Leon Trotsky

How Lenin Studied Marx


Written: 1936.
Source: Fourth International [New York], Vol.11 No.4, July-August 1950, pp.126-128.
Online Version: Marxists Internet Archive, 2003.
Transcribed/HTML Markup: David Walters in 2003.
Copyleft: Leon Trotsky Internet Archive www.marx.org) 2003. Permission is granted to copy and/or distribute this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License.

Leon Trotsky devoted many years to the writing of a biography of Lenin, a work he was unfortunately never able to complete. He did, however, finish those chapters which deal with Lenin’s youth; these were published in 1936 in France. The section on how Lenin pursued his Marxist studies comes from one of the chapters The Stages of Development of this volume dealing with Lenin’s youth. – Editors of Fourth International

Unfortunately, no one has told us how Lenin pursued his Marxist studies. Nothing has come down to us except a few superficial and very limited observations. “He spent whole days studying Marx, making digests, copying passages, jotting down notes,” wrote Yasneva. “It was then difficult to tear him away from his work.”

Lenin’s digests of Capital have not come down to us. The only basis for reconstructing this young athlete’s work on Marx is provided by the notebooks he compiled in his studies during the subsequent years. While still in high school, Vladimir invariably began his compositions by first working out a finished plan which was later supplemented with arguments and suitable quotations. In this creative process he exhibited a quality which Ferdinand Lassalle correctly designated as the physical force of thought.

Study, which is not merely a mechanical repetition, also involves a creative effort, but of an inverse type: To summarize another man’s work is to lay bare the skeletal framework of its logic, stripping away the proofs, the illustrations arid the digressions. Joyously and fervently Vladimir advanced along this difficult road, summarizing each chapter, sometimes a single page, as he read and thought and verified the logical structure, the dialectical transitions, the terminology. Taking possession of the results, he assimilated the method. He climbed the successive rungs of another man’s system as if he were himself constructing it anew. All of it became firmly lodged in this marvelously well-ordered brain beneath the powerful dome of the skull.

The Formative Stage

For the rest of his life, Lenin never departed from the Russian politico-economic terminology which he assimilated or elaborated during the Samara period. This was not owing to obstinacy alone, although intellectual obstinacy was characteristic of him to the highest degree. It was because, from his earliest years, he became used to making a strictly calculated choice, deliberating over each term in all of its various aspects until within his consciousness it had become fused with a whole cycle of concepts.

The first and second volumes of Capital were Vladimir’s basic manuals at Alakayevka and Samara for the third volume had not yet appeared at the time: Marx’s rough draft was just being put in order by the aged Engels. Vladimir had studied Capital so well that each time he returned to it thereafter, he was able to discover new ideas in it. As early as the Samara period he had learned, as he used to say in later years, to “take counsel” with Marx.

Before the books of the master, impertinence and banter automatically departed from this altered spirit who was capable of the deepest gratitude. To follow the development of Marx’s thought, to feel its irresistible power, to discover deductions from incidental phrases or remarks, to renew each time his conviction of the truth and profundity of Marx’s sarcasm and to bow down with gratitude before this relentless genius – this became for Vladimir not only a necessity but a joy. Marx never had a more attentive reader or one in closer harmony with him, nor did Marx have a better, more perceptive and grateful disciple.

“With him Marxism was not a conviction, but a religion,” wrote Vodosov. “In him one feels a degree of conviction that is incompatible with a genuine scientific approach.” For a philistine no sociology merits the designation “scientific” except the one which leaves intact his right to keep on vacillating. To be sure, Oulianov, as Vodosovov himself testifies, “was deeply interested in all the objections raised against Marxism and reflected upon them”; but he did so “not for the sake of seeking out the truth,” but simply to uncover in these objections some error “of whose existence he was already convinced in advance.”

