organization – and makes possible gigantic strides forward in their conscious mastery over nature.

Thus, far from eliminating man and his activity, dialectical materialism shows how human society is necessarily developing; why men act as they do and think as they do; how freedom can be won; and which is the social force which, properly organized, equipped ideologically and led, can win it, so advancing the whole of humanity “from the kingdom of necessity to the kingdom of freedom.” [33]

IV. The Dialectical Method

In his reference to Lenin Thompson does not employ the word “dialectic.” (Elsewhere he puts it in inverted commas, in a context where the meaning is equivocal, but where he seems to be equating dialectics with “soul.”) His attack on the dialectical method is never made explicit: but it is implicit in his whole attack on Lenin as philosopher. The theory of knowledge he opposes is a dialectical theory. The theory of ideologies he opposes is a dialectical theory. The theory of freedom he opposes is a dialectical theory. And since Lenin’s outstanding contribution to philosophy was in the field of the dialectical method, Thompson’s disparaging reference to “philosophical nuances” can scarcely be interpreted as anything but a reproach to Lenin for his “absorption” in dialectics . To Lenin, dialectics was “the valuable fruit of the idealist systems ... that pearl which those farmyard cocks, the Buchners, the Dührings and Co. (as well as Leclair, Mach, Avenarius and so forth), could not pick out from the dungheap of absolute idealism.” [34] Comrade Thompson, alas, does not recognize pearls when he sees them. But Lenin regarded dialectics as indispensable for the working-class movement if it was to understand and make use of the contradictions of capitalist society. It is not accidental that Lenin’s central philosophical study was a long, almost page-by-page commentary on Hegel’s Science of Logic, in which the method which Hegel enveloped in idealism is set right side up, worked through and digested from a materialist standpoint and revealed in all its intricacy, suppleness and above all precision, as the only method by which human thinking can fathom the complexity and many-sidedness of the eternal process of becoming.

It is not accidental that Lenin plunged into this study of Hegel in the autumn of 1914, at the very moment when the contradictions of capitalist society had come suddenly and explosively to the surface (and when the Second International had collapsed in opportunism and betrayal). Almost isolated in his opposition to the imperialist war, Lenin sought in the “philosophical nuances” of Hegel the method by which events could be judged, not from their superficial aspects, but from their essential contradictions, leaps in development, revolutions, negations, transitions beyond the limit, transformations into the opposite. Lenin found in Hegel, understood materialistically, adequate philosophical justification for his judgment, to be so strikingly confirmed three years later, that the conditions for proletarian revolution had matured.

These notes on Hegel reveal, in a way that none other of Lenin’s works reveals, the innermost workings of his mind as he chews over the thought of a profound and difficult thinker and extracts the vital juices.

The compass of the present article will not allow more than a sketchy and inadequate reference to the heart of the Philosophical Notebooks: the concept of contradiction. In the fight against Stalinism this concept, as elaborated by Lenin, has threefold importance. Stalin’s well-known booklet Dialectical and Historical Materialism has more fundamental, and more serious, philosophical flaws than those Thompson discusses in his article (since Thompson concentrates on the section on historical materialism) and it needs, strangely enough, an acquaintance with Lenin’s “philosophical nuances” to understand and expose them. First, the section on the dialectical method stresses the struggle of opposites, but ignores their identity. This is of particular importance in considering the categories of dialectical logic which, despite their basic epistemological importance, are ignored by Stalin: this is the booklet’s second flaw. [35] And thirdly, there is no mention in it of the negation of negation, possibly because it might have been felt in 1938 to have awkward political implications (Zhdanov even invented in 1947 a new dialectical law, presumably to replace it – the “law” of criticism and self-criticism). [36] The conception of contradiction set forth in the Philosophical Notebooks shows how essential to a proper understanding of the dialectical method are these three aspects of that method neglected by Stalin.

