V. I.   Lenin


Critical Comments on a Reactionary Philosophy

Chapter Six: Empirio-Criticism and Historical Materialism

The Russian Machians, as we have already seen, are divided into two camps. Mr. V. Chernov and the collaborators of the Russkoye Bogatstvo[3] are downright and consistent opponents of dialectical materialism, both in philosophy and history. The other company of Machians, in whom we are more interested here, are would-be Marxists and try in every way to assure their readers that Machism is compatible with the historical materialism of Marx and Engels. True, these assurances are for the most part nothing but assurances; not a single Machian would-be Marxist has ever made the slightest attempt to present in any systematic way the real trends of the founders of empirio-criticism in the field of the social sciences. We shall dwell briefly on this question, turning first to the statements to be found in writings of the German empirio-criticists and then to those of their Russian disciples.

( Chapter Five: The Recent Revolution in Natural Science and Philosophical Idealism )

1. The Excursions of the German Empirio-Criticists Into The Field of the Social Sciences

In 1895, when R. Avenarius was still alive, there appeared in the philosophical journal edited by him an article by his disciple, F. Blei, entitled “Metaphysics in Political Economy.”[1] All the teachers of empirio-criticism wage war   on the “metaphysics” not only of explicit and conscious philosophical materialism, but also of natural science, which instinctively adopts the standpoint of the materialist theory of knowledge. The disciple takes up arms against metaphysics in political economy. The fight is directed against the most varied schools of political economy, but we are interested only in the character of the empirio-critical argument against the school of Marx and Engels.

The purpose of the present investigation,” writes Franz Blei, “is to show that all political economy until now, in its endeavour to interpret the phenomena of economic life, operates with metaphysical premises; that it . . . ‘derives’ the ‘laws’ governing an economy from the ‘nature’ of the latter, and man is only an incidental factor in relation to these ‘laws.’ . . . In all its theories political economy has hitherto rested on metaphysical grounds; all its theories are unbiological, and therefore unscientific and worthless for knowledge. . . . The theoreticians do not know what they are building their theories on, what the soil is of which these theories are the fruit. They regard themselves as realists operating without any premises whatever, for they are, forsooth, dealing with ‘sober’ (nüchterne), ‘practical’ and ‘tangible’ (sinnfällige) economic phenomena. . . . And all have that family resemblance to many trends in physiology which only the same parents—viz., metaphysics and speculation—can transmit to their children, in our case to the physiologists and economists. One school of economists analyses the ‘phenomena’ of ‘economy’ [Avenarius and his school put ordinary words in quotation marks in order to show that they, the true philosophers, discern the essentially “metaphysical character” of a use of words which is so vulgar and so unrefined by “epistemological analysis”] without placing what they find (das Gefundene) in this way into relation with the behaviour of individuals; the physiologists exclude the behaviour of the individual from their investigations as being ‘actions of the soul’ (Wirkungen der Seele), while the economists of this trend declare the behaviour of individuals to be negligible in relation to the ‘immanent laws of economy’ (pp. 378–79). With Marx, theory established ‘economic laws’ from construed processes, and these ‘laws’ figured in the initial section (Initialabschnitt) of   the dependent vital series, while the economic processes figured in the final section (Finalabschnitt). . . . ‘Economy’ was transformed by the economists into a transcendental category, in which they discovered such ‘laws’ as they wished to discover: the ‘laws’ of ‘capital’ and ‘labour,’ ‘rent,’ ‘wages’ and ‘profit.’ The economists transformed man into a Platonic idea—‘capitalist,’ ‘worker,’ etc. Socialism ascribed to the ‘capitalist’ the character of being ‘greedy for profit,’ liberalism ascribed to the worker the character of being ‘exacting’—and both characters were moreover explained by the ‘operation of the laws of capital’” (pp. 381-82).

