Leningrad Institute of Philosophy

A Textbook of Marxist Philosophy




MAN WHO LIVES in a world of peril is compelled to seek for safety. The way most familiar to us is the control of nature. We build houses, weave garments, make flame and electricity our friends instead of our enemies and develop the complicated arts of social living. This is the method of changing the world through action.

But there is another method. The method of changing the self in emotion and idea because it is too difficult to change the world. This is the way first of religion and subsequently of philosophy. It begins with propitiation, but passes at length from the attempt to conquer destiny to the resolve to ally oneself with it and so perchance escape destruction. Out of religion philosophy developed as man came to reflect upon this sharp contrast between a feeble, uncertain practice and an imaginative apprehension of a supernatural world of potencies and certainties. In other words out of the conflict of knowledge and practice arises the major problem of philosophy and the conflict between idealism and materialism.

As the mythological elements fell away from the religious attitude philosophy retold the story of the universe in the form of rational discourse instead of emotionalized imagination. The result was the apprehension by Reason of an ideal world of logical constructions constituting, as it was finally declared, “a realm of fixed Being which, when grasped by thought, formed a complete system of immutable and necessary truth.”1 Reason provided the patterns to which ultimately real objects had to conform. But unfortunately science and its world falls far short of the logicality and unity of the world of pure reason. It is, as it were, an inferior world in which things change, which is subject to illusion and in which multiformity is more to be found than uniformity. But this, unfortunately, is the world of action. Activity therefore is always of less importance than contemplation since it deals with the less real. Hence ever since the Greeks philosophy has been ruled by the notion that “the office of Knowledge is to uncover the antecedently real, rather than, as is the case with our practical judgments, to gain the kind of understanding which is necessary to deal with problems as they arise.”2

Right on through Plato, Descartes, Spinoza, Rant and Hegel the same quest for the rational and the unchangeable was pursued. For Plato the changing and passing forms of this world are but the transitory and partial embodiments of ideal realities laid up in heaven and only to be apprehended by reason. In the same way our virtues are but pale reflections of the perfect virtues which exist in the Absolute. I am kind because a little of the perfect kindness of God dwells in me for a moment. Thus goodness is an almost measurable quality which inheres in men to a greater or less degree.

Descartes, as we shall see, drew the sharpest pattern of a purely logical physical world, so logical in fact as to be mathematical. Spinoza, however, went even farther and embraced mental and physical events in one perfectly rational whole where the order and connection of ideas were proved to be, in reality, the order and connection of facts. Kant was still haunted by the obstinate refusal of the facts to look as orderly and connected as they should, and therefore had to assert that in order to be rational all facts must be considered within the mind and fitting neatly into its logical pigeon-holes. Hegel completed the argument by simply declaring that anything which does not fit the pattern is not properly understood and described. If you see it completely you will see it to be rational. If it is not quite rational that is because you do not really see it as it is. You are witnessing something illusory and partial.

The struggle to make things orderly therefore becomes not a struggle with nature, but either with our imperfect theories, which must be scrapped one by one until at last the perfect explanation which comprehends and justifies everything, or with our worldly habit of regarding experience as more valid than the ideal. A really disciplined mind will rise above this appearance of disorder, and grasp by spiritual apprehension the goodness and truth that alone is real.

No matter what the detailed conclusions of experience, perfect truth and goodness are ours in ultimate Being, independently of both experience and human action.

Thus philosophers have tended to depreciate action, doing, making, and the reason has not been entirely the impulse of the mind to outrun practical human achievement. Work has been despised ever since a class of labourers was segregated and set to the world’s work. From that moment work was done under compulsion and the pressure of necessity, while intellectual activity was associated with leisure. The social dishonour in which the class of serfs was held was extended to the work they did.

Idealism will always be the popular philosophy of a leisured class. This is not a sufficient reason for its existence, but it is a condition which favours its rise. Hence the more complete the separation between mental and physical work, and the greater the degree of exploitation of one class by another, the more is this class relationship reflected in an idealist philosophy.

“The division of labour,” says Marx, “does not become an actual division until the division of material and spiritual work appears. From that moment consciousness may actually seem to be something other than a consciousness of the real world and of the activity within that world. As soon as consciousness begins actually to represent something, without that something being a real representation, we find it ready to free itself from world connections and to become a cult of ‘pure theory,’ theology, philosophy, morals, etc.”

It would, however, be a complete mistake to suppose that because idealism is a projection of man’s yearning for order in a disorderly world, or because such phantasies flourish among the leisured classes, that it has no justification and no truth. It is justified by the evolution of the world towards the ideal of order. It is true, as Leonardo said, that “Nature is full of infinite reasons which were never in experience,” and the scientist who does not, in the words of Galileo, make headway with reason against experience is a very poor scientist indeed.

The idealist rightly asserts that it is not the function of mind merely to reflect the universe, it has in some way to participate in it. The materialist is wholly wrong when he denies the active rôle of consciousness and asserts that it merely reflects processes that are going on in nature. Consciousness is no lifeless mirror. In the first place it has itself slowly developed along with man and society and is a function of social humanity. In the second place it is creative, for it is always developing man and society a stage farther, planning his activities, devising ways and means, creating new institutions. Thus at any given stage consciousness is both limited by the social forms which society takes and yet is striving, not unsuccessfully, to transcend those limits.

This free activity of consciousness, can be so isolated from the conditions which determine it as to appear to be the sole creative force of history. In the same way the power to generalize and create concepts and theories can easily be separated from the action with which true thought is always wedded, until this aspect of man’s activity becomes dominant, self-sufficient, overshadowing everything else. At last it breaks away from the concrete man and his tasks altogether, especially under such conditions as separate the workers and the thinkers among men, and becomes “pure thought.” Scientific concepts, even, become mental fictions or reflections of an “immanent reason” in nature, of the spirituality of the universe. In these ways every break that thinking makes with practice leads to a one-sided idealism. Idealism, in fact, is nothing more or less than the isolation of one feature of knowledge from the whole and the turning of it into something absolute, namely the power of ideas to reveal the nature of reality and enable us to control it, the power to abstract from the complexity of life and single out special aspects.

Thus Lenin writes:

“Philosophical idealism is nonsense only from the standpoint of a crude, simple and metaphysical materialism. On the contrary, from the standpoint of dialectical materialism, philosophical idealism is a one-sided, exaggerated, swollen development (Dietzgen) of one of the characteristic aspects or limits of knowledge into a deified absolute, into something dissevered from matter, from nature. Idealism means clericalism. True! But philosophical idealism is (more ‘correctly’ expressed and ‘in addition’) a road to clericalism through one of the nuances of the infinitely complicated knowledge (dialectical) of man. The knowledge of man does not follow a straight line but a curved line which infinitely approaches a system of circles, the spiral. Every fragment, every segment, every bit of this curved line can be transformed (transformed one-sidedly) into a self-sufficient whole straight line which, if one does not see the wood for the trees leads us directly into the mire, into clericalism (which is strengthened by the class interests of the ruling class).”

