Gerry Healy



Hegel and Lenin

The Doctrine of Essence (Part One)

Seventh in a series of articles dealing with Lenin’s treatment of Hegel’s Science of Logic

News Line 30 July 1981

By G. Healy

   In a letter to C. Schmidt in Zurich, November first 1891, Engels, in referring to Hegel’s writings, stressed that ‘the Doctrine of Essence is the main thing … the resolution of the abstract contradictions into their own instability, where one no sooner tried to hold on to one side alone that it changes unnoticed into the other etc.’ (Pages 438-439 Marx-Engels Correspondence)

   ‘Hegel’s dialectics’, Engels continues, ‘is upside down because it is supposed to be the “self-development of thought” of which the dialectics of facts therefore is only a reflection, whereas in really the dialectics in our heads is only the reflection of the actual development going on in the world of nature and of human history in obedience to dialectical forms …’ (Ibid.)

   Engels then pays tribute to Hegel’s greatness as both he and Marx had done many times in their writings, and insists that:

   ‘It is more important to discover the truth and genius that lie beneath the false form and within the artificial connections. (Ibid.)

   From such important tributes to the Doctrine of Essence it is understandable why Lenin devoted so much space to this section of Hegel’s work in his Conspectus of [Hegel’s – Ed] Logic.

   He begins his study to analyse Essence as ‘Reflection-in-itself’ by referring to Hegel’s sentence ‘The truth of Being is Essence’ as being thoroughly idealistic and mystical. (Page 129, Volume 38. Lenin’s Collected works). Then Lenin comments: ‘But immediately afterwards a fresh wind, so to speak, begins to blow.’

The Path of Cognition

   The ‘fresh wind’ was contained in Hegel’s affirmation that ‘Being is the immediate’. Lenin refers here to ‘Being’ as Nature, which includes human beings. All knowledge must begin from the predominance of the external world of nature over man as an integral part of this process. This is the starting point of the materialist theory of knowledge, according to Lenin, as he diligently strives to stand Hegel on his materialist feet.

   Lenin approvingly quotes Hegel’s reference to ‘knowledge’ which seeks to understand ‘that truth which Being, in and for itself, is, and therefore it does not halt at the immediate and its determinations, but penetrate through it …’ (Ibid.)

   It is very important to understand what ‘Being-in-and-for-itself’ means. ‘Being-in-and-for-itself’ is the outer image of the objective world which is perceived through external reflection. This is what is called the immediate.

   The most common error made by the idealists is to begin from the notion that it is their knowledge which is penetrating the objective world and not the other way round. The objective image of the external world which emerges in external reflection penetrates the content of our knowledge. The dialectical movement is from the ‘outer’ to the ‘inner’. This ‘outer’, which is the objective image of the external world, provides not only the source of our knowledge, but the ever-present background – the development of this knowledge as well.

   Lenin has chosen this quotation from Hegel to describe the process of cognition.

   ‘This cognition is mediated knowledge, for it is not lodged immediately with and in Essence, but begins at an Other, at Being, and has to make a preliminary passage, the passage of transition beyond Being or rather of entrance into it …’ (Page 129, Vol. 38)

Idealism and Reflection

   To the individual engaged in reflection, it appears that the starting point is himself, when in fact in begins from the ‘other’, which is the external world of Nature. Since Nature is united with the person responsible for the reflection in BEING, Reflection starts from the objective ‘Other’, (Nature) of Being and makes a ‘preliminary’ passage into the objective knowledge ‘other’ of the subjective side of Being.

   Being, (Nature), is both object and subject. Dialectical analysis proceeds from the proposition that Nature is both Object and Subject, with the object predomination over the subject. Human beings as part of Nature are likewise conditioned be these laws. Reason and mediation must allow for the Object to contain the Subject and the Subject to include the Object.  Their interaction is one of the sources of movement which takes the form of the class struggle.

   ‘This movement’, writes Lenin, ‘the path of knowledge, seems to be the “activity of cognition … external to Being’” (Page 130, Vol. 38). Lenin continues with a quotation from Hegel:

   ‘However, this movement is the movement of Being itself.’ (Ibid.) In other words it is the movement of Nature as a whole. For Lenin this had ‘Objective significance’.

Absolute Nature of Essence

   ‘ESSENCE’ must reflect the infinite movement of nature which is manifested through finite objects and processes.  Absolute essence it in itself is simply movement by itself. It must, however, become determinate essence in relation to the object and processes it is immediately connected with as ‘other’.

   ‘Essence’, Lenin explains, ‘stands midway between Being (Nature/Man) as the transition to the Notion (=Absolute). He describes that subdivisions as Semblance, Appearance and Actuality. These are forms in which Essence emerges. Each one contains essence and unessential properties, and referring to these properties Lenin notes:

   ‘The unessential, seeming, superficial, vanishes more often, does not hold so tightly, does not sit so firmly as Essence. Approximately, the movement of a river – the foam above and the deep currents below. But even the foam is an expression of essence!’ (p. 130, Vol. 38)

   Sceptics generally treat Semblance with impatience, as if it is not worth bothering about. It is dismissed as being of little use. The sceptic plunges headlong into whatever it is he is doing, as if it was one damn thing after another. Whereas the idealist assigns it some label, as it were, of what he imagines it should be. [The term ‘one damn thing after another’ refers to the practice of treating events as random and unconnected – Ed].