There is an element of truth in this characterization, namely: Oulianov had accepted Marxism as the ripest product of the entire previous evolution of human thought; he had no desire, after attaining this high level, to descend to a lower one; he defended with indomitable energy those ideas over which he had been pondering and which he was verifying every day of his life; and he regarded with preconceived mistrust the attempts of conceited ignoramuses and erudite mediocrities to substitute a more “acceptable” theory for Marxism.

When it comes to such fields as technology or medicine, routinism, dilettantism and medicine, man mumbo-jumbo are held in justifiable mistrust. But in the field of sociology these come to the fore in every instance in the guise of a free scientific spirit. Those for whom theory is merely a mental toy, flit easily from one revelation to another or more often still remain content with an agglomeration of crumbs from the different revelations. Infinitely more exacting, rigorous and well-balanced is he who views theory as a guide to action. A drawing room skeptic may scoff at medicine with impunity, but a surgeon cannot live in an atmosphere of scientific uncertainty. The greater is the revolutionist’s need for theory as a guide to action, all the more intransigeant is he in guarding it. Vladimir Oulianov mistrusted dilettantism and detested quacks. What he valued above afl else in Marxism was the severe discipline and authority of its method.

In 1893 appeared the last books of V. Vorontsov (V.V.) and N. Danielson (Nikolaion). These two Populist economists argued with enviable tenacity that capitalist development in Russia was impossible, just at a time when Russian capitalism was preparing to take an especially vigorous leap forward. It is improbable that the fading Populists of that day read the tardy revelations of their theoreticians as attentively as did the young Marxist at Samara. Oulianov had to know his adversaries not only in order to be able to refute their writings. He was above all seeking an inward certainty for the struggle. It is true that he studied reality in a polemical spirit, directing all his arguments at the time against Populism which had outlived itself; but to no one else was pure polemic as an end in itself more alien than to this future author of twenty-seven volumes of polemical writings. He had to know life as it is.

The nearer Vladimir came to the problems of the Russian revolution and the more he became acquainted with Plekhanov, all the greater became his esteem for Plekhanov’s critical works. The current falsifiers of the history of Russian Bolshevism (like Presniakov) write tomes on the topic of the “spontaneous birth of Marxism on Russian soil free from any direct influence of the émigré group and of Plekhanov” – and, it ought to be added, free from Marx himself, who was the émigré par excellence. And they convert Lenin into the founder of this genuinely native Russian “Marxism” from which the theory and practice of “socialism in one country” was later to flow.

The doctrine of the spontaneous birth of Marxism as a direct “reflection” of Russia’s capitalist development is itself an execrable caricature of Marxism. The economic process does not find its reflection in “pure” consciousness in all its native ignorance; it finds its expression in the historic consciousness, enriched by all the past conquests of mankind. It was possible for the class struggle in capitalist society to lead to Marxism in the middle of the Nineteenth Century only because the dialectical method was then already at hand, as the achievement of German classical philosophy; only because of the political economy of Adam Smith and David Ricardo in England; only because of the revolutionary and socialist doctrines of France which rose out of the Great Revolution. The internationalist character of Marxism inheres, therefore, in the very origins of its own birth. The growth of the power of well-to-do peasants (kulaks) on the Volga and the development of metallurgy in the Urals were utterly inadequate to bring about independently the selfsame scientific results. It is not mere coincidence that the Emancipation of Labor Group came to be born abroad: Russian Marxism first saw the light of day not as an automatic product of Russian capitalism like sugar-beet crops and the poor cotton cloth (for the manufacture of which, moreover, machines had to be imported), but as a complex of the entire experience of the Russian revolutionary struggle coupled with the theory of scientific socialism originating in the West. The Marxist generation of the Nineties rose on the foundations laid by Plekhanov.

How Spiritual Paupers “Exalt” Lenin

To appreciate Lenin’s historic contribution there is no need whatever to try to show that from his early years he was obliged to break the virgin soil with a plow of his own. “There were almost no comprehensive works available,” writes Elisarova parroting Kamenev and others. “It was necessary for him to study the original sources and draw from them his own deductions.” Nothing could be more offensive to Lenin’s own rigorous scientific scrupulousness than this claim that he took no account of his predecessors and teachers. Nor is it true that in the early Nineties Russian Marxism possessed no comprehensive works.