Lenin points out that the result is superstition. What does he mean by that? That it is by means of such idealism that the legal standards that regulate social relationships are given the sanctity of absolute obligations, and come to be regarded as independent forces which stand above society and determine its structure. In the same way economic laws are regarded as absolute and precluding social change. Utopian socialists come to believe that the way to progress lies in creating an imaginative social structure, and showing that it is compatible with human nature and reason. Idealists believe that social institutions are created by ideas, that human history is the result of the change of ideas. If anything in society changes, it happens because consciousness has changed first. Preachers and educationists therefore seek to alter the world by inculcating improved ideas into people’s heads, by moralizing and indoctrinating. Psychologists see the essence of society not in the productive relations of classes but in the instincts, feelings and thoughts of people. Even scientists come to believe that the laws of nature are not objectively determined by nature, but subjectively determined by the consciousness of scientists, that the atom is “only a mental construction,” that the theory of evolution is “a useful way of thinking,” held because we choose to believe it. Even politicians pursue the will-o’-the-wisp of pure idea. Trotsky believes in his “destiny,” in the mysterious “will of the people,” apart from strictly defined objective conditions. Like all idealists, “he treats the possible as the actual,” he believes in the existence of what he desires should be, thus he sought to skip the stage of a bourgeois-democratic revolution in 1905, and proceed directly to the proletarian revolution. Bukharin lapses into the idealism which substitutes doctrinaire formulæ and over-schematized stages of development for a close objective study of the kaleidoscopic changes of the face of society.

Lenin views this whole process of detachment of ideas and ideals, theories and generalizations, from the standpoint of the concrete fusion of theory and practice. This is that idealism, he argues, that is really superstition, that is really myth-making, and the only purpose of such thinking (i.e. what the theory means in practice) is to justify things as they are in the interests of the owning class and to betray reformers into paths of folly and futility.


But if wish-fulfilment thinking and the false pursuit of abstractions have led men to idealism, the inexorable demands of the real world have as often pulled them back to realism. Idealism has developed and flourished but so has science. And always with the growth of science we perceive a clearer apprehension of the philosophy of science known as materialism and the sworn foe of idealism. To-day we have learned to trust the scientist and to look to him to get us out of our difficulties. He has had a long struggle with ignorance and class interests, but he has triumphed over all of us.

His attitude is totally different from the idealist. He looks at the concrete world with all its imperfections, not at the ideal world. He looks forward to a richer and fuller life here on earth., not to the spiritual contemplation of absolute values in eternity. He believes it can be realised by man’s co-operative effort, utilizing the resources of the earth.

“Trust in science, and the idea that this world is the place of man’s destiny, tend to bring about a new attitude toward the question of what we are to believe. For the investigator first set his foot on the road of science when he refused to accept anything as true which could not be confirmed by experimental evidence. The mystic sought the divine vision through fasting and prayer; the philosopher stormed the citadel of reality by logic and reasoning. The scientist turned away from both ways; and was content to make toilsome progress by collecting evidence, sifting and comparing, weighing and measuring, limiting the field of enquiry, remaining in willing ignorance on everything beyond this field. And since he had to fight for his freedom to go beyond the other two methods—since often he had to make his way in conflict with them—on the whole he came to regard his method as necessarily antagonistic to the other two; though in truth I think a sound method has something of all three. His success confirmed him in his method; and thus, to-day, experimental evidence comes to be regarded as the most satisfactory kind of evidence that can be found for statements professing to give information about the nature of things.”3

Modern science was founded in the seventeenth century by men who were not materialists but who had a materialistic conception of matter, without which, indeed, progress would have been impossible. They held that matter is that which occupies space. It will not move unless something pushes it, and if it is moving it will not stop unless something stops it. It is not alive or conscious.

The obvious effect of this view was to separate matter and mind and make mind a distinct substance, inhabiting the body during life, and withdrawing on the dissolution of the body.

This worked very well as far as matter was concerned, but it raised great difficulties about the relation of mind to matter. The result was that mind came to be regarded as a mere effect of matter and materialism became the popular philosophy.

These revolutionary ideas came not as the result of pure thought, but of the requirements of an economic and social situation. Science was the technical instrument of the rising town civilization of the Renaissance, with its growing commerce and its need for navigation, surveying, and military science. Manufacture was developing, comfort was growing, and men took more interest in civilization and less in the world to come. But the rising burgher class had a stiff fight with the feudal lords, who represented the dominant social force of the preceding period; and on the side of feudalism was the Church.

The new science comes in as the ally of the new class, and its rationalistic and materialistic philosophy as the opponent of the ecclesiastical authority which supported feudalism. If the wall is to fall the buttress must be undermined.

Thus, with many qualifications and exceptions and acknowledging much actual confusion of interests, it may be said that the struggle for a new philosophy accompanied and assisted the struggle of a new class for economic and political power.

There is no philosophy that is not part of a social system, and in the past that has always meant a social hierarchy. The mediæval social order, with its privileged classes, was bound up with the cosmogony of a fixed earth around which moved the sun. You cannot weaken the force of the ideas on which the social order depends with impunity. Every society hitherto has regarded man as a volcanic force to be kept in subjection. To dissolve the bonds of society is to invite a volcanic eruption. Hence any views which threaten to destroy an implicit trust in the philosophic framework of society are not only false but highly dangerous. Even the scientist, brought up in the climate of another system of thought, found it almost impossible to believe in a new theory of the universe and probably meant what he said when he defended himself from heresy by saying that his ideas were only speculations.

But the new was coming into existence by its own laws of growth and the older picture of the universe was not so much being argued down as dying out. The old feelings were becoming barren, the old actions unmeaning. New ideas alone seemed relevant and alive, the response to the old ideas flagged perceptibly. When this takes place on a large scale the knell of the older order is sounded. Society has to be made anew.

The new philosophy came first as a demand for freer thinking. Then as an insistence on the need for suspending judgment on a question until sufficient evidence has been collected. Bacon borrows a simile from Dante, “Let this be to thee ever as lead to thy feet, to make thee move slowly, like one that is weary, both to the yes and the no, that thou seest not.” Men must call a halt in their speculations and allow themselves to be rigidly limited by brute facts.

But it was Descartes who laid down the philosophical foundations of the new science and the new society. He did this in three ways. Firstly by his new method of thinking, secondly by the mechanistic science which it justified and encouraged, thirdly by the philosophical dualism of mind and matter, of faith and reason which. this mechanistic materialism itself rendered necessary.

