David North
The Frankfurt School, Postmodernism and the Politics of the Pseudo-Left: A Marxist Critique

Plekhanov and the Tragedy of the Second International

Letter to Alex Steiner

June 20, 2003

While I appreciate your June 3 reply to my letter of the previous day, I remain dissatisfied with the manner in which you deal with both Plekhanov’s role in the history of the Marxist movement and the political-philosophical significance of Lenin’s critique of the man who exercised immense influence on his own development. My initial letter was prompted, not simply by your criticism of Plekhanov, but more by what I consider to be a facile approach to a very complex issue. It is legitimate to adopt a critical attitude to Plekhanov. But that requires far more than copying a few passages from Lenin’s Volume 38 (Philosophical Notebooks), in which he criticized Plekhanov’s conception of dialectics. These passages have been cited so frequently that they have assumed the form of an obiter dictum from which there is no appeal: “Lenin said … Lenin wrote … Lenin condemned …” End of story. The problem with this approach is that it adds nothing to the sum of our knowledge of the critical historical, political and theoretical questions raised by Lenin’s oft-quoted, but poorly understood, critique. Even more seriously, the citation of these quotes has been used to justify theoretical conceptions that are alien to those held by Lenin as he wrote his important notes on Hegel’s Logic.

Underlying your critique of Plekhanov (and Kautsky) is the conception that the essential roots of the betrayal of 1914 are to be found in a false epistemology. You write:

We know that Lenin was motivated to turn to Hegel in 1914 as a result of the betrayal of Social Democracy, Plekhanov included. Lenin was looking for the philosophical roots behind this betrayal. It was obvious to him that a betrayal of such magnitude did not come out of the blue, but was nurtured over a period of decades. Lenin was therefore trying to understand what it was in the thinking not just of the open revisionists such as Bernstein, but of orthodox Marxists such as Kautsky and Plekhanov, that germinated over the years and that lead, when the historical situation had suddenly changed, to their betrayal.

We can debate endlessly, and I think fruitlessly, how much of the blame for this betrayal can be assigned to having adopted an anti-dialectical epistemology, but I think at least for Lenin, it was clear that the rejection, or perhaps we can say the truncation of the dialectic, was critical in laying the groundwork for the betrayal. Certainly Plekhanov’s isolation conditioned him. But that by itself does not explain his philosophical shortcomings and his ultimate betrayal. After all, Lenin was just as isolated as Plekhanov. Both spent practically their entire political career in exile. Lenin had practically never addressed a mass meeting of workers until he arrived at the Finland Station.

And Kautsky, who was perhaps not as brilliant as Plekhanov, but shared with him the same essential philosophical outlook, was certainly not isolated. But he too betrayed despite his erudition and despite what I have no doubt was his genuine commitment on a subjective level to the cause of Marx and Engels. So I think we do get back in the end to the question of philosophy and dialectics. [Emphasis added]

The basic problem with this analysis of the betrayal of 1914 is its idealist and ahistorical character. If we accept your interpretation, the collapse of the Second International—one of the turning points in world history—was essentially the product of an intellectual failure of a few individuals. Their dependence upon a false method left them intellectually unprepared for the events of 1914, and so they betrayed. This simplistic and one-sided interpretation ignores the complex socioeconomic foundations of revisionism within the Second International, as well as the political forms manifested by revisionism in the years leading up to the outbreak of World War I. The betrayal of Social Democracy, and of such leading personalities as Plekhanov and Kautsky, certainly “did not come out of the blue.” It was, rather, preceded by a protracted period of political crisis. The failures of these major historical figures were, in the final analysis, a manifestation of the deep-rooted contradictions within the political movements they led, and of the epoch in which they lived. Even as Lenin isolated specific epistemological aspects of revisionism, for purposes of theoretical analysis, they remained, for him, elements of a broader historical “whole.”

Of all the major political leaders of the Second International, the role played by Plekhanov in 1914 was the least surprising. Notwithstanding his extraordinary erudition and his profound knowledge of the theoretical foundations of Marxism, the political concept of the Russian Revolution that he had developed in the 1880s and 1890s—of a bourgeois democratic revolution in which the working class would be obliged to play a subordinate role—had been overtaken by the events of 1905. The actual unfolding of the first Russian Revolution created a relation of class forces that had not been anticipated in Plekhanov’s political perspective.

