Orthodox Marxism attempted to consolidate "dialectical materialism" as an objective science. While the leading theorists of the Second International focused on such inherent economic contradictions of capitalism as the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, the major party philosophers, including Plekhanov and Labriola, developed Marxism in the direction of a globally explanatory world view. In the process, orthodoxy further sheared Marxism of its subjective components. As socialism became construed simply as an efficient reorganization of the economy harnessed to representative political institutions, problems of individual emancipation also faded from view. Finally, the success of the Russian Revolution established one variant of orthodox Marxism as an institutional dogma; Lenin inherited the objectivistic tradition from Plekhanov and elaborated it in new areas. Within the Soviet Union as well as without, orthodox Marxism assumed a quotidian political relevance.
Plekhanov and Labriola:
The Autonomy of History and the Passivity of Practice
G. V. Plekhanov and Antonio Labriola were almost alone among prominent Marxists in studying the "philosophy" of Marxism during the heyday of the Second International, between 1890 and 1914. Of the two, Plekhanov had the most influence ultimately, thanks to his role as the founder of Soviet Marxism .
Like Engels, Plekhanov presented Marxism as an integrated world view, encompassing a philosophy of nature as well as of history. He also insisted on its philosophical component, and sought to integrate the social theory of historical materialism within a more
comprehensive philosophical materialism. He called this comprehensive philosophy "dialectical materialism." According to Plekhanov, a proper understanding of dialectics made Marxism "competent to solve the problem of the rational cause of all that exists." Plekhanov based his understanding of materialism primarily on Engels and on Feuerbach's materialist "correction" of Hegel. Although his own writings concentrated on theoretical problems of history and society, Plekhanov followed Engels in grounding the universal validity of dialectical thought in laws of nature; Engels, he wrote, had "found that the laws of dialectical thinking are confirmed by the dialectical properties of being." Plekhanov also reiterated Engels's view that consciousness merely comprised the highest emergent form of matter, even if it could never be reduced to simple matter. Modern materialism "tries to explain psychic phenomena by these or those qualities of matter , by this or that organization of the human, or, in more general terms, of the animal body . " Yet despite his doctrinal adhesion to a "dialectics of nature," Plekhanov placed the primary foundation of materialism in epistemology.
Here as elsewhere, Plekhanov largely relied on Feuerbach's example. He believed that Marx's thesis on Feuerbach showed that "man is induced to think chiefly by the sensations he experiences in the process of his acting upon the outer world." Ignoring the fact that Marx had praised idealism for grasping the importance of intentional action and criticized Feuerbach for missing it, Plekhanov interpreted Marx's theses as a "masterly correction" rather than a fundamental critique. He even argued that Marxism could incorporate the essentials of Feuerbach's epistemology as its own. Such a materialist epistemology would take as its guiding theme the determination of consciousness by being.
At the level of social theory, Plekhanov, like Engels, spurned any form of economic reductionism; he granted the self-consciousness of the proletariat a central role in the struggle against capitalism. Both Plekhanov and Labriola advocated a kind of Marxian social psychology to support the Marxist theory of ideology; both also insisted on the interaction of intellectual and material factors. Labriola was particularly emphatic in stressing the importance of consciousness within history. "There is no fact of history which is not preceded, accompanied and followed by determined forms of consciousness,
whether it be superstitious or experimental, ingenuous or reflective, impulsive or self-controlled, fantastic or reasoning."
But the attack by orthodoxy on reductionism was blunted by its insertion within an essentially mechanistic model of society. Plekhanov, for example, wanted the prestige of hard science behind modern materialism: "Modern dialectical materialism cannot discover the mechanical explanation of history. This is, if you like, its weakness ." In Plekhanov's schema, the mode of production characterizing a society determined the structure of its economic relations, which in turn determined the psychology and consciousness of the individual men who interacted within society. Despite claims of reciprocal influence, Plekhanov argued that "the psychology of society is always expedient in relation to its economy, always corresonds to it, is always determined by it." In this context, such dialectical laws as the "leap" from quantity into quality only served to render more ironclad what already had been presented as a closed mechanical system.
The orthodox version of historical materialism resulted in the elevation of history into an autonomous process, independent of human intervention. Claiming that progress in history was caused in a fashion wholly external to men and their intentional acts, Plekhanov asserted that Marx "regarded man's nature itself as the eternally changing result of historical progress, the cause of which lies outside man." Despite his distinctive emphasis on the role of human insight, Labriola struck a similar theme: "Our aims are rational . . . because they are derived from the objective study of things, that is to say, from the explanation of their process, which is not, and which cannot be, a result of our will, but which on the contrary triumphs over our will and subdues it."
