On the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. Historic initiative of the masses and Lenin’s philosophic break

November 14, 2017

From the November-December 2017 issue of News & Letters

Editor’s note: On the Russian Revolution’s 100th anniversary, we present, first, Raya Dunayevskaya’s outline for a speech in Pittsburgh on Nov. 14, 1948, for the Revolution’s anniversary (Raya Dunayevskaya Collection, #9186). The notes have been excerpted and edited; footnotes and section titles were added by the editors. Second is the section “Lenin and the Dialectic: A Mind in Action” from chapter 10, “The Collapse of the Second International and the Break in Lenin’s Thought,” of Marxism and Freedom, from 1776 until Today.


As vodka and the tons of caviar flow freely at Russian embassies in celebration of the Russian Revolution, while totalitarian control over Russian and East European masses continues, cynics are heard to say: If that is what it could degenerate to, why should you celebrate the event?

But just as bloody White Terror could not wipe out memory of the Paris Commune of 1871, neither can the Stalinist usurpers wipe out memory of the Russian masses “storming the heavens.”[1] The first attempt at a workers’ republic—the Paris Commune—was drowned in blood but it is that experience which made possible the successful Russian Revolution.

For Marxists there is no division between theory and practice—the Paris Commune laid the basis for the theory of the breakup of the capitalist state, and that theory laid the basis for the Russian Revolution.

Women march on International Women’s Day, 1917, in Petrograd, Russia.

On its eve, in his work State and Revolution, Lenin was drawing the lessons from the heroism of the Commune, which lay not only in self-sacrifice but in the historic initiative displayed by the Parisian masses. Just as he came to the application of Marx’s theory to the Russian scene, he was interrupted in his work. The afterword to this work states:

“I had not succeeded in writing a single line of the chapter [on the Russian Revolution], being prevented therefrom by a political crisis—the eve of the October Revolution of 1917. Such a hindrance can only be welcomed.…It is more pleasant and more useful to live through the experience of a revolution than to write about it.”

So we see that for Marxists the most abstract theory is the most concrete practice. Or, as Trotsky put it:

“This ‘commentator’ of Marx was preparing the party for the revolutionary conquest of a sixth of the globe’s surface.”

It is this which we are celebrating today; the unfinished chapter of Lenin’s State and Revolution was finished by the entrance of the Russian masses on the historic scene to make world history.


In that single year, 1917, the Russian workers and peasants won two successful revolutions. The first, February Revolution, was made in five days and gives us the dynamics of revolution. Let us look at it (I’m using the old calendar).

Feb. 23—International Women’s Day celebration, 90,000 strikers.
Feb. 24—Strikers doubled. Slogan “Bread!” replaced by “Down with autocracy!”
Feb. 25—Cossacks called out to put down demonstration refuse to do so.
Feb. 26—Workers from suburbs move over Neva, though being fired upon, and to Tauride Palace.
Feb. 27—Soldiers join insurrection; Tsar arrested. Political prisoners let out.

Now the workers did it spontaneously, without leadership. But though they accomplished the revolution, without a revolutionary party they could not hold power and Kerensky came to “the throne” to ask them in the name of the republic to continue the imperialist war.

But precisely because they were really not just one force but two, (1) [Kerensky’s government] and (2) soviets, the instability of this new provisional government opens the regime of dual power.


April Days—Lenin rearms the Party.[2]

July Days—Month of Great Slander;[3] 500,000 demonstrate.

September—Kornilov marches on Petrograd.[4]

Between February and October there are 4,955 agrarian conflicts with landlords. Local Militia refuse to put down acts of violence of peasantry.

Leon Trotsky: “Rural revolt loosened the last bolts of the army.”

Lenin’s slogans: Peace! Bread! Land! Out with capitalist ministers! All power to the soviets! Self-determination of nations!


In an attempt to conciliate and bring workers over to their side, Compromisers suggest the formation of a Committee of Revolutionary Defense on Oct. 9. Bolsheviks accept the idea and suggest its staff consist of: 1. Presidium of Soviet; 2. representatives of soldiers and of fleet; 3. representatives of railroad union; 4. representatives of trade unions; 5. factory committees; 6. Party’s military organization—Red Guard. Trotsky president of Military Revolutionary Committee.

Approved on Oct. 20, and within five days—Oct. 25—preparations for insurrection are made and revolution is successful.


Congress of Soviets Oct. 25: 505 vote for transfer of power to soviets; 86 vote for government of “democracy”; 55 vote for coalition; 21 vote for coalition without Cadets.

Since all revisionists try to identify Bolshevism with totalitarianism and claim Stalinism is the natural result of Bolshevism, let us watch carefully what type of Presidium the Bolsheviks proposed: 14 Bolsheviks; 7 Socialist-Revolutionaries; 3 Mensheviks; 1 Menshevik Internationalist.

Right-wing Mensheviks walk out of the Congress; 70 of them show this hostility when the Congress votes down negotiations with the provisional government. Martov, with 25, walks out because Bolsheviks are proceeding with insurrection “alone.”

