The Metaphysics of Positivism
If we proceed from that oversimplified conception, that Lenin was simply defending the general truths of every type of materialism (i.e. the thesis according to which outside our head, outside our brain, outside our consciousness there exists a real world of natural and socio-historical phenomena, events, and everything that in philosophical language is called matter – the sun, stars, mountains, rivers, cities, factories, statues, tables, chairs, etc., etc.), then the sharpness of the disagreements which arose between Lenin and Plekhanov, on the one side, and Bogdanov, Lunacharsky, Yushkevich and other Machists on the other side, would indeed remain strange and inexplicable.
That outside and independent of our head there exists a real world of things which we sensuously perceive, of objects and phenomena which we see, touch, hear and smell, and which are linked together into a certain enormous whole (into the real world) – does this really need special proof? Doesn't every sensible man who is in a sober state think exactly that? Doesn't he understand that his individual 'I' with its consciousness was not only born at some point, but that sooner or later it will disappear, while the earth and the sun, the cities and villages, the children and grandchildren living under the sun will remain, although they too, in their own time, will give way to other suns and stars, to other people or beings who resemble people?
Could it really be that A. Bogdanov didn't understand this? Could it be that this was not understood by the professor of physics, Ernst Mach, whose name is immortalised in the units of velocity now known to every pilot of a jet-liner? If such is the case, then Lenin's entire polemic with the Machists can indeed be shown to have been an empty waste of time and energy.
But only a naive person who has poorly investigated the essence of the dispute could think that Lenin in his book is defending truisms, self-evident assertions, banalities and trivialities, which are clear to everyone, even the totally uneducated man. But that is precisely how the book is approached by such present-day commentators as Garaudy and Petrović, and during Lenin's time by not only those who were described by M.N. Pokrovsky, but also by the universally recognised theoretical leaders of the Social-Democracy, the official guardians of the theoretical heritage of Marx and Engels. Kautsky generally never attributed any serious significance to philosophical arguments, and therefore published in his journal – without any reservation – all kinds of positivists and empirio-critics. Plekhanov, who had perfectly well scrutinised all the childish helplessness which Bogdanov, Lunacharsky and their co-thinkers had revealed in philosophy, and who had even exposed, in a series of brilliant pamphlets, the ridiculousness of their pretensions to innovation in this area, nevertheless simply didn't see the full danger of the Machist revision of the philosophical foundations of Marxism (as well as the full depth of the roots which had nourished this revisionism).
In his eyes all these 'epistemological amusements' remained as relatively secondary (although, of course, not harmless) quirks on the periphery of the Marxist world outlook, as the fruits of the childish babble of those who are half-educated in philosophy. Hence that condescendingly ironical tone which is consistent throughout his pamphlets – the tone of an acknowledged master who finds it a bit awkward to argue with kindergarten pupils. With people who are unable to distinguish Berkeley from Engels, and Marx from Avenarius. On the purely theoretical plane, these muddlers really didn't deserve any attitude other than: 'A, B, C, D, E, F, G. Now we learn our ABCs ...' This is where Plekhanov placed the period in his polemic with them.
Lenin looked at the situation not only from this angle, but also from another, to which 'Plekhanov didn't pay any attention': he saw the full danger which was present for the fate of the revolution in Russia – and not only in Russia – in the Russian variation of the positivist revision of the philosophical foundations of revolutionary Marxism.
The philosophy of dialectical materialism, materialist dialectics, the logic of the development of the entire Marxist world outlook, the logic of cognition by virtue of which Capital had been written, and finally the strategy based on Capital of the political struggle of the revolutionary movement of the international working class – that is what this revisionism was directed against. So the discussion was not at all about abstract 'epistemological research', but about that 'aspect of the matter' upon which, in essence, depended all the remaining 'aspects' of the Marxist world view, the direction and paths of development of all its remaining component parts. And such an 'aspect of the matter' is called, in competent philosophical language, the essence of the matter.
And history very rapidly showed all the theoretical far-sightedness of Lenin. This was shown to everyone, but most of all to the revolutionary workers of Russia, or, to be more precise, to their most conscious and most advanced representatives, who made up the nucleus of the Bolshevik Party and for whom he wrote his magnificent book. And secondly, it was shown to all the truly advanced representatives of the scientific and technological intelligentsia in Russia (and then throughout the entire world), upon whom the specifically positivist variety of idealism was designed to have a special influence. ('Designed' does not mean that there was a conscious and perfidious intent, an ill-intentioned 'calculation'. The point is that if religion, or religious superstition, objectively, regardless of the good or evil intentions of the priests in their cassocks, was, is, and will remain 'the opium of the people', then positivism of the 20th century, whether it calls itself 'primary', 'secondary' or 'logical', whether it attaches to its name the prefix 'neo' or anything else, or whether or not it even changes its name completely – it remains idealism and in the final analysis will lead to the very same religion.)
Yes, the discussion centred on exceedingly important things: on the damage that had been done by direct or indirect disciples of Mach and Bogdanov, by the willing or unwilling followers of this philosophy. These were people who had not assimilated the main thing – materialist dialectics as the logic and theory of scientific cognition, and, consequently, who had not mastered the ability to think in a scientific manner about contemporary reality, and who were unable to resolve the enormous and difficult problems of our century in a scientific way, on the level of real science of the 20th century.
This was the main topic of Lenin's book. Of course, there still remain in it some 'ABCs'. For without 'ABCs' it is impossible to understand anything else. But in no way is it only 'ABCs', and there are even not so many of them.
And as for the conversations about how Lenin supposedly still wasn't thoroughly acquainted with dialectics when he wrote Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, these are out-and-out falsehoods which could only appear to be true to someone with a very limited (and highly dubious) conception of dialectics itself.
