Georg Lukács

Lenin – Theoretician of Practice

This article is a duplicate of a ssection the 1967 Postscript to the book: “Lenin: A Study on the Unity of his Thought.” 1924;
Written: 1924;
Transcribed: by André Nj.

In the chain of democratic revolutions in modern times two types of leaders, poles apart, made their appearance, embodied by men such as Danton and Robespierre, in both reality and. literature (for example in the works of Georg Buchner). Even the great orators of workers’ revolutions, for example Lassalle and Trotsky, show certain Dantonesque features.

Lenin is the first representative of an entirely new type, a tertium datur, as opposed to the two extremes. Even his reflexes were characterized by the sort of high degree of consistency of principle which could only be met with in the great old revolutionary ascetics - although there was not an ounce of asceticism in Lenin’s personality. He was brimming with life, had a good sense of humor, he could enjoy everything that life had to offer, from shooting and fishing to playing a game of ‘chess; or reading Pushkin and Tolstoy, he was able to devote himself to and identify himself with real people. The consistency of principle intensified to relentless hardness during the civil war, but there was no hatred in Lenin. He fought against institutions and this, naturally, meant that he also had to fight against the men who represented those institutions-if necessary to their annihilation. But he always considered it a humanly deplorable necessity even though it could not be avoided or disregarded under certain concrete conditions. Gorky recorded Lenin’s very characteristic words spoken after he listened to Beethoven’s Appassionata sonata: “I know the Appassionata inside out and yet I am willing to listen to it every day. It is wonderful, ethereal music. On hearing it I proudly, maybe somewhat naively, think: See! people are able to produce such marvels!” He then winked, laughed and added sadly: “I’m often unable to listen to music, it gets on my nerves, I would like to stroke my fellow beings and whisper sweet nothings in their ears for being able to produce such beautiful things in spite of the abominable hell they are living in. However, today one shouldn’t caress anybody - for people will only bite off your hand; strike, without pity, although theoretically we are against any kind of violence. Umph, it is, in fact, an infernally difficult task!”

It is clear that even such a spontaneous display of feeling is not a revolt of the instincts against the “way of life” forced onto them and that Lenin in this respect, too, only followed his own worked-out ideological principles. Many years before the scene described by Gorky, when Lenin was a young man, he wrote polemic articles against the Narodniks and their legal Marxist critics; analyzing their articles he showed that their methods were objective when they asserted that “a certain order of succession in the course of events is a necessity,” and that objectivism entails the grave consequence that “it degrades to the position of an apologist for facts.” In Lenin’s view there was only one way of avoiding the dangers involved- Marxism has to be applied more consistently to help to understand that facts and the real social bases have to be detected in the facts themselves. This conclusion shows the superiority of Marxism as against objectivism, for a Marxist “asserts his objectivism more profoundly and fully.” This stepped-up objectivism brings about what Lenin called partiality, i.e. “whenever an opinion is formed on events one has to take up a position linked with a particular social class directly and openly.” Thus, for Lenin a subjective stand always derives from and reverts to objective reality.

Conflicts arise when contradictions within reality intensify into mutually exclusive differences and those living amidst such conflicts have to deal with them themselves. However, conflicts in which convictions rooted in reality and based upon the objective conditions of individuals clash, theoretically differ from the ones in which an individual’s innermost human nature is imperiled. The latter case never happened with Lenin. Hamlet’s greatest praise for Horatio is: “... and bless’d are those / Whose blood and judgment are so well co-mingled / That they are not a pipe for fortune’s finger / To sound what stop she please.- Blood and judgment: their contrast as well as their unity only derive from the biological sphere as the direct general basis of human existence. Assuming concrete shape both express the social life of man: harmony or dissonance as a relationship of man and a certain historical moment, both in theory and in practice. Blood with judgment blended well in Lenin for the knowledge of society he had acquired concentrated on the action needed just at that moment, since his practice was always the necessary consequence of his system and of the aggregate of true knowledge he had accumulated.

There was nothing in Lenin to suggest introversion, success didn’t make him overconfident, nor did failure depress him. He denied that there were situations in which man could not react in practice. Lenin was one of the few great men who succeeded in much, in all the most essential things, and precisely in practice. And yet – or maybe just because of that – there was scarcely another man who looked on possible or past mistakes so soberly, so free of any kind of pathetic attitude. “Not he who never errs is clever. Such a man does not and cannot exist. A man is clever if he doesn’t commit too vital mistakes and, in case he has made one, knows how to rectify it, quickly and with facility.” This highly matter-of-fact opinion on the lot of active man expresses more clearly the essence of Lenin’s attitude of mind than any statement full of pathos. His life consisted of continuous action and uninterrupted struggle, and what is more, he acted and fought in a world in which-according to his deepest convictions-there was a way out of every situation for him and his opponents as well. For this reason his guiding principle was to be prepared for action, and for the right moment to act.

