Anton Pannekoek

Lenin as Philosopher

Chapter 6

How Mach’s idea could acquire importance in the Russian socialist movement, may be understood from social conditions. The young Russian intelligentsia, owing to the barbarous pre-capitalist conditions, had not yet, as in Western Europe, found its social function in the service of a bourgeoisie. So it had to aspire for the downfall of Czarism, and to join the socialist party. At the same time it stood in spiritual intercourse with the Western intellectuals and so took part in the spiritual trends of the Western world. Thus it was inevitable that efforts should be made to combine them with Marxism.

Of course Lenin had to oppose these tendencies. Marxian theory, indeed, can gain nothing essential from Mach. Insofar as a better understanding of human thinking is needed for socialists, this can be found in Dietzgen’s work. Mach was significant because he deduced analogous ideas out of the practices of natural science, for the use of scientists. In what he has in common with Dietzgen, the reduction of the world to experience, he stopped midway and gave, imbued with the anti-materialist trends of his time, a vague idealistic form to his news. This could not be grafted upon Marxism. Here Marxist criticism was needed.

The Criticism

Lenin, however in attacking Mach, from the start presents the antagonism in a wrong way. Proceeding from a quotation of Engels, he says:

“But the question here is not of this or that formulation of materialism, but of the opposition of materialism to idealism, of the difference between the two fundamental lines in philosophy. Are we to proceed from things to sensation and thought? Or are we to proceed from thought and sensation to things? The first line, i.e., the materialist line, is adopted by Engels. The second line, i.e., the idealist line, is adopted by Mach” (33-4). [1]

It is at once clear that this is not the true expression of the antithesis. According to materialism the material world produces thought, consciousness, mind, all things spiritual. That, on the contrary, the spiritual produces the material world, is taught by religion, is found with Hegel, but is not Mach’s opinion. The expression “to proceed from ... to” is used to intermix two quite different meanings. Proceeding from things to sensations and thought means: things create thoughts. Proceeding – not from thoughts to things, as Lenin wrongly imputes to Mach but – from sensations to things, means that only through sensations we arrive at the knowledge of things. Their entire existence is built up out of sensations; to emphasise this truth Mach says: they consist of sensations.

Here the method followed by Lenin in his controversy makes its appearance he tries to assign to Mach opinions different from the real ones. Especially the doctrine of solipsism. Thus he continues:

“No evasions, no sophisms (a multitude of which we shall yet encounter) can remove the clear and indisputable fact that Ernst Mach’s doctrine of things as complexes of sensations in subjective idealism and a simple rehash of Berkeleianism. If bodies are ‘complexes of sensations,’ as Mach says, or ‘combulations of sensations,’ as Berkeley said, it inevitably follows that the whole world is but my idea. Starting from such a premise it is impossible to arrive at the existence of other people besides oneself: it is the purest solipsism. Much as Mach, Avenarius, Petzoldt and the others may abjure solipsism, they cannot in fact escape solipsism without falling into howling logical absurdities.” (34)

Now, if anything can be asserted beyond any doubt about Mach and Avenarius, it is that their opinions are not solipsism fellow-men similar to myself, deduced with more or less stringent logic, are the basis of their world conception. Lenin, however, manifestly does not care about what Mach really thinks, but about what he should think if his logic were identical with Lenin’s.

“From which there is only one possible inference, namely that the ‘world consists only of my sensations.’ The word ‘our’ employed by Mach instead of ‘my’ is employed illegitimately.” (36)

That indeed is an easy way of arguing: what I write down as the opinion of my adversary he replaces unjustifiably by what he wrote down himself. Lenin, moreover, knows quite well that Mach speaks of the objective reality of the world, and himself gives numerous quotations to that effect. But he does not let himself be deceived as so many others were deceived by Mach.

“Similarly, even Mach ... frequently strays into a materialist interpretation of the word experience ... (171). Here nature is taken as primary and sensation and experience as products. Had Mach consistently adhered to his point of view in the mental questions of epistemology ... Mach’s special ‘philosophy’ is here thrown overboard, and the author instinctively accepts the customary standpoint of the scientists.” (172)

Would it not have been better if he had tried to understand in what sense it was that Mach assumes that things consist of sensations?

The “elements” also are an object of difficulty to Lenin. He summarises Mach’s opinion on the elements in six theses, among which we find, in numbers 3 and 4:

“Elements are divided into the physical and the psychical: the latter is that which depends on the human nerves and the human organism generally; the former does not depend on them: the connection of physical elements and the connection of psychical elements, it is declared, do not exist separately from each other they exist only in conjunction.” (49)

Anybody, even if acquainted only superficially with Mach, can see how he is rendered here in an entirely wrong and meaningless way. What Mach really says is this: every element, though described in many words, is an inseparable unity, which can be part of a complex that we call physical, but which combined with different other elements can form a complex that we call psychical. When I feel the heat of a flame, this sensation together with others on heat and thermometers and with visible phenomena combines into the complex “flame” or “heat,” treated in physics. Combined with other sensations of pain and pleasure, with remembrances and with observations on nerves, the context belongs to physiology or psychology. “None (of these connections) is the only existing one, both are present at the same time” says Mach. For they are the same elements in different combinations. Lenin makes of this that the connections are not independent and only exist together. Mach does not separate the elements themselves as physical and psychical ones, nor does he distinguish a physical and psychical part in them the same element is physical in one context, psychical in another. If Lenin renders these ideas in such a sloppy and unintelligible way it is no wonder that he cannot make any sense out of it, and speaks of “an incoherent jumble of antithetical philosophical points of view.” (49) If one does not take the pains or is unable to unravel the real opinions of his adversary and only snatches up some sentences to interpret them from one’s own point of view, he should not wonder that nonsense comes out. This cannot be called a marxian criticism of Mach.