Basing himself on the example of the classic bourgeois revolutions of the eighteenth century, Plekhanov had assigned to the Russian bourgeoisie the leading political role in the impending democratic revolution. But when the Russian bourgeoisie found itself unwilling to play that role, when it revealed that it preferred a political compromise with the tsar to a revolutionary upheaval that threatened its own property interests, he became trapped in a political dilemma from which he could find no escape. Given the economic backwardness of Russia, and the small size of its proletariat, Plekhanov rejected the possibility of a socialist revolution there. He held that a premature seizure of power by the Russian proletariat, before an extended period of capitalist development under bourgeois rule had created the necessary economic prerequisites for socialism, was doomed to disaster. But the Russian bourgeoisie was unwilling to establish any bourgeois democracy within which the ground for the future socialist revolution could be prepared.

What, then, was the political alternative open to the working class, if the bourgeoisie was unwilling to establish a democratic regime, but it, the proletariat, was not permitted to seize power in its own name? For this question Plekhanov, for all the brilliance of his philosophical essays, had no answer. Indeed, he attempted to ignore the contradiction entirely. As his biographer, Samuel Baron, noted, Plekhanov refused to acknowledge that the tactics he had devised at the end of the nineteenth century had been overtaken by events at the beginning of the twentieth century.

“Astonishing as it may seem,” writes Baron, “he who always preached the superiority of the dialectical mode of thought, of the necessity always to take into account the conditions of time and place, failed to detect, let alone resolve, the unique difficulties of the Russian situation.” [1]

In the end, the tragedy of Plekhanov’s life arose out of the belated character of the Russian democratic revolution. The isolation he suffered was of a historical, rather than merely physical, character. To claim, as you do, that “Lenin was just as isolated as Plekhanov,” misses the political essence of the issue. Viewed in the vast expanse of its turbulent history, the two men represented different epochs in the development of the Russian Revolution. Plekhanov personified an epoch that ended in 1905, whose central task consisted in creating the theoretical and initial programmatic foundations for the independent revolutionary organization of the Russian proletariat. Lenin’s epoch—whose central task was the preparation of the conquest of power by the working class—began with the revolutionary eruptions of that year.

For Plekhanov, the events of 1905 brought the heroic stage of his political career to a definitive end. As Baron writes, “His inability to adjust his outlook to Russian realities as manifested in the Revolution of 1905 made the last decade of his life—politically, at any rate, a protracted, painful, and somewhat meaningless epoch. … In the area of political affairs, Plekhanov had nothing fresh to contribute.” [2]

As for Kautsky, his fate, too, must be studied within the context of the historical dilemma of the German workers movement. In Trotsky’s analysis of the roots of the betrayal of 1914, he placed great emphasis on the objective contradictions that confronted the German Social Democracy as a party that proclaimed social revolution as its goal, but was obliged by prevailing political conditions to pursue, in its daily practice, an essentially reformist policy. Trotsky’s explanation of the relation between theory and the objectively-determined practice of German Social Democracy is profound and deserves careful study:

Marxism, of course, was not merely something accidental or insignificant in the German labour movement. Yet there would be no basis for deducing the social-revolutionary character of the party from its official Marxist ideology.

Ideology is an important, but not a decisive factor in politics. Its role is that of waiting on politics. That deep-seated contradiction, which was inherent in the awakening revolutionary class on account of its relation to the feudal-reactionary state, demanded an irreconcilable ideology which would bring the whole movement under the banner of social revolutionary aims. Since historical conditions forced opportunist tactics, the irreconcilability of the proletarian class found expression in the revolutionary formulas of Marxism. Theoretically, Marxism reconciled with perfect success the contradiction between reform and revolution. Yet the process of historical development is something far more involved than theorizing in the realm of pure thought. The fact that the class which was revolutionary in its tendencies was forced for several decades to adapt itself to the monarchical police state, based on the tremendous capitalist development of the country, in the course of which adaptation an organization of a million members was built up and a labour bureaucracy which led an entire movement was educated—this fact does not cease to exist and does not lose its weighty significance because Marxism anticipated the revolutionary character of the future movement. Only the most naïve ideology could give the same place to this forecast that it does to the political actualities of the German labour movement. [3]

How much richer is this analysis, which locates the tragedy of the Social Democracy, and Kautsky’s own life, in the objective historically-determined contradictions of Germany’s capitalist development and its peculiar relation to the political practice and strategy of the working class, than one which claims to trace all problems “back in the end to the question of philosophy and dialectics.” The essential source of Kautsky’s downfall lay in the intensification of class conflict in Europe beneath the pressure of imperialism. The political formulae devised by Kautsky in the 1890s—and which had been employed quite successfully against the revisionists—could no longer cover over the widening chasm between the revolutionary objectives formally proclaimed by German Social Democracy and the political implications of its daily reformist practice.

