V.I. Lenin


Critical Comments on a Reactionary Philosophy

( Chapter Four: The Philosophical Idealists as Comrades-In-Arms and Successors of Empirio-Criticism )

5. A. Bogdanov’s “Empirio-Monism”

I personally,” writes Bogdanov of himself, “know so far of only one empirio-monist in literature—a certain A. Bogdanov. But I know him very well and can answer for it that his views fully accord with the sacramental formula of the primacy of nature over mind. To wit, he regards all that exists as a continuous chain of development, the lower links of which are lost in the chaos of elements, while the higher links, known to us, represent the experience of men [Bogdanov’s italics]—psychical and, still higher, physical experience. This experience, and the knowledge resulting therefrom, correspond to what is usually called mind” (Empirio-Monism, III, xii).

The “sacramental” formula here ridiculed by Bogdanov is the well-known proposition of Engels, whom Bogdanov, however, diplomatically avoids mentioning! We do not differ from Engels, oh, no!

But let us examine more carefully Bogdanov’s own summary of his famous “empirio-monism” and “substitution.” The physical world is called the experience of men and it is declared that physical experience is “higher” in the chain of development than psychical. But this is utter nonsense! And it is precisely the kind of nonsense that is characteristic of all idealist philosophies. It is simply farcical for Bogdanov to class this “system” as materialism. With me, too, he says, nature is primary and mind secondary. If Engels’ definition is to be thus construed, then Hegel is also a materialist, for with him, too, psychical experience (under the title of the Absolute Idea) comes first, then follow, “higher up,” the physical world, nature, and, lastly, human knowledge, which through nature apprehends the Absolute Idea. Not a single idealist will deny the primacy of nature taken in this sense for it is not a genuine primacy, since in fact nature is not taken as the immediately given, as the starting point of epistemology. Nature is in fact reached as the result of a long process through abstraction of the “psychical.” It is immaterial what these abstractions are called: whether Absolute Idea, Universal Self, World Will, and so on and so forth. These terms distinguish the different varieties of idealism, and such varieties exist in countless   numbers. The essence of idealism is that the psychical is taken as the starting point; from it external nature is deduced, and only then is the ordinary human consciousness deduced from nature. Hence, this primary “psychical” always turns out to be a lifeless abstraction concealing a diluted theology. For instance, everybody knows what a human idea is; but an idea independent of man and prior to man, an idea in the abstract, an Absolute Idea, is a theological invention of the idealist Hegel. Everybody knows what human sensation is; but sensation independent of man, sensation prior to man, is nonsense, a lifeless abstraction, an idealist artifice. And it is precisely to such an idealistic artifice that Bogdanov resorts when he erects the following ladder.

1)The chaos of “elements” (we know that no other human concept lies back of the term “element” save sensation).

2)The psychical experience of men.

3)The physical experience of men.

4) “The knowledge emerging therefrom.”

There are no sensations (human) without man. Hence, the first rung of this ladder is a lifeless idealist abstraction. As a matter of fact, what we have here is not the usual and familiar human sensations, but fictitious sensations, nobody’s sensations, sensations in general, divine sensations—just as the ordinary human idea became divine with Hegel when it was divorced from man and man’s brain.

So away with the first rung!

Away also with the second rung, for the psychical before the physical (and Bogdanov places the second rung before the third) is something unknown to man or science. The physical realm existed before the psychical could have appeared, for the latter is the highest product of the highest forms of organic matter. Bogdanov’s second rung is also a lifeless abstraction, it is thought without brain, human reason divorced from man.

Only when we throw out the hrst two rungs, and only then, can we obtain a picture of the world that truly corresponds to science and materialism. To wit: 1) the physical world exists independently of the mind of man and existed long prior to man, prior to any “human experience”;   2) the psychical, the mind, etc., is the highest product of matter (i.e., the physical), it is a function of that particularly complex fragment of matter called the human brain.

The realm of substitution,” writes Bogdanov, “coincides with the realm of physical phenomena; for the psychical phenomena we need substitute nothing, because they are immediate complexes” (p. xxxix).

