Plekhanov 1908

On Franz Lütgenau’s Book

Source: Georgi Plekhanov, Selected Philosophical Works, Volume 3 (Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1976), pp. 284-93.
Transcribed: for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

Moscow Editor’s Note: ‘Plekhanov’s review of F Lütgenau’s book was published in the journal Sovremenny Mir, no 5, 1908. Sovremenny Mir (Contemporary World) – a literary, scientific and political monthly published in St Petersburg from 1906 to 1918.’

MIA Note: Franz Lütgenau (1857-1931) studied philosophy, philology and theology. He joined the German Social Democratic Party in the 1880s, and represented the SPD in the Reichstag as the deputy for Hörde in the Ruhr from 1895 until 1898. He was removed from party responsibilities in 1898 and was expelled from the SPD in 1899. He withdrew from public life and became a teacher and freelance journalist with specific interests in education, culture and the arts. He rejoined the SPD during the years of the Weimar Republic.

Franz Lütgenau, Natural and Social Religion: The Theory of Religion from the Materialist Point of View (St Petersburg, 1908)

It is not consciousness that determines being, but being that determines consciousness. When applied to the development of mankind, this means that it is not the social man’s ‘psyche’ that determines his way of life, but his way of life that determines his ‘psyche’. That is very well known to us at the present time. But this still does not mean that in each particular case we know the process leading to the formation of the particular psyche on the basis of the particular form of social being. Not by a long way. Very, very many aspects of this multiform process are only as yet becoming subjects of scientific investigation. The materialist explanation of history is only a method leading to the comprehension of truth in the field of social phenomena, and is in no way a conglomerate of ready-made, final conclusions. He who wishes to prove himself a worthy follower of this method cannot be content with a simple repetition that it is not consciousness that determines being but being that determines consciousness. On the contrary, he must try to find out for himself how in fact this determination of consciousness by being comes about. And there is no other way of doing this than by studying facts and discovering their causal connection.

As far as the particular question of religion is concerned, here too, naturally, there can also be no doubt that being is not determined by consciousness; but here too the process of the determination of consciousness by being is still obscure to us in very many respects. Hence every serious attempt to explain this process should be welcomed. In its time, Franz Lütgenau’s book, which appeared in German nearly fourteen years ago, undoubtedly deserved great attention from everyone interested in historical materialism. Yet even then it was possible to indicate many real shortcomings in the book. Today, apart from having these many shortcomings, the book is pretty well out of date. Had we been asked by Mme Velichkina, whom we know to be a serious and conscientious translator, whether this work was worth translating, we should at first have found difficulty in answering, but on reflection, we should perhaps have said no.

However, among the blind the one-eyed is king. Mr Lütgenau’s book is practically unique in the Russian language. So in spite of all, we recommend it to the Russian reader. And for the same reason we cannot but regret that Mme Velichkina has not translated the book as well as she once translated von Polenz. Her latest translation is ponderous and, in places, unsatisfactory. In addition, it is distorted by numerous regrettable misprints. This is all the more inconvenient to readers as they are less informed on the subject, that is, the more in need of intelligible guidance.

But let us now proceed to the content of the book. A philologist by education, Mr Lütgenau set himself the praiseworthy task of discussing the problem of the origin and development of religion from the point of view of historical materialism. Unfortunately, he was not well enough equipped to fulfil his task satisfactorily. He was not even quite clear as to what exactly is known as historical materialism. Many philistine prejudices still marred his views on the subject. He says:

Marx and Engels proved the erroneousness of idealism and founded the dialectical-materialist world-outlook, according to which we now see in economic conditions the foundation of legal and political institutions as well as moral and religious concepts. (p 249)

