Lenin and Trotsky on Dialectics as Logic


By Mike Driver


'Dialectics is the theory of knowledge of (Hegel and) Marxism,' Lenin concluded in a key section of one of his Philosophical Notebooks in 1915. He advanced towards the position in the course of a five-page passage under the heading 'On the Question of Dialectics', which began: 'The splitting of a single whole and the cognition of its contradictory parts .... is the essence (one of the "essentials", one of the principal, if not the principal, characteristics or features) of dialectics.'(1)


Shortly before that he'd written in a previous Notebook while considering the extent to which 'Hegel's dialectic' could be shown not just in the field of logic, but 'concretely and in greater detail in the history of the separate sciences', to be 'a generalisation of 'the history of thought': 'If Marx did not leave behind him a "Logic" (with a capital letter), he did leave the logic of Capital, and this ought to be utilised to the full in this question.


'In Capital, Marx applied to a single science logic, dialectics and the theory of knowledge of materialism (three words are not needed: it is one and the .same thing) which has taken everything valuable in Hegel and developed it further .. .' (2)


To this Lenin now added, in restating that the 'correctness' of his idea had to 'be tested by the history of science', a fuller opinion on how dialectics can be understood more 'concretely'. 'In his Capital,' he wrote, 'Marx first analyses the simplest, most ordinary and fundamental, most common and everyday relation of bourgeois (commodity) society, a relation encountered billions of times, viz. the exchange of commodities. In this very simple phenomenon (in this "cell" of bourgeois society) analysis reveals all the contradictions (or the germs of all the contradictions) of modern society.


'The subsequent exposition shows us the development (both growth and movement) of these contradictions and of this society in the summation of its individual parts, from its beginning to its end. Such must also be the method of exposition (or study) of dialectics in general (for with Marx the dialectics of bourgeois society is only a particular case of dialectics) ... Thus in any proposition we can (and must) disclose as in a "nucleus" ("cell") the germs of all the elements of dialectics, and thereby show that dialectics is a property of all human knowledge in general.


'And natural science shows us (and here again it must be demonstrated in any simple instance) objective nature with the same qualities, the transformation of the individual into the universal, of the contingent into the necessary, transitions, modulations, and the reciprocal connection of opposites.' (1)


'On the Question of Dialectics' concludes by tracing the 'sterile flower' of 'one-sided' idealist thinking to its roots and their sources in objective class society as product and part of objective nature. 'Philosophical idealism,' Lenin notes, 'is only nonsense from the standpoint of crude, simple, metaphysical materialism. From the standpoint of dialectical materialism, on the other hand, philosophical idealism is a one-sided, exaggerated, excessive (Dietzgen) development (inflation, distention) of one of the features, aspects, facets of knowledge into an absolute, divorced from matter, from nature, apotheosised. Idealism is clerical obscurantism. True. But philosophical idealism is ("more correctly" and "in addition") a road to clerical obscurantism through one of the shades of the infinitely complex knowledge (dialectical) of man.


'Human knowledge is not (or does not follow) a straight line, but a curve, which endlessly approximates a series of circles, a spiral. Any fragment, section of this curve can be transformed (transformed one-sidedly) into an independent, complete straight line which then (if one does not see the wood for the trees) leads into the quagmire, into clerical obscurantism (where it is anchored by the class interests of the ruling classes).


'Rectilinearity and one-sidedness, woodenness and petrification, subjectivism and subjective blindness - there are the epistemological roots of idealism. And clerical obscurantism (= philosophical idealism), of course ... is not groundless; it is a sterile flower undoubtedly, but a sterile flower that grows on the living tree of living, fertile, genuine, powerful, omnipotent, objective, absolute human knowledge.'(1)


'On the Question of Dialectics' was not published in Lenin's lifetime, though it was the first (and only) excerpt from the Notebooks to be printed in 1925, the year after his death. By contrast Trotsky's most thoroughgoing work on dialectics appeared in 1940 in In Defence of Marxism, over twenty years after the 1917 Revolution and its subsequent defence by the Red Army under his leadership. He began it after being driven by Stalin into his final exile in Mexico, it was read and discussed within the US Trotskyist party as it developed; and it 'ends' just days before he was murdered by one of Stalin's assassins.