In 1908 Lenin was not only the political leader of the Bolsheviks, but their theoretical leader as well; he not only knew, but understood and used genuine dialectics in resolving all the challenging problems, both of a broadly theoretical and immediately practical nature which arose daily and even hourly before the entire country, and before the working class and the peasantry during the stormy epoch of the grandiose revolutionary upsurge in 1905. A masterful command of materialist dialectics as the real logic of revolutionary cognition was a characteristic of Lenin as the leader of Bolshevism, which was the sole viable force in the ranks of the Social-Democracy at that time.
Lenin knew superbly well the highest historical form of dialectics which had been the 'soul of Marxism' – the dialectics of Capital, dialectics as the logic of cognition of Marx and Engels, materialist dialectics. It was this, and not 'dialectics in general', which he defended in Materialism and Empirio-Criticism.
The same thing applies to the assertions that Lenin at this time still was not acquainted with Hegelian dialectics and became interested in this only later, when he was writing the conspectus which is known as the Philosophical Notebooks. He turned to a special, critical investigation of Hegelian dialectics later. This is true. But it was by no means in the Philosophical Notebooks that he first studied and became familiar with it. As a mature Marxist he had already read Hegel's Logic and Lectures on the History of Philosophy; here, in the course of a critical analysis of them he had simply sharpened, polished and refined the details of the formulas of his understanding of dialectics, which had already been developed and tested in the fires of practice. He refined his materialist understanding of dialectics, preparing to write (as Marx had been preparing in his own time) a brief and clear outline of the fundamentals of dialectics which would be understandable to every literate person.
But he had perfectly well grasped the essence of Hegelian dialectics even earlier. We know that while he was at Shushenskoe he became familiar with the Phenomenology of Spirit, a work where this essence comes through the text much more clearly, vividly and concretely than in the texts of the Science of Logic or the Lectures on the History of Philosophy. The fact that the notes from this period were not preserved, of course, by no means serves as support for the interpretations of Garaudy and Petrović.
While preparing to write a materialistic Science of Logic by retaining everything in Hegel which is truly scientific and not of passing value, and by rigorously purging the Hegelian logic of everything in it connected with idealism, he studied, made notes, and commented on the Hegelian texts at the same time that the cannons of the first world war were thundering in Europe and the great October Revolution was reaching maturity.
In 1908 he defended the rightness of the dialectics of Capital, and he defended its interests in the front lines of the battle for it – along the border which then divided (and now divides) the materialist dialectics of Marx and Engels from the surrogates which resemble it on the surface, including belated Hegelianism. This includes idealism in general as well as the idealist version of dialectics.
Lenin had no doubts that the Machist diversion in the rear lines of revolutionary Marxism was the direct continuation of the attack on materialist dialectics begun earlier by E. Bernstein. This is shown in his note to the article 'Marxism and Revisionism', which concludes the section of this article devoted especially to philosophy.
This section is worth reproducing in its entirety:
In the realm of philosophy revisionism tailed after bourgeois professorial 'science'. The professors went 'back to Kant' – revisionism dragged itself along after the neo-Kantians, the professors repeated for the thousandth time the banalities they had been told by the priests against philosophical materialism, and, with condescending smiles, the revisionists muttered (copying the latest handbook word for word) that materialism had long since been 'refuted'; the professors turned their backs on Hegel as a 'dead dog', and, while they themselves preached idealism, albeit a thousand times more petty and banal than Hegelian idealism, they scornfully shrugged their shoulders when it came to dialectics – and the revisionists crawled after them into the swamp of the philosophical vulgarisation of science, exchanging 'cunning' (and revolutionary) dialectics for 'simple' (and tranquil) 'evolution' ...
It isn't necessary to talk about the actual class significance of such 'corrections' of Marx – the matter is quite clear by itself. We would simply note that Plekhanov was the only Marxist in the international Social-Democracy who, from the standpoint of consistent dialectical materialism, made a criticism of those unbelievable banalities which were repeated at length here by the revisionists. It is all the more necessary to stress this firmly because nowadays, profoundly mistaken attempts are being made to bring forward the old and reactionary philosophical rubbish under the flag of criticising Plekhanov's tactical opportunism.
And in the note to this:
Cf. the book, Studies in the Philosophy of Marxism, by Bogdanov, Bazarov and others. Here is not the place to investigate this book, and I must limit myself for the time being to the declaration that in the very near future I will show in a series of articles or in a special pamphlet that everything said in the text about the neo-Kantian revisionists applies in essence as well to these 'new' neo-Humist and neo-Berkeleyan revisionists. (CW Vol 15, pp. 33-34).
This 'special pamphlet' was the book Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, which Lenin was writing at that time and in which he showed that Machism is the No. 1 enemy of revolutionary Marxism, the 'philosophy of lifeless reaction', and the philosophical foundation of every type of reaction – both in social life and in science.
But then still another question arises. Why was it that A. Bogdanov, who was personally an irreproachable and selfless man, as well as being a Bolshevik at that time, not only took this philosophy for the genuine philosophy of 'modern science', and moreover for the philosophical foundation of the means of the socialist renewal of the earth, for the 'philosophy of the proletariat', but even became a passionate propagandist of this philosophy?
How could this have happened? How could this philosophy have attracted such people as Bogdanov, Lunacharsky and Gorky?
Lenin's book could very well have been given a slightly different title: Materialism and Idealism. And not only in general, but with the addition: In Our Time. Where is the clear-cut dividing line between them, that line where every man must make a choice? What is philosophical idealism and what is philosophical materialism? How do you recognise what you are dealing with, which of these two points of departure is determining the direction of all your thought, regardless of the subject of your reflection: major things or minor, the fate of the earth or the fate of one's country, the problems of genes or quarks, quantum mechanics or the foundations of mathematics, the mysterious origins of personality or the mysterious origins of life on earth?