Where Marx and Engels had portrayed history as the result of the collective activity of real individuals, the orthodox Marxists depicted an automatic history which implied the passivity of individuals. As Labriola saw it, the question after the rise of scientific socialism was simply "to recognize or not to recognize in the course of human events the necessity which stands over and above our sympathy and our subjective assent." He felt that what predominated in Marx's practical precepts "was a discipline which had its source in the experience of necessity and in the precise doctrine which must proceed from the reflex consciousness of this necessity." This conception of
practice delineated freedom as submission to necessity. Plekhanov, in attempting to find a positive role for the individual within Marxism , suggested another outcome: the glorification of the scientific thinker who adequately reflects necessity. "As human reason can triumph over blind necessity only by becoming aware of the latter's peculiar inner laws, only by beating it with its own strength, the development of knowledge, the development of human consciousness, is the greatest and most noble task of the thinking personality," a "completely and exceptionally idealistic " task.
The passive tendency of orthodox Marxism resulted in a practical passivity, most clearly visible in the work of Karl Kautsky. Kautsky agreed with Plekhanov that "modern socialist consciousness can arise only on the basis of profound scientific knowledge." But the average workingman could obviously make no claim to such "profound scientific knowledge"; therefore, "the vehicles of science are not the proletariat, but the bourgeois intelligentsia ." It followed that "socialist consciousness is something introduced into the proletarian class struggle from without, and not something that arose within it spontaneously." A passive epistemology here led to the very division of society "into two parts, one of which is superior to society" that Marx had warned against in his 1845 critique of the contemplative bias in traditional materialism. Such contemplative materialism tended to foster a gradualist strategy. Despite his reiterated invocations of revolution and its imminence, Kautsky once confessed that "it is no part of our work to instigate a revolution or to prepare the way for it." Since the socialist revolution was inevitable in any case, practice should focus on moral persuasion and legal reform, rather than direct action.
Revisionism, Orthodoxy, and the Communist Project
Orthodox Marxism conflated the ideal goal of communism with the given movement of empirical history, which scientific socialism presumably reflected. The passivity at the core of orthodox Marxism spelled the elimination of purposeful agency from social theory. By ignoring the teleology inherent in the labor process as Marx described it, and by devaluing the importance of enlightened interest
in the class struggle, orthodoxy lost Marx's basis for explaining the teleology immanent to the struggle for communism. Within orthodoxy, the goal of social emancipation rested entirely on the autonomous movement of history, which followed its own laws of development. Plekhanov therefore could not theoretically justify his own remark that "Marx and Engels had an ideal . . . the subordination of necessity to freedom "— especially when he added, quite properly, that "proceeding from this ideal [N.B.], they directed their practical activity accordingly."
Both revisionist and orthodox Marxists fundamentally agreed that Marxism was an empirical science with no normative ethical claims as science . In this regard, the Marxism of the Second International reestablished the chasm between "is" and "ought" which Marx had attempted to bridge. As Rudolf Hilferding put it in his preface to Finance Capital , "Along with the theory, the politics of Marxism are also free of 'value judgements.' . . . To recognize the validity of Marxism (which implies the recognition of the necessity of socialism) does not at all mean to formulate evaluations or to indicate a line of practical conduct, since it is one thing to recognize a necessity and another to place oneself at the service of the necessity."
Since history according to the orthodox interpretation omitted the purposive intervention of men, any dispute over the actual tendencies of history threatened the socialist project itself. When Eduard Bernstein raised doubts about the empirical necessity of a socialist revolution, he was quickly attacked as a dangerous heretic imperiling the integrity of the Marxist theory. Almost inevitably, his critique of historical tendencies also forced the valuative role of subjectivity to the fore of the debate as well.
Unfortunately, Bernstein only inadequately grappled with the philosophical issues at stake. His alignment of revisionism with the contemporaneously influential neo-Kantian movement in philosophy sanctioned a duality of "is" and "ought," by approaching the goal of communism purely as an ethical issue. The theoretical correlate of an objective social situation where the revolutionary movement seemed quiescent appeared to be a purely subjective moral voluntarism. While Marx had felt that creative human practice unified "is" and "ought," objective causality and subjective teleology, orthodox Marxism banished subjective teleology in favor of a purely objective and necessary history, while revisionist Marxism reinstated
teleology on a transcendent moral plane. The impoverished objectivism of orthodoxy produced its obverse in a normative philosophy of ethical socialism.
