31 October 2012


Philosophy and Religion, Part 8


In the first sentence of Paulo Freire’s “Pedagogy of The Oppressed” (attached, pleased find Chapter 1, or use the link below) Freire “problematises” humanisation.

“But while both humanization and dehumanization are real alternatives, only the first is the people's vocation,” says Freire.

This immediately places Freire side-by-side with Karl Marx, where Marx in the whole of “Capital”, and all his life, wanted to restore humanity to itself.

Or again, as in the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, where Marx wrote: “Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers on the chain not in order that man shall continue to bear that chain without fantasy or consolation, but so that he shall throw off the chain and pluck the living flower.”

Here, on page 3 of Chapter One of the “Pedagogy of the Oppressed”, is Freire’s answer to “Dialectical Materialism”:

“… one cannot conceive of objectivity without subjectivity. Neither can exist without the other, nor can they be dichotomized. The separation of objectivity from subjectivity, the denial of the latter when analyzing reality or acting upon it, is objectivism. On the other hand, the denial of objectivity in analysis or action, resulting in a subjectivism which leads to solipsistic positions, denies action itself by denying objective reality. Neither objectivism nor subjectivism, nor yet psychologism is propounded here, but rather subjectivity and objectivity in constant dialectical relationship.

Neither objectivism nor subjectivism but rather subjectivity and objectivity in constant dialectical relationship: this could serve as a one-sentence summary of our course on Philosophy and Religion. Freire goes on, while explicitly embracing his connection with Marx:

“To deny the importance of subjectivity in the process of transforming the world and history is naive and simplistic. It is to admit the impossible: a world without people. This objectivistic position is as ingenuous as that of subjectivism, which postulates people without a world. World and human beings do not exist apart from each other, they exist in constant interaction. Man does not espouse such a dichotomy; nor does any other critical, realistic thinker. What Marx criticized and scientifically destroyed was not subjectivity, but subjectivism and psychologism.”

The significance of the Subject in Freire’s theoretical scheme is clear all the way through and is demonstrated by these words from the last paragraph of his Chapter 1:

“Teachers and students (leadership and people), co-intent on reality, are both Subjects, not only in the task of unveiling that reality and thereby coming to know it critically, but in the task of re-creating that knowledge. As they attain this knowledge of reality through common reflection and action, they discover themselves as its permanent re-creators.”

The Communists, in their own minds and in their intentions, seek to educate, organise and mobilise, not so as to command the working class and the general masses, but to set them free.

The problem of how to do so is exactly the problem that Freire addresses in “The Pedagogy of the Oppressed.” It requires the formulation quoted above: “World and human beings do not exist apart from each other, they exist in constant interaction.” Nowhere does Freire refer to materialism, whether dialectical or otherwise. He writes about leadership and people both being Subjects, and co-intent on reality.

This is the interface that gives meaning to both education and to politics, and it is rooted in philosophy.

We are talking of revolutionary pedagogy. We are talking here of teaching with a purpose and a reason that anyone can understand (i.e. “intentionality”) - especially the students. We are talking of liberation. In South Africa this is called “people’s education for people’s power”.

In the next chapter we will dwell upon the dreadful mistakes that can be made if we fall into the errors of what Freire calls “the banking theory of education”.

28 October 2012

“Capital”: Not a Doctrine, but a Critique

Philosophy and Religion, Part 7a

“Capital”: Not a Doctrine, but a Critique

In the year following the 150th anniversary of the 1848 “Communist Manifesto”, Cyril Smith took on Marx’s premier work, “Capital” in his “Hegel, Economics, and Marx's Capital” (attached, and linked below).

Smith showed how generations of Marxists have got it very wrong.

In particular, Smith shows us how “Capital” is not about “economics” or about what even Great Lenin mistakenly called “Marx’s Economic Doctrine”, but is really what it says it is: “A Critique of Political Economy”.

Equally mistaken, Smith shows, is the vulgar conception of the relation between Hegel’s work and Marx’s, and here Smith could have drawn support from E. V. Ilyenkov [Image, above].

Ilyenkov’s “The Dialectics of the Abstract and the Concrete in Marx’s Capital” was published in the Soviet Union in 1960.

No doubt, Smith is not the first to rediscover the real Marx, and he will not be the last.

Apart from giving us a very good reminder to pay proper attention to what we are reading, Smith is also validating the CU policy of reading the original work more than the commentators and the analysts (see, e.g., the CU Generic Course on Capital, Volume 1).

