Draft Perspectives, 2024-2025: Part Five, Lenin and today’s contradictions

May 4, 2024

IV. The crisis in thought

V. Lenin and today’s contradictions

In the midst of the crisis in both reality and thought, the 100th anniversary of Lenin’s death has stirred new examinations of this great revolutionary’s relevance. No one but a few cultists thinks we could simply replay the 1917 Bolshevik revolution today, and yet too much of the discussion misses what is most essential in his contribution: the Hegelian-Marxian dialectic.  

What is needed is to trace, for today, how the shock of the socialist Left’s collapse at the outbreak of World War I impelled Lenin to plunge into a study of Marx’s roots in Hegel’s philosophy, to break with his previous thought, and to lay ground for the success of the Russian Revolution—and to trace this critically, with full recognition of the limits and contradictions as well as the contributions of Lenin’s break.  

In 1914, former capitalist trading partners declared war on each other, beginning a vast slaughter that became known as the World War. This was no surprise to Marxist revolutionaries, who had seen it coming for years. The shock was that most of the Marxist parties of the socialist international (the Second International) fell in line with their own rulers, supporting the war efforts of their home countries and the ban on labor strikes. That included the biggest party, the Social-Democratic Party of Germany, the acknowledged leader of the International, whose leading theoretician, Karl Kautsky, was regarded as the “pope of Marxism.”  

True revolutionaries were shocked and opposed this turn of events. A few, like Lenin, insisted on making a sharp divide within the Left, breaking with those who supported the war as well as those who equivocated or compromised with the social-patriots. Today’s revolutionaries could take a lesson from Lenin’s rejection of “indiscriminate unity” and his insistence that a new international must be founded, as against Rosa Luxemburg’s call for “rebuilding” the Second International. However, only Lenin experienced the shock as a challenge to his own understanding of Marxism as a revolutionary philosophy. At the same time that he participated in the opposition to the war and the attempt to organize the revolutionary Left dissidents, he spent his days in the library, diving into a study of Hegel’s Science of Logic and other works in order to grasp the philosophical roots of Marx’s ideas.  


V.I. Lenin

What resulted was a break in his thought and sharp criticism of all established Marxism, including his own previous work. Raya Dunayevskaya’s “Hegelian Leninism,” which we republished on the web this spring, goes into detail on Lenin’s new understanding of the dialectic.  She traced Lenin coming to grasp that subjectivity is as crucial as objectivity, and they are inseparable from each other. After Lenin wrote, “The idea of the transformation of the ideal into the real is profound. Very important for history—Against vulgar materialism,” he wrote of “the objectivity of notions, the objectivity of the universal in the particular and in the individual….The richest is the most concrete and most subjective,” and, as she put it, “the objectivity of concepts: freedom, subjectivity, notion.”  

Dunayevskaya singled out Lenin’s aphorism: “Man’s cognition not only reflects the objective world, but creates it.” She pointed to “men’s ‘subjective’ aspirations, the phrase by which Lenin ‘translated’ his concept of consciousness ‘creating the world’: ‘the world does not satisfy man and man decides to change it by his activity.’” This leads to how he worked it out as dialectics of liberation. As Dunayevskaya put it: 

“Because the betrayal of socialism came from within the socialist movement, the dialectical principle of transformation into opposite, the discernment of counterrevolution within the revolution, became pivotal. The uniqueness of dialectics as self-movement, self-activity, and self-development was that it had to be ‘applied’ not only against betrayers and reformists but also in the criticism of revolutionaries who regarded the subjective and the objective as separate worlds.”

Dialectical transformation into opposite was concretized in the slogan Lenin put forward, “Turn the imperialist war into civil war!’ which he counterposed to the slogan of peace. From this point on, “Dialectics became the key concept, the judgment, of every problem.”[1] 


Transformation into opposite was involved in the rise of capitalist imperialism and the new subjects of revolution rooted in them, both the lower and deeper layers of the working classes and the national liberation struggles. Self-determination of nations became not only a principle but an element of dialectics of revolution, as national liberation struggles could spur proletarian social revolutions, internationally. Dunayevskaya’s Marxist-Humanism extended this concept to the theory of Black liberation struggles as central to U.S. history, or “Black masses as vanguard.”[2] She further extended it to a concept of multiple subjects of revolution, connected not so much by “intersectionality” as by a single, multifaceted dialectic of liberation: 

“All are moments of revolution, and nobody can know before the event itself who will be the one in the concrete, particular revolution….No matter who the specific revolutionary force turns out to be—labor, Blacks, youth, women—the whole truth is in the dual rhythm of any revolution: the overthrow of the old society and the creation of new human relations. It requires the spelling out of that dialectic in its totality with every individual subject.”[3]