New Central Executive Committee: of 101 members elected, 62 Bolsheviks and 29 Left Socialist-Revolutionaries. And they leave space for factions who abandoned Congress to send delegates to CEC on the basis of proportional representation.

It is this Congress which becomes the new government or workers’ state. The news is brought in of conquest of the palace and key points—a nearly bloodless revolution.

The blood did not start flowing till the counter-revolution armed by world imperialists attacked on seven different fronts.

The most moving chapter in Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution is this chapter, describing the singing of the “Internationale” now that it was not just words but actual power.…


It is this Russian Revolution which we are celebrating today. From the beginning the Bolsheviks knew they could not maintain power unless the workers in other, more advanced countries came to their aid, by making their own revolution. Lenin wrote to the American workers:

“We are in a besieged fortress until armies of international socialist revolution come to our aid.”

The armies of the international socialist revolution did not materialize and the inevitable degeneration of the workers’ state was speeded along by the usurper of power, Stalin, against whom Lenin in his Testament warned as a cook who would cook only “peppery dishes” and who should be removed from his post of General Secretary.



“All revolutions, in the sciences no less than in general history, originate only in this, that the spirit of man, for the understanding and comprehension of himself, for the possessing of himself, has now altered his categories, uniting himself in a truer, deeper, more intrinsic relation with himself.”—Hegel

Nadezhda Krupskaya, Lenin’s wife and closest collaborator, in her Memories of Lenin, tells us that Lenin began his study of Hegel for the “Essay on Marxism,” commissioned by the Encyclopaedia Granat. He thereupon placed the philosophical question in the forefront, as is evident from the first section of the essay. She adds: “This was not the usual way of presenting Marx’s teaching.”

This is true. Scores of “popularizations” of Marxian economics had been written. Lenin’s Essay is the first, since the death of Marx and Engels, to show the primacy of a philosophical approach. There is no doubt that as soon as Lenin opened the Science of Logic, he grasped the importance of dialectics, the movement of thought:

“Movement and self-movement (this NB! independent, spontaneous internally necessary movement), ‘change,’ ‘movement and life,’ ‘the principle of every self-movement,’ ‘impulse’ to ‘movement’ and to ‘activity’—opposite of ‘dead-being’—Who would believe that this is the core of ‘Hegelianism,’ of abstract and abstruse (difficult, absurd?) Hegelianism? We must disclose this core, grasp it, save, shell it out, purify it—which is precisely what Marx and Engels have done.”

When Lenin began his study of Hegel, as his Philosophic Notebooks show, he still felt compelled to emphasize that he is reading Hegel materialistically, instead of taking that for granted, and going on to what was new. By the end of the Hegelian studies, he wrote:

“Intelligent idealism is nearer to intelligent materialism than is stupid materialism.

“Dialectic idealism instead of intelligent; metaphysical, undeveloped, dead, vulgar, stationary instead of stupid.”

With his characteristic precision, Lenin himself tells when he first fully grasped the dialectic. He wrote the Essay on Marxism between July and November, 1914, the period when he began his study of the “Larger Logic.” On Jan. 4, 1915, having already forwarded the Essay to the Encyclopaedia Granat, he wrote:

“By the way, will there not still be time for certain corrections in the section on dialectics? Perhaps you will be good enough to write and say when exactly it is to go to the printers and what the last date is for receiving corrections. I have been studying this question of dialectics for the last month and a half and I think I could add something to it if there was time….”

Six weeks. That is the time it took him to reach the book on “Subjectivity,” in the “Doctrine of the Notion.” The Notebooks carry the date Dec. 17, 1914. It is under the section on “Syllogisms,” where Hegel destroys the opposition between subjectivity and objectivity, that Lenin bursts forth with the aphorisms that reveal how decisive was his break with his own philosophic past.

Heretofore, to Lenin, as to everybody else in the Second International, the Hegelian dialectic had been important mainly as a reference point in internal polemics. If an opponent was obscure, he was accused of dialectical sophistry and reminded that Marx had turned Hegel around and stood him right side up. Reformist and evolutionary theorists of socialist development were fought by citing Hegel’s “dialectic.” It was generally agreed that Hegel stood for development and revolution, rather than standing still and evolution. The conception of contradiction was that of two units existing alongside of one another. The conception of opposition had not gone beyond Kant’s dualism—as if Hegel had never destroyed it with the conception that every single thing is itself a contradiction, is the basis of all movement. Hence, that all movement is self-movement.

Having broken with this philosophic past, Lenin now moved boldly to sum up the essence of the dialectic: “Briefly, the dialectic can be defined as the doctrine of the unity of opposites. Thereby is the kernel of the dialectic grasped, but that demands explanation and development.”

For the first time he was no longer satisfied with [Rudolf] Hilferding’s Finance Capital, the standard, accepted study of the latest stage of capitalist development. He embarked on an independent analysis. His voluminous notebooks, filling 693 pages, were his preparation for the small volume that was published as Imperialism. These preparatory notes show how, in the concrete economic study, he holds tight to the dialectic. The published work itself was a demonstration in economics of the dialectic as the unity of opposites.

