Anton Pannekoek

Lenin as Philosopher

Chapter 3

Middle-class materialism, when it came up in Western Europe in connection with the fight of the middle class for emancipation, was inevitable in practice; but as theory it was a retrogression compared with Historical Materialism. Marx and Engels were so far ahead that they saw it only as a backsliding into obsolete ideas of the 18th-century enlightenment. Because they saw so very clearly the weaknesses of the bourgeois political fight in Germany – while underrating the vitality of the capitalist system – they did not give much attention to the accompanying theory. Only occasionally they directed at it some contemptuous words, to refute any identification of the two kinds of materialism. During their entire lifetime their attention was concentrated upon the antithesis of their theory to the idealist systems of German philosophy, especially Hegel. Middle-class materialism [1], however, was somewhat more than a mere repetition of 18th-century ideas; the enormous progress of the science of nature in the 19th century was its basis and was a source of vigour. A criticism of its foundations had to tackle problems quite different from those of post-Hegelian philosophy. What was needed was a critical examination of the fundamental ideas and axioms which were universally accepted as the results of natural science and which were in part accepted by Marx and Engels too.

Here lies the importance of the writings of Joseph Dietzgen. Dietzgen, an artisan, a tanner living in Rhineland, who afterwards went to America and there took some part in the working-class movement, was a self-made socialist philosopher and author. In social and economic matters he considered himself a pupil of Marx, whose theory of value and capital he entirely comprehended. In philosophy he was an independent original thinker, who set forth the philosophical consequences of the new world view. Marx and Engels, though they honourably mentioned him as “the philosopher of the proletariat” did not agree with everything he wrote; they blamed his repetitions, often judged him confused, and it is doubtful whether they ever understood the essence of his arguments, far removed from their own mode of thinking. Indeed, whereas Marx expresses the new truth of his views as precise statements and sharp logical arguments, Dietzgen sees his chief aim in stimulating his readers to think for themselves on the problem of thinking. For this purpose he repeats his arguments in many forms, exposes the reverse of what he stated before, and assigns to every truth the limits of its truth, fearing above all that the reader should accept any statement as a dogma. Thus he teaches practical dialectics. Whereas in his later writings he is often vague, his first work The nature of human brain work (1869), and his later A socialist’s excursions into the field of epistemology (1877), as well as some smaller pamphlets are brilliant contributions to the theory of knowledge. They form an essential part in the entirety of the world-view that we denote by the name of Marxism. The first problem in the science of human knowledge: the origin of ideas, was answered by Marx in the demonstration that they are produced by the surrounding world. The second, adjoining problem, how the impressions of the surrounding world are transformed into ideas, was answered by Dietzgen. Marx stated what realities determine thought; Dietzgen established the relation between reality and thought. Or, in the words of Herman Gorter, Marx pointed out what the world does to the mind, Dietzgen pointed out what the mind does itself.

Dietzgen proceeds from the experiences of daily life, and especially from the practice of natural science. “Systematisation is the essence, is the general expression of all activity of science. Science seeks only by our understanding to bring the objects of the world into order and system.” Human mind takes from a group of phenomena what is common to them (e.g. from a rose, a cherry, a setting sun their colour), leaves out their specific differences, and fixes their general character (red) in a concept; or it expresses as a rule what repeats itself (e.g. stones fall to the earth). The object is concrete, the spiritual concept is abstract. “By means of our thinking we have, potentially, the world twofold, outside as reality, inside, in our head, as thoughts, as ideas, as an image. Our brains do not grasp the things themselves but only their concept, their general image. The endless variety of things, the infinite wealth of their characters, finds no room in our mind”. For our practical life indeed, in order to foresee events and make predictions, we do not want all the special cases but only the general rule. The antithesis of mind and matter, of thought and reality, of spiritual and material, is the antithesis of abstract and concrete, of general and special.

This, however, is not an absolute antithesis. The entire world, the spiritual as well as the visible and tangible world, is object to our thinking. Things spiritual do exist, they too are really existing, as thoughts; thus they too are materials for our brain activity of forming concepts. The spiritual phenomena are assembled in the concept of mind. The spiritual and the material phenomena, mind and matter together, constitute the entire real world, a coherent entity in which matter determines mind and mind, through human activity, determines matter. That we call this total world a unity means that each part exists only as a part of the whole, is entirely determined by the action of the whole, that, hence, its qualities and its special character consists in its relations to the rest of the world. Thus also mind, i.e. all things spiritual, is a part of the world’s totality, and its nature consists in the totality of its relations to the world’s whole, which we then, as the object of thinking, oppose to it under the name material, outer, or real world. If now we call this material world primary and the mind dependent, it means for Dietzgen simply that the entirety is primary and the part secondary. Such a doctrine where spiritual and material things, entirely interdependent, form one united world, may rightly be called monism.

