Gerry Healy



From Hegel to Lenin and Trotsky

The Doctrine of Essence (Part Four)

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

News Line 20 August 1981

By G. Healy

      Cognition is a process through which the external world is dialectically reflected in our consciousness. Since objective reality is the source of sensation, it is important that we strive to adjust and organise our senses so that they can apprehend the dialectical movement of the world around us.

   Since we are dialectical human beings as part of nature, this type of training is not so difficult as it at first appears. But it can only be undertaken after a study of Lenin’s conspectus of Hegel’s book, The Science of Logic, in Volume 38 of Lenin’s Collected works, which is the purpose of the present series of articles.

The Struggle Against Idealism

   Historically speaking Idealism, which starts from the individual and his needs, is a class question. The many forms in which idealism can manifest itself, from gods to dictators, is well suited to capitalist rule. The ruling class and their profit-orientated educational system inflict a kind of brain damage on millions of young people every day in philosophically upholding the power of capitalism and the rule of the rich.

   But the role of idealism as a philosophy in history must not be overlooked. It played a progressive role at one stage in the development of the productive forces, through the division of mental from manual labour, which today is totally reactionary.

   All sorts of false images are spewed out of the millionaire media, with its newspapers, films, schools, universities etc., extolling the virtues of the ‘I’m All Right Jack’ philosophy, so that a system which was already outmoded by 1914, on thieve of the outbreak of World War I, can continue to impose untold misery on the overwhelming majority of the worlds population.

   Idealism stands for capitalist rule, whereas dialectical materialism is the scientific revolutionary theory of knowledge of the working class and its allies within the middle class. As soon as we begin to understand that the source of all our knowledge exists independently of us in the external world, and that for a dialectical human being to consciously turn to that world, we will in effect make a start towards overcoming the ‘brain damage’ of idealism.

   What it also amounts to is that a dialectical human being is turning towards dialectical nature in a perfectly normal way, free from gods, false images, either religious or the Hollywood variety. Then dialectical nature itself will, in its own passive way, really begin to provide the incentive, as it were, for us to adjust our dialectical senses to it.

   Dialectical materialism is a Monist conception which adheres to the primacy of the material world over thought.

Some Problems With Cognition.

   The difficulty we encounter today is that dialectical concepts and categories are sometimes very difficult to grasp. It appears as if they re almost impossible to re member, and that the problem of recognising them is insurmountable.

   The dialectical method deals with movement and change through a cognitive study of dialectical moments. These moments contain opposites such as Positive and Negative, Identity and difference, which will only yield knowledge when studied from the standpoint if their self-relation. That is to say, each moment represents a moment of indestructible matter, and although they change their forms, their motion remains eternal. As Engels long ago pointed out, ‘Motion is the mode of existence of matter’.

   We cannot take a positive from one moment and a negative from another, and call them the same moment. A process of cognition means that we cognise objects and processes existing outside us in their self-relation to us and through us to one another. It is permissible for the purpose of analysis to refer to them as moments in their self-relation although the opposites are contained in any one moment.

   At he same time, it is not only the moments which are dialectical, but our method of external reflection, which we use for cognising and analysing them as well. Just as human beings are dialectical, so also are their senses.

   External sensuous reflection has two opposite moments. Identity which is the positive moment, in which the image appears through sensation, with its negative Difference, (immediate), and Difference, (other of the first), which is the negative of the knowledge we possess.

   In this respect external reflection is both Subject and Object. It embodies the objective practice and knowledge which we have and the subjective ability to perceive the external world. It is both External Reflection and Reflection, as two moments in self-relation.

   The moments of reflection, Identity, Difference and Contradiction, are determined by External Reflection.

The Importance of Contradiction.

   Contradiction emerges in the implicit opposition between ‘other of the immediate’ and ‘other of the first’, since both represent different moments. Through the negation of the negation ‘they, (other of the immediate and other of the first – GH), pass over into their truth’, when the ‘thing’ is shown to have a variety of connections as it develops towards and into its truth, of their existence in our knowledge.

