The Philosophy of History and Necessity

A Few Words with Professor Hook

(July 1943)

First Published in The New International, Vol. IX No. 7, July 1943 pp. 210–213 & Vol. IX No. 9, October 1943, pp. 273–277.
Transcribed & Marked up: by Damon Maxwell in 2009.

The New International, Vol. IX No. 7, July 1943 pp. 210–213

It would certainly be very pleasant if a really scientific socialist journal were to be published. It would provide an opportunity for criticisms or counter-criticisms in which we could discuss theoretical points, expose the ignorance of professors and lecturers and at the same time enlighten the minds of the general public, working class or bourgeois. – Marx to Engels, July 18, 1877.

The interpretation of history is a class question. When a worker joins the revolutionary movement he interprets history, acting instinctively on the basis of his class. When a professor joins the movement he often explains this on historical, sometimes on philosophical grounds. Usually, when he leaves, you discover that, except in the rarest instances, he has never really understood the fundamental method of Marxism. The failure is due always to the same cause – the inability to realize that the understanding of Marxist philosophy is a class question. Hook’s recent book on history [1], as was to be expected, shows not the slightest understanding of this basic fact. Instead he shows himself happy in the conviction that Marxism is a form of religion. In the very second paragraph (page xi) of this book. Hook lumps together “Providence, justice, reason, dialectic” – all are similar types of metaphysical abstraction. Hegel, Herbert Spencer and Marx were all bunglers in their philosophizing about history. Hook pontificates: “It is easy to establish that orthodox Marxism, particularly where it invokes the notions of dialectical necessity and historical inevitability, is shot through with metaphysical elements every whit as questionable as the views it criticized” (page 76). Exactly how easy it is, we shall soon see. Of the appearance of great men in history, he says: “For Engels, social need is not only a necessary condition for the appearance of a great man but also sufficient. But how does he know that, even when a great and urgent social need is present, a great man must arise to cope with it? Who or what guarantees this blessed event? Not the Providence of Augustine and Bossuet, not the Cunning of Reason of Hegel, not the Unknowable of Spencer, but ‘the dialectical contradiction between the forces of production and the relations of production.’

“This dynamic force works in a truly remarkable fashion ...” (page 80). For Hook, Marx is a modern Moses, leading the proletariat out of capitalism into the inevitability of socialism on the same philosophical premises that Moses led the Israelites out of the house of bondage into the land of promise. Hook’s point is that the great man does not appear of necessity. He comes from nobody knows where. The Marxists have made valuable contributions to historical theory, but as can be shown by their treatment of great men, they believe in an economic necessity expressing a historical purpose which is no more than a form of religious mania. As Mr. Joseph Ratner so eloquently described it in his essay on modern philosophy: “... the Marxian materialism goes along in ever more novel ways, developing itself and the universe (at the same time) in accordance with the magical antics of the Hegelian idealistic dialectic secreted in its vitals. Whatever one may think of the philosophical value of Idealistic Magic (even when covered up with materialistic sober sense) ...” [2] Ratner is rough and tough. Hook prefers to snigger. But both of them, like the common run of American intellectuals, including most of the radicals, write and speak as if the question is not even worth discussing any more.

Hook and Historical Necessity

This religion of “social determinism,” Hook treats of in one chapter on Hegel and Spencer; he devotes another chapter to the “social determinism” of Marx. These delusions being disposed of. Hook now faces the task of showing us his own conception of the movement of history. To do so he raises the question first posed by Meyer, the famous German historian of classical antiquity. What would have been the subsequent history of Europe if the Persians had conquered the Greeks? Says Hook: “Meyer maintains with justification that the political history as well as the cultural values of Greek and European civilization would have been profoundly different from the legacy that has come down to us.” This is a miserable sentence. But its meaning can be divined. The political history as well as the cultural values of Greek civilization would have been different. The legacy that would have come down to us would have been therefore different. The logic is impeccable. But to say that the political history and cultural values of Europe would have been “profoundly different,” that, Mr. Philosopher, is a ripe and rosy carbuncle which invites the Marxist scalpel. After the ensuing operation, an easy one, and not worth doing for its own sake, we shall be nearer to Marxism and Hook’s more serious philosophical crimes.

It is to Hegel and Marx that are due the modern practice of dividing world history into a sequence which shows some historical inevitability or necessity, or on which, according to the Hookites, that necessity is imposed. Marx, like Hegel, sought in history “the pervading thread of development” and he found it in the economic relations of the different social forms. Marx’s divisions are therefore primitive communism, the classical slave society, feudalism, capitalism, and, tomorrow, communism. Marx saw each social system as flowing inevitably and of necessity from the other. Is this necessity “religious”? Let us see.

For a Marxist, the determining feature of the classical world taken as a whole was slavery. The distinguishing political feature was the city-state.. The empirical proof of its vitality is Rome, which from the beginning to the end of the Roman Empire remained a city-state. The economic basis of the early city-state was the free peasant who lived on the territory adjoining the city which was his administrative, military and cultural center. By degrees more is produced and more consumed. As Rome expanded, the peasant economy declined and, aided by the great trade wars with Carthage, the inevitable concentration of production resulted in the creation of the wealthy landowners and financiers. This economic development enslaved the masses of the population and destroyed the old Roman Republic. What is the sense of attributing this or any part of it to the Greek legacy? The brothers Gracchi were educated by a Greek rhetorician and a Stoic philosopher. Does Hook really think that this made them lead one of the most famous agrarian and political revolutions in Roman history? Or that the wealthy Romans who murdered them did so because they had neglected to study Pericles on democracy?

