Lenin: On the Question of Dialectics


11/07/2017 by socialistfight


Germany's secret weapon. After years spent in exile in Switzerland, Lenin (second from right) at last returned to his homeland to take charge of the revolution. Original artwork for the illustration on p2 of L&L issue no. 929 (10 November 1979).Lenin returns to Russia from his exile in Switzerland, April 1917. His intense study of dialectics whilst there was a vital component of his own theoretical and political development and directly prepared the revolutionary message of the April Theses.



Written: 1915
Source: Lenin’s Collected Works, 4th Edition, Moscow, 1976, Volume 38, pp. 357-361
Publisher: Progress Publishers
First Published: 1925 in Bolshevik, No. 5-6
Translated: Clemence Dutt
Edited: Stewart Smith
Original Transcription & Markup: R. Cymbala & Marc Szewczyk
Re-Marked up & Proofread by: K. Goins (2007)
Public Domain: Lenin Internet Archive (2003). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

The fragment On the Question of Dialectics is contained in a notebook between the conspectus of Lassalle’s book on Heraclitus and the conspectus of Aristotle’s Metaphysics. Written in 1915 in Bern.

Note that this document has undergone special formating to ensure that Lenin’s sidenotes fit on the page, marking as best as possible where they were located in the original manuscript.

The splitting of a single whole and the cognition of its contradictory parts (see the quotation from Philo on Heraclitus at the beginning of Section III, “On Cognition,” in Lasalle’s book on Heraclitus[1]) is the essence (one of the “essentials,” one of the principal, if not the principal, characteristics or features) of dialectics. That is precisely how Hegel, too, puts the matter (Aristotle in his Metaphysics continually grapples with it and combats Heraclitus and Heraclitean ideas).

The correctness of this aspect of the content of dialectics must be tested by the history of science. This aspect of dialectics (e.g. in Plekhanov) usually receives inadequate attention: the identity of opposites is taken as the sum-total of examples [“for example, a seed,” “for example, primitive communism.” The same is true of Engels. But it is “in the interests of popularisation...”] and not as a law of cognition (and as a law of the objective world).


Engels, Frederick (1820-95) – in the 1940s


In mathematics: + and —. Differential and integral.
In mechanics: action and reaction.
In physics: positive and negative electricity.
In chemistry: the combination and dissociation of atoms.
In social science: the class struggle.


The identity of opposites (it would be more correct, perhaps, to say their “unity,”—although the difference between the terms identity and unity is not particularly important here. In a certain sense both are correct) is the recognition (discovery) of the contradictory, mutually exclusive, opposite tendencies in all phenomena and processes of nature (including mind and society). The condition for the knowledge of all processes of the world in their “self-movement,” in their spontaneous development, in their real life, is the knowledge of them as a unity of opposites. Development is the “struggle” of opposites. The two basic (or two possible? Or two historically observable?) conceptions of development (evolution) are: development as decrease and increase, as repetition, and development as a unity of opposites (the division of a unity into mutually exclusive opposites and their reciprocal relation).

In the first conception of motion, self – movement, its driving force, its source, its motive, remains in the shade (or this source is made external—God, subject, etc.). In the second conception the chief attention is directed precisely to knowledge of the source of “self” – movement.

The first conception is lifeless, pale and dry. The second is living. The second alone furnishes the key to the “self-movement” of everything existing; it alone furnishes the key to “leaps,” to the “break in continuity,” to the “transformation into the opposite,” to the destruction of the old and the emergence of the new.

The unity (coincidence, identity, equal action) of opposites is conditional, temporary, transitory, relative. The struggle of mutually exclusive opposites is absolute, just as development and motion are absolute.

NB: The distinction between subjectivism (scepticism, sophistry, etc.) and dialectics, incidentally, is that in (objective) dialectics the difference between the relative and the absolute is itself relative. For objective dialectics there is an absolute within the relative. For subjectivism and sophistry the relative is only relative and excludes the absolute.



In his Capital, Marx first analyses the simplest, most ordinary and fundamental, most common and everyday relation of bourgeois (commodity) society, a relation encountered billions of times, viz., the exchange of commodities. In this very simple phenomenon (in this “cell” of bourgeois society) analysis reveals all the contradictions (or the germs of all contradictions) of modern society. The subsequent exposition shows us the development (both growth and movement) of these contradictions and of this society in the Σ[2] of its individual parts. From its beginning to its end.

