The Third International after Lenin

Thursday, February 9, 2012

The making of Materialism and Empirio-Criticism

excerpt from Chapter 6 of Lenin: A Biography

by the Institute of Marxism-Leninism. CC CPSU

Progress Publishers

Third revised edition 1983

Against Reactionary Bourgeois Philosophy and Philosophical Revisionism
The bourgeois and landowner reactionaries took advantage of the defeat of the [1905] revolution to launch a new campaign against democratic and socialist ideas, against the Marxist world outlook.

This disbelief in the revolution, in the strength of the working class and people, and in the scientific validity and creative nature of Marxism affected also a section of Party intellectuals. Some Mensheviks and several Bolshevik writers (A. Bogdanov, V. Bazarov, A. Lunacharsky and others) proceeded to "criticise" Marxism and its philosophical foundations. Some of them, the so-called " God-builders", advocated the transformation of socialism into a kind of religion, arguing that, presented in a religious dressing, socialism would be more easily understood by the masses. Actually, however, they were duping the workers.

The rampant reaction was not a purely Russian phenomenon. With the advent of imperialism, the bourgeoisie of all countries turned from democracy to "all-out reaction" in economics, politics and ideology.

A philosophy known as "critical experience", or empirio– criticism, gained wide currency in Europe at the close of the nineteenth and in the early years of the twentieth centuries. It originated with the Austrian physicist and philosopher Ernst Mach and the German philosopher Richard Avenarius. The Machists denied the objective existence of a material world and the objective character of the laws governing natural and social development, the objectivity of scientific knowledge. The world we live in, they maintained, was not material, but simply our own sensation, and all things in the world were no more than "complexes of sensations".

Machism was, at that time, the most dangerous trend in bourgeois idealistic philosophy for the working class and its party. Ostensibly, the Machists were opposed to idealism, even claiming that modern natural science provided substantiation for their theory, and this gave it a semblance of scientific validity. Their doctrine was supported by the reactionary imperialist forces and was seized upon by the opportunist leaders in the Second International. The central organ of the German Social– Democratic Party, Neue Zeit, of which Karl Kautsky was editor, and the party's theoretical journal, Sozialistische Monatshefte, one of the organs of international opportunism, for many years published articles by Machists and other revisionists. In his article "Those Who Would Liquidate Us" Lenin emphasised that Kautsky was wrong in denying the idealistic nature of Machism.

The West European and Russian revisionists proclaimed the Machist philosophy the latest word in scientific thought. Their bitterest attacks were levelled at the theory of knowledge of dialectical materialism. They tried to prove that Marxism had no philosophy of its own, and that Machism could therefore become its theory of knowledge. The revisionists continued to parade as Marxists, claiming that their sole aim was to "improve" Marxism, though in actual fact they were revising all the basic tenets of materialism, notably dialectical materialism.

In February 1908, Lenin began work on a book in which he decided to give battle to all opponents of Marxist philosophy. Defence and further development of the philosophical views of the Marxist party became an urgent task of the Party, and Lenin explained why: the Russian working class needed a truly scientific, Marxist philosophy for a profound theoretical generalisation of the experience of the 1905–07 Revolution. He wrote: "The 'present moment' in Russia is precisely one in which the theoretical work of Marxism, its deepening and expansion, are dictated ... by the whole objective state of affairs in the country. When the masses are digesting a new and exceptionally rich experience of direct revolutionary struggle, the theoretical struggle for a revolutionary outlook, i.e., for revolutionary Marxism, becomes the watchword of the day."  [151•*

This "philosophical sorting out", Lenin remarked, was necessary also in view of the new discoveries in the natural sciences. Progress in physics and other sciences posed many new philosophical problems for which bourgeois philosophy had no answer and which, Lenin said, dialectical materialism had to tackle. It was therefore necessary to give a philosophical interpretation of major developments in the natural sciences since Marx and Engels.

