The Metaphysics of Positivism


Over the past seventy years since the time of publication of V.I. Lenin's book, Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, the ideological battles have become neither less intense nor less significant for the fate of people who are united in the same warring parties as at the beginning of the century. The names change, the strategy and tactics of the struggle improve, becoming ever more refined, but its essence remains the same. As before, the issue remains just as Lenin posed it in 1908: either consistent (dialectical) materialism – or helpless wandering about in theory, wandering about fraught with sad and finally tragic consequences. Beginning in what would appear to be abstract spheres, these wanderings sooner or later reach their conclusion on this sinful earth.

'Does the lecturer acknowledge that the philosophy of Marxism is dialectical materialism?' Lenin stubbornly demanded, seeking a straight answer from Bogdanov one day in May 1908, by emphatically stressing the last two – key – words. [CW Vol.14, p. 15]

Not simply materialism, and not simply dialectics, for materialism without dialectics nowadays remains only a wishful desire and proves to be not so much the slayer as the slain, and dialectics without materialism inevitably turns into the purely verbal art of turning inside out generally accepted words, terms, concepts and assertions, long since known by the name of sophistry. It turns into a means of verbally distorting the ideas at hand. And only materialist dialectics (dialectical materialism), only the organic unity of dialectics with materialism arms the cognition of man with the means and ability to construct an objectively-true image of the surrounding world, the means and ability to reconstruct this world in accordance with the objective tendencies and lawful nature of its own development.

Here was contained the pivotal thought of Lenin's entire understanding of philosophy which he consistently developed in his book.

The significance of the book Materialism and Empirio-Criticism for the intellectual history of our century is far from exhausted by the fact that it put an end to 'one reactionary philosophy' and its pretensions to the role of 'the philosophy of contemporary natural science' and of all 'contemporary science'. Much more important is the circumstance that in the course of polemicising with it, Lenin distinctly outlined his own positive understanding of the problems placed before philosophy by the grandiose events in all spheres of human life. In economics, politics, science, technology and art, he clearly and categorically formulated the fundamental principles of the resolution of these problems, and outlined the logic of their resolution.

We must insist on this for the very reason that frequently the content and significance of this highly polemical work is interpreted too narrowly and one-sidedly, and consequently incorrectly. And not only by open enemies of revolutionary Marxism, but also by some of its 'friends'.

Thus the French revisionist philosopher Roger Garaudy (he is neither the only one nor the first) in his booklet Lenin condescendingly acknowledges the services of Materialism and Empirio-Criticism in presenting the fundamentals of materialism in general, which are neither characteristic of Marxist materialism nor related in any way to dialectics; this, he says, is 'kindergarten materialism' and nothing more. Lenin supposedly first became interested in dialectics only later – at the time of the Philosophical Notebooks. The same thing was confirmed by still another representative of philosophical revisionism – Gajo Petrović from 'Praxis', who added that the study of Hegel's works forced Lenin to introduce substantial corrections in his characterisation of materialism, idealism and dialectics, forced him to seriously limit the activity of the principle of reflection (such is the way that he explains Lenin's sentence: 'man's consciousness not only reflects the objective world, but also creates it'), etc., etc. This statement already represents a direct lie with regard not only to Lenin's understanding of materialism, but also to Lenin's understanding of dialectics.

In essence, such an incorrect interpretation of Lenin's position also serves as the basis of statements according to which the definition of matter developed in Materialism and Empirio-Criticism is justified only by the special conditions of the argument with one of the varieties of subjective idealism, and therefore is declared to be insufficient, incomplete and incorrect beyond the bounds of this argument. Hence far-reaching conclusions are frequently drawn about the need to 'broaden' or 'supplement' Lenin's definition of matter and the philosophical conception of materialism (as supposedly narrowly epistemological) by means of the so-called 'ontological aspect'.

The meaning of similar attempts is the same: to portray Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, this classic work on the philosophy of dialectical materialism, which elucidated in general form all the major contours and problems of this science, as a book devoted only to one 'side of the matter', only to 'epistemology', only to that supposedly narrow circle of problems which were thrust on Lenin by the specific conditions of a polemic with one of the minor schools of subjective idealism. Explained in such a way, Materialism and Empirio-Criticism is robbed of its general philosophical significance beyond the bounds of this special argument; the significance is lost of a book which completely exposes every kind of idealism, not only and exclusively subjective idealism.

