Lenin on Dialectical Materialism. Lenin’s writings about the party, and indeed everything he wrote, clearly reveal him as a man of action, an astute and not overscrupulous political operator prepared to manipulate his Marxism, as he habitually manipulated his allies, for his own purposes. There was, however, another and a surprising side to his character which he rarely revealed.
The notion of dialectic fascinated him. He studied it not only in Marx but also in Hegel from whose logic the concept was derived, and he filled many notebooks with his reflections on it. In a sense he was obsessed with the philosophical mystery of the relation between thought and reality, or knowledge and action, and he believed that dialectic was the key to the mystery.
This was the root of his fanatical faith in Marxism, for he took at face value Marx’s thesis on Feuerbach, that philosophers have only interpreted the world but the point is to change it. The dialectic, Lenin wrote in one of his notebooks, is the idea of the universal, all sided, living connection of everything with everything, and the reflection of this connection in the conceptions of man.
Here as always when Lenin says everything, he is thinking of events in a social history, where every event directly or indirectly seems related with past and future and with all other events in an infinitely complicated tangle of opposing and cooperating forces.
Yet always, he believed, there is one master relationship or knot which, being untied, loosens the whole tangle. And thought in some mysterious way duplicates it all-reflects is Lenin’s habitual metaphor-analyzes it, finds he knot, and makes it possible to recombine the parts in a new pattern.
Yet thought by itself is only a series of abstractions, images, pictures, while in living life the abstractions in some strange way go together to make something new and unique. Life is perpetually novel, is filled with genuine possibilities that might turn out one way or another, is more original than can be predicted; or as Hegel said an aphorism that Lenin liked, no nation ever learns anything from history.
Yet paradoxically there is no way to learn except from life, from experience, or from history. And though all the rules that can be distilled from life break down they must never be followed mechanically as if the new were only a repetition of the old-by understanding the rules there may come the flash of insight that enables one to see the next step.
Dialectic meant for Lenin this union of abstraction and insight, or of dogmatism and improvisation, which his leadership so often exemplified. It stands, so to speak, between past and present providing knowledge of that has been and vision of what must be. Hence it was a perpetual object of wonder to Lenin-something like science but perhaps even more like magic.
One book that Lenin wrote purported to deal seriously with this sort of subject his Materialism and Empiric-Criticism (1909). Overtly it discussed the dialectic, its relation to the natural and social sciences and to philosophical systems like materialism, idealism, and scientific positivism, But anyone who turns to it in the hope of finding an explication cation of Lenin’s quite genuine concern with dialectic will be disappointed, though one may learn something about his intellectual outlook and his way of operating.
In point of fact the book was written was an incident in one of the party quarrels in which he was perpetrate. Several members of his faction who had joined him becomes they agreed with Bolshevik tactics, had long been attracted by neo-Kantianism, a prevailing tendency of German philosophy at the close of the nineteenth century.
This Interest had never been a secret, and Lenin had tolerated the doctrinal heresy in order to retain the cooperation in the party. By 1909 one of them had gained influence ~ enough to threaten Lenin’s leadership, and Lenin decided to tolerate heresy no longer.
His book was one move in a party purge. If Lenin had wished merely to prove that anyone who tried to be a Marxist and a Kantian at the same time was muddle-headed, he would have been well within the facts. There were, to be sure, occasional passages, mentioned in the preceding chapter, in which Marx and Engels spoke of dialectical materialism as a working hypothesis, and these, too, no doubt were a concession to Kantianism.
But it was impossible for dialectical materialism to be both a working hypothesis and also a law of logic, and Marx usually described it as the latter; nothing short of reconstruction from the ground up could turn Marx from a Hegelian into a Kantian. So far Lenin was quite right, but his book was very far from being merely a logical analysis of two different philosophical systems.
He was reading the renegades out of the party, and as he elsewhere candidly avowed, once an opponent is outside the party, neither truth nor fairness should stand in the way of discrediting him. He was therefore quite unscrupulous in misrepresenting their opinions, and he treated their philosophy merely as a deviation from Marxian orthodoxy that played into the hands of the bourgeois enemy.
You cannot eliminate even one basic assumption, one substantial part of this philosophy of Marxism (it is as if it were a solid block of steel) without abandoning objective truth, without falling into the arms of the bourgeois-reactionary falsehood.
The specific object of Lenin’s attack was the scientific positivism of the physicist Ernst Mach, whose effort to formulate a philosophy of science with no metaphysical commitment was then a leading example of neo-Kantianism and the one which had especially impressed the Bolsheviks that Lenin wished to get rid of Lenin t6ok his arguments almost wholly from Engels Anti-During and Feuerbach, but his way of arguing was very different from Engels.
