V. I.   Lenin


Critical Comments on a Reactionary Philosophy

( Chapter Six: Empirio-Criticism and Historical Materialism )

5. Ernst Haeckel and Ernst Mach

Let us now examine the attitude of Machism, as a philosophical current, towards the natural sciences. All Machism, from beginning to end, combats the “metaphysics” of the natural sciences, this being the name they give to natural-scientific materialism, i.e., to the instinctive, unwitting, unformed, philosophically unconscious conviction shared by the overwhelming majority of scientists regarding the objective reality of the external world reflected by our consciousness. And our Machians maintain a skulking silence regarding this fact and obscure or confuse the inseparable connection between the instinctive materialism of the natural scientists and philosophical materialism as a trend, a trend known long ago and hundreds of times affirmed by Marx and Engels.

Take Avenarius. In his very first work, Philosophie als Denken der Welt gemäss dem Prinzip des kleinsten Kraftmasses, published in 1876, he attacked the metaphysics of the natural sciences,[§ 79, 114,etc.] i.e., natural-scientific materialism, and, as he himself admitted in 1891 (without, however, “correcting” his views!), attacked it from the standpoint of epistemological idealism.

Take Mach. From 1872 (or even earlier) down to 1906 he waged continuous war on the metaphysics of natural science. However, he was conscientious enough to admit that his views were shared by “a number of philosophers” (the immanentists included), but by “very few scientists” (Analysis of Sensations, p. 9). In 1906 Mach also honestly admitted that the “majority of scientists adhere to materialism” (Erkenntnis und Irrtum, 2. Aufl., S. 4).

Take Petzoldt. In 1900 he proclaimed that the “natural sciences are thoroughly (ganz und gar) imbued with metaphysics.” “Their ‘experience’ has still to be purified” (Einführung in die Philosophie der reinen Erfahrung, Bd. I, S. 343). We know that Avenarius and Petzoldt “purify” experience of all recognition of the objective reality given us in sensation. In 1904 Petzoldt declared: “The mechanical world outlook of the modern scientist is essentially no better than that of the ancient Indians. . . . It makes no difference whether the world rests on a mythical elephant or on just as mythical a swarm of molecules and atoms epistemologically thought of as real and therefore not used merely metaphorically (bloss bildlich)” (Bd. II, S. 176).

Take Willy, the only Machian decent enough to be ashamed of his kinship with the immanentists. Yet, in 1905 he too declared: “. . . The natural sciences, after all, are also in many respects an authority of which we must rid ourselves” (Gegen die Schulweisheit, S. 158).

But this is all sheer obscurantism, out-and-out reaction. To regard atoms, molecules, electrons, etc., as an approximately true reflection in our mind of the objectively real movement of matter is equivalent to believing in an elephant upon which the world rests! No wonder that this obscurantist, decked in the cap and bells of fashionable positivism, was greeted by the immanentists with open arms. There is not a single immanentist who would not furiously attack the “metaphysics” of science, the “materialism” of the scientists, precisely because of the recognition by the scientists of the objective reality of matter (and its particles), time, space, laws of nature, etc., etc. Long before the new discoveries in physics which gave rise to “physical idealism” were made, Leclair, using Mach as a support,   combated “The Predominant Materialist Trend (Grundzug) of Modern Science” (the title of § 6 of Der Realismus usw., 1879), Schubert-Soldern fought “The Metaphysics of Natural Science” (the title of Chapter II of Grundlagen einer Erkenntnistheorie, 1884) Rehmke battled with natural-scientific “materialism,” that “metaphysics of the street(Philosophie und Kantianismus, 1882, S. 17), etc., etc.

And the immanentists quite legitimately drew direct and outspoken fideist conclusions from this Machian idea of the “metaphysical character” of natural-scientific materialism. If natural science in its theories depicts not objective reality, but only metaphors, symbols, forms of human experience etc., it is beyond dispute that humanity is entitled to create for itself in another sphere no lessreal concepts,” such as God, and so forth.