But how is that? Is men’s world-outlook, that is to say, their views on the whole system of the world, really exhausted by their views on the relation of ‘economic conditionsto legal institutions and moral and religious concepts? In other words: is historical materialism a whole world-outlook? Of course not. It is only one part of a world-outlook. Of what kind of world-outlook? Well, it is clear – the materialist world-outlook. Engels said that he and Marx applied materialism to the interpretation of history. Exactly. But Mr Lütgenau does not want to hear about materialism, which for some reason he calls ‘cognitive-theoretical[1] and concerning which he talks a whole lot of indigestible nonsense on pages 249, 250 (footnote), 252, 253 and several others. All of which shows that he has not the least notion of ‘cognitive-theoretical’ materialism, and that in speaking of it he uses the words of those same theologians – or the words of the philosophers influenced by those theologians – whose views he himself, of course, repudiates in so far as they affect the historical field proper and touch upon the religious question. This does him very grave harm even when, as we might say, he is on his home ground – discussing religion. He thinks, for instance, that ‘religion begins on the borders of cognition or experience’ and that ‘the wider the field of knowledge becomes, the narrower is the field of religious belief’ (p 247). This might be acceptable with a very big reservation. The fact is that when the field of religious belief becomes considerably contracted under the impact of experience, to the succour of religion comes that philosophy which teaches that science and religion lie in completely different planes, since religion has to do with the other world, whereas science, experience, has to do only with phenomena, and that, therefore, the widening of the field of experience cannot narrow the field of religion. To the extent that the preaching of this philosophy influences men’s minds, the field of religious belief ceases to contract under the impact of experience. It is true that philosophy of this kind can arise and exert influence only in a particular social situation, only at a certain stage in the development of class society. But this does not alter matters. On the contrary, an analysis of the influence of this philosophy and its relationship to religion would have furnished Mr Lütgenau with the opportunity to shed a much clearer light on the connection between social development (cause) and the historical fate of religious beliefs (effect). Mr Lütgenau did not avail himself of this opportunity. He could not do so for the simple reason that he was incapable of adopting a critical attitude to the – supposedly critical – philosophy we are speaking about here. And he was incapable of this because he himself had fallen under the influence of that philosophy. Its effect on him is to be seen in the undiluted nonsense he has poured forth in his book concerning ‘cognitive-theoretical’ materialism. But, having piled up this undiluted nonsense, he himself goes over to the materialist viewpoint in his attitude to religion. That might of course have been to the good if the nonsense he had talked had not clouded his vision, and hindered him from making this change-over consciously and without sinning against logic.

If he had done so consciously, the proposition we have just cited, viz, that experience brings about the contraction of the field of religious beliefs, would have assumed in his writings a much more correct form. It would have read that the accumulation of knowledge removes the ground from under religious beliefs, but only in the measure that the prevailing social order does not prevent the dissemination of knowledge and its utilisation for the criticism of views inherited from earlier times. This is exactly what contemporary materialism says, and it is partly accepted by our author as historical materialism, and partly rejected by him under the name of cognitive-theoretical materialism.

And it is rejected by him, one might say, in blithe ignorance. Thus, for example, in discussing Hegel, he writes:

For Hegel, things and their development were still only the materialised reflections of ‘ideas’ existing somewhere, before the world, and not the results of his own thinking, the more or less absolute reflections of real things and processes. (p 249)

We do not know what is meant by ‘absolute’ reflection, and in general we find this whole passage very clumsily written. One thing is clear: Mr Lütgenau does not agree with Hegel, and believes that things and their development are essentially ‘reflections of real things and processes’. But surely this is nothing else than the ‘cognitive-theoretical materialism’ which is not to his liking. What a mess! After that, just try, if you please, to discuss materialism with Mr Lütgenau. Why, he himself does not know what it is.

It might not have been necessary to go into all this, but for the following interesting circumstance. At one time, Mr Lütgenau belonged to the German Social-Democratic Party. His book, written in German, was published, if my memory serves me right, in 1894, that is, not long before the so-called ‘revision of Marx’ began. His statements regarding the relationship of historical materialism to ‘cognitive-theoretical materialism’ showed that he was under the influence of the philosophical ideas which then prevailed, and still prevail, among the ideologists of the German bourgeoisie. But we have no recollection of any one of the theoreticians of the party to which Lütgenau then belonged paying even the slightest attention to his statements. Apparently, to them it was a matter of little importance, or, perhaps, something perfectly natural. But when the ‘revision’ of Marx began, the gentlemen who took on the job (the ‘revisionists’) based themselves, by the way, on those very philosophical ideas which infected Mr Lütgenau, and, of course, other people too. This is evidence of how revisionism was prepared, how it was finding its way into the minds of members of the party at a time when Mr Bernstein did not as yet express any doubts about the correctness of Marx’s teaching. It would repay our Russian Marxists to reflect upon this; there are quite a few people among them today who are engaged in trafficking the philosophical contraband which at one time was smuggled into the minds of the German Social-Democrats by Mr Lütgenau and other inconsistent thinkers like him. [2] It goes without saying that there is only one guard capable of doing anything in the struggle against this contraband – logic. But this guard, in any case, is never redundant, and he in particular must keep wide awake.

