V.I.   Lenin


Critical Comments on a Reactionary Philosophy

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

7. A Russian “Idealist Physicist”

Owing to certain unfortunate conditions under which I am obliged to work, I have been almost entirely unable to acquaint myself with the Russian literature of the subject under discussion. I shall confine myself to an exposition of an article that has an important bearing on my theme written by our notorious arch-reactionary philosopher, Mr. Lopatin. The article appeared in the September-October issue of Problems of Philosophy and Psychology,[1] 1907, and is entitled “An Idealist Physicist.” A “true-Russian” philosophical idealist, Mr. Lopatin bears the same relation to the contemporary European idealists as, for example, the Union of the Russian People[2] does to the reactionary parties of the West. All the more instructive is it, therefore, to see how similar philosophical trends manifest themselves in totally different cultural and social surroundings. Mr. Lopatin’s article is, as the French say, an éloge—a eulogy—of the Russian physicist, the late N. I. Shishkin (died 1906). Mr. Lopatin was fascinated by the fact that this cultured man, who was much interested in Hertz and the new physics generally, was not only a Right-Wing Constitutional Democrat (p. 339) but a deeply religious man, a devotee of the philosophy of Vladimir Solovyov, and so on and so forth. However, in spite of the fact that his main line of “endeavour” lies in the borderland between philosophy and the police department, Mr. Lopatin has also furnished certain material for a characterisation of the epistemological views of   this idealist physicist. Mr. Lopatin writes: “He was a genuine positivist in his tireless endeavour to give the broadest possible criticism of the methods of investigation, suppositions and facts of science from the standpoint of their suitability as means and material for the construction of an integral and perfected world outlook. In this respect N. I. Shishkin was the very antipode of many of his contemporaries. In previous articles of mine in this periodical, I have frequently endeavoured to explain the heterogeneous and often shaky materials from which the so-called scientific world outlook is made up. They include established facts, more or less bold generalisations, hypotheses that are convenient at the given moment for one or another field of science, and even auxiliary scientific fictions. And all this is elevated to the dignity of incontrovertible objective truths, from the standpoint of which all other ideas and all other beliefs of a philosophical and religious nature must be judged, and everything in them that is not indicated in these truths must be rejected. Our highly talented natural scientist and thinker, Professor V. I. Vernadsky, has shown with exemplary clarity how shallow and unfounded are these claims to convert the scientific views of a given historical period into an immobile, dogmatic system obligatory for all. And it is not only the broad reading public that is guilty of making such a conversion [footnote by Mr. Lopatin : “For the broad public a number of popular books have been written, the purpose of which is to foster the conviction that there exists such a scientific catechism providing an answer to all questions. Typical works of this kind are Büchner’s Force and Matter and Haeckel’s The Riddle of the Universe"] and not only individual scientists in particular branches of science; what is even more strange is that this sin is frequently committed by the official philosophers, all of whose efforts are at times directed only to proving that they are saying nothing but what has been said before them by representatives of the several sciences, and that they are only saying it in their own language.

N. I. Shishkin had no trace of prejudiced dogmatism. He was a convinced champion of the mechanical explanation of the phenomena of nature, but for him it was only a method   of investigation . . .” (p. 341). So, so . . . a familiar refrain! “He was far from believing that the mechanical theory reveals the true nature of the phenomena investigated; he regarded it only as the most convenient and fertile method of unifying and explaining them for the purposes of science. For him, therefore, the mechanical conception of nature and the materialist view of nature by no means coincide.” Exactly as in the case of the authors of the Studiesin” the Philosophy of Marxism ! “Quite the contrary, it seemed to him that in questions of a higher order, the mechanical theory ought to take a very critical, even a conciliatory attitude.”

In the language of the Machians this is called “overcoming the obsolete, narrow and one-sided” opposition between materialism and idealism. “Questions of the first beginning and ultimate end of things, of the inner nature of our mind, of freedom of the will, the immortality of the soul and so forth, cannot in their full breadth of meaning come within its scope—since as a method of investigation it is confined within the natural limits of its applicability solely to the facts of physical experience” (p. 342). The last two lines are an undoubted plagiarism from A. Bogdanov’s Empirio-momsm.