The philosophy of the scientist Mach is to science what the kiss of the Christian Judas was to Christ. Mach likewise betrays science into the hands of fideism by virtually deserting to the camp of philosophical idealism. Mach’s renunciation of natural-scientific materialism is a reactionary phenomenon in every respect. We saw this quite clearly when we spoke of the struggle of the “physical idealists” against the majority of scientists, who continue to maintain the standpoint of the old philosophy. We shall see it still more clearly if we compare the eminent scientist, Ernst Haeckel, with the eminent (among the reactionary philistines) philosopher, Ernst Mach.

The storm provoked by Ernst Haeckel’s The Riddle of the Universe in every civilised country strikingly brought out, on the one hand, the partisan character of philosophy in modern society and, on the other, the true social significance of the struggle of materialism against idealism and agnosticism. The fact that the book was sold in hundreds of thousands of copies, that it was immediately translated into all languages and that it appeared in specially cheap editions, clearly demonstrates that the book “has found its way to the masses,” that there are multitudes of readers whom Ernst Haeckel at once won over to his side. This popular little book became a weapon in the class struggle. The professors of philosophy and theology in every country of the world set about denouncing and annihilating Haeckel   in every possible way. The eminent English physicist Lodge hastened to defend God against Haeckel. The Russian physicist Mr. Chwolson went to Germany to publish a vile reactionary pamphlet attacking Haeckel and to assure the respectable philistines that not all scientists now hold the position of “naïve realism.”[1] There is no counting the theologians who joined the campaign against Haeckel. There was no abuse not showered on him by the official professors of philosophy.[2] It was amusing to see how—perhaps for the first time in their lives—the eyes of these mummies, dried and shrunken in the atmosphere of lifeless scholasticism, began to gleam and their cheeks to glow under the slaps which Haeckel administered them. The high-priests of pure science, and, it would appear, of the most abstract theory, fairly groaned with rage. And throughout all the howling of the philosophical diehards (the idealist Paulsen, the immanentist Rehmke, the Kantian Adickes, and the others whose name, god wot, is legion) one underlying motif is clearly discernible: they are all against the “metaphysics” of science, against “dogmatism,” against “the exaggeration of the value and significance of science,” against “natural-scientific materialism.” He is a materialist—at him! at the materialist! He is deceiving the public by not calling him self a materialist directly!—that is what particularly incenses the worthy professors.

And the noteworthy thing in all this tragi-comedy[3] [3] The tragic element was introduced by the attempt made on Haeckel’s life this spring (1908). After Haeckel had received a number of anonymous letters addressing him by such epithets as “dog,” “atheist,” “monkey,” and so forth, some true German soul threw a stone of no mean size through the window of Haeckel’s study in Jena. —Lenin is the fact that Haeckel himself renounces materialism and rejects the appellation. What is more, far from rejecting religion altogether, he has invented his own religion (something like Bulgakov’s “atheistic faith” or Lunacharsky’s “religious atheism”), and on grounds of principle   advocates a union of religion and science. What then is it all about? What “fatal misunderstanding” started the row?