In passing on to the examination of Mr Lütgenau’s views on the origin and development of religious beliefs, we have to recognise that even here our author has only partly coped with his truly very difficult task of providing a materialist explanation of that origin and development. If in philosophy, Mr Lütgenau was ready to supplement Marx and Engels with Kant, now on the question of religion he is supplementing them with Max Müller. And, just as in the first instance, he thereby only spoils it all.

He says: ‘The myth originates simply from language.’ (p 12) He then explains this idea of his (or that of his authority – Max Müller) by quoting the latter’s words:

We know that Eos (in Greek, the dawn) corresponds to the Sanskrit Ushas, and we know that Ushas is derived from the root Uas, which means shines. So Eos meant originally ‘shining-it’, or ‘shining-he’, or ‘shining-she’. But who was he, or she, or it? Here you have at once the inevitable birth of what we call a myth. What our senses perceive and what we are able to name is only an effect, it is the specific illumination of the sky, the brightness of the coming morning, or, as we now would say, the reflection of the rays of the sun on the clouds of the sky. But that was not what the ancient people thought. Having formed a word such as Eos which meant shining, or light, they would go on to say Eos has returned, Eos has fled, Eos will come again, Eos rises out of the sea, Eos is the daughter of the sky, Eos is followed by the sun, Eos is loved by the sun, Eos is killed by the sun, and so on. What does all this mean? You may say that it is language, it is of course a myth, and an inevitable myth at that. (p 13)

Mr Lütgenau adds to this discourse of Müller’s by saying:

The question as to the essence of the myth may, consequently, be answered thus: it is a natural and necessary stage in the development of language and thought. But this of course is a far from adequate definition. (p 13)

It is, indeed, quite ‘inadequate’. But the main point is that even this inadequate definition could have suggested to Mr Lütgenau a certain pertinent question. He could have – in fact, he should have – asked himself: is it not possible to condense this definition, and simply say: the myth is a necessary stage in the development of thinking?

If he had thought about this question without prejudice he would have seen that that was in fact possible. Like our very, very remote ancestors, we say nowadays: the sun sets, the moon has risen, the wind has died down, and so on. But when we express ourselves in this fashion, we do not think, as those very, very remote ancestors did, that the sun, the moon, the wind, etc, are really living beings endowed with consciousness and will. The expressions are similar, but the notions connected with them have become quite different. Formerly, the nature of these notions and thinking in general facilitated the development of myths; now that nature is completely unfavourable to the promotion of myths, which means that the origin of myths is to be found in the nature of primitive man’s thinking. There is no reason to repeat what exactly was the nature of primitive thinking: we have said already that primitive man animated the world surrounding him. The whole question now is only to ascertain why this was so. Why is such thinking peculiar to primitive man? The question is not a difficult one to answer. In the final analysis, the nature of thinking is determined by the store of experience at man’s disposal. With primitive man, this store was quite insignificant. But in so far as it existed, it was related principally to an animal world; primitive man became a hunter and a fisherman at a very early stage. Of course, even at that very early stage of its existence mankind had also dealings with ‘inanimate’ nature; at that time too, man experienced on himself the effect of heat, moisture, light, etc. But in experiencing this action on himself and endeavouring to understand and explain it, man had of necessity to judge the unknown by the known. And to him the known, as has been stated, was primarily the animal world of so-called animated objects; it is not surprising that primitive man regarded all the rest of the much lesser known part of nature as being animated. The less he knew of this side of nature, which by necessity he already conceived of as animated, the more scope there was for the exercise of his imagination. His imagination created a whole series of tales explaining great natural phenomena by the activity of this or that animated creature.

It is of these tales that what we know as mythology consists. However, it must be remarked that Mr Lütgenau errs greatly in averring that primitive man always spoke of gods as of people (p 17). He is no less mistaken when he adds that ‘we’ know why natural phenomena deified by men were represented in the form of human beings (p 17). This cannot be known, since this never happened. In explaining great natural phenomena by the action of living creatures, the savage, for the most part, envisaged these creatures in the form of animals, and not at all as human beings. This is such a well-known truth, it would seem, that it is downright surprising how Mr Lütgenau could not know about it, or could lose sight of it. Let us assume that as a philologist he has, in general, no inclination to ethnology; indeed he says so himself in his book; but surely there is a limit to all things. To say that the great phenomena and forces of nature were conceived of by primitive man only in the form of people is to close the door to the understanding, for example, even of what was by no means a primitive religion – the Egyptian religion at the time of the Pharaohs.