In the same faulty way he renders Avenarius. He reproduces a small summary by Avenarius of a first division of the elements: what I find present I partly call outer world (e.g. I see a tree), partly not (I remember a tree, trunk of a tree). Avenarius denotes them as thing-like (sachhaft) and thoughtlike (gedankenhaft) elements. Thereupon Lenin indignantly exclaims:

“At first we are assured that the ‘elements’ are something new, both physical and psychical at the same time then a little correction is surreptitiously inserted: instead of the crude, materialist differentiation of matter (bodies, things) and the psychical (sensations, recollections, fantasies) we are presented with the doctrine of ‘recent positivism’ regarding elements substantial and elements mental.” (53)

Clearly he does not suspect how completely he misses the point.

In a chapter superscribed with the ironical title Does man think with his brain? Lenin quotes Avenarius’s statement that the brain is not the lodging, the site, etc. of thinking; thinking is no resident, no product, etc. of the brain. Hence: man does not think with his brain. Lenin has not perceived that Avenarius further on expresses clearly enough, though garbled in his artificial terminology, that the action of the outer world upon the brain produces what we call thoughts; manifestly Lenin had not the patience to unravel Avenarius’s intricate language. But to combat an opponent you have to know his point ignorance is no argument. What Avenarius contradicts is not the role of the brain but that we call the product thought when we assign to it, as a spiritual being, a site in the brain and say it is living in the brain, is commanding the brain, or is a function of the brain. The material brain, as we saw, occupies precisely the central place of his philosophy. Lenin, however, considers this only as a “mystification”:

“Avenarius here acts on the advice of the charlatan in Turgenev: denounce most of all those vices which you yourself possess. Avenarius tries to pretend that he is combating idealism.... While distracting the attention of the reader by attacking idealism, Avenarius is in fact defending idealism, albeit in slightly different words; thought is not a function of the brain: the brain is not the organ of thought; sensations are – not functions of the nervous system, oh, no: sensations are – ‘elements’ .” (92-3)

The critic rages here against a self-mystification without any basis. He finds “idealism” in that Avenarius, proceeds from elements, and elements are sensations. Avenarius, however, does not proceed from sensations but from what simple unsophisticated man finds present; things, surroundings, a world, fellow-men, remembrances. Man does not find present sensations, be finds present a world. Avenarius tries to construct a description of the world without the common language of matter and mind and its contradictions. He finds trees present, and human brains, and – so he believes – changes in the brains produced by the trees, and actions and talk of fellow-men determined by these changes. Of all this Lenin manifestly has no inkling. He tries to make “idealism” of Avenarius’s system by considering Avenarius’s starting point, experience, to be sensations, something psychical, according to his own materialist view. His error is that he takes the contradistinction materialism-idealism in the sense of middle-class materialism, with physical matter as its basis. Thus he shuts himself off completely from any understanding of modern views that proceed from experience and phenomena as the given reality.

Lenin now brings forward an array of witnesses to declare that the doctrines of Mach and Avenarius are idealism or solipsism. It is natural that the host of professional philosophers, in compliance with the tendency of bourgeois thinking to proclaim the rule of mind over matter, try to interpret and emphasise the anti-materialist side of their ideas; they too know materialism only as the doctrine of physical matter. What, we may ask, is the use of such witnesses? When disputed facts have to be ascertained, witnesses are necessary. When, however, we deal with the understanding of somebody’s opinions and theories, we have to read and render carefully what he himself has written to expound them; this is the only way to find out similarities and differences, truth and error. For Lenin, however, matters were different. His book was part of a law-suit, an act of impeachment; as such it required an array of witnesses. An important political issue was at stake; Machism threatened to corrupt the fundamental doctrines, the theoretical unity of the Party; so its spokesmen had to do away with them. Mach and Avenarius formed a danger for the Party; hence what mattered was not to find out what was true and valuable in their teachings in order to widen our own views. What mattered was to discredit them, to destroy their reputation, to reveal them as muddle-heads contradicting themselves, speaking confused fudge, trying to hide their real opinions and not believing their own assertions

All the middle-class philosophical writers, standing before the newness of these ideas, look for analogies and relationships of Mach and Avenarius with former philosophic systems; one welcomes Mach as fitting in with Kant, another sees a likeness to Hume, or Berkeley, or Fichte. In this multitude and variety of systems it is easy to find out connections and similarities everywhere. Lenin registers all such contradictory judgements and in this way demonstrates Mach’s confusion. The like with Avenarius. For instance:

“And it is difficult to say who more rudely unmasks Avenarius the mystifier – Smith by his straightforward and clear refutation, or Schuppe by his enthusiastic opinion of Avenarius’s crowning work. The kiss of Wilhelm Schuppe in philopsophy is no better than the kiss of Peter Struve or Menshikov in politics.” (73)

If we now read Schuppe’s Open Letter to Avenarius, in which in flattering words he expresses his agreement, we find that he did not at all grasp the essence of Avenarius’s opinion; he takes the “myself” as the starting point instead of the elements found present, out of which Avenarius constructs the “myself”. He misrepresents Avenarius in the same way as Lenin does, with this difference, that what displeased Lenin pleased him. In his answer Avenarius, in the courteous words usual among scholars, testifies to his satisfaction at the assent of such a famous thinker, but then again expounds the real contents of his doctrine. Lenin neglects the contents of these explanations which refute his conclusions, and quotes only the compromising courtesies.

