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

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 1, “The Dialectic Proper

Dialectics of Liberation

Until 1915, Lenin was satisfied with Marxist economic studies of the latest stage of development of capitalism, which had first been analyzed by the bourgeois liberal economist Hobson in his 1902 book, Imperialism. The first Marxist study of the new phenomenon was Finance Capital by Hilferding (1910). It was praised for singling out a new feature, bank capital, and for asserting that this highly developed stage of capitalism made it easier for the dictatorship of the proletariat “to take over” the organization of industry. Like the categories of Essence, the new economic categories all led to Absolute Substance. Hilferding’s analysis disclosed no new beginning, no self-developing Subject that would determine its own end. No Marxist noted this deficiency, however. There seemed to be no need of any deeper awareness of the dialectic, of an awareness that the jamming up of opposites is far more complex and more concrete than the general counterposition of labor against capital.

Rosa Luxemburg

In 1913, Rosa Luxemburg published Accumulation of Capital, concentrating on the relationship of capitalism to non-capitalism, that is, on colonialism. What began as a supplement to Marx’s Capital, an updating of “primitive accumulation of capital” to comprehend the actual ongoing accumulation of capital, ended as a revision of Marx’s greatest theoretical work.[1] Lenin opposed Luxemburg’s underconsumptionism and wrong counterposition of theory to reality. However, what concerns us here is that despite claims by Paul Sweezy and youthful exponents of the “Third World” that colonial people are “the only revolutionaries,” Rosa Luxemburg denied that she had unearthed a new subject either in theory or in fact. She insisted that “long before” capitalism could exhaust itself by running out of non-capitalist areas to exploit, the proletariat would overthrow it.

In 1915, Bukharin published Imperialism and World Economy. Lenin was very satisfied with this updated study, which lashed out against the betrayers and their apologetic Kautskyan theory of “ultra-imperialism” as merely “bad policy” instead of as the actual stage of world economy. He wrote an introduction for Bukharin’s book without realizing that it treated the proletariat like an “object” or, as Bukharin expressed it, a “substitute” for “finance capital.” As with Hilferding, for Bukharin it was merely a question of “taking over” capitalist economy instead of totally uprooting it.

Suddenly, Lenin became dissatisfied with all other studies of imperialism. His uncompromising stand against betrayers and reformists extended even to his Bolshevik co-leaders. He decided to embark on his own dialectical study. Empiricists without method cannot recognize method in others. They still consider the economic analyses of imperialism so similar in all Marxist studies that to them the dispute during the same period on national self-determination seems “only political.” In fact, the first thing disclosed in Lenin’s Notebooks on Imperialism (begun immediately after completion of the Philosophic Notebooks) is that they are by no means limited to the economic study of the latest phase of capitalist development but also include outlines of articles on the war, on the National Question, and on “Marxism and the State” (which later became State and Revolution). Even an inspection of the “strictly economic” work alone, which was published by itself in 1916 as Imperialism, A Popular Outline, shows that methodologies of Lenin and Bukharin are poles apart. As opposed to Bukharin’s concept of capitalist growth in a straight line, or via a quantitative ratio, Lenin was fiercely loyal to the dialectical principle of transformation into opposite. Tracing the self-development of the subject (not an “objective” mathematical growth) makes it possible to see transformation into opposite both in the transformation of competitive capitalism into monopoly capitalism and of a part of the labor force into a labor aristocracy. Also, such a study makes clear that this transformation is only the “first negative.” The development through this contradiction compels analysis toward the “second negative” or, as Marx expressed it, “lower and deeper” into the masses, to find the new revolutionary forces. Thus, Lenin held that just when capitalism had reached this high stage of “organization,” i.e., monopoly (which extended itself into imperialism), the time had grown ripe for new national revolutionary forces to act as “bacilli” for proletarian revolutions.[2] Whereas Lenin saw in imperialism a new urgency for national self-determination, Bukharin vehemently opposed the latter as “impossible of achievement” and “reactionary.” Nothing short of a direct road to socialism was acceptable to him. This plunge from concretely developing revolutionary forces to abstract revolutionism, which Hegel would have considered a jump into the “absolute like a shot out of a pistol” and which politicos called “ultra-leftism,” was to Lenin “nothing short of imperialist economism.[3]