Here, then, is the question: take your thought, your consciousness of the world, and the world itself, the complex and intricate world which only appears to be simple, the world which you see around you, in which you live, act and carry out your work – whether you write treatises on philosophy or physics, sculpt statues out of stone, or produce steel in a blast furnace – what is the relationship between them?
Here there is a parting of the ways, and the difference lies in whether you choose the right path or the left, for there is no middle here; the middle path contains within itself the very same divergences, only they branch out within it in ever more minute and discrete proportions. In philosophy the 'party of the golden mean' is the 'party of the brainless', who try to unite materialism with idealism in an eclectic way, by means of smoothing out the basic contradictions, and by means of muddling the most general (abstract, 'cellule') and clear concepts.
These concepts are matter and consciousness (psyche, the ideal, spirit, soul, will, etc. etc.). 'Consciousness' – let us take this term as Lenin did – is the most general concept which can only be defined by clearly contrasting it with the most general concept of 'matter', moreover as something secondary, produced and derived. Dialectics consists in not being able to define matter as such; it can only be defined through its opposite, and only if one of the opposites is fixed as primary, and the other arises from it.
The difference and opposition of materialism and idealism is thus very simple, which, on the part of the idealists of various shades, serves as the basis for reproaches directed at materialism, such as 'primitivism', 'grade-school sophistication', 'non-heuristic nature', 'banality', 'being self-evident', etc. (Such a reproach was directed at Lenin as soon as his book was published: 'In general, even if one acknowledges as correct the materialist propositions of Mr Ilyin about the existence of an external world and its cognoscibility in our sensations, then these propositions can nevertheless not be called Marxist, since the most inveterate representative of the bourgeoisie hasn't the least doubts about them,' wrote M. Bulgakov in his review of Materialism and Empirio-Criticism.)
Lenin's position isn't formulated here very precisely. It doesn't consist in the simple acknowledgment of 'the existence of an external world and its cognoscibility in our sensations', but in something else: for materialism, matter – the objective reality given to us in sensation, is the basis of the theory of knowledge (epistemology), at the same time as for idealism of any type, the basis of epistemology is consciousness, under one or another of its pseudonyms (be it the 'psychical', 'conscious' or 'unconscious', be it the 'system of forms of collectively-organised experience' or 'objective spirit', the individual or collective psyche, individual or social consciousness).
The question about the relationship of matter to consciousness is complicated by the fact that social consciousness ('collectively-organised', 'harmonised' experience, cleansed of contradiction) from the very beginning precedes individual consciousness as something already given, and existing before, outside, and independent of individual consciousness. just as matter does. And even more than that. This social consciousness – of course, in its individualised form, in the form of the consciousness of one's closest teachers, and after that, of the entire circle of people who appear in the field of vision of a person, forms his consciousness to a much greater degree than the 'material world'.
But social consciousness (Bogdanov and Lunacharsky take precisely this as the 'immediately given', as a premise not subject to further analysis and as the foundation of their theory of knowledge), according to Marx, is not 'primary', but secondary, derived from social being, i.e. the system of material and economic relations between people.
It is also not true that the world is cognised in our sensations. In sensations the external world is only given to us, just as it is given to a dog. It is cognised not in sensations, but in the activity of thought, the science of which is after all, according to Lenin, the theory of knowledge of contemporary materialism.
Logic as the philosophical theory of cognition is defined by Lenin, following after Marx and Engels, as the science of those universal laws (necessary, independent both of man's will and consciousness), to which the development of the entire aggregate knowledge of mankind is objectively subordinated. These laws are understood as the objective laws of development of the material world, of both the natural and socio-historical world, of objective reality in general. They are reflected in the consciousness of mankind and verified by thousands of years of human practice. Therefore logic as a science borders on and tends to coincide with development theory, but not in its readily given form. Logic, however, according to Bogdanov (Berman, Mach and others) is the collection of 'devices', 'means', 'methods' and 'rules', to which the thinking of each individual is consciously subordinated, while being fully self-aware. At its base (at the base of its theoretical conception) lie all those old principles of formal logic which are taught in school – the law of identity, the denial of contradiction, and the law of the excluded middle.
What is after all 'thought'? To this question, philosophy mainly since times immemorial has searched an answer (and for a long time having developed in its depths into psychology trying to explain what is individual psyche, 'the spirit').
If thought is only 'speech without sound', as Bogdanov suggests (and this is the pivotal line of thought of all positivism), 'mute speech' or the process of development of language systems, then positivism is correct. And here lies the path to idealism.
Another line of thought proceeds from Spinoza. He understands thinking to be an inherent capability, characteristic not of all bodies, but only of thinking material bodies. With the help of this capability, a body can construct its activities in the spatially determined world, in conformity with the 'form and disposition' of all other bodies external to it, both 'thinking' and 'non-thinking'. Spinoza therefore includes thinking among the categories of the attributes of substance, such as extension. In this form it is, according to Spinoza, characteristic also of animals. For him even an animal possesses a soul, and this view distinguishes Spinoza from Descartes, who considered that an animal is simply an 'automaton', a very complex 'machine'.
Thought arises within and during the process of material action as one of its features, one of its aspects, and only later is divided into a special activity (isolated in space and time), finding 'sign' form only in man.
A completely different picture arises when, proceeding from individual experience, it is precisely the verbally formed world which is taken as the starting point in the theory of knowledge. It is all the more easy to yield to such an illusion, since in individual experience, words (and signs in general) are in actual fact just as much given to sensual contemplation as are the sun, rivers and mountains, statues and paintings, etc. etc. Here are the roots of idealism in its 'sign-symbolic' variation. If one proceeds from individual experience, making it the point of departure and basis of the theory of knowledge, then idealism is inevitable. But it is also inevitable if one relies on 'collective experience', if the latter is interpreted as something independent of being, as something existing independently, as something primary.
