From the Writings of Raya Dunayevskaya: Hegelian Leninism, Part Three

March 18, 2024

Editor’s note: For the centenary year of V.I. Lenin’s death, we present in three parts Raya Dunayevskaya’s “Hegelian Leninism,” presented on October 10, 1970, at the first international Telos Conference. Unlike most of the commentary marking the centenary, this piece focuses on the centrality of the Hegelian dialectic to Lenin’s contribution for his time and ours. The three sections are “The Dialectic Proper,” “Dialectics of Liberation,” and “Death of the Dialectic.” The whole piece was published in chapter 1 of Russia: From Proletarian Revolution to State-Capitalist Counter-Revolution: Selected Writings by Raya Dunayevskaya (Haymarket Books, 2018).

…Continued from section 2, “Dialectics of Liberation

Death of the Dialectic

There is no more tragic document in history than Lenin’s Will. His criticism of his Bolshevik co-leaders was directed not only against Stalin, whom he asked to be “removed,” and against Zinoviev-Kamenev, who by “no accident” published in the bourgeois press the date of the planned seizure of power, and against Trotsky’s “administrative mentality”; also damning was Lenin’s criticism of Bukharin.

Bukharin is not only the most valuable and biggest theoretician of the party; but also may legitimately be considered the favorite of the whole party; but his theoretical views can only with the very greatest doubt be regarded as fully Marxian, for there is something scholastic in him. (He has never learned, and I think never fully understood, the dialectic).”[1]

Nikolai Bukharin

Writing the Theses and the Will, Lenin summed up a lifetime in revolution just as that movement was achieving the greatest proletarian revolution in history. In his last struggle, dialectics became the pons asini of Lenin’s philosophical thought. It was no small, abstruse matter that the major theoretician of the party did “not fully understand” the dialectic, nor was it unimportant that if factional struggles reflected actual class divisions then nothing whatever could prevent the collapse of the proletarian state.[2] And nothing did. When the Russian revolution failed to extend even to Europe, world capitalism gained more than a breather. The isolation and bureaucratization of the workers’ state led to its transformation into its opposite. The young workers’ state based itself not on the creativity of the masses but on its authority over them; the determinant was not labor but the state plan. The state party and the monolithic state became isolated from the masses, and the party was not checked by the “non-party masses,”[3] but was impelled by world production. The state had achieved a new stage of world capitalism: state-capitalism. Lenin feared this movement “backwards to capitalism,” and in his last speech to the Russian Party Congress he warned that history had witnessed many retrogressions and that it would be “utopian to think we will not be thrown back.”

Because of this awareness, Lenin did not limit his critique of his Bolshevik co-leaders to the “politicians” but extended it to the “major theoretician,” Bukharin. Lenin lay writhing not only in physical pain but in agony over early bureaucratization of the workers’ state and its tendency to move “backwards to capitalism.” He felt that Bukharin’s theoretical positions on the National Question, the trade unions, and the economics of the transition period would stifle rather than release the creative powers of the masses. Lenin sensed “a passion for bossing” in revolutionaries who wielded state power. Unfortunately, in this state-capitalist age the New Left, when it does not support the Russian state power, supports the Chinese. But uprisings, especially those in Eastern Europe, have shown that people hunger for freedom from the state party, from the state plan, from the state; what they hunger for is decentralization of rule as in workers’ councils, intellectual councils, and youth councils.

Mao Tse-tung has always been terrified of the objectivity of the “Hegelian” contradiction, the actuality of Left opposition to the communist state. Thus, in 1937 during the heroic Yenan period when he made his major contribution to dialectics (or, more accurately, to its revision), Mao invented a new distinction between the “principal” and a “principal aspect” of contradiction which neither Marx nor any Marxist had perceived. From this distinction he drew the conclusion that class conflict need not be the decisive contradiction. “When the superstructure—politics, culture, and so on—hinders the development of the economic foundation, political and cultural reforms become the principle and decisive factors.”[4] The practical reason for the invention was to fight “dogmatism” in the anti-Japanese struggle and to foist upon the masses “the leadership of Chiang Kai-shek.” In 1957, Mao gave another twist to this philosophical contribution. This time, he drained contradiction of its class content in order to advise Khrushchev to crush the Hungarian revolution and to tell the Chinese masses that, since the contradictions in China were “non-antagonistic” and “among the people,” they could be “handled.”[5] Similarly, in 1966, though it was supposedly a “Second Revolution,”[6] the resolution of contradictions depended entirely on the thought of one man, “The Great Helmsman, Chairman Mao.” At the same time, although a “war to the end” is directed against “capitalist-roaders” like his co-founder Liu Shao-chi, it is no accident that the “revolution” is not against the actual rulers but is confined to “culture.”

