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The critical issue of ‘quality’ of ‘human mind’ as the missing element in Lenin’s concept of ‘quality’ of ‘human material’

Sadia Tariq

     Vladimir Lenin’s last document ‘Better fewer, but better’ raises a critical issue confronting man ever since he started making complex social formations, relationships and networks, requiring huge and many-sided mental inputs of creativity, organization, precision, effective communication, etc., apart from physical labor. The issue of getting ‘human material’ of exemplary ‘quality’. It is not just indispensable for improving the working and efficiency of any social institution, (as Lenin proposes) but in present times, the primary determinant of productivity, intelligent holistic growth, and the future course of both individual and social interaction and structures in any modern society and state.


The general concept of ‘quality’ in Marxist literature is derived from the Law of Dialectics relating to the transformation of quantity into quality. A certain accumulation of quantity produces a qualitative change in terms of a new state or form, with a completely new set of properties, functions and capabilities (in the case of living forms). And this law applies to all phenomena in Nature, whether its phase transitions in non-living matter, like liquid turning into gas or the emergence of new species or forms of living things, which includes our own species. It is also applicable to human social formations, which are an extension of our individual existence. A point to note here is that one cannot clearly demarcate the line between quantitative developments within the same form and on the same plane and the emergence of a qualitatively new form and a new plane of existence. This line has to be arbitrarily drawn on the basis of some manifest evidence. 


At this point it would be pertinent to share an interesting aspect of this law as applicable to living things. When a living form is up for qualitative change a dual process operates within it. There is a surface layer wherein the existing form keeps recurring and reproducing and quantitative changes in it take place on the same plane. The other is a deeper layer and level where its core dialectic of producing a qualitative change is gestating. The latter layer of qualitatively new functions and capabilities emerges only when the process of gestation matures and becomes manifest or, in other words, when the consequences at the quantitative level accumulate to a sufficient point where they produce qualitative changes or a new form. 


Before the qualitatively new form emerges there is a grey period. During this the appearance is still of the old form while the new is gradually taking shape. But then the new through its emerging capabilities can also create an illusion that it has become the dominant reality while in fact the old is still dominant. So in this grey period of transition both these processes operate side by side until the new actually becomes an operative dominant reality and manages to occupy the center stage. That is when a qualitatively new form in Nature with a completely new design, structure, functions and capabilities comes into existence. 


If the above dialectical process applies to every phenomenon in Nature, then logically it will also apply to the contemporary human mind. If one were to carefully and deeply observe the existing state of the human mind (both in terms of its highly developed capabilities and the conflicts and problems it has and is continuously creating in human individual and social life) then it seems this dialectical process is clearly confronting today’s man. Contemporary human mind is clearly confronting the issue of transition from quantity to quality, or from the old to the new. Presently it is in this grey period of transition where both the old and the new processes are operating within it. The old mind is dominant in the form of our pre-existing feeling, idea, thinking and understanding patterns and habits and their deep-rooted inertia. While the new is also emerging in the form of a new variety of emotional and intellectual capabilities which are in a continuous struggle and conflict with the old mental operating system. 


The problem is that these new capabilities have not yet matured to a level where they can produce a qualitatively new mental design and operating system which can take over the driving seat from the existing mind. Hence they are only being seen as quantitative improvements which are possible and needed in man’s existing mental makeup. This emanates from an underlying assumption, which is almost a dogma today, that man’s existing biological and mental form has reached its climax in the human evolutionary process and now it is only a matter of gradual quantitative improvements in it. 


If the above assumption is accepted hook line and sinker, then the human form is only like any other biological form or species in Nature, which it is at one level, and its basic biological evolution is complete and now only quantitative changes or modifications can take place with respect to both its physiology and mental functions. To take an example, an ape or a cockroach will fundamentally (read physically) remain the same and only changes in their functioning behavior will take place while dealing with the external environment from the standpoint of preserving their form. So there will be no qualitative change which would transform them into a new form. 

If man's mind had not developed to its current stage of sophistication, in terms of advanced and diverse capabilities, and had not created a complex web of ever increasing problems and conflicts (mostly on the mental plane), which is actually threatening the survival and integration of both its physical and mental form, then in all likelihood the above mentioned view would have been sufficient. But unfortunately this is not so because the facts speak otherwise. The internal situation within man's mind alongside the acute state of his external conflicts, contradictions and volatile and disintegrating interactions are pushing one to rethink one’s existing concept and understanding of evolution in general and human evolution in particular. It is compelling one to confront the issue of qualitative change in the mind of contemporary humans, as the only option which can enable human beings to cope with the life that we have created both within and outside of themselves.   