Natural Science

Over against Mach’s ideas Lenin puts the materialistic views, the objective reality of the material world, of matter, light ether, laws of nature, such as natural science and human common sense accept. These last are two respectable authorities; but in this case their weight is not very great. Lenin sneeringly quotes Mach’s own confession that he found little consent among his colleagues. A critic, however, who brings new ideas cannot be refuted by the statement that it is the old criticised ideas that are generally accepted. And as to common sense, i.e. the totality of opinions of uninstructed people: they usually represent the dicta of science of a former period, that gradually, by teaching and popular books, seeped down the masses. That the earth revolves around the sun, that the world consists of indestructible matter, that matter consists of atoms, that the world is eternal and infinite – all this has gradually penetrated into the minds, first of the educated classes, then of the masses. When science proceeds to newer and better views, all this old knowledge can, as “common sense,” be brought forward against them.

How unsuspectingly Lenin leans upon these two authorities – and even in a wrong way – is seen when he says:

“For every scientist who has not been led astray by professorial philosophy, as well as for every materialist, sensation is indeed the direct connection between consciousness and the external world: it is the transformation of the energy of external excitation into a state of consciousness. This transformation has been, and is, observed by each of us a million times on every hand.” (45)

This “observing” is of the same kind as when one should say: we see a thousand times that our eye sees and that light falls upon the retina. In reality we do not see our seeing and our retina; we see objects and infer the retina and the seeing. We do not observe energy and its transitions we observe phenomena, and out of these phenomena physicists have abstracted the concept of energy. The transformation of energy is a summarised physical expression for the many phenomena in which one measured quantity decreased, another increased. They are all good expedient concepts and inferences, reliable in the prediction of future phenomena, and so we call them true. Lenin takes this truth in such an absolute way that he thinks he expresses an observed fact “adopted by every materialist,” when he pronounces what is actually a physical theory. Moreover his exposition is wrong. That energy of the light-impression is converted into consciousness may have been the belief of middle-class materialists, but science does not know of it. Physical science says that energy transforms exclusively, and completely, into other energy; the energy of the light-impression is transformed into other forms: chemical, electrical, heat-energy; but consciousness is not known in physics as a form of energy.

This confounding of the real, observed world and the physical concepts permeates Lenin’s work on every page. Engels denoted materialists as those who considered nature the original thing. Lenin speaks of a “materialism which regards nature, matter, as primary” (38). And in another place: “matter is the objective reality given to us in sensations” (144-5). To Lenin nature and physical matter are identical; the name matter has the same meaning as objective world. In this he agrees with middle-class materialism that in the same way considers matter as the real substance of the world. Thus his angry polemics against Mach can be easily understood. To Mach matter is an abstract concept formed out of the phenomena – or more strictly: sensations. So Lenin, now finding the denial of the reality of matter, then reading the simple statement of the reality of the world, sees only confusion; and he pretends, now, that Mach is a solipsist and denies the existence of the world, and then scornfully remarks that Mach throws his own philosophy to the winds and returns to scientific views.

With the laws of nature the case is analogous. Mach’s opinion that cause and effect as well as natural laws do not factually exist in nature, but are man-made expressions of observed regularities, is asserted by Lenin to be identical with Kant’s doctrine.

“... It is man who dictates laws to nature and not nature that dictates laws to man! The important thing is not the repetition of Kant’s doctrine of apriorism ... but the fact that reason, mind, consciousness are here primary, and nature secondary. It is not reason that is a part of nature, one of its highest products, the reflection of its processes, but nature that is a part of reason, which ‘thereby is stretched from the ordinary, simple human reason known to us all to a ‘stupendous,’ as Dietzgen puts it, mysterious, divine reason. The Kantian-Machian formula, that ‘man gives laws to nature,’ is a fideist formula.” (185)

This confused tirade, entirely missing the point, can only be understood if we consider that for Lenin “nature” consists not only in matter but also in natural laws directing its behaviour, floating somehow in the world as commanders who must be obeyed by the things. Hence to deny the objective existence of these laws means to him the denial of nature itself; to make man the creator of natural laws means to him to make human mind the creator of the world. How then the logical salto is made to the deity as the creator must remain an enigma to the unsophisticated reader.