Light can be regarded"—wrote Shishkin in his article “Psycho-Physical Phenomena from the Standpoint of the Mechanical Theory” (Problems of Philosophy and Psychology, Bk. 1, p. 127)—"as substance, as motion, as electricity, as sensation.”

There is no doubt that Mr. Lopatin is absolutely right in ranking Shishkin among the positivists and that this physicist belonged body and soul to the Machian school of the new physics. In his statement on light, Shishkin means to say that the various methods of regarding light are various methods of “organising experience” (in A. Bogdanov’s terminology), all equally legitimate from different points of view, or that they are various “connections of elements” (in Mach’s terminology), and that, in any case, the physicists’ theory of light is not a copy of objective reality. But Shishkin argues very badly. “Light can be regarded as substance, as motion. . .” he says. But in nature there is neither substance without motion nor motion without substance.   Shishkin’s first “apposition” is meaningless. . . . “As electricity. . . .” Electricity is a movement of substance, hence Shishkin is wrong here too. The electromagnetic theory of light has shown that light and electricity are forms of motion of one and the same substance (ether). “As sensation. . . .” Sensation is an image of matter in motion. Save through sensations, we can know nothing either of the forms of substance or of the forms of motion; sensations are evoked by the action of matter in motion upon our sense-organs. That is how science views it. The sensation of red reflects ether vibrations of a frequency of approximately 450 trillions per second. The sensation of blue reflects ether vibrations of a frequency of approximately 620 trillions per second. The vibrations of the ether exist independently of our sensations of light. Our sensations of light depend on the action of the vibrations of the ether on the human organ of vision. Our sensations reflect objective reality, i.e., some thing that exists independently of humanity and of human sensations. That is how science views it. Shishkin’s argument against materialism is the cheapest kind of sophistry.


[1] Voprosy Filosofii i Psikhologii (Problems of Philosophy and Psychology)—a journa1 of an idealist tendency, founded by Professor N. Y. Grot, published in Moscow from November 1889 to April 1918 (from 1894 it, was published by the Moscow Psychological Society). It contained articles on philosophy, psychology, logic, ethics, aesthetics, critical notes and analyses of theories and works   of West-European philosophers and psychologists, reviews of books on philosophy and of foreign philosophical journals, and other material. In the nineties its contributors included the “legal Marxists” P. B. Struve and S. N. Bulgakov, and in the years of reaction—A. Bogdanov and other Machists. From 1894 it was edited by L. M. Lopatin.

[2] Union of the Russian People—an ultra-reactionary, Black-Hundred organisation of the monarchists, formed in October 1905 in St. Petersburg for combating the revolutionary movement. The Union united reactionary landlords, big house owners, merchants, police officials, clergy, urban petty-bourgeoisie, kulaks, and declassed and criminal elements. It was headed by V. A. Bobrinsky, A. I. Dubrovin, P. A. Krushevan, N. E. Markov 2nd, V. M. Purish kevich and others. Its press organs were the newspapers Russkoye Znamya (Russian Flag), Obyedineniye (Union), and Groza (Storm). Branches of the Union were opened in many Russian towns.

The Union defended the continuance of the tsarist autocracy, the preservation of semi-feudal landlordism and the privileges of the nobility. Its motto was the monarchist, nationalist slogan of the feudal epoch—“orthodox religion, autocracy, nationhood”. It chose pogroms and murder as its chief weapon against the revolution. Helped and protected by the police, its members openly and with impunity beat up and murdered leading revolutionary workers and representatives of the democratic intelligentsia, disrupted and fired on meetings, organised anti-Jewish pogroms and viciously persecuted non-Russian nationalities.

After the dissolution of the Second Duma, the Union split into two organisations: the “Chamber of the Archangel Michael” headed by Purishkevich, which advocated using the Third Duma for counter-revolutionary aims, and the Union of the Russian People proper, headed by Dubrovin, which continued the tactics of open terrorism. Both of the Black-Hundred organisations were abolised during the February bourgeois-democratic revolution of 1917. After the October Socialist Revolution, former members of these organisations took an active part in counter-revolutionary revolts and conspiracies against the Soviet power.

  6. The Two Trends in Modern Physics and French Fideism | 8. The Essence and Significance of “Physical” Idealism  

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