Prior to 1914, Marxists had treated cartels, trusts, syndicates, as mere “forms” of large-scale production, as part of a continuous development of capitalism. Capitalism seemed to be “organizing the economy,” removing “planlessness,” and thus making it easier for the workers “to take over”—as if it were merely a matter of replacing one set of office holders with another. Now, however, Lenin treats monopoly not so much as a part of a continuous development, but as a development through contradiction, through transformation into opposite.

Competition was transformed into its opposite, monopoly. But monopoly didn’t transcend competition. It coexists with it. It multiplies contradictions; it deepens the crisis. Imperialism arose, not out of capitalism in general, but out of capitalism at a specific stage “when its essential qualities became transformed into their opposites.” Just as competition was transformed into its opposite, monopoly, a part of the proletariat was transformed into its opposite, the aristocracy of labor. That was the bulwark of the Second International. That caused its collapse.

Lenin’s study of monopoly capitalism followed his Philosophic Notebooks and outside of that context cannot be fully understood. Once Lenin saw the counter-revolution within the revolutionary movement, he felt compelled to break with his former conception of the relationship between materialism and idealism. The keynote of his Philosophic Notebooks is nothing short of a restoration of truth to philosophic idealism against vulgar materialism, to which he had given the green light in 1908 with his work on Materialism and Empirio-Criticism.[5] Necessary as that book may have been for the specific purposes of Russia—only Russia was so backward that in 1908 one still had to fight clericalism in the Marxist movement—he now includes himself among the Marxists who “criticized the Kantians…more in a Feuerbachian than in a Hegelian manner.”

Of his former teacher, Georgi Plekhanov, respected as such, Lenin now writes:

“Plekhanov wrote on philosophy (dialectic) probably nearly 1,000 pages (Beltov + against Bogdanov + against Kantians + basic questions, etc., etc., on philosophy (dialectic). There is nil in them about the Larger Logic, about it, its thoughts (i.e., the dialectic proper, as a philosophic science), nil!!”

With himself, he is as merciless, giving no quarter, not even in the economic field:

“It is impossible completely to grasp Marx’s Capital, and especially its first chapter, if you have not studied through and understood the whole of Hegel’s Logic. Consequently, none of the Marxists for the past half a century have understood Marx!!”

Before 1914, Lenin had one view of Capital and philosophy. War and the collapse of the Second International made him turn to the dialectic and changed his views. But he didn’t face either event with a blank mind. He had been a practicing revolutionary in Russia and was molded by the sharpness of the contradictions of that backward country. There is no study of Volume II of Capital more profound than that which Lenin had made at the turn of the century. There is no more profound grasp of the dialectic in action, that is to say, “masses as reason,” than that which he made of the 1905 revolution. No matter where Lenin resided, however, he lived in Russia. He was a Russian Marxist. He was unprepared for the International’s collapse. But having faced it both in actuality and in philosophy, he became politically more irreconcilable than ever. It was not a “mood.” His attitude was not only against those who betrayed. The collapse of the Second International meant the breakdown of all previous thought and method of thought which called itself Marxist, i.e., all established Marxism.

[1] A quote from Karl Marx about the Paris Commune, from his letter to Ludwig Kugelmann, April 12, 1871.)) to establish the first workers’ state in the world.

[2] Lenin’s “April Theses” called for all power to the soviets as a “commune state,” a new International and an end to the war. Dunayevskaya’s notes indicate that she would add “but May Congress of [soviets of] peasants elects” an executive dominated by the Socialist-Revolutionary Party, which Lenin regarded as petty-bourgeois opportunists.

[3] Trotsky dubbed July 1917 “The Month of the Great Slander,” when counter-revolutionaries discredited the Bolsheviks by portraying Lenin as a German agent, forcing him into hiding. This followed a march of 500,000 workers and soldiers demanding “All power to the soviets!”

[4] Gen. Lavr Kornilov, appointed commander-in-chief of the Russian army in July, attempted a military coup beginning with an assault on the Petrograd Soviet in August.

[5] It is no accident that the favorite book in Russia has become this very same Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, which has undergone innumerable editions. These editions make a hash of Lenin’s relation to the dialectic by including two pages from his Philosophic Notebooks as they and the book on Materialism were one continuous development….The Russian conception of the backwardness of the Anglo-Saxons is such that they have never even bothered to make a translation of the Notebooks for the American and English public. The first English translation of the Notebooks is included as Appendix B of Marxism and Freedom.–R.D.

One thought on “On the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. Historic initiative of the masses and Lenin’s philosophic break

  1. Celebrating the 1917 Russian Revolution means, above all, to go back critically to that historic event in order to “provide us with a needed vantage point to confront our own contradictory, unfree world”. Lenin didn´t “make” the revolution. The Russians masses did. However, Lenin’s philosophical preparation for 1917—his trip back to the philosophical ground of Marxism: dialectics—did provide the Bolshevik party with a vantage point that, in conjunction with the spontaneous activity of the masses, made possible the October Revolution. Can we learn something about this needed unity of theory and practice, philosophy and revolution, masses and small groups (parties) of thinker-activists, in order to face the contradictory reality of our own world?

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