This was the reason for the effect on the masses of Lenin’s sober simplicity. He was an unmatched people’s tribune but even the shadow of a rhetorical attitude was incompatible with his personality; in this ‘respect, too, he was a contrast to the earlier type of great revolutionaries (let us in this connection too bear in mind Lassalle and Trotsky). Both in his private and public life he had an aversion to phrase-mongering, to anything bombastic or exaggerated. It is characteristic of him that the political and human repudiation of “exaggerations” was supported by an objective philosophical basis: “Should truth be exaggerated or the bounds of its real validity transgressed ... it might change into absurdity, moreover, under such conditions it must inevitably change into absurdity.”

This means that even the most general philosophic categories did not, for Lenin, belong to a generalizing contemplative and abstract sphere, for be considered them to be means ready to hand to serve the theoretical preparation of practice. When fighting against Bukharin’s equivocal, eclectic, intermediary position in the discussion on trade unions he had recourse to the category of totality. The way Lenin applied a philosophical category is highly characteristic. “In order to get thoroughly acquainted with a subject one has to apprehend and study every one of its aspects, relations and what it ‘conveys.’ Although we shall never reach this completely, the requirement for many-sidedness will safeguard us from making mistakes and becoming rigid.” The way in which an abstract philosophical category – supplemented by epistemological reservations as to its applicability – can be applied purely as a guiding principle for correct -practice is very illuminating.

This attitude of Lenin’s was even more striking in the discussion on the peace treaty of Brest-Litovsk. It has become a historical commonplace that as regards Realpolitik Lenin was right as against the leftist Communists – who wanted to support a future German revolution on the basis of internationalist considerations – when they clamored for a revolutionary war thus risking the survival of the Russian Soviet Republic. Lenin arrived at the right practical solution by a thorough theoretical analysis of the actual state (So Sein) of the overall process of revolutionary development. World revolution – Lenin said – precedes all partial events but this can, according to Lenin, only become a genuine (that is, practical) truth “if it is not left out, of consideration how long and difficult the way is which leads to the complete victory of socialism.” And in view of the then concrete situation -he added: “Very abstract truth becomes an empty phrase if it is applied in the case of some arbitrary concrete situation.” Thus, truth – as the basis of practice – differs from revolutionary phrases in that it theoretically hits upon the permanent, necessary and possible, actual state of being (So Sein) of the revolutionary situation. The, highest lofty feelings and most self-sacrificing devotion become an empty phrase if the theoretical essence (So Sein) of the situation does not render it possible to carry into effect true revolutionary practice. This does not mean, of course, that genuine revolutionary practice will be necessarily successful. At the time of the first revolution, following the suppression of the Moscow armed uprising, Lenin vehemently argued with Plekhanov according to whom “it was wrong to take up arms,” whereas in Lenin’s view the suppressed revolt furthered the overall process. Every kind of analogy both abstract and concrete as well as substituting world historic events for actual ones leads to phrases; for example, a comparison between France in 1792-93 and Russia in 1.918, which was often done when the Brest-Litovsk peace was discussed. A similar erroneous generalization was the sensible -and ‘self-critical theses the communists formulated after the Kapp putsch in 1920, in which they worked out guiding principles should a putsch happen again. Lenin had to ask again: How do you know that the German forces of reaction are going to repeat it?

Lenin’s entire life consisted of continuous study; without it he couldn’t have acted or formed judgments the way he did. In 1914, after the outbreak of the First World War, following trouble with the police, he took refuge in Switzerland. To make full use of his “holiday” be set himself the task of working through Hegel’s Logic. While living underground, after the July 1917 events, his host, a worker, praised the quality of bread at lunch: “They don’t dare to sell bad quality bread anymore!” Lenin was touched and delighted by this “class-conscious evaluation of the July days.” He pondered over his intricate analyses and the tasks ensuing from them: “Bread I hadn’t thought of,” he wrote, “never having lived in misery myself ... Thanks to political analyses the process of reasoning proceeds along complicated and circuitous ways to the class struggle fought for bread, on which everything is based.” That is how Lenin acquired knowledge, right through his whole life, at all times and everywhere, be it Hegel’s Logic or a workman’s opinion on bread.

