Review of ‘Lenin, Hegel and Western Marxism: A Critical Study’

Chris Gilligan

Summary: This review of the 2nd edition of Kevin Anderson’s ‘Lenin, Hegel and Western Marxism: A Critical Study’ was originally published in Marx & Philosophy Review of Books on May 3, 2023, here. — Editors

Lenin, Hegel and Western Marxism was, in many ways, a prescient book when it was first published in 1995. Its republication in 2023, with an extensive new introduction, (in a more affordable paperback edition), is a welcome development for revolutionaries interested in the relationship between Marxism and philosophy. The term revolutionaries is used here deliberately, since there appear to be numerous academic Marxists who derive pleasure from endlessly debating Marx and philosophy for the sake of the debate itself, not out of a drive to help create a new society, based on genuinely cooperative human relations.

There is a popular misconception that Marx was a thinker, not an activist. Academic Marxists formally acknowledge Marx’s activity in the Communist League and the International Workingmen’s Association, but often skate over this activity or treat it as a sideline, rather than something integral to Marx’s conception of the interrelationship between theory and practice. Lenin, on the other hand, was so obviously a ‘man of action’ that he is not so easily appropriated. Lenin was instrumental in making both the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and in forming the Communist International. He was engaged in the everyday cut and thrust of making and defending a workers’ revolution. His writing was so obviously a part of his revolutionary activity that his engagement with philosophy cannot be so easily rationalised as an academic interest. It is much more difficult to claim to be a Leninist than a Marxist while maintaining a well cushioned posterior.

At the heart of Anderson’s book is the argument that there is a significant shift in Lenin’s thinking after 1914. This shift, Anderson argues, came about through Lenin’s deep dive into Hegel, particularly The Science of Logic. The shift in Lenin’s thinking involved moving away from the orthodox ‘Marxist’ understanding of dialectics, which dominated the thinking of the Second International. This shift infused Lenin’s theory and practice after 1914. The shift, however, involved ambivalences and inconsistencies. Anyone who is familiar with Raya Dunayevskaya’s major works will recognise these arguments as hers. Dunayevskaya was the first person to translate Lenin’s Philosophical Notebooks on Hegel into English, in 1949. She undertook this translation work as part of discussions she was having with C.L.R James, Grace Lee (Boggs) and other intellectual figures in the Johnson-Forest Tendency. What is new in Lenin, Hegel and Western Marxism is the rigour with which Anderson, (a ‘student’ of Dunayevskaya), substantiates Dunayevskaya’s claims and the clarity of his writing.

In the first main chapter of the book Anderson provides some context. He outlines the orthodox ‘Marxist’ interpretations of Hegel after Marx’s death. Anderson notes, for example, that it was Engels’ understanding of dialectics which dominated. Books such as Engels’ Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy (1886), provided the key reference point for the Marxist understanding of Hegel and dialectics. In this orthodox understanding, Hegel was an idealist philosopher and the materialist Marx turned Hegel  upright and developed a materialist dialectics. Anderson also notes that it was Georgi Plekhanov, not Marx or even Engels, who coined the term ‘dialectical materialism.’ Anderson argues that prior to 1914 Lenin shared this orthodox view. He notes, for example, that the main philosophical work that Lenin wrote prior to his deep dive into Hegel, Materialism and Empirio-Criticism (1908), was an orthodox materialist Marxist work, in which Lenin argued that matter determined consciousness. Anderson goes on to note that when the Russian Social Democratic and Labour Party split, Lenin and his mentor Plekhanov took up opposed political positions: Lenin with the Bolsheviks; Plekhanov with the Mensheviks. Anderson argues, however, that despite their political differences, Lenin did not break with Plekhanov philosophically. Not until his 1914 study of Hegel.

The other main context that Anderson discusses is the betrayal of the Second International (SI) at the outbreak of the First World War. The majority of the SI were either equivocal on, or outright rejected, the principle of proletarian internationalism in 1914, when they supported their own national, ruling class in the war. Lenin’s search for an explanation for this betrayal, Anderson argues, provides another aspect of context that helps us appreciate the importance of the philosophical shift that Lenin undertook, upon his reading of Hegel.

