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Trotsky, Lenin, Lukacs

Dialectics and Revolution

Monday 11 September 2006, by Michael Löwy

There seems to exist an intimate link between the dialectical method and revolutionary theory: not by chance, the high period of revolutionary thinking in the XXth century, the years 1905-1925, are also those of some of the most interesting attemps to use the hegelo-marxist dialectics as an instrument of knowledge and action. Let me try to illustrate the connexion between dialectics and revolution in the thought of three distinct Marxist figures : Leon D. Trotsky, Vladimir I. Lenin and György Lukacs.

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Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution, as sketched for the first time in his essay Results and Prospects (1906), was one of the most astonishing political breakthroughs in Marxist thinking at the beginning of the XXth century. By rejecting the idea of separate historical stages - the first one being a “bourgeois democratic” one - in the future Russian Revolution, and raising the possibility of transforming the democratic into a proletarian/socialist revolution in a “permanent” (i.e. uninterrupted) process, it not only predicted the general strategy of the October revolution, but also provided key insights into the other revolutionary processes which would take place later on, in China, Indochina, Cuba, etc.

Of course, it is not without its problems and shortcomings, but it was incomparably more relevant to the real revolutionary processes in the periphery of the capitalist system than anything produced by “orthodox Marxism” from the death of Engels until 1917. Now, a careful study of the roots of Trotsky’s political boldness and of the whole theory of permanent revolution, reveals that his views were informed by a specific understanding of Marxism, an interpretation of the dialectical materialist method, distinct from the dominant orthodoxy of the Second International, and of Russian Marxism. The young Trotsky did not read Hegel, but his understanding of Marxist theory owes much to his first lectures in historical materialism, namely, the works of Antonio Labriola. In his autobiography he recalled the “delight” with which he first devoured Labriola’s essays during his imprisonment in Odessa in 1893. [1]

His initiation into dialectics thus took place through an encounter with perhaps the least orthodox of the major figures of the Second International. Formed in the Hegelian school, Labriola fought relentlessly against the neo-positivist and vulgar-materialist trends that proliferated in Italian Marxism (Turati!). He was one of the first to reject the economistic interpretations of Marxism by attempting to restore the dialectical concepts of totality and historical process. Labriola defended historical materialism as a self-sufficient and independent theoretical system, irreducible to other currents; he also rejected scholastic dogmatism and the cult of the textbook, insisting on the need of a critical development of Marxism [2].

Trotsky’s starting-point, therefore, was this critical, dialectical and anti-dogmatic understanding that Labriola had inspired. “Marxism”, he wrote in 1906, “is above all a method of analysis - not analysis of texts, but analysis of social relations”. Let us focus on five of the most important and distinctive features of the methodology that underlies the Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution, in his distinction from the other Russian Marxists, from Plekhanov to Lenin and from the Mensheviks to the Bolsheviks (before 1917).

1. From the vantage point of the dialectical comprehension of the unity of the opposites, Trotsky criticized the Bolsheviks’ rigid division between the socialist power of the proletariat and the “democratic dictatorship of workers and peasants”, as a “logical, purely formal operation”. This abstract logic is even more sharply attacked in his polemic against Plekhanov, whose whole reasoning can be reduced to an “empty syllogism”: our revolution is bourgeois, therefore we should support the Cadets, the constitutionalist bourgeois party.

Moreover, in an astonishing passage from a critique against the Menshevik Tcherevanin, he explicitly condemned the analytical - i.e. abstract-formal, pre-dialectical - character of Menshevik politics : “Tcherevanin constructs his tactics as Spinoza did his ethics, that is to say, geometrically” [3]. Of course, Trotsky was not a philosopher and almost never wrote specific philosophical texts , but this makes his clear-sighted grasp of the methodological dimension of his controversy with stagist conceptions all the more remarkable.

2. In History and Class Consciousness (1923), Lukacs insisted that the dialectical category of totality was the essence of Marx’s method, indeed the very principle of revolution within the domain of knowledge [4]. Trotsky’s theory, written twenty years earlier, is an exceptionally significant illustration of this Lukacsian thesis. Indeed, one of the essential sources of the superiority of Trotsky’s revolutionary thought is the fact that he adopted the viewpoint of totality, perceiving capitalism and the class struggle as a world process.