Such must also be the method of exposition (i.e., study) of dialectics in general (for with Marx the dialectics of bourgeois society is only a particular case of dialectics). To begin with what is the simplest, most ordinary, common, etc., with any proposition: the leaves of a tree are green; John is a man: Fido is a dog, etc. Here already we have dialectics (as Hegel’s genius recognised): the individual is the universal. (cf. Aristoteles, Metaphisik, translation by Schegler, Bd. II, S. 40, 3. Buch, 4. Kapitel, 8-9: “denn natürlich kann man nicht der Meinung sin, daß es ein Haus (a house in general) gebe außer den sichtbaren Häusern,” “ού γρ άν ΰείημεν είναί τινα οίχίαν παρα τχς τινάς οίχίας”).[3]

Consequently, the opposites (the individual is opposed to the universal) are identical: the individual exists only in the connection that leads to the universal. The universal exists only in the individual and through the individual. Every individual is (in one way or another) a universal. Every universal is (a fragment, or an aspect, or the essence of) an individual. Every universal only approximately embraces all the individual objects. Every individual enters incompletely into the universal, etc., etc. Every individual is connected by thousands of transitions with other kinds of individuals (things, phenomena, processes) etc. Here already we have the elements, the germs, the concepts of necessity, of objective connection in nature, etc. Here already we have the contingent and the necessary, the phenomenon and the essence; for when we say: John is a man, Fido is a dog, this is a leaf of a tree, etc., we disregard a number of attributes as contingent; we separate the essence from the appearance, and counterpose the one to the other.

Thus in any proposition we can (and must) disclose as in a “nucleus” (“cell”) the germs of all the elements of dialectics, and thereby show that dialectics is a property of all human knowledge in general. And natural science shows us (and here again it must be demonstrated in any simple instance) objective nature with the same qualities, the transformation of the individual into the universal, of the contingent into the necessary, transitions, modulations, and the reciprocal connection of opposites. Dialectics is the theory of knowledge of (Hegel and) Marxism. This is the “aspect” of the matter (it is not “an aspect” but the essence of the matter) to which Plekhanov, not to speak of other Marxists, paid no attention.

*  *  *

Knowledge is represented in the form of a series of circles both by Hegel (see Logic) and by the modern “epistemologist” of natural science, the eclectic and foe of Hegelianism (which he did not understand!), Paul Volkmann (see his Erkenntnistheorische Grundzüge,[4] S.)

“Circles” in philosophy: [is a chronology of persons
essential? No!]
Ancient: from Democritus to Plato and the dialectics
of Heraclitus.
Renaissance: Descartes versus Gassendi (Spinoza?)
Modern:   HolbachHegel   (via   Berkeley,   Hume,
Kant). HegelFeuerbachMarx

Dialectics as living, many-sided knowledge (with the number of sides eternally increasing), with an infinite number of shades of every approach and approximation to reality (with a philosophical system growing into a whole out of each shade)—here we have an immeasurably rich content as compared with “metaphysical” materialism, the fundamental misfortune of which is its inability to apply dialectics to the Bildertheorie,[5] to the process and development of knowledge.

Philosophical idealism is only nonsense from the stand-
point of crude, simple, metaphysical materialism. From
the standpoint of dialectical materialism, on the other
hand, philosophical idealism is a one-sided, exaggerated,
überschwengliches (Dietzgen)[6] development (inflation,
distension) of one of the features, aspects, facets of knowl-
edge, into an absolute, divorced from matter, from nature,
apotheosised. Idealism is clerical obscurantism. True. But
philosophical idealism is (“more correctly” and
in addition”) a road to clerical obscurantism
through one of the shades of the infinitely com-
plex knowledge (dialectical) of man.

Human knowledge is not (or does not follow) a straight line, but a curve, which endlessly approximates a series of circles, a spiral. Any fragment, segment, section of this curve can be transformed (transformed one-sidedly) into an independent, complete, straight line, which then (if one does not see the wood for the trees) leads into the quagmire, into clerical obscurantism (where it is anchored by the class interests of the ruling classes). Rectilinearity and one-sidedness, woodenness and petrification, subjectivism and subjective blindness—voilà the epistemological roots of idealism. And clerical obscrutantism (= philosophical idealism), of course, has epistemological roots, it is not groundless; it is a sterile flowerundoubtedly, but a sterile flower that grows on the living tree of living, fertile, genuine, powerful, omnipotent, objective, absolute human knowledge.



[1] See p. 348 of this volume—Ed.

[2] summation—Ed.

[3] “for, of course, one cannot hold the opinion that there can be a house (in general) apart from visible houses.”—Ed.

[4] P. Volkmann, Erkenntnistheorische Grundzüge der Naturwissenschaften, Leipzig-Berlin, 1910, p. 35.—Ed.

[5] theory of reflection—Ed.

[6] The reference to the use by Josef Dietzgen of the term “überschwenglich,” which means: exaggerated, excessive, infinite; for example, in the book Kleinere philosophische Schriften (Minor Philosophical Writings), Stuttgart, 1903, p. 204, Dietzgen uses this term as follows: “absolute and relative are not infinitely separated.”



Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich (1770-1831)

MIAEncyclopedia of Marxism: Glossary of People

The most important representative of classical German philosophy; he represented an objective idealism; a brilliant investigator of the laws of dialectic, which he was the first consciously to apply. An understanding of the influence Hegel had on Marx and Engels, and their opinions of Hegel:

Engels wrote in his review of Marx’s The Critique of Political Economy:

“The Hegelian method, on the other hand, was in its existing form quite inapplicable. It was essentially idealist and the main point in this case was the elaboration of a world outlook that was more materialist than any previous one. Hegel’s method took as its point of departure pure thought, whereas here the starting point was to be inexorable facts.A method which, according to its own admission, “came from nothing, through nothing, to nothing” [Hegel, Science of Logic, Part I, Section 2] was by no means appropriate here in this form. Nevertheless, of all the available logical material, it was the only piece which could be used, at least, as a starting-point. It had not been criticised, nor overcome; not one of the opponents of the great dialectician had been able to make a breach in its proud structure; it fell into oblivion, because the Hegelian school had not the slightest notion what to do with it. It was, therefore, above all necessary to subject the Hegelian method to through-going criticism.