The publications of the Emancipation of Labor Group already constituted at the time an abridged encyclopedia of the new tendency. After six years of brilliant and heroic struggle against the prejudices of the Russian intelligentsia, Plekhanov proclaimed in 1889 at the Socialist World Congress in Paris, “The revolutionary movement in Russia can triumph only as the revolutionary working-class movement. There is and there can be no other way out for us.” These words summed up the most important general conclusion from the entire preceding epoch and it was on, the basis of this generalization of an “émigré” that Vladimir pursued his education on the Volga.

Vodovosov writes in his memoirs, “Lenin used to speak of Plekhanov with profound feeling, especially about (Plekhanov’s book) Our Differences.” Lenin must have indeed expressed his feelings very vividly for Vodovosov to be able to recall them after a lapse of more than thirty years. The main strength of Our Differences lies in its treatment of revolutionary policy as indissolubly linked with the materialist conception of history and with the analysis of Russia’s economic development. Oulianov’s first pronouncements at Samara against the Populists are thus closely associated with his warm appreciation of the work of the founder of the Russian Social Democracy. Next to Marx and Engels, Vladimir was most indebted, to Plekhanov.

Toward the end of 1922, while referring in passing to the early Nineties, Lenin wrote: “Soon after this Marxism, as a tendency, began to broaden, moving in the Social-Democratic direction proclaimed much earlier in Western Europe by the Emancipation of Labor Group.” These lines, which sum up the history of the development of an entire generation, also contain a part of Lenin’s own autobiography. Starting out in the Marxist tendency with an economic and historical doctrine, he became a Social Democrat under the influence of the ideas of the Emancipation of Labor Group which far outstripped the development of the Russian intelligentsia. Only spiritual paupers can imagine that they exalt Lenin by attributing to his natural father, the State Councillor Oulianov, revolutionary opinions which he never held, while at the same time minimizing the revolutionary role of the émigré Plekhanov, whom Lenin himself considered as his spiritual father.

At Kazan, Samara and Alakayevka, Vladimir thought of himself as pupil. But just as great painters in their youth display their own independent brush stroke even while copying pictures by old masters, just so Vladimir Oulianov brought to his apprenticeship such vigor of thought and initiative that it is difficult to draw a line of demarcation between what he assimilated from others and what he elaborated himself. During the final preparatory year at Samara, this line of demarcation became definitively obliterated: the apprentice becomes an independent investigator.

A Historic Controversy

The controversy with the Populists passed naturally to the field of current developments, of evaluating whether or not capitalism was continuing to grow in Russia. Diagrams representing the number of factory chimneys and of industrial workers as well as those showing the differentiation among the peasantry took on a special meaning. To determine the dynamics of the process it was necessary to compare today’s figures with those of yesterday. Economic statistics thus became the science of sciences. Columns of figures held the key to the mystery of Russia’s destiny and that of its intelligentsia and of its revolution. Even the census of horses taken periodically by the military administration was called upon to give an answer to the question: Who was the stronger, Karl Marx or the Russian village commune?

The statistical material in Plekhanov’s early works could not have been very rich: the statistics of the Zemstvos, of exceptional value for the study of village economy, became developed only during the Eighties; moreover, the publications containing these statistics were rarely accessible to an emigre who was almost completely isolated from Russia during those years. Nevertheless, Plekhanov indicated with complete accuracy the general direction of scientific work to be undertaken on the basis of statistical data. The early statisticians of the new school followed this road. M.A. Hourwich, an American professor of Russian origin, published in 1886 and 1892 two essays on the Russian village which Vladimir Oulianov valued highly and which he used as models. Lenin never let slip an opportunity to give recognition to the works of his predecessors.

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Last updated on: 19.4.2007