In the Preface to a Russian edition (1905) of Lassalle’s articles about the revolution of 1848, he argues : “Binding all countries together with its mode of production and its commerce, capitalism has converted the whole world into a single economic and political organism (...) This immediately gives the events now unfolding and international character, and opens up a wide horizon. The political emancipation of Russia led by the working class (...) will make it the initiator of the liquidation of world capitalism, for which history has created the objective condition” [5]. Only by posing the problem in these terms - at the level of “maturity” of the capitalist system in its totality - was it possible to transcend the traditional perspective of the Russian Marxists, who defined the socialist-revolutionary “unripeness” of Russia exclusively in terms of a national economic determinism.

3. Trotsky explicitly rejected the un-dialectical economism - the tendency to reduce, in a non-mediated and one-sided way, all social, political and ideological contradictions to the economic infra-structure - which was one of the hallmarks of Plekhanov’s vulgar materialist interpretation of Marxism. Indeed, Trotsky break with economism was one of the decisive steps towards the theory of permanent revolution. A key paragraph in Results and Prospects defined with precision the political stakes implied in this rupture : “To imagine that the dictatorship of the proletariat is in some way automatically dependent on the technical development and resources of a country is a prejudice of ‘economic’ materialism simplified to absurdity. This point of view has nothing in common with Marxism” [6].

4. Trotsky’s method refused the un-dialectical conception of history as a pre-determined evolution, typical of Menshevik arguments. He had a rich and dialectical understanding of historical development as a contradictory process, where at every moment alternatives are posed. The task of Marxism, he wrote, was precisely to “discover the ‘possibilities’ of the developing revolution” [7].

In Results and Prospects, as well as in later essays - for instance, his polemic against the Mensheviks, “The proletariat and the Russian revolution” (1908), he analyzes the process of permanent revolution towards socialist transformation through the dialectical concept of objective possibility, whose outcome depended on innumerable subjective factors as well as unforeseeable events - and not as an inevitable necessity whose triumph (or defeat) was already assured. It was this recognition of the open character of social historicity that gave revolutionary praxis its decisive place in the architecture of Trotsky’s theoretical-political ideas from 1905 on.

5. While the Populists insisted on the peculiarities of Russia and the Mensheviks believed that their country would necessarily follow the “general laws” of capitalist development, Trotsky was able to achieve a dialectical synthesis between the universal and the particular, the specificity of the Russian social formation and the world capitalist process. In a remarkable passage from the History of the Russian Revolution (1930) he explicitly formulated the viewpoint that was already implicit in his 1906 essays : “In the essence of the matter the Slavophile conception, with all its reactionary fantasticness, and also Narodnikism, with all its democratic illusions, were by no means mere speculations, but rested upon indubitable and moreover deep peculiarities of Russia’s development, understood one-sidedly however and incorrectly evaluated.

In its struggle with Narodnikism, Russian Marxism, demonstrating the identity of the laws of development for all countries, not infrequently fell into a dogmatic mechanization discovering a tendency to pour out the baby with the bath water” [8]. Trotsky’s historical perspective was, therefore, a dialectical Aufhebung, able to simultaneously negate-preserve-transcend the contradiction between the Populists ant the Russian Marxists.

It was the combination of all these methodological innovations that made Results and Prospects so unique in the landscape of Russian Marxism before 1917 ; dialectics was at the heart of the theory of permanent revolution.

As Isaac Deutscher wrote in his biography, if one reads again this pamphlet from 1906, “one cannot but be impressed by the sweep and boldness of this vision. He reconnoitered the future as one who surveys from a towering mountain top a new and immense horizon and point to vast, uncharted landmarks in the distance” [9].

Until 1914, Lenin used to consider himself, on the theoretical and philosophical level, as a faithful follower of the orthodox Marxism of the Second International, as represented by figures such as Karl Kautsky and G. V. Plekhanov. His main philosophical work from the early years, Materialism and Empiriocriticism, is much influenced by the kind of Marxism represented by the leader of the Menshevik faction. His philosophical thinking began to change radically after 1914, when he saw - and at first could not believe - that German Social-Democracy (including Kautsky) voted the war credits for the Kaiser’s government in August 4, 1914 - a choice reproduced in Russia by Plekhanov and several of his comrades.

