Anton Pannekoek

Lenin as Philosopher

Chapter 8
The Proletarian Revolution

The publication first of a German, then of an English translation of Lenin’s work shows that it was meant to play a wider role than its function in the old Russian party conflict. It is presented now to the younger generation of socialists and communists in order to influence the international workers’ movement. So we ask what can the workers in capitalist countries learn from it? Of the refuted philosophical ideas it gives a distorted view; and under the name of Marxism another theory, middle class materialism is expounded. It does not aim at bringing the reader to a clear independent judgement in philosophical questions; it intends to instruct him that the Party is right, and that he has to trust and to follow the party leaders. What way is it that this party leader shows to the international proletariat? Let us read Lenin’s view of the world-contest of the classes in his final sentences: “... behind the epistemological scholasticism of empirio-criticism it is impossible not to see the struggle of parties in philosophy, a struggle which in the last analysis rejects the tendencies and ideology of the antagonistic classes in modern society ... The contending parties are essentially ... materialism and idealism. The latter is merely a subtle, refined form of fideism, which stands fully armed, commands vast organisations and steadily continues to exercise influence on the masses, turning the slightest vacillation in philosophical thought to its own advantage. The objective class role played by empirio-criticism entirely consists in rendering faithful service to the fideists in their struggle against materialism in general and Historical Materialism in particular.” (371)

Nothing here of the immense power of the foe, the bourgeoisie, master of all the riches of the world, against which the working class hardly can make any progress. Nothing of its spiritual power over the minds of the workers, still strongly dominated by middle-class culture and hardly able to overcome it in a continuous struggle for knowledge. Nothing of the new powerful ideologies of nationalism and imperialism threatening to gain a hold over the workers too, and indeed, soon afterwards, dragging them along into the world war. No, the Church, the organisation of “fideism” in full armour, that is to Lenin the most dangerous hostile power. The fight of materialism against religious belief is to him the theoretical fight accompanying the class struggle. The limited theoretical opposition between the former and the later ruling class appears to him the great world fight of ideas which he connects with the proletarian class fight, the essence and ideas of which lie far outside his view. Thus in Lenin’s philosophy the Russian scheme is transferred upon Western Europe and America, the anti-religious tendency of a rising bourgeoisie is transferred to the rise of the proletariat. Just as among German reformists at that time the division was made between “reaction” and “progress” and not according to class but according to political ideology – thus confusing the workers – so here it is made according to religious ideology, between reactionaries and free-thinkers, instead of establishing its class-unity against bourgeoisie and State, to get mastery over production, the Western proletarian class is invited to take up the fight against religion. If this book and these ideas of Lenin had been known in 1918 among Western Marxists, surely there would have been a more critical attitude against his tactics for world revolution.

The Third International aims at a world revolution after the model of the Russian revolution and with the same goal. The Russian economic system is state capitalism, there called state-socialism or even communism, with production directed by a state bureaucracy under the leadership of the Communist Party. The state officials, forming the new ruling class, have the disposal over the product, hence over the surplus-value, whereas the workers receive wages only, thus forming an exploited class. In this way it has been possible in the short time of some dozens of years to transform Russia from a primitive barbarous country into a modern state of rapidly increasing industry on the basis of advanced science and technics. According to Communist Party ideas, a similar revolution is needed in the capitalist countries, with the working class again as the active power, leading to the overthrow of the bourgeoisie and the organisation of production by a state bureaucracy. The Russian revolution could be victorious only because a well-disciplined united bolshevist party led the masses, and because in the party the clear insight and the unyielding assurance of Lenin and his friends showed the right way. Thus, in the same way, in world revolution the workers have to follow the Communist Party, leave to it the lead and afterwards the government; and the party members have to obey their leaders in rigid discipline. Essential are the qualified capable party leaders, the proficient, experienced revolutionaries; what is necessary for the masses is the belief that the party and its leaders are right.

In reality, for the working class in the countries of developed capitalism, in Western Europe and America, matters are entirely different. Its task is not the overthrow of a backward absolutist monarchy. Its task is to vanquish a ruling class commanding the mightiest material and spiritual forces the world ever knew. Its object cannot be to replace the domination of stockjobbers and monopolists over a disorderly production by the domination of state officials over a production regulated from above. Its object is to be itself master of production and itself to regulate labour, the basis of life. Only then is capitalism really destroyed. Such an aim cannot be attained by an ignorant mass, confident followers of a party presenting itself as an expert leadership. It can be attained only if the workers themselves, the entire class, understand the conditions, ways and means of their fight; when every man knows from his own judgement, what to do. They must, every man of them, act themselves, decide themselves, hence think out and know for themselves. Only in this way will a real class organisation be built up from below, having the form of something like workers’ councils. It is of no avail that they have been convinced that their leaders know what is afoot and have gained the point in theoretical discussion – an easy thing when each is acquainted with the writings of his own party only. Out of the contest of arguments they have to form a clear opinion themselves. There is no truth lying ready at hand that has only to be imbibed; in every new case truth must be contrived by exertion of one’s own brain.