When mind as a functioning system emerged in Nature (both in pre-brain and post-brain life forms) it was a qualitatively new form and process which emerged to enable living forms to cope more efficiently with their environment from the standpoint of their survival. And today we have managed to piece together a record of the evolutionary growth and the growing role of the mind in living species as they moved up the evolutionary ladder to more complex species. We can also trace the many-sided growth and development of human mental capabilities and functions during the period of civilization. But the real questions to ask are if we find the existing quality of the mind sufficient to cope with the life that it has created? Do we need a qualitatively new human mental formation to cope with the life we have created or should we make do with quantitative improvements in our existing mental form and its ever growing capabilities and functions? Does the law of qualitative change apply to the contemporary mind as well? Can the existing mind reach a certain stage where it is able to produce a completely new plane or quality of capabilities, functions and processes?


My submission is that there is a dire need for qualitative change in the mind of man today. And such a change has also become possible in our time, given the dynamic state and potential of our accumulated and ever increasing knowledge fund (especially about the brain and mind and all the areas connected with it) and our continuously advancing intellectual capabilities. To understand the need for this required qualitative change and suggest another approach to its future path I would like to go back to this last document of Lenin.   


I am well aware that this essay does not encompass the whole of Marxian philosophical thought and Lenin’s own thinking, hence my purpose is clearly not to just critique it for the sake of initiating a philosophical debate or argument. I am only making it the basis for attempting to go deeper into some of the underlying assumptions and issues which it raises today for contemporary man, in the context of the need for exemplary quality of human material for long-term, holistic growth and stability of individual and social human existence. 


This document is a kind of a critical review of the six years of 'Socialist' governance after 1917 and shows Lenin's own discontentment with the steps that the Bolshevik party took after coming into power. In his view the defects of what he refers to as ‘deplorable’ and ‘wretched’ state apparatus are rooted in the past culture that has been overthrown but not overcome. It is still a part of their culture, social life and habits, whereas the criteria of the new taking root is its becoming a part and parcel of a new culture, social life and habits of people. This criticism is absolutely correct and indisputable. 

His advise to young writers and communists to avoid haste and sweeping measures in the matter of culture, is also very valid and again shows his disapproval and also his wisdom. He cautions against boasting about 'proletarian' culture, which does not yet exist. And even says that for a start they should be satisfied with real 'bourgeois' culture. The benchmark for the quality of the workers in his mind is the best 'West-European' standards. Here I would like to briefly digress and mention that the West European standards are definitely a benchmark of quality in relation to making quality products and training of the mind to achieve that quality. But to assume that achieving these standards will result in a completely new quality of human social organization encompassing all areas and dimensions of human life, would be expecting a bit too much. 


We know that the West European standards cater to and pertain to the economic and material life of man. But when it comes to a holistic development and growth of man (especially of his emotional and sensitivity processes) and providing a clear long term direction, then they definitely fall short and are clearly insufficient. If that was not so then one would not be witnessing this global trend of the very rapid and dangerous erosion and disintegration of the human emotional and sensitivity processes and their innumerable manifestations in terms of new forms of conflicts and contradictions in all areas of human life.


Coming back to the above mentioned issue of culture identified by Lenin, I would like to draw the attention of the reader to a crucial aspect here that is missing in this construct and which was actually sidelined and brushed aside in Marxian thought; the individual's own internal mental culture apart from social culture. 

In my opinion this omission is neither valid nor logical because the process of change at a fundamental level begins from within the individual. More so because the core foundations of any social culture eventually reside within the mental formations and operating systems of individuals. We must remember that the constraints of the old societal formations are reflected within the individual's formation through the culture of that society which has shaped his or her mind. So even when the individual's mind is deeply discontented with society and also reacts against it, it retains the negative features of that society in the form of the individual's own internal culture; his/her personality, ideas, emotional and intellectual preferences, agendas, temperament, motivations, habits, etc. Thus a changing of society inevitably means changing the individual produced by that society. Because it is that changed individual who will then become the seed for the new society. 


The mind of an individual is that repository which is at once the source of the creation of new foundations, and designs and the construction of the new society. But this change in the individual cannot come through external means like changing laws and the working of social institutions. This change has to begin internally within the mind of an individual and at present only the individual himself or herself can undertake this process of internal change. We do not as yet have external tools to bring about fundamental changes in the mind of an individual. 


