Lenin: A Study on the Unity of his Thought. Georg Lukacs 1924

Postscript 1967

This small book was set down immediately after Lenin’s death, without any special preparation, to satisfy the spontaneous need to establish theoretically what then seemed to me essential – the spiritual centre of Lenin’s personality. Hence the subtitle ‘A Study on the Unity of his Thought’. It indicates that my concern was not to reproduce his objective theoretical system, but rather to give an account of the objective and subjective forces that made this systematization and its embodiment in Lenin’s person and actions possible. There was no question of even attempting to analyze the full breadth of this dynamic unity in his life and work.

The relatively great contemporary interest in such writings is above all a sign of the times. Since the emergence of a Marxist critique of the Stalin era there has also been renewed interest in the oppositional tendencies of the twenties. This is understandable, if from a theoretical and objective standpoint very much exaggerated. For, however false the solutions offered by Stalin and his followers to the developing crisis of the Revolution, there is no question that anyone else at that time could have provided an analysis or perspective which could have given a theoretical guide-line to the problems of the later phases as well. A fruitful contribution to the renaissance of Marxism requires a purely historical treatment of the twenties as a past period of the revolutionary working-class movement which is now entirely closed. This is the only way to make its experiences and lessons properly relevant to the essentially new phase of the present. But Lenin, as is the rule with great men, so embodied his age that the results, but especially the method, of what he said and did can still retain a definite contemporaneity even under very changed circumstances.

This work is a pure product of the mid twenties. As a document of how a not inconsiderable group of Marxists saw Lenin’s personality and mission, his place in the course of world events, it is therefore certainly not without interest. But it must always be remembered that its ideas were determined more by the conceptions of the period – including their illusions and extravagances – than was Lenin’s own theoretical life work. The first sentence itself demonstrates the prejudices of the time: ‘Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.’ No doubt this is the expression of an important determinant of historical materialism. But equally certainly it is not the only, not the determination of its essence. And Lenin, for whom the actuality of the proletarian revolution formed the thread of thought and practice, would have raised the most passionate protest against any attempt to reduce to a single dimension and to cramp the real and methodological wealth – the social universality – of historical materialism, by such a ‘definition’.

Criticism in the spirit of Lenin could be applied to a great many passages in this little book. I shall limit myself simply to indicating the legitimacy and direction of such criticism, for I hope that sober, thoughtful readers will themselves establish a critical distance. I think it important to emphasize where the outlook I drew from Lenin led to conclusions which still retain a certain methodological validity as moments in the elimination of Stalinism; where, in other words, the author’s devotion to Lenin’s person and work did not, after all, go astray. For certain of my comments on Lenin’s behavior contain, implicitly, some accurate criticism of Stalin’s later development, which was then still hidden except for fleeting glimpses in Zinoviev’s leadership of the Comintern. For example, the increasing sclerosis under Stalin of all organizational problems: whatever the situation at the time, whatever the demands of politics, the party organization was made into an immutable fetish – even using an appeal to Lenin’s authority. I cite here Lenin’s warning: ‘Political questions cannot be mechanically separated from organization questions’, and the following comment made in the spirit of just such a Leninist political dynamic: ‘Therefore, all dogmatism in theory and all sclerosis in organization are disastrous for the party. For as Lenin said: “Every new form of struggle which brings new perils and sacrifices inevitably ‘disorganizes’ an organization ill-prepared for the new form of struggle.” It is the party’s task to pursue its necessary path openly and consciously -above all in relation to itself- so that it may transform itself before the danger of disorganization becomes acute, and by this transformation promote the transformation and advance of the masses.’ At the time, of course, this was objectively only a rearguard action of the concrete revolutionary ferment of the great years against the encroachment of bureaucratic and mechanical uniformity.