In 1893 Kautsky wrote:

The Social Democratic Party is a revolutionary party, but not a party that makes revolutions. We know that our goals can be reached only through a revolution; however, we also know that it lies just as little in our power to make this revolution as it lies in the power of our opponents to prevent it. Thus it does not even occur to us to want to foment a revolution or to prepare the conditions for one. [4]

When it was originally published, no Marxist would have found anything amiss in this statement. It represented a “classic” Marxian conception of socialist revolution as the outcome of the law-governed and irresistible development of socioeconomic contradictions in bourgeois society. But by 1909, this conception of revolution was being overtaken by events. In the face of growing demands for mass action by the working class, Kautsky’s distinction between a revolutionary party and “a party that makes revolutions” was being transformed into a theoretical justification for the conservatism of the trade union and party bureaucracy. This objective transformation of Kautsky into the leading spokesman of political centrism in the SPD found programmatic expression in 1910 with his proclamation of a “strategy of attrition” (Ermattungsstrategie), which he counterposed to a “strategy of annihilation” (Niederwerfungsstrategie). But even as Kautsky unveiled his new formula, he still attempted to cloak it with renewed declarations of revolutionary intentions:

The strategy of attrition differs from the strategy of annihilation (Niederwerfungsstrategie) only in the fact that it does not aim at the decisive battle directly, but prepares it long in advance and is only inclined to engage such a battle when it considers the enemy to have been sufficiently weakened. [5]

Though the circumstances of the climactic betrayal of 1914 were certainly extraordinary, it is something of a myth that it came as a surprise. The collapse of the SPD and the Second International was anticipated in the previous twenty-year history of political and theoretical struggles, which arose on the basis of profound changes in the socioeconomic foundations of European capitalism, produced by the growth of imperialism. The impact of these objective socioeconomic processes upon the international labor movement—above all, the growth of privileged and increasingly conservative strata within the working class—was the principal source of the political opportunism in the Second International that culminated in the catastrophe of August 1914.

The essential premise of your letter of June 3, as I noted above, is that the primary and essential cause of the betrayal of Kautsky, Plekhanov and other leaders of the Second International lay in a false epistemology. You go on to state that a debate on the extent to which one can assign blame for the betrayal on an “anti-dialectical epistemology” will continue “endlessly” and “fruitlessly.” The first may be true, but the second certainly is not. To assert that a debate over the role played by a false epistemology in the 1914 betrayal must be fruitless is to suggest that the question cannot be answered. I reject this position. The fundamental cause of the collapse of the Second International lay in objectively existing contradictions, rooted in the emergence of imperialism at the end of the nineteenth century. Only within this framework is it even possible to understand the origins and nature of the philosophical tendencies that predominated in the Second International. Lenin understood, all too well, that these tendencies, which he criticized so profoundly in his Philosophical Notebooks, were no less historically conditioned than political opportunism. The same objective conditions that favored the vast and organic expansion of the socialist workers movement in the late nineteenth century also contributed to the development of certain methods of thought whose limitations would only become apparent at a much later and more advanced stage of economic and political crisis.

The great task that confronted socialist leaders in the aftermath of Marx’s death, in 1883, was the systematization and consolidation of his vast theoretical legacy into a unified and comprehensive scientific world outlook, upon which the revolutionary education of the emerging industrial proletariat could be based. The vast pedagogical responsibilities of the socialist movement, as it sought to create and mentor a class-conscious proletariat, determined the form and character of the theoretical work of the period. Engels was obliged to devote the greatest portion of his energies to preparing the last two volumes of Marx’s Capital for publication. Mehring produced the first major history of the origins and development of the German Social Democratic Party, and a biography of Karl Marx. Kautsky devoted a significant portion of his considerable intellectual energies toward the development, on the basis of the materialist conception of history, of the essential programmatic tenets of the socialist workers movement. In his Development of the Monist View of History, and innumerable essays, Plekhanov elaborated the world scientific outlook of “dialectical materialism,” a term he authored (and for which he has never been forgiven by such bitter anti-Marxists as Leszek Kolakowski). It was on the basis of the theoretical and programmatic foundations, created by this extraordinary collective intellectual effort, that the authority of Marxism in the European mass workers movement was established.