In addition, this change cannot come about just in terms of what Lenin proposes in this document i.e. more capabilities of understanding and learning. While laying down the requirements for improving the efficiency of the state apparatus we see him stating clearly that for improving efficiency one needs a better quality of human mental capabilities of understanding and learning. But what is implied here is that this better quality is to be achieved within the same framework and criteria of quantitative improvements as laid out by the Soviet State and for achieving the limited specific goal of improving the efficiency of the ‘Workers and Peasants Inspection apparatus’. Here we find no distinction being made between quantitative improvements and qualitative changes in mental capabilities; the essential framework of change is based on quantitative changes in mental capabilities. And it is assumed that a quantitative improvement in mental capabilities of understanding and learning the theoretical and practical aspects of organizational and management specifics will lead to a ‘qualitative’ improvement in the efficient working of the inspection Apparatus. 


The concrete doing that ensued from accepting and adopting the equation between learning of known knowledge or quantitative improvements in mental capabilities of learning and understanding, and its application to changing social institutions, did produce results and changes in the working and efficiency of social institutions in the Soviet Union. And we even saw it achieve the status of a super power through the accumulation of these changes. But at the same time we can also witness the deeper and long-term consequences of this equation and its underlying assumptions. We can see how quantitative changes and improvements within individuals, in their mental capabilities, culture and then some 'qualitative' changes in social organization and management of social institutions, were unable to produce a new, holistic and stable quality of individual and social existence in the Soviet Union, hence the process of its gradual decay and eventual disintegration. 


Lenin’s emphasis on learning as the indispensable tool for renovating the state apparatus raises an important question that man generally confronts today. Is learning of known knowledge or making innovations within the framework of known knowledge sufficient for man to deal with and handle the innumerable varieties of conflicts, contradictions, problems and complexities that he has created today both in his individual and social lives? Can he adequately and successfully manage the myriad complex social interactions that he has created during the period of civilization and especially in the post-science and technology period through operating on the existing plane of learning that he has already achieved? Maybe in 1923, when explosion in human knowledge had not yet happened and the nature of human problems and social interactions had not become so critically complex Lenin was justified in professing limited and focused learning “fit and proper for a country which has set out to develop into a socialist country.” But not so today. Especially when we no longer have clear cut and simple choices of either being a Socialist country or a Capitalist country but have to have hybrid or mixed economies and political systems which require continuous innovations and both structural and functional up-gradation in order to keep pace with global trends. 


The learning required today has to be a many-step, many-sided and many layered process. There has to be a lot of unlearning and then relearning with a completely different approach and motivation. The known knowledge fund has to be pulled into that learning and new knowledge has to be created by going beyond what we know, especially in the area of our mental formations and culture. Which today has to become an integral part of our knowledge fund if we are to handle and resolve on an intelligent plane the problems and conflicts we have created in our individual and social lives.


In my view, so far the foundations of man’s internal culture have been based on an adversarial or vis-a-vis position in relation to the outside world, especially other human beings. A position we have inherited from our animal past and exists in us in the form of unconscious emotional and motivational patterns, which determine our social interactions and acts. At the verbal level we can appear rationally cooperative with other individuals and we can have all kinds of sincere feelings and motivations in relation to them. But our doing is eventually determined by this reflexive system of our deeply entrenched emotional and idea positions vis-a-vis other human beings, societies, nations, or any other social formation. Consequently, among human beings one finds the operation of myriad layers of adversarial positions and patterns starting from crude to highly sophisticated ones. 


A concrete albeit simpler example of this can be found where Lenin suggests that the selected quality of human material has to not only perform academic work but also train themselves to catch the “old lumber still lying around,” to use his words. This reveals the deep-rooted adversarial or vis-a-vis character of this social movement. The sad thing is that this adversarial position is towards individuals as they are in terms of their superstructures, individual and social identities and not their historically evolved emotional agenda and software driven old minds, which are the real causation of what they think and do. In addition, it is not only adversarial towards the West-European capitalist powers but also towards people who are a part of the socialist movement itself. He declares Osip Yermansky unfit to compile textbooks for the Soviet system because of his sympathies with Menshevism. One can see the criterion he is applying to judge Yermansky’s work. It is certainly not an objectively made informed criterion emanating from an intelligent understanding of man, but an unconsciously formed criterion coming from an a priori fundamentally adversarial position or standpoint. It is only today that we have acquired sufficient knowledge about the mind of man and are continuing to generate new knowledge about it which is enabling us to view the problem of man afresh. And to understand the root causation of his fundamental mental patterns and processes which are the soil from which the plants of his social interactions and structures emerge.