In it Trotsky insisted in full support of Lenin's position: 'The dialectic is ... a science of the forms of our thinking insofar as it is not limited to the daily problems of life but attempts to arrive at an understanding of more complicated and drawn-out processes.' Thirty pages later in the book he went on to insist: 'The dialectic, permit me to recall once again, is the logic of evolution.'(3)


He had begun by counterposing to Hegel's dialectic the 'syllogism' of Aristotle, which was rooted in the certainty that two indistinguishable abstractions ("A" ="A") must always be identical to one another. In fact, he went on to explain: 'To make use of the axiom "A" is equal to "A" is possible only within certain limits. When quantitative changes in "A" are negligible for the task in hand then we can presume that "A" is equal to "A" ... We consider the temperature of the sun likewise ... But quantitative changes beyond certain limits become converted into qualitative ... To determine at the right moment the critical point where quantity changes into quality is one of the most important and difficult tasks in all the spheres of knowledge including sociology.'(4)


But In Defence of Marxism is also the chronicle of a dispute in the US Trotskyist party which Trotsky was seeking to guide: some of its leading members were describing the dialectic as a form of 'religion'. In the later passage above he develops his point as follows: 'I know of two systems of logic worthy of attention: the logic of Aristotle (formal logic) and the logic of Hegel (the dialectic). Aristotelian logic takes as its starting point immutable objects and phenomena. The scientific thought of our epoch studies all phenomena in their origin, change and disintegration. Do you hold that the progress of the sciences, including Darwinism, Marxism, modern physics, chemistry, etc., has not influenced in any way the forms of our thought? In other words, do you hold that in a world where everything changes, the syllogism alone remains unchanging and eternal? .


'. .. If you consider the syllogism is immutable, i.e., has neither origin nor development, then it signifies that to you it is a product of divine revelation. But if you acknowledge that the logical forms of our thought develop in the process of our adaptation to nature, then please take the trouble to inform us just who following Aristotle analysed and systematised the subsequent progress of logic. So long as you do not clarify this point, I shall take the liberty of asserting that to identify logic (the dialectic) with religion reveals utter ignorance and superficiality in the basic questions of human thought.'(5)


Later in the same text Trotsky went so far as to consider how logic might develop in the future. He wrote: 'Dialectic materialism is not of course an eternal and immutable philosophy. To think otherwise is to contradict the spirit of the dialectic. Further development of scientific thought will undoubtedly create a more profound doctrine into which dialectic materialism will enter merely as structural material. However there is no basis for expecting that this philosophic revolution will be accomplished under the decaying bourgeois regime ... The life-and-death task of the proletariat now consists not in interpreting the world anew but in remaking it from top to bottom.' (6)

That last declaration stands as one of many testimonies to the accomplishments of both Lenin and Trotsky, in defiance of what bourgeois and Stalinist re-interpreters of history have sought to do to their different reputations. A still clearer testimony is preserved in the record of a key speech made by Lenin in March 1922, on the occasion of the launch of Under the Banner of Marxism - a journal aimed at linking and popularising science and consistently atheistic materialism for the new generation of Soviet workers.


The first issue included a letter from Trotsky to the journal urging every young worker 'to arm his thought and his will with the method of the materialist world outlook.' Lenin endorsed Trotsky's words and went on to develop several ideas from 'On the Question of Dialectics', not forgetting to aim the words of the above-mentioned J. Dietzgen at every 'flunkey of clericalism' acting consciously or unconsciously against the workers' state.


He began: 'I should like to deal with certain questions that more closely define the content and programme of the work which its editors set forth in the introductory statement in this issue. This statement says that not all those gathered round the journal Under the Banner of Marxism are Communists but that they are all consistent materialists. I think that this alliance of Communists and non-Communists is absolutely essential and correctly defines the purposes of the journal ...