The catastrophe of the Second International at the outbreak of World War I was, for Lenin, striking evidence that something was rotten in the state of Denmark of official “orthodox” Marxism. The political bankruptcy of that orthodoxy led him, therefore, to a profound revision of the philosophical premises of the Kautsky-Plekhanov sort of historical materialism. It will be necessary one day to retrace the precise track that led Lenin from the trauma of August 1914 to the Logic of Hegel scarcely a month after. The simple desire to return to the sources of Marxist thinking ? Or a clear intuition that the methodological Achilles’ heel of Second International Marxism was the absence of dialectics ?

Whatever the reason, there is no doubt that his vision of Marxist philosophy was profoundly changed by it. Evidence of this is the text itself of the Philosophical Notebooks, but also the letter he sent on January 4, 1915, shortly after having finished reading Hegel’s The Science of Logic (December 17, 1914) to the editorial secretary of Granat Publishers to ask if “there was still time to make some corrections [to his Karl Marx entry ] in the section of dialectics." [10]

And it was by no means a "passing enthusiasm" : seven years later, in one of his last writings, On the Significance of Militant Marxism (1922), he called on "the editors and contributors" of the party’s theoretical journal (Under the Banner of Marxism) to "be a kind of Society of Materialist Friends of Hegelian Dialectics." He insists on the need for a "systematic study of Hegelian Dialectics from a materialist standpoint," and proposes even to "print in the journal excerpts from Hegel’s principal works, interpret them materialistically and comment on them with the help of examples of the way Marx applied dialectics." [11]

What were the tendencies of Second International Marxism which gave it a predialectical character?

1. Primarily, the tendency to ignore the distinction between Marx’s dialectical materialism and the "ancient," "vulgar," "metaphysical" materialism of Helvetius, Feuerbach, etc. Plekhanov, for instance, could write these astonishing lines: "In Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach . . . none of the fundamental ideas of Feuerbach’s philosophy are refuted; they are merely amended ... Marx and Engels’ materialist views were elaborated in the direction indicated by the inner logic of Feuerbach’s philosophy" ! [12]

2. The tendency, that flows from the first, to reduce historical materialism to mechanical economic determinism in which the "objective" is always the cause of the "subjective." For example, Kautsky untiringly insists on the idea that "the domination of the proletariat and the social revolution cannot come about before the preliminary conditions, as much economic as psychological, of a socialist society are sufficiently realised." What are these "psychological conditions"? According to Kautsky, "intelligence, discipline and an organisational talent." How will these conditions be created? "It is the historical task of capitalism" to realize them. The moral of history: "It is only where the capitalist system of production has attained a high degree of development that economic conditions permit the transformation, by the power of the people, of capitalist property in the means of production into social ownership." [13]

3. The attempt to reduce the dialectic to Darwinian evolutionism, where the different stages of human history (slavery, feudalism, capitalism, socialism) follow a sequence rigorously determined by the "laws of history." Kautsky, for example, defines Marxism as "the scientific study of the evolution of the social organism." Kautsky had, in fact, been a Darwinian before becoming a Marxist, and it is not without reason that his disciple Brill defined his method as “bio-historical materialism”...

4. An abstract and naturalistic conception of the "laws of history," strikingly illustrated by the marvelous pronouncement of Plekhanov when he heard the news of the October Revolution: "But it’s a violation of all the laws of history!".

5. A tendency to relapse into the analytical method, grasping only “distinct and separate" objects, fixed in their differences: Russia-Germany; bourgeois revolution-socialist revolution; party-masses; minimum program-maximum program, etc. There is no doubt that Kautsky and Plekhanov had carefully read and studied Hegel; but they had not, so to speak, "absorbed" and "digested" him into their theoretical systems, grounded on evolutionism and historical determinism.

How far did Lenin’s notes on (or about) Hegel’s Logic constitute a challenge to predialectical Marxism?

1. First, Lenin insists on the philosophical abyss separating "stupid," that is,"metaphysical, undeveloped, dead, crude" materialism from Marxist materialism, which, on the contrary, is nearer to "intelligent," that is, dialectical, idealism. Consequently, he criticizes Plekhanov severely for having written nothing on Hegel’s Great Logic, "that is to say, basically on the dialectic as philosophical knowledge," and for having criticized Kant from the standpoint of vulgar materialism rather than in the manner of Hegel [14].

