Lenin’s Encounter with Hegel after Eighty Years

As I write these lines, it is 80 years since the outbreak of World War I in August 1914 began to undermine liberalism’s modernist faith in unilinear progress toward the well-being of all. Established Marxism, itself influenced philosophically by neo-Kantian and positivist evolutionary schemata, was almost as unprepared for the resurgence of violence and destruction in the heart of the world’s most “advanced” and democratic capitalist societies. In what was to become the first major crisis of Marxism, the Second International split apart, as fine words about internationalism receded in the face of national chauvinism. As is well known, a small minority, among them Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht, Leon Trotsky, and V. I. Lenin, resolutely opposed the war and called for a continuation of proletarian internationalism. One member of that minority, Lenin, went a step further. He took the opportunity of his wartime exile in Switzerland to rethink his fundamental premises by a return to what Marx (1976 [1867], 744) had referred to in Capital as “the Hegelian ‘contradiction,’ which is the source of all dialectics.”

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