The next post will deal decisively and comprehensively with Stalin and Stalinism. It will lift the Stalinist load from off the back of Karl Marx, and refresh Marx’s legacy.

The full Cyril Smith archive on MIA can be found here.

Please read the.

26 October 2012

Marxism, or Marx?

Philosophy and Religion, Part 7

Marxism, or Marx?

Cyril Smith, late in life, and following the fall of the Soviet Union, felt himself free enough to challenge the principle Shibboleths of Marxism, including the word “Marxism” itself. Students may think that here and there, Smith did not quite succeed in resolving all his issues. For example, he approves Marx's aim of “development of communist consciousness on a mass scale” but disapproves, in another place, of what he considers to be Lenin’s determination to do the same thing “from outside” (This CU course will continue to examine that particular question).

But otherwise, Cyril Smith succeeds admirably to hit and to knock down his targets, which are the dead wood and the rotten branches of 165 years and more of “theory”, and he does us a great service thereby.

This makes Smith’s work ideal as a means of introducing to this course a set of propositions about the work of Marx, Engels and their successors, and asking whether their ideas have stayed on track, or whether they have been reversed, or overturned, by those who have claimed to be their carriers down the years.

We may quickly get close to the heart of the matter by first looking at Smith’s talk on “The Communist Manifesto After 150 Years” (attached, and linked below), and in particular at the section headed “The Subject of History”. In this section, the daily practice of communists (“to educate, organise and mobilise”) comes together with the most profound depths of philosophy. It begins:

“Marx's problem was to discover the possibility for humanity, individually and collectively, to take conscious charge of its own life, and to find this possibility within bourgeois society. Communism would mean that humans would cease to be prisoners of their social relations, and begin purposively to make their own history. In other words, we should cease to be mere objects and start to live as subjects.”

It is not unreasonable, nor is it an exaggeration, to say that this is no less than the whole matter of Marx, Lenin, communism and the entire work of all the communists that have ever been. Therefore this text is offered as the main reading and discussion text for this part, and the matter will be taken up again in the next part. Use the section on “The Subject of History” for discussion, because it is sufficient, but do also read the entire document, for the light that it sheds upon the Communist Manifesto of 1848.

Image: The late Cyril Smith’s passport photograph.

The full Cyril Smith archive on MIA can be found here.

19 October 2012

Dialego, Philosophy, and Class Struggle

Philosophy and Religion, Part 6a

Dialego, Philosophy, and Class Struggle

In 1976, in the year of the Soweto uprising, ten years after the “Tricontinental”, four articles were published in the African Communist, written by John Hoffman under the pen-name “Dialego”. The first two are linked below, as our main texts for today.

Hoffman still teaches philosophy at Leicester University in England. He is no longer trying to be a revolutionary, but is an overt liberal these days. His liberalism of today is foreshadowed in these works of three and a half decades ago. His liberalism, now, is a child of his “Dialectical Materialism”, then. “Dialectical Materialism” is not revolutionary, but it is liberal. We will develop this argument in due course.

Hoffman’s four articles were subsequently republished, more than once, as a set, in a booklet. (Click here for Part 3 and Part 4 if required). The articles were popular with MK and are still famous. They certainly raised the banner of theory high. But they contained major deficiencies, of which the principal one is “Dialectical Materialism” itself.

We are going to return to the history of “Dialectical Materialism” in the next part of this series. Then we will look again, in the following two parts, at the much more fruitful Subject-Object relation, where priority is given to the free human Subject, before finishing in the tenth and last part of the series with new theoretical developments and ways forward for philosophy.

Hoffman (in his Part 2) writes of “Materialism vs. Idealism: the Basic Question of Philosophy”. But the Fundamental Question of Philosophy is the relation of the Subject to the Object, and not “Materialism vs. Idealism”. Glaring errors arise if and when these two different formulations are conflated into one.

For example, going back to Hoffman’s Part 1 under “Philosophy and Our ‘Experience’”, Hoffman writes about “stress[ing] the materialist component of our philosophy at the expense of the dialectical”. This is a muddle. What he is describing is what he himself is doing: idealising the objective factors of a situation, while all but eliminating the human Subject.

An original causation is demanded, which then has to be given a higher status than all else. Out goes God. In come the atoms and the molecules.

In this way of thinking (dialectical materialism) the atoms and the molecules, the inanimate a priori material, take precedence over life. This is “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” dressed up as revolutionary theory. But this cannot be.

Revolution is a quality of life, not ashes.