Identity of Opposites

To Lenin dialectics was “the theory which shows how opposites can be and habitually are (and become) identical – under what conditions they transform themselves into each other and become identical – why the human mind should not take these opposites as dead and rigid, but as living, conditional, mobile, changing into each other.” [37] Applied subjectively, this suppleness, flexibility, elasticity of dialectical thinking became eclecticism and sophistry; applied objectively, i.e., reflecting the universality and unity of the material process of becoming, it was the precise, dialectical reflection of the eternal development of the universe. [38] The identity of opposites was “the recognition (discovery) of the contradictory, mutually exclusive, opposite tendencies in all phenomena and processes of nature (including mind and society).” [39] This side of dialectics, Lenin pointed out, usually received inadequate attention: the identity of opposites was not a sum-total of examples but a law of knowledge and of the objective world. [40]

The identity of opposites is of course an abstraction, and an abstraction of an exceedingly high level: one of the most general laws of universal becoming. The word “identity” is here used not in the ordinary sense, but in a special, philosophical sense, which includes the notions of unity (or inseparability) in a single process, mutual penetration, mutual dependence, transformation of each into the other. The identity of opposites implies that the existence and development of each opposite is the condition for the existence and development of the other; that under certain conditions every property or aspect turns into its opposite; and that in the case of the categories both contradictory aspects are interwoven throughout the universe at every level of motion of matter. Lenin saw the identity of opposites as conditional, transitory and relative, the struggle of opposites as absolute, in the sense that development and motion were absolute. Development was the struggle of opposites; this conception of development furnished the key to the self-movement of everything in existence, to the leaps, breaks in continuity and transformations into the opposite, to the destruction of the old and emergence of the new.

The Categories of Dialectical Logic

There is before man a network of natural phenomena. The savage does not separate himself from nature. Conscious man does separate himself from it, and the categories are the degrees of this separation, i.e., of man’s knowledge of the universe. They are nodal points in the network, which enable him to know it and assimilate it. [41]

Thus does Lenin show that these most abstract of concepts, the categories of dialectical logic (i.e., of the dialectical materialist theory of knowledge) are derived from and linked with the whole of the concrete, material universe. Shamefully neglected by Stalinism, ostensibly because of their “difficulty” but in reality because they expose the wooden schematism of Stalin’s famous exegesis, the categories are indispensable for any genuine dialectical thought, investigation and research. We cannot think properly and precisely, we cannot grapple with changing reality, without them. And it was Lenin who more than any other Marxist developed this fundamental aspect of the dialectical method, and who left us indications drawn from his own experience as a student on the method of studying it in a way that discloses the elements of all the dialectical categories already present in any proposition or phenomenon.

To begin with the simplest, most ordinary, common, etc., with any proposition: the leaves of a tree are green; John is a man; Fido is a dog, etc. Here already we have dialectics ... the particular is the general ... Consequently, the opposites (the particular as opposed to the general) are identical: the particular exists only in the connexion that leads to the general. The general exists only in the particular and through the particular. Every particular is (in one way or another) a general. Every general is (a fragment, or a side, or the essence of) a particular. Every general only approximately comprises all the particular objects. Every particular enters into the general incompletely, etc., etc. Every particular is connected by thousands of transitions with other kinds of particulars (things, phenomena, processes), etc. Here already we have the elements, the germs, the concepts of necessity, of objective connexion in nature, etc. Here already we have the contingent and the necessary, the appearance and the essence; for when we say: John is a man, Fido is a dog, this is a leaf of a tree, etc., we disregard a number of attributes as CONTINGENT; we separate the essence from the appearance, and juxtapose the one to the other.