On the surface, it seems fantastic for Lenin to apply that designation to a Bolshevik co-leader. Yet Lenin continued to use it against revolutionaries including “the Dutch” (Pannekoek, Roland-Holst, Gorter), whom he characterized in the same breath as the “best revolutionary and most internationalist element of the international Social Democracy.” Long before the National Question emerged as his final battle with Stalin, whom Lenin accused of “Great Russian Chauvinism” and whose removal as General Secretary he demanded in his Will,[4] long before Lenin thought that a proletarian revolution would succeed in backward Russia and that national and world revolutions would become questions of the day, and at a time when the horrors of imperialist war were everywhere and no emergent proletarian revolution was in sight, Lenin became uncompromising in his struggles with Bolsheviks on self-determination. He saw it not only as a “principle” (to which all Bolsheviks agreed) but as “the dialectic of history,” the revolutionary force which would be the “bacillus” of socialism: “The dialectics of history is such that small nations, powerless as an independent factor in the struggle against imperialism, play a part as one of the ferments, one of the bacilli, which help the real power against imperialism to come on the scene, namely, the socialist proletariat.”[5] The word dialectic kept springing up because Lenin recognized an old enemy, “Economism,” which had never understood mass revolutionary struggle. All revolutionaries had fought Economism when it first appeared in Russia in 1902. It had been easy to recognize it as the enemy of revolution then because the Economists openly tried to limit the activities of the workers to economic battles on the ground that, since capitalism was “inevitable,” “therefore” political struggles should be left to the liberal bourgeoisie. Yet in 1914, during an imperialist war, revolutionaries rejected the national struggles of colonial and oppressed peoples on the ground that self-determination was “impossible” and “therefore,” as Bukharin put it, “utopian and reactionary.” They would only “divert” the struggle for “world revolution.”[6] This super-internationalism proved to Lenin only that the world war had “suppressed reason” and blinded even revolutionaries to the fact that “all national oppression calls forth the resistance of the broad masses of people. . . .”[7] Not even the great Irish Rebellion changed the abstract revolutionism of these internationalists, who were concerned with “imperialist economy” instead of the self-mobilization of the masses. Lenin fought them and branded their thinking “imperialist economism” not because they were against revolution but because they were so undialectical that they did not see in the throes of imperialist oppression the new revolutionary force which would act as a catalyst for proletarian revolution. Lenin extended his constant emphasis on the dialectical transformation into opposite to the transformation of imperialist war into civil war. The defeat of one’s country became the “lesser evil.” Whereas other revolutionaries including Luxemburg[8] and Trotsky[9] still thought of the struggle for “peace without annexations” as the “unifying force,” Lenin was preparing for socialist revolution and for “the day after,” when the population “to a man” would run society.

When the Russian proletariat smashed Tsarism and created a still newer form of self-mobilization, the Soviets, Lenin further concretized his revolutionary perspective: “No police, no army, no officialdom. Every worker, every peasant, every toiler, everyone who is exploited, the whole population to a man” must run production and the state; otherwise, no new society could be created. With the new concrete universal “to a man,” Lenin completed his theoretical preparation to be there. As he phrased it when he found himself without time to finish State and Revolution, “It is more pleasant and useful to go through the experience of the revolution than to write about it.”

Vladimir Lenin speaking to the masses, 1917.

According to Lenin, the smashing of the old state between October, 1917, and February, 1918, was the easiest part of the job. The difficult, decisive task followed. The population “to a man” must run the state and manage the economy, and thus it was “necessary to abolish the distinction between town and country as well as the distinction between manual workers and brain workers.”[10] That, Lenin said, is the goal of genuine communism. The formula of genuine communism differed from the pompous phrase-mongering of Kautsky, the Mensheviks, and the Social Revolutionaries and their beloved “brethren,” in that it reduced everything to the conditions of labor.[11] To further stress that the role of labor was the proof of a workers’ state, Lenin maintained that even the smashing of the old state, which marked the proletarian revolution, did not distinguish it: “The petty bourgeoisie in a frenzy may also want as much.”[12] What did distinguish the socialist revolution was its accomplishment from below. “We recognize only one road, changes from below, we want workers themselves to draw up, from below, the new principles of economic conditions.”[13]

If the Communist party did not become bureaucratized and did not begin thinking it could do for the masses what only the masses could do for themselves, then, and only then, people could progress to socialism. “Every citizen to a man must act as a judge and participate in the government of the country, and what is most important to us is to enlist all the toilers to a man in the government of the state. That is a tremendously difficult task, but socialism cannot be introduced by a minority, a party.”[14] There is not one critical question, from the National Question and the dominant role of workers in a workers’ state to his own unique contribution on organization, the “Vanguard Party,”[15] that is not tested by the dialectics of liberation.