Marx came to the study of French socialism and political economy with a socialist world outlook, and his aim as regards knowledge was to provide a ‘theoretical foundation’ for his world outlook in order to ‘safeguard’ his initial value. He found the law of value in Ricardo . . . but the conclusion which the French Socialists had drawn from Ricardo could not satisfy Marx in his endeavour to ‘safeguard’ his E-value— brought into a vital-difference, i.e., his ‘world outlook,’ for these conclusions had already entered as a component part into the content of his initial value in the form of ‘indignation at the robbery of the workers,’ and so forth. The conclusions were rejected as ‘being formally untrue economically’ for they are ‘simply an application of morality to political economy.’ ‘But what formally may be economically incorrect, may all the same be correct from the point of view of world history. If the moral consciousness of the mass declares an economic fact to be unjust, that is a proof that the fact itself has been outlived, that other economic facts have made their appearance, owing to which the former one has become unbearable and untenable. Therefore, a very true economic content may be concealed behind the formal economic incorrectness.’” (From Engels’ preface to Karl Marx’s The Poverty of Philosophy.)

Having quoted the above passage from Engels, Blei continues: “In the above quotation the middle section (Medial abschnitt) of the dependent series which interests us here is detached [abgehoben—a technical term of Avenarius’ implying: reached the consciousness, separated off]. After the ‘cognition’ that an ‘economic fact’ must be concealed   behind the ‘moral consciousness of injustice,’ comes the final section [Finalabschnitt: the theory of Marx is a statement, i.e., an E-value, i.e., a vital-difference which passes through three stages, three sections, initial, middle and final: Initialabschnitt, Medialabschnitt, Finalabschnitt] . . . i.e., the ‘cognition’ of that ‘economic fact.’ Or, in other words, the task now is to ‘find again’ the initial value, his ‘world out look,’ in the ‘economic facts’ in order to ‘safeguard’ the initial value. This definite variation of the dependent series already contains the Marxist metaphysics, regardless of how the ‘cognised’ appears in the final section (Finalabschnitt). ‘The socialist world outlook,’ as an independent E-value, ‘absolute truth,’ is ‘given a basis’ ‘retrospectively’ by means of a ‘special’ theory of knowledge, namely, the economic system of Marx and the materialist theory of history. . . . By means of the concept of surplus value the ‘subjective’ ‘truth,’ in the Marxist world outlook finds its ‘objective truth,’ in the theory of knowledge of the ‘economic categories’—the safeguarding of the initial value is completed and metaphysics has retrospectively received its critique of knowledge” (pp. 384-86).

The reader is probably fuming at us for quoting at such length this incredibly trivial rigmarole, this quasi-scientific tomfoolery decked out in the terminology of Avenarius. But wer den Feind will verstehen, muss im Feindes Lande gehen—who would know the enemy must go into the enemy’s territory.[4] And R. Avenarius’ philosophical journal is indeed enemy territory for Marxists. And we invite the reader to restrain for a minute his legitimate aversion for the buffoons of bourgeois science and to analyse the argument of Avenarius’ disciple and collaborator.

Argument number one: Marx is a “metaphysician” who did not grasp the epistemological “critique of concepts,” who did not work out a general theory of knowledge and who simply inserted materialism into his “special theory of knowledge.”

This argument contains nothing original to Blei personally. We have already seen scores and hundreds of times that all the founders of empirio-criticism and all the Russian Machians accuse materialism of “metaphysics,” or,   more accurately, they repeat the hackneyed arguments of the Kantians, Humeans and idealists against materialist “metaphysics.”

Argument number two: Marxism is as “metaphysical” as natural science (physiology). And here again it is not Blei who is “responsible” for this argument, but Mach and Avenarius; for it was they who declared war on “natural-historical metaphysics,” applying that name to the instinctively materialist theory of knowledge to which (on their own admission and according to the judgment of all who are in any way versed in the subject) the vast majority of scientists adhere.

Argument number three: Marxism declares that “personality” is a quantité négligeable, a cypher, that man is an “incidental factor,” subject to certain “immanent laws of economics,” that an analysis des Gefundenen, i.e., of what is found, of what is given, etc., is lacking. This argument is a complete repetition of the stock of ideas of the empirio-critical “principal co-ordination,” i.e., of the idealist crotchet in Avenarius’ theory. Blei is absolutely right when he says that it is impossible to find the slightest hint of such idealist nonsense in Marx and Engels, and that from the standpoint of this nonsense Marxism must be rejected completely, from the very beginning, from its fundamental philosophical premises

Argument number four: Marx’s theory is “unbiological,” it is entirely innocent of “vital-differences” and of similar spurious biological terms which constitute the “science” of the reactionary professor, Avenarius. Blei’s argument is correct from the standpoint of Machism, for the gulf between Marx’s theory and Avenarius’ “biological” spillikins is indeed obvious at once. We shall presently see how the Russian Machian would-be Marxists in effect followed in Blei’s footsteps.

