Gerry Healy



Hegel and Lenin – The ‘Tools’ of Cognition

Second of a series of articles dealing with Lenin’s Treatment of Hegel’s Science of Logic

News Line 25 June 1981

By G. Healy

   Lenin’s Philosophical Notebooks, Volume 38 of his Collected Works, can only be adequately described as the ‘workshop’ of the October 1917 socialist revolution.

   There are those who say that ‘these are notes Lenin made for himself which he did not prepare for publication.’ But this is what is so important and interesting about them. Lenin’s ‘workshop’ between the years 1914-1916 – the bleak years of his second emigration – he was, indeed, forging the ‘tool’ which made the revolution.

   World War I had thrust forward all the basic contradictions of imperialism and in the two years in which he toiled in the reading room of the Berne library in Switzerland the world crisis of imperialism had enormously intensified, just as it is doing today. Only a profound scientific, dialectical materialist analysis could have equipped the Bolshevik Party, and through it the Russian working class, to seize power when the time was ripe.

   All Lenin’s writing at that time , such as Socialism and War, Imperialism the Highest Stage of Capitalism, War and the Second International etc., to mention but a few, were inseparably tied o his efforts in compiling the Philosophic Notebooks.

   An occasional reading of Volume 38, like a casual visit to the workshop of a master craftsman, doesn’t help very much. We must follow the same difficult road, and be right at the centre of all the problems which arise in the day-today building of the revolutionary party,

   Only in this way can we really understand the dialectical method in the notes. To be steeped in the use of the dialectical method we must be totally committed to building the revolutionary party. This is the highest commitment we can make towards participating in advanced dialectical practice.

   As we have already explained in a previous Article Lenin, whilst sharply critical of Hegel’s idealism, saw the need of analysing his Science of Logic from the materialist outlook. ‘Hegel’s Logic’, he wrote, ‘cannot be applied in its given form, it cannot be taken as given. One must separate out from it the logical, (epistemological) nuances, after purifying them; that is still a big job. (p. 266 Vol. 38)

   At the bottom of the same page he further comments, ‘materialism, (Hegel is afraid of the word; keep it away from me) versus atomism. What ids important for us to establish is the analytical ‘tools’ he used to achieve his revolutionary goal in October 1917’.

Reason and Understanding

   Lenin’s conspectus of Hegel’s Logic begins in page 87 of volume 38 of his Collected Works. He is concerned with idealist speculative philosophy and reveals the trend of his thought in the following paragraphs from Hegel:

   ‘But it can be only the nature of the content which stirs in scientific cognition, while at the same time it is this very reflection of the content which itself initially posits and produces its determination.’

   ‘Understanding  (Verstand) makes determinations, , (bestimmt),. Reason (Vernunft), is negative and dialectical because it dissolves into nothing, (in Nichts aufloest), the determinations of Understanding.’

   Kant was the first to refer to the difference between ‘reason’ and ‘understanding’. He understood reason as the ‘unconditional infinite (absolute) with understanding as the conditional finite (relative) founded on experience. His error arose when, in practice, he limited reason to the same type of abstraction as understanding without any effort to distinguish between them.

   Hegel separates himself from Kant by calling ‘reason’ dialectical, although to him it was still an abstraction as with Kant. In his dialectical idealist way he could only start from reason as an abstraction. Lenin immediately comments:

   ‘The movement of scientific cognition – that is the essential thing.’ P.87, Vol. 38). Lenin goes on:

   ‘The combination of these two’, (here we see the materialism in his reading of Hegel- GH), ‘Reason which understands or Understanding which reasons’ (our emphasis) Lenin then described this last sentence as ‘= the Positive’.

   ‘Reason’ as abstraction is dialectical idealism, it must have a content, or it will be: ‘Negation of the simple’ … ‘movement of Mind …’ such a movement without content would ‘dissolve into nothing.’  

   Lenin again quotes Hegel materialistically:

   ‘It is along this path of self construction alone that Philosophy can become objective, demonstrative science.’ (P.88 Vol. 38)

   The ‘path of self construction’, remarks Lenin, ‘is the path of Real Cognition, and the process of cognising, of movement (from ignorance to knowledge).’  (p. 88 Vol. 38). But Cognition which is self-constructed must have a content.


   Lenin defined ‘Real cognition’ as ‘from living perception’, (self construction – GH), ‘to abstract thought and from this to practice’. (p.171. Vol. 38)


   ‘This can only be’, Lenin insists, ‘derived from ‘the development of all natural and spiritual life’. That has to be its content.

Language and Thought.

   After stressing the need for materialist content to thought, Lenin then goes on to establish the historical relation between thought and language.