The backward agricultural economy of Rome lacked the power to make economic connections with the outlying provinces. Hence Rome’s relation with these was political. Rome was a city-state exploiting a continental hinterland. The plunder which is the reward of all empire-builders could be gained only by political means. Hence the intense political life of Rome. With the creation of the huge latifundia and the gigantic political bureaucracy in Rome, the Empire could go no further. It collapsed, and all the more easily because there was no unity in the production relations. What, pray, had the legacy of Greece to do with all this?

Now comes the question of inevitability in the change to feudalism. In 1859, discussing the barbarian invasions of the Empire, and the new distribution of property which resulted, Marx wrote: “Although the latter appears now as the prerequisite condition of the new period of production, it is itself but a product of production, not of production belonging to history in general, but of production relating to a definite historical period” (Critique of Political Economy, page 288). Marx laid the emphasis on the mode of production brought by the Germans, although he recognized the reciprocal and receptive character of the latifundia. A dozen years later occurred one of the historical sensations of the nineteenth century.

Fustel de Coulanges was a Frenchman who in 1864 published a brilliant study of the ancient city-state, La Cité Antique. He was appointed to a post at Strasbourg, where Franco-German relations were very tense. (All this will teach Hook something about the role of the hero.) Fustel hated the German nationalistic historians and their boasting about German culture, and immediately after the Franco-German war he began the publication of his thesis that the invading German barbarians were Romanized Germans whose leaders simply took the place of the old ruling class while civilization went on much as before. According to de Coulanges:

“All the agricultural characteristics of the manor existed under the Empire and were plainly apparent in Merovingian times ... The Franks were not the authors of the change, but they aided it and gave it some traits that it would not have had.”

What these traits were can be argued even among Marxists. We are stressing here the economic foundations. Invasions or no invasions, feudalism was the inevitable next stage rooted in the inner necessity of the Roman impasse. De Coulanges was no Marxist. He had interpreted the city-state in terms of religion, and the contemporary monarchists in France have drawn much ammunition from his work on that subject.

We know today, and chiefly owing to Marx and Engels, that the Middle Ages were no age of darkness. Yet there was a period which is hard to reconcile as progressive in comparison with Rome of the decline.

During another Franco-German war, 1914–18, another professor of the Latin-German civilization, this time a Belgian, wrote his views on the same period. Pirenne showed that there had been no destruction of the Roman civilization of Europe by the barbarians. Civilization continued to flourish on the basis of a wide exchange. Then in the seventh century the Moslem armies swept across North Africa, invaded Europe and remained in Spain for some seven hundred years. From the North the Norsemen did the same as far South as Sicily. Thus, directly and indirectly, these barbarians destroyed the internal economy and external trade of Europe. This was the cause of the darkest period in European civilization. Protection became an important factor in European society and on this economic and social basis the politics and cultural values of medieval Europe were founded. St. Thomas based his philosophy on Aristotle, but all the textbooks say that St. Thomas’ Aristotle was not the Aristotle of Greece but a medieval philosopher. The church of Rome, which had inherited the prestige of the Roman Empire, became an international landowner and the political and spiritual leader of society. Hence religion and not, as in classical times, politics, was the main sphere of medieval life.

From the hard conditions of the countryside the serfs ran away and settled themselves in the towns to protect themselves from the feudal lords. The word bourgeoisie comes from the Latin burgensis, meaning an inhabitant of a walled town. But whereas the city-state had been a protection for the peasants of the countryside and an administrative center, the medieval city fought against the economic and political overlordship of the feudal barons. The two compromised in the national state, which was consolidated by the absolute monarchy. In the national state, agriculture and industry made a remarkable development, far surpassing the achievements of Rome or of the medieval manor. Ultimately the superior economy of the towns conquered the economy of agriculture and we have the modern economy, with its new values of bourgeois democracy and now, today, of socialism and the cultural values of the modern age.

The historical necessity is not a mathematical progression. Doubtless the Moslems threw Europe back. But it was their backward economy which was finally driven out of the continent by the national state of Spain. By degrees more is produced and more is consumed. But this necessity is geographically and otherwise conditioned. Marx pointed out that in the Oriental countries the geographical necessity of large irrigation works early gave the state an overwhelming authority which created a stagnation lasting for thousands of years. But just as the European economy conquered America and not vice versa, so we see the Orient adopting the economic forms of the developed capitalist civilization, and India, for example, becoming a modern nation, fundamentally different from the loose association of semi-feudal states under Aurungzebe. And with this economic development comes to India the modern values of nationalism, no taxation without representation, democracy, compulsory education and socialism. Hook thinks all this would have been different but for Plato and Aristotle.

In an article on Trotsky’s place in history, J.R. Johnson writes as follows:

“Rome fell ... but when the Renaissance brought back the study of the classics, all the growing forces of liberalism in Europe nourished themselves on the vivid artistry and republican sentiments of Thucydides, Livy and Plutarch and cursed tyranny in the language of Tacitus ... The finer shades of European history are a closed book without an understanding of what the classics meant to all the educated classes.” (The New International, September, 1941, page 163)

You can say more but not much more. Hook says that not only the values but the political history itself would have been “profoundly different” had it not been for the Greek legacy. But if the values and political history had been “profoundly different,” the economic history would have been different too. We cannot imagine “profoundly different” politics and culture without “profoundly different” economics. So that in the end Boulder Dam, the Flying Fortress and the photo-electric cell are due not to the historical inevitability of Marxist necessity but to the lucky chance that the Persians were licked by the Greeks. Isn’t it clear that this philosopher has no philosophy of history, the moment he deals with the concrete?