The dialectic that is political is the one between subjective humans and the objective universe (which is indeed material). In this political dialectic, the human Subject is the “point”.

As Marx wrote in the 11th Thesis on Feuerbach: “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” Who’s point is that? It is our point. It is the human beings’ point. We are humanists. We are on the side of the humans, and of their humanity, which we ourselves have created and continue to create out of the world’s mud, through labour.

A purely material event is like a tree falling in the forest, unseen and unheard by anyone. It is a real event, but it is not a political event.

Similarly, a switch from an imaginary world of superstition to one that fetishises inert material is no gain at all. These are merely two different forms of idealism.

In both these latter cases, powers are held up that are higher than people, whether the powers are invisible or visible. But in politics, the power that matters is people-power. For sure, that means people-power in a real, material world. But it does not mean a “balancing act” between the human and the inhuman.

There is no dialectic of the ideal versus the material. These two categories are not interdependent, but constitute alternatives: either/or.

But there is certainly a dialectic of the Subject and the Object, because these two categories define each other. They are inseparable in their opposition to one another. But people still come first. People have priority. The Subject, who labours, is what it is all about, and not the material Object.

Hoffman’s (then) devotion to “materialism” led him to write that “[man] developed out of the world of nature through a long process of evolution and his ideas are the product of the mental activity of his brain, itself a highly developed and complex form of matter.”

How does a “complex form of matter” become human? Actually, it is not even necessary to ask. It is only Hoffman’s kind of “materialism” that leads to such miserable, reductionist questions: questions that run away from humanity.

The atoms and molecules may be taken as “given”, whether by God or by chance. But humanity is special, while matter is only matter. Humanity is historical, while matter is infinite. Humanity is revolutionary work-in-progress. Humanity is what humans make. Making humanity is what humans do. It is the free-willing human Subject that is at the centre of our consciousness, our concerns, our morality, and our politics.

18 October 2012

Weapon of Theory

Philosophy and Religion, Part 6

Weapon of Theory

The Tricontinental Conference of the Peoples of Asia, Africa and Latin America was held in Havana in January, 1966, 46 years after the Baku Conference of the Peoples of the East and seven years after the Cuban Revolution.

Forty-six more years have now passed since the Tricontinental. A lot has been achieved in that time, including our South African democratic breakthrough, eighteen years ago, and the unbanning of the ANC, twenty-two years ago.

The full defeat of Imperialism has not yet occurred. What we can positively say is that from early in the 20th-Century the historical agenda was set by the liberation movements, and that Imperialism represents the degeneration and the decline of bourgeois class power, and not its heyday.

The great political change in the world in the last century was the taking of sovereign independence by the formerly oppressed people of the former colonies, affecting the great majority of the population of the planet and opening the road of democracy for them.

This gigantic movement and huge change was achieved with the weapon of theory. In other words, it had a conscious philosophy.

46 years ago Amilcar Cabral [see image, above] in the speech to the Tricontinental that has always been known by the title “Weapon of Theory” (attached, and linked via the download, below) also said the following:

“It is often said that national liberation is based on the right of every people to freely control its own destiny and that the objective of this liberation is national independence. Although we do not disagree with this vague and subjective way of expressing a complex reality, we prefer to be objective, since for us the basis of national liberation, whatever the formulas adopted on the level of international law, is the inalienable right of every people to have its own history, and the objective of national liberation is to regain this right usurped by imperialism, that is to say, to free the process of development of the national productive forces.

“For this reason, in our opinion, any national liberation movement which does not take into consideration this basis and this objective may certainly struggle against imperialism, but will surely not be struggling for national liberation.

“This means that, bearing in mind the essential characteristics of the present world economy, as well as experiences already gained in the field of anti-imperialist struggle, the principal aspect of national liberation struggle is the struggle against neo-colonialism.”

Amilcar Cabral was a true vanguardist. He was both a great leader, and a great intellectual.

Please download the document via the link given here.

12 October 2012

The Subject Lives

Philosophy and Religion, Part 5a

The Subject Lives

In the previous post we said that in the late 20th Century, irrational “Post-modernism” became the house philosophy of Imperialism. Some declared the “Death of the Subject”, denying human free will, or agency.

James Heartfield’s 2002 book called “The ‘Death of the Subject’ Explained” confronted the Post-Modernists. Among other things, this book helped inspire this Johannesburg Communist University that started in 2003. Heartfield kindly allowed the CU to use extracts from the book. Some of these are contained in today’s main linked document, below. The illustration above is from the cover of the book.