And this precisely is idealism; for the psychical, i.e.,consciousness, idea, sensation, etc., is taken as the immediate and the physical is deduced from it, substituted for it. The world is the non-ego created by the ego, said Fichte. The world is absolute idea, said Hegel. The world is will, said Schopenhauer. The world is conception and idea, says the immanentist Rehmke. Being is consciousness, says the immanentist Schuppe. The physical is a substitution for the psychical, says Bogdanov. One must be blind not to perceive the identical idealist essence under these various verbal cloaks.

Let us ask ourselves the following question,” writes Bogdanov in Book I of Empirio-Monism (pp. 128-29): “What is a ‘living being,’ for instance, ‘man’?” And he answers: “‘Man’ is primarily a definite complex of ‘immediate experiences.’ [Mark, “primarily”!] Then, in the further development of experience, ‘man’ becomes both for himself and for others a physical body amidst other physical bodies.”

Why, this is a sheer “complex” of absurdities, fit only for deducing the immortality of the soul, or the idea of God, and so forth. Man is primarily a complex of immediate experiences and in the course of further development becomes a physical body! That means that there are “immediate experiences” without a physical body, prior to a physical body! What a pity that this magnificent philosophy has not yet found acceptance in our theological seminaries! There its merits would have been fully appreciated.

“. . . We have admitted that physical nature itself is a product [Bogdanov’s italics] of complexes of an immediate character (to which psychical co-ordinations also belong), that it is the reflection of such complexes in others, analogous to them, but of the most complex type (in the socially organised experience of living beings)” (p. 146).

A philosophy which teaches that physical nature itself is a product, is a philosophy of the priests pure and simple. And its character is in no wise altered by the fact that personally Bogdanov emphatically repudiates all religion. Dühring was also an atheist; he even proposed to prohibit religion in his “socialitarian” order. Nevertheless, Engels was absolutely right in pointing out that Dühring’s “system” could not make ends meet without religion.[1] The same is true of Bogdanov, with the essential difference that the quoted passage is not a chance inconsistency but the very essence of his “empirio-monism” and of all his “substitution.” If nature is a product, it is obvious that it can be a product only of some thing that is greater, richer, broader, mightier than nature, of something that exists; for in order to “produce” nature, it must exist independently of nature. That means that something exists outside nature, something which moreover produces nature. In plain language this is called God. The idealist philosophers have always sought to change this latter name, to make it more abstract, more vague and at the same time (for the sake of plausibility) to bring it nearer to the “psychical,” as an “immediate complex,” as the immediately given which requires no proof. Absolute Idea, Universal Spirit, World Will, “general substitution” of the psychical for the physical, are different formulations of one and the same idea. Every man knows, and science investigates, idea, mind, will, the psychical, as a function of the normally operating human brain. To divorce this function from substance organised in a definite way, to convert this function into a universal, general abstraction, to “substitute” this abstraction for the whole of physical nature, this is the raving of philosophical idealism and a mockery of science.

Materialism says that the “socially-organised experience of living beings” is a product of physical nature, a result of a long development of the latter, a development from a state of physical nature when no society, organisation, experience, or living beings existed or could have existed. Idealism says that physical nature is a product of this experience of living beings, and in saying this, idealism is equating (if not subordinating) nature to God. For God is undoubtedly a product of the socially-organised experience   of living beings. No matter from what angle you look at it, Bogdanov’s philosophy contains nothing but a reactionary muddle.

Bogdanov thinks that to speak of the social organisation of experience is “cognitive socialism” (Bk. III, p. xxxiv). This is insane twaddle. If socialism is thus regarded, the Jesuits are ardent adherents of “cognitive socialism,” for the basis of their epistemology is divinity as “socially-organised experience.” And there can be no doubt that Catholicism is a socially-organised experience; only, it reflects not objective truth (which Bogdanov denies, but which science reflects), but the exploitation of the ignorance of the masses by definite social classes.