The new method of thought came as a protest against the uncritical assumptions of mediævalism and the huge deductive systems based upon them. This mass of knowledge seemed to the new men pretentious and unsubstantiated. While Bacon and the experimentalists turned from dogmas to experimental facts, Descartes was asking himself whether the instrument of reason if honestly and thoroughly used would not provide a method of separating the chaff of baseless conjecture from the residuum of certain truth. In mathematics pure reason gives satisfactory and indubitable results. What happens if you put the mind to work in a completely rigorous manner firstly on spiritual and philosophical questions and secondly on material questions? Descartes thought that the result was the indubitable proof of the distinction between mind and matter, of the reality of the soul and the certainty of the existence of God. On the other hand he came to the conclusion that shapes and motions were all that existed in the world apart from souls. Motion is the only change we can clearly understand, and therefore all other changes and indeed the whole variety and complexity of the concrete world can and must be reduced to matter in motion. Only when you reduce phenomena to physical and mathematical terms do they become rational. Therefore this is the ultimate scientific truth.

If this mechanistic materialism leaves no place for spirit and religion these are safeguarded because they rest on other but equally indubitable foundations. In the same way he was careful to say that his system of universal doubt was not intended to be applied to religion, where matters were believed on grounds of faith and not reason; nor did he allow himself to criticize society. His aim was to show what was provable and what was unprovable, as far as pure reason was concerned, and to set free the scientific intellect to master the universe.

“As soon as I had acquired some general notions respecting physics, and beginning to make trial of them in various particular difficulties, had observed how far they can carry us, and how much they differ from the principles that have been employed up to the present time, I believed that I could not keep them concealed without sinning grievously against the law by which we are bound to promote, as far as in us lies, the general good of mankind. For by them I perceived it to be possible to arrive at knowledge highly useful in life; and in room of the speculative philosophy usually taught in the schools, to discover a practical, by means of which, knowing the force and action of fire, water, air, the stars, the heavens, and all the other bodies that surround us, as distinctly as we know the various crafts of our artisans, we might also apply them in the same way to all the uses to which they are adapted, and thus render ourselves the lords and possessors of nature. And this is a result to be desired, not only in order to the invention of an infinity of arts, by which we might be enabled to enjoy without any trouble the fruits of the earth, and all its comforts, but also and especially for the preservation of health, which is without doubt, of all the blessings of this life, the first and fundamental one; for the mind is so intimately dependent upon the condition and relation of the organs of the body, that if any means can ever be found to render men wiser and more ingenious than hitherto, I believe that it is in medicine they must be sought for.”4

In this practical scientific end we see the motive of the new philosophy and what differentiates it from all those idealisms which, as we saw in the last section, make it their aim rather to change the minds of men to conform to what eternally is and must be rather than to change nature in the interests of man.

But although Descartes won for men a new vision of the universe by persuading them to accept only perfectly clear ideas, making a clean sweep of all that had hitherto passed for knowledge, these clear ideas have proved so full of obscurity that philosophers have been arguing about them ever since. It is, perhaps, for this reason that Descartes has been called the father of modern philosophy!

The rigid separation of mind and matter chopped the universe in two with a hatchet and led to what is known as dualism, the existence side by side of two worlds, the physical and the mental, which are incapable of influencing one another. This is an untenable position and two solutions were offered. The first was to hold to the physical and drop the mental altogether. This was the solution of the French materialists. The second was to hold to the mental and drop the physical. This was Berkeley’s solution and from it Idealism developed. The only attempt to do justice to both sides is to be found in Spinoza who claimed that mind and matter were two aspects of a higher reality.

The French materialists represented the purely scientific conclusions of the new philosophy and laid the foundations of the successful scientific work of the following century. Owing to the growing tension between the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy we find the scientific movement taking a strongly anti-religious line and deliberately seeking to undermine the supernaturalist sanctions of privilege. Hence science, rationalism, and the new economic forces worked hand in hand.

During the eighteenth century the capitalistic mode of production in Europe was being strengthened and growing. In France capitalism required the dissolution of feudal relations in the countryside and political guarantees for the commercial-industrial towns. The old feudal order hindered trade, giving the peasantry over to the exploitation of landlords and officials and thus depriving it of its power to buy town manufactures. The contradictions between the new class of bourgeoisie, together with the semi-skilled proletariat dependent upon it, and the peasantry, together with their masters, the ruling feudal classes—aristocrats and clericals—reached a state of considerable tension. The oncoming storm of revolution was felt already in the air. In the course of the decades preceding the Great French Revolution the bourgeoisie produced a number of philosophers and publicists who with unusual talent and force came forward as champions of the bourgeoisie in the realm of theory. In contrast to the leading thinkers of the English bourgeoisie who after a victorious revolution had managed to conclude a union with the feudalists and were therefore inclined even in philosophy to compromises, to agreement with religion; in contrast also to the German bourgeoisie, who were feeble and cowardly and therefore vague and indefinite in their ideology; the philosophers of the French bourgeoisie were daring thinkers and fought against religion and idealistic philosophy tearing neither authority nor God. The most logical of the French philosophers of that time in their struggle with religion arrived at materialistic conclusions and produced remarkable examples of materialistic philosophy. Their severe logic, their fearless thinking, their political acumen in the struggle against feudalism and, in particular, against the Church, the talent and often artistry of their exposition, made these philosophers popular, not only in France, but also even beyond its boundaries.

These French materialists took their stand on the achievements of the science of their day. Science in the eighteenth century had attained remarkable successes. Mechanics, the science of moving bodies, had especially developed. New fields had been opened in the mathematics of that time (analytic geometry, the differential and integral calculus) and these provided an instrument for studying the movements of bodies in space. Great strides had been made too in physics, in which mathematics and mechanics provided the basic instruments necessary for studying the properties of liquids, gases, and light. Medicine, too, had its successes. Many physicians at this period discarded the old medicine, which was full of superstition and prejudices, and tried to explain all the processes in the human organism not by postulating a “soul” to control the bodily functions, but by relying on the sciences of mechanics and mathematics. For some time the telescope (1609) had been known and in use, and also the microscope (1590), which in an extraordinary manner widened the field of natural phenomena and made them immediately accessible to the observer. A number of astronomical discoveries were made which reinforced the heliocentric point of view, which regarded the earth not as the centre of the universe, but only as one of the planets that circle round the sun. The laws of falling bodies were discovered, and the laws of planetary motion; Newton formulated his general law of gravity.