In the second and third chapters, Anderson focuses on Lenin’s Notebooks on Hegel’s The Science of Logic. Anderson suggests that it is significant that it is Hegel’s more purely philosophical work, rather than the more ‘political’ Philosophy of Right (which was more popular with Marxists at the time), that Lenin decided to study. Anderson notes that Lenin wrote that he was going to read Hegel ‘materialistically.’ Upon reading Hegel, Lenin became struck by the richness of Hegel’s thought. His Notebooks are full of praise for Hegel’s appreciation of development through contradiction. Lenin was also excited by Hegel’s discussion of change as sometimes proceeding through leaps, through moments of revolutionary change, not incremental evolutionary change.

Anderson points out that as Lenin read further, he started to question his assumptions about Hegel. He started to question the idea of idealism and materialism as simple opposites. In his final overview of The Science of Logic, for example, Lenin writes that ‘in this most idealistic of Hegel’s works there is the least idealism and the most materialism. “Contradictory”, but a fact!’ (164). Lenin also shifted his understanding of the relationship between matter and thought and declared that ‘Man’s cognition not only reflects the objective world, but creates it’ (146). As Anderson notes, this comment by Lenin showed that he had ‘travelled a very long distance from the crude reflection theory of Materialism and Empirio-Criticism’ (146). In the process of changing his own understanding of Hegel, Anderson points out, Lenin also changed his understanding of Marx and his understanding of Marxist orthodoxy after Marx. This change can be clearly seen in this repeatedly cited aphorism from Lenin’s Notebooks:

Aphorism: it is impossible completely to understand Marx’s Capital, and especially its first chapter, without having thoroughly studied and understood the whole of Hegel’s Logic. Consequently, half a century later none of the Marxists understood Marx! (6, 16, 286, 330).

In chapters five and six Anderson examines Lenin as a practicing dialectician. Anderson argues, and provides lots of textual evidence to support his claim, that Lenin’s two greatest works, Imperialism: the Highest Stage of Capitalism and State and Revolution, are imbued with his new understanding of dialectics. In both works Lenin presents, for example, development through the conflict of opposites. Where the Second International Marxists talked about imperialism as a system of domination, Lenin noted that it also brought forth its opposite, national liberation movements in colonised lands. In State and Revolution, Lenin noted the development of a labour aristocracy in the developed industrial nations of Europe, who sided with their own capitalist class. This new development, however, also brought forth its own opposite, in, for example, the ‘new unionism’ of mass workers’ organisations.

In chapters seven and eight, Anderson examines some of the discussions around Lenin’s Philosophical Notebooks on Hegel, from the time of Lenin’s death in 1923 up to 1953 and from 1954 to the 1990s. Chapter seven covers the mainly sympathetic discussion of Lenin’s Notebooks by Georg Lukács, Ernst Bloch, Henri Lefebvre and the Johnson-Forest Tendency. Chapter eight covers the further development of discussion on the Notebooks by Lefebvre and Dunayevskaya, and examines the anti-Hegelian challenges from Louis Althusser and Lucio Colletti. The choice of 1953 as a cut-off point for the two chapters appears to be a way of Anderson making a distinction between Dunayevskaya’s discussion of Lenin’s Notebooks while she was part of the Johnson-Forest Tendency, and the philosophical divergence between Dunayevskaya on the one-hand and James and Lee Boggs on the other after 1953. Dunayevskaya, Anderson notes, came back to Lenin’s Notebooks persistently over the remaining three decades of her life. While the other leaders of the JFT, he argues, ‘did not develop further their view of the place of Lenin’s Hegel Notebooks in Marxism, or even Hegel’s dialectic in general’ (296).