All this and much else forces us once again to return to an analysis of Lenin's polemic with the empirio-critics in order better to understand the actual reasons behind its origin and hence its actual meaning, its essence and significance for the ensuing history of the ideological and theoretical struggle in the ranks of Russian and international Social Democracy; we will better understand its significance for contemporary disagreements. arguments and ideological struggles, since only in such a broad context will the 'philosophical subtleties' which are dealt with in the book become clear.

Let us begin by recalling a few well-known historical facts.

Let us open a book, published in 1908. We read:

A great and formidable revolution is sweeping our country. The unfolding struggle is carrying away a colossal mass of forces and victims. Everyone who wishes to be a real citizen of a great people is devoting the entire energy of his thought and will to this struggle.

The proletariat is marching in the front ranks of the revolution, bearing the full brunt. On the party of the proletariat lies the greatest historical responsibility for the course and outcome of this struggle.

In such an epoch shouldn't everyone who is devoted to the cause of the proletariat, or even if only to the cause of the revolution in general, resolutely say to himself: 'now is not the time for philosophy!' – shouldn't everyone place to the side this very book for what may be years on end?

Such an attitude to philosophy has now become common. It is very natural under the given circumstances: but that doesn't prevent it from being very mistaken ...

These are the words of a participant and eyewitness of events which provided the conditions under which Lenin's polemic with Machism flared up. The words are true and sincere. Their author is A. Bogdanov. The same Bogdanov. This is a quotation from his introductory article to the Russian edition of Ernst Mach's book, The Analysis of Sensations. The same Ernst Mach. And the same book of his which became the bible of Machism – the same philosophy which was classified as reactionary by the author of Materialism and Empirio-Criticism. (And as an explanatory note to the article quoted by us: 'The present article by A. Bogdanov was translated into German and published under the title "Ernst Mach and Revolution" in issue No. 20, February 14 1908, of the journal Die Neue Zeit, as a jubilee article commemorating the 70th birthday (February 18 1908) of Ernst Mach.)

We have quoted almost a whole page from a book, on the cover of which appears: 'E. Mach. The Analysis of sensations and the Relation of the Physical to the Psychical. G. Kotlyar's authorised translation from the manuscript of the 5th expanded German edition, with a foreword by the author to the Russian translation and an introductory article by A. Bogdanov. Second edition. Publisher, S. Skirmunt. Moscow. 1908.'

An edition, boosted by the name of a man who at this time was known as a comrade-in-arms of Lenin, as one of the fighters against the opportunism of the Mensheviks headed by their theoretical leader, G.V. Plekhanov ... Try as you might, such paradoxes just don't happen.

Let us investigate the essence of these paradoxes in a bit more detail; let us try to understand why the Bolshevik 'V.I. Ilyin' argued so sharply and irreconcilably against the Bolshevik 'A. Bogdanov' (his real name was A. A. Malinovsky), after openly declaring moreover that, in the realm of philosophy, he expressed his solidarity with G.V. Plekhanov, with the acknowledged leader of the Menshevik fraction.

Why did he declare that the boundary-line in the realm of philosophical problems by no means coincides with the line-up of differing views on immediately political questions, or on problems of the strategy and tactics of the revolutionary struggle albeit that there is a connection between them, a very profound connection, and this connection cannot be overlooked, especially in the light of the perspective of future events.

Once he had decided that it was absolutely necessary to speak out in the press sharply, categorically and urgently against Machism, Lenin remained fully aware of the entire, complicated, confused context in which he was forced to enter the 'philosophical brawl'. The situation was not easy and was not at all as it appeared on the literary surface of the struggle which took place.

Plekhanov was considered to be (and was) one of the few Marxists, in the ranks not only of Russian, but of the whole of international Social Democracy, who sharply and steadfastly came out against philosophical revisionism. He showed the reader that Machism in general, and its Russian variety in particular, represented chiefly by Bogdanov and Lunacharsky, is nothing more than the renovated and terminologically disguised archaic philosophy which was a novelty at the beginning of the 18th century – the system of views of Bishop George Berkeley and the 'sceptic-freethinker' David Hume, the classic representatives of subjective idealism. Plekhanov subtly, sarcastically and ironically exposed the pretensions of Machism when they claimed to represent the most modern scientific philosophy, and even more so, the philosophy of the social forces which were rising to the struggle for socialism – the philosophy of the proletariat.