All these discoveries required a unity of method and a unity of world-outlook which might well be in opposition to the world-outlook of religion. The most logical materialistic formulation of such a world-outlook at that time was the work of the French materialists Holbach and Helvétius. The fundamental proposition which united them was this, that nature is material, was created by no one and exists for ever. The view of the Church that matter is fixed, passive and can only move itself and change with the help of spirit was opposed. They asserted that matter was created by no one and is always in motion. No matter without movement and no movement without matter. They rejected any interference of a god with nature, since a god appeared quite superfluous and nature could be explained without him. In nature stern causal law is the ruler, one phenomenon of necessity follows another.

“The universe is the vast unity of everything that is, everywhere it shows us only matter in movement,” says Holbach (1723-1789), “This is all that there is and it displays only an infinite and continuous chain of causes and actions; some of these causes we know, since they immediately strike our senses; others we do not know since they act on us only by means of consequences, quite remote from first causes.”

This mechanistic world-outlook also determined the attitude of the French philosophers to the question of the origin of consciousness and the role of thought. The Church taught that the consciousness of man is a fragment of the divine spirit, of soul, that thanks to the soul man is able to think, and by just this is distinguished from the animals. But the materialists denied the self-sufficiency of the soul and held that man is just such a material body as all other animals and inorganic bodies. Man, of course, is distinguished from inorganic bodies, but this distinction, in the opinion of the French materialists, amounts to this, that man is merely a more complex and delicate mechanism than other bodies. Thus La Mettrie (1709-1751) even called his principal work: Man the Machine. He wrote:

“All the functions, which I have ascribed to this machine, naturally proceed from the organisation of its several parts no more and no less than the movements of a clock or other automaton proceed from the disposition of its screws and wheels, so that it is quite unnecessary to suppose in this machine, i.e. man, any kind of soul, any special cause of movement and life, other than its blood and the forces within it that are stimulated by warmth.”

Diderot, who enters into a deeper examination of the reactions of soul and body, expresses the same thought as La Mettrie.

“We are instruments dowered with feeling and memory. Do you really think that a chaffinch or a nightingale and a human musician are essentially different? Do you see this egg? What sort is this egg? Before it was fertilized it was an insensible, non-living mass. How does this mass change into another organization, with sensation and life? By means of heat. What does this heat produce? Motion. What is the gradual action of this motion? At first there is a moving point, a little thread, which dilates and knits itself together, then flesh is formed, a beak, wings, eyes, claws appear; the yellowish matter separates itself and produces the inward parts of the bird—it is an animal. The animal moves this way and that, cheeps! I hear its cry through the shell. It covers itself with down, it sees. The weight of its swaying head ceaselessly knocks its beak against the wall of its prison, now the wall breaks, the bird crawls out to freedom, walks, flutters, falls down, runs, approaches nearer, has regrets, suffers, loves, yearns, and rejoices; it has all your feelings, all your actions. Between you and the animals the difference is only in organization.”

However, although they rejected soul as the source of consciousness and acknowledged that man is only a material body, a machine, yet all the same the French materialists had to explain the origin of our consciousness. This question interested them, and the answer they gave was materialistic, but at the same time, mechanistic. For all the philosophers of the eighteenth century, as also for their predecessors, human consciousness did not develop but was given together with man and all that was needed was to define the unalterable mechanism by means of which thoughts arose and were united into chains of reasoning. Materialists and idealists wrangled and fought among themselves over the question whether thought is a product of matter or matter is the offspring of spirit and proceeds from it. But the idea that consciousness is a process, that it develops, that it does not amount to a mechanical union of diverse thoughts and feelings, was known by neither side.

The French materialists saw the origin of knowledge in the action of nature on our senses. Until nature acts on us we have no sensations and no consciousness. We are born, said the French materialists, repeating the pronouncement of the English philosopher Locke, with a mind that is like a clean slate. Consciousness arises in a man in the process of living, as a result of the impressions received by his organs of sense. The more impressions his sense organs receive, the more rich, the more diverse his consciousness becomes.

Sensations are those simplest elements of consciousness out of whose union and combination representations are formed. In the further working out of representations, complex ideas, ideas of relations and finally general ideas are formed. We see, therefore, that in their enquiries into the origin and nature of consciousness the French materialists retained their mechanistic ideas.

The essence of human conduct in the opinion of the French materialists is comprised in this, that it seeks for satisfaction and avoids unsatisfaction. Happiness, therefore, consists of prolonged and durable pleasure. Thus every man is an egoist. The aggregate of egoists constitutes society.

In society, the egoism of one man is limited by the egoism of other people. Consequently, in society, man must strive not only for his own happiness, but also for the happiness of others. To attain general happiness, good social institutions are necessary.

Therefore, in order that people may acquire happiness it is necessary to replace bad institutions by good ones. Here the philosophy of the French materialists outgrows its moral teaching and becomes a political programme, a demand to change the feudal structure of society. This demand was that element in their philosophy which particularly attracted the attention of the bourgeoisie and inspired all the progressive people of that epoch. In their social views the French materialists appeared as bold fighters against feudal relations both in town and country. They showed special hatred to the Church as the bulwark of feudalism. Their teaching became a theory of revolution. The French bourgeois sought to realize their ideas in revolution.

Yet personally the French materialists were not revolutionaries. They did not teach a revolutionary, violent overthrow of authority. They made no call to insurrection. To the question how to change social institutions they answered: It is necessary to change the morals and habits of people, to assist the enlightenment of the masses, since the political structure depends on this. But to the question how to change the environment, they had no helpful answer, which reveals the inadequacy and shallowness of their thinking and its speculative character. They rested their hopes of changing feudalism not on the masses but on enlightened, absolute monarchs from whom they expected reforms. The helplessness of metaphysical materialism to resolve problems of social development was in this fashion made absolutely plain. It was this which led to the belief that an enlightened law-giver was necessary in order to change the social structure. As if a king in relation to social institutions acts like a mechanic in relation to a machine the separate parts of which one can rearrange by external action.

The immense encouragement which this philosophy gave both to the growth of science and the growth of religious rationalism must not blind us to its grave defects. It failed signally to explain how any real change can come about. If all the variety of life is to be reduced to the mathematical arrangements and rearrangements of atoms, all actual differences are really denied. This is what Plekhanov called “the transformation of a phenomenon into a fossilized thing by abstracting it from all the inner processes of life.”

The only way to explain phenomena is to study things in their development, in their arising and dying away, letting the object freely and spontaneously expound its own characteristics.

But French materialism was incapable of this dialectical treatment of nature.