Two pages earlier he writes:

“The really important epistemological question that divides the philosophical trends is ... whether the source of our knowledge of these connections is objective natural law or properties of our mind, its innate faculty of apprehending certain a priori truths, and so forth. This is what so irrevocably divides the materialists Feuerbach, Marx and Engels from the agnostic (Humeans) Avenarius and Mach.” (183)

That Mach should ascribe to the human mind the power to disclose certain aprioristic truths is a new discovery or rather fantasy of Lenin. Where Mach deals with the practice of the mind to abstract general rules from experience and to assign to them unlimited validity, Lenin, captivated by traditional philosophical ideas, thinks of disclosing aprioristic truths. Then he continues:

“In certain parts of his works, Mach ... frequently ‘forgets’ his agreement with Hume and his own subjectivist theory of causality and argues ‘simply’ as a scientist, i.e., from the instinctive materialist standpoint. For instance, in his Mechanik, we read of the ‘uniformity ... which natures teaches us to mind in its phenomena.’ But if we do find uniformity in the phenomena of nature, does this mean mat uniformity exists objectively outside our mind? No. On the question of the uniformity of nature Mach also delivers himself thus: ... ‘That we consider ourselves capable of making predictions with the help of such a law only proves that there is sufficient uniformity in our environment, but it does not prove the necessity of the success of our predictions’ (Wärmelehre, p.383). It follows that we may and ought to look for a necessity apart from the uniformity of our environment, i.e., of nature.” (183)

The embroilment in this tangle of sentences, further embellished by courtesies here omitted is understandable only when conformity of nature is identical for Lenin with the necessity of success of our prophecies; when, hence, he cannot distinguish between regularities as they occur in various degrees of clearness in nature, and the apodictic expression of exact natural law. And he proceeds:

“Where to look for it is the secret of idealist philosophy which is afraid to recognise man’s perceptive faculty as a simple reflection of nature.” (184)

In reality there is no necessity, except in our formulation of natural law; and then in practice ever again we find deviations, which, again, we express in the form of additional laws. Natural law does not determine what nature necessarily will do, but what we expect her to do. The silly remark that our mind should simply reflect nature we may leave undiscussed now. His concluding remark:

“In his last work, Erkenntnis und Irrtum, Mach even defines a law of nature as a ‘limitation of expectation’ (2.Auflage, S.450ff.)! Solipsism claims its own.” (184)

This lacks all sense since the determination of our expectation by natural law is a common affair of all scientists. The embodiment of a number of phenomena in a short formula, a natural law, is denoted by Mach as “economy of thinking”; he exalts it into a principle of research. We might expect that such a reducing of abstract theory to the practice of (scientific) labour should find sympathy among Marxists. In Lenin, however, it meets with no response, and he exposes his lack of understanding in some drolleries:

“That it is more ‘economical’ to ‘think’ that only I and my sensations exist is unquestionable, provided we want to introduce such an absurd conception into epistemology. Is it ‘more economical’ to ‘think’ of the atom as indivisible, or as composed of positive and negative electrons? Is it ‘more economical’ to think of the Russian bourgeois revolution as being conducted by the liberals or as being conducted against the liberals? One has only to put the question in order to see the absurdity, the subjectivism of applying the category of ‘the economy of thought’ here.” (196-7)

And he opposes to it his own view:

“Human thought is ‘economical’ only when it correctly reflects objective truth, and the criterion of this correctness is practice, experiment and industry. Only by denying objective reality, that is, by denying the foundations of Marxism, can one seriously speak of economy of thought in the theory of knowledge.” (197)

How simple and evident that looks. Let us take an example. The old, ptolemaic world-system placed the earth as resting in the centre of the world, with the sun and the planets revolving around it, the latter in epicycles, a combination of two circles. Copernicus placed the sun in the centre and had the earth and the planets revolving around it in simple circles. The visible phenomena are exactly the same after both theories, because we can observe the relative motions only, and they are absolutely identical. Which, then, pictures the objective world in the right way? Practical experience cannot distinguish between them; the predictions are identical. Copernicus pointed to the fixed stars which by the parallax could give a decision; but in the old theory we could have the stars making a yearly circle just as the planets did; and again both theories give identical results. But then everybody will say: it is absurd to have all those thousands of bodies describe similar circles, simply to keep the earth at rest. Why absurd? Because it makes our world-picture needlessly complicated. Here we have it – the Copernican system is chosen and stated to be true because it gives the most simply world system. This example may suffice to show the naïvité of the idea that we choose a theory because after the criterion of experience it pictures reality rightly.

Kirchhoff has formulated the real character of scientific theory in the same way by his well-known statements that mechanics, instead of “explaining” motions by means of the “forces” producing them, has the task “to describe the motions in nature in the most complete and simple way.” Thus the fetishism of forces as causes, as a kind of working imps, was removed; they are a short form of description only. Mach of course pointed to the analogy of Kirchhoff’s views and his own. Lenin, to show that he does not understand anything of it, because he is entirely captivated in this fetishism, calls out in an indignant tone: “Economy of thought, from which Mach in 1872 inferred that sensations alone exist ... is declared to be ... equivalent to the simplest description (of an objective reality, the existence of which it never occurred to Kirchhoff to doubt ! )” (198)

It must be remarked, besides, that thinking never can picture reality completely; theory is an approximate picture that renders only the main features, the general traits of a group of phenomena.

After having considered Lenin’s ideas on matter and natural laws, we take as a third instance space and time.