Insofar as it was none other than Bogdanov and Lunacharsky who came forward as the most talented and outstanding opponents of Plekhanov in the given situation, the reader was given the impression that their philosophy was the 'philosophy of Bolshevism'. And Plekhanov, of course, didn't let slip the chance to reinforce such an impression by trying to portray Bolshevism as a current which had as its source not the dialectical materialism of Marx and Engels, but the muddled philosophy of Mach, Bogdanov and Lunacharsky.

Already by the beginning of 1908 Lenin understood once and for all that it was impossible to remain silent any more. Further silence in the realm of philosophy would only be of use to the Mensheviks and their tactical line in the revolution, even more so given the regrouping of forces which had already begun in the party (as well as the entire country) as a result of the ebbing of the revolutionary wave, the onset of political and ideological reaction, and the dashing of hopes for an expected imminent revolutionary-democratic solution to the crisis which had long since been in painful gestation.

It was necessary to declare distinctly, clearly and unequivocally, not only to the party but to the country and the entire international workers' movement: it is only Bolshevism, as a strategic and tactical line in the revolution, that has as its theoretical foundation the philosophy of Marx and Engels. It is therefore Bolshevism, and not the fraction of Plekhanov, which is the direct continuation of the cause of the founders of Marxism, both in the field of politics and political economy, as well as the field of philosophy. And most of all in philosophy, for here, as in a seed, or as in genes, are concealed the still undeveloped, but sufficiently clear contours and features of future positions (and disagreements) concerning the most stirring problems not only of today, which have already taken shape, but of tomorrow, which have barely begun to show in outline.

The task was unbelievably difficult. It was necessary not only to thoroughly expose the essence of the Machist-Bogdanovist revision of the philosophical views of Marx and Engels (Plekhanov had partially done this), but to counterpose to this revision a clear and integral exposition of these views; to show the truly Marxist resolution of those fundamental problems, which had been so difficult to solve that in the course of trying Bogdanov, Lunacharsky and Bazarov 'slid off the rails into idealism'. And these were talented literary men who were able to drag along after them even such a man, such an artist as Maxim Gorky ...

To perform this task, Lenin had to rummage through mountains of literature devoted to questions which he had previously not studied, and most of all in literature about 'modern physics', from which the Machists extracted the arguments for the use of their 'modern philosophy'. And Lenin fulfilled this most difficult task, what is more, in a very short space of time – from February to October 1908. (It should not be overlooked that parallel with the writing of Materialism and Empirio-Criticism Lenin also wrote such journalistic masterpieces as 'Marxism and Revisionism', 'An Evaluation of the Russian Revolution', 'The Agrarian Question in Russia toward the end of the 19th century', 'The Agrarian Programme of the Social Democracy in the Russian Revolution', and 'Leo Tolstoy as a Mirror of the Russian Revolution', not to mention the carrying out of a mass of other duties connected with his role and obligations as theoretician and leader of the Bolshevik fraction of the RSDLP.)

This can be explained in only one way: Lenin had been writing his book not only during these months, but throughout his entire preceding life. Prior to the day when he actually set pen to paper, he had already endured and suffered over this book. Throughout long winter months in Shushenskoe, where, according to the memoirs of N.K. Krupskaya, he studied the classics of world philosophy, including Hegel and his Phenomenology of Spirit; over long conversations with Plekhanov; throughout the correspondence with Lengnik and Bogdanov, in the course of which Lenin's letters (which, alas, have been lost) grew into 'whole long treatises on philosophy' measuring 'three notebooks' ... And, finally, the last meeting with Bogdanov and his friends on Capri in April 1908, which once again convinced him of the urgent and inescapable necessity of giving open, final and decisive battle to Machism.

And even more, there was that state of 'fury' to which he had finally been led by the propaganda of positivism which had been spreading day by day inside the ranks of the RSDLP. This state of fury was dictated by a precise understanding of the damage inherent in Machism both for the party and for the fate of the revolution. And understanding that the best form of defence is a good offence, Lenin declared war on Machism.