The aspect that concerns us most is Lenin’s development of the relationship of the National Question to internationalism, where he set forth new theoretical points which are relevant today and where he fought his final battle with Stalin. Indeed, his declaration of “war to the death on dominant national chauvinism”[16] was based not only on the Russian situation but on the state of world revolution. When the first German revolution was beheaded in 1919, Lenin wondered if world revolution could become a reality through Peking. Later, he reminded the white world that “in the last analysis, the outcome of the struggle will be determined by the fact that Russia, India, China, etc., account for the overwhelming majority of the population of the globe.”[17] Lenin projected a totally new departure in theory[18] when he developed the dialectic of world revolution and said that Russia, although it had experienced a successful revolution, must be ready to subordinate its interests if it were possible to overthrow world capitalism through colonial revolutions.

Petty bourgeois nationalism declares the recognition of the equality of nations, and nothing else, to be internationalism, while preserving intact national egoism. . . proletarian internationalism demands, firstly, the subordination of the interests of the proletarian struggles in the country to the interests of the struggle on a world scale. . .[19]

Impatient academic Marxists like Marcuse notwithstanding, the theoretical departure for the dialectic of world revolution was laid down in 1920, nearly half a century before Marcuse. Trying to dispense with Marx’s concept of proletarian revolution, such Marxists contend that Lenin saw national revolutions as only “auxiliary” whereas today, with the rise of the Third World, we can see matters “globally.”[20] It is essential, dialectically and historically, in tracing Lenin’s “Hegelianism” to grasp his philosophical and national heritage, part of which erupted spontaneously and part of which grew out of organization, and which he extended all the way to leadership and organization.

It was not only the Asian majority that became a new dimension of world revolutionary development. The Black dimension and minority problems in general became moving forces. Thus, in the “Theses on National and Colonial Questions,” Lenin listed as revolutionary forces the Negro in the United States and the Jew in Poland.[21] The appearance of the Garvey movement gave new urgency to the Black dimension (which Lenin had long studied) just when the German revolution was falling. The central point in Lenin’s new relationships of theory to practice had nothing to do with the old concept of practice as “the carrying out of a line” elaborated by the party leadership. Instead, the relationships involved the leadership listening to and learning from mass practice: theoretical advances must come from the one source of theory which is also its soul.

One thing the Lenin Institute did provide in their empty introductions to Lenin’s Philosophic Notebooks is the list of Lenin’s request for books.[22] Clearly, he had not stopped studying the Hegelian dialectic once the revolution succeeded. Nor was this study “academic” or limited to his asking “the theoreticians” who edited the new theoretical organ Under the Banner of Marxism to act as “Materialist Friends of the Hegelian Dialectic” and to continue publishing Hegel’s works. Lenin applied the dialectic in life, in theory, in battles with his co-leaders, and in his revolutionary perspectives.

Continued in section 3, “Death of the Dialectic”…

[1]. My 1941 study of Luxemburg’s work has been republished as an appendix to the pamphlet State-capitalism and Marxist Humanism (Detroit, 1967). [Dunayevskaya developed this analysis further in Rosa Luxemburg, Women’s Liberation, and Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution. —Editors]

[2]. LCW 19, p. 303.

[3]. Ibid., pp. 213-263. See Gankin and Fisher, The Bolsheviks and the World War (Stanford, 1940), pp. 222-223.

[4]. Lenin’s Will was first published by Trotsky as “The Suppressed Testament of Lenin” (New York, 1935). Khrushchev quoted it in his famous “De-Stalinization Speech” in 1956. When it finally appeared in English in Lenin’s Collected Works, Vol. 36, in 1966, it was called “Letter to the Congress” (pp. 593-611) and included much more than the Will: there are the final battles between Lenin and Stalin on the Nationalities Question and on “Autonomisation,” i.e., the structure of the state. There is also a difference in the translations. On this dispute see Moshe Lewin, Lenin’s Last Struggle (New York, 1968).

[5]. LCW 19, p. 303.

[6]. The Bolsheviks and the World War, p. 219. —ed.

[7]. Ibid., p. 248.

[8]. Ibid. See “The Pamphlet by Junius” and, of course, Luxemburg’s own illegal pamphlet The Crisis in German Social Democracy, which she signed “Junius.”