This distinction between the real world of phenomena and the spiritual world of concepts produced by our thinking is especially suitable to clear up the nature of scientific conceptions. Physics has discovered that the phenomena of light can be explained by rapid vibrations propagated through space, or, as the physicists said, through space-filling ether. Dietzgen quotes a physicist stating that these waves are the real nature of light whereas all that we see as light and colour is only an appearance. “The superstition of philosophical speculation here” Dietzgen remarks “has led us astray from the path of scientific induction, in that waves rushing through the ether with a velocity of 40,000 (German) miles per second, and constituting the true nature of light are opposed to the real phenomena of light and colour. The perversion becomes manifest where the visible world is denoted as a product of the human mind, and the ether vibrations, disclosed by the intellect of the most acute thinkers, as the corporeal reality.” It is quite the reverse, Dietzgen says: the coloured world of phenomena is the real world, and the ether waves are the picture constructed by the human mind out of these phenomena.

It is clear that in this antagonism we have to do with different meanings about the terms truth and reality. The only test to decide whether our thoughts are truth is always found in experiment, practice, experience. The most direct of experiences is experience itself; the experienced world of phenomena is the surest of all things, the most indubitable reality. Surely we know phenomena that are only appearances. This means that the evidences of different senses are not in accordance and have to be fitted in a different way in order to get a harmonious world-picture. Should we assume the image behind the mirror, which we can see but cannot touch, as a common reality, then such a confused knowledge would bring practical failure. The idea that the entire world of phenomena should be nothing but appearance could make sense only if we assumed another source of knowledge – e.g. a divine voice speaking in us – to be brought in harmony with the other experiences.

Applying now the same test of practice to the physicist we see that his thinking is correct also. By means of his vibrating ether he not only explained known phenomena but even predicted in the right way a number of unsuspected new phenomena. So his theory is a good, a true theory. It is truth because it expresses what is common to all these experiences in a short formula that allows of easy deduction of their endless diversity. Thus the ether ways must be considered a true picture of reality. The ether itself of course cannot be observed in any way; observation shows only phenomena of light.

How is it then, that the physicists spoke of the ether and its vibrations as a reality? Firstly as a model, conceived by analogy. From experience we know of waves in water and in the air. If now we assume such waves in another, finer substance filling the universe, we may transfer to it a number of well-known wave phenomena, and we find these confirmed. So we find our world of reality growing wider. With our spiritual eyes we see new substances, new particles moving, invisibly because they are beyond the power of our best microscopes, but conceivable after the model of our visible coarser substances and particles.

In this way, however, with ether as a new invisible reality, the physicists landed into difficulties. The analogy was not perfect: the world-filling ether had to be assigned qualities entirely different from water or air; though called a substance it deviated so completely from all known substances that an English physicist once compared it somehow to pitch. When it was discovered that light waves were electromagnetic vibrations, it ensued that the ether had to transmit electric and magnetic phenomena too. For this role, a complicated structure had to be devised, a system of moving, straining, and spinning contrivances, that might be used as a coarse model, but which nobody would call the true reality of this finest of fluids filling space between the atoms. The thing became worse when in the beginning of the 20th century the theory of relativity came up and denied the existence of ether altogether. Physicists then grew accustomed to deal with a void space, equipped however with qualities expressed in mathematical formulas and equations. With the formulas the phenomena could be computed in the right way; the mathematical symbols were the only thing remaining. The models and images were non-essential, and the truth of a theory does not mean anything more than that the formulas are exact.

Things became worse still when phenomena were discovered that could be represented only by light consisting of a stream of so called quanta, separated particles hurrying through space. At the same time the theory of vibrations held the field too, so that according to needs one theory or the other had to be applied. Thus two strictly contradictory theories both were true, each to be used within its group of phenomena. Now at last physicists began to suspect that their physical entities, formerly considered the reality behind the phenomena, were only images, abstract concepts, models more easily to comprehend the phenomena. When Dietzgen half a century before wrote down his views which were simply a consequence of Historical Materialism, there was no physicist who did not firmly believe in the reality of world ether. The voice of a socialist artisan did not penetrate into the university lecture rooms. Nowadays it is precisely the physicists who assert that they are dealing with models and images only, who are continually discussing the philosophical basis of their science, and who emphasise that science aims solely at relations and formulas through which future phenomena may be predicted from former ones.