For all its great achievements, however, the limitations of the forms of political and theoretical work, as it had developed in the Second International, became increasingly apparent as the nineteenth century drew to a close and the twentieth century began. The emergence of imperialism, with all its vast political and economic ramifications, the growth of internal differentiation within the labor movement, and the intensification of class conflict, were indications that the protracted post-Paris Commune era of “organic” socioeconomic development was giving way to a new period of revolutionary struggle. This objective transformation underlay the perpetual and deepening crisis of the Marxism of the Second International, from the outbreak of the conflict with Bernstein in 1898 to the beginning of World War I in August 1914. In addition to socioeconomic and political tendencies, the developments in natural science, related to the discovery of the electron, contributed significantly, as we shall explain, to the emergence of philosophical revisionism inside the Marxist movement.

Without a serious study of the entire socioeconomic, political and theoretical background of the crisis in the Marxist movement that culminated in the betrayal of 1914, it is not possible to understand, let alone make proper theoretical use of Lenin’s Philosophical Notebooks. The tendency to detach the Notebooks from the historical, political and theoretical issues that preoccupied Lenin over an extended period, generally manifests itself in a mystification of his theoretical work. As we learned, all too painfully, from the experience of the International Committee during the 1970s and first half of the 1980s, such an approach invariably results in an idealist distortion of Marxism and of Lenin’s own philosophical method. Regrettably, your approach to the Philosophical Notebooks is heading in the same direction.

Permit me to review an earlier letter, dated May 9, 2003, that you wrote to Comrade Vladimir Volkov. I must confess that this letter, which Comrade Volkov forwarded to me, took me by surprise. It began, “I promised to get back to you with a quote from Lenin where he criticizes Engels.” What, I wondered, led you on a search for such a quotation? Throughout the twentieth century, Engels had been a favorite target of philosophical idealists who held him responsible for “vulgarizing” the views of Karl Marx with an excess of materialism. Lenin, whose admiration for Engels knew no bounds, was very familiar with this tendency. In his Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, he lashed out at the attempt of Victor Chernov, a supporter of Mach, to counterpose Marx to Engels by accusing the latter of “naïve dogmatic materialism” and “the crudest materialist dogmatism.” [6] You then produce a truncated passage from Lenin’s essay, “On the Question of Dialectics,” which includes the following sentences:

The correctness of this aspect of the content of dialectics must be tested by the history of science. This aspect of dialectics (e.g., in Plekhanov) usually receives inadequate attention: the identity of opposites is taken as the sum-total of examples [“for example, a seed,” “for example, primitive communism.” The same is true of Engels. But it is “in the interests of popularisation…”] and not as a law of cognition (and as a law of the objective world). [7]

It is clear enough that this passage does not constitute a criticism of Engels. Lenin states that the use of “examples” by Engels to elucidate such dialectical laws as “the identity of opposites” is “in the interests of popularisation,” which Lenin considered entirely legitimate. More significantly, the essential idea expressed by Lenin in this passage—that the history of science provides the most fundamental substantiation of dialectics—is one that he adopted directly from Engels. Indeed, Lenin could not have been aware just how closely his own conceptions on this critical issue paralleled those of Engels. At the time Lenin wrote his essay on dialectics, Engels’ Dialectics of Nature—an extraordinary attempt to incorporate into materialism the latest developments in natural science—remained unpublished. It was not until 1925 that this work was rescued from the archives and published in both German and Russian. In many critical ways, Engels’ Dialectics of Nature anticipated Lenin’s Materialism and Empirio-Criticism.