Engels criticized his opponents theories; Lenin attacked his opponents characters. Even the desire to find a new sprite of view, he said, betrays some poverty of spirit, and such a philosophy carries the mark of a guilty conscience. The philosophy of Mach, the scientist, is to science what the kiss of Judas is to Christ. From Engels Lenin adopted the dogma that only two kinds of philosophical system are possible, materialism and idealism.
Materialism in Lenin’s exposition reduces to the not very assertion that objective reality (that is, matter) exists independent our knowing it. He stated this, however, in a variety of ways which, If they were analyzed, would have very different implications and we it reduced in the end merely to reaffirmations that we really do know. Sometimes he said objects cause perceptions, sometimes that perceptions give correct impressions of objects (not at all the same thing) and sometimes that we directly know objects, as if perception Were kind of intuition.
He uses, as if it were self-explanatory, the Metaphor that ideas reflect objects, or are images or pictures of them, but he gives no hint of the vague but interesting meanings that he packed into the word reflect in the sentence quoted above from his Note, book. Idealism he equates with subjectivity, the denial that there i any standard of objective truth, and like Engels he regarded it as disproved by the fact that science can verify empirical statements.
Idealism is false but not nonsensical, because the existence of non-spatial or non-temporal beings was a myth invented by the clergy to delude that masses in short, the opium of the people and through the ages it worked. Lenin regularly used idealism and clericalism interchange, ably, a defense of religion to prop up a ruling class and justify its exploitation.
Since there can be no middle ground between materialism and idealism, a positivism like Mach’s is either blundering pedantry a pseudo-erudite pretense to transcend idealism and materialism or it is a dishonest kind of idealism that conceals clericalism under a pretended acceptance of science conciliatory quackery,a bourgeois, Philistine, cowardly tolerance of dogmas.
Lenin’s account of dialectic, also, would never lead one to think that for him it was a subject of frequent reflection, for it merely reproduces Engels jejune commonplaces. Truth is both relative and absolute, partly wrong but an approximation to absolute, objective truth.
Any ideology is historically conditioned, but there is an objective truth corresponding to every theory. This, he said, is indefinite enough to prevent science from becoming dogmatic but definite enough to exclude any form of faith or agnosticism.
As expressing any kind of philosophical position this is all quite useless, yet it does throw a rather startling light on Lenin’s intellectual outlook or mode of thought. Throughout his argument there ran a curious sympathy for clericalism and a moral abhorrence for scientific positivism. He hated clericalism, or idealism as he called It, but he did not fear it because he knew the answer.
It was intelligible to him as an honest enemy that does not conceal the dogmatic and authoritarian purpose which he tacitly imputed to very philosophy As he wrote in a notebook, clericalism is indeed a sterile flower, yet one growing on the living tree of a prolific, true, powerful, omnipotent, objective, and absolute human knowledge.
On the other hand the Indifference of a scientist like Mach to metaphysical disputes, and the empirical and non-authoritarian temper of his philosophy, produced in Lenin’s mind a sense of profound moral repulsion. It was so foreign to his way of thinking that he could not believe it honest.
With a bias of mind like this it is not surprising that Lenin changed Marx’s account of the relation between dialectic and science more than he intended. Marx had followed Hegel in regarding dialectic as a method especially adapted to history and social studies because these are obliged to deal with growth and development, which ordinary logic cannot handle.
Marx had considered dialectical materialism not as displacing the materialism of men like Holbach, which he believed to be entirely suitable to subjects like physics and chemistry, but as supplementing it for use in the so-called historical studies. By 1909 the state of affairs in physics itself had changed.
Part of what scientists like Mach, or Henri Poincaré in France, were doing was occasioned by the use in modern physics of concepts-non-Euclidean geometry, for example-that had no place in the Newtonian physics of Marx’s generation.
In one sense it is evidence of extraordinary intellectual power and breadth of interest that Lenin, absorbed as he was in political maneuvering and party intrigue, should have felt a concern with the philosophy of science. In fairness to Lenin, also, it may be conceded that he was not wrong in suspecting that others beside his own followers would make the new physics an excuse for some kind of easy theological speculation.
The discovery that the physical concepts of matter and energy rigidly distinct in classical mechanics-are sometimes interchangeable can induce the feeling that something would be clearer if energy were imagined to be a good deal like spirit. The real trouble with Lenin is that in a different way he did the same sort of thing as those against whom he had a valid objection.
Dialectical materialism was for him a kind of magic key or open sesame that provides a solution for all puzzles. If physicists and mathematicians had learned that the dialectic proves all distinctions to be relative rather than absolute, they would not be puzzled if matter in some circumstances appears as energy and vice versa. It merely confirms what Engels said, that there are no fixed lines of demarcation in nature.
By following the direction laid down in Marxian theory it is possible to draw nearer and nearer to objective truth. In effect this transformed Marxism from an explanation into a kind of universal method applicable to every subject and the only sate guide in any-a higher form of knowledge, an arbiter for all the moot questions of all the sciences.