In the word phenomenon “that which appears”, there is contained an oppositeness to the reality of things; if we speak of “appearings” there must be something else that appears. Not at all, says Dietzgen; phenomena appear (or occur), that is all. In this play of words we must not think, of course, of what appears to me or to another observer; all that happens, whether man sees it or not, is a phenomenon, and all these happenings form the totality of the world, the real world of phenomena. “Sense perception shows an endless transformation of matter ... The sensual world, the universe at any place and any time is a new thing that did not exist before. It arises and passes away, passes and arises under our hands. Nothing remains the same, lasting is only perpetual change, and even the change varies ... The (middle class) materialist, surely, asserts the permanency, eternity, indestructibility of matter ... Where do we find such eternal, imperishable formless matter? In the real world of phenomena we meet only with forms of perishable matter ... Eternal and imperishable matter exists practically, in reality, only as the sum total of its perishable phenomena.” In short, matter is an abstraction.

Whereas philosophers spoke of the essence of things, physicists spoke of matter, the lasting background behind the changing phenomena. Reality, they say, is matter; the world is the totality of matter. This matter consists of atoms, the invariable ultimate building stones of the universe, that by their various combinations impose the impression of endless change. On the model of surrounding hard objects, as an extension of the visible world of stones, grams, and dust, these still smaller particles were assumed to be the constituents of the entire world, of the fluid water as well as of the formless air. The truth of the atomic theory has stood the test of a century of experience, in an endless number of good explanations and successful predictions. Atoms of course are not observed phenomena themselves: they are inferences of our thinking. As such they share the nature of all products of our thinking their sharp limitation and distinction, their precise equality belongs to their abstract character. As abstractions they express what is general and common in the phenomena, what is necessary for predictions.

To the physicist, of course, atoms were no abstractions but real small invisible particles, sharply limited, exactly alike for every chemical element, with precise qualities and precise mass. But modern science destroyed also this illusion. Atoms, firstly, have been dissolved into still smaller particles, electrons, protons, neutrons, forming complicated systems, some of them inaccessible to any experiment, mere products of the application of logic. And these smallest elements of the world cannot be considered as precisely defined particles finding themselves at definite points in space. Modern physical theory assigns to each of them the character of a wave motion extending over infinite space. When you ask the physicist what it is that moves in such waves his answer consists in pointing to a mathematical equation. The waves are no waves of matter, of course; that which moves cannot even be called a substance, but is rendered most truly by the concept of probability; the electrons are probability-waves. Formerly a particle of matter in its invariable weight presented a precisely defined quantity, its mass. Now mass changes with the state of motion and cannot be separated accurately from energy; energy and mass change into one another. Whereas formerly these concepts were neatly separated and the physical world was a clear system without contradiction, proudly proclaimed the real world, physics nowadays, when it assumes its fundamental concepts matter, mass, energy as fixed, well separated entities, is plunged into a crowd of unsolvable contradictions. The contradiction is cleared up when we simply consider them as what they are: abstractions serviceable to render the ever extending world of phenomena.

The same holds for the forces and laws of nature. Here Dietzgen’s expositions are not adequate and somewhat confused, probably because at the time the German physicists used the word “Kraft” indiscriminately for force and for energy. A simple practical case, such as gravity, may easily clear up the matter. Gravity, physicists said, is the cause of falling. Here cause is not something preceding the effects and different from it; cause and effect are simultaneous and express the same thing in different words. Gravity is a name that does not contain anything more than the phenomena themselves; in denoting them by this word we express the general, the common character of all the phenomena of falling bodies. More essential than the name is the law; in all free movements on earth there is a constant downward acceleration. Writing the law as a mathematical formula we are able to compute the motions of all falling or thrown bodies It is not necessary now to keep the phenomena all in our head; to know future cases it is sufficient to know the law, the formula. The law is the abstract concept our mind constructed out of the phenomena. As a law it is a precise statement that is assumed to hold good absolutely and universally, whereas the phenomena are diversified and always show deviations which we then ascribe to other, accessory, causes.