The most alert orthodox theorists nevertheless recognized the genuine challenge posed by a revisionist ethics, which could present itself, with some justification, as the inevitable complement of the "value-free" Marxist science endorsed by Hilferding. The most subtle attempt to disarm revisionism of its potency in this area was arguably Max Adler's. In response to revisionist objections, he attempted to reintroduce subjective teleology into orthodox Marxism . In Adler's sophisticated scheme, teleology appeared on the immediate level of human reality and practice; from the standpoint of the social actor, teleology was an ineliminable "form of experience." But from the standpoint of the social scientist , Adler argued, the influx of individual projects into the social world had to be grasped within a strictly causal nexus; causality was the scientist's ineliminable "form of experience." "The positions of ends . . . now appears as the form of experience through which causality generally unfolds in the particular realm of being that is characterized as social being by its species consciousness . Thus the world as deed, human life and action, is grasped in all its powerful vividness without being either degraded to an appearance of free will or cancelled in an illusion of self consciousness; it can only be grasped as the other side of causal necessity, that, with its side of [empirical] occurrence, belongs to theoretical observation at the same time as , with its side of volition, it belongs to immediate experience. . . . The fundamental problem of social theory is [in this fashion] resolved. . . . The relation of personal freedom to social necessity."
Adler's contribution had the advantage of securing a place for creative subjectivity and its practical projects within Marxism , even though his fusion of Kant and Marx left teleology and causality on separate planes of reality. However, Adler remained a lonely figure on the fringes of orthodoxy. Moreover, the convolutions of his position could have been avoided simply by restoring Marx's original comprehension of labor and its unity of teleology and causality.
Lenin as Philosopher:
The philosophical contributions of Lenin to these debates would not
merit attention, apart from the canonic status his works have since been accorded by communist parties throughout the world. Yet Lenin's writings have assumed an inestimable importance in the development of Marxism as an official dogma. His particular variant of orthodox Marxism has (unfortunately) dominated later Marxist discussions.
Following his teacher Plekhanov, Lenin founded philosophical materialism epistemologically. Man's objective knowledge of the real world was based on sensations, which truly reflected material objects. "For every scientist who has not been led astray by professional philosophy, as well as for every materialist, sensation is indeed the direct connection between consciousness and the external world; it is the transformation of the energy of external excitation into a state of consciousness." Lenin, like Plekhanov, valued practice for the verification it offered of sense-data. He argued that Marx's concept of practice presented "the materialist theory, the theory of the reflection of objects by our mind, with absolute clarity: things exist outside us. Our perception and ideas are their images. Verification of these images, differentiation between true and false images, is given by practice."
However, Lenin soon distinguished himself from Plekhanov by his shrill introduction of party polemics into philosophical discussions. His diatribes against idealism were animated by a conviction that idealism was reactionary, rather than a simply incorrect theory—political reactionaries espoused idealism; therefore it was false. Lenin often seemed most obsessed with the religious delusions idealism allegedly fostered. He categorically denounced religion in a critical approach wholly divergent from Marx's. Marx had remarked that "the religious reflex of the real world can . . . only . . . finally vanish, when the practical relations of everyday life offer to man none but perfectly intelligible and reasonable relations with regard to his fellowmen and nature." Lenin however busied himself with detecting dangerous religious ideas within secular philosophy. He valued epistemological materialism as proof positive against any form of transcendentalism that might give comfort to religion. "Once you deny objective reality, given us in sensation, you have already lost every one of your weapons against fideism, for you have slipped into agnosticism or subjectivism—and that is all fideism wants." Here as elsewhere, Lenin conflated metaphysical, epistemological, theological, and political questions.
In Materialism and Empirio-Criticism , Lenin painted a picture of the progressive attainment of empirical truth. He assumed that absolute truth was gradually approximated through the accumulating total of relative truths, each of which reflected accurately an independently existing object. The contribution of dialectics lay in its presentation of the "doctrine of development in its fullest, deepest and most comprehensive form, the doctrine of the relativity of the human knowledge that provides us with a reflection of eternally developing matter." For Lenin, "knowledge can be useful biologically, useful in human practice, useful for the preservation of life, for the preservation of the species, only when it reflects an objective truth independent of man."
