Plekhanov 1909

Henri Bergson

Source: Georgi Plekhanov, Selected Philosophical Works, Volume 3 (Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1976), pp. 294-98.
Transcribed: for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

Moscow Editor’s Note: ‘Plekhanov’s review of Henri Bergson’s book L'Evolution créatrice (Creative Evolution) was published in the journal Sovremenny Mir, no 3, 1909. Sovremenny Mir (Contemporary World) – a literary, scientific and political monthly published in St Petersburg from 1906 to 1918.’

Henri Bergson, Creative Evolution (translated from the Third French Edition by M Bulgakov, Moscow, 1909).

Hegel, in his Lectures on the History of Philosophy, called the Greek sophists experts in the treatment of ideas. This description could with complete justification be applied to Henri Bergson. He is a real expert in this field. In this respect he leaves very far behind him Ernst Mach who is now fashionable here in Russia. Mach is clumsy in most things, even when he is right. Henri Bergson almost always astonishes us with his adroitness even when he is in the wrong. It is impossible to read him without pleasure, just as it is pleasing to watch the performance of a gymnast at the top of his profession.

Henri Bergson also resembles the sophists in this respect that the positive result of his exceptionally skilful exercises in logic is extremely meagre. More than that: this result is a negative quantity when Bergson tries to look at the fundamental questions of metaphysics and epistemology from a new point of view. At first glance this may appear strange. Naturally one wonders why a man endowed with great flexibility of thought and possessing in addition extensive and varied knowledge should be intellectually so unproductive. But on closer examination, the reason for this becomes quite clear.

Bergson has no love for the beaten paths; he strives to blaze his own trail, and undoubtedly displays no little originality. But none the less his originality is confined to matters of detail only, although sometimes his efforts here are truly remarkable. In general, however, he is incapable of freeing himself from the tendency to idealism, now prevalent among philosophers. This tendency to idealism, from whose influence Bergson cannot escape in spite of all his originality, finally reduces to zero all the results of his investigations quite remarkable in their own way. He is truly a victim of his own inability to make an end of his idealism. In this sense, his example is extremely instructive.

In order better to explain the significance of this example, we shall draw the reader’s attention to what might be described as the materialist element in Bergson’s views.

Here, for instance, on page 99 of his Creative Evolution, we read:

The vegetable manufactures organic substances directly with mineral substances: as a rule this aptitude enables it to dispense with movement and consequently with feeling. Animals, which are obliged to go in search of their food, have evolved in the direction of locomotor activity, and consequently of a more and more ample, more and more distinct consciousness. (p 99)

This means that the development of consciousness is conditioned by the needs of being. Apply this remark, which, incidentally, is only the translation into the language of contemporary biology of one of Aristotle’s most profound thoughts, to the explanation of the development of social thought and you will get the theory of historical materialism. Bergson, indeed, comes quite close to this theory, it might even be said that he is one of its followers. He writes:

As regards human intelligence, it has not been sufficiently noted that mechanical invention has been from the first its essential feature, that even today our social life gravitates around the manufacture and use of artificial instruments, that the inventions which like milestones mark the road of progress have also traced its direction. (pp 118-19)

This is one of the basic principles of historical materialism. But as will be seen by the reference in the footnote on page 119, Bergson was familiar only with the very vulgar variety of historical materialism represented by P Lacombe in his book Sociological Foundations of History. [1] Marx’s historical materialism has remained quite unknown to Bergson, otherwise he would not have credited Lacombe with something that had been done much earlier and better by Marx. Being unfamiliar with historical materialism in its classical formulation, Bergson could not grasp the proper significance of the changing succession of relations of production in the process of development of human society. He thought that:

... in thousands of years, when, seen from a distance, only the main lines of the present age will still be visible, our wars and our revolutions will count for little, even supposing they are still remembered; but the steam engine, and the procession of inventions of every kind that came in its train, will perhaps be spoken of as we speak of the bronze or of the chipped stone; it will serve to define an age. (p 119)