What Heartfield manages to do very excellently is to make clear the nature of “Post-modernism” by contrasting it polemically with the basic question of philosophy, which is the relationship between the human Subject (individual and collective) and the external, objective, material universe.

Post-modernism had flourished in haze and half-light that was the consequence of the “Western” bourgeois anti-communism, hardly challenged, couched in mystification and obfuscation.

Whereas outright fascism had promoted the “triumph of the will”, or in other words pure subjectivism, post-modernism became a prophecy of impotence and fatalism, also sometimes called determinism.

Heartfield showed that these trends (i.e. both pure objectivism and pure subjectivism) though each appeared opposite to the other, yet both amounted to the same thing, namely anti-humanism, which in our time is anti-communism.

The human being exists, and can only exist, in the meeting place of Subject and Object. This is the master dialectic.

The first three pages of this document are a very brilliant explanation of the basis of society as it is in fact presently constructed around the freely willing human Subject. The following fifteen pages comprise a somewhat detailed account of the growth and the ramifications of post-modernism in the second half of the 20th Century.

In the nine years that have passed since the publication of Heartfield’s book, it appears that the former ascendancy of post-modernism in the academy and in the intellectual community as a whole is now a thing of the past, and that the free-willing human Subjected has re-asserted itself. This coincides with the resurgence of Marxist thought and criticism in the world.

  • The above is to introduce the original reading-text: Death of the Subject Explained Selection, 2002, Heartfield, Part 1 and Part 2.

11 October 2012


Philosophy and Religion, Part 5

Before we consider the main downloadable text of this post (see below), which is Christopher Caudwell’s essay on “Liberty”, here are two quotations from Caudwell from Helena Sheehan, taken from Helena Sheehan’s Christopher Caudwell web page, preceded by Sheehan’s remarks. These quotations bear on the fundamental question of “which is first, mind or matter”.

The act of knowing transformed what was known. It was never possible to detach the thing known from the knowing of it. Caudwell opposed all passivist imagery in describing knowledge. Knowledge was not a matter of copying, mirroring, photographing, reflecting. Although he never remarked on Lenin's use of such imagery in [Lenin’s] Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, he had read the book and his rejection of the reflectionist model was quite explicit and polemically expressed. In no uncertain terms, Caudwell made his point:

“The mirror reflects accurately: it does not know. Each particle in the universe reflects the rest of the universe, but knowledge is only given to human beings as a result of an active and social relation to the rest of reality.”

In terms of the debate within [Lenin’s] Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, [Caudwell’s] was neither the position of Lenin nor that of Bogdanov. Nor was it the position of Lukacs or Korsch either. It was perhaps the position Gramsci was groping for, but never expressed with such confident clarity as Caudwell. When it came down to it, being preceded knowing, knowing flowed from being and evolved as an extension of being. Decidedly post-Cartesian, Caudwell asserted: I live therefore I think I am. In a concise statement of the fundamental contours of his theory of knowledge, he wrote:

“The question of which is first, mind or matter, is not therefore a question of which is first, subject or object ... Going back in the universe along the dialectic of qualities, we reach by inference a state where no human or animal bodies existed and therefore no minds. It is not strictly accurate to say that therefore the object is prior to the subject any more than it is correct to say the opposite. Object and subject as exhibited by the mind relation, come into being simultaneously.... We can say that relations seen by us between qualities in our environment (the arrangement of the cosmos, energy, mass, all the entities of physics) existed before the subject-object relationship implied in mind. We prove this by the transformations which take place independent of our desires. In this sense, nature is prior to mind and this is the vital sense for science. These qualities produced, as cause and around produce effect, the synthesis, or particular subject-object relationship which we call knowing.  Nature therefore produced mind.  But the nature which produced mind was not nature "as seen by us." . . . It is nature.... as having indirect not direct relations with us.... Such a view reconciles the endless dualism of mentalism and objectivism. It is the universe of dialectical materialism. Unlike previous philosophies, it includes all reality: it includes not only the world of physics, but it includes smells, tastes, colors, the touch of a loved hand, hopes, desires, beauties, death and life, truth and error.”

Caudwell on Liberty

Christopher Caudwell’s “Studies in a Dying Culture” were published at a particular moment in history. Caudwell had been killed while defending the Republic in the Spanish Civil War [Image below: Caudwell on the eve of his departure for Spain, from a group photograph]. With its references to his contemporaries H G Wells, Bertrand Russell, and E M Forster (and the 18th-century philosopher Jean-Jaques Rousseau) Caudwell’s essay may seem dated at first glance, but actually, like a lot of Caudwell’s work, it remains critical today and right up to date, in a time when the question of the free-willing human Subject is once again at the forefront.