2. He fully grasps the dialectical conception of causality : "Cause and effect, ergo, are merely moments of universal reciprocal dependence, of (universal) connection, of the reciprocal connection of events. ..." At the same time, he praises the dialectical process by which Hegel dissolves the "opposition of solid and abstract", of subjective and objective, by destroying their one-sidedness [15].

3. He emphasizes the major difference between the vulgar evolutionist conception of development and the dialectical one : "the first, [development as decrease and increase, as repetition] is lifeless, pale and dry; the second [development as a unity of opposites] alone furnishes the key to the ’leaps,’ to the ’break in continuity,’ to the ’transformation into the opposite,’ to the destruction of the old and emergence of the new." [16]

4. With Hegel, he struggles "against making the concept of law absolute, against simplifying it, against making a fetish of it" (and adds: "NB for modern physics!!!"). He writes likewise that "laws, all laws, are narrow, incomplete, approximate." [17] 5. He sees in the category of totality, in the development of the entire ensemble of the moments of reality, the essence of dialectical cognition [18]. We can see the use Lenin made immediately of this methodological principle in the pamphlet he wrote at the time, The Collapse of the Second International (1915) : he submits to severe criticism the apologists of "national defence"-who attempt to deny the imperialist character of the Great War because of the "national factor" of the war of the Serbs against Austria-by underlining that Marx’s dialectic "correctly excludes any isolated examination of an object, i.e., one that is one-sided and monstrously distorted." [19]

Against the isolation, fixation, separation, and abstract opposition of different moments of reality, Lenin insists in dissolving them through the category of totality, arguing also that "the dialectic is the theory which shows . . . why human understanding should not take contraries as dead and petrified but as living, conditioned, mobile, interpenetrating each other." [20]

What interests us here most is less the discussion of the philosophical content of Lenin’s Notebooks of 1914-15 "in itself" than that of its political consequences : the socialist-revolutionary conception developed by the Bolshevik leader in his “April Thesis” from 1917. It is not difficult to find the red thread leading from the category of totality to the theory of the weakest link in the imperialist chain; from the inter-penetration of opposites to the transformation of the democratic into the socialist revolution; from the dialectical conception of causality to the refusal to define the character of the Russian Revolution solely by Russia’s "economically backward base"; from the critique of vulgar evolutionism to the "break in continuity" in 1917; and so on.

But the most important is quite simply that the critical reading, the materialist reading of Hegel had freed Lenin from the straitjacket of the pseudo-orthodox Marxism of the Second International, from the theoretical limitation it imposed on his thinking. The study of Hegelian logic was the instrument by means of which Lenin cleared the theoretical road leading to the Finland Station of Petrograd, where he first announced “All the power to the soviets”.

In March-April 1917, liberated from the obstacle represented by predialectical Marxism, Lenin could, under the pressure of events, rid himself in good time of its political corollary: the abstract and rigid principle according to which "The Russian revolution could only be bourgeois, since Russia was not economically ripe for a socialist revolution." Once he crossed the Rubicon, he applied himself to studying the problem from a practical, concrete, and realistic angle: what are the measures, constituting in fact the transition towards socialism, that could be made acceptable to the majority of the people, that is, the masses of the workers and peasants ? This is the road which led to the October Revolution...

The philosophical work that best gave expression to the dialectics of revolution after October 1917 was probably György Lukacs’ History and Class consciousness (1923). By dissolving the reified moments in the contradictory process of the historical totality, and by emphasizing the unity between the subjective and the objective in the revolutionary praxis, Lukacs was able to dialectically supersede (Aufhebung) the traditional oppositions between “ought” and «being”, values and reality, ethics and politics, final goal and immediate circumstances, human will and material conditions. Since this opus magnum of Marxist dialectics in the XXth century is well known, I would like to add a few comments on another piece by Lukacs, only recently discovered, Chvostismus und Dialektik .

For many years scholars and readers wondered why Lukacs never answered to the intense fire of criticism directed against History and Class Consciousness (HCC) soon after its publication, particularly from Communist quarters. The recent discovery of Chvostismus und Dialektik - probably written around 1925 - in the former archives of the Lenin Institute shows that this “missing link” existed : Lukacs did reply, in a most explicit and vigorous way, to these attacks, and defended the main ideas of his hegelo-marxist masterpiece from 1923. One may consider this answer as the last revolutionary/marxist writing of the Hungarian philosopher, just before a major turn in his theoretical and political orientation - the philosophical “reconciliation with reality” proposed by his essay on Moses Hess from 1926 [21].

