“The Marxist doctrine is omnipotent because it is true.”
V. I. Lenin, The Three Sources and Three Component Parts of Marxism
How does one distinguish an ideologue from a philosopher? The question is complicated somewhat by the fact that our most “accomplished” ideologues have employed the work of philosophers and passed themselves off as philosophers. Lenin, of course, immediately jumps to mind. His entire mental universe was built on the centerpiece of late nineteenth-century German metaphysics, the dialectical materialism of Karl Marx. Lenin ‘s venture into technical philosophy, his book, Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, was conceived, in his own words, “to seek for the stumbling block to people who under the guise of Marxism are offering something incredibly baffling, confused and reactionary.”*
Written in 1908 nearly a decade before Lenin’s Bolshevik party had overthrown the Provisional Government, his sectarian impulses for this philosophical production are clearly evident in this concise delineation of his authorial motives. Here we have the priestly, pastoral Lenin guiding his vulnerable flock, steering them away from the precipices of alluring, but false doctrine, and ultimately, the chasm of … reactionary thinking. He alone could navigate the narrow path of true Marxism and steer away from the baffling and confused detours into its perversion. Lenin from his earliest moments could always sniff the odors of Marxist heresy that marked the reactionaries and their enablers.
From this also it is not difficult to parse evidence of the two connected core elements that compose the soul of the ideologue; Lenin’s likely being the purest of them all. First, the ideologue is “the knower”**, but a knower of rare and remarkable powers. He has penetrated a reality hidden from others, resisted even. Moreover, that knowledge confers an entitlement of a very special kind, an entitlement to exert an unrestricted power over others. Thus, the second core element of the ideologue’s soul – a relentless quest for power over the lives of other people.
The entitlement claim to power is derived from the “hidden” nature of what the ideologue knows. Which in its simplest form is: the wrong people are in charge. They exploit. They oppress, and they pretend to be entitled to their privileges. However, this ugly reality is largely hidden from view. The power possessed by the exploiters has long been legitimized by a false knowing, a “false consciousness”, as it is commonly expressed, which embraces the entirety of the society’s cultural heritage. The laws, religion, art, science altogether compose a vast superstructure that represents both the natural and social world in ways that makes the undeserved power and privilege of ruling class appear natural, reasonable and acceptable. This hidden knowledge as well is a repudiation and rejection of the wisdom and experience of the social order that is in place.
The ideologue-knower is thus entitled to power because (a) unlike most others, he sees through the false rationale of legitimacy that supports the wrong people who are in charge, and (b) by virtue of this knowledge he represents the people who should be in charge. Resistance to the ideologue-knower is immoral because he alone is determined to transform the status quo of corruption and misery into a new era of virtue and happiness.
Compare, however, the ideologue, Lenin, to a philosopher, Bertrand Russell. Russell, like Lenin, was also a man of the Left and a critic of capitalism. Bertrand Russell traveled to the Soviet Union in 1920 during the early days of the Bolshevik consolidation of power with a group of British socialists to observe the progress of socialism which they hoped would be a more humane and equitable system than capitalism. Russell was, so to speak, “a friendly critic.” Upon his return he wrote a short but amazingly insightful book about his experience and encounters with the Bolshevik leaders, including Lenin. This short book, The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism wonderfully illustrates the difference between an ideologue and a philosopher.
While sympathetic to the goals of the revolution in Russia, Russell, unlike Lenin, never claimed to be a “knower.” Russell captured in his own inimitable style, Lenin, The Knower: “He is dictatorial, calm, incapable of fear, devoid of self-seeking, an embodied theory…. He resembles a professor in his desire to have the theory understood and in his fury with those who misunderstand or disagree…. I got the impression that he despises a great many people and is an intellectual aristocrat.“***
Two items stand out in Russell’s picture of this “embodied theory” of a man: his fury with those who might disagree or dissent from his opinions, and his general loathing for the bulk of humanity. Lenin could not begin to conceive that what he believed about the unfolding of history, the emerging modern world, and how a society should be ordered might be mistaken or confused -- thus, the fury with dissent and the disdain for the “great many people” unable to comprehend the gnosis that he had long ago intuited and that defined his entitlement to rule over demos and reorder their lives. Lenin lived in a rigidly dichotomous world populated by the self-appointed clique of illuminati (historically destined to rule, they asserted) and all the rest of humanity who would do what they were told.
In his preface Russell states the profound difference he sees between himself and with Lenin and Bolshevism. “Bolshevism is not merely a political doctrine; it is also a religion, with elaborate dogmas and inspired scriptures. When Lenin wishes to prove some proposition, he does, if possible, by quoting texts from Marx and Lenin. He [Lenin] is a man who entertains a number of elaborate and dogmatic beliefs … which may be true, but are not, to a scientific temper, capable of being known to be true with any certainty. This habit, of militant certainty about objectively doubtful matters, is one from which, since the Renaissance, the world has been gradually emerging, into that temper of constructive and fruitful scepticism which constitutes the scientific outlook. I believe the scientific outlook to be immeasurably important to the human race.”***
Russell here captures the atavistic and primitive features of Lenin’s intellectual universe. “Militant certainty about objectively doubtful matters” was the essence of Leninism. Lenin was above all else a ferociously driven fanatic, convinced of his omniscience, obsessed to rule over others -- Unlimited“ power above all law,” as he himself put it.
The obsession with power is what distinguishes an ideologue from a philosopher. Russell’s embrace of the “scientific outlook” with its premise of skepticism suggests a suspicion of power. Ideologues crave power: power makes philosophers nervous. Russell recognized in 1920, a mere three years into the failed seventy-four year Soviet experiment, that the Bolsheviks were deluded about what they were and what they thought they could do. “They think themselves utterly free from sentiment, but, in fact, they are sentimental about Communism and about the regime they are creating; they cannot face the fact that what they are creating is not complete Communism…”*** Russell mentions one of Lenin’s first “initiatives” – the CHEKA and its unlimited power. “It has spies everywhere, and ordinary mortals live in terror of it.”***
Lenin, as noted above, was a fanatic. Leninism was fanaticism institutionalized and operationalized across the planet throughout much of the twentieth century by men – Stalin, Mao, Castro, and others – who like Lenin were ideologues, men who claimed unlimited power over others because they “believed that they knew.”
*V. I. Lenin, Selected Works, v. 11, 90.
**“Lenin does not know that he believes. He believes that he knows.” From: Alain Besancon, The Rise of the Gulag: Intellectual Origins of Leninism, New York, Continuum, 1981, 9.
*** Bertrand Russell, The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism, 1920, 19, 5, 37.