The point is that Haeckel’s philosophical naïvete, his lack of definite partisan aims, his anxiety to respect the prevailing philistine prejudice against materialism, his personal conciliatory tendencies and proposals concerning religion, all this gave the greater salience to the general spirit of his book, the ineradicability of natural-scientific materialism and its irreconcilability with all official professorial philosophy and theology. Haeckel personally does not seek a rupture with the philistines, but what he expounds with such unshakeably naïve conviction is absolutely incompatible with any of the shades of prevailing philosophical idealism. All these shades, from the crudest reactionary theories of a Hartmann, to Petzoldt, who fancies himself the latest, most progressive and advanced of the positivists, and the empirio-criticist Mach—all are agreed that natural-scientific materialism is “metaphysics,” that the recognition of an objective reality underlying the theories and conclusions of science is sheer “naïve realism,” etc. And for this doctrine, “sacred” to all professorial philosophy and theology, every page of Haeckel is a slap in the face. This scientist, who undoubtedly expressed the very firmly implanted, although unformed opinions, sentiments and tendencics of the overwhelming majority of the scientists of the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century, instantly, easily and simply revealed what professorial philosophy tried to conceal from the public and from itself, namely, the fact that there is a foundation, growing ever wider and firmer, which shatters all the efforts and strivings of the thousand and one little schools of philosophical idealism, positivism, realism, empirio-criticism and other confusionism. This foundation is natural-scientific materialism. The conviction of the “naïve realists” (in other words, of all humanity) that our sensations are images of an objectively real external world is the conviction of the mass of scientists, one that is steadily growing and gaining in strength.

The cause of the founders of new philosophical schools and of the inventors of new epistemological “isms” is   lost, irrevocably and hopelessly. They may flounder about in their “original” petty systems; they may strive to engage the attention of a few admirers in the interesting controversy as to who was the first to exclaim, “Eh!”—the empirio-critical Bobchinsky, or the empirio-monistic Dobchinsky[8]; they may even devote themselves to creating an extensive “special” literature, like the “immanentists.” But the course of development of science, despite its vacillations and hesitations, despite the unwitting character of the materialism of the scientists, despite yesterday’s infatuation with fashionable “physiological idealism” or today’s infatuation with fashionable “physical idealism,” is sweeping aside all the petty systems and artifices and once again bringing to the forefront the “metaphysics” of natural-scientific materialism.

Here is an illustration of this from Haeckel. In his The Wonders of Life, Haeckel compares the monistic and dualistic theories of knowledge. We give the most interesting points of the comparison[4] :

3. Cognition is a physiological process, whose anatomical organ is the brain 3. Cognition is not a physiological but a purely spiritual process.
4. The only part of the human brain in which knowledge is engendered is a spatially limited sphere of the cortex the phronema. 4. The part of the human brain which appears to function as the organ of knowledge is in fact only the instrument that permits the spiritual process to manifest itself.
5. The phronema is a highly perfected dynamo,   the individual parts of which,thephroneta, consist of millions of cells (phronetal cells). Just as in the case of every other organ of the body, so in the case of this mental organ, its function, the “mind,” is the sum-total of the functions of its constituent cells. 5. The phronema as the organof reason is not autonomous, but, through its constituent parts(phroneta)and the cells that com- pose them, serves only as intermediary between the non-material mind and the external world. Human reason differs absolutely from the mind of the higher animal sand from the instinct of the lower animals.

This typical quotation from his works shows that Haeckel does not attempt an analysis of philosophical problems and is not able to contrast the materialist theory of knowledge with the idealist theory of knowledge. He ridicules all idealist—more broadly, all peculiarly philosophical—artifices from the standpoint of natural science, without even permitting the idea that any other theory of knowledge but natural-scientific materialism is possible. He ridicules the philosophers from the standpoint of a materialist, without himself realising that his standpoint is that of a materialist!

The impotent wrath aroused in the philosophers by this almighty materialism is comprehensible. We quoted above the opinion of the “true-Russian” Lopatin. And here is the opinion of Mr. Rudolf Willy, the most progressive of the “empirio-criticists,” who is irreconcilably hostile to idealism (don’t laugh!). “Haeckel’s monism is a very heterogeneous mixture: it unites certain natural-scientific laws, such as the law of the conservation of energy . . . with certain scholastic traditions about substance and the thing-in-itself into a chaotic jumble” (Gegen die Schulweisheit, S. 128).

