Plekhanov on Engels’ Book
Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy

[Notes to the First Edition in the Original Version]

End of Note 6

On German “true socialism” see the Manifesto of the Communist Party by Marx and Engels (a new Russian translation of it was published in Geneva in 1882) and also Adler (not the Adler, the leader of the Austrian Social-Democrats) in his Geschichte der ersten sozialpolitischen Bewegungen in Deutschland. In this same book – which by the way is far from satisfactory – the reader will also learn about the activity of Karl Grün. “True” German socialism was one of the varieties of Utopian socialism, but it did not contain any trace of the profound thoughts for which the works of such Utopians as Robert Owen, Saint-Simon and Fourier are remarkable at every step. The supporters of “true socialism” rose against “politics” and could not at all understand what the class struggle is. It is known that certain Russian, no less “true”, socialists, still transgress in the same way. On the question of “ politics” we all now reason differently from the “true” socialists, we all acknowledge it as necessary. But that still does not mean that we all have a correct view of it. Whoever counterposes socialism to politics, whoever does not understand that every class struggle is a political struggle, whoever says, for example, “let us engage first in politics, let us overthrow the autocracy, and then we shall go on to socialism”, such a man is not a hair breadth above the views of the Utopian socialists, he does not understand the policy of the working class and he will in all probability defend a policy having definitely no direct relation to the political tasks of the socialists.

End of Note 7

Thus, for example, we know that, according to Kant’s teaching, things in themselves, when they act upon us give material which is processed by our consciousness. But as Überweg correctly notes (p.233 of the Russian translation of his History of Philosophy in Modern Times), “action contains the notions of time and of cause, which, as a priori forms, on the other hand, Kant acknowledges as having significance only within the world of phenomena, not beyond it.” Many more similar contradictions could be pointed out, but not, of course, in this short note.

Some German and Russian “philosophers” like to expatiate on the subject of the unknowableness of “things in themselves”. It seems to them that in doing so they are uttering very profound truths. But this is a grave error. Hegel was perfectly correct when he noted that a “thing in itself” is nothing else than the abstraction of every definite property, an empty abstraction about which nothing can be known for the very reason that it is an abstraction of all qualification. We do not know what a thing in itself is ... Of course, we do not. The question “what is?” presupposes definite properties of the thing which must be pointed out; but once we make abstraction of all the properties of a thing, we naturally cannot answer the question what it is because the impossibility to answer is already contained in the question. Transcendental idealism “transports” into consciousness all the properties of things, in relation to both form and content. It is understandable, that from this standpoint it depends only on me, on the subject, that the leaf of the tree appears to me green, not black; the sun round, not quadrangular; sugar sweet, not bitter, and that when the clock strikes two, I perceive its strokes successively, not simultaneously, and that I do not consider the first stroke as either the cause or the effect of the second, etc. (Wissenschaft der Logik, I. Bd., I. Abth., S.55; II. Abth., S.150).

But pardon, the reader may object, is not colour or sound something completely subjective, is the perception of colour and of sound the same thing as the movement which causes it? By no means, but “every vibration or transition of sound according to intensity, pitch or duration that we feel, corresponds to a perfectly definite change in the sound movement in reality. Sound and light as sensations are products of the organisation of man; but the roots of the forms and movements which we see, just as the modulations of sound which we hear, lie outside us in reality” (Sechenov, Objective Thought and Reality, in the collection Hunger Relief, published by Russkiye Vedomosti, p.188). And, generally, “whatever the external objects may be in themselves, independently of our consciousness – even if it be granted that our impressions of them are only conventional signs – the fact remains that the similarity or difference of the signs we perceive corresponds to a real similarity or difference. In other words, the similarities or differences man finds in the objects he perceives are real similarities or differences” (Sechenov, ibid., p.207). This cannot be refuted and consequently one cannot speak of unknowableness of things in themselves even if it occurred to somebody to speak of these “things” after Hegel showed the logical origin of these alleged things.

