Lenin’s Return to Hegel: Why Hegel Still Matters Today

Lyndon Porter

Summary: Review of the 2021 Brill/Historical Materialism edition of Anderson’s Lenin, Hegel, and Western Marxism, with a 45-page new introduction by the author — Editors

My introduction to Lenin came through a variety of theoretical and historical accounts which emphasized his revolutionary activities as his principal contributions to Marxism. Lenin was always discussed in the context of history and his role as a revolutionary leader for whom ideas followed behind actions. Although they often mentioned that he was a great dialectician, they never made clear how he was a great dialectician compared to other Marxist theorists nor did they mention much about his study of Hegelian dialectics. From reading these accounts, I did not get the impression that Lenin’s study of Hegel was important to understanding Lenin as a revolutionary. The image of Lenin which I was presented with was a revolutionary who always valued political action and organization above theory or philosophy.

The 2021 edition of Lenin, Hegel, and Western Marxism by Kevin Anderson subverted the image of Lenin that I was familiar with by providing a thorough study of how Lenin’s thinking was transformed by his encounter with Hegel’s Logic. Anderson undertakes this study with the intention of showing that Lenin’s prowess as a political activist cannot be separated from his life as a theorist who made original contributions to Hegel and dialectics. This 2021 edition also features a new extensive introduction where Anderson responds to supporters of Kautsky and other writers who attempt to downplay the importance of Lenin’s Hegel studies. This major study on the relationship between Lenin to Hegel works to dispel many of the narratives that reduce the Russian thinker to a man of the party. Anderson challenges these narratives by identifying the impact of Lenin’s Hegel studies on his major post-1914 political writings on imperialism, national liberation, and the state and revolution.

Anderson begins his book by outlining the long trend in Marxism that opposed idealism to materialism. This trend begins with Engels who represented the key issue in philosophy being the battle between idealism and materialism, with Marxism standing on the side of materialism. Engels, Anderson argues, stresses that the difference between mechanical materialism and Marxist materialism is not in the latter’s use of Hegelian dialectics but in integrating the discoveries of the natural sciences. This would create a tendency where Marxists would not delve into Hegel and learn the dialectic but instead think that “philosophy ends with Hegel, and the task of the future is positive and scientific knowledge” (p. 70). This trend would continue further with post-Marx Marxists like Georgi Plekhanov who coined the term dialectical materialism. Plekhanov would read Hegel for himself but confined his study to Hegel’s more historical works rather than philosophical works like the Science of Logic. He made a very scientistic and evolutionist reading of these works, which Anderson suggests led Plekhanov to ignore important categories like contradiction and the negation of the negation which later theorists would reintroduce to Marxism.

As the founder of Russian Marxism, Plekhanov’s influence would be wide-reaching and long-lasting. Lenin would be one of the most prominent Marxists who adopted the scientistic standpoint of Plekhanov’s dialectical materialism. Anderson states that Plekhanov’s influence on Lenin can unmistakably be seen in his 1908 work Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, which for decades after its publication would be upheld by Leninists as championing the theory of Marxist materialism and dialectics. In this work, Lenin develops a crude reflection theory of materialism where ideas are reflections of matter, a view he would only later change after his encounter with Hegel.

Anderson argues that Lenin’s study of Hegel was an effort to reorganize his thinking after being confronted with a crisis in Marxism wherein prominent Marxist leaders of the Second International such as Kautsky and Plekhanov had sided with their own governments during World War I. Lenin’s response to this betrayal and the outbreak of war was to move to Switzerland and begin his deep study of Hegel which would last from 1914 to 1915. The notes Lenin took during this period on the Science of Logic and some of Hegel’s other works would become known as his Hegel Notebooks.

In the first part of the book, Anderson summarizes Lenin’s notes on Hegel. He correctly points out the limitations in Lenin’s reading of Hegel that result from his intention to read Hegel materialistically and disregard the elements he considers too idealistic or mystical. But even a “militant materialist” like Lenin cannot remain unphased by a serious study of Hegel. At many points he gives credit to the brilliance of Hegel’s idealism, putting “intelligent idealism” above even the vulgar materialists who are unable to think dialectically. From the beginning of his study, Anderson remarks that Lenin has started to identify with Hegel’s critiques of Kant and positivism. He sees this as an important development because the Marxists of the Second International had taken a neo-Kantian position on philosophical issues and now by reading Hegel, Lenin was starting to break with those theorists not just politically but philosophically. In statements like “Man’s cognition not only reflects the objective world, but creates it” Lenin began to see the relationship between idealism and materialism in a non-antagonistic manner, bringing him close to the conception of the dialectic as a unity between idealism and materialism, as expressed by the young Marx (p. 146). Anderson also notes that despite emphasizing objectivity wherever he can in his reading, Lenin finds importance in the parts of Hegel where he develops his concept of subjectivity. He even begins to find significance in the chapter on the absolute idea which many prominent Marxists including Engels had dismissed as too idealistic for Marxism. While still restrictive in his reading of Hegel, Andersons argues that Lenin managed to make many original insights on the dialectic and transform his thinking in the process. This brings Lenin to a critique of the “scientific and objectivist materialism of the Marxism of the Second International”, which at the same time is a self-critique of his former views (p. 147).

