Gerry Healy



Hegel and Lenin

The Doctrine of Essence (Part Two)

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

News Line 6 August 1981

By G. Healy

      Lenin describes the ‘dialectical path of knowledge’ as ‘the movement of Being itself’. (Page 130, Volume 38, Lenin’s Collected Works.)

   We must perceive, abstract and analyse the dialectical laws of nature itself, which includes human beings, if we are to understand ‘the movement of Being itself.’ Unconscious dialectical Nature is manifested in the theory and practice of consciousness dialectical human beings.

Reflection as Moments of the Subject and Object

   The most common difficulties arise from the way in which living persons approach Nature. They enter the world, as it were, in an upside down position so far as their thoughts concerning the role of Nature are concerned. They start from themselves as if the act of thinking was exclusively their own. Passive dialectical Nature, which provides the material conditions for thought is understood as if it were some kind of afterthought, to be taken for granted.

   Even in cases where Nature is accepted as primary to consciousness, it is sometimes most difficult for even serious students of the dialectical method to make proper allowances for Nature as the Primary element in the process of cognition. When it comes to understanding nature’s predominant dialectical role, it is invariably taken as given in a one-sided way.

   The error arises when the subjective practice of external reflection is seen as playing a totally subjective role in living perception, when in fact it only plays a predominantly subjective role in cognising the objective world. There is a subtle distinction. The subjective reflection of living perception, in dialectally apprehending the external world of nature, must allow for the objective moments of nature itself to emerge within their subjective reflection in the actual process of cognition.

   Human beings play a subjective role of thinking within their objective practice. In thinking and in practice you cannot dialectically have one without the other. In the predominantly objective practice of human beings they must be dialectically trained so as to allow theory to guide their practice under conditions where theory is seen as subordinate to practice.

   When we reflect on the external world, there are moments of the objective world itself present in reflection, just as there are countless moments of the objective world present outside and independent of external reflection. They are the source of sensation which is the core of external reflection, so they must be allowed for in the dialectical act of reflection itself, otherwise it is transferred into idealism.

Relative and Absolute Essence

   The material nature of Essence can best be understood if we start from the external world as an integrated objective whole in constant movement and change. All objects, processes and phenomena in thought develop under conditions of inseparable connections and interconnections with other objects, processes and phenomena.

   The conditions for the apprehension of these developments through external reflection is to train oneself to begin with the universal objective whole, the countless parts of which will reflect the movement of this whole, and its reciprocal influence upon them, as well as their reciprocal influence on the whole.

   Man is connected with Nature through the objective use of his labour in order to live. In the process of using his labour to create his own means of subsistence for the purpose of living, economic and production relations have developed between people themselves. These in turn have led to the establishment of other connections such as legal, political and moral relations.

   The dialectical method, in sharp contrast to the idealist method, does not start from the individual, but from the objective character of these essential relations and the laws which are manifested through them. The dialectical use of the concept ‘law’ is to describe what Lenin called ‘essential relation’.

   Human beings cannot abolish or re-create these laws. They can only cognise them through subjective reflection in order to use them in their practical objective activity. In doing this they change the objective conditions which govern their social life and in turn are obliged to change the objective relations between themselves as social beings.

   When such changes can no longer be accomplished by peaceful means, then revolutionary situations can and do arise, whether people are ready for them or not. In the course of history a considerable body of knowledge concerning both the stable side and the revolutionary side of all these relations has been compiled. This knowledge discloses the essence and the content of how people have lived in the past, and indeed live today.

   But essence and content are not the same thing. The latter is the content of past history, even if that history was made yesterday, whereas essence not only includes this content, but is an ongoing process of analysis by living men who are constantly acquiring fresh, even hourly knowledge through their practice, both individually and collectively.

   The essence of capitalist society is private ownership of the means of production for the purpose of making profit. The essence of our knowledge as Marxists or socialists is derived from our knowledge in relation to the present insoluble crisis of world capitalism.

   The capitalists, in order to go on making profit, strive to impose their crisis on the backs of millions of workers and peasants all over the world, who produce all the wealth and barely scrape a living. All this is happening in a situation where tens of millions of them are without work.

   Essence is at first unseen, because it is knowledge which covers such a wide area of things we know and things we don’t know. This applies not only to history but to the current situation as well. The essence of all that has happened in history, and all that is happening when men, through their labour, go on, independently of each other, changing the world in which they live, can never be completely comprehended. We can only, by our practice, get closer to it. In this relation, essence must be considered as absolute essence, which can be dialectically revealed and appear in the phenomenon of thought. [As relative essence – Ed.]

   But dialectical thought phenomena, as they develop, will reveal absolute essence through ‘parts’ which are relative to each other. These parts are then assembled in thought into a new whole. The universal whole is reflected in the individual, [conscious person – Ed.], and through the individual.  But the individual can only enter and get to know the universal incompletely through parts being revealed and assembled firstly into a new whole, which is called a dialectical Notion. He then uses his notion to guide his practice of changing the world.