Necessity and Purpose

The foolishness of Hook does not prove the wisdom of Marx. Still less does it prove the philosophical validity of Marx’s doctrine of historical necessity. Yet the above sketch, inadequate as it necessarily is, shows that the doctrine of stages developing inevitably from one another is one that can be empirically observed and empirically established. We have seen where Hook lands in his attempt to discredit the doctrine on purely historical grounds. There still remains, however, the question of all this taking place through some divine dialectic or otherwise phony purpose.

Dühring is Hook’s grandfather, and Engels, exposing the parent, used some words which are particularly applicable to the “son.” This nineteenth century Hook, in his exposition of his own philosophy, had introduced the idea of “purpose” in the transition from inorganic to organic life. Says Engels:

“Once again, this is borrowed from Hegel, who in his Logic – the Science of the Idea, makes the transition from chemistry to life by means of teleology or the science of purpose.... It would take us too long to examine here to what extent it is legitimate and appropriate to apply the ideas of end and means to the organic world. In any case the utilization of the Hegelian ‘inner purpose’ – i.e., a purpose which is not [our emphasis] imported into Nature by some third party acting purposively, such as the wisdom of Providence but lies in the necessity of the thing itself, constantly leads with people who are not well versed in philosophy, to the unthinking interpolation of conscious and purposive activity.”

As W.C. Fields used to say: “How true!”

Note how carefully Engels differentiates the providential purpose of St. Augustine from the purpose of Hegel. Hook, who, as a professor of philosophy, should be “well versed” in it, jumbles them all together. But what about Engels’ own idea of purpose? While defending Hegel against the philosophical barbarism of the Hook of his day, he himself shows what the concept is and how it should be used. Says Engels:

“The inner purpose in the organism, according to Hegel (V, page 244) operates through impulse. Pas trop fort. [Go easy with that.]. Impulse is supposed to bring the single living being more or less into harmony with the idea of it. From this it is seen how much the whole inner purpose is itself an ideological determination. – And yet Lamarck is contained in this.” (Dialectic of Nature, page 226)

Maybe someone will explain to us how to explain to Hook that an ideological determination means a construction made by the mind. Note the completely non-metaphysical “instrumental” manner in which Marx and Engels dealt with such concepts as purpose and necessity in nature, not to mention history. This procedure Hook can attack if he likes. Then the debate would begin. But this philosopher of history and professional philosopher prefers to slander Marxism by writing “the purposive idealism of Hegel and the dialectical materialists ...” (page 142).

Let us continue with “purpose,” for if we do not understand this, only faith and not reason can save us. It I see that all rivers run to the sea, then I say that the “necessity” of a river, when placed in its habitual earthly relations, compels it to run to the sea. Hence that is its “purpose.” It acts that way because that is its nature, and my business as a scientist is to examine that, and not look for the hand of God or any outside agency. On this use of “purpose,” both Hegel and Engels, as we see, had common ground. But both Marx and Hegel understood quite clearly that you could never finally prove this purpose or any necessity purely by empirical observation. No logic in the world can prove that the sun must of inevitable necessity rise tomorrow morning. Hegel refused to accept this, and all that a human being could do to make empirically observed necessity logically and philosophically water-tight, Hegel did. That is why Engels writes of him in Ludwig Feuerbach:

“... with Hegel, philosophy comes to an end: on the one hand because in his system he comprehended its whole development in the most splendid fashion; and on the other hand, because, even if unconsciously, he showed us the way out of the labyrinth of ‘systems’ to real positive knowledge of the world.”

What Hegel refused to accept, Marx and Engels accepted and made their basis. As Engels says: “The empiricism of observation alone can never adequately prove necessity ... But the proof of necessity lies in human activity, in experiment, in work.” (Ibid., last page.) Could anything be simpler? Yet this is something which Hook with all his studies of Hegel and Marx has never understood. Marx did not seek a philosophy based on the traditional philosophical methods. “The philosophers,” he said, “have interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.” The emphasis is his own. This was a complete break with the old philosophy in the now stagnant waters of which Hook still puffs and blows.

The Philosophy of the Proletariat

Marx, an educated German of the fifth decade of the nineteenth century, read history and, looking at the events around him, came to certain conclusions, summed up forty years later by Engels, as follows: “The new tendency ... recognized that the key to the understanding of the whole history of society lies in the historical development of labor.” Having recognized this, the new tendency “addressed itself by preference to the working class and here found the response which it neither sought nor expected from officially recognized science.” This was a conscious action, undertaken “by preference,” deliberately linking thought to the past, present and future of the proletariat. Having made the fundamental break, Marx and Engels then turned back consciously to the classical philosophy to organize their own according to the laws of logical thought which had been worked out by philosophers from Aristotle down and had been brought to a high pitch of development by the German philosophers culminating in Hegel. Hence the next sentence: “The German working class is the inheritor of German classical philosophy.” Though they illustrated, Marx and Engels never tried to prove the necessity of their system by the Hegelian or any other logical or philosophical method, because they knew that couldn’t be done. And that is a thing Hook, Eastman & Co. will never understand to their dying day.

Marx used the Hegelian method to discover the “necessity” of historical movement and its “purpose.” Then, seeing the forces which comprised the “necessity,” he elaborated a philosophy which was a guide to action for the working class. Practice, action, activity, work, there could be no other proof. Hook thinks in all probability that the Marxist insistence on activity is a bait to catch intellectuals and make them do political work. It is nothing of the kind. It is the deliberate, conscious repudiation of the traditional philosophy and its aims and methods in the way’ of proof. It is now one year short of a century since Marx first elaborated his philosophical position. The questions Hook should ask are as follows: Has society travelled in the direction Marx said it would travel? Does the future of society rest with the emancipation of the proletariat? Has the philosophy of Marx proved a useful guide to the action of the proletariat? If, reasonably interpreted, the answer is yes, then there lies the Marxian proof of historic “necessity” and historic “purpose.” There can be no other proof. As Marx said roughly: All other questions are scholastic questions.