Rationalistic materialism reduces the universe to mathematics, but does so by assuming that certain ideas are fundamental and self-evident. The English philosopher Locke thought that the rationalists assumed too much and endeavoured to show that we have no innate ideas in virtue of which we possess knowledge apart from experience. He held that the only way in which to cut entirely free from error and dogmatism is to confine ourselves rigidly to experience. He found that most discussions ended in futility because people would insist on raising problems beyond the limits of possible human knowledge. It then occurred to him

“that before we set ourselves upon enquiries of that nature, it was necessary to examine our own abilities, and see what objects our understandings were or were not fitted to deal with. For by extending their enquiries beyond their capacities people raise questions and multiply disputes, which only increase their doubts.”

Locke then proceeded to argue that there was nothing in the mind that was not first in the senses; that out of sense material the mind puts together more general ideas. Sensations are copies of the fundamental characteristics of the external world, extension, shape, solidity, number, motion. What we call sensations of colour, smell, sound, and taste are really subjective effects produced in us by the more fundamental qualities of the real world.

Locke is thus a materialist because he believes that the entire content of consciousness is derived by impression from the material world. But he is also a dualist because these experiences are mental, whereas the world from which they are derived is material.

This dualism led straight to Idealism, that is to say to the acceptance of the spiritual half of Descartes’ divided world. This was the second alternative to which dualism must ultimately come, just as materialism was the first.

Berkeley simply showed that if colour does not reside in the coloured object but is the effect in the mind of the physical properties of an object, if warmth is not a property of the fire but is the end effect of the nerves which are agitated by the molecular disturbance known as heat, if tickling is not a property of the feather that tickles but of the mind of the person tickled, then it is possible to push the whole argument back one stage farther and show that even sensations of extension and solidity are only sensations and that we can never get beyond contemplating our own mental states. If we want to base all knowledge on experience, experience is at bottom purely mental, and when we believe that it tells us of an external world of which sensations are a copy that is merely an inference. Things cannot exist apart from our consciousness of them, and to ask whether they continue to exist if we no longer have sensations is absurd. Things are sensations.

Hume carried this scepticism one stage farther. We think that at any rate we have a self that is formed of a chain of successive experiences presumably grounded in the identity and unity of the personal soul. Hume declared that just as Berkeley had shown that there was no material substance in which qualities resided, but only pure qualities, which are pure sensations, so he could show that there was no spiritual substance which had experiences, but only pure experiences one after the other.

Berkeley of course did not for a moment mean to say that the objective world did not exist and that we were shut up to our own sensations. He was simply arguing that you cannot prove that such sensations are the sensations of a material world. Nevertheless they are perfectly objective, we cannot help them and we cannot vary them at will, they constitute a rigid, objective world of sensed objects existing independent of our will. Sensed objects but not material objects.

Berkeley had his own theological answer to the problem which this raises. The objectivity and permanence of the cause of our sensations must, he argues, be due to the continuous activity of an eternal creative Mind, God. It is God’s power which causes our sensations to be arranged in the particular order which they follow one another. The external world, therefore, continues to exist even when we cease to perceive it, because God’s perception sustains it.

We see then where the argument from experience leads. And the sensationalism from which it springs is itself derived from Descartes’ dualism of mind and matter, which treated matter as in itself merely mechanical.

But if matter had been conceived as developing, as active, and mind as the coming to consciousness of matter, we should find ourselves with neither a dead materialism nor a groundless subjectivism but a living unity of mind and matter.

Spinoza was the first to work out such a system. Rejecting dualism he held that the universe was one system, which was neither pure spirit nor pure matter. Mind and matter are the two ultimate attributes of substance, that is to say substance itself is not dead matter or pure spirit but has body and has mind. But actual bodies or objects are particular forms of matter, just as actual minds are particular forms of thought. In a human being we have a double manifestation (body and mind) of the two ultimate attributes which make up fundamental Reality.

Spinoza also held that all things constitute a perfect system. Every finite object or event is dependent on innumerable others which ramify in all directions and are each of them similarly dependent on innumerable others. Everything is necessary in its appointed place within the whole. Nothing is possible save the actual, and nothing is actual save the necessary. “From the infinite nature of God all things follow by the same necessity, and in the same way, as it follows from the nature of a triangle from eternity to eternity that its three angles are equal to two right angles.”

The mechanism which Descartes saw in matter alone, Spinoza sees in God and mind as well. But the entire Universe is a live, and not a dead mechanism, for the order of things is the order of perfect goodness and wisdom and is continuously sustained by the intense consciousness of God. Yet, once again, God is not above the Universe or within the Universe, but his mind “is all the mentality that is scattered over space and time, the diffused consciousness that animates the world.”

This is pure mysticism in its sublime confidence in already existing perfection. But in the conception of the Universe as one system, which is wholly material from end to end, and in which whatever mind we find is not extraneous to matter but an attribute of substance, parallel with and interpenetrating matter, we have the conception that inspired Hegel and after him Marx. But for Spinoza it is an unchanging, undeveloping whole.


Kant’s great contribution to philosophy lay in the combination he effected between reason and experimental fact.

Hume had not only dissolved the soul into a succession of experiences; using the same argument he overthrew the whole conception of law on which both Descartes and Spinoza had built up their rational universes. Hume argued that we can never prove cause and effect, we merely infer it from the frequent occurrence of two successive phenomena. It is merely mental habit that makes us think that if the first phenomenon occurs the second is bound to follow. A law is simply a convenient formula summing up what usually happens. We have no guarantee that the sequences hitherto observed will reappear in future experience.

Now materialism had attacked religion in the name of science and philosophy. Then Berkeley had refuted materialism with its own arguments about matter and sense impressions, but now Berkeley’s doctrine of experience in the hands of Hume has overthrown the doctrine of the soul, the necessity for God, the rationality of the universe and the very existence of science itself.

Someone was badly needed to rescue religion more effectively than Berkeley and also to rescue science. This Kant did by pointing out that Locke was wrong in imagining that a series of impressions falling on the brain could build themselves up into a systematic picture of the universe. They could not do this but for the inherited structure of the mind. All knowledge needs two factors, sense data and pre-existing mental forms in which to fit them. These mental forms make up the empty framework of a perfectly rational universe. We cannot apprehend anything at all without using this already functioning notion of a rational world in which cause and effect links all phenomena. Hence all the facts we absorb simply fill out this picture and cannot be to us other than orderly facts. In practice therefore we never get the scheme of a scientific world without multitudes of facts to prove it, but all those facts have only entered the mind through the gateways of the logical forms so that they could never be to us other than logical.

This ingenious justification of science leads straight to those modern scientific conceptions which explain scientific theories as symbols, convenient fictions or arbitrary forms. It is really the profoundest scepticism. Things as they really are can never be known. Our subjectivism is double, not only are our experiences Subjective but the forms which order them and build there up into our experience of an objective world are subjective too.