This is too narrow a view. No two revolutions are alike. But as for revolutions in relations of production, characterising in their totality different modes of production, these are such ‘main lines’ in the history of social development that they will not by any means ‘count for little’ to any serious historian. However, that by the way. The main point here is that Bergson defines complete ‘intelligence’ as the ‘faculty of making and using inorganic instruments’ (p 120, Bergson’s italics). This means that the idea of the implements of labour playing a decisive role in the development of mankind has for Bergson an epistemological – and not just a sociological – significance. There is nothing surprising in this. If in all animals in general consciousness is the product of activity, as we have seen above, then it is natural that in man in particular the faculty of understanding, as Bergson expresses it, is simply ‘an appendage of the faculty of acting’ (p 3, our italics). It cannot be otherwise, for the second idea is no more than a particular case of the first. [2] However, it is also very natural that the theory of cognition acquires a materialist form from this materialist point of view. ‘Action cannot move in the unreal’, says Bergson quite rightly (p 5). Therefore such current arguments as that we do not know and cannot know the essence of things, that we must stop at the unknowable, and so on, prove to be groundless:

A mind born to speculate or to dream [says Bergson] I admit, might remain outside reality, might deform or transform the real, perhaps even create it – as we create the figures of men and animals that our imagination cuts out of the passing cloud. But an intellect bent upon the act to be performed and the reaction to follow, feeling its object so as to get its mobile impression at every instant, is an intellect that touches something of the absolute. (p 5)

The expression ‘absolute’ may give rise to misunderstanding. We believe it to be out of place here. But as we have no desire to enter into terminological argument with Bergson, we readily grant that he is right. We could not act upon external nature if it were beyond the reach of our knowledge. This was explained very well a long time ago by the materialist philosophy of Marx and Engels. [3] Let us proceed. Bergson affirms that knowledge ‘becomes relative’ where activity is directed to ‘industry’ (as with man – GP) (p 5). This is also perfectly true. Here again the conclusions to be drawn are fully materialist. If Bergson had wished to draw such conclusions and follow them through to the logical end, there is no doubt that, with his strong inclination to and outstanding ability for dialectical thinking, he could have thrown a vivid light on the most important problems of the theory of cognition. But he did not have the least desire to do so. He is a convinced idealist, to whom physics is merely a ‘reflection of the psyche’. Consequently, his very promising arguments on the theory of knowledge end in hackneyed nonsense, and instead of new results we receive from him only the old, so familiar idealist petitio principii. [4]

Bergson’s overpowering prejudice in favour of idealism thwarts the very principles he succeeds in shaping when relying upon his materialist premises. Thus, having stated our faculty of understanding to be a simple appendage of our faculty of acting, he hastens to add on the plea of further analysis that ‘in reality there are no things, there are only actions’ (p 211, our italics). That is very radical. But if it is true, it goes without saying that Bergson has nothing left but to appeal to consciousness, and that is what he does. To him, ‘consciousness’ is ‘the basic principle’ (p 202). True, he qualifies this by saying that he uses the term ‘consciousness’ for want of a better word. ‘But we do not mean the narrowed consciousness that functions in each of us’ (p 202). Such a qualification, however, contains absolutely nothing new and so does not improve matters; indeed, it confuses them still more. Consciousness of the super-individual type is a myth; reference to it may satisfy the religious feelings of a believer, but it is positively worthless as the basis for a philosophy which, in fact, is alien to dogmatism.