   Lenin describes the relation between the absolute and relative essence of things as follows: ‘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.   (Page 130, Vol. 38. Lenin’s emphasis)       

   The ‘foam above’ is relative essence, which for the Workers Revolutionary Party certainly does not ‘sit so firmly’, but it does sit and such policies as ‘Youth Training’ which has caused a hullabaloo in the witch-hunting capitalist press, are related to this.

   But like the ‘foam’, it is constantly changing to reflect the ‘deep currents below’ which represent absolute essence. In such a situation what appears to be superficial and unessential about ‘Youth Training’ so far as the revisionists are concerned, does not hold so ‘tightly’

Essence and Cognition.

   The dialectical context in which absolute and relative essence is revealed is firstly through their unity with thought arising from external reflection. But since thought and essence can never fully coincide, they constitute an antithesis which is an expression of the internal contradictions within them.

   In the process of cognition these contradictions are resolved through negation of negation at a lower relative level, only to reappear at a higher relative level, again to be resolved through the negation of negation and so on.

   This process begins with an objective Quantitative image, (Being), which is apprehended through external reflection. This image must contain the contradictions which are present in the objective world. The quantitative image including the contradictions is then negated into qualitative ‘absolute essence’, (sublated being), as an inner process. This qualitative essence is in turn negated into (interpenetration) the content of the abstract knowledge we already possess, where it emerges as a new quantity (transition) in which Essence will APPEAR.

   Lenin, through a quotation from Hegel, describes reflection as ‘the showing of essence in itself’. He qualifies this with the use of another quotation which says that: ‘Reflection is a movement through different moments’, which we must now carefully consider.

   These different moments of reflection are moments of the ‘movement of Being’ as the ‘activity of cognition’ which reveal the dialectical concepts of Identity, Difference, and Contradiction. (Page 134, Vol. 38)

   They must not be confused with the Primary determinations of Reflection, which are Identity, Variety and Opposition which arise at a later stage in the same chapter. (See page 138 Vol. 38). We shall analyse these in our next article.

Universal and Individual in Self-Relation

   External reflection is a sensuous activity which posits ‘something’ from the external world, existing independently of Reflection onto its negative ‘Other’.  The Something which is posited is the concept Identity and is only a moment of the ‘whole’. The negative on which it is transplanted, (posited), - ‘Other’, is called difference, and is the negative of the ‘whole’.

   This may at first reading seem confusing until one recalls that the ‘Universal’ and the ‘Individual’ as opposites are ‘identical’, (See page 361, Vol. 38), and [this unity? – Ed.] is the negative of the whole. Lenin notes:

   ‘The universal exists only in the individual and through the individual. Every Universal only approximately embraces all individual objects. Every individual enters incompletely into the Universal’. (Ibid.)  

   When we perceive an object image through external reflection, it is new, it is positive and incomplete, as it is the result of our penetration through reflection of the external world, (universal). The image, (part), is transplanted onto the abstract knowledge we already possess as individuals, which, to quote Lenin is ‘in one way or another a universal, (whole).

   Since the relation between the Universal and the individual, and vice versa, is a self-relation, the moments of Identity, Difference and Contradiction exist within the Act of external reflection itself. The abstract knowledge which the individual as a universal possesses is a negative whole. As such it is already different from the as yet unknown source of new knowledge which the image contains. That is why we use the concept Identity to characterise it. Thus the part, (Identity), is posited on the whole, (Difference).

   In their self-relation to each other, (Universal and Individual), they are identical, and a Unity since Identity, (Being), is transplanted on Difference, (Not Being). But the act of external reflection from the Individual to the Universal, and through sensation from its source in the Universal to the Individual, is reciprocal. In this reciprocal self-relation, the moments Identity and difference can only be understood through the dialectical method of what is called synthetic analysis.

   Reciprocally Identity is grounded on Difference, (individual (part)) to Universal (difference) and Difference is grounded on Identity (Universal (difference )) to Individual (Identity (part))

   Let us now examine this process more closely.  Identity as a moment is first of all Essence itself at a point which is not yet determination. It is still a part which is not yet related to its whole through analysis. Only when this is done can it become determinate. The law of identity therefore expresses a one-sided determinatedness as Hegel explains. It contains a ‘formal truth’ which is abstract, (not yet related to the whole), and incomplete. The concept of difference has, however, reflection within it, because it is the reflection of the individual.

   This is the difference within Essence, which as a concept is both ‘itself’, (abstract), and identity, (concrete). Difference then, is here implicit as a dialectical moment within Essence.