This does not mean, of course, that every worker should judge on scientific arguments in fields, that can be mastered only by professional study. It means, first, that all workers should give attention not only to their direct working and living conditions but also to the great social issues connected with their class struggle and the organisation of labour; and should know how to take decisions here. But it implies, secondly, a certain standard of argument in propaganda and political strife. When the views of the opponent are rendered in a distorted way because the willingness or the capacity to understand them is lacking, then in the eyes of the believing adherents you may score a success; but the only result – intended indeed in party strife – is to bind them with stronger fanaticism to the party. For the workers however, what is of importance is not the increase of power of a party but the increase of their own capacity to seize power and to establish their mastery over society. Only when, in arguing and discussing, the opponent is given his full pound, when in weighing arguments against one another each solid opinion is understood out of social class relations, will the participant hearers gain such well-founded insight as is necessary for a working class to assure its freedom.

The working class needs Marxism for its liberation. Just as the results of natural science are necessary for the technical construction of capitalism, so the results of social science are necessary for the organisational construction of communism. What was needed first was political economy, that part of Marxism that expounds the structure of capitalism, the nature of exploitation, the class-antagonism, the tendencies of economic development. It gave, directly, a solid basis to the spontaneously arising fight of the workers against the capitalist masters. Then, in the further struggle, by its theory of the development of society from primitive economy through capitalism to communism, it gave confidence and enthusiasm through the prospect of victory and freedom. When the not yet numerous workers took up their most difficult fight, and the hopeless indifferent masses had to be roused, this insight was the first thing needed.

When the working class has grown more numerous, more powerful, and society is full of the proletarian class struggle, another part of Marxism has to come to the forefront. That they should know that they are exploited and have to fight, is not the main point any more; they must know how to fight, how to overcome their weakness, how to build up their unity and strength. Their economic position is so easy to understand, their exploitation so manifest that their unity in struggle, their common will to seize power over production should presumably result at once. What hampers them is chiefly the power of the inherited and confused ideas, the formidable spiritual power of the middle-class world [1], enveloping their minds into a thick cloud of beliefs and ideologies, dividing them, and making them uncertain and confused. The process of enlightenment, of clearing up and vanquishing this world of old ideas and ideologies is the essential process of building the working-class power, is the progress of revolution. Here that part of Marxism is needed that we call its philosophy, the relation of ideas to reality.

Among these ideologies the least significant is religion. As the withered husk of a system of ideas reflecting conditions of a far past, it has only an imaginary power as a refuge for all, who are frightened by capitalist development. Its basis has been continually undermined by capitalism itself. Middle-class philosophy then put up in its place the belief in all those lesser idols, deified abstractions, such as matter, force causality in nature, liberty and progress in society. In modern times these now forsaken idols have been replaced by new, more powerful objects of veneration: state and nation. In the struggle of the old and the new bourgeoisies for world power, nationalism, now the most needed ideology, rose to such power as to carry with it even broad masses of the workers. Most important are, besides such spiritual powers as democracy, organisation, union, party, because they have their roots in the working class itself as results of their life practice, their own struggle. Just because there is connected with them the remembrance of passionate exertion, of devoted sacrifices, of feverish concern with victory or defeat, their merit – which is bound as a class tool to those particular past times and conditions – is exalted to the belief in their absolute excellence. That makes the transition to new necessities under new conditions difficult. The conditions of life frequently compel the workers to take up new forms of fight; but the old traditions can hamper and retard it in a serious way. In the continuous contest between inherited ideology and practical needs, it is essential for the workers to understand that their ideas are not independently existing truths but generalisations of former experiences and necessities; that human mind always has the tendency to assign to such ideas an unlimited validity, as absolutely good or bad, venerated or hated, and thus makes the people slaves to superstition; but that by understanding limits and conditions, superstition is vanquished and thought is made free. And, conversely, what is recognised as the lasting interest, as the essential basis of the fight for his class, must be unerringly kept in mind – though without being deified – as the brilliant guiding star in all action. This – besides its use as explanation of daily experience and class struggle – is the significance of Marxian philosophy, the doctrine of the connection of world and mind, as conceived by Marx, Engels, and Dietzgen; this gives strength to the working class to accomplish its great task of self-liberation.