Chvostismus und Dialektik - English translation : Tailism and Dialectics - may be considered as a powerful exercise in revolutionary dialectics, against the crypto-positivist brand of “Marxism” that was soon to become the official ideology of the Soviet bureaucracy. The key element in this polemical battle is Lukacs’ emphasis on the decisive revolutionary importance of the subjective moment in the subject/object historical dialectics.

If one had to summarize the value and the significance of Tailism and dialectics, I would argue that it is a powerful hegelian/marxist apology of revolutionary subjectivity. This motive runs like a red thread throughout the whole piece, particularly in its first part, but even, to some extent, in the second one too. Let us try to bring into evidence the main moments of this argument. One could begin with the mysterious term Chvostismus of the book’s title - Lukacs never bothered to explain it, supposing that its - German ? Russian ? - readers were familiar with it. The word was used by Lenin in his polemics - for instance in What is to be done ? - against those “economistic Marxists” who “tail-end” the spontaneous labour movement. Lukacs, however, uses it in a much broader historiosophical sense : Chvostismus means passively following - “tailing” - the “objective” course of events, while ignoring the subjective/revolutionary moments of the historical process.

Lukacs denounces the attempt by Rudas and Deborin to transform Marxism into a “science” in the positivist, bourgeois sense. Deborin - an ex-Menshevik - tries, in a regressive move, to bring back historical materialism “into the fold of Comte or Herbert Spencer” (auf Comte oder Herbert Spencer zurückrevidiert), a sort of bourgeois sociology studying transhistorical laws that exclude all human activity. And Rudas places himself as a “scientific” observer of the objective, law-bound course of history, whereby he can “anticipate” revolutionary developments. Both regard as worthy of scientific investigation only what is free of any participation on the part of the historical subject, and both reject, in the name of this “Marxist” (in fact, positivist) science any attempt to accord “an active and positive role to a subjective moment in history”. [22] The war against subjectivism, argues Lukacs, is the banner under which opportunism justifies its rejection of revolutionary dialectics : it was used by Bernstein against Marx and by Kautsky against Lenin. In the name of anti-subjectivism, Rudas develops a fatalist conception of history, which includes only “the objective conditions”, but leaves no room for the decision of the historical agents. In an article in Inprekor against Trotsky - criticised by Lukacs in T&D - Rudas claims that the defeat of the Hungarian revolution of 1919 was due only to “objective conditions” and not to any mistakes of the Communist leadership; he mentions both Trotsky and Lukacs as examples of a one-sided conception of politics which overemphasizes the importance of proletarian class consciousness [23]. While rejecting the accusation of “subjective idealism”, Lukacs does not retract from his voluntarist viewpoint : in the decisive moments of the struggle “everything depends on class consciousness , on the conscious will of the proletariat” - the subjective component. Of course, there is a dialectical interaction between subject and object in the historical process, but in the crucial moment (Augenblick) of crisis, it gives the direction of the events, in the form of revolutionary consciousness and praxis. By his fatalist attitude, Rudas ignores praxis and develops a theory of passive “tail-ending”, considering that history is a process that “takes place independently of human consciousness”.

What is Leninism, argues Lukacs, if not the permanent insistence on the “active and conscious rôle of the subjective moment” ? How could one imagine, “without this function of the subjective moment”, Lenin’s conception of insurrection as an art? Insurrection is precisely the Augenblick, the instant of the revolutionary process where “the subjective moment has a decisive predominance (ein entscheidendes Übergewicht)”.

In that instant, the fate of the revolution, and therefore of humanity “depends on the subjective moment”. This does not mean that revolutionaries should “wait” for the arrival of this Augenblick : there is no moment in the historical process where the possibility of an active rôle of the subjective moments is completely lacking [24]. In this context, Lukacs turns his critical weapons against one of the main expressions of this positivist, “sociological”, contemplative, fatalist - chvostistisch in his terminology - and objectivist conception of history : the ideology of progress. Rudas and Deborin believe that the historical process is an evolution mechanistically and fatally leading to the next stage. History is conceived, according to the dogmas of evolutionism, as permanent advance, endless progress : the temporally later stage is necessarily the higher one in every respect.