[E.V. Ilyenkov developed the conception of cognition which is briefly outlined here in many of his works. So that the reader may more clearly understand the position defended in this book, we recommend the following work: Ilyenkov, E.V., Dialectical Logic. Historical and theoretical essays (Moscow 1974) especially the second, seventh and eighth essays. – Ed.]
Thus it turns out that the question of the relationship between consciousness and matter is by no means as trivial as several of Lenin's critics have tried to show. Of course this is true only when the basic question of philosophy is understood in its actual content, and not as a question of the relationship of consciousness to the brain. It is an indisputable fact that such a 'wording' of the basic question of philosophy has frequently arisen in the past and occurs in the present.
Meanwhile it is by no means the relationship of consciousness to the brain which is discussed by both Engels and Lenin, but the relationship of consciousness to nature, to the external world, to objective reality which is given to us in sensation. The question about the relationship of consciousness to the brain is a question which is resolved scientifically and with full concreteness not at all by philosophy, but only by the joint efforts of psychology and the physiology of the brain.
And it is by no means this question which has divided philosophers into materialists and idealists. That man thinks precisely with the help of the brain, and not the liver, was equally clear to Feuerbach, Hegel, Fichte, Spinoza, Descartes, Aristotle and Plato. Descartes even indicated the 'exact place' in the brain where consciousness is located, the conical gland, and Fichte investigated in the most assiduous manner the peculiarities of the human body, thanks to which it became an organ of consciousness and will.
None of the classical idealists had any doubts that man thinks with the aid of the brain, and not any other part of the body. Therefore, they had no such problem, no such question. It was only with the Machists that such a question arose and even turned into an insoluble problem for their philosophy.
Thus when Lenin demands a straight answer from the Machists to the question, 'Does man think with the help of the brain?', then this question is purely rhetorical: it is the equivalent to driving a person into the corner by forcing him to answer directly, 'Do you agree that you walk with the aid of your legs and not your ears?' If the answer is 'yes', then, all the unintelligible constructions of the Machists collapse. If you insist on defending them, you are forced to say 'no', i.e. to express an absurdity which is obvious to everyone (and to you yourself).
For it was not the relationship of consciousness to the brain, but the relationship of consciousness to the external world which made up the question around which the Machists themselves began to quarrel. The relationship of consciousness to the brain is also a very important question, but it is resolved by concrete neuro-psychological research, by psychophysiology.
Lenin states: everything that occurs within the human body, inside the brain, nervous system and sense organs, is the monopoly of natural scientists. But it sometimes begins to occur to them that the resolution of the question about the relationship of consciousness to the brain and to the human body as a whole is also the resolution of the basic question of philosophy, the question about the relationship of all consciousness to the entire external world (external in relationship to consciousness).
It is philosophy which investigates this question. In philosophy discussion is, was and shall be precisely about the relationship of consciousness to the material, objective world of natural and socio-historical phenomena, existing outside the thinking brain. This is the very question which will be answered by no variety of psychophysiology, no matter how refined it is. For the simple reason that it has never studied this question.
In addition, in philosophy the discussion by no means centres exclusively (or even to a great degree) on the relationship of individual consciousness 'to all the rest', but chiefly on the relationship of social consciousness (jointly and consecutively realised in history by millions of thinking brains) – of consciousness in general – to the world outside it.
The whole infinite totality of things, events, and processes which exist in nature and history is called in philosophy objective reality (existing outside the subject and independent of it) or, more succinctly, matter, the material world.
This material world is counterposed equally to the individual thinking brain and to the collective 'thinking brain of mankind', i.e. to 'thinking in general', to 'consciousness in general', to 'the psyche in general', and to the 'spirit in general'. As far as the resolution of the basic question of philosophy is concerned, consciousness, psyche, thinking and spirit are all nothing more than synonyms.
Social consciousness, which develops from generation to generation, differs in principle from 'individual consciousness'. It is impossible to imagine the collective consciousness of people (i.e. that which philosophy means by 'consciousness') as a 'molar unit' (single psyche, single consciousness) which has been repeated over and over again and thereby simply increased in its proportions. The historically developing whole – the entire spiritual culture of mankind – that is what most of all interests the philosopher, that is what is signified in philosophy by the term 'consciousness', and not simply the consciousness of separate individuals. Spiritual culture is formed by a multitude of dialectically-contradictory interactions between them. From similar individual 'psyches' there can develop as a result two, not only different, but directly contradictory psychical formations.
This circumstance was already perfectly well understood by Hegel, although he expressed it in his own way. The collective psyche of people (and not the psyche of the solitary individual with his brain) – developing from century to century – the psyche of mankind, the consciousness of mankind, the thinking of mankind, appears with Hegel under the pseudonym of the 'absolute spirit'. And the separate (individual) psyche is called the 'soul'. This he interprets as a 'particle of the spirit'.
The 'nomenclature' which was accepted in his era contains a great deal of truth within it. But grandiose illusions are connected with it as well. The collective psyche of mankind (spirit), which has already been developing for thousands of years, is actually primary in relation to every separate 'psychic molecule', to every individual consciousness (soul). An individual soul is born and dies (in contrast to Kant, Hegel caustically and ironically ridiculed the idea of the immortality of the soul), but the aggregate – 'total' – spirit of mankind lives and has been developing for thousands of years already, giving birth to ever newer and newer separate souls and once again swallowing them up, thereby preserving them in the make-up of spiritual culture, in the make-up of the spirit. In the make-up of today's living spirit live the souls of Socrates, Newton, Mozart and Raphael – herein lies the meaning and essence of Hegel's – dialectical – interpretation of the immortality of the spirit, notwithstanding the mortality of the soul. One comes into being through the other. Through its opposite.
