The Metaphysics of Positivism


When, in his Philosophical Notebooks, Lenin sharply and categorically formulates his views on materialist dialectics, views which have been polished to the point of becoming aphorisms, he formulates them by no means as simply (and even not so much) as conclusions derived from the new critical review of the works of Hegel which he had undertaken. He presents them more (and even primarily) as the results of his entire struggle over many years in the realm of philosophy. He had to wage this struggle with the Machists, with the defenders of ‘subjective sociology’, with the ‘legal Marxists’, and with those tendencies toward a dogmatic ossification of Marxist thought which became distinct among the theoreticians of the Second International (particularly among Plekhanov and his disciples).

To try to understand and explain the formulations in the Philosophical Notebooks which are devoted to dialectics merely as the alternatives and antitheses of the formulations of Hegelian philosophy, merely as the materialistically reworked positions of Hegel, means to understand them from the very beginning in a much too narrow and formal manner (i.e. in a manner which is ultimately incorrect).

Similarly, it is impossible to understand the content of Materialism and Empirio-Criticism if the general philosophical positions developed here are seen only to be the result of the polemic with the subjective idealism of the Machists, if they are seen only in the context of this argument. In such a case, the documents which represent two crucial stages in the development of Lenin’s philosophical thought appear in a false light. Hence arises the legend, according to which in Materialism and Empirio-Criticism Lenin defended only the general axioms of all materialism (while supposedly not paying any particular attention to dialectics), while in the Philosophical Notebooks he conducted a special study of the problems of dialectics. And that is why the basic propositions of these two crucial philosophical works must be considered only within the framework and boundaries of the corresponding investigation. Outside of these limits, Lenin’s fundamental positions prove to be not only insufficient, but even inexact.

For instance, the concept (conception) of matter which is elucidated in Materialism and Empirio-Criticism is supposedly ‘one-sided’ and ‘only in its epistemological aspect’ . Within the limits of the debate with the Machists, it is said, such a conception would be fully sufficient, insofar as the Machists concentrated exclusively on epistemology, and here it would be sufficient to counterpose to them only the epistemological aspect. If, however, the problem of matter is examined more broadly, without limiting oneself to the task of refuting subjective idealism alone, then Lenin’s definition supposedly must be considered to be too narrow. This definition must be ‘broadened’, by including within it the particular ‘ontological aspect’ . The same goes for the conception of reflection. Thus arose the version whereby in Materialism and Empirio Criticism we are simply dealing with ‘the one-sidedly epistemological’ aspect of the philosophy of Marxism, or simply epistemology. Hence is derived the necessity to ‘complete’ Lenin’s definitions with their particular ‘ontological’ complement.

On the other hand, when reference is made to the Philosophical Notebooks, to the propositions which are clearly formulated on its pages, then they, too, in their own turn, are interpreted as propositions which are correct exclusively within the context of the special polemic with Hegel, and apart from this context are supposedly ‘one-sided’, ‘incomplete’ and ‘insufficient’ . In other words, they, too, cannot be taken ‘literally’ as general philosophical truths of Marxism. It turns out that at no point which is concerned with the materialist dialectic can Lenin be understood ‘literally’ . He must be understood only ‘figuratively’, only with reservations which impart to his theses an opposite meaning.

Lenin’s monolithic solution of the problem stretched out over many years and actually was a continuation of the same struggle in 1908, in 1914, and 1922 (the year he published the article ‘On the Significance of Militant Materialism’); yet it disintegrates before somebody’s eyes into a multitude of utterances which not only have no mutual ties, but which directly contradict each other. The task of reconstructing Lenin’s genuine views of materialist dialectics becomes transformed into a purely formal job of co-ordinating (harmonising) his various statements concerning this subject. This is what happens when Lenin’s actual conception of the essence of materialism and dialectics is detected in neither Materialism and Empirio Criticism nor the Philosophical Notebooks. At one time Berman and Bogdanov read corresponding statements in Anti-Duhring and Capital, but they were unable to tie them together within the framework of a unified and consistent conception, for they saw formal logical contradictions between these statements. In addition they had earlier driven into their heads an anti-dialectical understanding of logic which is reduced to the fact that logic is the science of the ‘specific’ forms and laws of thinking, which in turn is understood as a purely subjective process, immediately given to the logician in the form of the movement of words, terms, and sign-symbols.