But if dogmatic conformity in all areas is to be successfully resisted today, the conclusions of the twenties will only yield fruitful impulses by a detour, if they are recognized to be part of the past. For this it is indispensable that the differences between the twenties and the period we are now living in should be clearly and critically realized. It goes without saying that we must also approach Lenin’s work with a similar critical clarity. For those who have no wish to build out of this work some ‘infallible’ collections of dogmas, this does not in the least reduce his secular greatness. For example, we know today that the Leninist thesis that imperialist development necessarily leads to world war has lost its general validity in the present. Of course, only the inevitability of this development has been invalidated; but its reduction to a possibility changes its theoretical meaning as well as – especially – its practical consequences. Similarly, Lenin generalized the experiences of the First World War – ‘What a mystery is the birth of war’ – to future imperialist wars, where the future produced a quite different picture.

I have given such examples precisely to reveal Lenin’s true singularity, which has nothing, absolutely nothing to do with the bureaucratic ideal of a Stalinist monument of infallibility. Naturally, an account of Lenin’s true greatness is far beyond the scope of this book, which is much more time-bound than its subject. In the last years of his life Lenin foresaw the approaching end of the period ushered in by 1917 with incomparably greater clarity than did this study of him.

Nevertheless, the book now and then gives a hint of Lenin’s true spiritual stature, and I should like to start my exposition from these glimmers of the truth which I perceived then. It establishes that Lenin was no specialist in economics compared with his contemporaries, Hilferding and, above all, Rosa Luxemburg. But in judging the period as a whole he was far superior to them. This ‘superiority -and this is an unparalleled achievement – consists in his concrete articulation of the economic theory of imperialism with every political problem of the present epoch, thereby making the economics of the new phase a guideline for all concrete action in the resultant decisive conjuncture.’ Many of his contemporaries noted this as well; friend or foe, they often spoke of his tactical skill and grasp of realpolitik.

But such judgments miss the kernel of the matter. It was much more a purely theoretical superiority in the assessment of the process as a whole. Lenin gave this superiority a theoretically deep and rich basis. His so-called realpolitik was never that of an empirical pragmatist, but the practical culmination of an essentially theoretical attitude. With him its terminus was always an understanding of the socio-historical particularity of the given situation in which action had to be taken. For Lenin as a Marxist ‘the concrete analysis of the concrete situation is not an opposite of “pure” theory, but – on the contrary – it is the culmination of genuine theory, its consummation – the point where it breaks into practice’. Without any exaggeration it may be said that Marx’s final, definitive thesis on Feuerbach – ‘The philosophers have only interpreted the world in different ways; the point, however, is to change it’ – found its most perfect embodiment in Lenin and his work. Marx himself threw down the challenge and answered it in the realm of theory. He gave an interpretation of social reality which provided the appropriate theoretical basis for changing it. But it was only with Lenin that this theoretico-practical essence of the new Weltanschauung became – without abandoning or suppressing theory – actively embodied in historical reality.

Of course, this book makes only a modest contribution to an understanding of Lenin’s true character. It lacks a theoretically deep broad foundation. It also fails to give an idea of Lenin as a human type. I can only indicate this here. In the chain of democratic revolutions in the modern age the types of the revolutionary leader have always been polarized; figures such as Danton and Robespierre embodied these polar images both in reality and in great literature (one thinks of Georg Buchner). Even the great orators of the workers’ revolution, such as Lassalle and Trotsky, have certain Dantonesque features.

With Lenin, for the first time something completely new appears, a tertium datur to both extremes. Down to his spontaneous instincts, Lenin has the fidelity to principle of the previous great ascetics of revolution – but without a shadow of asceticism in his character. He is lively and humorous; he enjoys everything life offers, from hunting, fishing and playing chess to reading Pushkin and Tolstoy; and he is devoted to real men. This loyalty to principle can become rock-hard implacability in the Civil War; but it never implies any hatred. Lenin fights institutions – and, naturally, the men who represent them – if necessary to their complete destruction. But he treats this as an inevitable, objective necessity which is humanly deplorable, but from which he cannot withdraw in the actually given concrete struggle. Gorky records Lenin’s characteristic comments on listening to Beethoven’s Appassionato: “The Appassionato, is the most beautiful thing I know; I could listen to it every day. What wonderful, almost superhuman music! I always think with pride – perhaps it is naive of me – what marvelous things human beings can do.” Then he screwed up his eyes, smiled, and added regretfully, “But I can’t listen to music too often. It works on my nerves so that I would rather talk foolishness and stroke the heads of people who live in this filthy hell and can still create such beauty. But now is not the time to stroke heads -you might get your hand bitten off. We must hit people mercilessly on the head, even when we are ideally against any violence between men. Oh! our work is hellishly difficult.” ‘