Thus in any given proposition we can (and must) disclose as in a “nucleus” (“cell”) the germs of all the elements of dialectics, and thereby show that dialectics is a property of all human knowledge in general. [42]

Of all the categories Lenin seems to have considered as most important, richest and most fruitful those of appearance and essence (with which are closely connected those of phenomenon and law). The identity and struggle of appearance and essence as two aspects (or “moments”) of material reality takes us at once right to the heart of the dialectical method, as a method of thinking about processes in a way that will give us more, and more precise, knowledge of their inner relationships and laws. The appearance at one and the same time hides the essence and reveals it, for “the appearance is the essence in one of its determinations, in one of its aspects, in one of its moments”. [43]

This thought is clear when we ponder over it a little. In analyzing any phenomenon we pass from superficial, perceptual knowledge, knowledge of its appearance, to knowledge of its essence; this in turn becomes for us an appearance which both hides and reveals a still deeper essence. Often the solution of a political or organizational problem – e.g., the analysis of a situation, the elaboration of a policy, the concentration of forces, etc. – turns on discovering concretely how and why at a given stage the essence of a particular process is manifested through certain events and masked by others. When we gain knowledge of the essence we can understand the appearance in a new light. Lenin gives an example: “the movement of a river – the foam on top and the profound currents below. But the foam also is an expression of the essence.” [44] Each essence, each law, each necessity he discovers is for man a degree in the infinite process of acquiring more and more knowledge of the universal process of becoming in its unity, interconnexion and interdependence.

It would be wrong to suppose that Lenin merely picked out from Hegel what was useful without developing his thought in a materialist fashion. The dialectic of appearance and essence, for instance, is more concrete and more dynamic, and hence more dialectical, in Lenin’s hands than in Hegel’s. To Hegel appearance and essence were in a state of logical coexistence. To Lenin they were in continuous dynamic interaction. At times the essential contradictions suddenly find expression – dramatically and explosively – in the appearance, as, for instance, when capitalist society is shaken by wars and revolutions. At other times the appearance is the arena of slow and gradual changes behind which the essence remains latent. Lack of understanding of this dialectical interaction is at the heart of much of the present confusion about events in the USSR in the minds of commentators and interpreters who see only the appearance of things, who misunderstand it, and who are therefore frequently thrown off balance by some new and unexpected turn of events.

The Negation of Negation

The law of negation of negation (“A development that seemingly repeats the stages already passed, but repeats them otherwise, on a higher basis ... a development, so to speak, in spirals, not in a straight line” [45]) is fundamental to a correct understanding of the profoundly contradictory nature of development through stages, of the emergence of the new contradiction from the old, and of the subsumption, the transcendence, the “overcoming and at the same time preservation” [46] of the old in the new. “Abolished” by Stalin, this law obstinately continues to operate in nature and society, even in the Soviet Union.

Lenin saw negation as the most important element in dialectics:

Neither barren negation, nor purposeless negation, nor sceptical negation, nor vacillation, nor doubt are characteristic or essential in dialectics – which of course contains, as its most important element even, the element of negation – no, negation as a moment of interconnexion, as a moment of development which preserves the positive, i.e., without any vacillations, without any eclecticism. [47]

Understood dialectically, negation is not mere empty negativity, the annihilation or destruction of something, but “is equally positive ... is something definite, possesses a determined content whose internal contradictions lead to the replacement of the old content by a new, higher content.” [48] The old is surpassed when it has produced the conditions for the new, when its internal contradictions have pushed it beyond itself, as it were, have driven it to its “negation”; its own development leads to its negation; however the advance that has been made in the old stage is not destroyed but subsumed, “transcended”, overcome and preserved in the new.

The concept of negation is, so to say, the point where the dialectical laws of the identity and struggle of opposites and of the transformation of quantity into quality intersect. A process is said to be negated when the struggle of opposites within it drives it beyond its qualitative limit. It is often said that “everything contains the seeds of that which will destroy it”. It is more accurate to say “of that which will negate it” – and probably more accurate still to say “everything contains its own negation”. For the negation is the new that grows within the womb of the old and finally supplants it.

But this is a never-ending process. Every new stage becomes in time an old stage; every negation is itself the arena of new contradictions, the soil of a new negation that leads inexorably forward to a new qualitative leap, to a still higher stage of development, carrying forward the advances made in the previous stages, often seeming to repeat – on a higher level, enriched by the intervening development – a stage already passed.

