Social scientific knowledge is important to both John Dewey and Lenin for achieving democracy in the fullest sense. Lenin and Dewey generally agree on the social ends they are trying to achieve however they disagree on the role of sincere communication of social scientific knowledge in achieving democratic ends because of their conflicting understandings of the role of the people or mass in politics. Dewey argues that the public is vital to the full understanding of social inquiry because knowledge requires communication for it to be fully known and effect political change. Conversely Lenin argues that the sincere communication of social inquiry to the masses for political change is not possible because of the spontaneous tendencies of the masses. This disagreement is fundamentally based on different understandings of the people and the nature of social inquiry as Lenin and Dewey examine the best methods for achieving democratic ends.
Dewey states that there “is comparatively little difference among the groups at the left as to the social ends to be reached” (296) the difference instead lies in “the means by which these ends should be reached” (296). Here Dewey is specifically referencing left political thought such as social-democracy, which Lenin supported. These ends that Lenin and Dewey have in common are a vision of a radical democracy. Dewey sees a radical democracy of “freedom and individuality” (298) as the ends and Lenin sees “a democratic republic” as the “social basis of the revolution” (146) i.e. the social ends needed for a socialist economic revolution. Here however is where the similarities end. The contrast between Dewey and Lenin’s thought can be sharply seen in their more general analysis of the means necessary to achieve radical democracy. In Democracy is Radical, Dewey argues that at a fundamental level democratic ends must be achieved through democratic means. This is because the use of superior physical power to effect democratic change destroys the very conditions of public intelligence required for democracy. He argues that radical democratic ends can and must be achieved through democratic means. Lenin on the other hand, disagrees with this view in the Two Tactics of Social-Democracy, and argues instead for a “revolutionary-democratic dictatorship” (144) that Lenin argues is required due to the fact that the bourgeois will recoil from revolution under the pretext of constitutional reform and parliamentarianism. The dictatorship is necessary as “defense against counter-revolution” (144) and for the “actual elimination of everything that contradicted the sovereignty of the people” (144). Here we have two very different visions of what is possible and necessary for achieving radical democratic ends. These differences are based on Lenin and Dewey’s different understandings of the masses role in politics which leads Dewey to argue for sincere communication of social scientific knowledge to the public and Lenin to make the case against the need for sincere communication.
Dewey believes that sincere communication of social inquiry to the public can contribute to political progress. This is because he believes that political progress toward democratic ends requires democratic means. There are two important elements to this argument. The first is based on Dewey’s idea of democracy, that the “clear consciousness of a communal life, in all its implications, constitutes the idea of democracy” (328). To have a community of directed action that has the idea of democracy in mind requires communication in order for the directed action to have meaning for the members of the group so that it becomes a community with the idea of democracy in mind. In order for a community to have public opinion which is “judgement which is formed and entertained by those who constitute the public and is about public affairs” (345) requires sincere communication because sincere communication “of social inquiry is the same thing as the formation of public opinion” (345) Public opinion is required in order to fully realize the idea of democracy as Dewey has described it. Democracy for Dewey is a social idea that requires inquiry into social problems. Successful inquiry into social problems according to Dewey requires free and systematic communication. Therefore, the means needed in order to achieve democratic ends requires “improvement of the methods and conditions of debate, discussion, and persuasion” (187) which depends on “freeing and perfecting the processes of inquiry and of dissemination of their solutions” (187) in order to create and improve public opinion. This means that democracy and the sincere communication of social inquiry are necessarily tied together through the formation of public opinion. However, not only is sincere communication necessary it is also possible. This leads us to the second important element of Dewey’s argument for democratic means; that there is the possibility of disseminating social inquiry to the public.
Successful social inquiry requires democracy because knowledge of social phenomena is “particularly dependent on dissemination, for only by distribution can such knowledge either be obtained or tested” (345). Dewey sees the sincere communication of social inquiry as fundamentally necessary to successful social inquiry itself. This is because social inquiry should be experimental and not absolutistic in order for it to be able to create a democratic public. This means that theories should be tested as “tools of inquiry” and proposals for social action “treated as working hypothesis” (186) rather than viewed as eternal and unchangeable truths. For Dewey successful social inquiry and the sincere communication of social inquiry are inseparable therefore not only is it possible to disseminate social inquiry, it is necessary. The public is an integral part of achieving the idea of democracy and without sincere communication of social inquiry, public opinion could not exist and social inquiry itself would not be accurate or successful. For Dewey, the people’s role in achieving democratic ends is inextricable from the people’s role in the idea of democracy as an end. Since the transformation that has to occur is ultimately a consciousness change it requires the self-understanding of the members of the community to develop toward the idea of democracy and this is only possible through democratic means which for Dewey entails sincere communication of social scientific inquiry.
Lenin does not share the same views as Dewey, in regards to achieving democracy as a social end. Lenin does not believe that sincere communication of social inquiry will be successful nor does he believe it is necessary. While Dewey sees the mass as necessary to democracy, Lenin sees the mass as unable to achieve a democratic consciousness, and in fact “exclusively by its own effort, is able to develop only trade union consciousness” (24). This means that the mass cannot rely on the spontaneous arising of consciousness that resembles Dewey’s experimental method. The question then for Lenin becomes how to develop the political consciousness of the working class and his solution is not based on the sincere communication of social inquiry. Rather, the way to develop the consciousness of the people, according to Lenin, is “to bring political knowledge to the workers” (50). This is a key distinction, because giving knowledge to the people is very different from the communication of knowledge with the people. Lenin does not believe sincere communication, in the Deweyan sense, will be successful because the masses ultimately need to have information brought to them and it cannot arise spontaneously. This understanding of the people means that for Lenin sincere communication is not possible and it also leads to Lenin’s further views on the role of communication (in the narrow sense) of social inquiry not being necessary.
The solution Lenin provides to open and sincere communication is a vanguard of “professional revolutionaries” (76) which he believes will be much more successful than a working-class organization of part-time revolutionaries that more closely approximates the conditions for sincere communication. Ignoring, for the moment, the theoretical issues Lenin has with sincere communication among the masses, he lists several practical reasons why a vanguard of professional revolutionaries who are trained in social democratic theory and practice are superior. Primarily he argues that “the more we confine the membership…the more difficult will it be to unearth the organization” (77) and importantly that these professional revolutionaries will be able to resist the spontaneity of the masses because “it is much easier for all sorts of demagogues to side-track the more backward sections of the masses” (76). Lenin does not believe sincere communication of social inquiry is necessary because he believes that a vanguard of professional revolutionaries is a superior solution to the problem of developing the political consciousness of the working-class.
Dewey and Lenin agree on the social goal of the idea of a democracy and they also agree on the overall importance of social inquiry however their understandings of the people and of social inquiry lead them to different conclusions as to the necessity and possibility of sincere communication of social inquiry. Dewey believes that in order to achieve democracy amongst the people requires the people to become democratic and in order for this to occur sincere communication is required. Furthermore, successful social inquiry cannot be separated from the sincere communication of social inquiry because it can only be tested and obtained through communication and dissemination. Lenin on the other hand does not view sincere communication of social inquiry as possible due to the spontaneous tendencies of the masses and he also does not believe that sincere communication is necessary and proposes a vanguard of professional revolutionaries as a superior solution to the development of the political consciousness of the people. Dewey believes sincere communication of social scientific knowledge to the public can contribute to the political process whereas Lenin does not share this view.