Critique of Pannekoek’s Lenin as Philosopher by Internationalisme, 1948
Harper as philosopher, or, the philosophy of his critical and political errors
There's a phenomenon in the process of knowledge in bourgeois society which Harper hasn't talked about. That is, the influence of the capitalist division of labor: first on the development of knowledge in the natural sciences and, second, on the development of knowledge in the workers' movement.
At one point Harper says that, in each of its revolutions, the bourgeoisie must appear to be different from what it was in the previous one, and from what it actually is at that moment. It must hide its real goals.
This is true. But because Harper doesn't talk about the process of knowledge in history, because he doesn't explicitly pose the problem of its formation, he ends up posing it implicitly in no less mechanistic a manner than the one which he himself accuses Lenin of employing.
The process whereby knowledge is formed depends on the conditions of the production of scientific conceptions and ideas in general. These conditions in turn are linked to the general conditions of production, ie to the practical application of ideas.
As bourgeois society develops -- as its conditions of production, its economic mode of existence evolve -- its own ideology develops also: its scientific conceptions, as well as its conceptions of the world and about the world.
Science is a very particular branch of the production of ideas that are necessary for the life of capitalist society, for the continuation and evolution of its mode of production.
The economic mode of production not only applies practically what science elaborates theoretically: it also has a great influence on the manner in which ideas and sciences are elaborated.
Just as the capitalist division of labor imposes an extreme specialization in all areas concerned with the practical realization of production, it also imposes an extreme specialization, a further division of labor, in the area of the formation of ideas, and especially in the area of science.
The specialization of science and of scientists is an expression of the universal division of labor in capitalism; and scientific specialists are as necessary to capitalism as army generals, experts in military technique, administrators and directors.
The bourgeoisie is quite capable of making a synthesis in the field of science as long as it doesn't have a direct affect on its mode of exploitation. As soon as it touches on this, the bourgeoisie unconsciously distorts reality. In the sphere of history, economics, sociology, and philosophy, it can only arrive at incomplete synthesis.
When the bourgeoisie concentrates on practical application and scientific. investigation it is essentially materialist. But since it is unable to arrive at a total synthesis, since it is unconsciously impelled to hide its own existence and oppose the scientific laws of the development of society -- laws discovered by socialists -- it can only deal with this psychological barrier in front of its own social-historic reality by resorting to philosophical idealism, and this idealism imbues its whole ideology. This distortion of reality, a necessary aspect of bourgeois society, can be accomplished quite effectively through the bourgeoisie's various philosophical systems. But the bourgeoisie also tends to borrow elements from philosophies and ideologies that emerged in previous modes of exploitation.
This is because these ideologies don't threaten the bourgeoisie's existence -- on the contrary, they can be used to hide it. But it's also because all ruling classes in history, as conservative classes, have shown this need to use old methods of conservation, which are then of course used for their own needs, disfigured to fit in with their own shape.
This is why, in the early history of the bourgeoisie, even bourgeois philosophers could, to a certain extent, be materialist (insofar as they emphasized the necessity for the development of natural science) . But they were entirely idealist as soon as they tried to rationalize and justify the existence of the bourgeoisie itself. Those who put more emphasis on the first aspects of bourgeois thought could appear to be more materialist, those who were more concerned with justifying the existence of the bourgeoisie had to be more idealist.
Only the scientific socialists, beginning with Marx, were able to make a synthesis of the sciences in relation to human social development. This synthesis was in fact the necessary point of departure for their revolutionary critique.
To the extent that they were posing new scientific problems, the materialists of the revolutionary epoch of the bourgeoisie were impelled to attempt a synthesis of their knowledge and their conceptions of social development. But they were never able to question the social existence of the bourgeoisie; on the contrary, they had to justify it. There were individuals who tried to make this synthesis, from Descartes to Hegel. They were so concerned with attempting to make a total synthesis, with looking at the whole evolution of the world and of ideas from a dialectical standpoint, that they could not avoid expressing in the most complete manner this dual and contradictory aspect of bourgeois ideology. But they were exceptions.
What was actually pushing these individuals towards activity of this kind still remained obscure, since historical, social, economic and psychological knowledge was still at its elementary stage. We can only reaffirm the banal truth that they were dominated by the preoccupations of the society around them. Although they aim to build a new society, both the proletariat and socialists live and develop under capitalism, and they are therefore, in the sphere of knowledge, influenced by the laws of capitalism.
Communist militants specialize in politics, even though more universal knowledge and syntheses are useful to them as well.
