Critique of Pannekoek’s Lenin as Philosopher by Internationalisme, 1948 (part 1)

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When the group Gauche Communiste de France (GCF) decided to translate and publish Anton Pannekoek's Lenin as Philosopher, it wasn't only the pseudonym J. Harper but the name Pannekoek itself that was practically unknown in France. And this was by no means a ‘French' phenomenon. Although France has never been noted for its eagerness to publish texts of the Marxist workers' movement, this is true for every country, and this ‘forgetfulness' isn't limited to Pannekoek. The entire comm­unist left, beginning with Rosa Luxemburg, its whole theoretical and political activity, all the passionate struggles of a current born in the thick of the revolutionary battles that followed World War 1 -- all this has been in such ‘forgetfulness'. It's hard to believe that it took only ten years of Stalinist counter-revolution to rub out the lessons of a revolutionary movement that was so rich, so fruitful, from the memories of the very generation that had lived through it. It's as if an epidemic of amnesia had suddenly descended on the millions of workers who had participated actively in these events, leaving them completely uninterested in any­thing to do with revolutionary thought. Only a few traces remained of a revolutionary wave that had shaken the world, represented by a few small groups, scattered over the world, isolated from each other, and thus incapable of ensuring the continuation of theoretical reflection, except in small reviews with a tiny circulation, often not even printed.

It's not surprising that Pannekoek's book, Lenin as Philosopher, which appeared in German in 1938, on the eve of the war, had no echo and passed unnoticed even in the extremely restricted revolutionary milieu. It was the undoubted merit of International­isme (publication of the GCF), once the storms of war had passed, to have been the first to translate it and publish it in serial form, in nos 18-29 (February to December 1947).

Greeting Harper's book as "a first rate contribution to the revolutionary movement and the cause of the emancipation of the proletariat," Internationalisme added in its introduction (no 18, Feb 1947) "that whether or not one agrees with all the conclusions he comes to, no one can deny the enormous value of this work, written in a simple, clear style, and one of the best theoretical writings in recent decades."

In the same introduction, Internationalisme expressed its main concern when it wrote:

"The degeneration of the Communist International has resulted in a disturbing lack of interest in theoretical and scientific research in the revolutionary milieu. Apart from the review Bi1an published before the war by the Italian Fraction of the Comm­unist Left, and the writings of the Council Communists which include Harper's book, the theoretical efforts of the European workers movement have been practically non-existent. And, to us, nothing seems more harmful to the prol­etarian movement than the theoretical sluggishness of its militants."

This is why Internationalisme, while having high regard for Pannekoek's book, didn't limit itself simply to publishing it, but subjected the book to discussion and criticism in a series of articles in nos. 30-33 (January - April 1948). ­Internationalisme fully accepted and agreed with Pannekoek's thesis that Lenin, in his polemic against the idealist tendencies of neo-Machists (Bogdanov etc), had fallen into arguments based on bourgeois material ism (ie a mechanistic, positivist standpoint. But Internationalisme completely rejected the political conclusions that Pannekoek drew from this -- viz, that the Bolshevik Party was a non-proletarian party, a party of the intelligentsia, and that the October revolution was a bourgeois revolution.

This argument was at the root of the councilist analysis of the Bolshevik Party and the October revolution; it clearly distinguished the councilist current from the Italian Left, but also from the KAPD, in its early days at least. Councilism was thus   a regression from the German Left whose heir it claimed to be. You can find this same analysis, with a few variations, in Socialisme ou Barbarie or Socialisme du Conseils, in Chaulieu, Mattick, Rubel, and Korsch. Common to all these elements, is the way they reduce the October revolution to a strictly Russian phenomenon, thus completely losing sight of its internation­al and historical significance.

Once they have reached this point, the only thing left to these elements is to point out the backward state of industrial devel­opment in Russia and conclude that the ob­jective conditions for a proletarian revol­ution were missing. Councilism's lack of a global view of capitalist development led it, through various detours, to the position of the Mensheviks: the immaturity of the objective conditions in Russia and the inevitably bourgeois character of the revolution there.

