V. I.   Lenin


Critical Comments on a Reactionary Philosophy

( Chapter Six: Empirio-Criticism and Historical Materialism )

2. How Bogdanov Corrects and “Develops” Marx

In his article “The Development of Life in Nature and Society” (From the Psychology of Society, 1902, p. 35, et seq.), Bogdanov quotes the well-known passage from the preface to Zur Kritik,[1]: where the “great sociologist”, i.e., Marx, expounds the basis of historical materialism. Having quoted Marx’s words, Bogdanov declares that the “old formulation of historical monism, without ceasing to be basically true, no longer fully satisfies us” (37). The author wishes, therefore, to correct the theory, or to develop it, starting from the basis of the theory itself. The author’s chief conclusion is as follows:

We have shown that social forms belong to the comprehensive genus—biological adaptations. But we have not thereby defined the province of social forms; for a definition, not only the genus, but also the species must be established. . . . In their struggle for existence men can unite only with the help of consciousness : without consciousness there can be no intercourse. Hence, social life in all its manifestations is a consciously psychical life. . . . Society is inseparable from consciousness. Social being and social consciousness are, in the exact meaning of these terms, identical” (pp. 50, 51, Bogdanov’s italics).

That this conclusion is absolutely alien to Marxism has been pointed out by Orthodox (Philosophical Essays,   St. Petersburg, 1906, p. 183, ff.). But Bogdanov responded simply by abuse, picking upon an error in quotation: instead of “in the exact meaning of these terms,” Orthodox had quoted “in the full meaning of these terms.” This error was indeed committed, and the author had every right to correct it; but to raise a cry of “mutilation,” “substitution,” and so forth (Empirio-Monism, Bk. III, p. xliv), is simply to obscure the essence of the point at issue by wretched words. What ever “exact” meaning Bogdanov may have invented for the terms “social being” and “social consciousness,” there can be no doubt that the statement we have quoted is not correct. “Social being” and “social consciousness” are not identical, just as being in general and consciousness in general are not identical. From the fact that in their intercoutse men act as conscious beings, it does not follow that social consciousness is identical with social being. In all social formations of any complexity—and in the capitalist social formation in particular—people in their intercourse are not conscious of what kind of social relations are being formed, in accordance with what laws they develop, etc. For instance, a peasant when he sells his grain enters into “intercourse” with the world producers of grain in the world market, but he is not conscious of it; nor is he conscious of the kind of social relations that are formed on the basis of exchange. Social consciousness reflects social being—that is Marx’s teaching. A reflection may be an approximately true copy of the reflected, but to speak of identity is absurd. Consciousness in general reflects being—that is a general principle of all materialism. It is impossible not to see its direct and inseparable connection with the principle of historical materialism: social consciousness reflects social being.

Bogdanov’s attempt imperceptibly to correct and develop Marx in the “spirit of his principles” is an obvious distortion of these materialist principles in the spirit of idealism. It would be ludicrous to deny it. Let us recall Bazarov’s exposition of empirio-criticism (not empirio-monism, oh no!—there is such a wide, wide difference between these “systems”!): “sense-perception is the reality existing outside us.” This is plain idealism, a plain theory of the identity of consciousness and being. Recall, further, the formulation of W. Schuppe,   the immanentist (who swore and vowed as fervently as Bazarov and Co. that he was not an idealist, and who with no less vigour than Bogdanov insisted on the very “exact” meaning of his terms): “being is consciousness.” Now compare this with the refutation of Marx’s historical materialism by the immanentist Schubert-Soldern: “Every material process of production is always an act of consciousness on the part of its observer. . . . In its epistemological aspect, it is not the external process of production that is the primary (prius), but the subject or subjects; in other words, even the purely material process of production does not lead us out of the general connection of consciousness (Bewusstseinszusammenhang).” (See Das menschliche Glück und die soziale Frage, S. 293, 295-96.)