It may appear that this is a digression from the issues with which you are most concerned, i.e., Lenin’s philosophical transcendence of Plekhanov and other figures in the Second International. However, if one hopes to understand Lenin’s Philosophical Notebooks, rather than exploit a few quotations, it is important to review the history behind the passages you reproduce. There is no indication that you appreciate the extent to which the problem of the relation of dialectics to developments in natural science entered into Lenin’s increasingly critical attitude (over a period of several years prior to 1914) toward Plekhanov’s theoretical work. For example, you reproduce the following part of what you refer to as the “scathing” assessment made of Plekhanov by Lenin:

Plekhanov criticizes Kantianism more from a vulgar materialist standpoint than from a dialectical-materialist standpoint…

It is unfortunate that you did not complete the quotation, for without the entire passage it is not possible to understand the significance of the critique. What follows is the full paragraph:

Plekhanov criticizes Kantianism (and agnosticism in general) more from a vulgar materialist standpoint than from a dialectical-materialist standpoint, insofar as he merely rejects their views a limine, [from the threshold] but does not correct them (as Hegel corrected Kant), deepening, generalizing and extending them, showing the connections and transitions of each and every concept.

You also leave out the notation that Lenin placed alongside this aphorism: “Concerning the question of the criticism of modern Kantianism, Machism, etc.” [8]

The point is that this aspect of Lenin’s critique of Plekhanov dated back to the period of the theoretical struggle against Machism. In Lenin’s view, Plekhanov’s work in this struggle was of limited value because he had failed to engage the Machists on the vital question of natural science. Plekhanov, with his well-known verve and wit, demonstrated the incompatibility of Machism with materialism. He denounced their blundering in the sphere of philosophy. But he avoided the truly critical issue raised by the Machists: the implications of the new discoveries in the field of physics for materialism. This is precisely what Lenin meant when he stated that Plekhanov refuted Kantianism “from the threshold.” Lenin, on the other hand, had dealt with the Machists in a far more substantial manner. As Ilyenkov noted in his splendid essay, Leninist Dialectics and the Metaphysics of Positivism, Lenin attacked the Machists precisely where they considered themselves to be strongest—in the sphere of natural sciences. Materialism and Empirio-Criticism is an extraordinary, audacious and enduring work precisely because Lenin grappled with the epistemological implications of what he referred to as “The recent revolution in natural science.” He insisted that the discovery of the electron and new properties of matter did not invalidate materialism, as the then popular slogan of Machists, “Matter disappears,” suggested.

“‘Matter disappears’,” wrote Lenin in 1909, “means that the limit within which we have hitherto known matter disappears and that our knowledge is penetrating deeper; properties of matter are likewise disappearing which formerly seemed absolute, immutable, and primary (impenetrability, inertia, mass, etc.) and which are now revealed to be relative and characteristic only of certain states of matter. For the sole ‘property’ of matter with whose recognition philosophical materialism is bound up is the property of being an objective reality, of existing outside the mind.” [9]

Lenin explained that the fate of dialectical materialism, as a comprehensive theory of the development of knowledge, was not dependent upon a fixed conception of the nature of matter. “From Engels’ point of view,” wrote Lenin,

… the only immutability is the reflection by the human mind (when there is a human mind) of an external world existing and developing independently of the mind. No other “immutability,” no other “essence,” no other “absolute substance,” in the sense in which these concepts were depicted by the empty professorial philosophy, exist for Marx and Engels. The “essence” of things, or “substance,” is also relative; it expresses only the degree of profundity of man’s knowledge of objects; and while yesterday the profundity of this knowledge did not go beyond the atom, and today does not go beyond the electron and ether, dialectical materialism insists on the temporary, relative, approximate character of all these milestones in the knowledge of nature gained by the progressing science of man. The electron is as inexhaustible as the atom, nature is infinite, but it infinitely exists. And it is this sole categorical, this sole unconditional recognition of nature’s existence outside the mind and perception of man that distinguishes dialectical materialism from relativist agnosticism and idealism. [10]

Lenin viewed the advances in physics as a challenge to the development of Marxism. He detected in Plekhanov’s avoidance of this challenge a theoretical weakness, a tendency to rely on established truths rather than respond creatively to new and heretofore unknown phenomena. In his notes on Deborin’s article on “Dialectical Materialism,” which were written in 1909 and included in Volume 38, Lenin copied the following passage: “What, indeed, is the essence of the new trend in the sphere of natural science? It is, above all, the fact that the atom, which physicists used to regard as immutable and most simple, i.e., an elementary and indivisible ‘body,’ is found to consist of still more elementary units or particles.” Lenin commented in the margins alongside this sentence: “Aha! Plekhanov is silent on this ‘new trend,’ does not know it.” [11]