Studying all the time and the readiness to allow himself to be taught by reality were due to the absolute priority he was prepared to give to practice. This fact in itself, but even more so the nature of his study, produced an unbridgeable gap between Lenin and every other empiricist or practitioner of Realpolitik. For him the reminder that totality must be the basis and standard of everything was not a mere debating point, or principle of teaching. He made far more rigorous demands on himself than on the most highly esteemed men with whom he was engaged in controversy. Universality, totality and plain concreteness were the decisive definitions for the reality in which one has to act; every kind of practice gets to be truly efficient to the extent it is able to approach these categories.

Of course, history always brings about situations opposed to all hitherto known theories. Moreover, situations may arise in which it is impossible to act in accordance with right, and known to be right, principles. Lenin knew already before October 1917 that in an economically backward Russia some kind of transitional solution, similar to the NEP, would be necessary. However, the civil war and the intervention of foreign powers imposed what was, called war communism on the Soviet state. Lenin yielded to necessity but without giving up his conviction based on principle. He did what was required by war communism but refused to admit-in contrast to the majority of his contemporaries-that war communism was the right form of a change to socialism. He firmly decided to revert to the theoretically right course of the NEP as soon as the war and the intervention of foreign, powers came to an end. He was neither an empiricist nor a dogmatist, but a theoretician of practice who proposed to translate theory into practice.

What is to be done? could not merely be the symbolic title of Lenin’s entire literary works but the fundamental theoretical idea of the, work, as it were a preliminary summing up of his Weltanschauung. He stated that the spontaneous class struggle embodied in strikes, even in precisely and well organized ones, only implanted the germs of class consciousness into the proletariat. Merely by strikes workmen won’t arrive to the awareness “that their interests are in irreconcilable opposition to the present political and social system as a whole.” In this case too, totality determines the right direction of class consciousness tending toward revolutionary practice. There is no genuine practice which is not directed toward totality. However, the recognition of totality can never be spontaneous. It has to be introduced “from outside,” that is with the help of theory, into the consciousness of those who act.

Hence the general domination of practice can only be realized if it relies on a theory the aim and direction of which is to attain all-embracing knowledge. However, the totality of objectively unfolding existence is – as Lenin knew – infinite and, therefore, never completely cognizable. Thus, it seems that a vicious circle develops: cognitive processes are infinite but to act correctly and immediately is an always topical demand. Yet, in practice problems can be solved that seem, abstractly and theoretically, insoluble. The attitude capable of this can best be described in Shakespeare’s words: “the readiness is all.” One of Lenin’s most productive characteristics is that he never ceased to learn from reality and was always ready to act at the same time. A noteworthy and seemingly paradoxical peculiarity of his theoretical activity follows from this: he never thought that he had no more to learn from reality and whatever he knew he arranged in such a way that he was able to use it whenever needed in action.

I was lucky enough to be present on an occasion when Lenin suddenly had to mobilize knowledge that was not fully formed yet. This happened in 1921. The Czechoslovak committee of the Third Congress of the Comintern was in session. Extremely complicated questions were involved and it seemed that the divergent opinions were irreconcilable. Suddenly Lenin turned up and was asked to say what-he thought of the Czech problems. He refused to answer at first, he said that he had tried to-study the material but important affairs of state had intervened; he had just managed to glance through two papers he carried on him in his coat pocket. Only after being asked repeatedly did he agree to give his impressions of the two papers. Taking them out of his pocket he gave an unmethodical, extemporized analysis starting with the leading article and finishing with the daily news. Yet, these improvised thoughts provided a thorough analysis of the then Czechoslovak situation and the tasks which the Communist Party faced,

It was natural for Lenin – who was always ready to give priority to practice when the question of reciprocal effects between theory and practice were involved. This was particularly obvious when he was just about to finish his main theoretical work, State and Revolution, written during the first phase of the revolution. He wrote it underground, in a hiding place, after the July days, and couldn’t finish the last chapter about the experiences of 1905 and 1917 because of the spread of the revolution. “It is more pleasant and useful,” he wrote in a postscript, “to follow through the ‘experiences of a revolution’ than to write about them.” These words are profoundly sincere. We know that he always wanted to make up for what he omitted to do. It was no fault of his but due to events that he was not able to.

During the last few centuries an important development in the history of human behavior was that the notion of the Stoic-Epicurean “philosopher” considerably influenced-even beyond academic philosophy-the evolution of ethical, political and social views. In the course of exerting influence the ideal also became transformed; the active and practical features of the type’ became far more intensive as compared to the original one. The last and up to now highest and most important phase of development is a permanent readiness to act, an attitude so characteristic of Lenin. It is only a passing phase of world history that today when manipulation tears practice asunder and de-ideologizing decomposes theory this ideal is not esteemed too highly by the “experts.” Over and above his deeds and works, Lenin represents an everlasting asset as the embodiment of a permanent readiness for action: Lenin’s attitude is a new, exemplary type of the relationship between human action and reality.