“Behold now the ‘teachings’ of ‘recent positivism’ on this subject. We read in Mach: ‘Space and time are well ordered (wohlgeordnete) systems of series of sensations’ (Mechanik, 3. Auflage, p.498). This is palpable idealist nonsense, such as inevitably follows from the doctrine that bodies are complexes of sensations. According to Mach, it is not man with his sensations that exists in space and time, but space and time that exist in man, that depend upon man and are generated by man. He feels that he is falling into idealism, and ‘resists’ by making a host of reservations and ... burying the question under lengthy disquisitions ... on the mutability of our conceptions of space and time. But this does not save him, and cannot save him, for one can really overcome the idealist position on this question only by recognising the objective reality of space and time. And this Mach will not do at any price. He constructs his epistemological theory of time and space on the principle of relativism, and that is all. Resisting the idealist conclusions which inevitably follow from his premises, Mach argues against Kant and insists that our conception of space is derived from experience (Erkenntnis und Irrtum, 2. Auflage, p.530, 385). But if objective reality is not given us in experience (as Mach teaches) ...” (206)

What is the use of going on quoting? It is all a sham battle, because we know that Mach assumes the reality of the world; and all phenomena, constituting the world, take place in space and time. And Lenin could have been warned that he was on a false track, by a number of sentences he knows and partly quotes, where Mach discusses the mathematical investigations on multi-dimensional spaces. There Mach says: “That which we call space is a special real case among more general imagined cases ... The space of vision and touch is a threefold manifold, it has three dimensions ... The properties of given space appear directly as objects of experience ... About the given space only experience can teach us whether it is finite, whether parallel lines intersect, etc.... To many divines who do not know where to place hell, and to spiritists, a fourth dimension might be very convenient.” But “such a fourth dimension would still remain a thing of imagination.” These quotations may suffice. What has Lenin to say to all this, besides a number of groundless squibs and invectives?

“But how does he (Mach) dissociate himself from them in his theory of knowledge? By stating that three-dimensional space alone is real! But what sort of defence is it against the theologians and their like when you deny objective reality to space and time?” (211)

What difference might there be between real space and objective reality of space? At any rate he sticks to his error.

What, then, is that sentence of Mach that was the basis of this fantasy? In the last chapter of his Mechanik, Mach discusses the relation between different branches of science. There he says: “First we perceive that in all experiences on spatial and temporal relations we have more confidence, and a more objective and real character is ascribed to them, than to experiences on colour, heat or sound ... Yet, looking more exactly, we cannot fail to see that sensations of space and time are sensations just as those of colour, sound or smell; only, in the former we are more trained and clear than in the latter. Space and time are well-ordered systems of series of sensations ...” Mach proceeds here from experience; our sensations are the only source of knowledge; our entire world, including all we know about space and time, is built up out of them. The question of what is the meaning of absolute space and time is to Mach a meaningless question; the only sensible question is how space and time appear in our experience. Just as with bodies and matter we can form a scientific conception of time and space only through abstraction out of the totality of our experiences. With the space-and-time pattern in which we insert these experiences we are versed, as most simple and natural, from early youth. How it then appears in experimental science cannot be expressed in a better way than by the words of Mach: well-ordered systems of series of experiences.

What, contrariwise, Lenin thinks of space and time, transpires from the following quotation:

“In modern physics, he says, Newton’s idea of absolute time and space prevails (pp.442 4), of time and space as such. This idea seems ‘to us’ senseless, Mach continues – apparently not suspecting the existence of materialists and of a materialist theory of knowledge. But in practice, he claims, this view was harmless (unschädlich, p.442) and therefore for a long time escaped criticism.” (208)

Hence, according to Lenin, “materialism” accepts Newton’s doctrine, the basis of which is that there exists an absolute space and an absolute time. This means that the place in space is fixed absolutely without regard to other things, and can be ascertained without any doubt. When Mach says that this is the point of view of contemporary physicists he surely represents his colleagues as too old-fashioned; in his time already it was rather generally accepted that motion and rest were relative conceptions, that the place of a body is always the place relative to other bodies, and that the idea of absolute position has no sense.

Still there was a certain doubt whether or not space-filling world ether did not offer a frame for absolute space; motion or rest relative to world-ether could be rightly called then absolute motion or rest. When, however, physicists tried to determine it by means of the propagation of light, they could find nothing but relativity. Such was the case with Michelson’s famous experiment in 1889, arranged in such a way that in its result nature should indicate the motion of our earth relative to the ether. But nothing was found; nature remained mute. It was as if she said: your query has no sense. To explain the negative result it was assumed that there always occurred additional phenomena that just cancelled the expected effect – until Einstein in 1905 in his theory of relativity combined all facts in such a way that the result was self-evident. Also within the world-occupying ether – absolute position was shown to be a word without meaning. So gradually the idea of ether itself was dropped, and all thought of absolute space disappeared from science.

With time it seemed to be different; a moment in time was assumed to be absolute. But it was the very ideas of Mach that brought about a change here. In the place of talk of abstract conceptions, Einstein introduced the practice of experiment. What are we doing when we fix a moment in time? We look at a clock, and we compare the different clocks, there is no other way. In following this line of argument Einstein succeeded in refuting absolute time and demonstrating the relativity of time. Einstein’s theory was soon universally adopted by scientists, with the exception of some anti-semitic physicists in Germany who consequently were proclaimed luminaries of national-socialist “German” physics.