Max Müller was of little help to Mr Lütgenau in his attempt at a materialist explanation of religion. On the contrary, philology rather prevented our author from paying the proper attention to technology, that is to say, to how mythology is modified by the growth of the productive forces and by man’s increasing power over nature. We strongly advise those who intend to read Lütgenau’s book not to forget this gap in it. [3]

Another of the book’s defects is the unnecessary schematism of the presentation. Mr Lütgenau portrays the course of development of religious beliefs in such a way that it appears as though ‘natural’ religion – ‘the reflection of man’s dependence on nature’ – could be separated by a sharply defined boundary from ‘social’ religion, which is a reflection of the same dependence ‘on social forces, the essence and character of whose action is unknown to him’ (that is, to man – GP). But there is no such boundary. This may be easily proved by means of the very observations and definitions advanced by Mr Lütgenau. Thus, for example, he is quite correct in saying that the sphere of religion is much narrower than that of mythology. ‘Not all mythology is religion’, he writes, ‘and only those objects that are capable of influencing man’s moral character have the right to be called religious.’ (p 38) Here an idea which in itself is correct is stated very badly; religion in the broad and, of course, much more exact sense of the word really arises when social man begins to seek sanction for his morality, or in general for his actions and institutions, from a god or gods. [4] But morality is a social phenomenon. Therefore in sanctifying the rules of morality, and in general the existing social relations of men, religion thereby acquires a social character. Mr Lütgenau himself is conscious of this. He says:

From the very beginning already there is the inevitable social element of religion in the analogy between the human and the divine way of life, between the relationship of the father to his child and that of God to man, etc. (p 133)

Precisely. And since this is the case, ‘natural’ religion cannot be portrayed as though it were a separate phase of religious evolution. It may, if you wish, be so portrayed, but only, for example, by Tylor, in whose opinion religion (in its minimal variant) existed even where myths had not yet begun to sanctify moral instruction. As for Mr Lütgenau, to whom religion exists only where the unification of mythology and morality has already been accomplished, he should have tried from the very first pages of his exposition to discover the link between men’s social relationships on the one hand, and the forms of their religious beliefs on the other. The discovery of such a connection would have been useful to him also to elucidate what might be described as the role of the religious ‘factor’ in the history of mankind. But Lütgenau did not see the need to elucidate this connection thoroughly either for the reader’s benefit or for his own. Therefore, and despite his own opinion, ‘natural religion’, in his exposition, is apparently independent of the ‘social’ form. The same must be said of ‘anthropological’ as well as ‘psychological’ religion. These ‘religions’ too are presented by our author as something quite separate and independent. In the interests of analysis, he breaks the living, mutual connection of phenomena, and then forgets to restore it in the interests of synthesis. Not surprisingly, his exposition proves to be almost devoid of any inner connection. His book represents, in its individual chapters, a collection of more or less valuable data for the materialist explanation of ‘the religious phenomenon’ (as it is now called by French investigators in this field) but we find no systematic explanation of the ‘phenomenon’.

However, we repeat, among the blind the one-eyed is king. There is such a poor selection of literature on this subject available to the Russian reader unacquainted with foreign languages that even Mr Lütgenau’s book will make a useful addition to it. In any case, it will do no harm to read it.

A couple of words more. In the chapter ‘Religion and Ethics’, Mr Lütgenau makes some very apt objections against the idea that morality must always be founded on religion. He says – as Diderot, incidentally, did long before him – that the use brought by religion to man is like that of a crutch: ‘He who does not need a crutch is better off.’ (pp 240-41) Very true. But the truth of Diderot’s brilliant remark would have become even more evident if Mr Lütgenau had buttressed it with the incontestable fact that, in the history of the development of mankind, morality appeared before man had begun to sanctify its principles by reference to the will of supernatural beings. Mr Lütgenau, of course, was well aware of this, but it has not received the proper treatment in his book and consequently cannot throw its full light on the question of the relation of morality to religion.