   The important thing to realise is that the first moment of external reflection which is identity is posited as a positive moment by being transplanted on to the second moment, Difference, as a negative whole. Their self-relation and unity with each other can only be established through a Third moment as we shall see.

   Lenin explains the problem in a quotation from Hegel: ‘If everything is self-identical, it is not distinguished: it contains no opposition and has no ground.’(Page 135, Vol. 38)

   He continues with a further quotation from Hegel: ‘Ordinary thinking places resemblance and difference next to, (“deneben”), each other., not understanding “this movement of transition of one of these determinations into the other.’ (Ibid.)

   ‘The principles of difference’, writes Lenin, and goes on again to quote Hegel: ‘ “All things are different …”, A is also not A. “There are no two things which are entirely alike …”’

From Hegel to Lenin and Trotsky

   In his last struggle for the dialectical method just before he was assassinated by Stalin, Leon Trotsky wrote:

   ‘Every worker knows that it is impossible to make two completely equal objects. In the elaboration of bearing brass into cone bearings, a certain deviation is allowed for the cones which should not, however, go beyond certain limits, (this is called tolerance).

   ‘By observing the laws of tolerance, the cones are considered as being equal. (‘A’ is equal to ‘A’). When the tolerance is exceeded the quantity goes over into quality; in other words, the cone bearings become inferior or completely worthless.  

   ‘Our scientific thinking is only a part of our general practice including techniques. For concepts there also exists “tolerance” which is established not by formal logic issuing from the axiom “A” is equal to “A”, but by the dialectical logic issuing from the axiom that everything is always changing.

   ‘Common sense is characterised by the fact that it systematically exceeds dialectical tolerance. Vulgar thought operates with such concepts as capitalism, morals, freedom, workers state etc., as fixed abstractions, presuming that capitalism is equal to capitalism, morals are equal to morals etc.

   ‘Dialectical thinking analyses all things and phenomena in their continuous change, while determining in the material conditions of these changes that critical limit beyond which “A” ceases to be “A”, a workers state ceases to be a workers state. The fundamental flaw of vulgar thought lies in the fact that it wishes to content itself with motionless imprints of a reality which consists of eternal motion.

   ‘Dialectical thinking give to concepts by means of closer approximations, corrections, concretisation, a richness of content and flexibility, I would even say a succulence which to a certain extent brings them close to living phenomena. Not capitalism in general but a given capitalism at a given stage of development. Not a workers state in general, but a given workers state in a backward country in an imperialist encirclement, etc.’ (Page 65, In Defence of Marxism)

   Note carefully Trotsky’s insistence that, ‘dialectical thinking  analyses all things and phenomena in their continuous change, while determining in the material conditions of these changes that critical limit beyond which ‘A’ ceases to be ‘A’, a workers’ state ceases to be a workers’ state.’ This is, in practice, an example of the method of synthetic analysis.

   Trotsky’s emphasis on the importance of analysis here brilliantly reaffirms Lenin’s dialectical method in relation to Hegel a quarter of a century earlier, when he refers to Hegel’s reference to the ‘law of the excluded middle’ with a further quotation from that source:

   ‘Something is either ‘A’ or not ‘A’, there is no third.’

   Hegel is here polemicising with those whom he called ‘superficial thinkers’ who clung to fixed concepts, such as A = A or Positive as rigidly opposed to Negative. These were the same type of revisionists who opposed Trotsky’s concepts of a workers’ state in 1939.

   Hegel, like Lenin and Trotsky much later, insisted upon analysing this problem as Lenin explains on page 138 of Volume 38:

   ‘And then – Hegel says wittily – it is said that there is no third. There is a third in this thesis itself. A itself is the third, for A can be both +A and –A and as Hegel writes, “Something is itself the third term which was supposed to be excluded’.  +A and –A are both grounded on A, which is here the core of synthetic analysis. Lenin goes on:

   ‘This is shrewd and correct. Every concrete thing, every concrete something stands in multifarious and often contradictory relations to everything else, ergo it is itself and some other.’ (Ibid.)

The Meaning of Synthetic Analysis

   Now, let us briefly re-examine the Moments of Reflection to which we have already referred. Through the moments of External Reflection ‘Something, (Identity), is transplanted, (posited), on the negative of the ‘whole’ which is ‘other’, (Difference).


   Let us repeat the process and call Identity +A and Difference –A.  +A is transplanted on to –A and through this their unity is implicit in a self-subsistent relation where +A is grounded in –A and –A is grounded in +A.

  It would be ‘superficial thinking’ to hold them apart like this in a fixed and rigid relation because contradiction manifesting motion would shatter them to the ground. They must therefore be related to a third which is A. This is done by negating both +A and –A into the third which is A.

   Thus A becomes absolute essence or essence in itself, (Being in itself). Simultaneously analysis, (+A and –A) becomes grounded in synthesis A, which is the sharpest abstract point of contradiction.