The latter development could not yet be known to Lenin when he wrote his book. But it illustrates the character of such expositions as where he writes:

“The materialist view of space and time has remained ‘harmless,’ i.e., compatible, as heretofore, with science, while the contrary view of Mach and Co. was a ‘harmful’ capitulation to the position of fideism.” (210)

Thus he denotes as materialist the belief that the concepts of absolute space and absolute time, which science once wanted as its theory but had to drop afterwards, are the true reality of the world. [2] Because Mach opposes their reality and asserts for space and time the same as for every concept, viz. that we can deduce them only from experience, Lenin imputes to him “idealism leading to ‘fideism’.”


Our direct concern here is not with Mach but with Lenin. Mach occupies considerable space here because Lenin’s criticism of Mach discloses his own philosophical views. From the side of Marxism there is enough to criticise in Mach; but Lenin takes up the matter from the wrong end. As we have seen he appeals to the old forms of physical theory, diffused into popular opinion, so as to oppose them against the modern critique of their own foundations. We found, moreover, that he identifies the real objective world with physical matter, as middle class materialism [3] did formerly. He tries to demonstrate it by the following arguments:

“If you hold that it is given, a philosophical concept is needed for this objective reality, and this concept has been worked out long, long ago. This concept is matter. Matter is a philosophical category designating the objective reality which is given to man by his sensations, and which is copied, photographed and reflected by our sensations, while existing independently of them.” (144)

Fine; with the first sentence we all can agree. When then, however, we would restrict the character of reality to physical matter, we contradict the first given definition. Electricity too is objective reality; is it physical matter? Our sensations show us light; it is reality but not matter, and the concepts introduced by the physicists to explain its phenomena, first the world ether, then the photons, can not easily be denoted as a kind of matter. Is not energy quite as real as is physical matter? More directly than the material things, it is their energy that shows itself in all experience and produces our sensations. For that reason Ostwald, half a century ago, proclaimed energy the only real substance of the world; and he called this “the end of scientific materialism,” And finally, what is given to us in our sensations, when fellow-men speak to us, is not only sound coming from lips and throat, not only energy of air vibrations, but besides, more essentially, their thoughts, their ideas. Man’s ideas quite as certainly belong to objective reality as the tangible objects; things spiritual constitute the real world just as things called material in physics. If in our science, needed to direct our activity, we wish to render the entire world of experience, the concept of physical matter does not suffice; we need more and other concepts; energy, mind, consciousness.

If according to the above definition matter is taken as the name for the philosophical concept denoting objective reality, it embraces far more than physical matter. Then we come to the view repeatedly expressed in former chapters, where the material world was spoken of as the name for the entire observed reality. This is the meaning of the word material, matter in Historical Materialism, the designation of all that is really existing in the world, “including mind and fancies,” as Dietzgen said. It is not, therefore, that the modern theories of the structure of matter provoke criticism of his ideas, as Lenin indicates above on the same page, but the fact that he identifies physical matter at all with the real world.

The meaning of the word matter in Historical Materialism, as pointed out here, is of course entirely foreign to Lenin; contrary to his first definition he will restrict it to physical matter. Hence his attack on Dietzgen’s “confusion”:

“Thinking is a function of the brain, says Dietzgen. ‘My desk as a picture in my mind is identical with my idea of it But my desk outside of my brain is a separate object and distinct from my idea.’ These perfectly clear materialistic propositions are, however, supplemented by Dietzgen thus: ‘Nevertheless, the non-sensible idea is also sensible, material, i.e., real....’ 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.” (290)

Here Lenin repudiates his own definition of matter as the philosophical expression of objective reality. Or is perhaps objective reality something different from really existing? What he tries to express but cannot without “inexactness of expression” – is this: that thought may really exist, but the true genuine reality is only found in physical matter.

Middle-class materialism, identifying objective reality with physical matter, had to make every other reality, such as all things spiritual, an attribute or property of this matter. We cannot wonder, therefore, that we find with Lenin similar ideas. To Pearson’s sentence: “It is illogical to assert that all matter has consciousness” he remarks:

“It is illogical to assert that all matter is conscious but it is logical to assert that all matter possesses a property which is essentially akin to sensation, the property of reflection.” (98)

And still more distinctly he avers against Mach:

“As regards materialism, ... we have already seen in the case of Diderot [4] what the real views of the materialists are. These views do not consist in deriving sensation from the movement of matter or in reducing sensation to the movement of matter, but in recognising sensation as one of the properties of matter in motion. On this question Engels shared the standpoint of Diderot.” (40)

Where Engels may have said so, is not indicated. We may doubt whether Lenin’s conviction that Engels on this point agreed with him and Diderot, rests on precise statements. In his Anti-Dühring Engels expressed himself in another way: “Life is the form of existence of albuminous substances”; i.e. life is not a property of all matter but appears only in such complicated molecular structures as albumen. So it is not probable that he should have considered sensitiveness, which we know as a property of living matter only, a property of all matter, Such generalisations of properties observed only in special cases, to matter in general, belong to the undialectic middle-class frame of mind.