Raya Dunayevskaya

Dialectics of liberation also speaks to today in the ground Lenin laid for the Russian Revolution with his concepts of the state and revolution and the need for the whole population “to a man, woman, and child” to become the Subject of revolutionary reconstruction of society. Without that ground, the revolution could not have succeeded. The unity between dialectics of liberation and Lenin’s plunge into the Hegelian dialectic proper spells out the urgency of philosophic preparation for revolution. That is no less true today, when many imagine that revolution is an impossibility. As Dunayevskaya put it, “IT’S LATER, ALWAYS LATER—except when spontaneity upsurges and you realize it is here and now, and you aren’t there and ready.”[4] 

Dunayevskaya’s “Hegelian Leninism” built on what Part IV of her book Marxism and Freedom had developed on Lenin and the Russian Revolution. It was further developed as “The Shock of Recognition and the Philosophic Ambivalence of Lenin,” chapter 3 of her Philosophy and Revolution: From Hegel to Sartre and from Marx to Mao. Marxist-Humanism’s critical view of Lenin begins to be elaborated there with the concept of his “philosophic ambivalence,” keeping his philosophical notebooks to himself rather than making them the public basis of debate and discussion of revolutionary pathways. And he allowed the republication of his 1902 What Is to Be Done? which was taken as a bible of Marxist organization—especially the vanguard party theory that Lenin adopted from Kautsky—without reference to Lenin’s later critiques and revisions. Dunayevskaya further developed the relationship of his philosophic ambivalence to the question of organization in Rosa Luxemburg, Women’s Liberation, and Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution. 


A long chain of soured or failed revolutions—beginning with the Russian Revolution’s transformation into opposite under Stalin—raises questions about the problematic influence of “Marxism-Leninism” and other Left tendencies on revolutions, mass movements, organizations, and theory. It is therefore imperative to follow through the deepening of the critique of Lenin embodied in Dunayevskaya’s later years through her exploration of the dialectics of organization and philosophy. 

It goes beyond a political critique of Lenin’s lack of rethinking on organization, and beyond his philosophic ambivalence. Dunayevskaya identified where he stopped short in Hegel’s dialectic and remained only at the threshold of the Absolute. She made Hegel’s Absolute Negativity and Absolute Idea as new beginning central to Philosophy and Revolution, and began to draw out the consequences for the philosophy of organization. Much of this is included in Russia, from Proletarian Revolution to State-Capitalist Counter-Revolution: Selected Writings by Raya Dunayevskaya and The Philosophic Moment of Marxist-Humanism. Our forthcoming series of classes in dialectics of organization and philosophy will explore this through the lens of today’s total crisis.[5] 

Worth revisiting is the “Organizational Interlude” in Marxism and Freedom, the chapter on the Second International. A common sentiment today is the need to unite the Left and build much bigger Left organizations. The Second International built the biggest Marxist organizations ever, in both numbers and cultural reach, with networks of allied political, labor, women’s, youth, publishing, cooperative, sports, and cultural organizations. And yet their size and strength did not save them at the critical moment of collapse. The central problem is that there was no organization of Marxist thought. 

Therefore, a focus on approaches to organization, democracy, or strategy and tactics, whether related to Lenin or not—as long as it remains disconnected from the need to return to the dialectic and forge a new relationship between organization, theory and practice on that basis—gets trapped in a dead end because it is on the wrong ground. Inevitably it remains stuck inside old, stunted concepts of organization. It is trendy to propound the need for a “theory of change,” but it so often limits itself to banalities such as “diversity of tactics” or the sociological nonsense of aiming to recruit 3.5% of the population to a movement. That falls short of serious theory, let alone the philosophy that is needed. Which points to the need, not just to revive Lenin’s ideas about organization, even the best ones where he was going beyond vanguard party, but to turn to the dialectics of organization and philosophy. 

This involves not only a critical view of Left theories or doctrines on organization but questions of the power, limitations and contradictions of mass movements, and, unseparated from that, the power of the organization of thought—the necessity for our day of the dialectical philosophy of Hegel, Marx, and Dunayevskaya, as against the philosophical void in today’s Left.

VI. Tasks 

[1] Rosa Luxemburg, Women’s Liberation, and Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution by Raya Dunayevskaya (University of Illinois Press, 1991), p. 62. 

[2] See her American Civilization on Trial: Black Masses as Vanguard (fifth edition, News and Letters, 2003). 

[3] Marxism and Freedom, from 1776 until Today (Humanity Books, 2000), p. 12. 

[4] The quoted phrase is the title of her Sept. 3, 1977, Perspectives Report, Raya Dunayevskaya Collection #5726. 

[5] To find out more about the class series, send us contact information and we will send a brochure when it is ready.

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