With all that, Hegel always remains inside the sphere of the spirit, within the bounds of the relationship of the soul to the spirit. All that lies outside this sphere and exists completely separate from it the material world in general – interests him just as little as it interests Mach or any other idealist. But his idealism is much more intelligent, much broader, and for that reason much more dialectical, than the petty, vulgar and narrow idealism of Mach.
For he is concerned with consciousness in its actual dimensions, while Mach is only concerned with individual consciousness. Mach doesn't even think about social consciousness (while science is precisely concerned with it). Therefore, the question of science – what it is, where it comes from and why, according to what laws it develops – generally lies outside his field of vision. As do politics, law, art and morality. Mach never studied the laws of development of these universal forms of consciousness.
In philosophy he is interested only in the relationship of individual consciousness to the brain and sense organs. Therefore he invariably appeals exclusively to the psychic experience of the separate individual. Hence the illusory 'persuasiveness' of his arguments.
It goes without saying that the actual thinking of a physicist or anyone else, especially a great scientist, and the understanding which he has about this cognition, differ essentially from each other. Thus it turns out that the thinking of the very same Mach, in the form as it actually comes into being, by no means resembles the description of this thinking by Mach-the-philosopher, with his pretensions about creating a general theory of consciousness.
Lenin, therefore, had good reason to call Mach a great scholar in the realm of physics, a petty and reactionary philosopher, i.e. a pseudo-specialist in the area which investigates consciousness (the psyche, thinking, the spiritual culture of mankind) and the laws of its origin and development.
If Mach had adopted the same positions in his own field as he had in epistemology, he would have been obliged in that case to look condescendingly upon Newton, Faraday and Maxwell, just as he looked down upon Hegel, Marx and Engels in the field of epistemology. And in physics he would have to have based himself only on personal experience, taken by him as the standard of 'the experience of every physicist', and not on the history and experience of physics as a science.
Lenin proves all this. To think well in his own narrow field – in physics – still doesn't mean that one also thinks well in the realm of the science of thought, consciousness and the psyche. Here it is necessary to know the facts not only according to one's personal experience, but according to the experience of all humanity. It is also necessary to know the history of their investigation not according to personal experience (or to be more precise, not according to personal experience alone), but according to the major landmarks of the development of experience common to all mankind, i.e. according to the history of this science.
A person who allows himself to make judgements about consciousness without having bothered to study what people have already been studying for thousands of years, without becoming acquainted with what is already rather well known and understood in this field, without having studied Spinoza, Kant, Hegel, Marx or Engels – such a person fully deserves the assessment which Lenin made of Mach-the-philosopher.
A physicist is by no means obliged to devote himself professionally to philosophy. Einstein, for example, was and remained a physicist, and he didn't pretend to create philosophical conceptions, much less to publish 'philosophical treatises'. For he understood – and more than once he spoke publicly on this – that the problem of consciousness for him was a thousand times more difficult than his own particular problems, and therefore he wouldn't presume to judge in this area. He made a clear statement about this once to the psychologist Jean Piaget when he became familiar with the problems which Piaget was studying. Einstein was able to understand this, but Mach was not. And that is how he has gone into the history of philosophy. Just as Lenin saw him.
Lenin was therefore indignant when Bogdanov, Bazarov and Lunacharsky entered into a bloc on this with the Mensheviks Valentinov, Yushkevich and others, and began to appeal to Russian Social-Democracy to learn how to think from Mach and according to Mach, and even more so in the field of social science, i.e. precisely where the philosophy of Mach had fully revealed its patent emptiness and reactionary nature.
That is why Lenin came forward so decisively and sharply (both in essence and in tone) against Machism. His intervention was concerned with the fate of a new wave of revolution in Russia. 1905 had not resolved a single one of the fundamental problems which confronted the nation. Whether the new revolution would be victorious, or once again be drowned in a sea of blood – this is actually what the argument was about.
Lenin clearly understood that if the Bolsheviks would think according to Marx, i.e. materialistically and dialectically, then they would be able to lead the proletariat of Russia to a decisive victory, to the actual resolution of the fundamental contradictions of the country's development.
Hence it is clear that it was not simply philosophical materialism in general that Lenin defended in his book. He defended scientific (i.e. materialist) dialectics. Dialectics as the logic and theory of knowledge of contemporary materialism. People who don't understand this evidently do not know certain indisputable facts concerning the essence of the ideological struggle of the days when Lenin was writing his book. These facts should be recalled.
Let us introduce a rather extensive excerpt (it can't be helped!) from a book which appeared a year before Materialism and Empirio-Criticism: 'Among the antiquated parts of the well-proportioned edifice, raised by the efforts of the genial author of Capital, which undoubtedly need repair, and major repair at that, are, first and foremost, we are profoundly convinced, the philosophical foundations of Marxism, and, in particular, the celebrated dialectics.'
Let us interrupt the excerpt with a brief commentary. The author who is cited here was 'also' a Marxist and also belonged at one time to the Bolsheviks, just like A. Bogdanov. After the October Revolution he acknowledged the correctness of Lenin, entered the ranks of the RCP and even taught philosophy until the end of his days, as a professor at the Y.M. Sverdlov Communist University. This was Y. Berman, author of the book Dialectics in the Light of the Modem Theory of Knowledge (Moscow, 1908). He participated as a co-author of the same book, Essays in the Philosophy of Marxism, which Lenin renamed for all time as the Essays Against the Philosophy of Marxism.
Let us continue the quotation; it very effectively throws light on the situation in philosophy during those days, for it allows us to understand what it was that attracted not only Berman, but Bogdanov and Lunacharsky, to Mach. '... The need to investigate the founding principles of doctrine, the need to reconcile the points of departure of Marxist philosophy with the latest scientific conquests' – this is how Berman himself explains the motive of his work in philosophy. After all, the motive itself is a worthy one. But why exactly was it that while acting in the spirit of this noble motive Berman suddenly began to attack the dialectic? What was dialectics guilty of in his eyes?