By implication it made the ultimate method of science simply the citing of authority, and the denial of authority simply heresy. And this in truth is Lenin’s final criticism of Mach because he had doubts about three-dimensional space, he abandoned science for theism. This kind of argument is not only a travesty on science; it also is a travesty on Marx.
For though Marx was often intolerant, he was painfully anxious that his principles should explain society as observation and history showed it to be. The bent of Marx’s mind was that of a man who respected evidence. The bent of Lenin’s mind was that of a man with a faith if facts are against the faith, so much the worse for the facts.
This aspect of Lenin’s thought was naturally more in evidence when he spoke of the social studies. Here he flatly asserted that scientific impartiality is not only impossible but is not even to be sought. Ideas are weapons, and a social philosophy is merely part of the equipment with which a party engages in the class struggle.
Professors of economics, he said, are nothing but scientific salesmen of the capitalist class, and professors of philosophy are nothing but scientific salesmen of theology, which itself is merely a refined instrument of exploitation. The most that a really scientific theory of society can discover is a general outline of economic and historical evolution, and the logic which actuates that evolution; this dialectical materialism provides.
In philosophy, economics, and politics a claim of scientific detachment is merely a pretense which covers a defense of vested interests. Within the framework of dialectical materialism two systems of social science are possible one produced in the interest of the middle class, one in he interest of the proletariat.
Whether he is for the middle class or for the proletariat, every social scientist is a special pleader. If he is honest, he begins by professing his faith, and he does not pretend that any conclusion he reaches is independent of that profession. Lenin claimed of course that proletarian social science is superior, but not because it is formally more exact, or even because it is empirically more reliable.
Its superiority consists in the fact that it represents the wave of the future, the utterance of a rising class in the forefront of social progress. The middle class, on the contrary, is fighting a rearguard action, a hopeless effort to prevent or delay the collapse or capitalism and the inevitable victory of communism. Its science is at best static, or more truly decadent and reactionary.
Lenin’s argument can at least claim the merit of frankness but it is viciously circular. For the proof that the proletariat is a rising class depends on Marx’s law of history being true. Unless Lenin claims that this philosophy is an exception to the partisan character that he imputes to all other theories, he has no logical argument whatever.
Lenin in fact took Marxism merely as an article of faith, and his argument not unnaturally was filled with odium theological, peppered with abusive epithets and imputations of trickery and bad faith. In this respect it was quite different from Engels, which he otherwise followed. Engels said that Duh-rings theories contradicted one another he never even suggested that During was dishonest.
Because Materialism and Empire-Criticism was directed at a theory of science, it had little to say about literature and the arts, but there is no reason to doubt that Lenin was ready to subordinate these also to the interests of the revolution. In 1905, and in the course of the same quarrel that culminated in 1909, he said that literature must become a wheel and screw of the great social-democratic machine.
At the same time his attitude toward art was singularly ambivalent. He seemed to have a genuine appreciation for Russian literature; he had sincere respect for literary men, though he had a poor opinion of their ability as revolutionists; and he was deeply moved by music, as is proved by the often quoted story related by Gorky.
Lenin was a genuine intellectual, sincere in having the interests of intellectuals, but he was also a fanatic, ruthless like all fanatics in sacrificing people, friends or foes, and principles, of law, morality, or truth, to the object of his fanaticism, which was making the revolution.
He was reckless, as all men are reckless when they have no responsibility, but he never aspired to become an icon, which has been his fate. When he write Materialism and Empire-Criticism; he was an exile and doubtless expected to die an exile.
In 1909 almost no one read the book, and those who did knew it for what it was-the product of an obscure party quarrel among an insignificant group of Russian revolutionists in Switzerland. Now it is an authoritative textbook that every student of philosophy in Russia must study and at least profess to believe, and every Russian psychologist must write his theory of perception with one eye on what Lenin wrote about reflection.
As in science Lenin was an pigeon of Marx, so he was fated to have his own epigones, who in 1948 decided, by a decree of the Central Committee of Lenin’s party, that Mendelism was a bourgeois fraud jointly perpetrated by an Austrian priest and a geneticist who was a salesman of American capitalism. Yet assuming that all of Lenin’s controversial pamphlets are absolute truth sometimes is embarrassing, and this might be true of his turning dialectic into a universal scientific method. For the sole value that dialectic has is critical it is merely a way of showing that an argument contains a contradiction.
Leninism in power neither welcomes criticism nor encourages finding contradictions in its own institutions, for this might suggest that a new revolution was needed to turn socialism into communism. Toward the close of his life Stalin discovered that there is only one formal logic, which is universally valid. But can a regime preserve its intellectual honesty, If it must change its logic to fit its policy?
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