Thus, within the workers' movement there is a division between political currents and the class in general. Even within the political currents there can be divisions between theoreticians of history, economics, and philosophy. The process that gives rise to the theoreticians of socialism is comparable to the one that gave rise to thinkers and philosophers in the revolutionary epoch of the bourgeoisie.
The influence of bourgeois education, of the bourgeois milieu in general, has always weighed heavily on the formation of ideas within the workers' movement. Both the development of society, and the development of science, has been decisive factors in the evolution of the workers' movement. This may sound like a tautology, but it is something that can never be repeated often enough. This constant parallel between the evolution of society, and the evolution of the proletariat and of socialists, is a heavy burden on the latter.
The vestiges of religions, ie, of precapitalist historical epochs, certainly become an atavistic element in the ‘reactionary' bourgeoisie, but above all in the bourgeoisie as the last exploiting class in history. Despite this, religion isn't the most dangerous part of the ideology of this exploiting class - it's the whole ideology that is dangerous. In bourgeois ideology, alongside religion, chauvinism, and all the verbal idealism, there is also a narrow, dry, static materialism. As well as the idealist aspect of bourgeois thought, there is also the materialism of the natural sciences, which is an integral part of its ideology. For the bourgeoisie, which attempts to hide the unity of its existence by the plurality of its myths, these different ideologies aren't part of a whole, but socialists must indeed treat them as such.
In this way we can appreciate how hard it has been for the workers' movement to disengage itself from bourgeois ideology as a whole -- from its incomplete materialism. Wasn't Bergson a great influence in the formation of certain currents of the workers' movement in France? The real problem is how to make each new ideology, each new idea, the object of a critical study, without falling into the dilemma of adopting or rejecting it. It's also a question of seeing all scientific progress not as real progress, but as something that is only potentially progress or the enrichment of knowledge, something whose capacity to be practically applied is dependent on the fluctuations in the economic life of capitalism.
This is the only way in which socialists can maintain a permanently critical stance, allowing them to make a real study of ideas. With regard to science, their task is to theoretically assimilate its results, while understanding that its practical applications can only really serve human needs in a society evolving towards socialism.
The development of knowledge in the workers' movement thus involves seeing the theoretical development of the sciences as its own acquisition. But it must integrate this development into a more overall understanding which is centered round the practical realization of the social revolution, the basis for all real progress in society.
Thus the workers' movement is specialized by its own revolutionary social existence, by the fact that it is struggling within capitalism and against the bourgeoisie, and in the strictly political sphere which -- up until the insurrection -- is the focal point in the class struggle between bourgeoisie and proletariat.
It's this which ensures that the development of knowledge in the workers' movement has a dual aspect, dependent on the progress made towards the real liberation of the proletariat. On the one hand it is political, involved with immediate and burning issues. On the other hand it is theoretical and scientific, evolving more slowly and (up till now) mainly in periods of reflux in the workers' movement. In this aspect it deals with questions that are equally as important as political problems, and certainly interrelated with them, but in a less immediate and burning way.
In the political sphere, as society develops, so also do immediate class frontiers, through the political struggle of the proletariat.
The political struggle of the proletariat, the formation of a revolutionary workers' movement in opposition to the bourgeoisie, evolves in relation to the constant evolution of capitalist society.
The class politics of the proletariat thus vary from day to day, and even, to some extent, locally (later on we will see to what extent). It's in this day to day struggle, in these divergences between political parties and groups, in the tactics of place and moment, that the class frontiers are developed. These come later, in a mere general, less immediate way, posing the more distant goals of the revolutionary struggle of the proletariat, which are contained in the great directing principles of political groups or parties.
Thus, differences about political work are posed first in program, then in practical applications, in day-to-day activity. The evolution of these differences reflects the general evolution of society, the evolution of classes, their methods of struggle, their ideologies, theories and political practice.
In contrast to this, the synthesis of the scientific dialectic in the purely philosophical sphere of knowledge doesn't develop in the dialectically immediate way of the practical, political class struggle. Its dialectic is much more removed, more sporadic, without apparent links either to the local milieu or the social milieu, somewhat like the development of the applied sciences, the natural sciences, at the end of feudalism and the beginning of capitalism.
Harper doesn't make these distinctions. He fails to point out that knowledge has different manifestations in human thought, that it is extremely divided into various specializations according to the period, the social context, etc.
To put it in a somewhat crude and simplified way, human knowledge develops in response to the needs confronted by different social formations, and the various branches of knowledge develop in relation to the practical applications envisaged. The more the sphere of knowledge is immediately connected to practical application, the easier it is to mark its progress. On the other hand, the more one is dealing with attempts at a synthesis the harder it is to follow this progress, because a synthesis depends on laws that are so complicated, and deriving from so many complex and diverse factors, that it is practically impossible for us today to plunge into such studies.
Moreover, practice encompasses the broad social masses whereas synthesis is very often done by individuals. Social processes are determined by general laws which are more easily and more immediately controllable. The individual is much more subject to particularities which are almost imperceptible to a historical science which is still at an early stage.
This is why we think that Harper has made a grave error in embarking upon a study of the problem of knowledge which restricts itself to pointing out the difference between the bourgeois approach to the problem, and the socialist, revolutionary approach, and which does not deal with the historic process through which ideas are formed. Because he operates in this manner, Harper's dialectic remains impotent and vulgar. So, after giving us an interesting essay correctly criticizing the manner in which Lenin attacks empirio-criticism (ie. showing Lenin's text as a vulgar polemic in the sphere of science, a dubious mish-mash of bourgeois materialism and Marxism), Harper's conclusions leave us with platitudes that are even more flagrant than Lenin's dialectic in Materialism and Empirio-criticism.
The proletariat disengages itself from the bourgeois social milieu through a continual struggle: but it cannot totally acquire an independent ideology, in the full sense of the term, until it has practically carried out the generalized insurrection, until it has made the socialist revolution a living reality. When the proletariat achieves a total ideological and political independence, when it is conscious of the only solution to the social-economic morass of capitalism -- the construction of a classless society -- at this precise moment it no longer exists as a class for capitalism. Through the dual power it has established in its favor, it creates the social-historical environment favorable to its complete disappearance as a class. The socialist revolution is therefore made up of two essential moments: before and after the insurrection.
The proletariat can only develop a totally independent ideology when it has created an environment favorable to its disappearance ie, after the insurrection. Before the insurrection, the main goal of its ideology is the practical realization of the insurrection: this demands a consciousness of the need for the insurrection, and the existence of the possibilities and means for carrying it out. After the insurrection the main practical question becomes, on the one hand, the management of society, and on the other hand, the abolition of the contradictions bequeathed by capitalism. The fundamental preoccupation will then be: how to move towards communism, how to resolve the problems of the ‘transition period'. Social consciousness, even that of the proletariat cannot be totally liberated from bourgeois ideology until this period of generalized insurrection has begun. Until then, until this act of liberation through violence, all the bourgeois ideologies, the whole of bourgeois culture, its science and its art, will have their impact on the thinking of socialists. A socialist synthesis is something that emerges extremely slowly out of the evolution of the workers' movement. In the history of the workers' movement, it's often been the case that those who have been most capable of making a profound analysis of the class struggle and the evolution of capitalism have been outside the real movement itself -- more observers than actors. This is the case with Harper in comparison to Lenin.
Similarly, there can be a gap between theory and practice in the socialist movement, so that certain theoretical studies remain valid even though the people who formulated them have political practices which are not adequate for the struggle of the proletariat. And the reverse can also be true.
In the movement which plunged Russian society into three revolutions in twelve years, the practical tasks of the class struggle were the main ones. The needs generated by the struggle, the seizure of power, the exercise of power gave rise to politicians of the proletariat like Lenin and Trotsky -- men of action, tribunes, polemicists -- rather than to philosophers and economists. Those who were the philosophers and economists in the period of the IInd and IIIrd Internationals were very often outside of the practical revolutionary movement, or did their main work in periods of reflux in the revolutionary tide.
Between 1900 and 1924, Lenin was propelled by the stream of the rising revolution. All his work throbs with the life of this struggle, its ups and downs, its historical and above all its human tragedy. His work is mainly political and polemical, a fighting work. His essential contribution to the workers' movement is thus the political aspect of his work, and not his philosophy and economic studies, whose quality is more doubtful because they lack analytical depth, scientific knowledge, and the possibilities of a theoretical synthesis. In contrast to this turbulent historical situation in Russia, the calm that prevailed in Holland, on the margins of the class struggle in Germany, allowed the ideological development of someone like Harper, in a period of retreat in the class struggle.
Harper violently attacks Lenin at his weak point, ignoring the most important and vibrant part of his work, and he falls into error when he tries to draw conclusions about Lenin's thought and about the significance of his work. And while they are incomplete or mistaken about Lenin, Harper's conclusions fall into journalistic platitudes when they deal with the Russian revolution as a whole. By restricting himself to Materialism and Empirio-criticism he shows that he has understood nothing of Lenin's main work. But his errors about the Russian revolution are even more serious, and we shall return to them.
(To be continued)