Maxim Gorky tried in vain to reconcile Lenin with Bogdanov and persuaded him to come from afar to Capri. Lenin arrived, played chess with Bogdanov, argued with him for a long time, and left in an even sterner frame of mind. A reconciliation had not taken place, and the saddened Gorky waved his hands in puzzlement, unable to understand a thing. Especially the intensity of Lenin's irreconcilability.

Could this really be just because of a few philosophical terms? 'Substance', 'matter', 'complex of elements' ... But what's the matter with you, good gentlemen and comrades, is it really possible to break off your friendship over this? And as for this god-seeking ... After all, Anatoly Vasilievich is hardly building the old god, is he? Surely he understands it in the same manner that Benedict Spinoza did – as just a word. He isn't naming a church authority with this term. He is seeking and building a high moral ideal of the new man, he wants to ennoble the revolution with high moral values so that it won't commit unnecessary stupidities and acts of cruelty ... And these terms, such as god, are clearer and closer to our Russian peasant and to the proletarian who comes from the peasantry ... You can't expect him to read Spinoza. Of course that would be useful, but only when he's able! You're acting in vain, in vain, Vladimir llyich. And in a most inappropriate way ...

And indeed Lenin left Capri not only in an extremely troubled state of mind (for he knew well that it is foolish to wear out one's nerves for nothing, to waste one's time on useless conversations with these 'thinkers'!), but also filled with the resolve to settle accounts with the entire business once and for all, in his own way. Enough was enough. The time had passed for notebooks and discussions. There was nothing more harmful than excessive softness now! War was inevitable. This war would rapidly finish teaching those who had not yet 'made an investigation'.

'What kind of reconciliation can there be, my dear Alexei Maximich? Please, it's ludicrous even to hint at this. Battle is absolutely inevitable ...

'Indeed, herein lies the harm, the tragedy, if even you, a great artist and an intelligent man, have not yet understood what kind of swamp it is they'll crawl into – dragging other people after them – all these god-builders, empirio-critics, empirio-monists and empirio-symbolists! Is it really so difficult to comprehend that behind the entire heap of their bombastic phrases there actually stands, at full height, the terrible figure of the international petit-bourgeoisie with its "complex of ideas", born of the dull oppression of man by external nature and class repression? Is it really so unclear that no matter what beautiful words are used to express this "complex of ideas", it was and remains the most inexpressible vileness, vulgar ideological baseness, the most dangerous vileness, the most vulgar "infection"?!

'And you want to persuade me to collaborate with people who are preaching such things. I'd sooner have myself drawn and quartered.' ... When it was still the summer of 1906, Lenin studied Bogdanov's Empirio-Monism and 'flew into an unusual rage and frenzy'. He then tried, in a friendly fashion, controlling his rage, to drive home to him – both orally and in writing – where, why and how his homespun 'empirio-monistical' logic was diverting him from the main path of revolutionary Marxism. It was in vain. The stubborn Alexander Alexandrovich took the bit between his teeth. And then – one after another – there appeared the Studies in the Philosophy of Marxism, the ludicrous booklets of Berman and Shulyatikov, Bogdanov's articles about Mach, the devil knows what else ... A whole flood.

As he was reading the Studies, article by article, Lenin, in his own words, 'immediately flew into a rage of indignation'. These, of course, were not inoffensive literary amusements, they were far worse, much, much worse ... Now they had organised on Capri a whole literary factory, with open pretensions about playing the role of the brain centre of the entire revolutionary Social-Democracy, the role of the philosophical and theoretical general staff of the Bolshevik fraction!*

This monologue of Lenin is in its entirety simply passages joined together from his letters, especially to A.M. Gorky from February 25, March 16, April 16 and 19 1908, and to A. I. Lyubimov from September 1909. [CW, Vol. 34, pp. 387, 393, 394, 401-402.]

And this was just when the foremost task of every thinking revolutionary Marxist had become the comprehension of all those profound – and largely still unclear, still unfinished – shifts which had occurred and were continuing to occur in the social organism of the land, in the system of contradictory relations between classes and their fractions, between fundamental social forces and the parties representing their interests, as a result of the cataclysm which tragically unfolded from 1905 to 1907. Precisely then, when the entire country was painfully trying to understand: what exactly had happened, why had the long-awaited revolution choked in a sea of blood, for what reasons had it been unable to shatter the rotten foundations of the stupid Romanov-Dubasov monarchy, why had this monarchy proved to be stronger than all the many-millioned democratic forces of a gigantic country? Indeed, before deciding what the party must do next, it was necessary to thoroughly analyse the events which had taken place and their results, to abstract all the lessons from the dramatic experience of the lost battle, to make a clear Marxist diagnosis, to take into account the complexity of the new circumstances and the arrangement of class forces, and to help the revolutionary forces overcome all those political illusions, prejudices and utopian hopes which had caused so much harm and had produced a lack of co-ordination in word and in action.