   ‘Thought’, he repeated after Hegel, must not be presented like ‘the lifeless bones of a skeleton … What is necessary’, notes Lenin, ‘is not the lifeless bones but the living life.’ (p. 89, Vol. 38)

   This is a reference to Kantian logic which, Hegel said, imparted ‘an essentially subjective, abstract significance’ to ‘logical determinations.’ According to Hegel, ‘thought determinations’ must have ‘an objective value and existence. (p. 96 Vol.38)

   Lenin quotes him again against Kant – Hegel concluded that ‘The old logic has fallen into disrepute, it requires transformation …’

   ‘The old formal logic is like a child’s game, making pictures out of jigsaw pieces.’ (Ibid.)

      Form emphasising the inadequacies of the ‘old logic’ as it was expressed in thought, Lenin then established the connections between thought and language.


   ‘The history of thought’, he wrote, is equal to ‘the history of language … The connection between thought and language, ( the Chinese language, incidentally, and its lack of development) … In the German language words sometimes have opposed meanings.’ (p.89 Vol.38)

   Both the source and the content of thought and language is nature. They have developed through the manifestation of the force of impulses of man’s constant interaction with nature in order to live, (living life)

   ‘The concept of force in physics – and of polarity’, wrote Lenin (p.89, Vol. 38). This reference to physics undoubtedly concerns the development of thought.

   Though impulses of pre-historic man as they grew stronger, polarised into primitive language. This infinite transition towards higher relations of thought arrived at a point where ‘forms of thought’ appeared to become ‘liberated’ from matter, although as a product of matter they could only be of use to man in a material world. This was approximately the beginning of knowledge. (p. 90, Vol. 38)

   The following quotation from Hegel, reproduced by Lenin, explains this historical process as follow:

   ‘ “It was only after nearly everything that was necessary … was available that people began to trouble themselves about philosophic knowledge”, says Aristotle; and the selfsame: the leisure of Egyptian priests, the beginning of the mathematical sciences.

   ‘Preoccupations with “pure thought” presupposes “a long stretch of road already traversed by the mind of man”. In this kind of thought “those interests are hushed which move the lives of peoples and individuals.”’  (p. 90 Vol.38)

   In a note on the side of the page he comments that interests “move the lives of people.”

   These forms of thought become known as categories.

   ‘The categories of Logic’, notes Lenin, ‘are abbreviations (epitomised in another passage) for the “endless multitude” of “particulars of external existence and of action …” In turn these categories serve people in practice (“in the intellectual exercise of living content, in production and exchange”)’ (p. 90 Vol. 38)

   ‘The relations of thought to interests and impulses’, notes Lenin, do not ‘serve us … but permeate “all our ideas”, they are “the Universal as such”’ (p. 91, Vol. 38)

   In a box at the top of page 91 Lenin writes: ‘objectivism: the categories of thought are not an auxiliary tool of man, but an expression of laws both of nature and of man.’

   It is at this point that ‘subjective thinking’ and the antithesis of the ‘objective concept of the very essence of things’ leads to a position where we cannot ‘get beyond the nature of things.’

   This implicit warning concerns the dangers of all ‘critical philosophy’, an idealist method made popular by Kant. It was mainly used by philosophers in his day to test categories found in metaphysics and the sciences. The scrutiny of critical philosophy did not go to the content of the categories, not did it enquire into the relations they had with one another since these categories were assumed to be universal. It was content to compare them in a subject-object relation. This, however, did not reveal their value or authority.

   The categories of  ‘critical philosophy’ were ‘empty word forms’ used in whatever idealist illusion-making that was needed. It is a method which is very popular today in revisionist circles that have little contact with reality. Lenin explained it as conceiving ‘the relation between “three terms” (We, thought, Things) so that thoughts stand “in the middle” between things and us, so that this middle term “separates” rather than connects us.

   ‘In my opinion’, Lenin notes, ‘the essence of the argument is:  In Kant, cognition demarcates (divides) nature and man, actually it unites them.’ (p. 91, Vol.38)

   Subjective thinking and Objective categories inevitably reached a synthesis which united them within nature, whereas Kant’s method divided them from nature. For Kant the ‘thing in itself’ was conceived through the comparison between the subjective abstract thought and equally abstract universal categories, from which was derived the abstract meaningless ‘thing in itself’. This ‘thing-in-itself’ allowed the ‘critical philosopher’ to impose any image he wished upon it, which is why critical philosophy amounts to the crudest idealism in practice. (p. 91, Vol.38)

Dialectical Logic and Cognition

   ‘In Kant, the thing-in-itself’, wrote Lenin, ‘is an empty abstraction, but Hegel demands abstractions which correspond to the essence; the objective concept of things constitutes their very essence, and correspond – speaking materialistically, to the real deepening of our knowledge of the world.’ (p. 92. Vol.38)


   ‘What Hegel demands’, Lenin continues, ‘is a Logic the forms of which would be forms with content, forms of living, real content, inseparably connected with content.’ (p.92 Vol. 38)

   Lenin’s important contribution to the dialectical method begins to emerge on page 92, Volume 38, when he comments at the bottom of the page on Logic. What he has in mind is a ‘self construction’ in cognition which sublates  (a) the old formal logic of the metaphysical era, together with Kantian idealism; (b) Hegel’s yearning for a ‘content’ to the thought forms of categories which had already emerged, but which Hegel with his idealist, abstract method could not resolve.