Lenin did not limit his passive conception of knowledge to the sphere of inanimate objects. The social realm also appeared as an entity entirely divorced from the individual's consciousness of it. Where Marx himself had described conscious and practical individuals, capable of transforming social relations as well as nature through their power of purposeful agency, Lenin insisted that "social being is independent of the social consciousness of man . . . . The highest task of humanity is to comprehend the objective logic of economic evolution (the evolution of social life) in its generalized fundamental features, so that it may be possible to adapt to it one's social consciousness and the consciousness of the advanced classes of all capitalist countries in as definite, clear and critical a fashion as possible." This orthodox Marxian theme of submission to necessity recurred throughout Lenin's work.
Some of Lenin's writings on organizational and strategic matters seemed nonetheless to contradict the passive implications of the epistemology elaborated in Materialism and Empirio-Criticism . In his dispute with the Russian economists, Lenin insisted on the irreducible importance of politics, ideology, and class consciousness to the development of a revolutionary movement; he presented such "subjective" conditions of revolution as "inseparably bound up with the objective condition" of a developed economic structure. After the success of the Russian Revolution of 1917, Lenin similarly insisted on the importance of a "cultural revolution" to complement the political and social one; without such a cultural upheaval, there could be no question of achieving socialism.
Lenin indeed took an activist, almost voluntarist, position as to
the role of the Bolshevik Party in organizing the proletariat as a political force. He was hardly content to let events simply take their course, and here he departed sharply from orthodox social democracy. "To say that ideologists (i.e., politically conscious leaders) cannot divert the movement from the path determined by the interaction of environment and elements is to ignore the simple truth that the conscious element participates in this interaction, and in the determination of the path. . . . They fail to understand that the 'ideologist' is worthy of the name only when he precedes the spontaneous evolution with conscious, evolutionary action." Or, as Lenin asked rhetorically in What Is to Be Done ?, "What else is the function of Social Democracy if not to be a 'spirit' . . . raising the movement to the level of its program?"
But what was the substance of the party's spiritual leadership? In what sense did the communist ideologue precede the spontaneous historical movement and "point out the road"? Lenin's discussion of "trade union consciousness" and his invocation of Kautsky make it clear that for him, as for Kautsky, what was at stake was the inability of the workers' movement to achieve science spontaneously. Social democracy had to assume the role of a spirit, because the workers themselves would remain an incoherent mass without the guiding light afforded by socialist intellectuals: "Class political consciousness can be brought to the workers only from without , that is, only outside of the economic struggle, outside of the sphere of relations between workers and employers."
Ironically, Lenin's activist program, rather than wholly contradicting his epistemology, indirectly accorded with it. While Lenin used Kautsky's model of scientific consciousness injected into the class struggle from without for distinctly activist ends, both Lenin and Kautsky treated the proletariat as an inert object which in the first instance lacked any notion of the role cast for it by history, as comprehended by a purely objective socialist science. To paraphrase Lenin, the highest task of the proletariat was to comprehend the objective logic of economic evolution so that it might adapt to it. The vanguard would facilitate this adaptation.
Lenin thus dissolved the unity originally postulated by Marx between a spontaneous socio-historical development and the enlightenment of proletarian interests. The proletariat became a pure object, not only of history, but also of the Communist Party, which
claimed a monopoly on adequate consciousness. If in fact the party leaders were the only persons with a handle on the truth, then "amidst the gloom of autocracy," Lenin felt justified in dismissing "'broad democracy' in party organization" as "nothing more than a useless and harmful toy ."
To be sure, the initiating role a critical consciousness assumed within the vanguard party indicated that, at least for one sector of society, social being was not independent of social consciousness. In this respect, Lenin's posthumously published Philosophical Notebooks , with their clear recognition of the centrality of practice to Hegel's (and Marx's) thought, offered a more consistent underpinning for his theory of practice than Materialism and Empirio-Criticism . Although the notebooks in general did not budge from Lenin's reflection theory of knowledge ("Life gives rise to the brain. Nature is reflected in the human brain."), Hegel's remarks on causality and teleology led Lenin to remark that "man's consciousness not only reflects the objective world, but creates it." While cognition remained for Lenin the "eternal, endless approximation of thought to the object," this reflective relation to nature did "not immediately, not simply" coincide with its object. Such epistemological refinements merely rendered Lenin's schema of history more consistent, however; even the activist side of his theory consigned the great majority, including the working class, to a reified passivity and objectivity, which the enlightened communist vanguard investigated and acted upon.