Dialectics was guilty of not only 'not agreeing' with the latest scientific achievements (and at that time, these were the achievements of Mach, Einstein, Ostwald, Poincaré, and other no less outstanding natural scientists), but it was also because (so it appeared to Berman and his co-thinkers) it was none other than dialectics which was to blame for all the catastrophes which began to occur in the ranks of the Social-Democracy after the death of Engels. This includes both the failures and consequent victims of the 1905 Revolution, and the theoretical errors which led to these failures.
Hegel was to blame for all this, with his pernicious influence on Marx and Engels, which was then passed on, like an infection, to their disciples – to Kautsky, Plekhanov and Mehring. And Berman sincerely wonders, 'Why is a revolutionary attracted to the "trinkets of Hegelian verbiage", when there is such clear, "genuinely scientific" thinking as the thought of Ernst Mach?' It is with Mach's guidance that a revolutionist must rid himself of the illness of Hegelian dialectics, of the anaemia of dialectical categories. 'No matter what was said by Messrs. Plekhanov, Mehring and others, no matter how passionately they assured us that we would find in the works of Hegel, Marx and Engels all the information necessary for the resolution of our doubts in the field of philosophical thought; that, moreover, everything that has been done after them is eclectic nonsense or, in the best instance, only a more or less successful paraphrase of the philosophical ideas of Hegel, we cannot and should not cut ourselves off with a Chinese wall from all the attempts to illuminate the basic problems of thought in a way other than Marx and Engels had done.' [Berman, Y., Dialectics in the Light of the Modern Theory of Knowledge, pp. 135-136.]
In the field of scientific thinking we must equal the method of thinking which Ernst Mach uses in his field (in physics) and explains in a popular way (this he does as a philosopher). Such was the conclusion and sincere conviction not only of Berman, but Bogdanov and Lunacharsky. 'The philosophy of Mach expresses the most progressive tendencies in one of the two basic areas of scientific cognition in the field of the natural sciences. The philosophy of Mach is the philosophy of contemporary natural science', writes A. Bogdanov in his introductory article to the book, The Analysis of Sensations, by E. Mach. The Mensheviks come to the same conclusion, despite the opinion of their leader Plekhanov who was also infected by the antiquated 'Hegelianism'. Therefore, in the realm of philosophy it was expedient to immediately form a pact with them. It was both possible and necessary to write a collective work 'on the philosophy of Marxism' with them – with Valentinov, Yushkevich and others. It was possible and necessary, as the fundamental task of this collective work, to discredit dialectics, which was preventing people from assimilating 'the most revolutionary' method of thinking of Ernst Mach and Richard Avenarius. They, and not Marx and Engels, should become the classical philosophers of revolutionary Social-Democracy, of revolutionary Marxism.
Such were the basic spirit and fundamental idea of this 'collective work', of the book Essays in the Philosophy of Marxism; such was the basic thought which united this authors' collective of ill repute. For Bogdanov, Berman and Lunacharsky, the objective reality of the 'external world' was a matter of little consequence, little interest, and little importance. In any case, 'in the interests of the Social-Democracy and contemporary science', it was generally possible to pay no attention to it, to brush it aside. Was the discussion really about 'objective Reality'? Could the argument really be about whether or not the sun and stars actually exist? The argument centred on a much more important question: about which method of thinking revolutionary democracy in Russia would henceforth profess – the method of the Marxists, derived from the 'Hegelian', or the 'scientific' method, derived from Mach.
And as to whether the sun and stars actually exist, and even more so, just as we see them – as shining dots on the black dome of the sky – in the final analysis what difference does it make? We can even agree that the stars, as we see them, are simply complexes of our visual sensations, projected by our imagination on a screen of celestial space. It makes no difference whatsoever: we will see them just as before. But then we would at last be thinking about them 'scientifically'. And not only about them, i.e., in natural science, but also in the field of the social sciences, political economy, law and politics.
Such was the logic which led the Russian empirio-critics Bogdanov, Bazarov, Lunacharsky and Berman, along with Valentinov and Yushkevich to the positions which they outlined as a joint philosophical platform in the Essays in the Philosophy of Marxism.
And all this was under conditions when the issue of particular importance was a clear and distinct orientation of theoretical thinking, which is given by the materialist dialectics of Marx and Engels. Lenin was able to use it, understanding perfectly well that the one scientific – dialectical – logic of theoretical thought demands first of all an absolutely precise and strict analysis of the contradictions which had matured in Russia. In all their objectivity. And then the working out of the most skilful means of their resolution, means which are absolutely concrete.
But Mach and the Machists taught people to look upon all contradictions (as well as all the other categories connected with contradiction, especially negation) as simply a state of discomfort and conflict within the organism (or brain), as a purely subjective state which the organism wants to escape from as soon as possible, in order to find physical and spiritual 'equilibrium'.
Could it have been possible to invent something more counterposed to Marxist dialectics and more hostile to it than such an understanding of contradiction? But this was precisely the understanding taught not only by Mach and Avenarius, but by Bogdanov and Berman.
Here is how Berman explained the problem of contradiction. During the process of an organism's adaptation to surroundings, inside the organism there sometimes arise strivings in opposite directions; a conflict arises between the two ideas and, consequently, between the utterances which express them. According to Berman, contradiction is a situation in which speech collides against speech, the spoken word against spoken word, and nothing else. This situation occurs only in speech, and any other understanding of contradiction is, he says, anthropomorphism of the purest water, or the 'ontologisation' of a strictly linguistic phenomenon. 'Undoubtedly', writes Berman, '"identity", "contradiction", and "negation", designate nothing more than processes taking place solely in the realms of ideas, abstractions and thinking, but by no means in things ... [Berman, Y., Dialectics in the Light of the Modern Theory of Knowledge, Moscow, 1908, pp. 5-6.]