Lenin tried to explain this to Bogdanov, Lunacharsky and their friends on Capri in April 1908. '... At that time I proposed that they use their common resources and efforts for a Bolshevik history of the revolution, as opposed to the Menshevik-liquidators' history of the revolution, but the Caprians rejected my proposal, since they wanted to occupy themselves not with common Bolshevik matters, but with the propaganda of their particular philosophical views ...' Lenin recalled about a year later (in the letter to students of the Capri party school, from August 30 1909). (CW Vol. 15 p.474)

The point was, of course, not only and not so much that this attraction to philosophy had diverted a group of undoubtedly talented writers and propagandists from matters of primary importance. There were plenty of people in these difficult times who fell by the wayside, abandoning not only Bolshevism but the revolution as a whole. With those sort of people it was wiser to sadly wave one's hand and forget about them.

Here the matter was different. Lenin clearly understood that those 'particular philosophical views' which Bogdanov, Bazarov, Lunacharsky, Suvorov and their co-thinkers were so insistently and ever more actively trying to thrust on the party, were making the heads of the people who had come to believe them absolutely unfit for precisely that more important 'common Bolshevik matter', for the scientific Marxist comprehension of the lessons of the defeated revolution. The discussion centred not on trifles, not on details of understanding, nor on personal tactical disagreements, but on the most profound fundamentals of Marxist cognition, on the logic of the analysis of reality.

I am abandoning the newspaper because of my philosophical binge: today I will read one empirio-critic and use vulgar language, tomorrow I will read another and use obscene words. And Innokenty scolds me, for the cause, for my neglect of The Proletariat. Things are out of whack. But it couldn't be otherwise. [CW Vol. 34 p. 387.] I wouldn't have raised a storm, had I not become unconditionally convinced (and I am becoming more convinced of this each day as I become more acquainted with the sources of the wisdom of Bazarov, Bogdanov and Co.) that their book is ludicrous, harmful, philistine and priestly in its entirety, from beginning to end, from its branches to its roots, to Mach and Avenarius. Plekhanov was completely correct against them in essence, only he wasn't able or he didn't want, or he was too lazy to say this concretely, in detail, simply, without unnecessarily cowing the public with philosophical subtleties. And whatever happens, I want to say this in my own way. Ibid., p.151. [CW Vol. 34, p.388.]

Once he returned from Capri, Lenin plunged headlong into philosophy, pushing aside everything else, no matter how much more important they seemed. 'Never before have I neglected my newspaper so much: I read these wretched Machists for days on end, yet I write articles for the newspaper with incredible haste.' [Ibid., p. 154]

This 'philosophical binge' provoked bewilderment among many people, especially among those who made up Lenin's closest circle. Later, after Vladimir Ilyich's death, M.N. Pokrovsky recalled:

When the argument between Ilyich and Bogdanov on the question of empirio-monism began, we threw up our hands ... The moment was critical. The revolution was receding. The question arose as to some kind of sharp change of tactics, and at this time Ilyich buried himself in the National Library, sat there for days on end, and as a result, wrote a philosophical book ... When all was said and done, Ilyich proved to be right. [Under the Banner of Marxism, 1924, No. 2, p.69. CW Vol. 34, p.391.]

In what way and why did he prove to be right; what was not understood, and why, not only by Bogdanov, Lunacharsky and Bazarov, but by all of that time's acknowledged theoreticians in the Social-Democracy, headed by Kautsky (and what was partially understood only by Plekhanov) – this is what we will try to investigate, trying as well not to intimidate the reader with 'philosophical subtleties'. Subtleties become clear when the main, decisive and determining features are clear.

What is this mystical empirio-monism (Machism, empirio-criticism, the latest positivism, etc., it had a multitude of names), which provoked such a 'furious' reaction in Lenin?

What was the argument actually about?

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