But there is more to it, and here the question becomes one of practical political importance. The interpretation of history or philosophy being a class question, the persistence in raising scholastic questions is itself a class question, and much of the confusion about Marx’s philosophy arises from the justifiable sternness with which he refused to tolerate any fooling with his basic premises. In 1844, when he was settling accounts with Hegel, he made this very clear.

To a hypothetical person who asked him: “Who has produced the first man and nature in general?” Marx replies:

“I can only answer. Your question is the product of abstraction. Ask yourself how you arrive at this question. Ask yourself whether your question does not occur from a point of view which I cannot answer because it is an absurd one. Ask yourself whether that series exists as such for reasonable thought. Whenever you ask about the creation of nature and man, you abstract yourself from man and nature. You presuppose that you don’t exist and yet you demand that I prove you exist. I now say to you: Abandon your abstraction and you will give up your question. Or if you hold fast to your abstraction, accept the consequences. Whenever you think of man and nature as non-existent, regard yourself as non-existent, since you are natural and human. Think not, ask me not, for as soon as you think and ask, your abstraction from the existence of nature and man makes no sense.” (Marx-Engels Gesamtausgabe, Vol. III, Berlin 1932.)

This philosophical approach is not for man in general. It is for a certain class of man, socialist man, the revolutionary proletariat It is a philosophy of action for a class. Marx continues:

“However, inasmuch as for the socialist man, the whole so-called history of the world is none other than the production of man through human labor, none other than the becoming of nature to men, he has the obvious irrefutable proof of its birth and genesis through himself.... [Socialism] begins from the theoretical and practical consciousness of men and nature as of the essence.”

In the same period he said in effect that the science of nature would become the science of man and the science of man the science of nature. Scientific investigation, yes. But he would have none of the attempts to solve these questions in the manner of Spinoza and Hegel.

Marx and Engels went to astonishing lengths in this attitude, and they could do this only because they knew precisely what they were doing. Thus in the Dialectic of Nature (page 25) Engels writes:

“... we have the certainty that matter remains eternally the same in all its transformations, that none of its attributes can ever be lost, and therefore, also with the same iron necessity that it will exterminate on the earth its highest creation, the thinking mind, it must somewhere else and at another time again produce it.”

Pat and glib comes Hook’s little snigger: “This is a certainty that dialectic (I had almost said religion) may give – science never.” (Marxist Quarterly, April–June 1937) And yet it is precisely here that the non-religious earth-bound, class-based philosophy of Marx is being expressed. For Marx, life consisted of the relations between Nature (our particular Nature) and man. Nature created man and therefore that was Nature’s “purpose” and that, for the proletariat, was philosophically sufficient. Nature’s purpose might have been ten million things; it might have created a race of philosophical jackals whose successive generations would have spent their lives howling to the moon. Nature didn’t. And the proletariat on whose shoulders fell the burden of changing society had no use for that purely scholastic philosophic doubt which perpetually wonders if after all something else could not have happened. To believe that Engels did not understand the philosophic implication and limitations of his phrase “iron necessity” would be a piece of impertinence on the part of Hook, if even the evidence did not exist that Engels was thoroughly aware of them. The same applies to history.

To conclude: Marxists, neither in history nor philosophy, have any theological certainty of anything. Their method is scientific. But it is a scientific method which knows what it wants to do, and, equally well, knows what it does not want to do. A revolutionary worker acts in accordance with these ideas because his material circumstances compel him to. When masses of workers take revolutionary action they act in accordance with historical “necessity” and fulfill a historic “purpose.” Let Hook walk into any circle of those who rule the world today and make a short speech about Marx, ending with “Workers of the world, unite.” He will get a very practical demonstration of how seriously the educated classes take the Marxist doctrine of “dialectical necessity and historical inevitability.”

In our next article, we shall show the logical distortions, the inability to comprehend, the political reaction and the philosophic mysticism into which Hook is again led by his refusal to accept the Marxist concept of historical necessity. The proof again is in practice, and it Hook is not much to practice on, yet political hygiene demands that periodically his pertinaciously piled heaps of rubbish be cleared from the path of the workers.

The New International, Vol. IX No. 9, October 1943, pp. 273–277.

[Part II]

Hook’s study of the “hero” is a study of political leadership. Men have always had leaders. The leader is an exclusively twentieth century phenomenon. Inseparable today from the question of the leader is the question of the totalitarian party. In the conflicting loyalties of a world in turmoil, the relation between leader, party, class and society is not only Hook’s problem. It is the problem of hundreds of millions, and Hook’s ideas represent a current of opinion which goes far beyond his modest political coterie. This is one reason why we must follow his argument closely. The second reason is because, as we shall see, his position is, ultimately, the class alternative to Marxism.

“Eventful” and “Event-Making” Men

Hook is at pains to agree with the “orthodox” Marxist theory of great men being the product of their environment. “But,” and here begins his “unorthodoxy,” “there are individuals in history who not only talk back but react in such a way as to modify the original relations of social interest in a radical way.” The first are merely “eventful” men. The second are “event-making” men. The “test-case” (Chap. XI) of his “unorthodoxy” is Lenin and the October Revolution. He licks his lips over the undeniable truths that the Bolshevik Party took the wrong road until Lenin came, that nobody but Lenin could have set it right, and that without Lenin the work of the Bolshevik Party was unthinkable. From this he deduces that the Russian Revolution was due to the character of Lenin.