'At any rate, in Russia we still have - and shall undoubtedly have for a fairly long time to come - materialists from the non-communist camp, and it is our absolute duty to enlist all adherents of consistent and militant materialism in the joint work of combating philosophical reaction and the philosophical prejudices of so-called educated society. Dietzgen senior ... correctly, aptly and clearly expressed the fundamental Marxist view of the philosophical trends which prevail in bourgeois countries and enjoy the regard of their scientists and publicists, when he said that in effect the professors of philosophy in modern society are in the majority of cases nothing but the "graduated flunkeys of clericalism" ...


'It will be seen from the above that a journal which sets out to be a militant materialist organ must be primarily a militant organ, in the sense of unflinchingly exposing and indicting all modern "graduated flunkeys of clericalism", irrespective of whether they act as representatives of official science or as freelances calling themselves "democratic Left or ideologically socialist" publicists. In the second place, such a journal must be a militant atheist organ. We have departments, or at least state institutions, which are in charge of this work. But the work is being carried on with extreme apathy and very unsatisfactorily, and is apparently suffering from the general conditions of our truly Russian (even though Soviet) bureaucratic ways ...


'It would be the biggest and most grievous mistake a Marxist could make to think that millions of people (especially the peasants and artisans), who have been condemned by all modern society to darkness, ignorance and superstition, can extricate themselves from this darkness only along the straight line of a purely Marxist education ... The keen, vivacious and talented writings of the old 18th century atheists wittily and openly attacked the prevailing clericalism and will often prove a thousand times more suitable for arousing people from their religious torpor than the dull and dry paraphrases of Marxism, almost completely unillustrated by skilfully selected facts, which predominate in our literature and which (it is no use hiding the fact) frequently distort Marxism ...


'The most important thing - and it is this that is most frequently overlooked by those of our Communists who are supposedly Marxists, but who in fact mutilate Marxism - is to know how to awaken in the still undeveloped masses an intelligent attitude to religious questions and an intelligent criticism of religions ... In addition to the alliance with consistent materialists who do not belong to the Communist Party, of no less and perhaps even of more importance for the work which militant materialism should perform is an alliance with those modern natural scientists who incline towards materialism and are not afraid to defend and preach it as against the modish philosophical wanderings into idealism and scepticism which are prevalent in so-called educated society.


'... For our attitude towards this phenomenon to be a politically conscious one, it must be realised that no natural science and no materialism can hold its own in the struggle against the onslaught of bourgeois ideas and the restoration of the bourgeois world outlook unless it stands on solid philosophical ground. In order to hold its own in this struggle and to carry it to a victorious finish, the natural scientist must be a modern materialist, a conscious adherent of the materialism represented by Marx, i.e., he must be a dialectical materialist. In order to attain this aim, the contributors to Under the Banner of Marxism must arrange for the systematic study of Hegelian dialectics from a materialist standpoint, i.e., the dialectics which Marx applied practically in his Capital and in his historical and political works, and applied so successfully that now every day of the awakening to life and struggle of new classes in the East (Japan, India and China) ... serves as a fresh confirmation of Marxism ...


'Taking as our basis Marx's method of applying materialistically' conceived Hegelian dialectics, we can and should elaborate this dialectics from all aspects, print in the journal excerpts from Hegel's principal works, interpret them materialistically and comment on them with the help of examples of the way Marx applied dialectics, as well as examples of dialectics in the sphere of economic and political relations, which recent history, especially modern imperialist war and revolution, provides in unusual abundance


'Unless it sets itself such a task, and systematically fulfils it, materialism cannot be militant materialism. It will be not so much the fighter as the fought ... For natural science is progressing so fast and is undergoing such a profound revolutionary upheaval in all spheres that it cannot possibly dispense with philosophical deductions.'(8)


(1) Collected Works Vol 38, pp359-363


(2) ibid pp318 & 319


(3) In Defence of Marxism, Union Books, pp68 & 98


(4) ibid p68


(5) ibid pp 98-99 (6) ibid p104


(7) Labour Review (predecessor of Marxist Review) April 1984, Vol 7, No 9 p10


(8) ibid pp12-15; Lenin Selected Works Vol 11, Lawrence & Wishart, Moscow 1939



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