Stalin and the dialectic of immanence and transcendence

A suitable subtitle might be: party struggle as a mode of philosophy. Running through Stalin’s early debates with the Georgian Mensheviks (published in Proletariatis Brdzola) are the matters of dialectics, class, politics and philosophy. All of them turn, it seems to me, on the relationship between immanence and transcendence. The question: does socialist consciousness arise spontaneously and naturally among the working class, or does it require a party to clarify and introduce such a consciousness? Is it one or the other?

Stalin’s answer is that the question raises a false dichotomy, for it is both. On this matter, he follows Kautsky and Lenin very closely, but gives the answer his own sharp formulation. For instance:

Modern social life is built on capitalist lines. There exist two large classes, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, and between them a life-and-death struggle is going on. The conditions of life of the bourgeoisie compel it to strengthen the capitalist system. But the conditions of life of the proletariat compel it to undermine the capitalist system, to destroy it. Corresponding to these two classes, two kinds of consciousness are worked out: the bourgeois and the socialist. Socialist consciousness corresponds to the position of the proletariat. Hence, the proletariat accepts this consciousness, assimilates it, and fights the capitalist system with redoubled vigour. Needless to say, if there were no capitalism and no class struggle, there would be no socialist consciousness. But the question now is: who works out, who is able to work out this socialist consciousness (i.e., scientific socialism)? Kautsky says, and I repeat his idea, that the masses of proletarians, as long as they remain proletarians, have neither the time nor the opportunity to work out socialist consciousness. “Modern socialist consciousness can arise only on the basis of profound scientific knowledge,” says Kautsky. The vehicles of science are the intellectuals, including, for example, Marx, Engels and others, who have both the time and opportunity to put themselves in the van of science and work out socialist consciousness. Clearly, socialist consciousness is worked out by a few Social-Democratic intellectuals who possess the time and opportunity to do so.

But what importance can socialist consciousness have in itself if it is not disseminated among the proletariat? It can remain only an empty phrase! Things will take an altogether different turn when that consciousness is disseminated among the proletariat: the proletariat will become conscious of its position and will more rapidly move towards the socialist way of life. It is here that Social-Democracy (and not only Social-Democratic intellectuals) comes in and introduces socialist consciousnessinto the working-class movement. This is what Kautsky has in mind when he says “socialist consciousness is something introduced into the proletarian class struggle from without.” (A Repy to Social-Democrat, Collected Works, vol. 1, pp. 163-64).

I am more interested in the form of the argument, for it deploys one of his first efforts at what maybe called a dialectic of immanence and transcendence. Socialist consciousness arises from within and without, not in some queer conjunction, but in a mode that is dialectical. Another instance appears in his discussion of provisional government as a way to foster the revolution:

Let us turn to Engels. In the seventies an uprising broke out in Spain. The question of a provisional revolutionary government came up. At that time the Bakuninists (Anarchists) were active there. They repudiated all action from above, and this gave rise to a controversy between them and Engels. The Bakuninists preached the very thing that the “minority” are saying today. “The Bakuninists,” says Engels, “for years had been propagating the idea that all revolutionary action from above downward was pernicious, and that everything must be organised and carried out from below upward.” In their opinion, “every organisation of a political, so-called provisional or revolutionary power, could only be a new fraud and would be as dangerous to the proletariat as all now existing governments.” Engels ridicules this view and says that life has ruthlessly refuted this doctrine of the Bakuninists. The Bakuninists were obliged to yield to the demands of life and they . . . “wholly against their anarchist principles, had to form a revolutionary government.” Thus, they “trampled upon the dogma which they had only just proclaimed: that the establishment of the revolutionary government was only a deception and a new betrayal of the working class.”

This is what Engels says.

It turns out, therefore, that the principle of the “minority” — action only from “below” — is an anarchist principle, which does, indeed, fundamentally contradict Social-Democratic tactics. The view of the “minority” that participation in a provisional government in any way would be fatal to the workers is an anarchist phrase, which Engels ridiculed in his day. It also turns out that life will refute the views of the “minority” and will easily smash them as it did in the case of the Bakuninists. (The Provisional Revolutionary Government and Social-Democracy, Collected Works, vol. 1, pp. 148-49).

Lining up the Mensheviks with the anarchists was of course a rhetorical move, for the Mensheviks too sought to distance themselves from anarchists. But the issue here is revolution from below and from above. Once again, Stalin comes out in favour of both.


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