If it is precisely this which is understood by the term ‘logic’, and all other ‘meanings of the term’ are declared a priori to be illegitimate and incorrect, then, yes, Lenin’s propositions, in which the given term is used, do indeed prove to ‘contradict’ one another.

However, Lenin understood logic to be something else and never considered the interpretation described above to be the only correct explanation.

Following Engels and Marx as opposed to Mach and Berman, Lenin always understood logic both as the science of the forms and laws of development of the actual thinking accomplished by mankind and as the subject of investigation by the specialised logician who was resisting him, in the form of the history of all human culture – science, technique, law, art, and so forth. In other words, as an investigation in the form of the historically developed forms of collective (social) consciousness (cognition, test, these are synonyms). Laws which are independent of will and consciousness and which act in cognition with the force of objective necessity, while finally forcing a way through into individual thinking – these laws are for Lenin his logic laws and logical forms. These are not those methods which are consciously applied in practice by this or that person, this or that historically given association of thinking individuals, not those specific laws of thinking which are by no means studied either in philosophy or in dialectics, but most of all in psychology.

But in reading Lenin, all the words he uses must be understood precisely as Lenin understood them. And if they are read in that way, then the propositions, according to which dialectics is both the logic and the theory of knowledge of modern materialism i.e. of Marxism, are the most precise terminological expression of Lenin’s position, which runs throughout the entire text of Materialism and Empirio Criticism, and the Philosophical Notebooks, as well as the article ‘On the Significance of Militant Materialism’ .

The theory of knowledge, if it pretends to be a science, i.e. a conception of the forms and laws of development of cognition and not simply a description of psycho-physiological, linguistic or psychological conditions of cognition (i.e. circumstances which change not only from century to century, but from country to country and even from individual to individual), also must be nothing but a science of the universal laws of development of general spiritual culture. But in this conception, the theory of knowledge also coincides with the science of thinking, and thereby with dialectics. The latter is both historically and essentially nothing but the totality of the universal (and therefore objective) laws reflected in the course of development of mankind’s spiritual culture. Dialectics is also the totality of the forms of natural and socio-historical development in its universal form. For this reason the laws of dialectics are laws of development of things themselves, the laws of development of the self-same world of natural and historical phenomena. These laws are realised by mankind (in philosophy) and verified as to their objectivity (their truth) by the practice of transforming both nature and socio-economic relations.

Logical ‘parameters’ of thinking are the name for those schemas, and laws to which the process of thinking is subordinated – regardless of whether we want it or not. This happens even despite our wishes, and even independent of whether we are conscious of them or not, whether we understand them correctly or not, whether we put them into words precisely or not.

However there is a big difference: whether we subordinate ourselves to these laws in our conscious thinking or whether they act in this thinking in spite of the norms and laws which we consciously apply. In the first instance, the logical (dialectical) laws are realised by us freely, orienting our cognition toward the reflection of the dialectics of the external world, and in the second instance they impose themselves on us forcefully, breaking our consciously applied methods and rules, compelling us to subordinate ourselves to the dialectical laws against our will, under the powerful pressure of facts, experimental data, material interests and other circumstances which are external to our conscious will.

In analysing the crisis of physics, Lenin demonstrated the extreme importance of the fact that, in their own field, at every step, scientists (and especially those who, like Mach are inclined to philosophical reflection) are forced to think not only in disagreement with the logic and theory of knowledge which they consciously advocate, but in direct opposition to all its axioms and postulates. And, as long as he is thinking as a physicist, even Mach forgets all about the principles of the ‘economy’ and ‘simplicity’ of thought, about the ‘ban on contradiction’ and so forth. Through this gap between consciously advocated epistemological doctrine and the real logic of thinking, dialectics spontaneously (i.e. despite will and consciousness) works its way and penetrates into scientific thinking.

Hence a paradoxical phenomenon arises: dialectics becomes the actual logic of the development of physics even under conditions where an individual physicist in his conscious logical orientation remains a positivist, i.e. an anti-dialectician. Forced, indeed, to think dialectically, he does this, however, with extreme reluctance, resisting, showing opposition and even trying to ‘justify’ the involuntary course of thinking in their own (as before anti-dialectical) terminology, in the positivist system of logical and epistemological ideas.

Lenin proves that to be consciously guided in cognition and in practice by dialectics which is understood precisely as logic, as the theory of knowledge and practice, is preferable and more ‘useful’ for natural science than, after long opposition to it and against one’s will, to subordinate oneself to this logic as if to the elemental force of the process into which we are all drawn and in which we all participate – whether according to our own free will or against it.