The other main theme in Lenin, Hegel and Western Marxism is what Dunayevskaya referred to as Lenin’s ‘ambivalence’ regarding Hegel. In chapter four, Anderson examines Lenin’s inconsistent enthusiasm for Hegel. He looks, for example, at the difference between Lenin’s private Notebooks on Hegel and his public references to Hegel. Anderson also notes that Lenin did not apply his post-1914 Hegelian understanding to the concept of the vanguard party. Lenin’s ambivalence is further examined in the concluding chapter, ‘Lenin’s Paradoxical Legacy’.

In the introduction to this new edition, Anderson examines the response to Lenin’s Notebooks in the decades since 1995. He shows that there have been various attempts to reassess Lenin, particularly Lenin’s thought and activity in the period leading up to and following the October Revolution. Some scholars, he notes, have shown a new appreciation of the influence of Lenin’s reading of Hegel on his theory and practice. Others, however, have continued to claim a continuity, rather than a shift, in Lenin’s thought after 1914. Anderson continues to defend the claim that Lenin did reorganise his thought after 1914, but also expands further on some of the limitations to this shift.

Anderson continues to praise Lenin’s State and Revolution as an innovative work that broke with the thinking of the Second International. He notes, for example, Lenin’s call for the state to be smashed, not, as many Social Democrats were arguing, to be taken over as a neutral instrument that could be wielded differently by workers. In the new edition, however, Anderson also acknowledges some of the limitations of State and Revolution. He argues, for example, that Lenin conflates the dictatorship of the proletariat and the lower stage of communism. Marx, in the Critique of the Gotha Program, Anderson says, treated these as two different phases. One disastrous consequence of this conflation, Anderson points out, is that Lenin argued that a state, in the form of the dictatorship of the proletariat, was still needed in a post-capitalist society. This argument, Anderson goes on to say: ‘was seized upon not only by Stalin and Mao, but also by many other less authoritarian socialists, all of whom saw strengthening the state as a key step on the road toward communism. This allowed the debate over socialism to be narrowed to state vs. private property in the means of production’ (38). This idea, of state property as a progressive step in the emancipation of humanity, has been a debilitating one for most of the twentieth century, and continues to narrow the horizon of possibilities for human emancipation today.

Despite all the thought-provoking content of the book, however, this reviewer can’t help feeling that (as Dunayevskaya said of Marx’s Theories of Surplus Value) Lenin, Hegel and Western Marxism is an academic work, not (as Dunayevskaya said of Marx’s Capital) a work that creates ‘new categories out of the impulses from the workers’ (Dunayevskaya, 2000: 91). In other words, Anderson treats the discussion on Lenin’s Notebooks as an intellectual exercise and doesn’t relate the renewed discussion on Lenin’s Notebooks to wider emancipatory struggles.

While Anderson does suggest that emancipatory struggles provide some context for the renewed discussion on Lenin’s Notebooks, the new introduction focuses on recent academic works which discuss Lenin’s engagement with Hegel. Anderson identifies the publication of Lenin Reloaded (2007) as a work which sparked ‘a new discussion of Lenin and Hegel’ (13). Anderson devotes much of the new introduction to examining this new discussion of Lenin and Hegel, but never attempts to connect this exploration to contemporary emancipatory activity. There is no mention of the attempts at renewing emancipatory activity from below, (witnessed in the Battle in Seattle, the World Social Forum, the Occupy Movement, the Arab Spring, the movements against Trump and Trumpism, Black Lives Matter), as part of the struggle for a new society.

Lenin, Hegel and Western Marxism is an important, rigorously researched and closely argued work. Anderson brings his extensive understanding of Marx, Hegel and Lenin to his examination of Lenin’s reading of Hegel and the response to Lenin’s Notebooks. Those of us, like this reviewer, who are less versed in these three great thinkers will gain a lot from the book. Its academic nature, however, often makes it feel like a purely intellectual exercise. Ironically, this academic nature makes it easier for armchair Marxists to appropriate Lenin’s Notebooks as another work around which to have endless sterile debates.


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