One of the platitudes of Lenin “scholarship,” shared by both partisans and opponents of the Bolshevik leader, is that the Philosophical Notebooks represents a fundamental transformation of Lenin’s understanding of Marxism, a repudiation of the “vulgar” materialism of Materialism and Empirio-Criticism. The comment of Professor Neil Harding in his book, Leninism, is fairly typical: “As we have seen, Lenin’s 1908 reflections on philosophy were almost wholly concerned with restating the compelling simplicities of materialism as transmitted from Feuerbach to Marx and Plekhanov, but especially as developed by Engels … For all his professions to be dialectical in his approach, Lenin’s materialism was, at this time, decidedly static.” [12] Such assessments are based on a rather superficial reading of Materialism and Empirio-Criticism. Far from representing an entirely new point of departure in his theoretical work, Lenin’s Philosophical Notebooks represented a continuation, summing up and deepening of philosophical and methodological issues that had preoccupied him since the earliest stages of his political activities. A persistent theme to be found in Lenin’s comments on method is his hostility toward any tendency to convert Marxism into an abstract schema. In his brief essay, “Certain Features of the Historical Development of Marxism,” written in 1910, Lenin stressed that “Marxism is not a lifeless dogma, not a completed, ready-made, immutable doctrine, but a living guide to action…” He noted, critically, that the growth of Marxism as a mass movement had unavoidably produced a situation where “extremely wide sections of the classes that cannot avoid Marxism in formulating their aims had assimilated that doctrine in an extremely one-sided and mutilated fashion. They had learnt by rote certain ‘slogans,’ certain answers to tactical questions, without having understood the Marxist criteria for these answers.” [13] In Volume 38, Lenin’s critique of dogmatism found its most complex and subtle expression.

In your letter to Comrade Volkov, you quote the following passage from Lenin’s essay on dialectics:

Dialectics as living, many-sided knowledge (with the number of sides eternally increasing), with an infinite number of shades of every approach and approximation to reality (with a philosophical system growing into a whole out of each shade)—here we have an immeasurably rich content as compared with “metaphysical” materialism, the fundamental misfortune of which is its inability to apply dialectics to the Bildertheorie [theory of reflection], to the process and development of knowledge. [14]

You then make the following comment:

Note by the way, that Lenin’s main criticism of mechanical materialism was not that it ignores history—that is Chris Talbot’s position—but that it cannot provide an account of [the] development of knowledge—which I think is correct. And if you cannot account for the development of knowledge, your practice becomes circumscribed by the world as it is and its “laws.” This is another way of saying that the problem with mechanical materialism is that it always undervalues the role of the conscious factor in history and paves the way for opportunism in practice.

All this is, as Lenin would have said, a complete muddle. The first part of your comment makes no sense whatsoever. It was precisely because the materialism of the eighteenth century had not uncovered the underlying laws of historical development that it could not explain the evolution of knowledge. How is it possible to provide a “materialist account of the development of knowledge” without history? The philosophical limitation of mechanical materialism was, indeed, rooted in its ahistorical character. While it correctly asserted the primacy of matter over thought, the old materialism could not explain the origins of the forms of thought—that is, categories and concepts—which constitute the basis of the reflection of the world, in all its complexity, in the human mind. It was through the medium of German idealism, principally that of Hegel, that the historically-conditioned character of consciousness and its essential thought-forms was established. The reflection of nature in the human mind is a historically-determined process. In opposition to Kant, for whom the categories of logic were a priori and innate properties of mind, Hegel insisted, albeit from an idealist standpoint, that categories and concepts evolved as stages in man’s historically-unfolding cognition of absolute truth. Interpreting Hegel materialistically, Lenin wrote: “Logic is the science not of external forms of thought, but of the laws of development ‘of all material, natural and spiritual things,’ i.e., of the development of the entire concrete content of the world and of its cognition, i.e., the sum-total, the conclusion of the History of knowledge of the world.” [15]

Marxism is not reducible to historical materialism. It is a world scientific outlook that includes, as a critical component element, a theory of man’s historical development. However, the elaboration of this world outlook would not have been possible apart from and independently of historical materialism, which arose out of and made possible a systematic critique of Hegel’s objective idealism. Whereas for Hegel, the self-alienation of the Absolute Idea, and its reconstitution through the dialectic of logical categories, provided the impulse for man’s intellectual development, Marx located the driving force of human development, in all its manifold aspects, in the evolution of labor, the essential and primary form of man’s dynamic interaction with the nature from which he arises.

