Gerry Healy



Hegel and Lenin

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

News Line 18 June 1981

By G. Healy

   The development of conditions for the socialist revolution in Britain carries with it the need for a resolute break from all forms of idealism.  In this respect, a serious study of Marx’s Critique of the Hegelian Dialectic and Hegel’s Logic are a vital part of cadre training to meet some of these most pressing needs.

   For Marx, the decisive break with the idealist philosophy of Hegel involved a parting of the ways with idealist philosophy as a whole. We must learn to reconstruct historically the conditions under which the Manuscripts of 1844 were written, otherwise we cannot conceive the enormous effort which he applied to this work, and how timely it all was. Without such a fundamental analysis the subsequent works of Marx and Engels could not have revealed the richness of the dialectical method in the field of analysis, not to mention the wide area which this covered.

   A simple guide when establishing the difference between the objective idealist method of Hegel and the dialectical materialist method of the founders of scientific socialism is to seek out the basic orientations of both methods. This in turn requires a study of Lenin’s Materialism and Empirio-Criticism together with his Conspectus of Hegel’s Logic, (Volume 38, Lenin’s Collected Works.), which we shall be examining over the next few weeks.

   Hegel began from the abstract thought in his own head, the ‘abstract universal’.  The orientation here was from within. Marx started from the external world of Nature as the source of all knowledge. His orientation was from without.

   The dialectical method today sees the problems of the revolutionary vanguard of the working class, (Workers Revolutionary Party), not as the problem of individuals, but problems which exist in the objective external world of the class struggle. These problems are, of course, reflected through members of the Party, but this is not where they start.

   Idealists in general mistakenly believe that problems can be overcome by logical argument. In this, they follow the Hegelian road, whilst the dialectical materialists start from the objective practice of the Party as the source of the difficulties. They seek through the discussion to create conditions in which the practice of the Party will introduce new and more favourable conditions in which the problems can be resolved. The continuous development of theory as a guide to practice is not some verbal exercise, but the product of continuous analysis, to disclose the potential or otherwise of the Party’s practice.

   Theory is not only a guide to practice, but it is through the development of theory that the implications of practice will be revealed.

Lenin’s Materialism and Empirio-Criticism

   After to defeat of the 1905 revolution, Lenin faced a strongly entrenched idealist faction both within and on the periphery of the Bolshevik Party. Amongst the most prominent leaders of this grouping was A.Bognanov, who belonged, as well, to the leadership of the Russian social Democratic Party. In his youth he studied Marx and became especially interested in economic and philosophical subjects. By 1896 he had produces A Short Outline of Economic Science.

   Written in a readable and popular form, it became a basic textbook amongst the youth in the illegal revolutionary study groups. Whilst in exile in Siberia in 1898, Lenin read the book and favourably reviewed it. The pair met for the first time in Geneva in 1904. Lenin, we are told, exchanged his account of the RSDLP congress in 1903, (One Step Forward, Two Steps Back), for a copy of Bogdanov’s Empiriomonism.

   Bogdanov was basically an empiricist who believed that the source of knowledge was derived from data revealed through sense experience without explaining the need to transcend this experience. His interest in empiricism was closely connected with his interest in the different sciences and his methods of empirical investigation.

   From the time he read Bogdanov’s book, Empiriomonism, Lenin’s relations with the latter grew cooler and eventually he devoted one whole year to writing a reply to Bagdonov and other advocates of the idealist method. Eventually this book, Entitled Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, appeared in 1909 and was adopted immediately as an essential element in the theoretical preparation of the Bolshevik Party in the struggle for power.

   Meanwhile, other disagreements between Lenin and Bogdanov emerged on the tactical question of the third Duma. Lenin was convinced that the Party should nominate its own candidates to the Duma, whilst Bogdanov maintained that to participate in parliament at a time of open repression would be a capitulation to reactionary government. He came out if favour of boycotting the third Duma. Lenin vigorously opposed this position.

   In philosophy Bogdanov argued along the line that ‘all that exists is a continuous chain of development, the lower links which are lost in the chaos of elements, while the higher links, known to us, represent the experience of men – the physical and still higher the physical experience. [Psychical? – ED]

   ‘This experience’, according to him, ‘corresponds to what is usually called mind.’ (Quote from Lenin, P. 226, Volume 14, Collected Works)

   Lenin’s retort to this was that: ‘The essence of idealism is that the psychical is taken as the starting point, from it external nature is deduced and only then is the ordinary human consciousness deduced from nature. Hence, this primary “psychical” always turns out to be lifeless abstraction concealing a diluted theology.’

   ‘For instance’, Lenin insisted, ‘everybody knows what a human idea is; but an idea independent of man and prior to man, an idea in the abstract, an absolute idea, is a theological invention of the idealist Hegel.’ (p. 227, Volume 14)

   Further down the same page Lenin heatedly runs on Bogdanov with these remarks: ‘Just as the ordinary Human idea became divine with Hegel when it was divorced from man and man’s brain.’

   And again: ‘The physical world existed before the psychical could have appeared, for the latter is the highest product of the highest form of organic matter. Bogdanov’s second rung is also a lifeless abstraction, it is thought without the brain, human reason divorced from man. (p.227, Volume 14)

   Like Marx before him, Lenin had to settle accounts once again with Hegel in his struggle against Bogdanov. ‘The existence of matter does not depend upon sensations- Matter is primary’. (p.55, Volume 14)

   Sensation, thought, consciousness are the supreme product of matter organised in a particular way. We go from the external world to sensation, and not from sensation to the external world … We must’, demands Lenin, ‘call idealism where the physical world is regarded as identical with sensation.’