The relationship of conflict between two psychophysiological states of the organism, expressed in speech – this is what contradiction is for Berman. And this is the general position of all Machists. They found completely unacceptable the position of materialist dialectics about the objectivity of contradiction, as the identity of opposites, or as the meeting point of extremes in which these opposites pass into each other. All these elements of Marxist logic appeared to them to be the pernicious verbal garbage of 'Hegelianism', – and nothing more. The logic of contemporary scientific thinking had to be thoroughly cleansed of any similar 'verbal garbage', which first of all required that they prove the 'non-scientific nature' of the principle of the identity of opposites. This the Russian Machists zealously set out to do.
For them, this principle of the identity of opposites was the sophists' way of turning scientific concepts inside out. Scientific concepts, insofar as they are scientific, are subordinated in the strictest manner to the principle of identity: A= A. 'To declare contradiction to be a fundamental principle of thinking, just as lawful as the principle which is its opposite, is the equivalent therefore to an act of spiritual suicide, to a renunciation of thinking ...' [Berman, Y., Dialectics in the Light of the Modern Theory of Knowledge, p. 164.] Berman stated in summarising his reasoning on this subject.
Such is the orientation of the Machists – to forbid the comprehension of objective contradictions. And this ban – in the name of 'modern science' – was imposed on thinking at precisely the moment when such comprehension was particularly necessary. Materialist dialectics orientated scientific thinking toward a concrete analysis of the country's class contradictions in all their objectivity. But the Machist understanding of scientific thinking in actual fact, even if despite the will of some of its adherents, led to a renunciation of the comprehension of these contradictions. This was the inevitable consequence of the sharply negative attitude of the Machists toward dialectics.
But in order to ground their particular understanding of thinking, they needed a corresponding philosophical base. Materialism, and the dialectic indissolubly connected with it, didn't suit them at all. As the basis for their 'scientific method' they had to introduce something else – empirio-criticism.
Science (the scientific understanding of reality), according to this philosophy, is a system of pronouncements combining into one non-contradictory complex of elements of 'our experience' and sensation. The non-contradictory complex of symbols, bound together in accord with the requirements and prohibitions of formal logic. These requirements and prohibitions, in the opinion of the Machists, reflect nothing in objective reality. They quite simply are the requirements and norms of working with symbols, and logic is the accumulation of the methods of this work. Logic, therefore, is a science which reflects nothing in objective reality, but which simply gives a sum of rules regulating the work with symbols of any type.
Work with symbols. In the name of what? What end does this work pursue? Where do its norms come from? The Machists also have a ready answer to this. 'If the norms of law have as their goal the upholding and preservation of a given socioeconomic structure, then the norms of thought must have as their final goal the adaptation of the organism to its surroundings.' [Berman, Y., Dialectics in the Light of the Modern Theory of Knowledge, p. 137.]
From the requirements of the organism (i.e. from the requirements of man interpreted in an entirely biological way) the Machists derive their understanding of thought. From the need of equilibrium, from the supposedly innate need to eliminate all contradictions of any type. 'Of course, thinking which is absolutely free from contradictions is only an ideal to which we must come as close as possible; but the fact that we have been very far from this, both in past thought as well as in the present, by no means signifies that we should turn away from the struggle with contradiction ...' [ibid, p.165]
Thinking, as well as all the other psychical functions of man, is directly explained here as an activity directed toward the preservation of equilibrium (or the restoration of destroyed equilibrium) as the immanent goal located in the organism of every individual.
'Every organism is a dynamic system of physico-chemical processes, i.e. a system in which the separate processes support each other in a state of equilibrium.' [ibid., p.97.] Equilibrium, understood as the absence of any states of conflict whatsoever within the organism, proves here to be the supreme principle of thinking, of logic as a system of rules, the observance of which guarantees the achievement of this goal. The goal is to reach a state where the organism feels no needs whatsoever, but exists in a steady state of rest and immobility.
It is easy to see how unfit for the thinking of a revolutionist the logic is which is derived from such an understanding of thought. This logic made any mind which was subordinated to it absolutely blind with regard to the contradictions of reality standing before it; blind to the contradictions of the most realistic facts in the sphere of material (economic) relations between classes. This logic blinded the mind with regard to the very essence of the revolutionary crisis which had matured in the land, in the system of relations between people.
The materialist dialectic of Marx directed the thinking of the revolutionist toward an analysis of these contradictory relations. The idealist metaphysics of Mach turned his attention away from such an analysis.
Lenin clearly saw that a revolutionist who had adopted such a logic of thought would inevitably be transformed from a revolutionist into some kind of capricious creature ignoring the real contradictions of life and trying to foist his own arbitrary will upon it. He therefore began to explain to Bogdanov, Lunacharsky and all their co-thinkers the nature of the philosophy to which they had fallen prisoner, and the terrible nature of the infection which had entered their brains. He had to explain this not only to them, but to the whole party and to all those worker-revolutionists who had been imprudent enough to believe the scientific authority of Bogdanov, Bazarov, Berman and Lunacharsky. He had to decisively rescue them from this pestilence, impede the further dissemination of the Machist infection and at the same time cut short the Menshevik slander that Machism had been adopted by the Bolsheviks as their philosophical ideology, that Machism was the logic of Bolshevism, and consequently the root of its departure from the traditions of the Second International and the source of its break with Plekhanov.
Lenin declared firmly and clearly: the philosophical banner of Bolshevism was and remains materialist (yes, materialist, and not Hegelian!) dialectics, the dialectics of Marx and Engels.
Mach's scheme of thinking is the scheme (logic) of thinking of an empiricist in principle who is trying to turn the peculiarities of an historically limited mode of thinking into a universal definition of thinking in general. This scheme corresponds as much as possible to the frame of mind of the petty-bourgeois philistine who is alarmed by the revolution and concerned with one thing – how to preserve the equilibrium inside his little universe or how to restore this equilibrium if it has been upset, how to restore his lost comfort, both material and spiritual, by eliminating from it all the contradictory elements. By any means and at any price.