   We negate the separate moments of contradiction, (-A, other of the immediate, and –A, other of the first), into absolute essence and semblance which is Reflection ‘itself in itself’ and now posited contradiction, or as Lenin explained through a quotation from Hegel, ‘an exhibition of contradiction’.

   In dealing with contradiction Lenin refers to Hegel. Who writes: ‘Contradiction is the root of all movement and vitality and it is only insofar as it contains contradiction that anything moves and had impulse and activity.’ (P. 139 Vol. 38)

   ‘With regard to the assertion that contradiction does not exist’, write Hegel, ‘that it is non-existent, we may disregard this statement. In every experience there must be an absolute determination of Essence – in every actuality as well as in every concept.’  (Ibid.)

   The negation of the negative of the immediate and the negative of the ‘first’ into absolute essence is described by Lenin in another quotation from Hegel, who writes: ‘It is the negative in its essential determination, the principle of all self-movement which consists of nothing else but as exhibition of contradiction.’ (P. 140, Vol. 38)

   This all-important quotation continues: ‘External, sensible motion is itself its immediate existence.  Something moves, not because it is here at one point in time and there at another, but because at one and the same point of time it is here and not here, and in this here, both is and is not … Motion is existent contradiction’ (Ibid.)

   Lenin’s nest reference to Hegel is when the latter deals with the two negatives – DIFFERENCE (other of immediate) and Difference, -A, (other of the first).

      ‘And similarly internal self-movement proper, or impulse in general, (the appetitive force of nisus of the monad, the entelechy of absolutely simple Essence) is nothing else that the fact that something is in itself and is also the deficiency or negative of itself, in one and the same respect.’ (Ibid.)

   He then explains that if you were to take the negative of the immediate by itself, it would have no vitality. And quoting Hegel:

   Abstract self-identity has no vitality but the fact that Positive in itself is negativity causes it to pass outside itself and to change. Something therefore is living only insofar as it contains contradiction, and is that force which can both comprehend and endure contradiction’. (Ibid)

   The negative of Identity, (Positive), immediate Difference, (-A), passes outside itself when it is transplanted by reflection on to the negative ‘other of the first’. Both negatives, again because of the different moments they represent, are negated together into absolute essence. Both are in movement because they contain contradiction.

   For the purpose of analysing the movement and change we must learn to hold fast the one on the other, and to allow them to be negated together in this self-relation, into absolute essence, (Semblance)

   ‘But if an existent something’, Lenin quotes Hegel, ‘cannot in its positive determination also encroach on its negative, cannot hold fast the one in the other and contain Contradiction within itself, the it is not living unity or GROUND but perishes in Contradiction’. (P. 141. Vol. 38)

   This is crucial to the whole dialectical method. The historical task of training the revolutionary cadre produces almost continuous experiences of where the danger of perishing in contradiction can arise.

   The lag between the political development of the masses and the objective crisis of world capitalism creates a real contradiction for the inexperienced leaders. They feel bitterly disappointed that because it is clear what Thatcher and the capitalists are up to, the workers are at times slow to move.

   Then they engage in speculative thought which amounts to working things out rationally in their heads. The next quotation which Lenin reproduces from Hegel’s Science of Logic is almost written specially for such situations:

   ‘Speculative thought consists only in this, that thought holds fast contradiction, and itself in contradiction, and not in that it allows itself to be dominated by it – as it happens to imagination – or suffers its determinations to be resolved into others, or into Nothing.’ (P. 141, Vol. 38)

   Instead of running away from Contradiction and seeking rational idealist solutions in our heads, we must allow ourselves to be dominated by Contradiction through holding fast the moments. It is only when we do this that we are sensuously obliged to stop making up answers in our own heads and get down to studying the problems as they arise in the objective world of the class struggle. From such a dialectical approach we will develop practices to resolve the contradictions by changing the relations and  connections which give rise to them in the objective world.

   Lenin, in another quotation from Hegel, emphasises that it is the simplicity of the determinations of movement and impulse which conceals the contradiction from the imagination. It is worth quoting in full:

   ‘In movement, impulse, and the like, the simplicity of these determinations conceals the contradiction from imagination; but this contradiction immediately stands revealed in the determinations of relation.’ (P. 141, Vol.38)

   Hegel gives ‘some trivial examples, such as ‘father and son, above and below, right and left’, to illustrate how these relations tend to conceal contradictions, although all contain contradiction ‘in one term’. (Ibid.)