In mid-April 1908, Lenin completed his famous article "Marxism and Revisionism", which he described as "a formal declaration of war" on revisionism. The article was written for the twenty-fifth anniversary of Marx's death and appeared in the symposium Karl Marx, published in St. Petersburg in 1908. In it Lenin showed that since the 1890s, when the triumph of Marxism over other theories in the working-class movement was in the main completed, the fight against Marxism had assumed new forms. Revisionism, a trend hostile to Marxism, arose in the Social-Democratic movement, which sought to undermine this great doctrine of the revolutionary proletariat, on the plea of "amending" and "modifying" Marx.

Lenin proved that the revisionists, limping behind bourgeois professorial science, negated Marxist materialism and dialectics, rejected the fundamental tenets of Marxian political economy and the idea of class struggle and proletarian dictatorship, abandoned socialism as the ultimate aim of the working-class movement, and fully degenerated to reformism in their policy. Revisionism, Lenin demonstrated, was an international phenomenon with deep class roots in capitalist society. As long as capitalism exists, there will always be revisionism and, hence, the need for constant, systematic and energetic struggle against revisionism in the working-class movement. The ideological struggle of revolutionary Marxism against revisionism was but the prelude to the great revolutionary battles of the proletariat, which was marching forward to the complete triumph of its cause, overcoming weaknesses and vacillations in the working-class movement.

In the second half of April 1908, Lenin visited Gorky on the Isle of Capri, Italy, in response to Gorky's repeated invitations.

Lenin listened with keen interest to Gorky's stories of his childhood and youth in Nizhni Novgorod, of the great Volga, of Gorky's travels and wanderings through Russia. He suggested that Gorky write the story of his life. It would make splendid and very instructive reading, he said. Gorky followed this advice in later years, when he wrote his famous trilogy Childhood, My Apprenticeship and My Universities.

Together with Gorky, Lenin visited Naples, the National Museum and suburbs, the ruins of Pompeii, climbed Vesuvius. On several occasions they went out to sea with the Capri fishermen. In his conversations with them he would ask about their life, their earnings, their children. Gorky said in his reminiscences there was "something magnetic" about Lenin, something that attracted the hearts of working folk. The Capri fishermen had met many famous Russians, but none of them had won their affection as Lenin did. One of these fishermen, old Giovanni Spadaro, on hearing Lenin's hearty laugh, remarked: "Only honest men can laugh like that." And long after Lenin had left the fishermen would ask Gorky about "Signor Lenin", afraid lest he fall into the hands of the tsar's police.

The Capri visit, their subsequent meetings in Paris in 1911 and 1912 and their correspondence, are striking evidence of the concern the leader of the working class showed for the development of the great proletarian writer. Lenin helped him discard his erroneous views. "His attitude," Gorky wrote, "was that of a strict teacher and good, solicitous friend."

Materialism and Empirio-Criticism as a Theoretical Weapon of the Party

Back in Geneva, Lenin continued work on his book. This entailed a great deal of scientific research, the study of hundreds of works on philosophy, the natural sciences, notably physics, in German, French, English and Russian, rereading of the philosophical works of Marx and Engels, and of the writings of Plekhanov, Mehring, Lafargue, Diderot, Feuerbach, Chernyshevsky, Dietzgen and other authors. In writing his book Lenin worked a great deal in Swiss libraries. In May 1908, Lenin went to London, where he worked for a month in the British Museum.

The work progressed rapidly and the book was completed in October 1908. Publishing the book legally in conditions of police persecution presented many difficulties. However, arrangements for its publication were made, through I. Skvortsov-Stepanov, with Zveno, a Moscow publishing firm run by L. Krumbiigel. The book was off the press in April 1909. Its full title is: Materialism and Empirio-Criticism. Critical Comments on a Reactionary Philosophy. Lenin sent Rosa Luxemburg a copy of the book asking her to insert an announcement of its publication in Die Neue Zeit, which she did.

The book was a striking example of consistent and uncompromising struggle against the enemies of Marxist philosophy, an example of militant Bolshevik partisanship and creative development of Marxism. In Materialism and Empirio-Criticism Lenin subjected to comprehensive and closely argued criticism bourgeois idealistic philosophy and philosophic revisionism, exposed their new methods of defending idealism, and formulated and further developed the basic propositions of Marxist philosophy.