What has annoyed this most worthy “recent positivist”? Well, how could he help being annoyed when he immediately realised that from Haeckel’s standpoint all the great doctrines of his teacher Avenarius—for instance, that the brain is not the organ of thought, that sensations are not images of the external world, that matter (“substance”) or “the thing-in-itself” is not an objective reality, and so   forth—are nothing but sheer idealist gibberish !? Haeckel did not say it in so many words because he did not concern himself with philosophy and was not acquainted with “empirio-criticism” as such. But Rudolf Willy could not help realising that a hundred thousand Haeckel readers meant as many people spitting in the face of the philosophy of Mach and Avenarius. Willy wipes his face in advance, in the Lopatin manner. For the essence of the arguments which Mr. Lopatin and Mr. Willy marshal against materialism in general and natural-scientific materialism in particular, is exactly the same in both. To us Marxists the difference between Mr. Lopatin and Messrs. Willy, Petzoldt, Mach and Co. is no greater than the difference between the Protestant theologians and the Catholic theologians.

The “war” on Haeckel has proven that this view of ours corresponds to objective reality, i.e., to the class nature of modern society and its class ideological tendencies.

Here is another little example. The Machian Kleinpeter has translated from English into German, under the title of Das Weltbild der modernen Naturwissenschaft [World Picture from the Standpoint of Modern Natural Science] (Leipzig, 1905), a work by Carl Snyder well known in America. This work gives a clear and popular account of a number of recent discoveries in physics and other branches of science. And the Machian Kleinpeter felt himself called upon to supply the book with a preface in which he makes certain reservations, such as, for example, that Snyder’s epistemology is “not satisfactory” (p. v). Why so? Because Snyder never entertains the slightest doubt that the world picture is a picture of how matter moves and of how “matter thinks” (p. 228). In his next book, The World Machine (London and New York, 1907), Snyder, referring to the fact that his book is dedicated to the memory of Democritus of Abdera, who lived about 460-360 B.C., says: “Democritus has often been styled the grandsire of materialism. It is a school of philosophy that is a little out of fashion nowadays; yet it is worthy of note that practically all of the modern advance in our ideas of this world has been grounded upon his conceptions. Practically speaking, materialistic assumptions are simply unescapable in physical investigations” (p. 140).

“. . . If he like, he may dream with good Bishop Berkeley that it is all a dream. Yet comforting as may be the leger-demain of an idealised idealism, there are still few among us who, whatever they may think regarding the problem of the external world, doubt that they themselves exist; and it needs no long pursuit of the will-o’-the-wisps of the Ich and non-Ich to assure oneself that if in an unguarded moment we assume that we ourselves have a personality and a being, we let in the whole procession of appearances which come of the six gates of the senses. The nebular hypothesis, the light-bearing ether, the atomic theory, and all their like, may be but convenient ‘working hypotheses,’ but it is well to remember that, in the absence of negative proof, they stand on more or less the same footing as the hypothesis that a being you call ‘you,’ Oh, Indulgent Reader, scans these lines” (pp. 31-32).

Imagine the bitter lot of a Machian when his favourite subtle constructions, which reduce the categories of science to mere working hypotheses, are laughed at by the scientists on both sides of the ocean as sheer nonsense! Is it to be wondered that Rudolf Willy, in 1905, combats Democritus as though he were a living enemy, thereby providing an excellent illustration of the partisan character of philosophy and once more exposing the real position he himself takes up in this partisan struggle? He writes: “Of course, Democritus was not conscious of the fact that atoms and the void are only fictitious concepts which perform mere accessory services (blosse Handlangerdienste), and maintain their existence only by grace of expediency, just as long as they prove useful. Democritus was not free enough for this; but neither are our modern natural scientists, with few exceptions. The faith of old Democritus is the faith of our scientists” (op. cit., p. 57).

