Anton Pannekoek

Lenin as Philosopher


The Russian Revolution was fought under the banner of Marxism. In the years of propaganda before the First World War the Bolshevist Party came forward as the champion of Marxist ideas and tactics. It worked along with the radical tendencies in the socialist parties of Western Europe, which were also steeped in Marxian theory, whereas the Menshevist Party corresponded rather to the reformist tendencies over here. In theoretical controversies the Bolshevist authors, besides the so-called Austrian and Dutch schools of Marxism, came forward as the defenders of rigid Marxist doctrines. In the Revolution the Bolshevists, who now had adopted the name of Communist Party, could win because they put up as the leading principle of their fight the class war of the working masses against the bourgeoisie. Thus Lenin and his party, in theory and practice, stood as the foremost representatives of Marxism.

Then, however, a contradiction appeared. In Russia a system of state-capitalism consolidated itself, not by deviating from but by following Lenin’s ideas (e.g. in his State and Revolution). A new dominating and exploiting class came into power over the working class. But at the same time Marxism was fostered, and proclaimed the fundamental basis of the Russian state. In Moscow a “Marx-Engels Institute” was founded that collected with care and reverence all the well-nigh lost and forgotten works and manuscripts of the masters and published them in excellent editions. Whereas the Communist Parties, directed by the Moscow Comintern, refer to Marxism as their guiding doctrine, they meet with more and more opposition from the most advanced workers in Western Europe and America, most radically from the ranks of Council-communism. These contradictions, extending over all important problems of life and of the social struggle, can be cleared up only by penetrating into the deepest, i.e. the philosophical, principles of what is called Marxism in these different trends of thought.

Lenin gave an exposition of his philosophical ideas in his work Materialism and Empirio-Criticism that appeared in Russian in 1908, and was published in 1927 in German and in English translations. Some of the Russian socialist intellectuals about 1904 had taken an interest in modern Western natural philosophy, especially in the ideas of Ernst Mach, and tried to combine these with Marxism. A kind of “Machism”, with Bogdanov, Lenin’s most intimate collaborator, and Lunatcharsky as spokesmen, developed as an influential trend in the socialist party. After the first revolution the strife flared up again, connected as it was with all the various tactical and practical differences in the socialist movement. Then Lenin took a decisive stand against these deviations and, aided by Plechanov, the ablest representative of Marxian theory among the Russians, soon succeeded in destroying the influences of Machism in the socialist party.

In the Introduction to the German and English editions of Lenin’s book, Deborin – at that time the official interpreter of Leninism, but afterwards disgraced – exalts the importance of the collaboration of the two foremost theoretical leaders for the definite victory of true Marxism over all anti-marxist, reformist trends.

“Lenin’s book is not only an important contribution to philosophy, but it is also a remarkable document of an intra-party struggle which was of utmost importance in strengthening the general philosophical foundations of Marxism and Leninism, and which to a great degree determined the subsequent growth of philosophical thought amongst the Russian Marxists ... Unfortunately, matters are different beyond the borders of the Soviet Union ... where Kantian scholasticism and positivistic idealism are in full bloom.”

Since the importance of Lenin’s book is so strongly emphasised here, it is necessary to make it the subject of a serious critical study. The doctrine of Party-Communism of the Third International cannot be judged adequately unless their philosophical basis is thoroughly examined.

Marx’s studies on society, which for a century now have been dominating and shaping the workers’ movement in increased measure, took their form from German philosophy. They cannot be understood without a study of the spiritual and political developments of the European world. Thus it is with other social and philosophical trends and with other schools of materialism developing besides Marxism. Thus it is, too, with the theoretical ideas underlying the Russian revolution. Only by comparing these different systems of thought as to their social origin and their philosophical contents can we arrive at a well-founded judgement.


Last updated on 2.7.2004