The negation of negation is thus a further “transcendence”, a further overcoming and preservation in the new of the stages already passed through. Frequently there is a return on a higher level to the original starting-point.

Too often the negation of negation has been presented as the “sum-total of examples” – and often hackneyed examples at that. Examples have to be given, but the law is an abstraction, and its content is neither exhausted nor fully clarified by examples, for it is a universal law of nature, society and human knowledge.

The appearance of classes and the eventual destruction of the whole fabric of “primitive” communist society was a negation of that society. Communism will be in many respects a return on a world scale to the human relationships and attitudes of “primitive” society, enriched by all the scientific, technological and cultural discoveries and achievements of five thousand years of class society: in other words, the negation of class society, the negation of negation.

Old knowledge is continually being replaced – negated, not destroyed – by new knowledge. Hegel described the process rather well. “Cognition”, he wrote, “rolls forward from content to content.” The concept “raises to each next stage of determination the whole mass of its antecedent content, and by its dialectical progress not only loses nothing and leaves nothing behind, but carries with it all that it has acquired.” [49] “This fragment,” commented Lenin, “sums up dialectics rather well in its own way.” [50] But what Hegel saw as the self-development of the Idea, Lenin saw as the reflection in eternally deepening human knowledge of the development of material reality.

In every process of nature, society and thought we find in one form or another this “repetition in the higher stage of certain features, properties, etc., of the lower and apparent return to the old.” [51]


Lenin’s “absorption in philosophical nuances” twice led him to set forth tentatively, but highly suggestively, the elements of the dialectical method. In Once Again on the Trade Unions, the Present Situation and the Mistakes of Comrades Trotsky and Bukharin (1921) the requirements of dialectical logic are set forth under four headings. First, “in order really to know an object we must embrace, study, all its sides, all connections and ‘mediations’.” Secondly, we should “take an object in its development, its ‘self-movement’ ... in its changes.” Thirdly, “the whole of human experience should enter the full ‘definition’ of an object as a criterion of the truth and as a practical index of the object’s connexion with what man requires.” Fourthly, “dialectical logic teaches that ‘there is no abstract truth, truth is always concrete’.” [52]

In the Philosophical Notebooks the dialectical method is summarized from a different standpoint in sixteen points, which, though terse and unexemplified, constitute a highly dialectical presentation of this method:

(1) Objectivity of investigation (not examples, not digressions, but the thing itself);

(2) The totality of the manifold relations of each thing with others;

(3) The development of the thing (or phenomenon), its own movement, its own life;

(4) The internal contradictory tendencies (and aspects) in the thing;

(5) The thing (phenomenon, etc.) as the sum and unity of opposites;

(6) The struggle or unfolding of these opposites, the contradiction of the trends, etc.

(7) The unity of analysis and synthesis – the analysis into separate elements and the totality, the sum, of these elements.

(8) The relations of each thing (phenomenon, etc.) are not only manifold, but universal. Every thing (phenomenon, process, etc.) is connected with everything else.

(9) Not only the unity of opposites, but the transition of EACH determination, quality, feature, aspect, property, into every other (into its opposite?);

(10) An infinite process of the discovery of new aspects, relationships;

(11) An infinite process of the deepening of human knowledge of things, phenomena, processes, etc., proceeding from appearance to essence and from essence less profound to essence more profound;

(12) From coexistence to causality and from one form of connexion and interdependence to another, deeper and more universal;

(13) The repetition in the higher stage of certain features, properties, etc. of the lower; and

(14) The apparent return to the old (negation of negation);

(15) Struggle of content with form and vice versa. Throwing off of the form, rearrangement of the content.

(16) Transition from quantity to quality and vice versa.

