V. I.   Lenin


Critical Comments on a Reactionary Philosophy

( Chapter Three: The Theory of Knowledge of Dialectical Materialism and of Empirio-Criticism. III )

6. Freedom and Necessity

On pages 140–41 of the Studies, A. Lunacharsky quotes the argument given by Engels in Anti-Dühring on this question and fully endorses the “remarkably precise and apt” statement of the problem made by Engels in that “wonderful page”[1] [1] Lunacharsky says: “. . . a wonderful page of religious economics. I say this at the risk of provoking a smile from the irreligious reader.” However good your intentions may be, Comrade Lunacharsky, it is not a smile, but disgust your flirtation with religion provokes.[10]Lenin of the work mentioned.

There is, indeed, much that is wonderful here. And even more “wonderful” is the fact that neither Lunacharsky, nor the whole crowd of other Machian would-be Marxists, “noticed” the epistemological significance of Engels’ discussion of freedom and necessity. They read it and they copied it, but they did not make head or tail of it.

Engels says: “Hegel was the first to state correctly the relation between freedom and necessity. To him, freedom is the appreciation of necessity. ‘Necessity is blind only in so far as it is not understood.’ Freedom does not consist in the dream of independence from natural laws, but in the knowledge of these laws, and in the possibility this gives of systematically making them work towards definite ends. This holds good in relation both to the laws of external nature and to those which govern the bodily and mental existence of men themselves—two classes of laws which we can separate from each other at most only in thought but   not in reality. Freedom of the will therefore means nothing but the capacity to make decisions with knowledge of the subject. Therefore the freer a man’s judgment is in relation to a definite question, the greater is the necessity with which the content of this judgment will be determined. . . . Freedom therefore consists in the control over ourselves and over external nature, a control founded on knowledge of natural necessity (Naturnotwendigkeiten).” (5th Germ. ed., pp. 112–13.)[8]

Let us examine the epistemological premises upon which this argument is based.

Firstly, Engels at the very outset of his argument recognises laws of nature, laws of external nature, the necessity of nature—i.e.., all that Mach, Avenarius, Petzoldt and Co. characterise as “metaphysics.” If Lunacharsky had really wanted to reflect on Engels’ “wonderful” argument he could not have helped noticing the fundamental difference between the materialist theory of knowledge and agnosticism and idealism, which deny law in nature or declare it to be only “logical,” etc., etc.

Secondly, Engels does not attempt to contrive “definitions” of freedom and necessity, the kind of scholastic definition with which the reactionary professors (like Avenarius) and their disciples (like Bogdanov) are most concerned. Engels takes the knowledge and will of man, on the one hand, and the necessity of nature, on the other, and instead of giving definitions, simply says that the necessity of nature is primary, and human will and mind secondary. The latter must necessarily and inevitably adapt themselves to the former. Engels regards this as so obvious that he does not waste words explaining his view. It needs the Russian Machians to complain of Engels’ general definition of materialism (that nature is primary and mind secondary; remember Bogdanov’s “perplexity” on this point!), and at the same time to regard one of the particular applications by Engels of this general and fundamental definition as “wonderful” and “remarkably apt"!

Thirdly, Engels does not doubt the existence of “blind necessity.” He admits the existence of a necessity unknown to man. This is quite obvious from the passage just quoted. But how, from the standpoint of the Machians, can man know   of the existence of what he does not know? Is it not “mysticism,” “metaphysics,” the admission of “fetishes” and “idols,” is it not the “Kantian unknowable thing-in-itself” to say that we know of the existence of an unknown necessity? Had the Machians given the matter any thought they could not have failed to observe the complete identity between Engels’ argument on the knowability of the objective nature of things and on the transformation of “things-in-themselves” into “things-for-us,” on the one hand, and his argument on a blind, unknown necessity, on the other. The development of con-sciousness in each human individual and the development of the collective knowledge of humanity at large presents us at every step with examples of the transformation of the unknown “thing-in-itself” into the known “thing-for-us,” of the transformation of blind, unknown necessity, “necessity-in-itself,” into the known “necessity-for-us.” Epistemologically, there is no difference whatever between these two transformations, for the basic point of view in both cases is the same, viz., materialistic, the recognition of the objective reality of the external world and of the laws of external nature, and of the fact that this world and these laws are fully knowable to man but can never be known to him with finality. We do not know the necessity of nature in the phenomena of the weather, and to that extent we are inevitably slaves of the weather. But while we do not know this necessity, we do know that it exists. Whence this knowledge? From the very source whence comes the knowledge that things exist outside our mind and independently of it, namely, from the development of our knowledge, which provides millions of examples to every individual of knowledge replacing ignorance when an object acts upon our sense-organs, and conversely of ignorance replacing knowledge when the possibility of such action is eliminated.