Argument number five: the partisanship, the partiality of Marx’s theory and his preconceived solution. The empirio-criticists as a whole, and not Blei alone, claim to be non-partisan both in philosophy and in social science. They are neither for socialism nor for liberalism. They make no differentiation between the fundamental   and irreconcilable trends of materialism and idealism in philosophy, but endeavour to rise above them. We have traced this tendency of Machism through a long series of problems of epistemology, and we ought not to be surprised when we encounter it in sociology.

Argument” number six: ridiculing “objective” truth. Blei at once sensed, and rightly sensed, that historical materialism and Marx’s entire economic doctrine are permeated through and through by a recognition of objective truth. And Blei accurately expressed the tendency of Mach’s and Avenarius’ doctrines, when, precisely because of the idea of objective truth, he, “from the very threshold,” so to speak, rejected Marxism by at once declaring that there was absolutely nothing behind the Marxist teaching save the “subjective” views of Marx.

And if our Machians renounce Blei (as they surely will), we shall tell them: You must not blame the mirror for showing a crooked face. Blei is a mirror which accurately reflects the tendencies of empirio-criticism, and a renouncement by our Machians would only bear witness to their good intentions—and to their absurd eclectical endeavours to combine Marx and Avenarius.

Let us pass from Blei to Petzoldt. If the former is a mere disciple, the latter is declared by outstanding empirio-criticists, such as Lessevich, to be a master. While Blei brings up the question of Marxism explicitly, Petzoldt—who would not demean himself by dealing with a mere Marx or a mere Engels—sets forth in positive form the views of empirio-criticism on sociology, which enables us to compare them with Marxism.

The second volume of Petzoldt’s Einführung in die Philosophie der reinen Erfahrung is entitled “Auf dem Wege zum Dauernden” (“Towards Stability”). The author makes the tendency towards stability the basis of his investigation. “The main features of the ultimate (endgültige) state of stability of humanity can be inferred in its formal aspect. We thus arrive at the foundations of ethics, aesthetics and the formal theory of knowledge” (p. iii). “Human development bears its goal within itself, it also tends towards a perfect (vollkommene) state of stability” (p. 60). The signs of this are abundant and varied. For instance, are there   many violent radicals who do not in their old age become “more sensible,” more restrained? True, this “premature stability” (p. 62) is characteristic of the philistine. But do not philistines constitute the “compact majority”? (p. 62.)

Our philosopher’s conclusion, which he gives in italics, is this: “The quintessential feature of all the aims of our reasoning and creative activity is stability” (p. 72). The explanation is: “Many cannot bear to see a key Iying obliquely on the table, still less a picture hanging crooked on the wall. . . . And such people are not necessarily pedants. . . . It is only that they have a feeling that something is not in order” (p. 72, Petzoldt’s italics). In a word, the “tendency to stability is a striving for an extreme, by its nature ultimate, state” (p. 73). All this is taken from the fifth chapter of Volume II entitled “Die psychische Tendenz zur Stabilität” (“The Psychical Tendency to Stability”). The proofs of this tendency are all very weighty. For instance: “A striving for an extreme, a highest, in the original spatial sense, is pursued by the majority of mountain climbers. It is not always the desire for a spacious view or joy in the physical exercise of climbing in fresh air and wide nature that urges them towards the peaks, but also the instinct which is deeply ingrained in every organic being to pursue an adopted path of activity until a natural aim has been achieved” (p. 73). Another example: the amount of money people will pay to secure a complete collection of postage stamps! “It makes one’s head swim to examine the price list of a dealer in postage stamps. . . . And yet nothing is more natural and comprehensible than this urge for stability” (p. 74).