Lenin’s book, on the other hand, tries to impose upon the readers, the author’s belief in the reality of abstractions. So it cannot be helpful in any way for the workers’ task. And as a matter of fact its publication in Western languages was not meant to be that. Workers aiming at the self-liberation of their class stand beyond the horizon of the Communist Party. What the Communist Party can see is the competitor, the rival party, the Second International trying to keep the leadership over the working class. As Deborin was quoted in the Preface, the aim of the publication was to win social-democracy, corrupted by middle class idealistic philosophy, back to materialism – or else to browbeat it by the more captivating radical terms of materialism – as a theoretical contribution to the Red Front. For the rising class-movement of the workers it matters little which of these unmarxian party-lines of thought should get the upper hand.

But in another way Lenin’s philosophy may be of importance for their struggle. The aim of the Communist Party – which is called world-revolution – is to bring to power, by means of the fighting force of the workers, a layer of leaders who then establish planned production by means of State-Power; in its essence it coincides with the aims of social democracy. The social ideals growing up in the minds of the intellectual class now that it feels its increasing importance in the process of production: a well-ordered organisation of production for use under the direction of technical and scientific experts – are hardly different. So the Communist Party considers this class its natural allies which it has to draw into its circle. By an able theoretical propaganda it tries to detach the intelligentsia from the spiritual influences of the declining bourgeoisie and of private capitalism, and to win them for the revolution that will put them into their proper place as a new leading and ruling class. Or, in philosophical terms, to win them for materialism. A revolution cannot be made with the meek, softening ideology of a system of idealism, but only under the inspiring daring radicalism of materialist thought. For this the foundation is afforded by Lenin’s book. On this basis an extensive literature of articles, reviews, and books has already been published, first in German and then in still greater numbers in English, in Europe and in America, with the collaboration of well-known Russian scholars and Western scientists sympathising with the Communist Party. The contents of these writings make clear at first sight that they are not destined for the working class but for the intellectuals of these countries. Leninism is here expounded before them – under the name of Marxism, or “dialectics” – and they are told that it is the fundamental all-embracing world-doctrine, in which the special sciences must be seen as subordinate parts. It is clear that with real Marxism, as the theory of the real proletarian revolution, such a propaganda would have no chance; but with Leninism, as a theory of middle-class revolution installing a new ruling class, it might be successful.

There is of course this difficulty, that the intellectual class is too limited in number, too heterogeneous in social position, hence too feeble to be able single-handed to seriously threaten capitalist domination. Neither are the leaders of the Second and the Third International a match for the power of the bourgeoisie, even if they could impose themselves by strong and dear politics instead of being rotten through opportunism, When, however, capitalism is tumbling into a heavy economic or political crisis which rouses the masses, when the working class has taken up the fight and succeeds in shattering capitalism in a first victory – then their time will come. Then they will intervene and slide themselves in as leaders of the revolution, nominally to give their aid by taking part in the fight, in reality to deflect the action in the direction of their party aims. Whether or not the beaten bourgeoisie will then rally with them to save of capitalism what can be saved, in any case their intervention comes down to cheating the workers, leading them off from the road to freedom.

Here we see the possible significance of Lenin’s book for the future working-class movement. The Communist Party, though it may lose ground among the workers, tries to form with the socialists and the intellectual class a united front, ready at the first major crisis of capitalism to take in its hands the power over and against the workers. Leninism and its philosophical textbook then will serve, under the name of Marxism, to overawe the workers and to impose upon the intellectuals, as the leading system of thought by which the reactionary spiritual powers are beaten, Thus the fighting working class, basing itself upon Marxism, will find Lenin’s philosophical work a stumbling-block in its way, as the theory of a class that tries to perpetuate its serfdom.



1. The phrase “middle class” is here used as a translation for the German word “bürgerlich”. The more modern term used in Marxist discourse for this concept is “bourgeois” (i.e. relating to the capitalist or bourgeois class) in order to distinguish it from the rather imprecise term “middle class”, which is often used as a broad description for white-collar workers, professionals, the self-employed etc. Similarly when this text refers to “the middle class” it is referring to the bourgeoisie or capitalist class. (Note by MIA)


Last updated on 2.7.2004