All the evidence indicates that what motiv­ated Pannekoek's work was not the desire to rectify Lenin's errors on the level of philosophy, but fundamentally the political need to combat the Bolshevik party, which he considered to be, a priori, by nature, a party marked by "the half-bourgeois, half-proletarian character of Bolshevism and of the Russian revolution itself." (P. Mattick, ‘Anton Pannekoek (1873-1960)' -- chapter 10 of the Merlin Press edition of Lenin as Philosopher.) "To show what the ‘Marxism' of Lenin really implied, Pannekoek under­took a critical examination of its philo­sophical basis, published under the title Lenin as Philosopher, in 1938." (Ibid)

One must question the validity of such an undertaking, and here Pannekoek's proofs are hardly convincing. To try to derive the nature of a historical event as import­ant as the October revolution, or the role of the Bolshevik party, from a philosophical polemic -- however important it may have been -- is a long way of establishing the proof of what one is saying. Neither Lenin's philosophical errors in 1908, nor the ultimate triumph of the Stalinist counter-revolution, prove that the October revolution was not made by the proletariat but by a third class -- the intelligentsia (?). By artificially grafting false political conclusions onto correct theoretical premises, by establishing a crude link between causes and effects, Pannekoek slipped into the same un-Marxist methods which he rightly criticizes in Lenin.

With the resurgence of class struggle after 1968, the proletariat is now knitting together the threads broken by nearly half a century of triumphant counter-revolution, re-appropriating the work of the left which survived the shipwreck of the Communist International. Today, the writings and debates of the left, ignored for so long,  are reappearing and finding more and more readers. Pannekoek's Lenin as Philosopher -- like many other such works -- has been published and can be read by thousands of proletarian militants. But if these theoretical/political works are really to assist in the development of revolutionary thought and activity today, they must be studied in a critical spirit, one which stays well away from the academic mentality which, after discovering this or that author, immediately turns him into a new idol and unconditionally apologizes for everything he has written.

Against the "neo-anti-Bolshevism" which is fashionable today among certain groups and publications, such as Pour une Intervention Communiste and Spartacus (now defunct), and which ends up by erasing the whole socialist and communist movement, including the October revolution, from the history of the proletariat, we can only repeat what Inter­nationalisme in its introduction to Pannekoek's book:

"This deformation of Marxism which we owe to ‘marxists' who are as eager as they are ignorant, has its counter­weight, no less ignorant, among those whose specialty is ‘anti-marxism'. Anti-Marxism has now become the hallmark of déclassé, rootless, bitter, petty-bourgeois semi-intellectuals. Repelled by the monstrous Russian system that has come out of the October proletarian revolution, and repelled also by the hard, unrewarding work of scientific research, these people now go around the world in sackcloth and ashes, engaged in a ‘crusade with a cross', looking for new ideas -- not to understand, but to worship."

What was true yesterday for Marxism, is true today for Bolshevism and the October revolution.


Politics and Philosophy from Lenin to Harper

I. How Harper poses the problem and what he leaves obscure

Reading Harper's book on Lenin, it is quite clear that we are dealing with a serious and profound study of Lenin's philosophical work, with a clear outline of the materialist dialectic which Harper matches against Lenin's philosophical conceptions.

For Harper, the problem is posed in the following manner: rather than separating Lenin's conceptions of the world from his political activity, the best way of seeing what this revolutionary was trying to do is to grasp the dialectical origins of his activity. For Harper, the work which best characterizes Lenin's thought is Materialism and Empirio-criticism. Here Lenin launches an attack on the clear idealism that was being adopted by a sector of the Russian intelligentsia influenced by the philosophical conceptions of Mach. His aim was to give new life to a Marxism that was suffering all kinds of revisions, not only by Bernstein, but also by Mach.

Harper introduces the problem with a profound and perceptive analysis of the dia­1ectic as it appears in Marx and Dietzgen. Even better, throughout his study Harper tries to make a thoroughgoing distinction between the Marx of his first philosophical studies and the Marx who had matured with the class struggle and detached himself from bourgeois ideology. This distinction allows him to point out the contradictions between the bourgeois materialism of cap­italism's prosperous epoch -- typified in the natural sciences -- and the revolution­ary .materialism concretized in the science of social development. Harper is at pains to refute certain conceptions put forward by Lenin, who in his opinion was less concerned with coming to terms with ‘Machist' ideas than with using them for polemical reasons, to cement the unity of the Russian social-democratic party.