Hook is very sure of himself. When Trotsky, in his discussion of Lenin’s intervention, says that Lenin was the product of the whole past of Russian history. Hook chortles that, inasmuch as such a phrase could explain both the success of the Bolsheviks with Lenin and their failure without him, it is completely irrelevant to the question. “To relapse into outright mysticism, all Trotsky need do is to assert that the existence of a Lenin in Russia in 1917 was assured by the whole past of Russian history.” Hook, brushing Lenin aside, asserts that “the Russian Revolution [My emphasis – A.A.B.] of October 1917 was not so much a product of the whole past of Russian history as a product of one of the most event-making figures of all time” (page 220). And to make our assurance doubly sure, he quotes: “The greatest bit of chance is the birth of a great man” (page 228). For Russia in 1917 there were alternative paths of development and chance, not necessity, brought Lenin to lead the socialist revolution to success.

“What manner of man,” asks Hook sententiously, “was Lenin?” Lenin’s characteristics, as he lists them, were: the superb sense of political timing; the stubborn tenacity of purpose; his unsurpassable confidence in himself; party life was “spiritual meat and substance” to him; and (here we get something at last) Lenin “raised the party to the level of a political principle.” And this, according to Hook, is “the source of all his deviations from the essentially democratic views of Marx.” Thus from Lenin’s character grew the totalitarian party.

In reality the truth about great men is exactly the opposite of the delusively simple deductions of Hook. Hook does not understand the relation of the class to the nation. Lenin was so great precisely because he saw that, for the class he represented, there was no alternative course of action. Far from being a gifted individual who took advantage of a national calamity, Lenin was the most representative Russian of modern Russia, embodying in his life and work nearly two centuries of Russian history. Yet this individual is and will always be the greatest practical leader and teacher of international socialism. To understand this is to understand not only the relation of party and leader but the whole problem of our time.

We have given Hook his full say. Let us have ours.

At any given period, the national future is represented by a certain class. The greatest national leader is he whose class basis makes his character and aims the subjective negation of the objective national crisis and thus the most truly representative of the national needs. In all history there is no more typical example of this than Lenin.

The needs of the class are determined by the economic needs of the nation. In the world market of the twentieth century, the problems of every nation and therefore of every class within the nation can be solved only on an international scale. Hence the proletarian international basis of Bolshevism, the foundation of the Communist International and the revolutionary internationalism of Lenin and Trotsky. Hence also the imperialist “internationalism” of Hitler over Europe, of Japan over East Asia, of Stalin astride Europe and Asia, of Churchill over India and Africa, of Roosevelt over all, and the internecine shambles of imperialist war.

The general type of party is not the creation of the leader, but an instrument of the economic needs of the nation as represented by the class. When, as today, the national crisis requires a total economic reorganization of the nation, the party of the class in power will be organized to undertake the revolutionary or counter-revolutionary dictatorship over every sphere of the national life. Hence the all-inclusive character of every modern party of the revolution, like Bolshevism, or of the counter-revolution, like fascism. There the similarity ends. Bolshevism, based on the creative capacity of the masses, now occupies the first place in the economic and political development of Russia during two centuries. In Italy and Germany, fascism has ruined the nation and earned for itself the execration of future generations.

The national characteristics of the revolutionary party vary with the historical circumstances under which it is born and matures. But, as a rule, the more desperate the class struggle, the more characteristic and representative of the class are the party and leader. The national characteristics of Bolshevism are due to the specific circumstances of the young Russian proletariat compelled to oppose the bourgeoisie for the revolutionary leadership of the nation. The revolutionary party was therefore compelled to elevate its proletarian character and proletarian function to the level of a fundamental principle.

But, just for this very reason, Bolshevism has its international application. The class struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat is the fiercest class struggle in history. Hence the workers of France, of Germany, of Italy, will of inner necessity found parties of a Leninist type aiming at Lenin’s historic purpose.

The Russian Nation and Lenin

In 1776, Jefferson declared the independence of the American bourgeoisie, who drove out the British monarchy. In 1789, the French bourgeoisie declared the rights of the French bourgeoisie (which they called the rights of man) and broke the French monarchy. Contemporaneously, Dunning moved in the English House of Commons that the “power of the Crown has increased, is increasing, and ought to be diminished.” Shortly after, the executive power of the British government began to follow the legislative, into the hands of the bourgeoisie. But in 1773, Pugachev, to impress the peasants he was leading against Czarism, announced himself as a new Czar, Peter III. This aberration was not due to Pugachev’s “character.” The technological level of Russian production was such that the classes consisted of millions of serfs and their feudal masters, neither of whom could conceive of any other national leadership than the Czar and the Czarist bureaucracy. This national problem remained insoluble until the victory of the proletariat and Lenin. Yet the territorial extent and geographical situation of Russia made it one of the great powers of Europe. Russia, therefore, was always striving to “catch up with and outstrip” the more advanced countries of the West. Hence, to a degree far exceeding that of any other similar group in Europe, the political leaders in Russia were always conscious students of international ideas. Lenin’s internationalism was Russian of the Russians.

Peter I, as we know, went in person to Western Europe to study. Catherine the Great corresponded voluminously with Voltaire, Diderot, d’Alembert and Grimm, and her legal codes were compiled directly from the writings of Montesquieu, Beccaria and Blackstone. They were so radical that their circulation in France was forbidden. Her reforms withered under the heat of the French Revolution and the necessity of pandering to the greedy landlords. Alexander I played with liberalism for a while, but when Speranski, his able minister, attempted mild bourgeois reforms, the all-powerful Russian aristocracy broke Speranski. Alexander later became a characteristically Russian ruler of the nineteenth century: he organized “The Holy Alliance” against democracy and was the most active supporter of the European counter-revolution.