Even with such a spontaneous emotional utterance of Lenin’s, it should be clear that this is no outbreak of his instincts against his ‘way of life’, but that here too he is strictly consistent with the imperatives of his world view. Decades before this episode the young Lenin was writing polemics against the Narodniks and their Legal Marxist critics. Analyzing the latter, he pointed out the objectivism of their proof of the necessity of a given series of facts’, and how easy it was as a result to risk finding themselves ‘in the position of apologists for these facts’. For him, the only solution was the greater consistency of Marxism in its grasp of objective reality, the uncovering of the real social roots of the facts themselves. The Marxist’s superiority over the mere objectivist lies in this consistency; he ‘applies his objectivism both more profoundly and more rigorously’. Only this superior objectivity can be the source of what Lenin calls commitment – ‘to commit yourself, when evaluating any event, directly and openly to the standpoint of a specific social group’. The subjective attitude thus always arises from objective reality and returns to it.

This can produce conflicts if the contradictions of reality reach a point of mutually exclusive opposition, and every committed man has to settle such conflicts for himself. But there is a fundamental difference between the conflict of convictions and feelings rooted in reality – in an individual’s relations – and the man in conflict who feels his own inner existence as a human being in danger. The latter is never true of Lenin. Hamlet says in highest praise of Horatio:

... And blest are those, Whose blood and judgment are so well commingled, That they are not a pipe of Fortune’s finger To sound what stops she please.

Blood and judgment: both their opposition and their unity only derive from the biological sphere as the immediate and general basis of human existence. Concretely, both express a man’s social being in his harmony or dissonance with the historical moment, in practice and in theory. Blood and judgment were well mixed in Lenin because he oriented his knowledge of society at any moment to the action that was socially necessary at the time, and because his practice always followed necessarily from the sum and system of the true insights accumulated hitherto.

Thus there was in Lenin no trace of what might remotely have appeared as self-satisfaction. Success never made him vain, failure never made him down-hearted. He insisted that there was no situation to which man could not have a practical reaction. He was one of those great men who -precisely in their life’s practice – achieved much, including the most essential. Nevertheless – or perhaps therefore -almost no one else wrote of possible or actual failures so soberly, with so little pathos: ‘The intelligent man is not one who makes no mistakes. There are no such men and cannot be. The intelligent man is one who makes no fundamental mistakes and who knows how to correct his errors swiftly and painlessly.’ This highly prosaic comment on the art of action is a more adequate expression of his essential attitude than any high-flown confession of faith. His life was one of permanent action, of continuous struggle in a world in which he was profoundly convinced that there was no situation without a solution, for himself or his opponents. The leitmotif of his life was, accordingly: always be armed ready for action – for correct action.

Lenin’s sober simplicity had therefore an overpowering effect on the masses. Again in contrast to the earlier type of great revolutionary, he was an unequalled tribune of the people, without a trace of rhetoric (compare Lassalle or Trotsky). In private as much as in public life he had a deep aversion to all phrase-mongering, bombast, or exaggeration. It is again significant that he gave this human, political distaste for anything ‘exorbitant’ an objective, philosophical basis: ‘. . . Any truth ... if exaggerated, or if extended beyond the limits of its actual applicability can be reduced to an absurdity, and is even bound to become an absurdity under these conditions.’