Lenin demonstrated that Mach and other bourgeois philosophers, while proclaiming theirs to be a new philosophy, were palming off the old idealistic rubbish in a new guise. Under the abstruse name of "empiric-criticism", they were resurrecting, in a somewhat refurbished version, the philosophy of Berkeley, the eighteenth-century English bishop and militant opponent of materialism. Lenin proved that the underlying premise of Berkeley's philosophy and of empirio-criticism was one and the same, namely, subjective idealism. This means that the idealist philosophy essentially preached the helplessness and capitulation of man before Nature. Marxist philosophy, on the other hand, proclaimed that science and human knowledge are omnipotent and their development has no limits.

Lenin's further elaboration of the basic question of philosophy, his definition of the philosophical notion of matter, is of paramount importance. Lenin regarded matter as being in constant movement-objective reality is matter in movement. The proposition that matter exists outside and independently of our consciousness is the basic tenet of philosophical materialism.

In criticising the Machists and other metaphysically thinking representatives of bourgeois philosophy, who maintained that the new discoveries in science (radioactivity, the complex structure of the atom, etc.) "destroyed" the concept of matter and "refuted" materialism, Lenin raised the question of the need to distinguish clearly between the philosophical concept of matter and the notion of it in natural science. He showed that from the viewpoint of dialectical materialism, the philosophical category of matter is connected only with the solving of the basic philosophical question of the relationship of being and thinking and does not include any physical, chemical, biological or other concrete characteristics. "...The sole 'property' of matter with whose recognition philosophical materialism is bound up is the property of being an objective reality, of existing outside the mind,"   [154•*  Lenin wrote.

Lenin attached special attention to working out the basic problems of the theory of knowledge of dialectical materialism-the theory of reflection.

The idea of cognition as a reflection of the objective world in human consciousness was advanced and defended by philosophical materialism before Marx and Engels. Continuing this line, Marx and Engels gave its profound elaboration in their works. Lenin defended and developed their main propositions.

Bourgeois philosophers and revisionists have for many years attacked the theory of reflection in Marxist-Leninist philosophy, deliberately oversimplifying, distorting and falsifying it. They argue that Lenin treats reflection as a simple "mirror-like" act between the thought and the object, as a "dead copying" by human consciousness of the objects of nature. In fact, however, both in Materialism and Empirio-Criticism and in the Philosophical Notebooks Lenin attacked this primitive interpretation of reflection. Materialism, Lenin wrote, is "the recognition of 'objects in themselves', or outside the mind; ideas and sensations are copies of images of those objects".  [155•*  The reflection of the objective world by thinking is not a mirror-like instantaneous act, but a complex, contradictory dialectical process of the interaction of the subject and object, in which there is a constant verification of "images" by practice, the distinguishing of true reflections from false ones.

Materialism and Empirio-Criticism states that "the world is eternally moving and developing matter (as the Marxists think), reflected by the developing human consciousness".  [155•**  "Cognition is the eternal, endless approximation of thought to the object," we read in Lenin's Philosophical Notebooks. "The reflection of nature in man's thought must be understood not 'lifelessly' ... but in the eternal process of movement, the arising of contradictions and their solution."  [155•***

Such are Lenin's propositions on the creatively active reflection of reality in the forms of human cognition.

Lenin gave a splendidly profound and thorough analysis of the process of cognition, the dialectics of the objective absolute and relative truth, which is of tremendous theoretical and practical importance. Sensations and concepts, being reflections of the objective world, have an objective content. And it is this objective content in our sensations, in our consciousness, which depends neither on man nor on mankind, that Lenin calls objective truth. The great cognitive force of Marxist teaching lies in the very fact that it rests on objective truth. "Historical materialism and Marx's entire economic doctrine," Lenin stresses, "are permeated through and through by a recognition of objective truth."  [155•****  Human cognition is in a process of constant development. It moves and develops along an ascending curve from ignorance to knowledge, from incomplete and inaccurate knowledge to fuller and more precise knowledge, from relative truth to absolute truth. There are no insuperable barriers between absolute and relative truth: "...human thought ... by its nature is capable of giving, and does give, absolute truth, which is compounded of a sum-total of relative truths."  [155•*****

The dialectical-materialist doctrine of absolute and relative truth is the key to a scientific and creative understanding of theoretical problems and, at the same time, a powerful weapon against revisionism and dogmatism. Marxism is objective truth confirmed by the course of history. The fundamental principles of MarxismLeninism have to be creatively developed, concretised, enriched by the new data of science and practice. But there can be no revision of the substance and revolutionary spirit of Marxism.