The remark may be inserted here that Plechanov exhibits ideas analogous to Lenin’s. In his Grundprobleme des Marxismus he criticises the botanist France on the subject of the “spirituality of matter,” the “doctrine that matter in general and organic matter especially always has a certain sensitivity.” Plechanov then expresses his own view in the words: “France considers this contradictory to materialism. In reality it is the transfer of Feuerbach’s materialistic doctrine. We may assert with certainty that Marx and Engels would have given attention to this trend of thought with the greatest interest.” This is a cautious assertion testifying that Marx and Engels in their writings never showed any interest in this trend of thought. France as a limited-minded naturalist knows only the antithesis of views in middle-class thinking; he assumes that materialists believe in matter only, hence the doctrine that in all matter there is something spiritual is, to him, no materialism at all. Plechanov, on the other hand, considers it a small modification of materialism that makes it more resistant.

Lenin was quite well aware of the concordance of his views with middle-class materialism of the 19th century. For him “materialism” is the common basis of Marxism and middle-class materialism. After having expounded that Engels in his booklet on Feuerbach charged these materialists with three things – that they remained with the materialist doctrine of the 18th century, that their materialism was mechanical, and that in the realm of social science, they held fast to idealism and did not understand Historical Materialism – he proceeds:

“Exclusively for these three things and exclusively within these limits, does Engels refute both the materialism of the eighteenth century and the doctrines of Buchner and Co.! On all other, more elementary, questions of materialism (questions distorted by the Machians) there is and can be no difference between Marx and Engels on the one hand and all these old materialists on the other,” (286)

That this is an illusion of Lenin’s has been demonstrated in the preceding pages these three things carry along as their consequences an utter difference in the fundamental epistemological ideas. And in the same way, Lenin continues, Engels was in accordance with Dühring in his materialism:

“For Engels ... Dühring was not a sufficiently steadfast, clear and consistent materialist.” (288)

Compare this with the way Engels finished Dühring off in words of scornful contempt.

Lenin’s concordance with middle-class materialism and his ensuing discordance with Historical Materialism is manifest in many consequences. The former waged its main war against religion; and the chief reproach Lenin raises against Mach and his followers is that they sustain fideism. We met with it in several quotations already; in hundreds of places all through the book we find fideism as the opposite of materialism. Marx and Engels did not know of fideism; they drew the line between materialism and idealism. In the name fideism emphasis is laid upon religion. Lenin explains whence he took the word. “In France, those who put faith above reason are called fideists (from the Latin fides, faith).” (306)

This oppositeness of religion to reason is a reminiscence from pre-marxian times, from the emancipation of the middle-class, appealing to “reason” in order to attack religious faith as the chief enemy in the social struggle; “free thinking” was opposed to “obscurantism.” Lenin, in continually pointing to fideism as the consequence of the contested doctrines indicates that also to him in the world of ideas religion is the chief enemy.

Thus he scolds Mach for saying that the problem of determinism cannot be settled empirically: in research, Mach says every scientist must be determinist but in practical affairs he remains indeterminist.

“Is this not obscurantism ... 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’.” (223) ... “And so things have been amicably divided: theory for the professors, practice for the theologians!” (224)

Thus every subject is seen from the point of view of religion. Manifestly it was unknown to Lenin that the deeply religious Calvinism was a rigidly deterministic doctrine, whereas the materialist middle class of the 19th century put their faith into free will, hence proclaimed indeterminism. At this point a real Marxian thinker would not have missed the opportunity of explaining to the Russian Machists that it was Historical Materialism that opened the way for determinism in the field of society; we have shown above that the theoretical conviction that rules and laws hold in a realm – this means determinism – can find a foundation only when we succeed in establishing practically such laws and connections. Further, that Mach because he belonged to the middle class and was bound to its fundamental line of thought, by necessity was indeterminist in his social views; and that in this way his ideas were backward and incompatible with Marxism. But nothing of the sort is found in Lenin; that ideas are determined by class is not mentioned; the theoretical differences hang in the air. Of course theoretical ideas must be criticised by theoretical arguments. When, however, the social consequences are emphasised with such vehemence, the social origins of the contested ideas should not have been left out of consideration. This most essential character of Marxism does not seem to exist for Lenin.

So we are not astonished that among former authors it is especially Ernst Haeckel who is esteemed and praised by Lenin. In a final chapter inscribed “Ernst Haeckel and Ernst Mach” he compares and opposes them. “Mach ... betrays science into the hands of fideism by virtually deserting to the camp of philosophical idealism” (422). But “every page” in Haeckel’s work “is a slap in the face of the ‘sacred’ teachings of all official philosophy and theology.” Haeckel “instantly, easily and simply revealed ... that there is a foundation. This foundation is natural-scientific materialism.” (423).

In his praise it does not disturb him that the writings of Haeckel combine, as generally recognised, popular science with a most superficial philosophy – Lenin himself speaks of his “philosophical naïvité” and says “that he does not enter into an investigation of philosophical fundamentals.” What is essential to him is that Haeckel was a dauntless fighter against prominent religious doctrines.