Lenin understood perfectly well that this is the same relationship which exists between the spontaneous workers movement, which is ‘pushed slightly’ in the direction of socialism, by the powerful pressure of the entire accumulation of objective circumstances, and the theory of scientific socialism, which is actively introduced into the consciousness of the working class from without, by theoretical consciousness.

This conception, which both ‘economism’ and Menshevism lacked, has the most direct relationship to Lenin’s resolution of the question about the relationship of the theory of knowledge to that real cognition which is carried out by the natural sciences.

In his attempts to defend Machist positions in the theory of knowledge from Lenin’s criticism, Bogdanov recalls ‘one episode from the polemic between two political fractions of the Russian Marxists. The Bolshevik N. Lenin once said in the book What Is To Be Done? that the working class is incapable, independently, without the help of the socialist intelligentsia, of raising itself above the ideas of trade unionism and arriving at the socialist ideal. This phrase escaped completely by accident, in the heat of the polemic with the “economists”. It had no organic ties with the fundamental views of the author. This did not prevent the Menshevik writers from concentrating their exultant polemic over the next three years on Lenin’s statement, with which he supposedly proved for all time the antiproletarian character of Bolshevism. I even vaguely recall – perhaps I am mistaken? – that they wanted to erect a monument to Lenin for the fact that he had “buried Bolshevism among the Russian workers” . . .’

Isn’t this clear? Lenin’s position, which fundamentally separated revolutionary Marxism from all forms of ‘tail-ism’, is considered by Bogdanov to be an ‘accidental phrase’. But it is most noteworthy that he makes his assessment precisely in the context of the argument over the relationship of a clearly conceived theory of knowledge (and philosophy in general) to the spontaneous development of this self-same knowledge (science).

Everywhere, he says, there is the same ‘accidental’ (and fundamentally ‘incorrect’) statement, for according to Bogdanov, the working class is capable, ‘on its own’, of elaborating ‘a truly proletarian world view’, without the active assistance of ‘any of the intelligentsia there’, and natural science is also capable ‘on its own’, from a self-analysis of its ‘methods’, to elaborate a ‘scientific epistemology’ without the assistance of ‘dusty epistemologists’ . He gives the example of Mach as the model of such a ‘genuinely scientific epistemology’ and theory of knowledge.

In his theory of the workers’ movement, Bogdanov objectively draws nearer to what Lenin aptly and precisely designated as the position of ‘tailism’ in the workers’ movement and as the propagation of the advantages of spontaneity over a theoretically conscious foundation. The Russian Machist preached the same thing in discussing the role of the theory of knowledge in the development of knowledge. Here we find the purest ‘tailism’ in philosophy, condemning it to the role of a vehicle for natural science. And a very heavy vehicle besides, which, because of its ‘lack of manoeuvrability’, hinders the offensive of the natural sciences against the secrets of nature. In the same way, the political ‘tailism’ of Plekhanov and Bogdanov in 1917 clearly showed that it could play no other role than that of heavy chains on the legs of the revolutionary proletariat. Here the analogy is perfect.

Precisely because of his Machist view of consciousness and cognition, Bogdanov was forced to set his hopes on the fact that natural science, by virtue of its own objectively necessary striving, would develop by itself, without the assistance of philosophers, a theory of knowledge, and do this even better than the philosophers. Here the connection between his political and philosophical ‘tailism’ (i.e. positivism) is evident.

On the other hand, what is also evident is the organic interconnection which exists between Lenin’s basic line of argumentation in Materialism and Empirio-Criticism and his aphorisms about dialectics which appear in the Philosophical Notebooks.

When Lenin writes there that ‘dialectics is the theory of knowledge of (Hegel and) Marxism: this is the “aspect” of the matter (it is not “an aspect” but the essence of the matter) to which Plekhanov, not to speak of other Marxists, paid no attention’, then this is by no means an ‘accidental statement’, but an extremely precise expression of the author’s basic positions, the essence of his views on dialectics, the same ‘essence of the matter’ which Lenin defends in Materialism and Empirio Criticism.

It is there that he both criticises Bogdanov and his co-thinkers for their complete ignorance of this essence, and that he reproaches Plekhanov for the fact that, although he correctly defends materialism, he ‘turns no attention’ to dialectics specifically as a theory of knowledge (about dialectics ‘in general’, Plekhanov wrote a fair amount, but about dialectics specifically as a theory of knowledge and a logic – he wrote almost nothing). The general inability to pose the question about the relationship of dialectics to ‘the recent revolution in natural science’, for which Lenin reproached Plekhanov, has its roots precisely here – in the ignorance of dialectics as the theory of knowledge and the logic of modern materialism.