   Lenin’s self construction then proceeds to transcend these experiences with a dialectical Logic which would be ‘the science not of external forms of thought, but of the laws of development’: ‘of all material, natural and spiritual things’, ie., of the development of the entire content of the world and of its cognition, ie., the sum total, the conclusion of the History of knowledge of the world.’ (p. 93, Vol.38)

   Cognition can be described as the science of dialectical Logic.  Whilst revealing the limits of formal logic, cognition does not reject it. Rather it unites the history of the teaching on Being (Man united with Nature) with its reflection in the mind. Cognition is the reproduction of the world through its reflection in thought. It is conditioned by the laws of social development (class struggle) and is inseparable from practice.

   The inclusion of practice transforms cognition from a theory of knowledge into a science which dialectically discloses in the development of knowledge the changes going on in the world of nature.

   Living perception, which is the starting point of cognition, is a sensuous empirical reflection of the external world. It is empirical because it is only through sensation that we can establish initial contact with the external qualities of the objects we encounter in the world outside us. Through sensation these objects perceived at random, form images in our mind, enabling us, in turn, to dialectically operate with them as images of external objects.

   Through analysis we establish the relation between these and their particular function as a reflection of objects outside of us. In doing this we proceed from essence of the first order, (subjective cognition), to essence of the second order, which is appearance. This is achieved in a way in which the process of cognition becomes the object of cognition.

   Dialectical Logic abstracts concepts from matter in motion and the developments arising from it. These include resolving the internal contradictions within thought through observing their qualitative changes, resulting from negation of the lower form of essence into the higher form.

   Through analysis we investigate the dialectical essence of opposites within categories. The laws of dialectical logic are abstracted from this process and govern the development of thought from the external to the internal, from the abstract to the concrete, from the relative truth to the absolute truth.

   We are able to overcome the division between analysis and synthesis, between the empirical and the theoretical in the negation of the negation, which transforms into independent forms of Cognition, embodying the Unity of the historical and logical in the transition from lower to higher forms. In the course of this we resolve the contradiction at the source of essence and at the same time we create the best conditions for our practical activity.

   ‘ “Truth is infinite …”’, writes Hegel, and Lenin notes: ‘its finiteness is its denial’, and then again quotes Hegel as saying “‘its end’”, and goes on:  ‘The forms of thought, if one regards them as forms “distinct from the substance and merely attached to it”, are incapable of embracing the truth.’ (p. 93, Vol. 38, double quotes indicate Hegel)

   To establish the relative moment of truth, in the finite, we must establish the dialectical relation between the absolute (infinite) within the relative (finite). By themselves finite forms separated from the infinite are incapable of embracing the truth. Cognition enables us to establish the moment of objective truth in relation to other concepts. Thinking must always develop out of the necessity to think which is generated by external conditions in the objective world.

   ‘The categories’. Notes Lenin, ‘have been derived (and not taken arbitrarily or mechanically) (not by “exposition”, not by “assurances”, but  with proofs) proceeding from the simplest most fundamental (Being, Nothing, Becoming) (without taking others) – here, in them, “all this germ, the whole development”.’ (p. 94, Vol.38)

   ‘Being here is External Nature united with man. Through sensation it manifests itself as the abstract image of NOT BEING. This is the Semblance and essence of the lower order which is determinative. It is the initial germ or ‘cell’ of the dialectical method.

   ‘Logical forms’, Lenin insists, ‘are dead forms’, if taken by themselves (See p.95 Vol.38). The phenomena, (initial thoughts) which these ‘Logical forms’ embrace must be moved forward by their content. Phenomena or initial thoughts are here the image products of reflection. The ‘content’ which moves them forward is living man himself and his existing knowledge, together with his ability to reflect external Nature. his is what Lenin describes as ‘the dialectic of its own movement.’ (p.97, Vol.38).

   We must be conscious that in ‘Being’, man as part of nature is, like nature, always in movement and change. The idealists separate man from Nature when they must be considered in their unity.

   Through reflection we perceive our own particular external image. Since it is our ‘image’ we, and the knowledge we already possess are its content. The transition of dialectical thought from the lower to the higher forms is taking place mentally through us.