Fourthly, in the above-mentioned argument Engels plainly employs the salto vitale method in philosophy, that is to say, he makes a leap from theory to practice. Not a single one of the learned (and stupid) professors of philosophy, in whose footsteps our Machians follow, would permit himself to make such a leap, for this would be a disgraceful thing for a devotee of “pure science” to do. For them the   theory of knowledge, which demands the cunning concoction of “definitions,” is one thing, while practice is another. For Engels all living human practice permeates the theory of knowledge itself and provides an objective criterion of truth. For until we know a law of nature, it, existing and acting independently and outside our mind, makes us slaves of “blind necessity.” But once we come to know this law, which acts (as Marx pointed out a thousand times) independently of our will and our mind, we become the masters of nature. The mastery of nature manifested in human practice is a result of an objectively correct reflection within the human head of the phenomena and processes of nature, and is proof of the fact that this reflection (within the limits of what is revealed by practice) is objective, absolute, and eternal truth.

What is the result? Every step in Engels’ argument, literally almost every phrase, every proposition, is constructed entirely and exclusively upon the epistemology of dialectical materialism, upon premises which stand out in striking contrast to the Machian nonsense about bodies being complexes of sensations, about “elements,” “the coincidence of sense-perceptions with the reality that exists outside us,” etc., etc., etc. Without being the least deterred by this, the Machians abandon materialism and repeat (à la Berman) the vulgar banalities about dialectics, and at the same time welcome with open arms one of the applications of dialectical materialism! They have taken their philosophy from an eclectic pauper’s broth and are continuing to offer this hotchpotch to the reader. They take a bit of agnosticism and a morsel of idealism from Mach, add to it slices of dialectical materialism from Marx, and call this hash a development of Marxism. They imagine that if Mach, Avenarius, Petzoldt, and all the authorities of theirs have not the slightest inkling of how Hegel and Marx solved the problem (of freedom and necessity), this is purely acci-dental: why, it was simply because they overlooked a certain page in a certain book, and not because these “authorities” were and are utter ignoramuses on the subject of the real progress made by philosophy in the nineteenth century and because they were and are philosophical obscurantists.

Here is the argument of one such obscurantist, the philosophy professor-in-ordinary at the University of Vienna, Ernst Mach:

The correctness of the position of determinism or indeterminism cannot be demonstrated. Only a perfect science or a provedly impossible science could decide this question. It is a matter of the presuppositions which we bring (man heranbringt) to the consideration of things, depending upon whether we ascribe to previous successes or failures of the investigation a greater or lesser subjective weight (subjektives Gewicht). But during the investigation every thinker is of necessity a theoretical determinist” (Knowledge and Error, 2nd Germ. ed., pp. 282-83).

Is this not obscurantism, when pure theory is carefully partitioned off from practice; when determinism is confined to the field of “investigation,” while in the field of morality, social activity, and all fields other than “investigation” the question is left to a “subjective” estimate? In my workroom, says the learned pedant, I am a determinist; but that the philosopher should seek to obtain an integral conception of the world based on determinism, embracing both theory and practice—of that there is no mention. Mach utters banalities because on the theoretical problem of freedom and necessity he is entirely at sea.

“. . . Every new discovery discloses the defects of our knowledge, reveals a residue of dependencies hitherto un-heeded. . .” (p. 283). Excellent! And is this “residue” the “thing-in-itself,” which our knowledge reflects ever more deeply? Not at all: “. . . Thus, he also who in theory defends extreme determinism, must nevertheless in practice remain an indeterminist. . .” (p. 283). And so things have been amicably divided[2] : theory for the professors, practice for the theologians! Or, objectivism (i.e.., “shamefaced” materialism) in theory and the “subjective method in sociology”[9] in practice. No wonder the Russian ideologists of philistinism, the Narodniks, from Lessevich to Chernov, sympathise with this banal philosophy. But it is very sad that would-be Marxists   have been captivated by such nonsense and are embarrassedly covering up the more absurd of Mach’s conclusions.