Hence the inability of Plekhanov to counterpose the materialist theory of knowledge to Machist epistemology, and to develop a genuinely positive counter-conception to the Machist ideas about the bonds between philosophy and natural science. His criticism of Machism remains, in essence, purely negative and destructive, without suggesting anything in place of what has been destroyed.

In place of the Machist conception of cognition which he demolishes, and in the course of this ‘destruction’, Lenin gives an explanation of dialectics as the genuine theory of knowledge and logic of Marx and Engels. This is the advantage of Lenin’s criticism of Machism over Plekhanov’s.

The Philosophical Notebooks continue the same line. It is here that the following is written: ‘This aspect of dialectics (e.g., in Plekhanov) usually receives inadequate attention: the identity of opposites is taken as the sum-total of examples (“for example, a seed”, “for example, primitive communism”. The same is true of Engels. But it is “in the interest of popularisation ...”) and not as a law of cognition (and as a law of the objective world.)’ *

Ever newer and newer examples, confirming the correctness of universal dialectical propositions about development, can be introduced without end, but the essence of the matter consists in revealing dialectics as the system of the laws of motion of cognition, which reflect the universal laws of the objectively developing world. Dialectics is not the totality of purely subjective methods and rules applied in cognition by any scientist.

The scientist actually knows the methods and rules of scientific cognition better than any specialist in epistemology. The scientist need not learn these methods and rules from philosophy. From the materialistically explained theory of knowledge he can on the other hand learn something else: the dialectical conception of the logic of scientific thought, which, according to Lenin, is a synonym for dialectics.

The reader who has not understood from the very beginning that Materialism and Empirio Criticism deals specifically with this question, will understand virtually nothing in this work (or else he will understand things incorrectly, he will misunderstand them).

In their conception of logic, Bogdanov and Berman therefore remained with the positions of formal logic, interpreted in a subjective idealist manner as the sum of ‘norms and postulates’ which ‘reflect nothing in reality’, and are nothing more than artificial ‘rules’, which we must observe if we ‘want’ to obtain the Machist ideal of scientific cognition – the elimination of all contradiction among statements of any type. Both men (and all subsequent positivism) therefore remain, in their conception of the theory of knowledge within the system of ideas of introspective psychology, i.e. with the notions, essentially, of archaic psychology translated into the language of physiological terms.

Of course, after such a verbal translation ‘from one language to another’ these notions appear just as before to be subjective even though they find the verbal form of ‘materialistically’ and ‘objectivity’ interpreted ideas. A similar method remains the immutable ‘conquest’ of every type of positivism even to this day.

For this reason Materialism and Empirio-Criticism now continues to be the most timely Marxist work in the field of philosophy where until now the front lines have run in the war of Marxism-Leninism for materialist dialectics, for the logic and theory of knowledge of modern-scientific, intelligent, dialectical materialism. This is the war for militant materialism, without which there is not and cannot be a Marxist-Leninist world outlook.

Revolution is revolution, regardless of whether it occurs in the socio-political ‘organisms’ of an enormous country or in the ‘organism’ of contemporary scientific development. The logic of revolutionary thinking and the logic of revolution are one and the same thing. And this logic is called materialist dialectics.

Materialism and Empirio Criticism teaches this above all else if it is read in the light of the entire subsequent history of the political and intellectual development in Russia and the entire international revolutionary movement of the working class. History has clearly shown where the path of Lenin has led and is leading. It has also shown the crooked pathways of revising the principles of the logic of revolution from the point of view of positivism.

Nowadays matters are far different from the beginning of the century, when very many scientists were hypnotised by positivist demagogy. Now an enormous number of scientists, and not only in our country, have become conscious allies of Leninist dialectics This alliance is broadening and growing stronger, despite all the attempts of the ideologists of positivism (which cannot be ignored even today) to prevent this. Such an alliance is invincible, and the duty of philosophers is to widen and strengthen it. This is the heart of Lenin’s testament, and the main lesson of his brilliant book.

From this point of view it is necessary to read and re-read it. It is alive, just as the scientific cognition of nature and society is alive and will continue to live, just as the international communist movement is alive and will continue to live, bringing scientific socialism into realisation throughout the world.