   A father is the son of his father – a son can be the father to a son.  What is a right turning when travelling from one direction will be a left turning when travelling from the opposite direction – a window can be below some windows and above other windows.

   Imagination is an activity of thought which is centred on the production of mental images of what is not present or has not been experienced. Whilst it has contradiction for content, it never, as Hegel says, ‘becomes aware of it’, because it is responsible for dealing with matters which are external to the reflection of a person, such as Likeness or Unlikeness.

Resolving Contradiction

   Lenin paraphrases in a box on page 143, volume 38, a lengthy quotation from Hegel on the previous page.

   ‘1. Ordinary imagination grasps difference and contradiction, but not the transition from one to the other; this however, is the most important.’

   This refers to the negative Difference which is the ‘other’ of Identity, (immediate), and difference which is the negative of ‘other’ of the first, (our abstract knowledge). Both, as we have seen, are moments of external Reflection.

   The difference between the moments can be grasped by ‘ordinary imagination’, because Identity is positive and Difference is negative. Since they are moments which reflect movement whose times of origin are different, it is possible also to understand the contradiction which both moments represent.

   But with imagination, there the process stops. Since the moment are held apart and not negated into Ground, (synthesis), the remain external to Reflection, in the same way as Likeness and Unlikeness, passing from one to the other and not the transition of one into the other. (P.142, Vol. 38)


   Difference, (negative), ‘other of the immediate’, (Identity), is transplanted on Difference, (negative), ‘other of the first’. The transition of the one into the other can only take place when they are negated together deeper into the knowledge we already possess, becoming synthesised in absolute essence. Lenin’s note in the box continues:

   ‘2. Intelligence and understanding: Intelligence grasps contradiction, enunciates it, brings things into relation with one another, allows the concept to show through the contradiction, but does not express the concept of things and their relations.’ (Ibid.)

   It is possible for idealists to guess intelligently at a concept which is the result of contradiction, but that in itself is not enough. Only when the negation of the double negative takes place into synthesis, (Semblance), can we begin to establish its relation with other things and processes which exist in the real world and are not the superficial products of imagination. Through negation into synthesis (absolute essence),  we are then able to establish the reality of the concept of ‘things and their relations.’ Lenin continues to the third point:

   ‘3. Thinking reason, (understanding), sharpens the blunt difference of variety, the mere manifold of imagination, into essential difference, into opposition, Only when raised to the peak of contradiction, do the manifold entities become active, (regsam), and lively in relation to one another – they (receive) acquire that negativity which is the inherent pulsation of self-movement and vitality.’ (Ibid.)

   It is necessary not only to negate the double negative into synthesis, but to continue with this negation deeper into our knowledge.  Then the variety of connections and interconnections of the all-sided properties of the negative would be revealed.  

   When the opposite moments contained within the negative were forced into opposition with each other they revealed the highest point of contradiction between them. This contradiction must be sharpened to the point in which a negative stalemate would appear. At this moment, the essence would appear from behind this negativity.

   It is not a compromise between opposites that is requited, or a self-constructed image imposed from outside; but perhaps a long drawn out period of relative frustration between the transformation of the opposites before the objective situation changes and they are resolved, through our practice. The tension here will be real because only in this way can it stimulate the transformation of the opposites and the contradiction contained within them.

  In the Building of the Workers Revolutionary Party, the long drawn out conflict of class opposites reflected within the Party, far from being seemingly impossible to overcome, a careful study of the negative features will reveal the solution as to how to develop the theory and practices necessary to resolve them. The concept must always develop out of itself. From behind the negative features the positive ones, through our practice, will emerge.

   These are opposites which must be driven to the point of contradiction each day and resolved in the heightened development of our theoretical knowledge. In turn this knowledge and the practices derived from it will accumulate to a point at which the objective situation creates the revolutionary conditions in which the main class contradictions will be resolved.