But on the question of the will Mach is not content with confusion and half-hearted agnosticism: he goes much further. “. . . Our sensation of hunger,” we read in the Mechenik, “is not so essentially different from the affinity of sulphuric acid for zinc, and our will is not so very different from the pressure of the stone on its support. . . . We shall thus find ourselves [that is, if we hold such a view] nearer to nature without it being necessary to resolve ourselves into an incomprehensible nebula of atoms, or to resolve nature into a system of phantoms” (French trans., p. 434). Thus there is no need for materialism (“nebula of atoms” or electrons, i.e.., the recognition of the objective reality of the material world), there is no need for an idealism which would recognise the world as “the otherness” of spirit; but there is a possible idealism which recognises the world as will! We are superior not only to materialism, but also to the idealism of a Hegel; but we are not averse to coquetting with an idealism like Schopenhauer’s! Our Machians, who assume an air of injured innocence at every reminder of Mach’s kinship to philosophical idealism, preferred to keep silent on this delicate question too. Yet it is difficult to find in philosophical writings an exposition of Mach’s views which does not mention his tendency towards Willensmetaphysik, i.e.., voluntaristic idealism. This was pointed out by J. Baumann,[3] and in replying to him the Machian Kleinpeter does not take exception to this point, but declares that Mach is, of course, “nearer to Kant and Berkeley than to the metaphysical empiricism prevailing in science” (i.e.., instinctive materialism; ibid., Bd. 6, S. 87). This is also pointed out by E. Becher, who remarks that if Mach in some places advocates voluntaristic metaphysics, and in others renounces it, it only testifies to the arbitrariness of his terminology; in fact, Mach’s kinship to voluntarist metaphysics is beyond doubt.[4] Even Lucka admits   the admixture of this metaphysics (i.e.., idealism) to “phenomenalism” (i.e.., agnosticism).[5] W. Wundt also points this out.[6] That Mach is a phenomenalist who is “not averse to voluntaristic idealism” is attested also in Ueberweg-Heinze’s textbook on the history of modern philosophy.[7]

In short, Mach’s eclecticism and his tendency to idealism are clear to everyone except perhaps the Russian Machians.



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

[2] Mach in the Mechanik says: “Religious opinions are people’s strictly private affair as long as they do not obtrude them on others and do not apply them to things which belong to another sphere” (French trans., p. 434). —Lenin

[3] Archiv für systemetische Philosophie, 1898, II, Bd, IV, S. 63, article on Mach’s philosophical views. —Lenin

[4] Erich Becher, “The Philosophical Views of Ernst Mach,” The Philosophical Review, Vol. XIV, 5, 1905, pp. 536, 546, 547, 548. —Lenin

[5] E. Lucka, “Das Erkenntnisproblem und Machs ‘Analyse der Empfindungen’” [The Problem of Knowledge and Mach’sAnalysis of Sensations"], in Kantstudien, Bd. VIII, 1903, S. 400. —Lenin

[6] Systematische Philosophie [Systeznatic Philosophy], Leipzig, 1907, S. 131. —Lenin

[7] Grundriss der Geschichte der Philosophie [Outline of the History of Philosophy], Bd. IV, 9. Aufl., Berlin, 1903, S. 250. —Lenin

[10] Instead of the words “provokes not a smile, but disgust”, the first edition of the book had “provokes more than a smile”. After he had read the proofs Lenin asked A. I. Ulyanova-Yelizarova to alter the phrase in the text or indicate this in the errata. Lenin ’s correction was printed in a list of errata appended to the first edition.

[8] See F, Engels, Anti-Duhring, Moscow, 1959, p. 157.

[9]The subjective method in sociology—an anti-scientific idealist approach to historical processes which refuses to acknowledge objective laws of social development, reducing them to the arbitrary actions of “outstanding personalities”. In the thirties and forties of the nineteenth century, adherents of the subjectivist school in sociology were the Young 1-legelians Bruno Bacer, David Strauss, Max Sthner and others who declared the people to be an “uncritical mass” that follows “critically thinking personalities”. K. Marx and F. Engels in the Holy Family, the Cernoors Ideology and other works made a thorough and profound criticism of the views of the Young Hegelians. In Flussia in the second half of the nineteenth century re resentatives of the subjective method in sociology were the liberal¼ Narodniks (P. L. Layroy, N. K. Mikhailovshy and others), who denied the objective nature of the laws of social development and reduced history to the actions of individual heroes, ’outstanding personalities ".

Marxism-Leninism exposed the fallacy of the subjective-idealist trend in sociology and created’ a genuinely scientific, integral theory of social development, of the decisive part played by the masses in history and of the significance of the activities of individuals.

  5. Space And Time | 1. The Criticism of Kantianism from the Left and From the Right  

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