[9]. The full collection of Trotsky’s articles on the war before the Russian Revolution appears only in the Russian edition War and Revolution (Moscow, 1923), Vol. I. The essays are concentrated against social patriotism, of course, but they are also hostile to Lenin’s counterposing of “defeatism” (“Turn the imperialist war into civil war”) to the “struggle for peace”: “Comrade Lenin adequately revealed, especially at the preliminary conference, as earlier in his essays and articles, that he personally has an entirely negative attitude to the slogan of the struggle for peace.” English readers can see this to some extent in Gankin and Fisher, op. cit., pp. 170-171, which quotes Trotsky’s reply to the Bolshevik call for a special conference of Russian revolutionaries: “Furthermore, under no condition can I agree with your opinion, which is emphasized by a resolution, that Russia’s defeat would be a ‘lesser evil.’ This opinion represents a fundamental connivance with the political methodology of social patriotism. . . What is necessary is a rallying of all internationalists, regardless of their group affiliation or of the tinge of their internationalism.”

[10]. Lenin, Selected Works, Vol. IX, p. 433.

[11]. Ibid., p. 439.

[12]. Ibid., Vol. VII, p. 337.

[13]. Ibid., p. 277.

[14]. Ibid., Vol. VIII, p. 439.

[15]. I have stressed this point at length in chapters 11 and 12 of Marxism and Freedom stressing the many changes Lenin introduced into the concept during 1902-1923. Here, I limit the discussion to the last two years of his life.

[16]. It took over fifteen years to make public this letter of Lenin to Kamenev. See Moshe Lewin, op. cit., p. 52. Trotsky reproduced some of these letters in The Stalin School of Falsification (New York, 1937). But the official texts and some fuller ones did not appear in English until 1966, in 36, p. 606. See especially the note on “The Question of Nationalities or ‘Autonomisation’”: “the apparatus we call ours is, in fact, still quite alien to us: it is a bourgeois and tsarist hodgepodge and there has been no possibility of getting rid of it in the course of the past five years. . . unable to defend the non-Russians from onslaughts of that really Russian man, the Great-Russian chauvinist, in substance a rascal and a tyrant, such as the typical Russian bureaucrat is.”

[17]. “Better Fewer but Better,” in Lenin, Selected Works, Vol. IX. I prefer the translation in Lewin, op. cit., p. 172.

[18]. “Theses on National and Colonial Questions,” in Lenin, Selected Works, Vol. X.

[19]. Lenin Selected Works, Vol. X, p. 235. The Black dimension first appeared in Lenin’s work in 1912 in “New Data on the Laws of Development of Capitalism in Agriculture.” See Lenin, Selected Works, Vol. XII, pp. 190-282. This work was often cited in the disputes in the United States among Communists, Trotskyists, and others as to whether the “Negro Question” was a National Question and whether there was a relationship between U.S. slavery and serfdom in Russia. In 1915, in Notebooks on Imperialism, Lenin had referred to the fact that the I.W.W. had a more correct position on the Negro Question than did the Socialist Party which, Lenin stressed, “Built separate locals for Negroes and whites in Mississippi!!” The question arose a third time in Lenin’s debates with Bukharin, whose reference to the Hottentots he criticized; finally, it was made into a new category which combined nationalism and internationalism in the “Theses on National and Colonial Questions.” See Selected Works, Vol. VIII, pp. 311-367; and Vol. X, pp. 231-244. See also Claude McKay’s speech to the Fourth Congress of the Communist International.

[20]. Herbert Marcuse, “Re-examination of the Concept of Revolution,” New Left Review, 56 (July-August, 1969).

[21]. Lenin, Selected Works, Vol. X, p. 231.

[22]. The 1966 English publication of LCW 38, although it claims to be more complete than the early Russian editions, does not repeat in its Introduction the listing of books Lenin requested. Therefore, see Adoratsky’s Introduction to the first Russian edition (1930) of Leninski Sbornik, op. cit. “Despite the fact. . . [of] the extreme situation and the necessity to give all attention and all energy to practical questions, Lenin continued to interest himself in questions of philosophy. This is evident from his readings. . . . On June 24, 1921, he asked [for]. . . a Russian translation of Hegel’s Logic and Phenomenology (see Notes of the Lenin Institute, Vol. III, pp. 94-95). . . . Lenin not only read but wrote in that period on the questions of philosophy. Nine-tenths of the remarks on Bukharin’s Economics of the Transition Period concern the question of method.”

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