The philosophically untutored can have no conception of the breadth of the principles of stability and of economy of thought. Petzoldt develops his “theory” in detail for the profane. “Sympathy is an expression of the immediate need for a state of stability,” runs § 28. “Sympathy is not a repetition, a duplication of the observed suffering, but suffering on account of this suffering. . . . The greatest emphasis must be placed on the immediacy of sympathy. If we admit this we thereby admit that the welfare of others can concern a man just as immediately and fundamentally as his own welfare, and we thus at the same time reject every utilitarian and eudemonistic foundation of ethics. Thanks to   its longing for stability and peace, human nature is not fundamentally evil, but anxious to help. . . .

The immediacy of sympathy is frequently manifested in the immediacy of help. The rescuer will often fling himself without thought to save a drowning man. He cannot bear the sight of a person struggling with death; he forgets his other duties and risks his own life and the life of his near ones in order to save the useless life of some degraded drunkard; in other words, under certain circumstances sympathy can drive one to actions that are morally unjustifiable.”

And scores and hundreds of pages of empirio-critical philosophy are filled with such unutterable platitudes!

Morality is deduced from the concept “moral state of stability” (The second section of Volume II: “Die Dauerbestande der Seele” [“Stable States of the Soul”], Chapter I, “Vom ethischen Dauerbestande” [“On Ethical Stable States”]). “The state of stability, according to the very concept of it, contains no conditions of change in any of its components. From this it at once follows that it can contain no possibility of war” (p. 202). “Economic and social equality is implied in the conception of the final (endgultig), stable state” (p. 213). This “state of stability” is derived not from religion but from “science.” The “majority” cannot bring it about, as the socialists suppose, nor can the power of the socialists “help humanity” (p. 207). Oh, no!—it is “free development” that will lead to the ideal. Are not, indeed, the profits of capital decreasing and are not wages constantly increasing? (p. 223). All the assertions about “wage slavery” are untrue (p. 229). A slave’s leg could be broken with impunity—but now? No, “moral progress” is beyond doubt; look at the university settlements in England, at the Salvation Army (p. 230), at the German “ethical societies.” In the name of “aesthetic stability” (Chapter II, Section 2) “romanticism” is rejected. But romanticism embraces all forms of inordinate extension of the ego, idealism, metaphysics, occultism, solipsism, egoism, the “forcible coercion of the minority by the majority” and the “social-democratic ideal of the organisation of all labour by the state” (pp. 240-41).[2]

The sociological excursions of Blei, Petzoldt and Mach are but an expression of the infinite stupidity of the philistine, smugly retailing the most hackneyed rubbish under cover of a new “empirio-critical” systematisation and terminology. A pretentious cloak of verbal artifices, clumsy devices in syllogistic, subtle scholasticism, in a word, as in epistemology, so in sociology—the same reactionary content under the same flamboyant signboard.

Let us now turn to the Russian Machians.


[1] Vierteljahrsschrift für wissenschaftliche Philosophie, 1895, Bd. XIX, F. Blei, “Die Metaphysik in der Nationalökonomie,” S. 378-90. —Lenin

[2] It is in the same spirit that Mach expresses himself in favour of the bureaucratic socialism of Popper and Menger, which guarantees the “freedom of the individual,” whereas, he opines, the doctrine of the Social-Democrats, which “compares unfavourably” with this socialism, threatens a “slavery even more universal and more oppressive than that of a monarchical or oligarchical state.” See Erkenntnis und Irrtum, 2. Auflage, 1906, S. 80-81. —Lenin

[3] Russkoye Bogatstvo (Russian Wealth)—a monthly magazine published in St. Petersburg from 1876 to 1918. From the beginning of the nineties it passed into the hands of the liberal Narodniks headed by N. K. Mikhailovsky. Grouped round the magazine were publicists who subsequently became prominent members of the Socialist-Revolutionary Party, the Party of “Popular Socialists” and the Trudovik groups in the State Duma. In 1906 it became the organ of the semi-Cadet Trudovik Popular Socialist Party.

[4] These words are an adaptation of a couplet by Goethe, taken by Lenin from I. S. Turgenev’s novel Virgin Soil.

  8. The Essence and Significance of “Physical” Idealism | 2. How Bogdanov Corrects and “Develops” Marx  

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