Now the mental machine which produces for us a scientific world cannot by its very nature give us anything else. It is therefore useless to ask it to prove the existence of God or speak to us of goodness and beauty. But the mental machine is only a part of the mind. It has other faculties equally valid and important. We are not always thinking scientifically. The practical5 reason, as opposed to the scientific reason, gives us our power to apprehend God and duty.

In our day Bergson has given us his own version of Kant. Reason is a tool for doing things with the world. Intuition is a direct apprehension of the entirely irrational world as it is in itself. The scientist investigates part of the world and investigates it for a special purpose. He assumes that part of the world to be a machine. He therefore further assumes that the whole universe is an aggregation of machine-like bits and makes up one big machine. But the scientific abstraction kills what it dissects out, freezes what it immobilizes, and is wholly false to life as a living, moving whole. Life itself is apprehended not by reason or science but by intuition. Thus Bergson grows out of Kant and at the same time helps to explain his great forerunner.

Lenin described the philosophy of Kant as

“a reconciliation of materialism with idealism, a compromise between the two, a combination in one system of heterogeneous, opposed philosophical tendencies. When Kant allows that to our representations there corresponds something outside us, something in itself, he is a materialist. When he declares this ‘thing in itself’ to be unknowable, transcendental, of another world, he is an idealist.”

What is valuable in Kant’s theory is his demonstration that there is no nature for us that is not made over by social man. That man does not stand over against nature contemplating it as an unpeopled universe, but is himself an active part of the nature he is observing. Mind is active and science is not a photograph of the physical universe but the product of man’s activity upon nature and nature’s corresponding reaction upon man. There is no “nature in itself” but only “nature for man.”

But why should that mean that human science is a fiction or other than a genuine reflection of an objective world? The most that it can mean is that it is partial and incomplete, which may be readily admitted. But it is true as far as it goes and it is always going farther. From this point of view there is not the slightest need to make a mystery of man’s apprehension of the non-physical side of nature as though this required another type of reason. It is the same reason but concerned with other and sometimes wider aspects. In fact apart from these wider social ideas and plans the narrower tasks of science would never be attempted, for it is civilization as a whole that gives the scientist and the specialist their jobs.

Out of Kant’s idealism grew the systems of Fichte, Schelling and Hegel, all of which criticized him while building upon him. By far the most important was Hegel’s. Hegel, like Spinoza, believed that the world was one rational system and that everything was interconnected. In order to understand anything it must be seen in all its relations. Now this is the basis of Hegel’s distinction between appearance and reality. Kant’s distinction was between scientific appearance, the world as known to reason, and the reality of things in themselves, the world not known to anybody. Hegel’s distinction is between appearances which are partial and incomplete, like Bergson’s view of science, and reality which is all-embracing and complete, like Bergson’s whole world as apprehended by intuition.

Now most of experience is obviously partial. It will therefore show manifest signs of incompleteness if carefully examined. It will be seen to imply other things on its fringe or on which it depends just as one small portion of a picture really implies the whole composition. Now if reason gets to work on any portion of experience and seeks to find out all that is implied in that experience, including the contrary truths which the very existence of so many truths imply, reason will be driven onward to include more and more in its embrace, ever seeking to clear up seeming contradictions until at last it includes all the facts and the whole truth and there are no more contradictions and partialities. This final truth will be the whole truth about everything.

Now this mental process of passing from the part to the whole, from the self-contradictory to the self-consistent is the dialectic. Is it, we now have to ask, a purely mental activity, which a sufficiently powerful mind could engage in with nothing to start with but a chip of concrete reality and at last come to know everything? Or is it a real historical unfolding of all the implications of a universe in embryo, like a chick growing from an egg?

The first alternative suggests a palacontologist reconstructing a prehistoric monster from a single bone, or a detective reconstructing a crime from a single clue. The second suggests the evolutionary process as the working out of the potentialities of the universe.

Hegel himself seems to have meant both. But by the expanding, unfolding universe he meant, among other things, the development of Absolute Spirit itself. It was here that Hegel was a pure idealist. But in so far as he never splits the world in two, never thinks for a moment of mere mind, as Berkeley did, never considers spirit as opposed to matter, as Descartes did, but, like Spinoza, holds firmly to substance as containing within it both mind and matter and constituting one Universe, Hegel is always thinking of the concrete working out of the pageant of history, of biological evolution, of political and legal institutions. He is a realist all the time. But because he is an idealist too he sees all these solid, concrete things as manifestations of the unfolding of objective spirit, whose moments are not only individual consciousnesses but also all the creations of human thought, all forms of society, all aspects of the State, in a word, all that exists.

Heraclitus had spoken of the continuous transition of phenomena from non-existence to existence and vice versa. There is a perpetual flux from one form to another, from the unity of opposites into their division and from the division back to unity. This inspired guess Hegel turned into the basic principle of a new logic worked out by himself, and on this base he constructed a whole system of philosophy to show how “absolute spirit,” objective consciousness, is developed from “nothing,” a pure abstraction, into an absolute idea which grasps all and contains all in itself. There is no doubt that the absolute spirit of Hegel is that same God, that same divine reason which as it were realizes itself in human history in the productions of philosophy, art, law and in social institutions. Hegel, however, made God descend from his immutable perfection and proceed along the path of development, contending with himself and enriching himself with new content. But how, according to Hegel, does absolute spirit make its dialectical way, how does this dialectical process of development take place? Hegel sees the essence of development in the unity and strife of opposites, in the fact that every phenomenon contains an internal contradiction that drives it forward and brings it ultimately to destruction and the transition to something else. However, the destruction of one phenomenon is at the same time the emergence of a new one which denies the last phenomenon but also contains it in itself. Hegel demonstrates this idea by citing the history of philosophy, of art, and the material of human history. One philosophic system changes itself to another. Every philosopher down to Hegel held his system to be absolute truth and all previous systems to be delusions, but Hegel showed that such a view is naive, that every philosophic system is a step in the development of absolute spirit. Absolute spirit in every historical epoch knows itself in the form of a definite philosophy that corresponds to the historical content of the given stage of its development. In another epoch this form appears as antiquated and yields place to its successor, which denies it and at the same time contains in itself the positive content of the superseded philosophy. “The philosophy, latest in time, is the result of all preceding philosophies and therefore must include them all in itself.” The same holds true of religion, law, art, and social institutions. All these fields of absolute spirit were studied by Hegel as connected with one another, and were found to be in close mutual relations. Hegel taught that “only in the presence of a given form of religion can a given form of State structure exist, only in the presence of a given State structure can a given philosophy and a given art exist.”

But Hegel was seeking the fundamental cause of the historic process, the principle which determines the dialectic of development of nature and society, seeking it in the development of contradictions within absolute spirit, which finds in nature and society its own form of disclosure and development, whereas Marx saw this basic cause in the very real contradictions of the material processes both in nature and society.