“What distinguished Hegel’s mode of thought from that of all other philosophers was the tremendous sense of the historical upon which it was based. Abstract and idealist though it was in form, yet the development of his thoughts always proceeded parallel with the development of world history and the latter is really meant to be only the test of the former. If, thereby, the real relation was inverted and stood on its head, nevertheless, the real content entered everywhere into the philosophy; all the more so since Hegel- in contrast to his disciples- did not parade ignorance, but was one of the finest intellects of all time. He was the first who attempted to show a development, an inner coherence, in history; and while today much in his philosophy of history may seem peculiar to us, yet the grandeur of his fundamental outlook is admirable even today, whether one makes comparison with his predecessors or, to be sure, with anyone who, since his time, has indulged n general reflections concerning history. Everywhere, in his Phenomenlogy, Esthetics, History of Philosophy, this magnificent conception of history prevails, and everywhere the material is treated historically, in a definite, even if abstractly distorted, interconnection with history.

“This epoch-making conception of history was the direct theoretical premise for the new materialist outlook, and this alone provide a connecting point for the logical method, too. Since this forgotten dialectics had lead to such results even from the standpoint of “pure thinking”, and had, in addition, so easily settled accounts with all preceding logic and metaphysics, there must at any rate have been more to it than sophistry and hair-splitting. But the criticism of this method, which all official philosophy had fought shy of an still does, was no trifle.

Marx later wrote in his preface to the second edition of Capital (Volume 1):

“My dialectic method is not only different from the Hegelian, but is its direct opposite. To Hegel, the life-process of the human brain, i.e., the process of thinking, which, under the name of “the Idea,” he even transforms into an independent subject, is the demiurgos of the real world, and the real world is only the external, phenomenal form of “the Idea.” With me, on the contrary, the ideal is nothing else than the material world reflected by the human mind, and translated into forms of thought.

“The mystification which dialectic suffers in Hegel’s hands by no means prevents him from being the first to present its general form of working in a comprehensive and conscious manner. With him it is standing on its head. It must be turned right side up again if you would discover the rational kernel within the mystical shell.”



7 thoughts on “Lenin: On the Question of Dialectics

  1. stephenrdiamond says:

    As I think I recall, when Lenin was studying dialectics in Switzerland, he believed that revolution wasn’t on the horizon, February taking him by surprise. I think he was preparing the ground work for a book on dialectics – since there didn’t seem to be much going on politically at the time.

    If the April theses had anything special to do with dialectics, why were the polemics of the time never (to my recollection) grounded in dialectics (as wereTrotsky’s polemics against the petty-bourgeoi opposition on the Russian question)?


  2. stephenrdiamond says:

    Did Lenin ever quite grasp the undialectical character of the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry? That is, essentially, not just in the special conditions after February?


  3. It is true Lenin thought his generation would never live to see the revolution but the study of the dialectic surely prepared him to assess the contradictions correctly, the mass of the party membership and middle layers accepted his April Theses, the majority of the leadership rejected them at the beginning. The consciousness of the masses was now revolutionary, transmitted via its first layer of vanguard, the party local leaders, into the party itself. He understood better now how to hold fast the opposites whilst he mobilised the base against the leadership.


  4. stephenrdiamond says:

    “He understood better now how to hold fast the opposites whilst he mobilised the base against the leadership.”

    I should understand this phrase, “hold fast the opposites,” (I think the language is Tim Wohlforth’s, but I might be wrong). But I don’t really. What were the opposites that Lenin “held fast”? Mostly, I just don’t understand the verb.

    “the study of the dialectic surely prepared him to assess the contradictions correctly”

    I have to think it helped, but how are you so certain? Did Lenin ever indicate how? (As Trotsky did explain how dialectical materialism helped him understand Stalinism.) If it was important, why didn’t the Third International’s parties (and the Fourth’s, before Healy) conduct classes on Hegel? If it was important, why don’t we yet have the book Lenin intended to write?


  5. stephenrdiamond says:

    One thing I find puzzling about Lenin’s treatment of dialectic is the idea that dialectical study is a form of mental exercise. Somewhere Lenin compares a revolutionary studying the dialectic to a musician practicing musical scales. [Lenin appears to have been generally concerned with the question of mental exercise, as he also spoke of the game of chess in this fashion: the gymnasium of the mind. A subliminal reaction to his developing arteriosclerosis? Just an aside.]

    Healy, I think, picked up on this “dialectics as an exercise in mental flexibility.” I’ve never understood this – although rab on apst is a longstanding advocate. I think of “dialectics” as short for dialectical materialism, and I try to discuss it as a philosophical doctrine. I wonder if Tim Wohlforth’s study of American pragmatism is around, which contains I think one of the better expositions of dialectics as opposed to other philosophies.


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