But while Harper's work is interesting for its study of the dialectic, and for  its treatment of the way Lenin corrects Mach's ideas, the most interesting part - because it's the one which has the most important consequences -- is undoubtedly the analysis of the sources of Lenin's materialism and their influence on his activity in international socialist discussion and in the 1917 revolution in Russia.

The first part of the critique begins with a study of Lenin's philosophical ancestors, from Holbach, via certain French materialists such as Lametrie, up to Avenarius. The whole problem is centered round the theory of knowledge. Even Plekhanov didn't escape from the encroachments of bourgeois materialism. Marx was preceded by Feuerbach. All this was to be a powerful handicap for the social thought of the whole of Russian Marxism, with Lenin at its head.

Harper very correctly points to the characteristics of the theory of knowledge in bourgeois materialism with its static view of the world, and contrasts this with the very different nature and orientation of revolutionary materialism.

The bourgeoisie considers knowledge as a purely receptive phenomenon (according to Harper, Engels also shared this view). For them, knowledge simply means          perception and sensation of the external world -- as though we are no more than a mirror more or less faithfully reflect­ing the external world. We can see from this why the natural sciences were the war-horse of the bourgeois world. In their initial expressions, physics, chemistry and biology were based more on an attempt to codify the phenomena of the external world than on an effort to interpret and analyze reality, Nature seemed to be a huge book, and the aim was to transcribe natural manifestations into intelligible signs. Everything seemed to be ordered, rational, and no exceptions to this view could be tolerated unless explained as the imperfections of our means of perception. In sum, science became the photography of a world whose laws were always the same, independent of time and space, but dependent on each law taken separately.

The natural object of these first efforts of the sciences was that which was external to man: this choice expressed the fact that it was easier to grasp the sensuous external world than the more confused human world, whose laws escape the simple equations of the natural sciences. But we must also see here the need of the rising bourgeoisie rapidly and empirically to grasp hold of that which was external to itself and could be used for the development of the social forces of production. Rapidly, because the foundations of its socio­economic system were not yet very solid; empirically, because capitalism was more interested in results and conclusions than in the path one took to reach them.

The natural sciences that developed in the framework of bourgeois materialism were to influence the study of other phenomena and gave rise to human sciences such as history, psychology, and sociology, where the same methods of knowledge were applied.

The first object of human knowledge to occupy men's minds was religion, which for the first time was studied as a historical problem and not as a philosophical problem. This also expressed the need of a young bourgeoisie to rid itself of religious fixations which negated the natural rationality of the capitalist system. This was expressed in the blossoming-forth of a series of bourgeois thinkers like Renan, Strauss, Feuerbach, etc. But what was attempted was always a methodological dissection: you didn't have the attempt to criticize an ideological body like religion on a social basis, but rather the effort to discover its human foundations, by reducing its study to the level of the natural sciences, to make a photographic study of ancient documents and the alterations they had gone through over t the centuries. Finally, bourgeois materialism normalized an existing state of affairs, fixing everything in an eternal and immutable state. It saw nature as the indefinite repetition of rational causes. Bourgeois man thus reduced nature to a desire for a conservative, unchanging state. He felt that he dominated nature to a certain extent, but he couldn't see that the very instruments of this domination were in the process of freeing themselves from man and turning against him. Bourgeois materialism was a progressive step in the development of human knowledge. It became conservative -- to the point of being rejected by the bourgeoisie itself -- when the capitalist system, in reaching its apogee, already gave notice of its impending demise.

This mode of thinking still appears in Marx's early work, but Harper sees the road which led Marx towards revolution­ary materialism being opened up by the coming to consciousness of the working masses in response to the first major contradictions of the capitalist system.

Revolutionary materialism, Harper insists, is not a product of mere reason. Bourgeois materialism grew up in a specific socio-economic milieu, and revolutionary materialism also required a specific socio-economic milieu. Marx became aware that existence was a process of constant change. But where the bourgeoisie saw only rationalism, the repetition of cause and effect, Marx saw the evolving socio-economic milieu as a new element to be introduced into the sphere of knowledge. For him consciousness saw not a photograph of the external world. His materialism was animated by all the natural factors, and in the first place by man himself.