Conversely, the Russian Revolution found international roots. Officers of the army, educated in democratic ideas by their long campaigning in Europe against Napoleon, organized themselves on international models, the Italian Carbonari and the German Tugendbund. While Alexander strangled the universities at home, they educated themselves on revolution abroad. When Alexander ordered the Russian guard to crush the Neapolitan uprising, these Russian conspirators became revolutionary. But the only possibility of success for a Russian revolution, the raising of the peasants, this these “liberals” could not encourage. Their rising ended in the Decembrist catastrophe of 1825. Pushkin escaped only by rushing home to destroy incriminating papers. For his Ode to Liberty he had been exiled from Moscow. He wrote a History of the Pugachev Rebellion; his literary inspiration was the revolutionary Lord Byron. After Waterloo, Russia was pre-eminently the country of revolution and counter-revolution on a national and international scale.

Precursors of Lenin

From the passionate study of the German idealists, Schelling, Fichte and Hegel, arose a school of Russian idealists, the Slavophiles. They found their solution of Russian misery in the Russian soul, the product of the Russian commune. Their opponents, Bakunin and Herzen, fought them with an adaptation of the ideas of Western socialism. Fifty years before Lenin, Herzen preached a peasant brand of Russian revolution and world communism. The European revolution would begin at the end of a great war, peasant Russia giving the signal. Both groups believed that Russia would teach the world. Gogol wrote The Inspector, satirizing the Russian bureaucracy, and his equally famous novel, Dead Souls, is named after the Russian serfs; conflict over the revolution and absence from Russia broke his spirit. Belinsky, who, under the influence of Hegel, drew away from the revolution, returned to make literary criticism a weapon of social reform. Herzen and Bakunin went abroad in time to take part in the revolution of 1848, thus beginning that wonderful chapter in the political and intellectual life of Western Europe – the Russian emigration. A Russian army crushed the successful uprising of the workers and students in Hungary. In Russia, the revolutionary organization was broken, the universities were again strangled, and Dostoyevsky received his reprieve on the very step of the scaffold. The House of the Dead, the record of his life in Siberia, was for long his most popular work.

Ten years later, Czarism made some attempt to reform the country. But the emancipation of the serfs was sabotaged by the landlords. The zemstvos, a form of municipal government, fell under the influence of the landlords and Czarism. Zaminiatin, the reforming Minister of Justice, was dismissed as lightly as was Speranski. Reform or no reform, the incessant revolutionary agitation continued, and Chernychevsky, the great Russian writer and critic, admired by Marx and loved by Lenin, led the nihilist movement. He went to exile and prison for over twenty years for his book, What Is to Be Done? Turgenev, like Gogol, quarrelled with the revolutionary movement and, as a result, went abroad, where his genius faded. Ten years later Czarism ordered the Russian students abroad to return home. They brought back what in Russia became populism, the personal crusade among the peasants and, later, terrorism. Nekrassov wrote Who Can Be Happy and Free in Russia? Look again at the mere names of those world-famous books. They tell the history of Russia.

It is at this stage that developing capitalism began to produce the Russian proletariat. Marx, in 1873, had already noted the, to him, astonishing grasp and brilliance of his Russian critics (cf. preface to Capital, Vol. I, 2nd ed.) But with the appearance of the spontaneous labor movement, Marxism achieved a success in Russia far surpassing that of any other nation in Europe. As Lenin himself says:

“Marxian books were published one after another, Marxian journals and newspapers were published, nearly everyone became a Marxist, Marxism was flattered, the Marxists were courted and the book publishers rejoiced at the extraordinary ready sale of Marxian literature” (Collected Works, Vol. II, p. 102)

When Lenin was fighting for a proper attitude to theory, he based it not only on the general theoretical tradition of Marxism but on the special national characteristics of Russia. [3]

Farther on we shall deal with the political and organizational duties which the task of emancipating the whole people from the yoke of autocracy imposes upon us. At the moment, we wish merely to state that the rôle of vanguard can be fulfilled only by a party that is guided by an advanced theory. To understand what this means concretely, let the reader call to mind the predecessors of Russian Social-Democracy like Herzen, Belinsky, Chernyshevsky and the brilliant band of revolutionists of the Seventies; let him ponder over the world significance which Russian literature is now acquiring; let him ... Oh! but that is enough!

This is the stock from which Lenin came. It was the absence of a bourgeoisie to lead the nation which shaped these generations of intellectuals and great writers (surpassed by none in the nineteenth century) who reached their culmination and fulfillment in the Bolshevik Party and the proletariat at the head of the Russian nation. What Hook so dully calls Lenin’s superb sense of political timing was the grasp of the historic process, the sense of the international political situation, the insight into the ebb and flow, particularly the flow, of revolutionary dynamics on the grand scale. These made him the strategist that he was. And all this was the heritage of a long Russian tradition which found its fullest fruition in Marxism.

The tenacity of purpose, the unsurpassable confidence in himself was, like so much in Lenin and Bolshevism, the highest point of a generation which had, by and large, assimilated the lessons of the numerous generations sacrificed in the ceaseless efforts to overthrow Czarism, an overthrow which became more imperative with every year that passed. If Lenin insisted that revolution was a profession, it was because revolution had been more or less of a profession in Russia for three generations. He tells us why he raised the party to the level of a political principle. In his early essay, Where to Begin, he says that “it would be too late to start building such an organization in the midst of uprisings and outbreaks.” And for proof that he was concretely responding to what was going on around him he writes a page or two further on, “Before our very eyes, broad masses of the urban workers and the ‘common people’ rushed into battle, but the revolutionaries lacked a staff of leaders and organizers.”

If Lenin insisted on one kind of party, it was because he and so many other Russians knew that all other kinds of parties had been tried in Russia and failed. Above all, the history of Russia had taught them that the Russian bourgeoisie could not be depended upon in the struggle against Czarism, and that, therefore, the main business of the new party was to keep the influence of the bourgeoisie away from the proletariat. That did not come from Lenin’s “character.” It was the product of the whole past of Russia.