When Napoleon tried by means of the bayonets of his army to introduce bourgeois relationships into Germany, Hegel, who at that time was creating his dialectical method, was in sympathy with the French Revolution and greeted the entry of the Napoleonic troops into Jena as the historical incarnation of a new form of absolute spirit. They say he then called Napoleon “the absolute spirit on a white charger.” But twenty years later, when the feudal monarchy of Frederick William III was being consolidated in Germany, Hegel had lost his revolutionary ideas and had become the State philosopher of the Prussian monarchy.

The dialectical method had made it possible for Hegel in his youth to generalize in idealistic form all the scientific experience of his time, all the course of the historic process, and from idealistic, perverted positions to criticize the one-sided, mechanistic methods which the science of his day was using. Hegel harshly criticized the completely formal logic that ruled up to his time, disclosed its internal contradiction and showed the impossibility of understanding dialectical processes on its basis. Hegel first formulated in idealistic form universal laws for the development, the transition of certain phenomena into other phenomena. These phenomena proceed, according to Hegel, by means of “a negation of a negation.” Marx in The Poverty of Philosophy expounds this theory of Hegel as follows:

“But once it has placed itself in thesis, this thought, opposed to itself, doubles itself into two contradictory thoughts, the positive and the negative, the ‘yes’ and the ‘no.’ The struggle of these two antagonistic elements, comprised in the antithesis, constitutes the dialectic movement. The yes becoming no, the no becoming yes, the yes becoming at once yes and no, the no becoming at once no and yes, the contraries balance themselves, neutralize themselves, paralyse themselves. The fusion of these two contradictory thoughts constitutes a new thought which is the synthesis of the two. This new thought unfolds itself again in two contradictory thoughts which are confounded in their turn in a new synthesis. From this travail is born a group of thoughts. This group of thoughts follows the same dialectic movement as a simple category, and has for antithesis a contradictory group. From these two groups is born a new group of thoughts which is the synthesis of them. As from the dialectic movement of simple categories is born the group, so from the dialectic movement of the groups is born the series, and from the dialectic movement of the series is born the whole system.”6

Thanks to such a development of absolute spirit by means of its internal contradictions, no one stage of it is fortuitous, but each flows out of all the preceding history that it contains in itself. “Everything that is real,” said Hegel, “is rational, and everything that is rational is real.” By this Hegel meant to say that all existing social institutions and forms of ideology are determined by the development of absolute spirit, are steps in the movement of reason. Here Hegel is formulating his idealistic principle of dialectic; the development of reason is also the development of reality. This proposition has served as the ground for charging Hegel with reactionary tendencies, with justifying every infamy, every social tyranny, since for him everything that exists is rational. Hegel in the last years of his life was indeed inclined thus to interpret this dialectical proposition of his, it was also used thus by an official philosophy mainly concerned with self-preservation. Hegel’s philosophy at one time became the official philosophy of the Prussian monarchy. We know that this idea in Russia too was the cause of much agony of thought in such people as Belinsky, who could not persuade themselves that the regime of Nicholas was rational merely because it existed! But Hegel’s dialectical method offered foundations for quite different social conclusions. Because, granted that that which is rational is real, then if the real should prove to be irrational and cease to correspond with its idea, it means, according to Hegel, that it has become antiquated, doomed and subject to destruction. The monarchy was irrational, therefore it was unreal. The monarchy exists, but the moment it becomes irrational it has already ceased to have its roots in life, in reality, it no longer corresponds to the new stage in the development of society and therefore must perish. Thus the Left-Hegelians were able to interpret this proposition of Hegel so as to aid them in the struggle with the monarchical order and religion. They were able to show that Christianity and religion are irrational and therefore must perish, and so it is necessary to contend with them. Thus the Russian Hegelians argued also, fighting against Tsarism. They proved the irrationality, backwardness, and savagery of the Tsarist regime and hence the necessity for its overthrow, and they sounded the call to fight against it.

The main contradiction of Hegel’s philosophy is reflected in the fact that the proposition we have quoted can be interpreted in two opposite ways at once.

In Hegel’s philosophy we find an expression of the ambiguity of the ideology of the bourgeoisie of that time—the progressive and the reactionary sides of it. On one side it is characterized by a desire to destroy everything that is antiquated, irrational and doomed to pass away, and to replace it with the new that has grown within the womb of the old; on the other side it is characterized by a dread of the new, a dread that was strengthened by what they saw of the French Revolution, and by the conviction that the status quo in Germany must remain, that it was not subject to change. But Hegelianism cannot logically defend the status quo. Dialectic is revolutionary, it sees in everything processes of change, phenomena in constant flux; every assertion of absolute rest, eternity and immutability contradicts it.

In the further development of the class struggle within capitalist society, both the Hegelian idealism and the Hegelian dialectic were used as theoretic weapons. The radical bourgeoisie of Germany tried to use Hegel’s philosophy as a theory of bourgeois revolution. However, experience soon showed that the philosophy of Hegel, as such, either grows quickly into a reactionary ideology of the conservative elements of the bourgeoisie and takes on the character of a rationalistic religion, or it is used by the revolutionary groups of society.

As long as Hegel was alive these opposing camps developed the two contradictory sides of his philosophy and yet carried on their struggle within the Hegelian system as a whole. But, as we know, in the years 1830-31, a wave of revolutions rolled over Europe, affecting a number of countries from Spain to Poland. In Germany philosophical disputes under the influence of this revolution took on an openly political character. The matter reached the point at which groups of “right” Hegelians, of the “centre” and of the “left” were formed within the Hegelian school, the last mentioned eventually breaking off as an independent group. The revolutionary wave, however, very soon subsided, and the revolutionary strivings of the liberal bourgeoisie in Germany did not lead to any real political achievements. They found their outlet only in philosophic disputations. But for this very reason the philosophical struggle grew in importance and intensity, especially in the sphere of theology where the new philosophy engaged in radical criticisms of the dogmas of the Church.

Marx and Engels took a direct part in this movement of the young Hegelians. Marx, however, soon ceased to be satisfied merely with the philosophic criticism of religion, and began to play an active part in the political struggle as editor of the Rhenish Gazette. In 1842 he even broke with the “free men,” as the young Hegelians in Berlin called themselves. Marx wanted a serious struggle and not empty declamation, although this bore a revolutionary character.

“I required,” wrote Marx, “that there should be less noisy phrases and self-flagellation and more definiteness, more knowledge of the matter and penetration into its concrete essence. Further, I expressed the wish that when they criticized religion they should push forward as the first thing to be done to a criticism of political conditions, and not merely criticize the political conditions in their religious setting, because the former approach is more in accordance with the spirit of the paper and the level of its readers: religion, in itself lacking content, dwells, not in the sky, but on earth and itself collapses along with the dissolution of the distorted actuality, whose theory it presents.”