((15) and (16) are examples of (9)) [53]

Those to whom these sixteen “philosophical nuances” appear too sententious will find practical examples of their concrete application throughout the whole of Lenin’s political writings. “Dialectics,” he wrote, “can be briefly defined as the theory of the unity of opposites. The core of dialectics is thereby grasped, but explanation and development are needed.” [54] That explanation and development – materialist dialectics in action – are seen at their most concrete in the building of the Bolshevik Party, the carrying through of the October Revolution, the leadership of the Soviet State, and even in the campaign against bureaucracy which Lenin waged from his sick-bed until death silenced him. Those who study Lenin’s approach to the problems which confronted him in the course of three decades of political activity are studying the masterly application of the dialectical method in the “concrete analysis of concrete conditions.”

*  *  *

This article has merely touched the fringe of Lenin’s creative work as a Marxist philosopher. Fields of great interest and topicality, such as his views on objectivity and partisanship and his theory of social-economic formations, have necessarily been omitted, since this is primarily a polemical and not an expository article. Conversely, only a very small part of “Socialist Humanism” has been discussed: a mere couple of pages out of thirty-eight. There are many thought-provoking things (and many excellent things) in the other thirty-six. But the passage commented on here raises issues that are fundamental to Marxism, and “a spoonful of tar spoils a barrel of honey.” Or, as somebody once remarked, “to leave error unrefuted is to encourage intellectual immorality.”


1. The New Reasoner, Vol. 1, No. 1, pp. 132–5, Summer 1957 [MIA: Socialist Humanism].

2. Materialism and Empirio-Criticism (1952 edition), p. 85.

3. See, e.g., Capital, Vol. 1 (1946 edition), p. xxx; Dialectics of Nature (1954 edition), p. 271; Anti-Dühring (1954 edition), pp. 34, 467; Marx and Engels, Selected Works, Vol. 2, p. 328.

4. Nevertheless the “uniqueness” of human thinking should not be exaggerated. At its more elementary levels of abstraction it is different only in degree from the mental processes of the higher animals.

5. Lenin, Cahiers philosophiques (Editions Sociales, 1955), p. 125. [English edition]

6. Thompson here – though he may not be aware of this – is not breaking new ground; his attack on the Marxist-Leninist theory of reflection was anticipated two years ago by M. Merleau-Ponty, professor at the Collège de France, in a book called Les Aventures de la Dialectique, in which he called this theory a “return to naïve realism.”

7. Cahiers philosophiques, p. 161.

8. Ibid., p. 182.

9. Ibid., p. 289.

10. Ibid., pp. 150–1.

11. Ibid., p. 174. This and the dozens of similar quotations one could take from the Philosophical Notebooks seem to me to dispose of the second “fallacy” Thompson finds: “the repeated statement, in an emotive manner, that material reality is ‘primary’ and ‘consciousness, thought, sensation’ is ‘secondary,’ ‘derivative’.” Thompson comments: “Partially true; but we must guard against the emotional undertones that therefore thought is less important than material reality.” These are the words of a “partial” materialist. The statement that consciousness is secondary and derivative implies nothing about its importance, but only says something about its origin.

12. Here again Thompson is following in the footsteps of ... M. Merleau-Ponty, who caricatures historical materialism by writing of “economic determinism”, of the “deduction of the whole of culture from the economy”, of alleged Marxist demands that the history of culture must always be strictly “parallel to political history” and that art must be judged by “immediate political criteria” and by “the political conformity of the author.”

13. Even though “the interaction between social environment and conscious agency ... was central to their thought” and though Marx himself saw “the neglect of agency” as “the weakness of mechanical materialism.” This apparent paradox Thompson makes no attempt to explain.

14. Marx and Engels, Selected Works, Vol. 1, p. 329.

15. Ibid., Cf. Capital, Vol. 1, p. 51; The German Ideology, pp. 14, 39; T.B. Bottomore and Maximilien Rubel, Karl Marx: Selected Writings in Sociology and Social Philosophy (1956), p. 77; Marx and Engels, Selected Correspondence (1943 edition), p. 475; Marx and Engels, Selected Works, Vol. 2, p. 105, etc., etc.