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György Lukacs

From a dialectical viewpoint, however, the historical process is “not an evolutionary nor an organic one”, but contradictory, jerkily unfolding in advances and retreats [25]. Unfortunately Lukacs does not develop this insights, that point towards a radical break with the ideology of inevitable progress common to Second and - after 1924 - Third International Marxism. Another important aspect related to this battle against the positivist degradation of Marxism is Lukacs critique, in the second part of the essay, against the views expressed by Rudas on technology and industry as an “objective” and neutral system of “exchange between humans and nature”. This would mean, objects Lukacs, that there is an essential identity between the capitalist and the socialist society !

In his viewpoint, revolution has to change not only the relations of production but also revolutionize to a large extent the concrete forms of technology and industry existing in capitalism, since they are intimately linked to the capitalist division of labour. In this issue too Lukacs was well ahead of his time, but the suggestion remains undeveloped in his essay [26].


[1] Trotsky, My Life, New York, 1960, p. 119.

[2] See A.Labriola, La concepcion materialista de la historia (1897), La Habana, 1970, p. 115, 243

[3] See A.Labriola, La concepcion materialista de la historia (1897), La Habana, 1970, p. 115, 243

[4] G.Lukacs, History and Class Consciousness, London, 1971, ch. 1.

[5] G.Lukacs, History and Class Consciousness, London, 1971, ch. 1.

[6] Results and Prospects, p. 195.

[7] Ibid p. 168.

[8] Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, London, 1965, vol. I, p. 427.

[9] I.Deutscher, The Prophet Armed, London, 1954, p. 161

[10] Quoted in R.Garaudy, Lenine, Paris, PUF, 1969, p. 40

[11] Lenin, Selected Works, vol . 3 p. 672, 667-668.

[12] George V. Plekhanov, Fundamental Problems of Marxism (London, Martin Lawrence, n.d.) pp. 30-31. Cf. also pp. 21-22 : « Marx’s theory of cognition is directly derived from Feuerbach’s. If you like, we can even say that, strictly speaking, it is Feuerbach’s theory...given a profounder meaning in a general way by Marx ».

[13] Karl Kautsky, The social revolution, Chicago, Charles Kerr, 1903, pp. 185-187 (translation modified)..

[14] Lenin, Philosophical Notebooks, pp. 179, 276, 277

[15] Ibid, pp. 159, 187, 260.

[16] Ibid. p. 360.

[17] Ibid. p. 151

[18] Ibid. pp. 157-158. See also pp. 171, 196, 218.

[19] Lenin, The Collapse of the Second International in Collected Works, vol. 21, p. 235.

[20] Lenin, Karl Marx, in CW, vol. 21, p.33.

[21] On the meaning of this work in Lukacs’s intellectual evolution, I refer to the last chapter of my book Georg Lukacs. From Romanticism to Bolshevism, London, New Left Books, 1980.

[22] G.Lukacs, Tailism and the dialectics, London, Verso, 2000, pp. 50, 135, 137. Cf. the German original, Chvostismus und Dialektik, Budapest, Aron Verlag, 1996, p.9

[23] As John Ree very aptly comments, Rudas and Deborin stand in drect continuity with Second International positivist/determinist Marxism : “In Rudas’ mind, Trotsky and Lukacs are linked because they both stress the importance of the subjective factor in the revolution. Rudas steps forth as a defender of the ‘objective conditions’ which guranteed that the revolution was bound to fail. The striking similarity with Karl Kautsky’s review of Korsch’s Marxism and Philosophy, in which he attributes the failure of the German revolution to just such objective conditions, is striking testimony to the persistence of vulgar Marxism among the emerging Stalinist bureaucracy”. (“Introduction” to T&D pp. 24-25)

[24] G.Lukacs, T&D pp. 48, 54-58, 62. Cf. Chvostismus und Dialektik p. 16. Emphasis in the original. Of course, this argument is mainly developed in the first chapter of the first part of the essay, which has the explicit title “Subjectivism”; but one can find it also in other parts of the document.

[25] T&D pp.55, 78, 105.

[26] T&D pp. 134-135.