“Implicit in the conception of thinkers like Russell and Forster, that all social relations are restraints on spontaneous liberty, is the assumption that the animal is the only completely free creature. No one constrains the solitary carnivore to do anything. This is of course an ancient fallacy. Rousseau is the famous exponent. Man is born free but is everywhere in chains. Always in the bourgeois mind is this legend of the golden age, of a perfectly good man corrupted by institutions. Unfortunately not only is man not good without institutions, he is not evil either. He is no man at all; he is neither good nor evil; he is an unconscious brute.

“Russell's idea of liberty is the unphilosophical idea of bestiality… The man alone, unconstrained, answerable only to his instincts, is Russell's free man. Thus all man's painful progress from the beasts is held to be useless. All men's work and sweat and revolutions have been away from freedom. If this is true, and if a man believes, as most of us do, as Russell does, that freedom is the essential goal of human effort, then civilisation should be abandoned and we should return to the woods. I am a Communist because I believe in freedom. I criticise Russell, and Wells, and Forster, because I believe they are the champions of unfreedom.”

Caudwell had got to the heart of the matter: “I am a Communist because I believe in freedom,” he wrote. And what is that? Of all politicians, only those who are communists will be able to answer the question “What is freedom?” in a satisfactory way. Others will echo the sophisticated Bertrand Russell’s bourgeois-romantic version of freedom, as a return to the condition of the wild beasts, or otherwise they will say little, or nothing.

“Power to the People” is our slogan. This is the essence of our project. It means that the masses will have agency. The masses will be human, which is to say, able to think and to act upon their thoughts. This is the active freedom that Caudwell writes about. “This good, liberty, contains all good,” he says.

After Caudwell, and after the war that ended in victory over the fascists against whom Caudwell had fought with his body as well as his pen, bourgeois thinkers did not embrace Caudwell’s idea of liberty. Instead, they fled to irrational, anti-humanist and even outright anti-human philosophies: existentialism, positivism, structuralism, and especially the overtly irrational “Post-modernism” that became the house philosophy of Imperialism. Some of them declared “The Death of the Subject”. In other words, they denied human free will.

In 2002 another English author and philosopher called James Heartfield defied the Post-Modernists and published a book called “The ‘Death of the Subject’ Explained” thereby helping to inspire the Johannesburg Communist University that started in 2003. Heartfield kindly allowed the CU to use some extracts from his book. These are contained in the second linked document below.

We communists are for freedom. We are human, not post-human. We are part of a liberation movement, not only of the colonially oppressed, but of humanity worldwide against Imperialism. We are the ones with the theory of freedom. It is the source of our morality. Power to the People! Amandla!

The concept of the free-willing human Subject is the most valuable product of philosophy, including the philosophy of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. We are going to defend it, including, if necessary, against the concept of materialism, if materialism is taken to say that human life and culture is only a transitory arrangement of molecules.

The image at the top of this post is the “Uomo Vitruviano” of Leonardo da Vinci, from the humanist period of the Italian Renaissance. Its meaning is that Man (humanity) is the measure of the Universe.

07 October 2012

Lenin’s Encyclopaedia entry on Marx

Philosophy and Religion, Part 4b

Lenin’s Encyclopaedia entry on Marx

The attached item today 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 has traces 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 a section headed “The Marxist Doctrine”. The next section is called “Marx’s Economic Doctrine”.

Marx did not write economics, and he didn’t write “doctrine” of any kind. We will be dealing with such un-Marx-like formulations as “Marx’s Economic Doctrine” in later parts of this course.

Lenin was the greatest practical revolutionist in history, up to now, but he was not the greatest philosopher. Karl Marx was the greatest philosopher, up to now; and Marx stood on the shoulders of Hegel.

Lenin was one of hundreds of millions of followers of Marx. All of them have struggled to understand Marx. Lenin wrote in 1914:

“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!!”

Lenin’s long book on philosophy is called “Materialism and Empirio-Criticism” (1909).

The main downloadable document is an outstanding summary of Karl Marx’s life and work. A large portion of it is about philosophy. Do not be put off by any reservations that may have been expressed above. This text is a “must read”, in any case, as well as being a significant part of this course.

  • The above is to introduce the original reading-text: Karl Marx, Biographical Sketch and Exposition, 1914, Lenin, Part 1 and Part 2.