Despite his commitment to a revolutionary strategy, in short, Lenin in his philosophical writings realized the apotheosis of objectivistic Marxism . To his passive epistemology and contempt for democracy corresponded an unannounced eclipse of individual emancipation as a central goal of communism. As Lenin's quip after the revolution that "communism equals soviets plus electrification" implied, communism in Russia came to mean a technical reorganization and modernization of society, rather than a basic transformation abolishing the domination of man by man and of things over men. It was a development presaged by earlier orthodox Marxists. Kautsky's widely read explanation of the Erfurt Program, written in 1892, for example, contained no explicit reference to individual emancipation as a goal in its chapter on "The Commonwealth of the Future." Kautsky instead dwelled on the economic
reorganization of society that would enable the "socialist commonwealth" to "outshine in moral greatness and material wellbeing the most glorious society [Greece] that history has thus far known." Here as elsewhere, Lenin summarized theoretically the movement of orthodox Marxism . Thanks to his unwavering practical commitment, he also established it in power.
Orthodoxy and the Liquidation of Subjectivity
Lenin, Kautsky, and Plekhanov all shared a devotion to a materialist world view that specified general dialectical laws of human history, developing out of, and verified by, general dialectical laws of nature. History and nature together comprised an evolutionary system issuing ultimately in communism, that social order incarnating man's rational mastery of natural necessity through its recognition. For orthodox Marxism , the attainment of this benign state increasingly was posed as a technical problem of economic reorganization and social planning. The early successes of socialist revolutions in underdeveloped countries such as Russia and China naturally reinforced such technical tendencies: when it is a matter of preventing starvation and death, the quest for the whole man tends to become a marginal concern.
Long before Stalin's dictatorship over the proletariat, the individual had vanished from orthodox Marxist theory. The leading Marxist philosophers of the Second International had each consolidated the objectivistic implications of Engels's dialectic of nature. As Louis Althusser has pointed out, the thesis of a dialectics of nature "has the polemical meaning that history is a process without a subject "; Lenin followed Engels in attempting "the elimination of the category of the Subject (whether transcendental or otherwise)." Instead of placing man at the foundation of history, orthodox Marxism held that history itself created subjectivity. As Plekhanov remarked, "Man becomes a 'subject' only in history . . . . 'Economic' materialism is the reply to the question of . . . how the subjective side of history comes about." From the orthodox understanding, history simply made men, rather than men also making history, as Marx had emphatically added. The dialectical materialism of
orthodox Marxism thus became a one-sided dissection of the undeniable power of objective circumstances in human affairs. Unfortunately, it remained incapable of consistently explaining how these circumstances arose in the first place.
This inability to comprehend origins was simultaneously an inability to grasp transcendence. Orthodox Marxism found itself in the embarrassing position of being unable to account theoretically for the revolutionary project. By presenting labor merely as the active verification of sense-data, orthodoxy ignored the idealistic aspects of practice in its teleological projection of an idea to be realized. Where for Marx practice had represented a creative unity of teleology and causality, for orthodoxy, practice simply confirmed causality: freedom as submission to necessity. The practice of the revolutionary movement was thus, by extension, prohibited from any creative mastery of historical possibility; orthodoxy consigned political practice to trail after empirical history, reflecting more or less adequately its autonomous imperatives (which supposedly pointed toward socialism).
The orthodox theorists thus consecrated Marxism as a purely objective dialectic in an attempt to secure its theoretical validity. Marx's original theory had rested on his optimistic expectations for the proletariat: the proletariat, in rationally acting on its interests, would emancipate the whole of society and institute communism. By the turn of the century, such expectations had come to appear highly questionable and even utopian. The proletariat, although increasingly organized in large political parties in Germany, France, and elsewhere, displayed little of the combative militancy so crucial to Marx's original conception. Faced with this failure of the subjective conditions for socialism, the orthodox Marxists responded by excising those conditions as necessary to communism. Socialism came to appear the inevitable result of an autonomous technical and economic evolution, governing the direction of historical development. Orthodoxy cast off the subjective aspects of Marx's rationalist legacy and instead solicited the support of natural science. In effect, the theory of orthodox Marxism liquidated the creative human subject. Its determinism offered the scant consolation of a mechanical guarantee.