Newton extended the law of gravity to the celestial motions. The orbit of the moon was “explained” by showing that it was pulled by the same force that made stones fall onto earth; so the unknown was reduced to the known. His law of universal gravitation is expressed by a mathematical formula through which astronomers are able to compute and predict the celestial phenomena; and the result of countless predictions shows the truth of the law. Scientists now called the gravitation the “cause” of all these motions; they saw it as a reality floating in space, a kind of mysterious imp, a spiritual being called a “force” directing the planets in their course; the law was a command somehow present in nature which the bodies had to obey. In reality there is nothing of the sort; “cause” means the short summary or compendium, “effect” means the diverse multitude of phenomena. The formula binding the acceleration of each particle to its distance from the other ones, expresses in a short form exactly the same course of things as does a lengthy description of the actual motions. Gravitation as a separate something pulling and steering the bodies does not exist in nature but only in our head. As a mysterious command permeating space it has no more real existence than has Snell’s law of refraction as a command to the light rays on how they have to go. The course of the light rays is a direct mathematical consequence of the different velocity of light in different substances; instead of by the command of a law it can equally well be represented by the principle that light, as it were an intelligent being, chooses the quickest route to reach the aim. Modern science, in an analogous way, in the theory of relativity renders the motions in space not by gravitational force, but by prescribing the shortest road (the “geodesic”) in the distorted four-dimensional space-time. Now again physicists came to consider this warped space as a “reality” behind the phenomena. And again it must be stated that, like Newton’s gravitation, it is only a mental abstraction, a set of formulas, better than the former, hence more true, because it represents more phenomena which the old law could not explain.

What is called “causality” in nature, the reign of natural laws-sometimes one even speaks of the “law of causality,” i.e. in nature the law holds that laws hold – simply comes down to the fact that the regularities we find in the phenomena are expressed in the form of prescripts absolutely valid. If there are limitations, exceptions, conditions, they are expressly stated as such, and we try to represent them by correcting the law; this shows that its character is meant to be absolute. We are confident that it holds for future use; and if it fails, as often happens, or does not hold precisely, we represent this by additional “causes.”

We often speak of the inexorable course of events, or of the necessity in nature; or we speak of “determinism,” as if this course had been determined and fixed by somebody in advance. All these human names chosen to express the antithesis to the arbitrariness and free choice in human actions, denoting a kind of compulsion, are a source of much confusion and cannot render exactly the character of nature. Rather we say that the entire nature at this moment depends entirely on what it was a moment before. Or perhaps better still: that nature in its totality and history is a unity, remaining identically itself in all its variations. All parts are interrelated as parts of one whole, and the laws of nature are the humanly imperfect expressions of these interrelations. Necessity can be ascribed to them solely in a partial imperfect degree; absolute necessity may be affirmed for the entirety of nature only. Phenomena may be imperfectly rendered by our laws; but we are convinced that they go on in a way which can be ultimately reduced to simple description, and could not be otherwise than they are.

The significance of Marxism is often expressed, by saying that it presents, for the first time, a natural science of society. Hence society, just as nature, is determined by natural laws; society develops not by chance or incidentally but according to an overall necessity. And since society is human activity, then human action and choice and will are not arbitrary, not chance, but determined by social causes. What this means will now be clear. The totality of the world, consisting of nature and society, is a unity, at any moment determined by what it was before, each part entirely determined by the action of the rest. It remains the same identical world, in which the happenings of one part, of mankind or part of it, depend entirely on the surrounding world, nature and society together. Here too we try to find regularities, rules and laws, and we devise names and concepts; but seldom do we ascribe to them a separate reality. Whereas a physicist easily believes in gravitation as a real something floating in space around the sun and the planets, it is more difficult to believe in “progress” or “liberty” hovering round us and floating over society as real beings that conduct man like a ruling fate. They too are abstractions constructed by the mind out of partial relations and dependencies. With their “necessity” it is as with all necessity in nature. Its basis is the necessity that man must eat to live. In this popular saying the fundamental connection of man with the entirety of the world is expressed.

Through the immense complication of social relations “laws” of society are much more difficult to discern, and they cannot now be put into the form of exact formulas. Still more than in nature they may be said to express not the future but our expectation about the future. It is already a great thing that, whereas former thinkers were groping in the dark, now some main lines of development have been discovered. The importance of Marxism as a science of society is not so much the truth of the rules and expectations it formulated, but rather what is called its method: the fundamental conviction that everything in the world of mankind is directly connected with the rest. Hence for every social phenomenon we have to look for the material and social factors of reality on which it depends.



1. The phrase “middle class” is here used as a translation for the German word “bürgerlich”. The more modern term used in Marxist discourse for this concept is “bourgeois” (i.e. relating to the capitalist or bourgeois class) in order to distinguish it from the rather imprecise term “middle class”, which is often used as a broad description for white-collar workers, professionals, the self-employed etc. Similarly when this text refers to “the middle class” it is referring to the bourgeoisie or capitalist class. (Note by MIA)


Last updated on 6.19.2017