I must admit I am quite fond of the intellectual hit-man. Some great scholars have undertaken such tasks: Henri Lefebvre at the behest of the Parti communiste français, or Georg Lukács with The Destruction of Reason (1952). Basically a broadside against Western thought since Hegel, it attempts to trace the growth of irrationalism, and thereby fascism and imperialism. Breathtaking in its ambition, skewering, among many others, Kierkegaard (‘prophet of bourgeois decadence’), Nietzsche (‘hysterical brutality is always an intrinsic sign of decadence’), Weber, Mannheim, Schmitt and even a spate of Western Marxists. But perhaps its real beauty is in images such as the Grand Hotel Abyss: ‘A beautiful hotel, equipped with every comfort, on the edge of an abyss, of nothingness, of absurdity. And the daily contemplation of the abyss between excellent meals or artistic entertainments, can only heighten the enjoyment of the subtle comforts offered’ (p. 22).

Here we must include Lenin’s Materialism and Empirio-Criticism from 1908. Taking a ‘common sense’ realist approach, in which science gradually approaches the objective reality ‘out there’, Lenin attacks the philosophy of Avenarius and Mach, fashionable among some young Bolsheviks to his left, as a species of phenomenalism that may be traced back to Bishop Berkeley. His position is quite unremarkable and widespread even today: we may come to know, by ‘reflection’, the way things exist independently of our minds, but our ability to perceive that external world is held back by our own limitations so that our knowledge ‘reflects’ external reality only approximately. But Materialism and Empirio-Criticism was also aimed at Bogdanov’s greater influence among the Bolshevik intellectuals (Lenin always had the support of the larger number of workers). As the product of a highly skilled hit-man, the book was a brilliant success, since Bogdanov was spectacularly ‘taken out’. Soon enough Lenin would return to Hegel (in the library in Berne in 1914) and rediscover a more dialectical approach.

Usually, the work of a hit-man is understood to be less-than-honourable, a compromise of intellectual integrity, in which one uses whatever influence one has to neutralise a specified target. But as a specific type of scholarship, it requires fine skill and marksmanship to do the job properly.