And there is good reason for despair! The “empirio-criticists” have proven in quite a “new way” that both space and atoms are “working hypotheses”; and yet the natural scientists deride this Berkeleianism and follow Haeckel. We are by no means idealists, this is a slander; we are only striving (together with the idealists) to refute the epistemological line of Democritus; we have been   striving to do so for more than 2,000 years, but all in vain! And nothing better remains for our leader Ernst Mach to do than to dedicate his last work, the outcome of his life and philosophy, Erkenntnis und Irrtum, to Wilhelm Schuppe and to remark ruefully in the text that the majority of scientists are materialists and that “we also” sympathise with Haeckel . . . for his “freethinking” (p. 14).

And there he completely betrays himself, this ideologist of reactionary philistinism who follows the arch-reactionary Schuppe and “sympathises” with Haeckel’s freethinking. They are all like this, these humanitarian philistines in Europe, with their freedom-loving sympathies and their ideological (political and economic) captivity to the Wilhelm Schuppes.[5] [5] Plekhanov in his criticism of Machism was less concerned with refuting Mach than with dealing a factional blow at Bolshevism. For this petty and miserable exploitation of fundamental theoretical differences, he has been already deservedly punished—with two books by Machian Mensheviks.[9]Lenin Non-partisanship in philosophy is only wretchedly masked servility to idealism and fideism.

Let us, in conclusion, compare this with the opinion of Haeckel held by Franz Mehring, who not only wants to be, but who knows how to be a Marxist. The moment The Riddle of the Universe appeared, towards the end of 1899, Mehring pointed out that “Haeckel’s work, both in its less good and its very good aspects, is eminently adapted to help clarify the apparently rather confused views prevailing in the party as to the significance for it of historical materialism, on the one hand, and historical materialism, on the other.”[6] Haeckel’s defect is that he has not the slightest conception of historical materialism, which leads him to utter the most woeful nonsense about politics, about “monistic religion,” and so on and so forth. “Haeckel is a materialist and monist, not a historical but a natural-scientific materialist” (ibid.).

He who wants to perceive this inability [of natural-scientific materialism to deal with social problems] tangibly, he who wants to be convinced that natural-scientific materialism must be broadened into historical materialism   if it is really to be an invincible weapon in the great struggle for the liberation of mankind, let him read Haeckel’s book.

But let him not read it for this purpose alone! Its uncommonly weak side is inseparably bound up with its uncommonly strong side, viz., with the comprehensible and luminous description (which after all takes up by far the greater and more important part of the book) given by Haeckel of the development of the natural sciences in this [the 19th] century, or, in other words, of the triumphant march of natural-scientific materialism.”[7]



[1] O. D. Chwolson. Hegel, Haeckel, Kossuth und das zwölfte Gebot [Hegel, Haeckel, Kossnth and the Twelfth Commandment], 1906, cf. S. 80. —Lenin

[2] The pamphlet of Heinrich Schmidt, Der Kempf und die Welträtsel [The Fight over “The Riddle of the Universe”] (Bonn, 1900), gives a fairly good picture of the campaign launched against Haeckel by the professors of philosophy and theology. But this pamphlet is already very much out-of-date. —Lenin

[3] THIS FOOTNOTE has been moved into BODY OF DOCUMENT.

[4] I use the French translation, Les merveilles de la vie, Paris, Schleicher, Tables I et XVI.] —Lenin

[5] THIS FOOTNOTE has been moved into BODY OF DOCUMENT.

[6] Fr. Mehring, “Die Weltratsel” [The Riddle of the Universe], Neue Zeit, 1899-1900, XVIII, 1, 418. —Lenin

[7] Ibid., p. 419. —Lenin

[8] Bobchinsky, Dobchiasky—two closely similar characters in Gogol’s comedy Inspector-General, chatterers and tale-bearers.

[9] Lenin is referring to two booklets by Machist Mensheviks published in 1908: N. Valentinov’s PhilosophicaL Constructions of Marxism and P. Yushkevich’s Materialism and Critical Realism.

  4. Parties in Philosophy and Philosophical Blockheads | Conclusion  

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