05 October 2012

Three Sources and Component Parts

Philosophy and Religion, Part 4a

Three Sources and Component Parts

Lenin’s “The 3 Sources and 3 Component Parts of Marxism” (download linked below) is a favourite because it is very concise - only four pages long - 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.” This is true.

But Lenin 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, he says, it is fixed, hidebound and petrified.

This pair of sentences constitutes a 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?

“The philosophy of Marxism is materialism,” writes Lenin, and not “old and rotten idealism.” This is philosophy reduced to catechism, or of pat answers to “Frequently Asked Questions”. It is not much use, not even as propaganda. It is so much simplified as to be dangerous.

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, not less, but more like double the amount of revolutionary work-in-progress. The more work Marx did, the larger was the frontier that he opened up.

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”.

Lenin writes: “The doctrine of surplus value is the cornerstone of Marx's economic theory.” This is only half true. Surplus Value is not merely the cornerstone of some discrete part of Marxism called “economic theory”. It is much more than that. The sale of Labour-Power to a capitalist at the point of production, and the subsequent expropriation of the entire product of the worker’s labour by the capitalist, is the source of Surplus Value. It is also the source of class differentiation and class conflict. It is the reason for the necessity of the development of a collective popular Subject of History around the working-class cause.

In short, it is good to examine the abstract parts of any phenomenon, including “Marxism”, but only if one is to proceed to a synthesis, or concretisation of these parts into a dynamically-comprehended whole. That is how dialectics works. That is how an examination of the sources and component parts of Marxism should be concluded, but in this instance Lenin does not quite succeed in doing so. Instead, he leaves the parts as parts. He leaves us with a list of ingredients, but not the finished cake.

Lenin writes: “While increasing the dependence of the workers on capital, the capitalist system creates the great power of united labour.”

Capitalism does create a working class, and it organises it as a labour-force, but it does not unite it politically. This, like the previous examples, shows the danger of over-simplification. Lenin was no doubt writing for workers, and brevity was his aim, and he possessed an extraordinary ability to compress difficult ideas into a few, clear words. Yet even Great Lenin, the most famous advocate of determined, deliberate political organisation, including vanguard organisation of professional revolution (e.g. in “What is to be Done?”) could be tempted to undermine himself in the over-pursuit of simplification.

Lenin recovers this particular matter of organisation in the document’s concluding paragraph, where he even mentions South Africa (this was in 1913):

“Independent organisations of the proletariat are multiplying all over the world, from America to Japan and from Sweden to South Africa. The proletariat is becoming enlightened and educated by waging its class struggle; it is ridding itself of the prejudices of bourgeois society; it is rallying its ranks ever more closely and is learning to gauge the measure of its successes; it is steeling its forces and is growing irresistibly.”

04 October 2012


Philosophy and Religion, Part 4


The philosopher Helena Sheehan records that Christopher Caudwell, whose work we will look at later on in this series, used a quote from Lenin 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."

Whether this quotation is genuine or not, Lenin certainly did take philosophy seriously and worked at it hard. 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 as against idealism, in the way that Lenin saw such things at the 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 about his bourgeois opponents (“in lieu of an Introduction”).

Vladimir Ilyich also left his notebook on philosophy, “Conspectus of Hegel’s book ‘The Science of Logic’”, dated 1914, in which, among other things he, 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 stances of Lenin’s are not exactly compatible with each other. Hegel, after all, had always been denounced, including by Lenin, as an “idealist”.

Lenin was still deliberately studying 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 all of these events, when Lenin was required to give a lead in almost every sphere of life. We will ask whether Lenin’s philosophical preparations for revolution, and those of his peers were sufficient; we may conclude that they were not.

We are also looking at religion, so what we will use for discussion in the first place is a text concerning Lenin’s approach to religion. Among the “classics” it is Lenin who provided 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.”

Altogether, the amount of writing by Marx, Engels and Lenin 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 altogether.

This is not surprising considering that communism is not about religion and is not at war with religion or at war with God. Communists are interested in individual people and in humanity generally. 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 in our lives.

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 human Subject is the real, objective universe. This is not an anti-religious statement, or an anti-religious materialism. It is humanism, and humanism is not necessarily atheism.

“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 at the same time that the socialist revolutionaries are not tactical about religion, but also to say that they subordinate the question of religion to more crucial necessities (i.e. they are tactical). 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 first image above is of Lenin in 1896, aged 26. The second image is of Anatoly Lunacharsky, People's Commissar of Education in Lenin’s first Soviet government.