Returning to his idealist harbour from his materialist excursions, Bergson avers that the intellect has the faculty of knowing reality only from its outward aspect and that this is not true knowledge (see, for example, p 167). True knowledge, knowledge of reality from its inward aspect, may be obtained only from a philosophy which steps beyond the limits of the intellect and relies on intuition. There is little need to point out that such thinking opens wide the door to fantasy. Advancing the reason that ‘the philosopher must go further than the scientist’ (p 317), he makes up a philosophical story whose nature and content may be gathered from the following passage:

Let us imagine a vessel full of steam at a high pressure, and here and there in its sides a crack through which the steam is escaping in a jet. The steam thrown into the air is nearly all condensed into little drops which fall, and this condensation and this fall represent simply the loss of something, an interruption, a deficit. But a small part of the jet of steam subsists, uncondensed, for some seconds; it is making an effort to raise the drops which are falling; it succeeds at most in retarding their fall. So, from an immense reservoir of life, jets must be gushing out unceasingly, of which each, falling, is a world. The evolution of living species within this world represents what subsists of the primitive direction of the original jet, and of an impulsion which continues itself in a direction the inverse of materiality. (p 211)

Should you remark that this comparaison n'est pas raison, [5] like any other, Bergson will at once agree with you:

But let us not carry too far this comparison [he says], it gives us but a feeble and even deceptive image of reality, for the crack, the jet of steam, the forming of the drops, are determined necessarily, whereas the creation of the world is a free act, and the life within the material world participates in that liberty. Let us think rather of an action like that of raising the arm; then let us suppose that the arm, left to itself, falls back, and yet that there subsists in it, striving to raise it up again, something of the will that animates it. In this image of a creative action which unmakes itself we have already a more exact representation of matter. (p 211)

Life is a creative action, an ‘élan’. Matter is the halting of the élan, the cessation of the creative action. We are sure that nowadays many Russian readers will find this both easy to comprehend and profound. We congratulate them heartily, and wish them further penetration, under Bergson’s guidance, into the essence of life seen from its internal aspect. To those who are not attracted to the present philosophical fashion for idealism, we shall, in ending this long review, offer the remark that Bergson in his intuitive philosophy makes two great errors.

First, the attempt to observe the process of the formation of reality from its internal aspect is condemned in advance to dismal failure; nothing has ever, or can, come out of it but a dense fog of mysticism. Why? Spinoza gave the answer already in Proposition 23 in Part 2 of his Ethics. [6]

Secondly, the process of becoming, about which Bergson has such a lot to say, is understood by him very one-sidedly: the element of existence is utterly missing. This, of course, facilitates the decomposing of ‘the material world’ into a simple ‘jet’, which he advocates in the interests of his mystical idealism: but thereby he transforms dialectics into simple sophistry, as has been made clear from the history of Greek philosophy.

Bergson sympathises with Plotonius, which is quite natural and could not be otherwise. But that Bergson has an attraction for certain theoreticians of French syndicalism is one of the most ludicrous misunderstandings known in the history of philosophical thought, so rich in misunderstandings. It demonstrates the low theoretical level reached by the theoreticians of French syndicalism, so low that, in fact, they cannot fall any lower.


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

1. On Lacombe’s book see Appendix III to the last edition of my book The Development of the Monist View on History. [Plekhanov has in mind his article ‘Something About History’, in Georgi Plekhanov, Selected Philosophical Works, Volume 2 (Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1976) – Editor.]

2. One other point should be noted here. By domesticating animals, man acquired for himself organic instruments of labour, yet their domestication is also partly the business of the ‘intellect’. This is very important.

3. See my polemic with Conrad Schmidt in the work A Critique of Our Critics. [See ‘Conrad Schmidt Versus Karl Marx and Frederick Engels’, Georgi Plekhanov, Selected Philosophical Works, Volume 2 (Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1976), pp 379-97 – Editor. Available at Conrad Schmidt Versus Karl Marx and Frederick Engels – MIA]

4. Petitio principii – assuming the initial point. An argument where the proposition to be proven is implicitly or explicitly assumed in the premise – MIA.

5. That is, ‘comparisons are misleading’ – MIA.

6. ‘The mind has no knowledge of itself; except in so far as it perceives the ideas of the modifications of the body.’ (Ethics, Part 2, p 84)