   For the sceptic it is ‘soldier on regardless’ so far as Semblance is concerned, and for the idealist Semblance is resolved through his imagination. Semblance can best be understood as a moment of time contained in external reflection. It is a universal moment of time in which countless changes, both seen and unseen, are recorded. They are immediate to reflection of are in the category of an ‘open question.’

   ‘Modern idealism’, Lenin emphasises, ‘did not dare to regard cognition as a knowledge of the Thing-in-itself.’ (vol. 38, page 131).

   Semblance was seen as having no basis. The thing-in-itself was supposed to have no basis at all in any being. The sceptics, on the other hand, in their ‘one damn thing after another’ approach, by implication and in their practice, ‘admitted manifold determinations in their Semblance’. But even idealists, in the ‘appearance’ of their idealism, had by implication to admit that the ‘thing’, which to them is neither ‘something nor Thing nevertheless comprehends ‘the manifold riches of the world.’ (P. 130, Vol.38)

Semblance and Reflection

   Lenin sharply comments, ‘You include in Semblance, (or show), all the wealth of the world and you deny the objectivity of Semblance.’ (Page 131, Vol.38)

   We are referring to the first pair of determinations – Other of Something. This other is Semblance, as it refers to the second pair of determinations. ‘Being-in-itself  Being-for-itself’. (Page 108, Vol. 38)

   As Hegel explains; ‘Semblance contains these manifold determinatenesses, which are immediate, existent and reciprocally other. Semblance itself is, then, immediately determinate. It may have this or that content, but whatever content it has is not posited by itself but belongs to it immediately.’ (Page 131 Vol.38).  

   Semblance is the implicit content of the abstraction of the images which is immediately given through external reflection.   

   This is what Lenin emphasises when he quotes Hegel as follows: ‘The monad of Leibnitz develops its presentations out of itself; but it is no creative and connecting force – the presentations arise in it like bubbles; the are indifferent and immediate relative to one another, and therefore to the monad itself.’ (Page 132, Vol. 38)

   The Machists and similar revisionists, sceptics and idealists, would simply place their own interpretations on these ‘bubbles’ and they would be isolated from reality accordingly. Lenin continues to quote Hegel:

   ‘Determinations which distinguish Semblance from Essence are determinations of Essence.’ (Page 132 Vol.38)

   Semblance then is, as Lenin explains, ‘the negative nature of Essence.’ The first pail of determinations, ‘Something – Other of Something’, which constitute Semblance, are in fact the ‘moments of Essence itself.’ Or as Hegel explains it, ‘Semblance is Essence itself in the determinations of Being …’ (Ibid.)

   If one takes Semblance in its purely negative form, like the idealists do, then it will amount to Nothing. To understand this process more concretely, consider the process when you take a photograph with a camera. The ‘frame’ itself will be part of a role of film contained in the camera. As you take the shot what happens is the blocking out of the light by the action of the shutter, which will leave the Semblance of the picture imposed on the pre-sensitised negative.

   If you expose this frame at this point to the daylight it will be destroyed and amount to Nothing. Instead you complete the roll and refer it to another process which is its development into a negative. This negative will be the appearance of the image of the photo in an intro-reflected way. Later it will be printed down and perhaps enlarged, emerging as it was actually taken. There is scarcely a better way to grasp the dialectical process of cognition than to study and reflect on how a camera works, because the camera is a dialectical product of the dialectical brain of a human being.

   In the box at the top of Page 133 Lenin, himself a bit mysterious but in reality very materialist, writes:

    ‘Semblance is (1) nothing, non-existent, which exists.’ The initial impression on the film after the shutters are closed is ‘nothing, non-existent’, by itself – it exists for an ‘other’, through its chemical development into Appearance and Actuality. As Lenin explained it, it is ‘Being as a moment’

   Hegel sums up the role of Semblance in a paragraph quoted by Lenin:

   ‘Thus Semblance is Essence itself, but Essence in a determinateness and this in such a manner, that determinateness is only its moment. Essence is the showing of itself in itself.’ (Ibid.)

   And again Hegel is quoted by Lenin on the same page:

   ‘In this its self movement Essence is Reflection. Semblance is the same as Reflection.’ And Lenin remarks:

  ‘Semblance, (that which shows itself), is the Reflection of Essence in itself.’ (Ibid.)

   Essence as Reflection means that the movement in and of Essence is contained in Essence as the movement of Reflection. If we return to the analysis of the camera, Reflection in Movement is the movement of the shutter of the camera. Thus the essence of the still undeveloped image on the film is the, [appears to be? – Ed.], movement of Essence as the reflection of our consciousness and understanding.

   This would be to fall into the old idealist trap of believing that the source of sensation is in our consciousness, when in reality it is in the objective external world. Essence must be seen as immediately given and abstracted from the external world. This image, like Semblance, is objective because it is an image of the objective world.