A hundred and fifty years ago Hegel pinpointed the inverted relationship of thought to reality which is characteristic of “culture”: “Inversion of reality and thought, their entire estrangement of one from the other; it is pure culture.”[7] And, “This only led to voluntarism, [for which] ‘the world’ is absolutely its own will.”[8] Mao, of course, has long known that culture is only “the superstructure” as distinct from the determining production relations; thus, he has surrounded his “revolution” with adjectives “Great, Proletarian, Cultural.” It is no coincidence that impatient modern Marxists, who talk glibly of revolution, leave out the proletariat. Though they project nothing short of world revolution, their perspective for intellectuals is only “Radical Enlightenment of others.”[9]

What we need instead is “seriousness, labor, patience, and suffering of the negative”[10] on two levels. It must start where Lenin left off. That is the indispensable foundation, but not the whole. The new reality of our age cannot be considered a mere updating. Rather, the comprehension of what is new begins by listening to new impulses arising from below, from practice. This process, as opposed to the elitist practice of theoreticians “going to the peasants,” involves theoreticians learning from the masses, at which point they begin to develop theory. For our era, the new reality first erupted in East Berlin on June 17, 1953, and has continued not only in Eastern Europe and throughout the Third World but also in the technologically advanced countries, in the May, 1968, revolt in France and in the new revolutionary forces in the United States.

V.I. Lenin

These new forces of revolution, which begin from and always return to the Black revolution but also include the youth, women’s liberation, Chicano, and Indian movements, are not a substitute for the proletariat but are in solidarity with it. The continuous, persistent, never-ending revolt of the Black revolution constantly emphasizes the vital struggle of labor and forms its most militant part.[11] At least verbally, Mao recognizes the role of labor. But what everyone notices is his voluntarism. As if one day could “equal twenty years”! Because so much of the New Left feeds, if not on Maoism, on the American bourgeois philosophy of pragmatism, it is necessary to contrast Mao’s dialectics to Lenin’s.

Mao’s failure to grasp dialectic logic has nothing whatever to do with ‘understanding philosophy.’ Dialectic logic is the logic of freedom and can be grasped only by those engaged in the actual struggle for freedom. Therein lies the key to the fulfillment of human potentialities and therein lies that new relationship between theory and practice which could lessen the birth-pangs of industrialization. Anything else is the type of subjectivism which hides Mao’s compelling need to transform the struggle for the minds of men into a drive to brainwash them. . . . It is sad commentary on our times and exposes how totally lacking in any confidence in the self-activity of the masses are today’s claimants to the title ‘Marxist-Leninist.’ Their militancy gains momentum only where there is a state power to back it up. . . . The challenge is for a new unity of Notion and Reality which will release the vast untapped energies of mankind to put an end, once and for all, to what Marx called the pre-history of humanity so that its true history can finally unfold.[12]