In Lenin’s reading of Hegel’s Logic, it is the historically evolving character of thought-forms and human knowledge that constitutes among the most critical of epistemological issues. When he stated (with a certain degree of exaggeration) that Plekhanov and others had “paid no attention” to this essential aspect of dialectics, Lenin had in mind the manner in which they had transformed Marxian concepts into unchanging formulae that were to be imposed upon objective reality. Against the backdrop of the World War—when German socialists were quoting Marx’s denunciation of Russian tsarism in the 1850s to justify their support of the Kaiser, and when Plekhanov was recalling Marx’s encomiums to the revolutionary traditions of France (with which Russia was allied) to justify his defense of Russian imperialism—the tragic consequences of dogmatism had become apparent. The dialectical materialist theory of knowledge holds that the concepts through which man cognizes the objective world are, themselves, subject to change, in accordance with the underlying movement of objective reality. Thus, the categories and concepts of historical materialism must not be treated as finished formulae, but must be critically adapted to, and enriched by, the changing content of human society and the development of natural science as it discovers new properties of matter.

The second part of your comment is as confused as the first. “And if you cannot account for the development of knowledge, your practice becomes circumscribed by the world and its ‘laws.’” This is not a correct statement of the problem. Our task is not to escape from the world and its laws, but to correctly understand them—through the development and correction of concepts that reflect, ever more accurately, the nature of a ceaselessly changing objective reality. As Lenin states: “Man cannot comprehend = reflect = mirror nature as a whole, in its completeness, its ‘immediate totality,’ he can only eternally come closer to this, creating abstractions, concepts, laws, a scientific picture of the world, etc., etc.” [16]

Finally, the conclusion of your comment—“This is another way of saying that the problem with mechanical materialism is that it always undervalues the role of the conscious factor in history and paves the way for opportunism in practice”—does not really follow from what was previously written, and requires elaboration and clarification. To the extent that mechanical materialism does not explain the real, objective origins of consciousness, it is unable to correctly explain the role of the conscious factor in history. As a matter of fact, the mechanical materialism of the eighteenth century oscillated between, on the one hand, defining consciousness as merely a direct product of environment, and, on the other, making all progressive changes in the environment dependent upon the alteration of consciousness. In other words, while the old materialists stated correctly, in general terms, the relation of matter and consciousness, in their treatment of the process of social change they veered off into idealism.

It was in a somewhat different manner that the limitations in the materialism of the Second International, and its underestimation of the role of consciousness, manifested themselves. During a protracted period of slow, organic socioeconomic development, the Marxists of the Second International devoted their intellectual energies to the analysis and interpretation of the objective processes of historical development. Their theoretical attitude toward society tended to reproduce certain epistemological characteristics of the old materialism that had been noted by Marx—that is, they tended to conceive of society “only in the form of the object, or of contemplation, but not as human sensuous activity, practice, not subjectively.” Thus, they failed to “grasp the significance of ‘revolutionary’, of practical-critical activity.” [17]

In the struggle against this theoretical tendency, which became, with the outbreak of war, the methodology of political prostration and capitulation, Lenin rediscovered in Hegel a vast cache of philosophical ammunition. Of immense importance was the reintroduction of the concept of practice as an essential category of cognition, in the sense that the development of knowledge is not simply a theoretical question but a practical one. Man acquires knowledge in the course of acting upon the world and changing it. “That is,” as Lenin wrote, “the practice of man and of mankind is the test, the criterion of the objectivity of cognition.” [18]

This letter has turned out to be far longer than I initially intended. But we have drawn very definite conclusions from the experiences through which we passed in the 1970s and early 1980s. And here we come to the theoretical source of our present disagreement. You wrote to Comrade Volkov, “In the 1970s the movement used to be trained on the basis of reading Lenin’s volume 38.” No, Alex, that is not really the case. During the 1970s, the movement was mistrained on the basis of a false reading of Volume 38. Healy and Slaughter introduced into the International Committee, under the cover of a study of the Philosophical Notebooks, a vulgar rehash of the sort of pseudo-dialectical Left Hegelianism that Marx, Engels and Lenin had long before subjected to withering criticism. The political purpose served by the theoretical charlatanry of Healy and Slaughter was to evade the difficult political problems posed by the upsurge of class struggle in the wake of the events of May–June 1968. The “thoroughgoing and difficult struggle against idealist ways of thinking” was, according to Slaughter, more critical “than questions of agreement on programme and policy.” [19] This bizarre maxim was a complete departure from the theoretical traditions of the Marxist movement. The issue of dialectical method was separated entirely from the problem of political analysis and programmatic clarification. The so-called “practice of cognition” invoked Hegelian categories to justify Healy’s increasingly intuitive and pragmatic politics. This form of theoretical charlatanry has been utterly discredited within the International Committee.

