A note on the title of this post: and some amendments to Lenin:
I might as well have titled this post "Lenin and the Ontological Independence of Society". In good Hegelian fashion, which always brings in an amount of philosophical fudging, the two notions (ontological standing - dependence / independence) amount to two sides of the same coin.
I would like to amend this passage from Lenin's Materialism and Empirio-Criticism in a way more congenial to my philosophical thinking. Human societies obviously cannot exist without what we call human consciousness but they are independent of any single individual human consciousness. All talk of "objectivity" and "subjectivity" (in fact the whole of the subject'-object dichotomy) I believe only leads to confusion or worse a kind of dualism,. This is because even mind-dependent reality is in some sense "objective", i.e. a "material" reality. What is "in the mind" is somewhere a reality even if it is only a "part" of a nervous system. The fact is we as yet don't know what it means to say that something is "in consciousness" or that a thought is "in" the mind or the brain. Such words are merely metaphors or place-holders for what may possibly be discovered at a later date. Thus it is necessary to write about such topics constantly using "scare-quotes" as pointers to the words that are used metaphorically or concepts that are at bottom "black-boxes."
This is also true of what some philosophers still insist on calling "being". Being-itself, and the philosophical uses of it, I believe are simply rusty growths of our language and from this rust come all the permutations of ontological talk. I would simply prefer to talk about some form of reality or "material reality" or even the "processes" of mind-independent reality, as long as we realize that then we have the problem of the ontological-standing of "material reality" and "process" and that the notions of "matter" and "process" are themselves another way to fudge with metaphors. For instance, information is itself a material reality or material process in the world view of a good monist-materialist. The universe itself may, (as the physicist Wheeler once wrote) "at a very deep bottom" consist of nothing but bits of information. These bits of information are just the universe itself. The universe is not "mind-dependent", of course. The information that makes up the universe pre-exists consciousness which eventually arises through biological evolution.
This is not true of the societies of any species. So I would amend or perhaps only clarify Lenin in the following way: instead of saying "social being is independent of the social consciousness of men" I would say "social reality is independent of the social consciousness of each individual human." I would further add that each individual human is the "information" carrier of the always emergent material relations of social reality. The notion of "emergence" I would substitute for the metaphor of "chains" used by Lenin, when he writes of a "chain of events and "chain of development." The metaphor of a "chain" is too serial, in my view..
The simple point that Lenin is generally making below should be "common sense". The fact that it is not common sense, only says something about the clouds of unreality that constantly obscure our view, i.e. the ideology of our society, which in the epitome allows the irrational belief of a Margaret Thatcher who once famously said that there was no such thing as society.
Now to the quote:
"Every individual producer in the world economic system realizes that he is introducing a certain change into the technique of production; every owner realizes that he exchanges certain products for others; but these producers do not realize that in doing so they are thereby changing social being. The sum-total of these changes in all their ramifications in the capitalist world economy could not be grasped by seventy Marxes. The paramount thing is that the laws of these changes have been discovered, that the objective logic of these changes and their historical development have at bottom and in the main been disclosed -- objective, not in the sense that a society of conscious beings, men, could exist and develop independently of the existence of conscious beings ... but in the sense that social being is independent of the social consciousness of men. The fact that you live and conduct business, beget children, produce products and exchange them, gives rise to an objectively necessary chain of events, chain of development, which is independent of your social consciousness, and is never grasped by the latter completely. The highest task of humanity is to comprehend this objective logic of economic evolution (the evolution of social life) in general and fundamental features, so that it may be possible to adapt to it one's social consciousness and the consciousness of the advanced classes of all capitalist countries in as definite, clear and critical a fashion as possible."