gallery of russian thinkers...

selected by Dmitry Olshansky

'Practice is the criterion of truth.'

— Vladimir Lenin

Vladimir Lenin
Vladimir Lenin

Vladimir Ilych LENIN [pseudonym of Ulyanov] (22.04.1870, Simbirsk — 21.01.1924, Gorki) — Russian practical philosopher, revolutionary and dictator.

In 1887 Lenin entered the Department of Law at Kazan University and after two months was arrested and dismissed from the university for illegal activity. He continued his revolutionary propaganda and subversive activities in Samara (1889–1893), and in St. Petersburg (1893–1895), where he passed external exams at the Department of Law at St. Petersburg University. In 1895 he was arrested again and exiled to Siberia and in 1900 was exiled abroad. In 1905, Lenin returned to St. Petersburg and took part in First Russian revolution and after the failure in 1907, escaped firstly to Geneva, where he wrote his main philosophical book Materialism and Empiriocriticism (1909), and after that moved to Krakov in 1912. After the revolution of February 1917, with the help of German government Lenin returned to St. Petersburg again and took the chance to organize one more revolution in October 1917. After the victory of revolution Lenin founded the Union of Soviet Socialists Republics and became its first leader. In 1920 his mental illness became progressive and he moved to the village of Gorki, where he spent last his four years.

All Soviet encyclopedias call Lenin a genius and the greatest thinker who ever lived. His works were read as a sacred writings and references to Lenin's words opened every academic book, novel or newspaper. Frankly speaking, his contribution to theoretical philosophy was quite modest, and his philosophical works are so popular only because Lenin achieved more than he wrote. He was an ideal of the philosopher from the point of view of Marx, who said that 'philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways — the point is to change it'. [Marx K. Theses on Feuerbach in Marx K. Earlier Writings. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1981. P. 422]. Although Lenin was not an original thinker, he changed the world and showed what it means to be a practical philosopher. According to Hegel's thesis only a dictator can realize into practice the absolute idea, which completes its movement in political action. Therefore Alexander Kojeve concludes that 'between the philosopher and tyrant there is no essential difference'. [Kojeve A. Tyrannie et segesse. Paris: Gallimard, 1954. P. 252]. Lenin was the first tyrant who understand politics as a practical philosophy. He was a first thinker who understand philosophy as not 'what to think', but 'what to do' (following the title of his favorite novel by Nikolay Chernishevsky of 1863). Therefore to understand Lenin's practical philosophy we should look at his revolutionary activities and read his newspaper articles, propagandistic flyers and leaflets rather than philosophical essays on Hegel and Marx.

According to Marx 'social being determines social consciousness' [Marx K. Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy in Marx K. and Engels F. Selected Works in One Volume. London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1968. P. 181]. Lenin agreed with Marx that we have such consciousness, which is determined by the life we lead. So, to change consciousness it is necessary to change social relations. In other words, social revolution not only changes the social structure of society, but also reconstructs human consciousness and how it reflects reality. Therefore, revolution that creates a new world cannot be described and evaluated by the values of former world.

Vladimir Lenin was not a pragmatist, because he did not use his philosophical conception as a support for his activity or as a way to resolve the ethical problems of social revolution. In that sense, Lenin was anti-pragmatist, because he rather used his activity as a starting point, which does not need further justification or explanation. He considered that his action should found a new world and a new ethical principle, which in future will be able to explain his revolutionary practice and resolve all questions. Lenin believed that it is useless to look for the explanation of revolution today, because tomorrow we will have another world and another consciousness, which will produce a different representation of reality. Contrary to Dewey, Lenin considered truth to be produced in revolutionary activity, but not to be found merely as a 'useful idea'. While in pragmatism the truth determines its usage [Dewey J. Reconstruction in philosophy Boston, 1957. P. 157], in Lenin usage creates a new truth.

The point is not that Lenin shared the cowboy's principle, 'Shoot first, then think.' Rather, Lenin was an ethical figure and in his practical philosophy he was always clear about the necessity to take a risk without guarantees. Lenin followed Kant's distinction between ethical action and reason. Kant was the first to proclaim that in ethical laws there is no matter for debate: it is impossible to discuss the imperative, we should just follow it. Ethics is not what we think, but how we act. Jacques Lacan continues his idea when argues that the law has power if it is indisputable, if it is unconscious. That means that there is no obvious legal ground and no guarantee for any action. The subject always retains some doubt about the law, because the law is out of the mind and there is no support from an external 'truth' — as in pragmatism — yet the subject should act and risk in any case. At that point, in Slavoj Zizek, Lenin's radical ethic coincides with Lacan's point of view. Zizek said that 'Lenin was in a way practicing Lacanian ethics' [Zizek S., Daly G. Conversations with Zizek London, 2004. P. 164], because Lenin held reason to be the reverse of practice. Our reason follows our action, and our action justifies itself and does not need any other foundation than the desire to do. Like the psychoanalyst, who authorizes only by his desire without any support from the example of a 'master' and without any guarantee of a successful outcome, yet who assumes total responsibility for the analytical act, in the same way, Lenin takes a risk without guarantees in order to change reality.

Lenin's works have been translated into 280 languages and it is impossible to enumerate all of them. There are also thousands books on Lenin. Therefore I refer to a few books on Lenin:


Althusser L. Lenine et la philosophie. Paris: Maspero, 1969 [English version: Althusser L. Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays. N.Y.: Monthly Review Press, 1971]

Anderson K. Lenin, Hegel and Western Marxism: A Critical Study. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1995

Balibar E. Masses, Classes, Ideas: Studies on Politics and Philosophy Before and After Marx. London: Routledge, 1994

Carlsnaes W. The Concept of Ideology and Political Analysis: A Critical Examination of Its Usage by Marx, Lenin, and Mannheim. Greenwood Press, 1981

Chamberlain L. Lenin's Private War: The Voyage of the Philosophy Steamer and the Exile of the Intelligentsia. London: St. Martin's Press, 2007

Copleston F.C. Philosophy in Russia: From Herzen to Lenin and Berdyaev. University of Notre Dame Press, 1988

Hutchinson S. Lenin und andere Leichen. Stuttgart: Klett Cotta Verlag, 1999

Laclau E. New Reflections on the Revolution of Our Time. London: Verso, 1990

Lukasc G. Lenin: A Study on the Unity of His Thought. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1971

Luxemburg R. The Russian Revolution and Leninism or Marxism? Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1961

O'Rourke J.J. The Problem of Freedom in Marxist Thought: An Analysis of the Treatment of Human Freedom by Marx, Engels, Lenin and Contemporary Soviet Philosophy. N.Y.: Springer, 1974

Pannekoek A., Schmidt A. Lenin als Philosoph. Berlin: Europaische Verlagsanst, 1969

Precht R.D. Lenin kam nur bis Ludenscheid. Berlin: Claassen Verlag, 2005

Rorty R. 'The End of Leninism, Havel and Social Hope.' in Truth and Progress. Philosophical papers. Vol. 3. Cambridge University Press, 1998. P. 228 — 243

Zizek S. The Sublime Object of Ideology. London: Verso, 1989

Zupancic A. Ethics of the Real. London: Verso, 2000


Dmitry Olshansky, psychoanalyst (St. Petersburg)

M. Phil. thesis: 'Marx's anthropological project in contemporary French thought' (2002).



International Society for Philosophers