But why speak of the Jesuits! We find Bogdanov’s “cognitive socialism” in its entirety among the immanentists, so beloved of Mach. Leclair regards nature as the consciousness of “mankind” (Der Realismus, etc., S. 55), and not of the individual. The bourgeois philosophers will serve you up any amount of such Fichtean cognitive socialism. Schuppe also emphasises das generische, das gattungsmässige Moment des Bewusstseins (Vierteljahrsschrift für wissenschaftliche Philosophie, Bd. XVII, S. 379-80), i.e.,the general, the generic factor of consciousness. To think that philosophical idealism vanishes when the consciousness of mankind is substituted for the consciousness of the individual, or the socially-organised experience for the experience of one person, is like thinking that capitalism vanishes when one capitalist is replaced by a joint-stock company.

Our Russian Machians, Yushkevich and Valentinov, echo the materialist Rakhmetov in asserting that Bogdanov is an idealist (at the same time foully abusing Rakhmetov himself). But they could not stop to think where this idealism came from. They make out that Bogdanov is an individual and chance phenomenon, an isolated case. This is not true. Bogdanov personally may think that he has invented an “original” system, but one has only to compare him with the afore mentioned disciples of Mach to realise the falsity of such an opinion. The difference between Bogdanov and Cornelius is far less than the difference between Cornelius and Carus. The difference between Bogdanov and Carus is less (as far as their philosophical systems are   concerned, of course, and not the deliberateness of their reactionary implications) than the difference between Carus and Ziehen, and so on. Bogdanov is only one of the manifestations of that “socially-organised experience” which testifies to the growth of Machism into idealism. Bogdanov (we are here, of course, speaking exclusively of Bogdanov as a philosopher) could not have come into God’s world had the doctrines of his teacher Mach contained no “elements”. . . of Berkeleianism. And I cannot imagine a more “terrible vengeance” on Bogdanov than to have his Empirio-Monism translated, say, into German and presented for review to Leclair and Schubert-Soldern, Cornelius and Kleinpeter, Carus and Pillon (the French collaborator and disciple of Renouvier). The compliments that would be paid by these outright comrades-in-arms and, at times, direct followers of Mach to the “substitution” would be much more eloquent than their arguments.

However, it would scarcely be correct to regard Bogdanov’s philosophy as a finished and static system. In the nine years from 1899 to 1908, Bogdanov has gone through four stages in his philosophical peregrinations. At the beginning he was a “natural-historical” materialist (i.e., semi-consciously and instinctively faithful to the spirit of science). His Fundamental Elements of the Historical Outlook on Nature bears obvious traces of that stage. The second stage was the “energetics” of Ostwald, which was so fashionable in the latter nineties, a muddled agnosticism which at times stumbled into idealism. From Ostwald (the title page of Ostwald’s Lectures on Natural Philosophy bears the inscription: “Dedicated to E. Mach”) Bogdanov went over to Mach, that is, he borrowed the fundamental premises of a subjective idealism that is as inconsistent and muddled as Mach’s entire philosophy. The fourth stage is an attempt to eliminate some of the contradictions of Machism, and to create a semblance of objective idealism. “The theory of general substitution” shows that Bogdanov has described a curve of almost 180°r; from his starting position. Is this stage of Bogdanov’s philosophy more remote or less remote from dialectical materialism than the previous stages? If Bogdanov remains in one place, then he is, of course, more remote. If he keeps moving along the same curve in   which he has been moving for the last nine years, he is less remote. He now has only one serious step to make in order to return once more to materialism, namely, universally to discard his whole universal substitution. For this universal substitution gathers into one Chinese pigtail all the transgressions of half-hearted idealism and all the weaknesses of consistent subjective idealism, just as (si licet parva componere magnis !—if it is permissible to compare the great with the small) Hegel’s “Absolute Idea” gathered together all the contradictions of Kantian idealism and all the weaknesses of Fichteanism. Feuerbach had to make only one serious step in order to return to materialism, namely, universally to discard, absolutely to eliminate, the Absolute Idea, that Hegelian “substitution of the psychical” for physical nature. Feuerbach cut off the Chinese pigtail of philosophical idealism, in other words, he took nature as the basis without any “substitution” whatever.

We must wait and see whether the Chinese pigtail of Machian idealism will go on growing for much longer.


[1] See F. Engels, Anti-Duhring, 1959, pp.435-38.

  4. Whither is Empirio-Criticism Tending? | 6. The “Theory of Symbols” (or Hieroglyphs) and the Criticism of Helmholtz  

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