In Materialism and Empiric-Criticism, Lenin substantially enriched the Marxist doctrine on the role of practice in the process of cognition. He showed the great importance of theoretical thinking in the process of cognition and the need for an indissoluble link of the dialectical materialist theory of knowledge with practice, stressing that "the standpoint of life, of practice, should be first and fundamental in the theory of knowledge".  [156•*

Lenin fully disclosed the role of practice as a criterion of truth, the dialectical nature of this criterion. It is precisely practice, which, by verifying our notions, confirms in them that which corresponds to the truth. Practice is a process of constant development and regeneration. This prevents man's knowledge from deteriorating into an "absolute", an ossified dogma, and makes for the steady advancement and deepening of our knowledge. Marxism represents the integral unity of scientific theory and revolutionary practice. Lenin's elaboration of the theory of knowledge is a splendid example of the creative development of dialectical materialism and a most valuable contribution to Marxist philosophy.

Lenin trenchantly criticised the Machists' views on society. The Machist "sociology", Lenin showed, had nothing to distinguish it from bourgeois sociology. In fact, reactionary bourgeois ideologists have long been campaigning against scientific cognition of the laws of history. They have good reason to fear genuine science, and hence their frenzied campaigns against Marxism, which reveals to us the objective laws of historical development. Analysis of the contradictions of capitalism inspires in the bourgeoisie fear and despair in the face of the laws of history, for the march of history inevitably leads to the collapse of capitalist society and its replacement by communist society.

Lenin especially emphasised the integral and harmonious character of Marxist philosophy and demolished all revisionist attempts to separate Marx's economic and political doctrines from philosophical materialism. "From this Marxist philosophy, which is cast from a single piece of steel, you cannot eliminate one basic premise, one essential part, without departing from objective truth, without falling a prey to bourgeois-reactionary falsehood."   [157•*

Both in Russia and Western Europe, the revisionists claimed that Machism was a "new philosophy of the natural sciences". That speculation on the natural sciences had to be effectively refuted and the new scientific discoveries given philosophical interpretation. Lenin brilliantly accomplished both tasks in his Materialism and Empirio– Criticism.

Great scientific discoveries were made at the turn of the century: X-rays (1895), radioactivity (1896), the electron (1897), radium (1898), the electron theory of matter, the quantum theory (1900), the theory of relativity (1905). This was the beginning of a veritable revolution in the natural sciences. It was established that the mass of the electron depended on speed and that the chemical elements could be transformed into one another. These fundamental discoveries led to a radical change in a number of accepted physical notions and concepts and produced a crisis in physics.

Lenin revealed the essence and the causes of the deep crisis in natural science, especially physics. The need had matured for physics to shift from its positions of spontaneous, unrealised and often metaphysical materialism to new positions of dialectical materialism.

Reactionary philosophers immediately seized on the new scientific discoveries and on the gnoseological problems posed by these discoveries to give prominence to their own interpretations, based entirely on idealistic theories, and divert the scientists from materialism to the old path of idealism, to reconcile science with religion.

Lenin tried to persuade natural scientists that dialectical materialism was the only true method of investigation and the only true philosophy. For it alone is intrinsically connected with the natural sciences, and by penetrating every field of research makes it possible correctly to interpret scientific achievements and indicate the sure road to resolving any crisis in science. But materialism, being a scientific world outlook, has to be constantly developed and enriched by new scientific discoveries.

Engels once said that "with each epoch-making discovery even in the sphere of natural science it [materialism] has to change its form".  [157•**  And it was Lenin who gave materialism a new form according to the new conditions of history, when capitalism had entered its imperialist stage, and when natural science was undergoing revolutionary transformation.