Our sensations are in their way hieroglyphs [1*] which inform us of what is taking place in reality. The hieroglyphs do not resemble the events conveyed by them. But they can with complete fidelity convey, both the events themselves, and – what is the main thing – the relations existing between them. Engels says that Kant’s theory is refuted best of all by experiment and industry. The words we have quoted from Sechenov partly show how this is to be understood. But perhaps it will do no harm to dwell a little longer on this question. Every experiment and every industry, that is, production of the things man needs, the deliberate calling into being of certain phenomena, are an active attitude of man towards nature. And this active attitude sheds new light on it, a light far brighter than that which is given by a passive perception of impressions. Indeed, making use of his knowledge of the laws of nature, man could build an electric railway. This means that he himself deliberately calls into being definite phenomena (the transformation of electricity into movement properly, etc.). But what is a phenomenon in the sense of Kant’s philosophy? It is the resultant of two forces: 1) our “ego”, 2) the action produced on that “ego” by the thing in itself. Consequently, calling forth a definite phenomenon, I force this “thing” to act upon my “ego” in a definite manner previously determined by me. Consequently, I know at least some of its properties: namely those by means of which I force it to act. But that is not yet all. Forcing the thing to act upon me in a definite manner, I become cause in relation to it. And Kant says that the category of cause cannot have any relation to “things in themselves”; consequently, here experiment refutes him better than he refuted himself when he said that the category of cause applies only to phenomena (and not to things in themselves), and at the same time maintained that “things in themselves” act upon our “ego”, that is, serve as one of the causes of phenomena. From this it follows that Kant was seriously mistaken when he said that the “forms of our thinking” (the categories, or “basic concepts of reason”, for example causality, interaction, existence, necessity) are only “a priori forms”, i.e., that things in themselves are not subject to the causal relation, interaction, and so forth. In reality the basic forms of our thinking not only correspond fully to the relations existing between things in themselves, they cannot but correspond to them, because our existence generally, and consequently our “forms of thinking”, would be impossible. It is true that we are quite capable of error in the investigation of these basic forms; we can take for a category that which is not a category at all. But that is another question which has no direct relation to the present one. In connection with it we will confine ourselves to a single remark: when we speak of the identity of the basic forms of being and of thought we do not at all mean thereby that any philosopher you came across has a completely correct conception of it.

Well, granted that Kant is wrong, granted that his dualism cannot withstand criticism, but the very existence of external objects is still not proved. How will you prove that the subjective idealists are not right, that Berkeley, for example, whose views you set forth at the beginning of this note, is not right? That can be proved too: read, at any rate, the works of Überweg on this question.

End of Note 9

Concerning Kant’s categorical imperative ... but do we need to speak of it? Any history of philosophy will explain it better than us in the few lines of our note. Read, for one thing, pp.245-56 of the Russian translation of Überweg-Heinze’s History of Philosophy in Modern Times. And in particular we recommend anybody who is interested to know how Hegel ridiculed the categorical imperative pp.550-81 (first edition of the German original) of the Phenomenology of Spirit. We really only wished to remark that if Engels adopts a scornful attitude to “non-realisable ideals” it is not because of some philistine-like propensity to be reconciled with every particular social system; that he scorns only the Manilov attitude, which, by the way, Kant displayed to no small degree. Our aim, we think, is achieved.

End of Note 11

The role of economic needs and relations in the history of the ancient Orient is splendidly brought to light in L.I. Mechnikov’s book, La civilisation et les grands fleuves historiques (Civilisation and the Great Historic Rivers), although its late author did not set himself exactly that aim. However, the role of these needs and relations strikes one forcibly already in the bulky Histoire ancienne de l’Orient (Ancient History of the Orient) by Lenormant. Concerning medieval history and the origin of medieval institutions we shall refer to Augustin Thierry, Guizot, Maurer and partly Fustel de Coulanges. Finally, the significance of economic relations and the class struggle resulting from them in modern history is brought out with amazing vividness in Marx’s excellent work, Der achtzehnte Brumaire des Louis Bonaparte (The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte). To say nothing of Capital, which is highly remarkable also as a work of history. In fact, every step forward in the science of history brings new proofs in favour of “economic materialism”. Hence the fact that many historians and writers now discover “independently of Marx” (i.e., not having the slightest idea of his theory)-or more exactly, see in a very misty distance – small pieces of the long ago discovered America. Giraud-Teulon’s book on the history of the family, for one, which has been translated into Russian, shows that such “independence” of the most important historical theory of our times does not go unpunished.

Marx’s theory of history must still be the basis of many, many particular historical investigations. Its significance is far from being fully clear even to all Marxists. But when “philosophers” like Paul Barth (see his Geschichtsphilosophie Hegel’s und der Hegelianer) ask with surprise in exactly which works the correctness of Marx’s theory is proved, they thereby only display their ignorance or their lack of reasoning powers, a lack which Kant was quite right in acknowledging to be incurable.



1*. Lenin criticised Plekhanov’s error on “hieroglyphs” in Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, Moscow 1952, pp.238-245.

Last updated on 17.10.2006