In the second part of the book, Anderson details how Hegelian dialectics formed a philosophical foundation for post-1914 Lenin’s dialectics of revolution. From his study of Hegel’s logic, Lenin integrated into his thinking many important dialectical principles such as contradiction, self-movement, and totality. Whereas theorists who had not studied Hegelian dialectics tended to view capitalism as an undifferentiated whole that dissolves all differences within it, Lenin began to see capitalism as a concrete totality where each part must be considered in its self-movement and contradiction with other parts. From the concept of contradiction, he also recognized the tendency for things to transform into their opposite. This would be important for Lenin to theorize how the leaders of the Second International transformed into their opposite, opportunists who betrayed the lower ranks of the organization and the working class by siding with the pro-war parties. Anderson cites Lenin’s writings on imperialism as further examples of how reading Hegel transformed his thinking. For Lenin competitive capitalism had transformed into its opposite monopoly capitalism, but this transformation was not a gradual evolution where one simply replaced the other as Bukharin reasoned, this was a development through contradiction. Anderson insists that for Lenin monopoly capitalism did not mark a complete divergence from competitive capitalism but instead a form of capitalism where “the old conflicts of competitive capitalism transform into their opposites and reappear at a higher level” (p. 203).

Anderson remarks that there is another often overlooked dialectical aspect of Lenin’s concept of imperialism. From studying imperialism, Lenin recognized that new subjective forces were arising in opposition to imperialism in the form of national liberation movements. While other theorists like Rosa Luxemburg and the Bukharin group within the Bolsheviks repudiated the self-determination of oppressed nations under capitalism, Anderson contends that “the question of the self-determination of nations in the era of imperialism did become central for Lenin” (p. 217). He asserts that it is no coincidence that Lenin, the only Marxist who studied Hegel at the time, developed this view of national liberation rooted in a theory of subjectivity. Though he did not yet understand the full importance of these national liberation movements as Anderson notes, national liberation became the topic he wrote the most about in 1914-17, except for his notes on Hegel.

Witnessing the reemergence of the soviets in 1917, Lenin realized that the soviets had developed as a form of mass self-rule in contradiction to the centralized capitalist state. He conceptualized the soviets as a new form of subjectivity that was arising from the self-activity of the masses to challenge bureaucratic power. This renewed focus on the mass movement and democracy from below formed the basis for his book The State and Revolution. Anderson argues that Lenin’s stress on subjectivity during this period is undeniably linked to his Hegel Notebooks where he placed the development of a “self-conscious subjectivity that is aware of its own actuality” within the context of revolution (p. 147). By pointing out the important link between this major theoretical work and the Hegel Notebooks, Anderson also draws attention to the ways Lenin returned to the roots of Marxism through Hegel. As a result of looking at the forms of organization coming from the self-activity of the masses, Lenin returned to the idea of working-class democracy found in Marx’s works such as The Civil War in France.

In the third and final part of the book, Anderson turns to an examination of the influence of Lenin’s Hegel Notebooks on the Western Marxist tradition. This ranged from theorists who attempted to engage with Lenin’s Hegel Notebooks such as Georg Lukács, Henri Lefebvre, Raya Dunayevskaya, and C.L.R. James to those who tried desperately to separate Lenin’s thought from Hegel like Lucio Colletti and Louis Althusser. In describing the various ways these theorists responded to the publication of the Hegel notebooks, Anderson gives a general overview of what is often called Hegelian Marxism. Anderson engages in a critique of the work of Althusser who attempted to discard the Hegelian influences in Marx and Lenin to declare that Marxism is a science that is distinct from philosophy. He maintains that the Hegel Notebooks are not some inessential notes that can be disregarded if one wants to understand the foundations of Lenin’s great theoretical works like Imperialism and State and Revolution. Although the Hegel Notebooks remained a point of reference for theorists like Lukács or a source for making statements on Hegelian Marxism such as with Lefebvre, no theorists had brought out the truly original and creative elements in the Hegel Notebooks except for one group which Anderson gives special attention to.