Lenin does identify a very important obstacle in relation to an individual’s own mental culture. He states “…in our present life reckless audacity goes hand in hand, to an astonishing degree, with timidity of thought when it comes to very minor changes.” Although he is referring to minor changes in office routine but for me it brings to forefront the gap between our elaborate and unbridled thinking and the inertia of our existing doing or execution patterns. We can see how our intellectual development and growth in thinking, understanding, etc., regarding external objects and issues has grown by leaps and bounds. Consequently, we are able to make elaborate constructs of radical changes in social, economic and political relationships but when it comes down to making serious micro changes in our doing patterns at the individual level then we oppose and resist those changes.


This clearly tells us that our intellectual capabilities of understanding and knowing have not yet reached our internal mental world. We do not understand in detail the mechanics of the many-sided and complex relationship between our feelings, thinking, ideas, understanding and our doing. And that is why we ascribe the causation of our failure to do what we think or feel or to change our micro doing for achieving a certain purpose or requirement of our thinking and feeling, to all kinds of external factors and very broad and abstract internal factors like absence of ethics, morality, fear of God, goodness, humanism, etc. 


Lenin highlights this problem but does not conduct an in-depth enquiry into why this happens. He just informs us that ‘...this has happened in all really great revolutions, for really great revolutions grow out of the contradictions between the old, between what is directed towards developing the old, and the very abstract striving for the new, which must be so new as not to contain the tiniest particle of the old. And the more abrupt the revolution, the longer will many of these contradictions last’. There is no denying that revolutions grow out of the contradictions and conflicts between the old and the new and I also agree that the more abrupt the revolution the longer the contradictions last, but the problem is of viewing the old and new only in terms of social culture, systems, habits, etc.


We need to recognize today that the fundamental struggle between old and new primarily exists within us, between our existing old mind and the emerging new mind. This is the real class struggle from which the other class struggles at the social level are derived. So the solutions to contemporary man's problems cannot be just found at the social level through making changes in terms of new laws, policies, modes of production and corresponding social relations, superstructures, etc. The struggle within man's mind has to be incorporated as a critical factor in any contemporary revolutionary struggle at the social level. Without taking into account this factor and the crucial role it plays in the social interactions and cultural formations of our time (not of the 19th or 20th centuries, the time of Lenin and Marx) we do not have a hope in hell to seriously address the innumerable and rapidly increasing internal and external conflicts and contradictions that plague us today. 


Our contemporary problems need to be understood in the context of the conflict between our old and new minds and the need for their intelligent resolution. The real issue is not of getting rid of the old or eradicating the old completely from the new. The new mature mind of man can and will definitely keep the old to the extent to which it needs it. It will definitely incorporate it in its new architecture. The contemporary period of human transition is one in which the mind of man is a mixed mind dominated by the deep-rooted old mind, which has an inherited (and highly developed) adversarial character and so it cannot see the new as a friend. But the new on the other hand, can rationally see the old and the evolution and interactive functioning of its various processes and its status as a form and phenomenon in Nature. So it does not have an adversarial position towards it. It can intelligently determine how much of the old it wants to keep and how much it wants to discard. 


If the emerging new mind of man is able to do this, then it will lay the foundation of a completely new personal and social culture. One which man cannot yet conceive because his feelings, thinking, understanding and doing are still circumscribed by the old mind and its superstructures. But this is a possibility that is looming on the horizon for man if alongside external changes in his life he is able to intelligently make some concrete internal changes within his mind. 


The potential capabilities of his new mind are far more than what he has discovered and cultivated up to now. This is because the mixed mind is at present swamped and entangled in the world that it has created and is not free to explore its potential new order of capabilities. Once the new mind becomes mature and is able to disentangle itself and become dominant then a new world will open up for it. Because its logical reach due to being a part of Nature and its fundamental logic is of 360 degrees and not angular.       


In view of the above it is inadequate to propose that one should through a strong Will power or motivation develop internal qualities of ethics, character, understanding, learning, etc., in order to change the external social environment because it does not bridge that stark gap between what we feel, think, understand and what we do. In order to seriously overcome the inertia of our doing patterns we need to zero in on the concrete mechanics of the entire area of the operation of our emotional and intellectual processes and their products and then their integral connection with our Will and execution mechanisms. Without acquiring a holistic integrated understanding, not only of social processes but of the micro processes of human mind and personality, and then of the macro context of which they are a part and product, i.e. the evolutionary process of Nature and its logical functioning and direction, we can never hope to really address this issue of individual inertia on a stable and long-term basis. Hence the need for a detailed enquiry into the mind of man.                