Lenin began from this standpoint in 1917 and worked from it until his death in 1924. Mao’s new revolutionary opposition, Sheng-wu-lien, tried to begin in a similar way in its Hunan Manifesto of 1968. “Contemporary China is the focus of world contradictions. . . . For the past few months, the class struggle has entered a higher stage. . . . It is ‘to overthrow the newborn bourgeoisie and establish the people’s Commune of China’—a new society free from bureaucrats, like the Paris Commune.”[13] As the Hunan Manifesto shows, it is impossible to bring about the death of the dialectic simply because the dialectic is not merely philosophy. Above all, it is life, the extremely contradictory life of state as well as private capitalism. The young Chinese and French revolutionaries, and in the United States the anti-Vietnam War movement, the Black revolution, and most recently women’s liberation, all give the lie to rumors of the death of the dialectic. Neither Stalinism nor the “de-Stalinized” communists, much less the “vanguardists” who as yet have no state power but hunger for it, can stop the forward movement of the new generation of revolutionaries. It is imperative, therefore, to fill the theoretical void left by Lenin’s death. Surely, future generations will marvel at the relentless resistance of today’s so-called Marxists against “the dialectic proper” and the dialectics of liberation worked out by Lenin both while gaining power and after power (but not socialism) had been achieved. Lenin concluded that “socialism cannot be introduced by a minority, a party,” but only by the population “to a man” taking control of their own lives. Only when this ideal ceases to be merely the underlying philosophy of revolution and becomes its practice as well will freedom no longer be “philosophy” but reality.

[1]. Compare this passage from the English edition of the Will published in 1935 by U.S. Trotskyists, to the corresponding passage from the Moscow translation (1966) in LCW 36, p. 595: “Bukharin is not only a most valuable and major theorist of the Party; he is also rightly considered the favorite of the whole Party, but his theoretical views can be classified as fully Marxist only with great reserve, for there is something scholastic about him (he has never made a study of dialectic and, I think, never fully understood it).”

[2]. Trotskyism makes it necessary to say that if the factional struggle between Trotsky and Stalin had been a class question, it would have meant nothing as simplistic as Stalin “representing” the peasantry and Trotsky the proletariat.

[3]. Lenin, Collected Works, Fourth Russian Edition, Vol. 26, p. 475. “We are badly executing the slogan: arouse the non-party people, check the work of the party by the non-party masses.” In English, the concept of the importance of the non-party masses checking the party is found in Selected Works, Vol. IX, pp. 253-254. The same volume contains Lenin’s final speech to the Eleventh Party Congress (pp. 324-371), in which he invents words to describe his disgust for the party leadership and its “passion for bossing” and “Communlies” (communist lies). See also “What Happens After,” in Marxism and Freedom, p. 205, where I summarize Lenin’s attitude on vanguardism. It was valid only if the party reflected “the actual spontaneous movement of the masses. Outside of that relationship the Party would become anything its worst enemies could think of. It did.”

[4]. Mao Tse-tung, “On Contradiction,” in The Political Thought of Mao Tse-tung, Stuart Schram, trans. (New York, 1963), p. 133.

[5]. The whole question of “handling contradictions among people” produced the famous “One Hundred Flowers” struggle, for which see Roderick MacFarquar, The Hundred Flowers Campaign and the Chinese Intellectuals (New York, 1960). Every issue of Peking Review carried documents from the Cultural Revolution, and these in turn were published in separate pamphlets by the millions. Some of the major documents can also be found in A. Doak, China After Mao (Princeton, 1967).

[6]. The expression is from K.S. Karol, New Statesman (September, 1966). He has since become so apologetic for Mao that he has hit out against Castro. See The Course of the Cuban Revolution (New York, 1970).

[7]. Hegel, Phenomenology of Mind (New York, 1931), p. 549.

[8]. Ibid., p. 601.

[9]. Marcuse, op. cit.

[10]. Hegel, Phenomenology of Mind, p. 81.

[11]. See Charles Denby, “Workers Battle Automation,” News and Letters, 1960. See also his “Black Caucuses in the Unions,” which is appended to the News and Letters Editorial Board Statement American Civilization on Trial: Black Masses as Vanguard [Chicago: News & Letters, 2003]. Along with these statements by a Black production worker, see those of Black, Chicano, and White women theoreticians in “Notes on Women’s Liberation: We Speak in Many Voices,” News & Letters, 1970.

[12]. Marxism and Freedom [Humanity Books, 2000], pp. 329-330.

[13]. “The Hunan Manifesto” as well as three other documents of opposition within China, and the attacks upon the young group of revolutionaries by the official leaders of China’s “Cultural Revolution,” are reproduced in Klaus Mehnert, Peking and the New Left: At Home and Abroad, China Research Monographs (Berkeley, 1969).

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