The Bourgeois “Heroes”

Let us illustrate this from the opposite class, the rôle of the bourgeois “heroes” of Russia. The ablest bourgeois of Lenin’s generation was Witte. As a Czarist minister, he organized and financed the primary capitalistic development of Russia – the railways. He reorganized the financial system and pushed Russian imperialist interests in China and Persia. He sought foreign loans but tried to extricate Russia from the grip of foreign capital. In typical Russian fashion, the court camarilla had him dismissed in 1903. Czarism brought him back in the crisis of 1905. He proposed reforms. They were officially accepted but sabotaged by the other departments. He was made Prime Minister of the first constitutional cabinet. But he had to fight against the revolutionary workers on the one hand and Czarism on the other. When he asked his Minister of Agriculture to prepare a bill dealing with the land question on the basis of giving some land to the peasants, the court had him dismissed. Trotsky, who did not pay compliments to class enemies, described him as having both brains and character. Witte detested the cruelties of Nicholas, which he called senseless. He was a man of vision and a man of wit.

Here clearly was a bourgeois of superior caliber. The able Stolypin, who followed Witte, shared the fate of Speranski and Zaminiatin. Such were the attempts to bourgeoisify Russia from the top. The bourgeoisie itself never had a single outstanding leader. The bourgeois party, the Cadets, was founded only in 1905 and was in a hopeless position from the beginning. When Witte offered Miliukov, the Cadet leader, a place in his cabinet in 1905, that “hero” refused. The liberals, he knew, dared not break their alliance with the workers; for Czarism would immediately break them. Yet they could not lead the revolutionary workers against Czarism, for they depended on Czarism to suppress the revolution.

The history of all Russian bourgeois “heroes” is a Kerenskiad. Miliukov was to become a minister for two months in 1917, when the workers threw him out. The next leader of the Russian bourgeoisie was the petty bourgeois socialist and hanger-on of the bourgeoisie, Kerensky, who was soon compelled to turn to Kornilov. After Kerensky, the leaders of the Russian bourgeoisie were Kornilov, Kolchak and Denikin, Czarist generals. Finally the hopes of Russian restoration depended upon the terrorist adventurer, Savinkov.

Compare this miserable sequence of futile “heroes” with , the magnificent line of great Russians from Pushkin to Lenin, whose genius, rejecting Czarism, could find material support at last only in the Russian proletariat.

The concrete October Revolution is the only one we have before us for analysis and to that a Lenin was no accident but as organic as Czarism itself. To make a Lenin an historical accident, you have to presuppose a Russian bourgeoisie capable of opening out a new road for the nation. The whole past of Russia shows that this was exactly what it could not do. As to the outstanding role Lenin played inside his own party, even Marxist histories tend to give it a false significance. Lenin fought for the Bolshevik principles in 1903, and won. He was constantly winning, which means that he expressed ideas which stood the test of practice. The proletariat as a whole, at all critical moments, followed the Bolsheviks.

More important than this, however, is the fact that the Russian proletariat taught and disciplined Lenin and the Bolsheviks not only indirectly but directly. Basically, the organization of the party paralleled the organization of the productive power of the proletariat in revolution. In 1917, Lenin thought the struggle hopeless, and was thinking of giving it up. A few weeks afterward came the massacre of January, and the magnificent response of the Russian proletariat revived the faltering leader. The proletariat created the Soviets. The Bolsheviks learned here to understand the vitality and creative power of the proletariat in revolution. In 1917, Lenin despaired of the revolution within his lifetime. A few weeks later, the Russian proletariat rid the nation of Czarism. The great change of policy in April was only a manifestation of the essential policy of the Bolshevik Party, to express and organize the instinctive desires and aims of the proletariat. “Dictatorship over the proletariat,” indeed! It was the Russian proletariat that drove the bourgeoisie out of the factories. Trotsky, in his History of the Russian Revolution, noted, and not for the first time, that the revolutionary masses were to the left of the party.

The proletariat repeatedly led the Bolsheviks and gave Lenin courage and wisdom. Between 1890 and 1921 the interrelation between leader, party, class and nation was indivisible. The transformation of Bolshevism into totalitarianism is adequately dealt with in the literature of Trotskyism. The analysis is embodied in history and the lessons are plain. With the proletariat or against it, that is the future of every modern nation. The secret of Lenin’s greatness is that he saw this so clearly, and he saw this so clearly because this choice was the inescapable product of the whole past of Russia. What was the necessity of this particular individual Russian, Lenin, to the inner necessity of Russian economic development, is a more ample and at the same time a more subtle question, fully explicable only in terms of the Hegelian categories, possibility, actuality, necessity, chance, etc. Experience has shown that the last man from whom one can expect any understanding of this is Hook, professor of philosophy, and author of From Hegel to Marx.

Hook’s “Purpose”

Hook hasn’t written all this stuff without aim. What, he asks, would have been the consequence for history if the October Revolution had not occurred or, occurring, had failed? (page 210).

The Constituent Assembly would “in all likelihood” have converted Russia into a constitutional republic on the model of France and England. Henceforth only quotation is credible.

The preponderance of socialist sentiment guaranteed a highly advanced system of social legislation. The banks and some of the basic public services and industries would probably have been socialized, but there would have been no collectivization of industry.

For seventy years the Russian bourgeoisie was futility itself. For seven long revolutionary months the Mensheviks and the Social-Revolutionaries socialized nothing. No matter. Hook calmly assumes that those who preferred to perish rather than socialize would have socialized if they had not perished. Now does it begin to appear why Marx and Lenin were so savage against people who persist in asking if something else could not have happened?

