30 October 2009


[CU for Monday, 2 November 2009]

Helena Sheehan records that Christopher Caudwell used a quote from Lenin [Image: Lenin in 1896, aged 26] that says "Communism becomes a mere empty phrase, a mere facade, and the communist a mere bluffer, if he has not worked over in his consciousness the whole inheritance of human knowledge."

Lenin took philosophy seriously. Through 1908 and into 1909 he wrote and then published an entire book on philosophy called Materialism and Empirio-Criticism. The book is belligerently partisan for materialism versus idealism, as Lenin saw those things at that time. “Anyone in the least acquainted with philosophical literature must know that scarcely a single contemporary professor of philosophy (or of theology) can be found who is not directly or indirectly engaged in refuting materialism,” says Lenin, “in lieu of an Introduction”.

Lenin also left his notebook on philosophy, “Conspectus of Hegel’s book ‘The Science of Logic’”, dated 1914, in which, among other things, Lenin wrote: “It is impossible completely to understand Marx’s Capital, and especially its first chapter, without having thoroughly studied and understood the whole of Hegel’s Logic. Consequently, half a century later, none of the Marxists understood Marx!!”

These two stances are not exactly compatible. Hegel, after all, had always been denounced, including by Lenin, as an “idealist”.

Philosophers tend to conclude that Lenin was still deliberately learning philosophy up until the tumultuous events that followed the outbreak of the Imperialist World War in mid-1914, the resulting split in the communist movement, the two Russian Revolutions of 1917, and the enormous consequences that followed, with Lenin required to give a lead in almost every sphere of life.

What we will use here as discussion concerns Lenin’s approach to religion. Among the “classics” it is Lenin who provided the most explicit and direct prescriptions as to how practical, organising, educating and mobilising communists should deal with the question of religion. Whether he does so in a completely satisfactory way, or not, can be part of the discussion.

Lenin cannot be accused of being sympathetic to religion, as Karl Marx could be, for example, on the strength of the Introduction to a Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right; while Engels appears to have left the topic alone. Lenin’s feelings about religion can be judged from a note in “Materialism and Empirio-Criticism” where Lenin writes “However good your intentions may be, Comrade Lunacharsky, it is not a smile, but disgust your flirtation with religion provokes.” [Image below: Anatoly Lunacharsky, People's Commissar of Education in Lenin’s first Soviet government]

Altogether, the amount of writing by these three on the subject of religion is remarkably little. It may amount to as little as a thousandth of one per cent of what they wrote in total.

This is not surprising considering that communism is not about religion and is not at war with God. Communists are interested in individual people and humanity in general. Yet it remains a fact that in most countries, including South Africa, the majority of people, including workers, are, if not strictly religious, brought up within the fold of religion from one generation to another. So even if the communist theoretical legacy around the question of religion is very small, yet it is important. A theory of how to deal with religion will be helpful to communist cadres today.

Lenin’s “Attitude of Worker's Party to Religion” (linked below) attacks the question. Let us quarrel with Lenin for once. He writes: “It is the absolute duty of Social-Democrats to make a public statement of their attitude towards religion.” Is it? Why is it?

Lenin writes: “The philosophical basis of Marxism, as Marx and Engels repeatedly declared, is dialectical materialism… a materialism which is absolutely atheistic and positively hostile to all religion.” In truth, neither Marx nor Engels ever used the phrase “dialectical materialism”, as we will show later on in this series. Nor is our materialism the opposite of religion, in the way that Lenin puts it here. Ours is only to say that the counterpart to the Subject is the real, objective universe. This is not an anti-religious statement, or an anti-religious materialism. It is humanism.

“Religion is the opium of the people—this dictum by Marx is the corner-stone of the whole Marxist outlook on religion,” writes Lenin, lending his authority to a terrible mistake that has since been repeated millions of times. Marx’s point was that religion was a relief to the poor people who could not afford opium, and that religion was also “the heart of a heartless world” and the “sigh of the oppressed creature”.

But Lenin, in this rather badly-constructed statement, appears more concerned to establish his atheistic credentials than to push his denunciations of religion to a conclusion, because he soon starts back-tracking. He recalls various examples of bourgeois persecution of religion, disapprovingly. He manages to say that the socialist revolutionaries are not tactical about religion, but also that they subordinate the question of religion to more crucial necessities. So he appears to contradict himself in this regard, too.

Then, towards the end, Lenin managed to praise the Duma deputy (parliamentary representative) Surkov, who had made a speech denouncing religion as the opium of the masses. Really, this pamphlet looks like damage control or spin-doctoring by Lenin. It looks like Comrade Surkov had got into a controversy and needed some public backing. The second item, “Classes and Parties, Attitudes to Religion”, is another response to the same exchange in the Duma, sent a few days later. Lenin is behaving like a media spokesperson of today, releasing e-mails.

These two rather forced responses are all we have in terms of prescription on relations with the religious believers, from the “classics”.

The third linked item is “The 3 Sources and 3 Component Parts of Marxism”. It is a favourite because it is very concise and very illuminating, but it also contains mistakes, and it encourages mistakes. For example, Lenin writes: “… there is nothing resembling "sectarianism" in Marxism, in the sense of its being a hidebound, petrified doctrine, a doctrine which arose away from the highroad of development of world civilisation,” and then immediately follows with “The Marxian doctrine is omnipotent because it is true. It is complete and harmonious, and provides men with an integral world conception” - in other words, it is hidebound. This pair of sentences constitutes another self-contradiction by Lenin.

What happened to the “highroad of development of world civilisation” in between the two statements? Did it come to a dead end? Actually, Marx himself opposed the concept of a “doctrine” that would be “omnipotent because true”, or “complete”. Marx’s work was not complete in his lifetime, and if he had been blessed with two lifetimes, he would surely have left a correspondingly greater amount of revolutionary work-in-progress.

Lenin writes: “Where the bourgeois economists saw a relation of things (the exchange of one commodity for another), Marx revealed a relation of men.” This is true. Marx was concerned with the men, more than with the things. This is why it is necessary to be careful with the word “materialism”.

The fourth linked item is Lenin’s “Biographical Sketch and Exposition” of Karl Marx, written and first published as an encyclopaedia entry. It has all the hallmarks of Lenin’s precision of style, being concise and concrete, but also all of the worst side of Lenin’s didacticism, almost to the point of dogma. “Marxism is the system of Marx’s views and teachings,” writes Lenin, cheerfully beginning the section headed “The Marxist Doctrine”. The next section is called “Marx’s Economic Doctrine”. We will be dealing with such boneheaded and totally un-Marx-like formulations as “Marx’s Economic Doctrine” in later parts of this course. Suffice it to say that Marx did not write economics, and he didn’t write “doctrine” of any kind.

Lenin was the greatest revolutionist in history, up to now, but he was not the greatest philosopher. Karl Marx was the greatest philosopher, up to now. For all the hundreds of millions of followers that Marx has, and Lenin was one of them, yet nearly all of them are still struggling to understand him, let alone catch up with him.

Click on these links:

Attitude of Worker's Party to Religion, 1900, Lenin (4419 words)

Classes and Parties, Attitudes to Religion, 1909, Lenin (3414 words)

3 Sources and 3 Component Parts of Marxism, 1913, Lenin (1838 words)

Karl Marx, Biographical Sketch and Exposition, 1914, Lenin (14044 words)


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