Bogdanov may curse the materialists as much as he pleases for “mutilating his thoughts,” but no curses will alter the simple and plain fact. The correction of Marx’s theory and the development of Marx supposedly in the spirit of Marx by the “empirio-monist” Bogdanov in no essential respect differ from the way the idealist and epistemological solipsist Schubert-Soldern endeavours to refute Marx. Bogdanov assures us that he is not an idealist. Schubert-Soldern assures us that he is a realist (Bazarov even believed him). In our time a philosopher has to declare himself a “realist” and an “enemy of idealism.” It is about time you understood this, Messrs. Machians!

The immanentists, the empirio-criticists and the empirio-monists all argue over particulars, over details, over the formulation of idealism, whereas we from the very outset reject all the principles of their philosophy common to this trinity. Let Bogdanov, accepting in the best sense and with the best of intentions all the conclusions of Marx, preach the “identity” of social being and social consciousness; we shall say: Bogdanov minus “empirio-monism” (or rather, minus Machism) is a Marxist. For this theory of the identity of social being and social consciousness is sheer nonsense and an absolutely reactionary theory. If certain people reconcile it with Marxism, with Marxist behaviour, we must admit that these people are better than their theory, but we cannot justify outrageous theoretical distortions of Marxism.

Bogdanov reconciles his theory with Marx’s conclusions, and sacrifices elementary consistency for the sake of these conclusions. Every individual producer in the world economic system realises that he is introducing a certain change into the technique of production; every owner realises that he exchanges certain products for others; but these producers and these owners do not realise that in doing so they are thereby changing social being. The sum-total of these changes in all their ramifications in the capitalist world economy could not be grasped even by seventy Marxes. The paramount thing is that the laws of these changes have been discovered, that the objective logic of these changes and their historical development have at bottom and in the main been disclosed—objective, not in the sense that a society of conscious beings, men, could exist and develop independently of the existence of conscious beings (and it is only such trifles that Bogdanov stresses by his “theory”), but in the sense that social being is independent of the social consciousness of men. The fact that you live and conduct your business, beget children, produce products and exchange them, gives rise to an objectively necessary chain of events, a chain of development, which is independent of your social consciousness, and is never grasped by the latter completely. The highest task of humanity is to comprehend this objective logic of economic evolution (the evolution of social life) in its general and fundamental features, so that it may be possible to adapt to it one’s social consciousness and the consciousness of the advanced classes of all capitalist countries in as definite, clear and critical a fashion as possible.

Bogdanov admits all this. And what does this mean? It means in effect that his theory of the “identity of social being and social consciousness” is thrown overboard, that it becomes an empty scholastic appendage, as empty, dead and useless as the “theory of general substitution” or the doctrine of “elements,” “introjection” and the rest of the Machian rigmarole. But the “dead lay hold of the living”; the dead scholastic appendage, against the will of and independently of the consciousness of Bogdanov, converts his philosophy into a serviceable tool of the Schubert-Solderns and other reactionaries, who in a thousand different keys,   from a hundred professorial chairs, disseminate this dead thing as a living thing, direct it against the living thing, for the purpose of stifling it. Bogdanov personally is a sworn enemy of reaction in general and of bourgeois reaction in particular. Bogdanov’s “substitution” and theory of the “identity of social being and social consciousness” serve this reaction. It is sad, but true.

Materialism in general recognises objectively real being (matter) as independent of consciousness, sensation, experience, etc., of humanity. Historical materialism recognises social being as independent of the social consciousness of humanity. In both cases consciousness is only the reflection of being, at best an approximately true (adequate, perfectly exact) reflection of it. From this Marxist philosophy, which is cast from a single piece of steel, you cannot eliminate one basic premise, one essential part, without departing from objective truth, without falling a prey to a bourgeois-reactionary falsehood.

Here are further examples of how the dead philosophy of idealism lays hold of the living Marxist Bogdanov.

The article “What Is Idealism?” 1901 (ibid., p. 11 et seq.): “We arrive at the following conclusion: both where people agree in their judgments of progress and where they disagree, the basic meaning of the idea of progress is the same, namely, increasing completeness and harmony of conscious life. This is the objective content of the concept progress. . . . If we now compare the psychological formulation of the idea of progress thus arrived at with the previously explained biological formulation [“biological progress is an increase in the sum-total of life,” p. 14], we shall easily convince ourselves that the former fully coincides with the latter and can be deduced from it. . . . And since social life amounts to the psychical life of members of society, here too the content of the idea of progress is the same—increase in the completeness and harmony of life; only we must add: the social life of men. And, of course, the idea of social progress never had and cannot have any other content” (p. 16).