16. Marx and Engels, Selected Correspondence, pp. 510–11. Cf. also p. 477: “Marx and I are ourselves partly to blame for the fact that younger writers sometimes lay more stress on the economic side than is due to it. We had to emphasize this main principle in opposition to our adversaries, who denied it, and we had not always the time, the place or the opportunity to allow the other elements involved in the interaction to come into their rights.”

17. A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, p. 309.

18. Selected Works (twelve-volume edition), Vol. 11, pp. 681-3.

19. Marx and Engels, Selected Correspondence, p. 512.

20. George Lukács, Studies in European Realism (1950), p. 93.

21. Cf. Marx and Engels, The German Ideology, p. 30.

22. Lenin, Selected Works (twelve-volume edition), Vol. 2, p. 47.

23. Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, p. 191.

24. Ibid., pp. 338–9.

25. Cahiers philosophiques, p. 182.

26. Anti-Dühring, p. 158.

27. Cahiers philosophiques, p. 126.

28. Marx and Engels, Selected Works, Vol. 2, p. 354.

29. Lenin, Marx, Engels, Marxism (1951 edition), p. 28.

30. “When the proletariat announces the dissolution of the existing social order, it only declares the secret of its own existence, for it constitutes the effective dissolution of this order” – Marx, quoted Bottomore and Rubel, op. cit., pp. 182–3. Cf. also The Poverty of Philosophy (1956 edition), p. 140: “In the measure that history moves forward, and with it the struggle of the proletariat assumes clearer outlines ... [the communists] have only to take note of what is happening before their eyes and to become its mouthpiece.”

31. Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, p. 339.

32. Ibid., pp. 192–3.

33. Anti-Dühring, p. 393.

34. Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, p. 250.

35. After Stalin’s death a certain “rehabilitation” of the dialectical categories took place in Soviet philosophical writing. See, e.g., G. Gak, The Categories of Materialist Dialectics, Kommunist, 1954, No. 13, translated into French in Recherches Sovietiques, No. 1, pp. 35–57, 1956.

36. These three flaws do not exhaust those to be found in the section on dialectics. For instance, the four so-called “principal features of the Marxist dialectical method” are set forth schematically as if they were of equal methodological importance, and the question of the qualitative leap is put crudely and confusingly. For fifteen years this booklet gave millions of people their first – and often their only – account of Marxist philosophy, which is a great pity. Materialist dialectics is much more dialectical than Stalin’s refurbishing of a series of newspaper articles written in 1906 makes it out to be.

37. Cahiers philosophiques, p. 90.

38. Ibid., p. 91.

39. Marx, Engels, Marxism, pp. 332–3.

40. Ibid., p. 332.

41. Cahiers philosophiques, p. 76.

42. Marx, Engels, Marxism, pp. 334–5.

43. Cahiers philosophiques, p. 110. A “moment” is an active determining factor in a process.

44. Ibid., p. 108.

45. Marx, Engels, Marxism, p. 25.

46. Cahiers philosophiques, p. 89. “To transcend (aufheben) has this double meaning, that it signifies to keep or to preserve and also to make to cease, to finish.” – Hegel, Science of Logic, Vol. 1, p. 119.

47. Cahiers philosophiques, p. 185.

48. Ibid., p. 79.

49. Hegel, op. cit., Vol. 2, pp. 482–3.

50. Cahiers philosophiques, p. 189.

51. Ibid., p. 185.

52. Selected Works (twelve-volume edition), Vol. 9, p. 66.

53. Cahiers philosophiques, pp. 181-2. English translations of these sixteen points appeared in the March 1932 Labour Monthly, in H. Levy, etc., Aspects of Dialectical Materialism (1934), pp. 14–16, and in David Guest, A Text Book of Dialectical Materialism (1939), pp. 47–9.

54. Cahiers philosophiques, p. 182.

Last updated 30.1.2017