So much for Russia. Now for the world.

The Russian market would have been opened as a vast field for European industry. The catastrophic world crisis which began in 1928 would have probably been deferred, and in any event its effects appreciably mitigated when it did occur.

All prevented by the “hero,” Lenin. A truly “heroic” theory of crisis. Now for fascism.

Fascist parties would have existed as political sects, but fascism as a mass movement would not have developed in the face of a United European working class.

If Lenin’s father had died before Lenin was conceived, then we would have been spared fascism.

Now for World War II.

But in the West, in the absence of fascism, war might have been avoided although its danger would not have been dispelled. A democratic Russia in the League of Nations from the very beginning would have been a natural ally of the Weimar Republic, and the worst features of the Versailles system would have been obviated. So that the fact that Lenin’s mother was not sterile caused the greatest catastrophe the world has ever known.

And, finally, the world of the future.

A reconstituted socialist and labor international might perhaps have emerged from the carnage of the first war, mindful of the opportunities it missed in 1914 and powerful enough to prevent the settling of economic issues by the trial of arms.

If only Lenin had caught whooping-cough and died, we would have had (who knows?) socialism!

If any serious person really should accept this outrageous nonsense, he should think twice about getting married, and at the first sign of unusual ability in his son, he should place him under a pillow and sit upon him. For if one Lenin could cause so much mischief to the world, another would just about finish it.

Let us suppress our natural instincts and go on. Let us also suppress all reason and suppose that a reconstituted socialist international had prevented the new war. But what about the crisis of capitalism? What about the great magnates of capital who would still have remained? The national rivalries for the exploitation of Africa, India and Asia would still have continued. The colonial countries would still need the agrarian revolution and freedom. Now either Hook would offer the capitalist magnates holy water and say “Wash and be clean,” or they would have to be removed. How? By force. But these gentlemen and their supporters are notoriously adept at defending themselves. So that even granting the crude stupidities of Hook’s Utopia, we are back again at the hated socialist revolution and the confounded dialectical necessity of the miserable Marx. If ever there was a proof of the inevitability of socialism acceptable to Hook, surely this is it.

Fascism and God

The implication of Hook’s theories can now be briefly summed up in two words – fascism and God. The fear of social revolution creates in the petty bourgeois mentality a longing for a “hero,” a great “event-making” hero who will “save” the nation. Now that is exactly what fascism proposes. Hook’s talk about democratic checks on the “hero” is nonsense, on a par with his philosophy and his history. People simply do not act that way. When they are in insoluble difficulties, they accept a prospective “hero” and when they do they will give him the power he asks for. Against this suicidal tendency the only barrier in the nation is the proletariat. The proletarian leader may find himself in a situation where it is perfectly possible to seize despotic power, as was Lenin. He will shun it like poison. For the simple reason that any proletarian leader knows that the great enemy of proletarian power and the surest indication of its defeat is the passivity of the masses. The modern nation in crisis has this alternative, the party of the revolutionary proletariat, which seeks to release the greatest untapped power in the nation – the creative capacity of the masses – or the parties of Mussolini, Hitler and Stalin. The Marxian analysis subordinates the “hero” to the class and the inner necessity of economic development. Hook raises not the party but the “hero” to the level of a political principle. Il Duce. Der Fuhrer. The ideology is the ideology of fascism.

Hook’s political philosophy is the open gateway back to God. He does not say that the death or illness or personal weakness of this or that leader accelerated or retarded the historical process. That is quite legitimate, historically necessary and, within limits, very useful. What he says is that someone was accidentally born and thus caused social revolution, world economic devastation, fascism and imperialist war. The historical movement is here entirely subordinated to the chance birth of an individual. If this is true, it is, today, possible at any time, for it is, as Hook insists, a matter of chance. There may have been born to our world a “hero” who will do Christ knows what. We do not know, we cannot know, we shall never be able to know. We cannot even guess. As Engels said long ago, call that by whatever name you please, it is God. St. Augustine had more excuse and from all accounts did a pretty good philosophical job on his God. Hook, the great sneerer at Marx and Hegel, turns out to be not even a prophet, but that most pitiable of modern creatures, a man looking for one. His “hero” is no more than St. Augustine’s God transferred from heaven (or, like Lenin, from hell) to earth. Hook understands nothing, but a sure instinct guides him – the instinct of the frightened petty bourgeois who has turned his back on the proletariat and therefore is pulled irresistibly into the camp of reaction – politics, history and philosophy as well.

Let him look at Europe today and he will see that there is no hiding place down there. Roosevelt, the “hero” of democracy, now systematically prepares the subjugation of the people of Europe just struggling free from the “hero” Mussolini and the “hero” Hitler. In this new phase of proletarian struggle which is just beginning. Hook’s interpretation of the rôle of the hero is so much ammunition to the enemy. Even when Hook was more indulgent to Marx, he refused to accept dialectical necessity and based his Marxism on what he called voluntaristic humanism, or some such. Look where it has landed him.

Lenin, on the other hand, was no voluntaristic, humanistic lover of the international proletariat. Student of Hegel, believer in dialectical necessity and historic purpose, he foresaw the unending devastation of all society by decaying capitalism and summed up our age: proletarian revolution or imperialist war, the power of the workers or capitalist barbarism. The test is practice. All Hook has to do is to look and see. The dialectical method of Marx will periodically shoo away the chattering Hooks and continue its confident way.


1. The Hero in History, John Day, 1943.

2. In a contemptuous footnote. John Dewey’s Philosophy, page 35 (Modern Library).

3. We omit any reference to Plekhanov, Tolstoy and Gorky, as their relationship to the Russian Revolution is so familiar.

Last updated on 12 June 2015