This means that, for Lenin, even the most general philosophical categories were never of abstract contemplative generality; they were constantly geared to practice, as vehicles of theoretical preparation for it. In the debate on trade unions he opposed Bukharin’s double-edged, mediating eclecticism by relying on the category of the totality. It is particularly characteristic of Lenin that he should apply a philosophical category in this way: ‘If we are to have a true knowledge of an object we must look at and experience all its facets, its connections and “mediacies.” That is something we cannot ever hope to achieve completely, but the rule of comprehensiveness is a safeguard against mistakes and rigidity.’ It is instructive to see here how an abstract philosophical category, deepened by epistemological provisos governing its application, serves directly as an imperative to correct practice.

This attitude of Lenin’s is if possible even more clearly expressed in the debate over the peace of Brest-Litovsk. It is now an historical commonplace that he was correct in his realpolitik as against the Left Communists who, on internationalist grounds, argued for the support of the coming German Revolution with a revolutionary war, thus gambling with the very existence of the Russian Soviet Republic. But Lenin’s correct practice here rested on a deep theoretical analysis of the particularity of the development of the revolution as a whole. The priority of the world revolution over any single event, he said, was a genuine (and therefore practical) truth, ‘if we are not to ignore the long and difficult road to the total victory of socialism’. But, with respect to the theoretical particularity of that concrete situation, he added that ‘any abstract truth becomes a catch-word if it is applied to each and every concrete situation.” The difference between truth and revolutionary phraseology as the basis of practice is, therefore, that whereas the former derives from the exact state of the revolutionary struggle necessary and possible at the time, the latter does not. The noblest feelings, the most selfless devotion, become mere phrases if the theoretical essence of the situation (its particularity) allows no genuine revolutionary practice. Such a practice does not necessarily have to be successful. In the 1905 Revolution, Lenin passionately opposed Plekhanov’s verdict on the defeat of the armed uprising in Moscow, that ‘we should not have taken up arms’, on the grounds that this defeat itself furthered the revolutionary process as a whole. Any analogy, any confusion of the abstract with the concrete, of the universal with the actual, leads immediately to empty phrases; for example, the comparison of France in 1792-3 and Russia in 1918 which was frequently employed during the Brest-Litovsk debate. Similarly, when the German Communists drafted some highly intelligent, self-critical theses after the Kapp Putsch in 1920, as guide-lines for the eventuality of the recurrence of such a putsch, Lenin is reported to have asked them: How do you know that German Reaction will repeat such a coup at all?

Such responses have behind them Lenin’s life of continuous self-education. At the outbreak of war in 1914, after a series of adventures with the police, he landed up in Switzerland. Once arrived, he decided that his first task was to make the best use of this ‘holiday’ and to study Hegel’s Logic. Similarly, when he was living illegally in a worker’s house after the events of July 1917, he remarked how the latter praised the bread before the midday meal: ‘So “they” don’t even dare give us bad bread now.’ Lenin was astonished and delighted by this ‘class appraisal of the July days’. He thought of his own complex analyses of this event and the tasks they posed. ‘As for bread, I, who had not known want, did not give it a thought. ... The mind approaches the foundation of everything, the class struggle for bread, through political analysis by an extremely complex and devious path.’ Through his life, Lenin was always learning; whether it was from Hegel’s Logic or from the opinion of a worker on bread.

Permanent self-education, constant openness to the new lessons of experience, is one of the essential dimensions of the absolute priority of practice in Lenin’s life. This – and above all the form of his self-education – created the unbridgeable gap between him and all empiricists or power-politicians. For he did not merely express his insistence on the category of the totality as basis and measure of politics polemically and pedagogically. The demands he made on himself were more stringent than those he made on his most valued collaborators. Universality, totality and concrete uniqueness are decisive features of the reality in which action should and must be taken; the extent to which they are understood is therefore the measure of the true efficacy of any practice.

Of course, history may produce situations which contradict previously recognized theories. There may even be situations which make it impossible to act according to principles which are true and known to be true. For example, before October 1917 Lenin correctly predicted that, given the economic backwardness of Russia, a transitional form, such as what later became the NEP, would be indispensable. But the Civil War and intervention forced so-called War Communism on the Soviets.