The bourgeoisie could neglect man's part in knowledge, because, at the beginning, its system seemed to function like the laws of astronomy, with a precise regularity. Its economic system had no place for man in it.

Around the middle of the nineteenth century, the system's negligence towards man began to make itself felt in social relationships. Revolutionary conscious­ness began to mature, and it became clear that knowledge wasn't a mirror of the external world, as bourgeois materialism claimed: man entered into knowledge of the world not only as a receptive factor, but also as an active and modifying factor.

For Marx, knowledge was thus the product of the sensation of the external world and of the ideas and actions of man, himself a factor and motor of knowledge.

The science of social development was born, eliminating the old human sciences and expressing a clearly-felt step forward. The natural sciences them­selves broke out of their narrow limitations. Nineteenth century bourgeois science collapsed because of its own blindness.

It is this failure to understand the role of praxis in knowledge that gives Lenin's philosophical work its ideolog­ical character. As we have said, Harper examines Lenin's philosophical sources and attributes them with having a decisive influence on Lenin's political activity.

Social existence determines conscious­ness. Lenin came out of a backward social milieu. Feudalism still reigned, and the bourgeoisie was weak, lacking in revolutionary capacity. Capitalism was developing in Russia at a time when the mature bourgeoisie of the west was already going into decline. Russia was becoming a capitalist country, not thanks to a national bourgeoisie oppos­ing itself to the feudal absolutism of the Tsar, but thanks to foreign capital, which dominated the whole capitalist structure in Russia. Because bourgeois materialism was becoming bogged down by the development of the capitalist economy and of its contradictions, the Russian intelligentsia had to turn to revolutionary materialism in its struggle against imperial absolutism. The object of the struggle set this revolutionary materialism against feud­alism, not against capitalism which didn't represent an effective force. Lenin was part of this intelligentsia which -- basing itself on the only revolutionary class, the proletariat -- aimed to carry out the belated capitalist transformation of feudal Russia.

This is how Harper interprets the facts.

Harper sees the Russian revolution as an expression of the objective maturity of the working class, but for him it had a bourgeois political content. For Harper, this bourgeois political content was expressed by Lenin, whose conscious­ness was molded by the immediate tasks in Russia, a country whose socio‑economic structure had the appearance of a colony with a non-existent national bourgeoisie. The only decisive forces were the working class and absolutism.

The proletariat thus had to express itself in the context of this backward­ness, and for Harper this situation was represented in the bourgeois materialist ideology of Lenin.

This is what Harper has to say about Lenin and the Russian revolution:

"This materialist philosophy was precisely the doctrine which best suited the new mass of Russian intellectuals, who saw in the physical sciences and in technology the possibility of managing product­ion as the new ruling class of an immense empire ... the only resist­ance to this coming from the old religious peasantry." (Lenin as Philosopher)

Harper's method in Lenin as Philosopher, as well as his way of interpreting the problem of knowledge, ranks among the best works of Marxism. His political conclusions, however, lead to such confusions that he forces us to examine them more closely in order to separate his formulation of the problem of know ledge from his political conclusions, which seem to us to be quite mistaken and well below the level of the rest of the work.

Harper writes that:

"...materialism could dominate the ideology of the bourgeois class only for a short time."

This leads him to say, after proving that Lenin's philosophy in Materialism and Empiriocriticism is essentially bourgeois materialism -- that the Bolshevik revolution of October 1917 was:

"... a bourgeois revolution based on the proletariat."

Here Harper gets caught up in his own dialectic and he fails to answer a crucial question: how could there be a bourgeois revolution, producing its own ideology -- an ideology which as in the bourgeoisie's revolutionary period, was a materialist one -- at a time when capitalism was plunging into the most acute crisis in its history? The crisis of 1914-20 doesn't seem to trouble Harper at all.

Again how could there be, at that very moment, a bourgeois revolution that was propelled by the most advanced, conscious workers and soldiers in Russia, and which enjoyed the solidarity of the workers and soldiers of the whole world -- and above all of the country where capitalism was most highly developed, i.e. Germany? How could it be that, at that very moment, the Marxists, the most thorough dialecticians, the best theoreticians of socialism, defend­ed the materialist conception of history as well as, if not better than, Lenin himself? How could it be that it was precisely people like Plekhanov and Kautsky who found themselves on the side of the bourgeoisie against the revolut­ionary workers and soldiers of the whole world, and particularly against Lenin and the Bolsheviks?