Without this the Socialist (and also of modern socio-cultural and political movements) claims of eradicating all forms of exploitation of man by man remain only a slogan, and rhetoric. Today there are innumerable new forms of exploitation that have come up in addition to existing forms, which are extremely complex, subtle and primarily at the mental level. They are no longer clear-cut and simple like the physical, economic and political oppression carried out by one class against another or other broad social forms of exploitation. And these new forms include both individual and social forms of exploitation. The individual's (not just of a class or group) mind has become a dominant and decisive player in this process of exploitation. We need to confront and intelligently address this fact today by acquiring a holistic understanding of the history, structure, evolution and conflict producing functioning of the mind. And then applying that understanding to tap its current potential to make tailored changes in it, so that it can make its internal state and external environment less conflicting and more harmonious. 



i. Drawing this line is relatively easier in the case of biological evolution because a new species with a new physical design and structure, capabilities and functions can be identified and observed more clearly. But in the case of human mental and social formations that is not so.  Here the issue of quality emerging out of quantity becomes very complex and with no clear and tangible cut off points.  

ii. Formed over a period of time as a result of our genetic and environmental specifics and interactions.

iii. These capabilities include those developed sensitivities, ideas, thinking and understanding which are not repetitive but dynamic and which are not rooted in and driven by the existing individual self and its aggressive subjective agenda but objective reality of all phenomena as a part of the objective evolutionary process of Nature as a whole.   

iv. We have been experimenting with neuro-technologies and all kinds of pills, etc., but they don't actually lead to any fundamental changes in mental functioning. They cater superficially to only certain mental disorders and for enhancing certain mental capabilities like memory, cognition, etc. 

v. Lenin, 1923, p. 3

vi. Simple and good intentions, ethical, moral and religious considerations and motivations of a heroic nature are not enough to change life today. There is a need for intelligent and holistic motivations which are practically able to initiate a process of change both within and outside of individuals at the contemporary level of complexity. 

vii. In animals the vis-à-vis position is simple, direct, event based and with no elaborate emotional and idea systems to enhance and aide this adversarial position. And more importantly in most cases, it is not with the specimens of its own species. In fact, we find many instances of collaborative and cooperative relationships between specimens of the same species, e.g. ants, etc.  

viii. Lenin, 1923, p. 7 

ix. We can see how this unintelligent adversarial position became a bedrock of future socialist/communist politics. Examples start from Stalin and his persecution of politburo members and continue to this day. The communist regimes in North Korea, Argentina and Cuba still operate on the basis of this adversarial position.  

x. Lenin, 1923, p. 9 

xi. Lenin, 1923, pp. 9-10

xii. I would like to introduce here the idea of viewing Nature as a ‘Universal Logic Process’. Which is the macro dimension of Nature encompassing all space and time (past and future), and phenomena (forms and processes), which are not static but operate as dynamic processes both internally and externally, in accordance with their specific logics. So Nature as a whole is an aggregate (not mechanical but organic and dynamic) of all phenomena existing as processes and their respective logics, and at the same time also a macro dynamic evolutionary process itself, with its own fundamental underlying Integrated logic, which has been and is continuing to evolve. The progression of this ‘Universal Logic Process’ has been in terms of evolution towards more complexity and new levels of stability; more complex and stable forms/formations. And its direction (not existing a priori but as discerned through its actual unfolding), which is its aesthetic or criterion, has been a transition from the ‘dialectic of contradiction’ to the ‘dialectic of harmony’. Where the former denotes the dialectical process of motion, interaction and evolution of Nature defined and dominated by conflicts and contradictions within and amongst phenomena due to absence of knowing (in the form of evolved human consciousness). However, conflicts and contradictions are not a fundamental component of the dialectical process itself (as proposed in Marxist Materialism) but a consequence of its unconscious state. The latter is the emerging dynamic process in which an evolved human consciousness (as a product of the next stage of its evolution) becomes its integral component. Resulting in a more harmonious and dynamic interaction and evolutionary progression of phenomena (internal and external) towards qualitatively new levels of integration, efficiency and productivity, which minimize contradictions (pain) and maximize harmony (happiness).  

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