“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 special cheap editions, clearly demonstrates that the book ‘has found its way to the masses’, that there are numbers 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.” (423)

What class-fight was this? Which class was here represented by Haeckel against which other class? Lenin is silent on this point. Should his words be taken to imply that Haeckel, unwittingly, acted as a spokesman of the working class against the bourgeoisie? Then it must be remarked that Haeckel was a vehement opponent to socialism, and that in his defence of Darwinism he tried to recommend it to the ruling class by pointing out that it was an aristocratic theory, the doctrine of the selection of the best, most fit to refute “the utter nonsense of socialist levelling”. What Lenin calls a tempest raised by the Weltraetsel was in reality only a breeze within the middle class, the last episode of its conversion from materialism to idealistic world conception. Haeckel’s Weltraetsel was the last flare up, in a weakened form, of middle-class materialism, and the idealist, mystic, and religious tendencies were so strong already among the bourgeoisie and the intellectuals that from all sides they could pounce upon Haeckel’s book and show up its deficiencies. What was the importance of the book for the mass of its readers among the working class we have indicated above. When Lenin speaks here of a class fight he demonstrates how little he knew of the class fight in countries of developed capitalism, and saw it only as a fight for and against religion.

Plechanov’s Views

The kinship with middle-class materialism revealed in Lenin’s book is not simply a personal deviation from Marxism. Analogous views are found in Plechanov, at the time the acknowledged first and prominent theorist of Russian socialism. In his book Grundprobleme des Marxismus (Fundamental Problems of Marxism), first written in Russian, with a German translation in 1910, he begins by broadly treating the concordance between Marx and Feuerbach. What usually is called Feuerbach’s Humanism, he explains, means that Feuerbach proceeds from man to matter. “The words of Feuerbach quoted above on the ‘human head’ show that the question of ‘brain matter’ was answered at the time in a materialist sense. And this point of view was also accepted by Marx and Engels. It became the basis of their philosophy.” Of course Marx and Engels assumed that human thoughts are produced in the brain, just as they assumed that the earth revolved around the sun. Plechanov, however, proceeds: “When we deal with this thesis of Feuerbach, we get acquainted at the same time with the philosophical side of Marxism.” He then quotes the sentences of Feuerbach: ‘Thinking comes from being, but being comes not from thinking. Being exists in itself and by itself, existence has its basis in itself;” and he concludes by adding “Marx and Engels made this opinion on the relation between being and thinking the basis of their materialist conception of history.” Surely; but the question is what they mean by “being”. In this colourless word many opposing concepts of later times are contained undistinguished. All that is perceptible to us we call being; from the side of natural science it can mean matter, from the side of social science the same word can mean the entire society. To Feuerbach it was the material substance of man: “man is what he eats”; to Marx it is social reality, i.e. a society of people, tools, production-relations, that determines consciousness.

Plechanov then speaks of the first of Marx’s theses on Feuerbach; he says that Marx here “completes and deepens Feuerbach’s ideas”; he explains that Feuerbach took man in his passive relations, Marx in his active relation to nature. He points to the later statement in Das Kapital: “Whilst man works upon outside nature and changes it, he changes at the same time his own nature,” and he adds: “The profundity of this thought becomes clear in the light of Marx’s theory of knowledge ... It must be admitted, though, that Marx’s theory of knowledge is a direct offspring of Feuerbach’s or, more rightly, represents Feuerbach’s theory of knowledge which, then, has been deepened by Marx in a masterly way.” And again, on the next page, he speaks of “modern materialism, the materialism of Feuerbach, Marx and Engels.” What must be admitted, rather, is that the ambiguous sentence: being determines thought, is common to them, and that the materialist doctrine that brain produces thought is the most unessential part of Marxism and contains no trace yet of a real theory of knowledge.

The essential side of Marxism is what distinguished it from other materialist theories and what makes them the expression of different class struggles. Feuerbach’s theory of knowledge, belonging to the fight for emancipation of the middle class, has its basis in the lack of science of society as the most powerful reality determining human thinking. Marxian theory of knowledge proceeds from the action of society, this self-made material world of man, upon the mind, and so belongs to the proletarian class struggle. Certainly Marx’s theory of knowledge descended, historically, from Hegel and Feuerbach; but equally certainly it grew into something entirely different from Hegel and Feuerbach. It is a significant indication of the point of view of Plechanov that he does not see this antagonism and that he assigns the main importance to the trivial community of opinion – which is unimportant for the real issue – that thoughts are produced by the brain.



1. All numbers in round brackets refer to pages in Lenin’s Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, Foreign Languages Publishing House, Peking, 1972.

2. Three obsolete ideas, as an essential part of Leninism as the Russian State philosophy, were afterwards imposed upon Russian science, as may be inferred from the following communication in Waldemar Kaempfert, Science in Soviet-Russia: “Toward the end of the Trotsky purge, the Astronomical Division of the Academy of sciences passed some impassioned resolutions, which were signed by the president and eighteen members and which declared that ‘modern bourgeois cosmogony is in a state of deep ideological confusion resulting from its refusal to accept the only true dialectic-materialistic concept, namely the unity of the universe with respect to space as well as time’, and a belief in relativity was branded as ‘counter-revolutionary’.”

3. 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)

4. Diderot, one of the Encyclopaedists of the 18th century, had written “that the faculty of sensation is a general property of matter, or a product of its organisation” (Lenin, p.29). The wider scope admitted in the latter expression was dropped by Lenin.


Last updated on 2.7.2004