We have found . . . that idealism expresses the victory in the human soul of moods more social over moods less social, that a progressive ideal is a reflection of the socially progressive tendency in the idealist psychology” (p. 32).

It need hardly be said that all this play with biology and sociology contains not a grain of Marxism. Both in Spencer and Mikhailovsky one may find any number of definitions not a whit worse than this, defining nothing but the “good intentions” of the author and betraying a complete lack of understanding of “what is idealism” and what materialism.

The author begins Book III of Empirio-Monism, the article “Social Selection (Foundations of Method),” 1906, by refuting the “eclectic socio-biological attempts of Lange, Ferri, Woltmann and many others” (p. 1), and on page 15 we find the following conclusion of the “enquiry”: “We can formulate the fundamental connection between energetics and social selection as follows:

Every act of social selection represents an increase or decrease of the energy of the social complex concerned. In the former case we have ‘positive selection,’ in the latter ‘negative selection.’” (Author’s italics.)

And such unutterable trash is served out as Marxism! Can one imagine anything more sterile, lifeless and scholastic than this string of biological and energeticist terms that contribute nothing, and can contribute nothing, in the sphere of the social sciences? There is not a shadow of concrete economic enquiry here, not a hint of the Marxist method, the method of dialectics and the world outlook of materialism, only a mere invention of definitions and attempts to fit them into the ready-made conclusions of Marxism. “The rapid growth of the productive forces of capitalist society is undoubtedly an increase in the energy of the social whole. . . .” The second half of the phrase is undoubtedly a simple repetition of the first half expressed in meaningless terms which seem to lend “profundity” to the question, but which in reality in no way differ from the eclectic biologico-sociological attempts of Lange and Co.!—“but the disharmonious character of this process leads to its culmination in a crisis, in a vast waste of productive forces, in a sharp decrease of energy: positive selection is replaced by negative selection” (p. 18).

In what way does this differ from Lange? A biologico-energeticist label is tacked on to ready-made conclusions on the subject of crises, without any concrete material whatever being added and without the nature of crises being elucidated.   All this is done with the very best intentions, for the author wishes to corroborate and give greater depth to Marx’s conclusions; but in point of fact he only dilutes them with an intolerably dreary and lifeless scholasticism. The only “Marxism” here is a repetition of an already known conclusion, and all the “new” proof of it, all this “social energetics” (p. 34) and “social selection” is but a mere collection of words and a sheer mockery of Marxism.

Bogdanov is not engaged in a Marxist enquiry at all; all he is doing is to reclothe results already obtained by the Marxist enquiry in a biological and energeticist terminology. The whole attempt is worthless from beginning to end, for the concepts “selection,” “assimilation and dissimilation” of energy, the energetic balance, and so forth, are, when applied to the sphere of the social sciences, but empty phrases. In fact, an enquiry into social phenomena and an elucidation of the method of the social sciences cannot be undertaken with the aid of these concepts. Nothing is easier than to tack the labels of “energetics” or “biologico-sociology” on to such phenomena as crises, revolutions, the class struggle and so forth; but neither is there anything more sterile, more scholastic and lifeless than such an occupation. The important thing is not that Bogdanov tries to fit all his results and conclusions into the Marxist theory—or “nearly” all (we have seen the “correction” he made on the subject of the relation of social being to social consciousness)—but that the methods of fitting—this “social energetics”—are thoroughly false and in no way differ from the methods of Lange.