Commenting on the well-known proposition that ‘religion is a private matter’, Mr Lütgenau says:

To be a member of the party, it is sufficient for a person to be convinced that he shares the views and demands laid down in the party programme. Thus, in the Reichstag elections of 1893, a Christian theologian could have stood as an official Party candidate. (p 289)

That, of course, is true. But it should nevertheless be noted that the party programme is based upon the totality of those principles to which the members of the party attach serious scientific importance. Every member of the party is morally obliged, according to his powers and opportunities, to engage in propaganda of these principles. The question arises: what should he do if in his propaganda work he clashes with the system of views which, with the aid of ‘social’ religion, offers an explanation of what he himself cannot explain clearly other than by means of scientific socialism? Should he speak against his own convictions? That would be hypocrisy. Should he say nothing about some part of his views? That would be semi-hypocrisy, that is, essentially the same hypocrisy. The alternative is to speak the truth, but to do so without rubbing the audience the wrong way unnecessarily, by approaching them tactfully, perhaps even in the manner of a teacher, but all the same to speak the truth. Again we have to make the same reservation which we have had to make more than once in this review: Mr Lütgenau agrees with us: he says so himself. [5] But he mentions it only in passing; and when he has to formulate his opinion conclusively, he seems inclined to take the opposite view. Thus, on pages 274-75, he writes:

The most effective agitation here too is: speak of what is. The natural origin of religion; the subsequently appearing dependence of religious concepts on the economic structure of society; the facts of church history; the scientific investigation of the essence of phenomena, failure to understand which gave rise to religious interpretations – all these are truths, certainties, which do away with every doubt and every fantasy stemming from uncertainty.

Very well said. But the author proceeds to argue in such a way that agitation appears to be unnecessary, and this for the reason that the ‘fantasy’ in question is rooted in our contemporary economic reality and will disappear with it. But it is a very bad argument indeed. It is reminiscent of the arguments used by the anarchists and the syndicalists: since political institutions are founded on relations of production, then, so long as these relations exist, the political struggle is either quite useless or even harmful to the working class. Actually, the very course of economic development of present-day society furnishes the necessary fulcrum for fruitful political activity by the proletariat. It would be sheer extravagance not to utilise this fulcrum, indeed it would be simply nonsensical; and the same must be said about ‘fantasies’.

The following example will make this idea more intelligible. Some years ago in the French party there was a Negro named Legitimus, a deputy from the island of Martinique. The malicious tongues of his enemies spread the story that during the election campaign Legitimus not only spoke at meetings, but resorted to sorcery to ensure his victory at the polls. This, we repeat, was nothing more than a malicious invention. But assume for a moment that it was true. In that event, what attitude should the French party have taken towards this comrade? Expel him from the party? But that would have been an exhibition of harmful, impermissible and, in addition, ridiculous intolerance, because belief in sorcery must also be recognised as a private matter. We hope no one will raise objection to this. On the other hand, which of the white comrades of this coloured deputy would not have considered himself morally bound to inform him of a more correct view of the real causes of political victories and failures? Which of them would not have tried to help extricate him from his gross delusions? Only ill-intentioned or frivolous people would have refused to help him. Yet belief in sorcery also undoubtedly has its materialist interpretation! That is just the point: to find a materialist explanation for a particular historical phenomenon does not at all mean that one has to become reconciled to that phenomenon, or to maintain that it cannot be removed by the conscious activity of men. It is not consciousness that determines being; but being that determines consciousness. That is correct; it is historical materialism, but it is not the whole of historical materialism. To this must be added that, having arisen on the basis of being, consciousness for its part promotes the further development of being. Marx was fully aware of this when he expressed his well-known view on the great importance of ‘criticism of religion’. [6]


Notes are by Plekhanov, except those by the Moscow editors of this edition of the work, which are noted ‘Editor’.

1. My italics.

2. Someone like Mr Yushkevich or Mr Valentinov, who, as they say, are no worse than Mr Lütgenau.

3. This gap is in no way bridged by what our author has said, for example, on the influence of exchange on religious notions. We are speaking now not about economy, but about the technique of production. The influence of the latter on primitive mythology was probably no less strong than its influence on primitive art. This particular aspect of the matter is hardly touched upon in Lütgenau’s book, and we can blame this primarily on the author’s contemptuous attitude to the materials collected by contemporary ethnology.

4. By religion in its narrow sense we understand what Tylor calls the minimum of religion, that is to say, a general belief in the existence of spirits. Originally, such a belief had no influence whatever on man’s actions, and at the time had absolutely no significance as a ‘factor’ of social development. Therefore it could be termed religion only with a very substantial reservation.

5. That is to say, he agreed and said so while he was a member of the party; but what he thinks now, nobody knows.

6. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, ‘Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law, Introduction’, Collected Works, Volume 3 (Moscow, 1975), p 175 – Editor.