Harper doesn't even pose these questions, so how could he respond to them? But what is so astonishing is precisely the fact that he doesn't pose these questions.

Moreover, Harper's survey of philosoph­ical development, though generally correct, contains certain assertions which put it in a different light. Harper tends to see that there have been, among Marxist theoreticians, two fundamentally different approaches to the problem of knowledge. This separat­ion -- which he sees in the life and work of Marx himself -- is somewhat simplistic and schematic. Harper sees two periods in the work of Marx:

1. Before 1848, Marx the progressive bourgeois materialist: "religion is the opium of the people", a phrase subsequently taken up by Lenin, and one which neither Stalin nor the Russian bourgeoisie have judged necessary to remove from official monuments of party propaganda.

2. Then, Marx the revolutionary materialist and dialectician: the attack on Feuerbach, the Communist Manifesto, etc. "Being determines consciousness."

For Harper, it's no accident that Lenin's work (Materialism and Empirio­criticism) is essentially an example of the first phase of Marxism. Starting from the idea that Lenin's ideology was determined by the historical movement in which he participated, Harper argues that the underlying nature of this move­ment is revealed by the fact that Lenin's ideology is a variety of bourge­ois materialism (Harper only takes Materialism and Empiriocriticism into account here).

This leads Harper to the conclusion that Materialism and Empiriocriticism is now the bible of the Russian intellectuals, technicians, etc -- the representatives of the new state capitalist class. In this view, the Russian revolution, and the Bolsheviks in particular, are a prefiguration of a more general revolution­ary development: the evolution of capit­alism into state capitalism, the revol­utionary mutation of the liberal bourge­oisie into the bureaucratic state bourgeoisie, of which Stalinism is the most complete expression.

Harper's idea is that this class, which everywhere sees Materialism and Empirio­criticism as its bible (Stalin and his friends continue to defend the book), uses the proletariat as the basis for its state capitalist revolution. This is why the new class has to rely on Marxist theory.

The aim of this explanation, therefore, is to prove that this first form of Marxism leads directly to Stalin by way of Lenin. We've already heard this sort of thing from certain anarchists, though they apply it to Marxism in general. Stalin is thus the logical outcome of Marxism -- for anarchist logic, that is!

This approach also attempts to demonstr­ate that a new revolutionary capitalist class, basing itself on the proletariat, has arisen in history at the very moment when capitalism itself has entered into its permanent crisis, owing to the hyperdevelopment of the productive forces in the framework of a society based on the exploitation of human labor (surplus value).

These two ideas, which Harper introduced in Lenin as Philosopher before the 1939-­45 war, have been put forward by others who have come from different social and political backgrounds. They became very fashionable after the war. The first idea is defended by a great many anarchists: the second by a great many reactionary bourgeois writers such as James Burnham.

It's not surprising that the anarchists should put forward such mechanistic and schematic conceptions, which claim that Marxism is the source of Stalinism and ‘state capitalist ideology', or of the new ‘managerial class'. They have never approached the problems of philosophy in the way that revolutionaries have: for them, Marx and Lenin descend from Auguste Comte, and all Marxist currents, without exception, are put in the same bag as ‘Bolshevist-Stalinist ideology'. Meanwhile the anarchists' version of philosophical thought is to take on the latest fashion in idealism, from Nietzschism to existentialism, from Tolstoy to Sartre.