Herr Lange (On the Labour Question, etc., 2nd ed.),” Marx wrote to Kugelmann on June 27, 1870, “sings my praises loudly, but with the object of making himself im portant. Herr Lange, you see, has made a great discovery. The whole of history can be brought under a single great natural law. This natural law is the phrase (in this application Darwin’s expression becomes nothing but a phrase) ‘struggle for life,’ and the content of this phrase is the Malthusian law of population or, rather, over-population. So, instead of analysing the ‘struggle for life’ as represented historically in various definite forms of society, all that has to be done is to translate every concrete struggle into the   phrase ‘struggle for life,’ and this phrase itself into the Malthusian ‘population fantasy.’ One must admit that this is a very impressive method—for swaggering, sham-scientific, bombastic ignorance and intellectual laziness.”[2]

The basis of Marx’s criticism of Lange is not that Lange foists Malthusianism in particular upon sociology, but that the transfer of biological concepts in general to the sphere of the social sciences is phrasemongering. Whether the transfer is undertaken with “good” intentions, or with the purpose of bolstering up false sociological conclusions, the phrase mongering none the less remains phrasemongering. And Bogdanov’s “social energetics,” his coupling of the doctrine of social selection with Marxism, is just such phrasemongering.

Just as in epistemology Mach and Avenarius did not develop idealism, but only overlaid the old idealist errors with a bombastic terminological rigmarolc (“elements,” “principal co-ordination,” “introjection,” etc.), so in sociology, even when there is sincere sympathy for Marxist conclusions, empirio-criticism results in a distortion of historical materialism by means of empty and bombastic energeticist and biological verbiage.

A historical peculiarity of modern Russian Machism (or rather of the Machian epidemic among a section of the Social-Democrats) is the following. Feuerbach was a “materialist below and an idealist above”; this to a certain extent applies also to Büchner, Vogt, Moleschott and Dühring, with the essential difference that all these philosophers were pygmies and wretched bunglers compared with Feuerbach.

Marx and Engels, as they grew out of Feuerbach and matured in the fight against the bunglers, naturally paid most attention to crowning the structure of philosophical materialism, that is, not to the materialist epistemology but to the materialist conception of history. That is why Marx and Engels laid the emphasis in their works rather on dialectical materialism than on dialectical materialism, why they insisted rather on historical materialism than on historical materialism. Our would-be Marxist Machians approached Marxism in an entirely different historical period, at a time when bourgeois philosophers were particularly specialising in epistemology, and, having assimilated in a   one-sided and mutilated form certain of the component parts of dialectics (relativism, for instance), directed their attention chiefly to a defence or restoration of idealism below and not of idealism above. At any rate, positivism in general, and Machism in particular, have been much more concerned with subtly falsifying epistemology, assuming the guise of materialism and concealing their idealism under a pseudo-materialist terminology, and have paid comparatively little attention to the philosophy of history. Our Machians did not understand Marxism because they happened to approach it from the other side, so to speak, and they have assimilated—and at times not so much assimilated as learnt by rote—Marx’s economic and historical theory, without clearly apprehending its foundation, viz., philosophical materialism. And the result is that Bogdanov and Co. deserve to be called Russian Büchners and Dührings turned inside out. They want to be materialists above, but are unable to rid themselves of muddled idealism below! In the case of Bogdanov, “above” there is historical materialism, vulgarised, it is true, and much corrupted by idealism, “below” there is idealism, disguised in Marxist terminology and decked out in Marxist words. “Socially organised experience,” “collective labour process,” and so forth are Marxist words, but they are only words, concealing an idealist philosophy that declares things to be complexes of “elements,” of sensations, the external world to be “experience,” or an “empirio-symbol” of mankind, physical nature to be a “product” of the “psychical,” and so on and so forth.

An ever subtler falsification of Marxism, an ever subtler presentation of anti-materialist doctrines under the guise of Marxism—this is the characteristic feature of modern revisionism in political economy, in questions of tactics and in philosophy generally, both in epistemology and in sociology.


[1] This refers to the Preface to Marx’s work Zur Kritik der politischen Ökonomie(Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy).

[2] See K. Marx and F. Engels, Selected Correspondence, Moscow, 1955, p. 290.

  1. The Excursions of the German Empirio-Criticists Into The Field of the Social Sciences | 3. Suvorov’s “Foundations Of Social Philosophy”  

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