Materialism and Empirio-Criticism is a paean to the power of the human mind, revealing the limitless prospects for our scientific understanding of the essence of phenomena in infinite nature. "Human reason has discovered many amazing things in nature and will discover still more, and will thereby increase its power over nature."  [158•*

In his book, Lenin concretised, investigated and developed, on the basis of the latest achievements of science, all the cardinal problems of dialectical materialism. Materialism and Empirio-Criticism represents the new, Lenin stage in Marxist philosophy.

The Conclusion of Lenin's book formulates the principles of the struggle against reactionary ideology, the criteria which make it possible to identify truly valuable new conclusions and generalisations of the data of science and social practice. Lenin showed that any deviation from philosophical materialism, any attempt to "refute" or revise the principles of the Marxist dialectical– materialist world outlook ultimately serve the interests of the exploiting classes. Lenin's statement that behind the epistemological scholasticism of bourgeois and revisionist trends and schools "one cannot fail to see the struggle of the party in philosophy, a struggle which in the final analysis expresses the tendencies and ideology of the hostile classes of modern society" is most relevant today. "Recent philosophy," Lenin emphasised, "is as partisan as was philosophy two thousand years ago."  [158•**  "Non-partisanship in philosophy," he concluded, "is only wretchedly masked servility to idealism and fideism."  [158•*** ^^32^^

The rejection of party commitment in philosophy by modern revisionists is doomed to failure.

The appearance of Materialism and Empirio-Criticism was of immense importance for the Party's activities. Its publication was followed by heated philosophical discussions among Russian Social Democrats in many parts of Europe. The most frequent gatherings were held in Paris, where hundreds of Russian socialist workers living in the Paris working-class districts visited the Bolshevik Proletary club. Lenin's book aroused great interest and produced a profound impression on the Bolsheviks in Russia. It was studied by political prisoners in tsarist jails and places of exile. The discussions frequently turned into real ideological battles of Lenin's disciples and followers against Machists and Otzovists.

Materialism and Empirio-Criticism was a powerful weapon of the Party in the battle against all forms and varieties of opportunism, against all the falsifiers of Marxism in the Russian working-class movement. Its appearance aroused wide interest in the study of Marxist philosophy among Party members and did much to help Party activists and front-rank workers master dialectical and historical materialism. It played an outstanding part in the ideological arming of the Bolsheviks, in the theoretical substantiation of the principles of the proletarian party of the new type and in rallying and strengthening its ranks.

For more than half a century now this classical work of Lenin has served the Communist Party of the Soviet Union as a reliable guide in forming the scientific world outlook of the people and in combating reactionary ideology. The fight waged by Lenin and the Bolsheviks against revisionism in Marxist philosophy had a strong international impact-it exposed the Second International opportunist leaders' contention that philosophy had no relation to politics, that the philosophical views of Party members were their private affair, and that one could be a Marxist without subscribing to dialectical materialism.

Materialism and Empirio-Criticism has for many progressive scientists been a guide in their research, helping them to break with idealistic views and adopt a scientific, materialist world outlook. For a number of outstanding progressive intellectuals acquaintance with Marxist-Leninist theory and the experience of the liberation struggle of the working people was decisive in winning them over to the working class and communism. That is how the eminent French scientists and peace fighters Paul Langevin and Frederic Joliot-Curie joined the communist ranks.

In our day, too, Materialism and Empirio-Criticism contributes to the struggle against modern bourgeois philosophy, philosophical revisionism and dogmatism, helping the peoples to understand and reorganise in a revolutionary fashion the world they live in.


[151•*]   V. I. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 15, p. 290.

[154•*]   V. I. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 14, pp. 260–61.

[154•**]   Ibid., p. 26.

[155•*]   V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 14, p. 26.

[155•**]   Ibid., p. 137.

[155•***]   Ibid., Vol. 38, p. 195.

[155•****]   Ibid., Vol. 14, p. 319.

[155•*****]   Ibid., p. 135.

[156•*]   V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 14, p. 142.

[157•*]   V. I. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 14, p. 326.

[157•**]   Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Selected Works in three volumes, Vol. 2, Moscow, 1977, p. 349.

[158•*]   V. I. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 14. pp. 281–82.

[158•**]   Ibid., p. 358.

[158•***]   Ibid., p. 355.


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