Harper's thesis is that Lenin's Materialism and Empiriocriticism, as a philosophical enquiry into the problem of knowledge, doesn't go any further than the methods of interpretation typical of mechanistic bourgeois materi­alism. But in going from here to the conclusion that the Bolsheviks, Bolshevism, and the Russian revolution couldn't go any further than the stage of the bourgeois revolution, Harper ends up with the same position held by the anarchists and by bourgeois like Burnham. Furthermore, this conclusion contradicts another of Harper's assert­ions, which is partially correct:

"Materialism could dominate the ideology of the bourgeois class only for a short time. Only so long as the bourgeoisie could believe that its society of private property, personal liberty, and free competition, through the development of industry, science and technique, could solve the life problems of all mankind -- only so long could the bourgeoisie assume that the theoretical problems could be solved by science without the need to assume supernatural and spiritual powers. As soon, however, as it became evident that capitalism could not solve the life problems of the masses, as was shown by the rise of the proletarian class struggle, the confident materialist philosophy disappeared. The world was seen again full of insoluble contra­dictions and uncertainties, full of sinister forces threatening civilization." (Lenin as Philosopher)

Later on we will return to these problems in more depth, but right now, without wishing to be drawn into a sterile polemic, we are forced to note the insoluble contradictions which Harper gets himself into -- on the one hand by attacking such a complex problem in so simplistic a manner, and on the other hand with regard to the conclus­ions he comes to about Bolshevism and Stalinism.

Once again we ask: how, following Harper's thesis that the bourgeoisie became idealist when the proletarian class struggle appeared on the scene, can you explain the fact that at the very moment that the class struggle was reaching unprecedented heights, a materialist current should be born within the bourgeoisie, giving rise to a new bourgeois capitalist class? Harper discerns in Lenin's philosophy the rise of a bourgeois materialist current at the very time that the bourgeoisie should have been turning absolutely idealist. And if, according to Harper, Lenin "was compelled to be materialist to rally the workers behind him", we can pose the following question: whether it was the workers who adopted the ideology of Lenin, or Lenin who adapted himself to the needs of the class struggle, Harper presents us with this astonishing contradiction: either the proletariat was following a bourgeois current, or a working class movement secreted a bourgeois ideology.

But in either case, the proletariat doesn't appear on the scene with its own view of the world. It's a strange version of Marxist materialism that can lead us to such a conclusion: the proletariat embarks on a course of independent action but produces a bourgeois ideology. But this is exactly where Harper's thesis leads us.

Furthermore, it's not entirely correct to say that at a certain stage the bourgeoisie was totally materialist and at another stage totally idealist. In the 1789 bourgeois revolution in France, the cult of Reason simply replaced the cult of God, and this was typical of the dual character -- i.e. both materialist and Idealist at the same time -- of the conceptions held by a bourgeoisie struggling against feudalism, religion, and the power of the Church (a struggle which took on extremely acute forms, such as the persecution of priests and the burning of churches). We will also return to this permanently dual aspect of bourgeois ideology, which even at the highest moments of the ‘Great Revolution', has never gone beyond the stage of "religion is the opium of the people".

However, we have not yet drawn all the conclusions to which Harper's work leads us. Here we need to make a few historical reminders for the benefit of all those who consign the October revolution the bourgeois camp. While this initial examination of Harper's philosophical conclusions and theories have led us to reflect on certain questions that we shall develop further later on, there are certain facts which Harper doesn't even want to skim over. For pages and pages, Harper talks about bourgeois philosophy and Lenin's philosophy, and arrives at conclusions which are to say the least daring and which demand a serious, detailed invest­igation. Now, what kind of Marxist materialist can accuse a man, a political group or a party, as Harper accuses Lenin and the Bolshevik party, of representing a bourgeois current and a bourgeois ideology " ... basing itself on the proletariat" (Harper), without having first examined -- at least for the record -- the historical movement of which they were a part?

This movement was international and Russian social-democracy; this was the movement which gave rise to the Bolshevik fraction and all the other left socialist fractions. How was this fraction formed? What ideological struggles did it wage, forcing it to form a separate group, then a party, then the vanguard of an inter­national movement?

The struggle against Menshevism; Lenin's Iskra and What is to be Done?, the rev­olution of 1905 and the role of Trotsky; Trotsky's theory of permanent revolution which lead him to fuse with the Bolsheviks between February and October 1917; the revolutionary process between February and October; the right-wing social dem­ocrats and Social Revolutionaries; Lenin's April Theses; the constitution of the soviets and of workers' power; Lenin's position on the imperialist war: Harper says not one word about any of this. This is by no means accidental.

(To be continued)

Mousso and Phillipe

Historic events: 


Development of proletarian consciousness and organisation: 

General and theoretical questions: