V.I. Lenin


Critical Comments on a Reactionary Philosophy

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

8. How Could J. Dietzgen Have Found Favour with the Reactionary Philosophers?

The previously cited example of Helfond already contains the answer to this question, and we shall not examine the innumerable instances in which J. Dietzgen receives Helfond like treatment at the hands of our Machians. It is more expedient to quote a number of passages from J. Dietzgen himself in order to bring out his weak points.[1]

Thought is a function of the brain,” says Dietzgen (Das Wesen der menschlichen Kopfarbeit, 1903, S. 52; there is a Russian translation). “Thought is a product of the brain. . . . My desk, as the content of my thought, is identical with that thought, does not differ from it. But my desk outside   of my head is a separate object quite distinct from it” (p. 53). These perfectly clear materialistic propositions are, however, supplemented by Dietzgen thus: “Nevertheless, the non-sensible idea is also sensible, material, i.e.,real. . . . The mind differs no more from the table, light, or sound than these things differ from each other” (p. 54). This is obviously false. That both thought and matter are “real,” i.e.,exist, is true. But to say that thought is material is to make a false step, a step towards confusing materialism and idealism. As a matter of fact this is only an inexact expression of Dietzgen’s, who elsewhere correctly says: “Mind and matter at least have this in common, that they exist” (p. 80). “Thinking,” says Dietzgen, “is a work of the body. . . . In order to think I require a substance that can be thought of. This substance is provided in the phenomena of nature and life. . . . Matter is the boundary of the mind, beyond which the latter cannot pass. . . . Mind is a product of matter, but matter is more than a product of mind. . .” (p. 64). The Machians refrain from analysing materialist arguments of the materialist Dietzgen such as these! They prefer to fasten on passages where he is inexact and muddled. For example, he says that scientists can be “idealists only outside their field” (p. 108). Whether this is so, and why it is so, on this the Machians are silent. But a page or so earlier Dietzgen recognises the “positive side of modern idealism” (p. 106) and the “inadequacy of the materialist principle,” which should rejoice the Machians. The incorrectly expressed thought of Dietzgen’s consists in the fact that the difference between matter and mind is also relative and not excessive (p. 107). This is true, but what follows from this is not that materialism as such is inadequate, but that metaphysical, anti-dialectical materialism is inadequate.

Simple, scientific truth is not based on a person. It has its foundation outside [i.e., of the person], in its material; it is objective truth. . . . We call ourselves materialists. . . . Philosophical materialists are distinguished by the fact that they put the corporeal world at the beginning, at the head, and put the idea, or spirit, as the sequel, whereas their opponents, after the manner of religion, derive things from the word. . . the material world from the idea” (Kleinere philosophische Schriften, 1903, S. 59, 62). The Machians avoid this recognition of objective truth and repetition of Engels’   definition of materialism. But Dietzgen goes on to say: “We would be equally right in calling ourselves idealists, for our system is based on the total result of philosophy, on the scientific investigation of the idea, on a clear insight into the nature of mind” (p. 63). It is not difficult to seize upon this obviously incorrect phrase in order to deny materialism. Actually, Dietzgen’s formulation is more inexact than his basic thought, which amounts to this, that the old materialism was unable to investigate ideas scientifically (with the aid of historical materialism).

Here are Dietzgen’s ideas on the old materialism. “Like our understanding of political economy, our materialism is a scientific, historical conquest. Just as definitely as we distinguish ourselves from the socialists of the past, so we distinguish ourselves from the old materialists. With the latter we have only this in common, that we acknowledge matter to be the premise, or prime base of the idea” (p. 140). This word “only” is significant! It contains the whole epistemological foundation of materialism, as distinguished from agnosticism, Machism, idealism. But Dietzgen’s attention is here concentrated on dissociating himself from vulgar materialism.

But then follows a little further on a passage that is quite incorrect: “The concept matter must be broadened. It embraces all the phenomena of reality, as well as our faculty of knowing or explaining” (p. 141). This is a muddle which can only lead to confusing materialism and idealism under the guise of “broadening” the former. To seize upon this “broadening” would be to forget the basis of Dietzgen’s philosophy, the recognition of matter as the primary, “the boundary of the mind.” But, as a matter of fact, a few lines further down Dietzgen corrects himself: “The whole governs the part, matter the mind. . . . In this sense we may love and honour the material world . . . as the first cause, as the creator of heaven and earth” (p. 142). That the conception of “matter” must also include thoughts, as Dietzgen repeats in the Excursions (op. cit., p. 214), is a muddle, for if such an inclusion is made, the epistemological contrast between mind and matter, idealism and materialism, a contrast upon which Dietzgen himself insists, loses all meaning. That this contrast must not be made “excessive,” exaggerated, metaphysical,   is beyond dispute (and it is to the great credit of the dialectical materialist Dietzgen that he emphasised this). The limits of the absolute necessity and absolute truth of this relative contrast are precisely those limits which define the trend of epistemological investigations. To operate beyond these limits with the distinction between matter and mind, physical and mental, as though they were absolute opposites, would be a great mistake.

Dietzgen, unlike Engels, expresses his thoughts in a vague, unclear, mushy way. But apart from his defects of exposition and his individual mistakes, he not unsuccessfully champions the “materialist theory of knowledge” (pp. 222 and 271), “dialectical materialism” (p. 224). “The materialist theory of knowledge then,” says Dietzgen, “amounts to the recognition that the human organ of perception radiates no metaphysical light, but is a piece of nature which reflects other pieces of nature” (pp. 222-23). “Our perceptive faculty is not a supernatural source of truth, but a mirror-like instrument, which reflects the things of the world, or nature” (p. 243). Our profound Machians avoid an analysis of each individual proposition of Dietzgen’s materialist theory of knowledge, but seize upon his deviations from that theory, upon his vagueness and confusion. J. Dietzgen could find favour with the reactionary philosophers only because he occasionally gets muddled. And, it goes without saying, where there is a muddle there you will find Machians.

Marx wrote to Kugelmann on December 5, 1868: “A fairly long time ago he [Dietzgen] sent me a fragment of a manuscript on the ‘faculty of thought’ which in spite of a certain confusion and of too frequent repetition, contains much that is excellent and—as the independent product of a working man—admirable” (Russian translation., p. 53).[2] Mr. Valentinov quotes this opinion, but it never dawned on him to ask what Marx regarded as Dietzgen’s confusion, whether it was that which brings Dietzgen close to Mach, or that which distinguishes Dietzgen from Mach. Mr. Valentinov does not ask this question because he read both Dietzgen and Marx’s letters after the manner of Gogol’s Petrushka. Yet it is not difficult to find the answer to this question. Marx frequently called his world outlook dialectical materialism, and Engels’ Anti-Dühring, the whole of which Marx read through in   manuscript, expounds precisely this world outlook. Hence, it should have been clear even to the Valentinovs that Dietzgen’s confusion could lie only in his deviation from a consistent application of dialectics, from consistent materialism, in particular from Anti-Dühring.

Does it now dawn upon Mr. Valentinov and his brethren that what Marx could call Dietzgen’s confusion is only what brings Dietzgen close to Mach, who went from Kant not towards materialism, but towards Berkeley and Hume? Or was it that the materialist Marx called Dietzgen’s materialist theory of knowledge confused, yet approved his deviations from materialism, that is, approved what differs from Anti-Dühring, which was written with his (Marx’s) participation?

Whom are they trying to fool, our Machians, who desire to be regarded as Marxists and at the same time inform the world that “their” Mach approved of Dietzgen? Have our heroes failed to guess that Mach could approve in Dietzgen only that which Marx called confusion?

But taken as a whole, J. Dietzgen does not deserve so severe a censure. He is nine-tenths a materialist and never made any claims either to originality or to possessing a special philosophy distinct from materialism. He spoke of Marx frequently, and invariably as the head of the trend (Kleinere philosophische Schriften, S. 4—an opinion uttered in 1873; on page 95—1876—he emphasises that Marx and Engels “possessed the necessary philosophical training”; on page 181—1886—he speaks of Marx and Engels as the “acknowledged founders” of the trend). Dietzgen was a Marxist, and Eugene Dietzgen, and—alasl—Comrade P. Dauge are rendering him left-handed service by their invention of “Naturmonismus,” “Dietzgenism,” etc. “Dietzgenism” as distinct from dialectical materialism is confusion, a step towards reactionary philosophy, an attempt to create a trend not from what is great in Joseph Dietzgen (and in that worker-philosopher, who discovered dialectical materialism in his own way, there is much that is great!) but from his weak points.

I shall confine myself to two examples in order to illustrate how Comrade P. Dauge and Eugene Dietzgen are sliding into reactionary philosophy.

In the second edition of the Akquisit[3] (p. 273), Dauge writes: “Even bourgeois criticism points out the connection between Dietzgen’s philosophy and empirio-criticism and also the immanentist school,” and, further on, “especially Leclair” (a quotation from a “bourgeois criticism”).

That P. Dauge values and esteems J. Dietzgen cannot be doubted. But it also cannot be doubted that he is defaming him by citing without protest the opinion of a bourgeois scribbler who classes the sworn enemy of fideism and of the professors—the “graduated flunkeys” of the bourgeoisie—with the outspoken preacher of fideism and avowed reactionary, Leclair. It is possible that Dauge repeated another’s opinion of the immanentists and of Leclair without himself being familiar with the writings of these reactionaries. But let this serve him as a warning: the road away from Marx to the peculiarities of Dietzgen—to Mach—to the immanentists—is a road leading into a morass. To class him not only with Leclair but even with Mach is to lay stress on Dietzgen the muddlehead as distinct from Dietzgen the materialist.

I shall defend Dietzgen against Dauge. I assert that Dietzgen did not deserve the shame of being classed with Leclair. And I can cite a witness, a most authoritative one on such a question, one who is as much a reactionary, as much a fideist and “immanentist” philosopher as Leclair himself, namely, Schubert-Soldern. In 1896 he wrote: “The Social-Democrats willingly lean for support on Hegel with more or less (usually less) justification, but they materialise the Hegelian philosophy; cf. J. Dietzgen. . . . With Dietzgen, the absolute becomes the universal, and this becomes the thing-in-itself, the absolute subject, whose appearances are its predicates. That he [Dietzgen] is thus converting a pure abstraction into the basis of the concrete process, he does not, of course, realise any more than Hegel himself did. . . . He frequently chaotically lumps together Hegel, Darwin, Haeckel, and natural-scientific materialism” (Die soziale Frage, S. xxxiii). Schubert-Soldern is a keener judge of philosophical shades than Mach, who praises everybody indiscriminately, including the Kantian Jerusalem.

Eugene Dietzgen was so simple-minded as to complain to the German public that in Russia the narrow materialists   had “insulted” Joseph Dietzgen, and he translated Plekhanov’s and Dauge’s articles on Joseph Dietzgen into German. (See Joseph Dietzgen, Erkenntnis und Wahrheit [Knowledge and Truth], Stuttgart, 1908, Appendix). The poor “Natur-monist’s” complaint rebounded on his own head. Franz Mehring, who may be regarded as knowing something of philosophy and Marxism, wrote in his review that Plekhanov was essentially right as against Dauge (Die Neue Zeit, 1908, No. 38, 19. Juni, Feuilleton, S. 432). That J. Dietzgen got into difficulties when he deviated from Marx and Engels (p. 431) is for Mehring beyond question. Eugene Dietzgen replied to Mehring in a long, snivelling note, in which he went so far as to say that J. Dietzgen might be of service “in reconciling” the “warring brothers, the orthodox and the revisionists” (Die Neue Zeit, 1908, No. 44, 31. Juli, S. 652).

Another warning, Comrade Dauge: the road away from Marx to “Dietzgenism” and “Machism” is a road into the morass, not for individuals, not for Tom, Dick and Harry, but for the trend.

And do not complain, Messrs. Machians, that I quote the “authorities”; your objections to the authorities are but a screen for the fact that for the socialist authorities (Marx, Engels, Lafargue, Mehring, Kautsky) you are substituting bourgeois authorities (Mach, Petzoldt, Avenarius and the immanentists). You would do better not to raise the question of “authorities” and “authoritarianism”!



[1] The Institute of Marxism-Leninism has in its archives a copy of Joseph Dietzgen’s book Kietnere philosophische Sebriften. Eine Aoswohl (Minor Philosophical Writings. A Selection), Stuttgart, Dietz, 1903, with annotations by Lenin. The book includes seven articles published in 1870-78 in the newspapers Volksstaat (People’s State) and Vorwarts (Forward) as well as a work entitled Strcifzuge eines Solzialisten in das Gebiet der Erkenntnistheorie (Excursions of a Socialist in the Field of the Theory of Knowledge), which was published in 1887 as a separate pamphlet.

Most of Lenin’s annotations were made while he was working on the book Materialism and Empirio-criticism. They consist of under linings and remarks in the text and on the margins; in several cases Lenin marks correct ideas of Dietzgen’s with the letter “a” and departures from dialectical materialism with the letter “B”. Lenin’s annotations bring into prominence Dietzgen’s description of the partisan character of philosophy, the relations between philosophy and natural science, the subject-matter of philosophy, the fundamental philosophical categories, the problem of the cognisability of the world, the appraisal of Kant, Hegel and Feuerbach, the attitude to Marx and Engels, and Dietzgen’s militant atheism. At the same time Lenin notes Dietzgen’s confusion in regard to philosophical categories, his attempt to “widen” the concept of matter by including in it “all the phenomena of reality, hence also our cognitive ability”, etc. p.

[2] Lenin is referring to Letters of Karl Marx to Kugelmann, Member of the International, St. Petersburg, 1907 (see K. Marx, Briefe an Kugelmann, Inoidat, 1940).

[3] P. Dauge wrote an afterword entitled “Joseph Dietzgen and His Critic, G. Plekhanov” to the second Russian edition of Joseph Dietzgen’s Akqaisit der Philosophie.

  7. Two Kinds of Criticism of Dühring | 1. The Crisis in Modern Physics  

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