Lenin gave way to this factual necessity – but without giving up his theoretical conviction. He carried out as efficiently as possible all the dictates of War Communism the situation demanded, without – unlike most of his contemporaries – ever for a moment regarding War Communism as a genuine transitional form of socialism, and was absolutely determined to return to the theoretically correct line of the NEP as soon as the Civil War and intervention came to an end. In both cases he was neither an empiricist nor a dogmatist, but rather a theoretician of practice, a practitioner of theory.

Just as What is to be Done? is a symbolic title for his whole literary activity, so the theoretical basis of this work is a preliminary thesis of his whole world outlook. He established that the spontaneous class struggle of the strike, even if properly organized, only produces the germs of class-consciousness in the proletariat. The workers still lack ‘knowledge of the irreconcilable opposition of their interests to the whole present political and social regime’. Once again, it is the totality which correctly points the way to the class-consciousness directed towards revolutionary practice. Without orientation towards totality there can be no historically true practice. But knowledge of the totality is never spontaneous, it must always be brought into activity ‘from the outside’, that is, theoretically.

The predominance of practice is therefore only realizable on the basis of a theory which aims to be all-embracing. But, as Lenin well knew, the totality of being as it unfolds objectively is infinite, and therefore can never be adequately grasped. A vicious circle seems to develop between the infinity of knowledge and the ever-present dictates of correct, immediate action. But this abstract-theoretical insolubility can – like the Gordian knot – be cut through practically. The only sword suitable for this is that human attitude for which once again we must refer to Shakespeare: ‘The readiness is all’. One of Lenin’s most characteristic and creative traits was that he never ceased to learn theoretically from reality, while remaining ever equally ready for action. This determines one of the most striking and apparently paradoxical attributes of his theoretical style: he never saw his lessons from reality as closed, but what he had already learned from it was so organized and directed in him that action was possible at any given moment.

I was lucky enough to witness Lenin at one of these innumerable moments. It was in 1921. There was a session of the Czech Committee at the Third Congress of the Comintern. The questions were extremely complex, and opinions irreconcilable. Suddenly Lenin walked in. Everyone asked him for his opinion of the Czech problems. He refused. He said he had tried to give the material proper attention, but such pressing affairs of state had intervened that he got no further than hurriedly leafing through the two newspapers he was carrying with him, stuffed in his coat pocket. Only after many requests did he agree to communicate at least his impressions of these newspapers. Lenin took them out of his pocket and began a quite unsystematic, improvised analysis, beginning with the leading article and ending with the day’s news. This impromptu sketch became the deepest analysis of the situation in Czechoslovakia and the tasks of its Communist Party.

Obviously, as a man of readiness and constancy, in the reciprocal relation of theory and practice Lenin always opted for the priority of practice. He did this in striking fashion at the end of his major theoretical work of the first period of the Revolution, State and Revolution, This was written in hiding after the July days, but he was never able to complete the last chapter on the experience of the 1905 and 1917 Revolutions; the development of the Revolution did not allow him to do so. In the postscript he wrote: ‘It is more pleasant and useful to go through the “experience of the revolution” than to write about it.’ He said this with a deep sincerity. We know that he always exerted himself to make up for this omission. It was not he but the course of events that made it impossible.

There has been an important change in human attitudes over the last centuries: the ideal of the Stoic-Epicurean ‘sage’ has had a very strong influence on our ethical, political and social opinions, well beyond the limits of academic philosophy. But this influence was equally an inner transformation: the active-practical element in this prototype has become far stronger than in ancient times. Lenin’s permanent readiness is the latest and till now the highest and most important stage of this development. The fact that today, as manipulation absorbs practice and the ‘end of ideology’ absorbs theory, this ideal does not stand very high in the eyes of the ‘experts’, is merely an episode, measured against the march of world history. Beyond the significance of his actions and his writings, the figure of Lenin as the very embodiment of permanent readiness represents an ineradicable value – a new form of exemplary attitude to reality.

Budapest, January 1967