   Without a clear understanding of the primacy of the external world over sensation and thought, it is impossible to break from Hegelian idealism. If we fail here, we shall find ourselves staggering from one idealist conclusion to the next. When combating idealism in England, nothing must be taken for granted or ‘taken as read’, just as the case may be.

Concepts, Categories and Contradiction.

   Hegelian concepts, such as Semblance, Appearance and Actuality, (the sub-divisions of Essence), are names of processes revealing different stages of the development of the properties of matter in motion. By themselves they are abstract and empty and it is not difficult to understand why. The name ‘John’, by itself, is also abstract and empty until it becomes the name of a particular male.

   The use of concepts enables us to analyse the properties of thought reflecting matter in motion as soon as we start perceiving the external world. If, however, we supply or impose our own self-created images to fit these concepts then we slide back the Hegelianism. For, instead of a dialectical materialist method, we are substitution a dialectical idealist system of empty concepts containing our own abstract images.

Similarly, if we take the general dialectical laws, unity and identity of opposites, quantity into quality and vice versa, negation of negation, and seek to impose them on imaginary processes, we again fall back into a similar error.

   Idealists, a real danger in England, like to consider themselves as ‘practical people’ who feel ‘that the best way of dealing with dialectical laws is to apply them’, when the dialectical method requires that they are abstracted from the self-movement of matter itself. Concepts which reflect the materiality of processes through analysis reveal their particular interconnections with other objects and processes, and are classified as categories.

   Both concepts and categories must be treated as flexible and mobile analytical tools for use under different conditions. In this way they become transformed into one another, as they reflect the development of particular properties derived though dialectical thought. For example, Essence is a category developed from a lower to a higher stage of thought through analysis, and knowledge from thought already mediated.

   ‘How is this to be understood?’ asks Lenin, and immediately replies; ‘Man is confronted with such a web of natural phenomena. Instinctive man, the savage, does not distinguish himself from nature. Conscious man does distinguish.’ (p. 93, Volume 38 Collected Works). Lenin goes on:

   ‘Categories, (our emphasis), are stages of distinguishing, ie, cognising the world, focal points in the web, which assist in cognising and mastering it.’

   He quotes Hegel approvingly when the latter writes: ‘Not merely an abstract universal, but a universal which comprises in itself the wealth of the particular.’ (p.99, Vol. 38)

   The idealist Hegel perceived the external world in a finite way, that is, he saw the world as he sees it in the moments embodied in still photographs. The dialectical materialists Marx, Engels and Lenin apprehended it like a moving film, with its form and interconnections in constant change in the form of becoming. The course, [cause? – Ed.], of the change being eternal motion within matter itself.

  In Anti-During, Engels stressed that ‘matter and motion are inseparable’, and that motion manifests itself in the changing forms of matter.

   Hegel saw these forms in a relative, (finite), abstract way, thus excluding the infinite, absolute movement within the relative, (finite), forms themselves. This motion within itself is the source of the phenomena of Contradiction which as we shall explain in later articles can only be resolved by the dialectical materialist method.


   Hegel’s conceptual conception of these finite, positive moments was connected with his practice. Lenin comments on this: ‘Remarkable. Hegel comes to the “idea” as the coincidence of the Notion and the Object, as truth, through the practical purposive activity of man.  A very close approach to the view that man by his practice proves the objective correctness of his ideas, concepts, knowledge, science.’ (p.191, Vol. 38)

   In his Philosophical Notebooks, (Vol. 38 Collected Works), Lenin referred time and again to the abstract emptiness of the Hegelian method. But despite this, Lenin showed how Hegel negated positive moments of the external world within his finite thought abstractions. ‘I am trying’, he emphasised, ‘to read Hegel materialistically: Hegel is materialism which has been stood on its head (according to Engels)’

   A very good example of Lenin’s method of dealing with Hegel is given on page 180 of Volume 38:

 ‘The transition from the syllogism of analogy, (about analogy) to the syllogism of necessity – from the syllogism of induction to the syllogism of analogy, (Hegel’s method) – the syllogism from the universal to the individual – the syllogism from the individual to the universal – the exposition of connections and transitions, (connection to transition).

   ‘That is Hegel’s task. Hegel actually proved that logical forms and laws are not an empty shell, but a reflection of the abstract world. More correctly, he did not prove, but made a brilliant guess.’ (p. 180 Vol. 38, our emphasis)

   To avoid the problems of Hegelian idealism it is always necessary to probe and understand their source. Hegel did everything possible to develop dialectics on the foundation of idealism. He developed dialectical idealism to its extreme limits and at the same time unmasked the more inconsistent idealists of his day.

   The emptiness of his idealist method, however, must be our starting point.  ‘Cognition’, he writes, ‘is thinking be means of Notions and therefore its beginning also is only in the element of thought – it is a simple and a Universal.’ (p. 828, Science of Logic)

   The ‘element of thought’ here is abstraction. His ‘universal’ from which he started was an ‘abstraction’. He estranged the real Man within his ‘featureless’ abstract universal and doomed him to intellectual imprisonment in the logic of an objectified world of thought images.

   Hegel’s estimation of human life was that it was an object of thought activity. Instead of practice as the ‘sensuous objective activity of man’, Hegel saw it as nothing more that ‘the verifying authority of thought,. (See p.233 Dialectical Logic by E.V.Ilyenkov, obtainable at all Paperback Centres.)