Anderson recognizes Raya Dunayevskaya, C.L.R. James, and Grace Lee Boggs, the theorists who made up the Johnson-Forest Tendency, as especially important for their work dealing with the Hegel Notebooks. What distinguished the Johnson-Forest Tendency’s work on the Hegel Notebooks from the more academic Western Marxists was their focus on the revolutionary dimension of Lenin’s dialectics wherein he saw the possibility for revolution coming from a variety of new subjective forces outside the European working class. They also placed more emphasis on this work as constituting an important break from his mechanical materialist views and established a direct link with the Notebooks and his post-1914 political writings. Of this group of theorists, Anderson singles out Raya Dunayevskaya as the one who would continue writing on Lenin’s Hegel Notebooks throughout her whole life and go beyond Lenin to develop a humanist subject-centered concept of Marxism. By citing the work of Dunayevskaya, Anderson demonstrates how Lenin’s study of Hegel was a radically original reading of the dialectic and an especially important source for Marxist-Humanists who wished to critically appropriate Hegel.

While Anderson considers how Lenin’s reading of Hegel was original, he also acknowledges that Lenin failed to take his lessons on the dialectic to their conclusion bringing his thinking a step backward. His concept of the vanguard party had been untouched by the dialectical method and would remain synonymous with the theory of Leninism. This is compounded by the fact that talk of direct democracy and rule from below would disappear as centralization and authoritarian policies were introduced following the Revolution. Anderson similarly acknowledges that despite reading Hegel and integrating his new understanding of the dialectic into his writings Lenin never made his debt to Hegel fully public. During his lifetime, he only made a few scattered references to his study of Hegel and the dialectic, notably urging discussion of Hegel’s work in Russian philosophy journals and for Marxists to become “materialist friends of Hegelian Dialectics” (p. 188). However, this statement was balanced by complimentary references to the works of Plekhanov, whom he had critiqued in his notebooks as a vulgar materialist. During the post-revolutionary period he also allowed the republication of his pre-dialectical work Materialism and Empirio-criticism. Anderson quotes Dunayevskaya in saying that these are examples of Lenin’s “philosophical ambivalence”. The failure to make fully public his study of Hegel would open the door for further distortions by Marxist-Leninist leadership who tried to downplay the importance of the Hegel Notebooks and drive a wedge between Lenin and Hegel.

Anderson’s study ends on a critical yet appreciative note on Lenin’s thought. While rightfully pointing out the shortcomings in Lenin’s thinking that persisted even after his Hegel studies, he maintains that the Hegel Notebooks still hold great importance as an original work on Hegel’s Logic that Marxists can learn from today. Echoing Dunayevskaya, he brings forth the notion that Hegel’s philosophy comes to life in periods of crisis. It was in facing the economic, political, and ideological crises of his time that Lenin as a revolutionary thinker decided to study Hegel and extend the dialectic to the realm of politics and economics. The world faces economic and social crises of a similar magnitude today prompting not only a re-reading of Lenin but also a return to Hegel. Lenin’s study of Hegel has shown the practical dimensions of thinking dialectically. The fact Lenin was able to develop such a profound dialectics of revolution from a text where Hegel uses the least historical content demonstrates that there is usefulness in even the most “idealist” and abstract parts of Hegel.

In the popular liberal and even leftist accounts of Lenin, little attention has been given to the philosophical foundations of Lenin’s thinking beyond mentioning his use of dialectics. Lenin, Hegel, and Western Marxism succeeds in bringing forth a theoretical depth in Lenin that has often gone ignored. This book has provided great insight into the areas of Lenin’s thought that were not covered in the other accounts I have read. While we cannot simply apply Lenin’s own analysis to present-day society, Anderson invites us to understand Lenin as one element in formulating a theory of liberation rooted in Hegel and Marx. Forming a vision of a society with new human relations requires understanding the totality of social relations that make up the present society. A dialectical conception of the world allows one to see a reality that is coming into being. This is what Lenin saw when he recognized that subjective forces like national liberation movements are potential forces of revolution that develop in contradiction to the oppressive structures of capitalism. For Marxist-Humanists, engagement with the Hegelian dialectic is a key to making Marxism not a set of ideas inherited from dead thinkers but a living logic that can engage in social movements that point beyond capitalism.


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  1. edmund blackadder

    Very good stuff – as far as it goes. No time or space to elaborate herewith but thanks nevertheless. Greetings from the Land Downunder!!

  2. Ian Holt

    Whilst there have been, for good reason, much criticism of both Gerry Healy’s theory and practice in the WRP, he did at least attempt to conduct a ‘Marxist’ study of Lenin’s Vol 38 and the Hegelian concepts and categories elaborated therein, which is where I was introduced to them. Unfortunately he misused the knowledge and abused the membership. It seems to me that the notebooks are part of a process rather than tabula rasa, and do not explain Lenin’s turn to an authoritarian dictatorship of the party over the working class/Soviets after 1917; perhaps this was conceived as a temporary measures driven by necessity, in defence of the revolution. Unfortunately his death and the subsequent rise of Stalinism, defeat of the left opposition etc leaves these questions unanswered. Tragic.