You, however, seem to suggest that the International Committee has undergone, since the split of 1985, a theoretical degeneration. “Since the break with Healy these issues have been ignored,” you wrote to Volkov. “I think this is a big mistake.”

What issues? What mistake? During the past eighteen years, the International Committee has produced an extraordinary range of political and theoretical work. We have subjected to analysis the most difficult political issues—among them, the breakup of the Soviet Union, the decay of the trade unions, and the contemporary significance of bourgeois nationalism. In each case we have not simply reasserted “orthodox” positions, but creatively developed and adapted the Marxist program to the new historical conditions. Moreover, each day the theoretical vitality, programmatic clarity, and political astuteness of the International Committee is attested to by the publication of the World Socialist Web Site.

You do not seem to consider these political and programmatic achievements a particularly important indication of the ICFI’s theoretical strength. But, please tell us, what political indications do you see that the International Committee is making a “big mistake” in matters relating to philosophy? In what form has our theoretical deficiency manifested itself?

This brings me to a final point that I would like to make about Volume 38. Lenin’s restudy of Hegel’s Logic found its most significant expression in the quality of his political writings. His study of the great dialectician assisted Lenin in mastering “the art of working with concepts.” A study of his major works in the post-1914 period reveals a strengthening of Lenin’s powers as a theoretician. We could, without difficulty, reproduce innumerable sections from Lenin’s writings which bear the imprint of his critical reworking of Hegel’s Logic. His development of the concepts of imperialism and of the state come immediately to mind.

We will not claim that our achievements have been quite so impressive. But we can state that no other contemporary movement claiming to be socialist can point to a record of programmatic clarity and political farsightedness that matches that of the International Committee. If the International Committee were truly following an incorrect theoretical course, how could it have successfully navigated the treacherous political waters over an extended period (1985–2003) without suffering political shipwreck?

I think, Alex, that your errors in method and politics stem from the fact that you have simply not taken the time to seriously work through the theoretical critique of Healy and Slaughter that was developed by the Workers League (predecessor of the Socialist Equality Party) between 1982 and 1986. Therefore, you have not subjected your own theoretical conceptions, which were acquired under the tutelage of Healy and Slaughter while you were a member of the Workers League, to a serious reappraisal. For you, that is a task that is long overdue.

Notwithstanding our present differences, we value your collaboration and would hope that it can be strengthened in the critical struggles that lie ahead. But I urge you to give the most careful consideration to the issues that I have raised in this letter.


Samuel H. Baron, Plekhanov: The Father of Russian Marxism (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1963), p. 273.


ibid., p. 279


Leon Trotsky, War and the International (Colombo: Young Socialist Publication, 1971), pp. 59–60.


Quoted by Kautsky in his 1909 pamphlet, The Road to Power (New Jersey: Humanities Press, 1996), p. 34


Quoted in Karl Kautsky and the Socialist Revolution 1880–1933 by Massimo Salvadori (London: Verso, 1990), p. 140


V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, Volume 14 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1977), p. 99.


V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, Volume 38 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1976), p. 359.


ibid., p. 179.


Lenin, Collected Works, Volume 14, p. 260–261.


ibid., p. 262.


Lenin, Collected Works, Volume 38, p. 284.


Neil Harding, Leninism, (Durham: Duke University Press, 1996), pp. 225–26.


V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, Volume 17 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1977), p. 42


Lenin, Collected Works, Volume 38, p. 362.


ibid., pp. 92–93.


ibid., p. 182.


Marx-Engels Collected Works, Volume 5 (New York: International Publishers, 1976), p. 6.


Lenin, Collected Works, Volume 38, p. 211.


Trotskyism versus Revisionism, Volume 6 (London: New Park Publications, 1975), p. 83.