It is a catastrophe if the scheme of this thinking penetrates the mind of a revolutionist and begins to be his guide. The philistine who has finally lost his equilibrium then becomes transformed into an enraged petty-bourgeois, into a 'pseudo-left', while the revolutionist who has become like him turns into the leader of such 'lefts'. Or, having lost his balance, he begins to look for a way out not in a 'r-r-revolutionary' frenzy, but in the quiet lunacy of religious seekings, in the search for a kind little god.
Bogdanov, for instance, was (very sincerely) a man of indomitable revolutionary will, which was both unbending and irreconcilable. But this energy was always looking for an outlet which was a bit more direct and straightforward. He never wanted to recognise any detours to his goal, and he wasn't able to seek them out. Once he had seen in Mach's schemes of thinking the 'philosophical confirmation' of the correctness of these positions, he began to think and act in their spirit in an ever more convinced and consistent way. And this rapidly led him away from Lenin, from Bolshevism, and from the conscious acceptance of materialist dialectics.
Another pole within Russian Machism was Lunacharsky. This highly educated intellectual and humanist possessed a character that was much softer than Bogdanov's; he had a much less iron-like will. He was much more inclined to making declamations on a moral-ethical plane, or to constructing ideals, and he found in Machism the philosophical justification of precisely this weakness. He ardently began to seek and build 'an earthly revolutionary equivalent to God'. But the searches for a god on this earth were no more fruitful than the searches for him in heaven, and Lenin tried to explain this.
Mother-history, who is the true mother of philosophical, political and all other ideas, confirmed the correctness of Lenin and showed the incorrectness of his opponents. And she continues her confirmation.
History, as Hegel often used to say, is a truly terrifying judge. A judge who in the final analysis makes no mistakes, as opposed to many other judges and courts of law. But here she has already passed her sentence, which is final and subject to no appeal. Lenin proved to be correct, and Bogdanov, Bazarov, Lunacharsky, and Berman were incorrect. After Lenin's book, no one among the Bolshevik ranks dared to openly declare and defend his Machist frame of mind.
There were, it is true, those who sympathised with Mach and Bogdanov, but now they had to do this in silence. And Bogdanov, who wasn't able or willing to investigate theoretically the interconnections of the material (economic) contradictions within the country (interconnections which were moreover very dynamic), finally became muddled in politics as well.
When he had finally become convinced that he was helpless in politics, Bogdanov devoted himself to that which he understood, to biology, medicine, and the life of a physician. He died in 1928 while conducting a risky medical experiment with his own blood. A long obituary was published about him along with his portrait in the journal Under the Banner of Marxism, treating him as a hero of medicine and as a man of crystalline purity.
But his disciples who accepted his views as 'genuine scientific philosophy' turned to experiments far from the medical field. These were the vagaries of the Proletcult in art. These were the risky experiments in the country's economics during the 1920s, which were based on the mechanical 'theory of equilibrium', directly descended from Avenarius and Mach.
Lenin, of course, did not and could not foresee all this in all its concreteness at that time. But he clearly saw that great misfortunes were concealed in Machism for revolutionaries and for the revolution itself.
The objection can be made: isn't this somewhat of an idealist over-estimation of the strength and power of philosophy in general, and not only the philosophy of Mach?
Of course, the thinking of people is formed first of all not by teachers and philosophers, but by the real conditions of their lives.
As Fichte said, the kind of philosophy you choose depends upon the type of person you are. Everyone is attracted to a philosophy which corresponds to the already formed image of his own thinking. He finds in it a mirror which fully presents everything that earlier existed in the form of a vague tendency, an indistinctly expressed allusion. A philosophical system arms the thinking (consciousness) of the individual with self-consciousness, i.e. with a critical look at oneself as if it were from the side, or from the point of view of the experience common to all mankind, of the experience of the history of thinking.
Within the bounds of the experience which Bogdanov and his co-thinkers possessed, no room could be found for a subject such as a country which was involved in the process of capitalist development, in a process which had deposited its own, new and specific, contradictions of development on the old, well-known and still unresolved contradictions of before. The mind which had been formed on an analysis of particular scientific and technical problems, and which had been directed toward the resolution of these problems, gave up and was lost before the picture that was so complex, extremely differentiated, and yet unified.
In particular, this was patently revealed when the problem on the agenda was the drawing of the lessons from the defeat of the Revolution of 1905-1907. In order to draw the true lessons of the defeat – and only those could be useful for the future – what was most of all needed was the strictest theoretical analysis of the course of the revolution, beginning with its causes and ending with an analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of the classes which had collided in this revolution. An analysis was required which was absolutely sober, absolutely objective, and which was made, besides, in the interests of the revolution. The materialist dialectics of Marx and Engels was directed precisely at such an analysis, demanded it unconditionally, and armed one's thinking with the corresponding logic.
The heads of the future Machists were not prepared to carry out such a task. They then began to search for some kind of instrument which was a bit more simple and a 'bit more effective'. Machism was precisely suited for such ends.
When the revolution had been drowned in blood, the demand for Machist philosophy grew much stronger. Of course, not only Machist philosophy was in demand. So were open mysticism, and pornography. Times of reaction are very difficult for one's mental health. The disappointment of revolutionary hopes is a terrible thing.
The hopes for progress and for democratic transformation begin to appear to be impossible illusions of ideals which are alluring but which can never be realised in the real world. The heroes of 1905 who tried to bring them into being 'here and now' seem to be naive utopians or, even worse, self-sufficient adventurists ...
And so, as he thought about the future, Bogdanov wrote a science fiction novel which deals with socialism.
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