Feuerbach, who studied under Hegel, was the most significant of his liberal disciples. This “left” wing began by criticizing orthodox religion from an Hegelian point of view, contending that the new philosophy far from buttressing orthodoxy reduced dogmas to myths and led to a naturalistic pantheism. Feuerbach went even farther, and showed that religion was nothing more than the imaginative projection of human needs and hopes. Man, in so far as he is rational, is to himself his own object of thought. Whenever man is thinking of God, or infinity, or law, or love, he is not really thinking of the Eternal at all, but of outward projections of his own nature. Feuerbach recalled philosophy from unsubstantial metaphysics to the solid facts of human nature and natural science. “Speculative philosophy,” says Feuerbach, “is drunken philosophy; philosophy must again become sober. Do not strive to be a philosopher as distinct from a man; just be a thinking man.”

What is Feuerbach getting at? He is criticizing Hegel for falsely solving the contradiction between being and thought by transferring it into the interior of one of the primary elements, namely thought. According to Hegel thought is also being, nature is postulated by the idea, material being is created by spiritual being, by God. Kant was only saying the same thing when he affirmed that the outer world receives its laws from reason, instead of reason receiving its laws from the outer world. In what is this really different from the conception that the divine reason dictates to the world the laws which regulate it?

But this means that Idealism is not really establishing the unity of being and thought at all. It is rupturing that unity for it is leaving real being entirely out of the question. The truth is that thought is conditioned by being, not being by thought. It is matter that thinks, it is the body that becomes the subject, the real material being is the subject, and thought is its function, its predicate.

This is the real solution of the problem of thought and existence, of mind and body, the only solution which does not suppress one of the elements of the contradiction.

This is very like the philosophy of Spinoza. It asserts that the purely subjective spiritual act of thought is objectively the material action of a physical body. What is this but Spinozisin without its theological lumber? The unity of thought and extension in one substance minus the unnecessary equation of that substance with the concept God?

Feuerbach’s weakness was pointed out by Marx. His materialism only contemplates the material world. The mind is only acted upon by the world it thus comes to know. Knowing is the mind’s real activity—yes, but that is only half the truth. We know the world only by acting upon it, and when we act upon it and change it, we change our own nature too and our knowing mind with it.


1. Fictionalsim in Modern Science

Of recent years we have witnessed a strange revival of subjectivism in certain novel theories of the true nature of science. Avenarius in 1888 and Mach about the same time came forward with a methodological positivism which, while rejecting much in Kant, nevertheless admitted a subjective or voluntary factor in knowledge.

Mach identified the physical object with its sensible appearances. Science, therefore, deals only with the last events in a chain of supposed material causes and effects which events are merely experiences. Man groups these “experiences” in scientific systems mainly as a matter of expediency. A thing is a construct of a selection of impressions, the mind or ego perceiving the thing is also a construct of the same impressions plus others of a different order. These primary experiences we describe in their modes of occurrence by a system of reference designed solely for purposes of economy. We may speak of “space,” “force,” “mass,” “cause,” but these are only short expressions for regularities of behaviour among successive or simultaneous impressions. Science, therefore, is not really explaining anything, still less is it describing an objective scientific world. It merely describes observed relationships among impressions.

Le Roy and Poincaré gave even greater emphasis to the subjective element in scientific thought. We apply to an unorganized and amorphous nature a purely conventional system which works with some measure of success. Nature is more easily ordered by one such system than by another, but that is as much as we dare say, the system cannot for a moment be held to be a true description of nature.

Le Roy argued that one of the reasons why the facts seem to fit the theory is simply that we only collect such facts as are relevant to that theory, they are therefore bound to fit. The theory is true to the extent that there are enough facts to make it credible, but another theory might be equally true, and be able to amass its own verifactory data too.

In more recent times Eddington has argued that the system of pointer readings, which really constitute science, is not a picture of reality but only a symbol. The pointer reading is no more truly representative of reality than a telephone number is like the subscriber who is so designated. Science in abstracting only the measurements of things, has really let the things themselves, in their richness and complexity, go. Hence to apprehend reality in its fullness some other logic than that of science is required, call it the sense of values, religious intuition, what you will.

These subjectivist attacks on the validity of science were severely criticized by Lenin in his Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, where he pointed out that the whole system of error is due to the old, discredited subjective idealism of Berkeley and the confusion between experiencing an objective world, and merely having experiences. This new scientific theory about scientific theories is only idealism once again, only Kant in a fresh guise, only a re-hash of subjectivism. If matter cannot think, then thought must indeed have an existence in a world of its own in spite of all difficulties. But the only result of such a dualism will be the endless confusions of philosophy. But if matter can think, in the brains of men, then there is no need to go skating on the thin and dangerous ice of subjectivism. Science becomes the imperfect but largely satisfactory picture of man’s universe which is validated by his successful practice in controlling nature, and which he has discovered in the process of handling nature and thinking about it.

Thus nature is not a final order of the world of experience which must be accepted as given. It is still an unfinished business. It is neither the terrifying thing the primitive mind envisaged or the lifelessly rigorous affair that rationalists have depicted. Nature is never permanent. Man himself takes a hand in the creative process, and suffuses purely physical and biological events with the aims and desires implied in mind.

“Nature is involved in life, and life is, of course, involved in nature. Life seems to be an expression not of some fixed mood of nature, but of its evolving processes, and not of processes that are fixed for ever in a single groove, but of processes that interminably weave and interweave, yielding moments for the interference of intelligence; so that, if we learn how, we may help, age after age, to select processes artistically intelligent enough to produce an ever finer human living, and a nature as well that will accept and foster that finer human living.”7

2. State Absolutism

Hegelian Idealism takes a characteristically modern form in the philosophy of the hierarchical totalitarian state which is really only the absolutism of Bosanquet and Bradley worked out to its logical conclusion.

According to this theory the State is the living organism in which alone the individual finds his true self-hood and true freedom. It is the actualization of freedom, because in its institutions, its law and its actual creation of functional individuals, like bees in a hive, it provides firstly the concrete opportunity and secondly the men to take advantage of it. The State as such stands for an entity over and above the sum of individual wills, and a lawful will to which every individual must submit. In sharing in the common life the individual, therefore, not only fulfils himself but transcends himself.

“Representing as it does that aspect of the individual’s will which harmonizes with the will of others, his will, that is to say, for the good of all, including self, as opposed to his will for the good of self at the expense of all, it is of necessity always rational and always right.”8

This is that confusion of the actual with the possible so characteristic of idealism. Here it means that absolute idealism sanctifies all existing institutions including the class relationships of modern capitalism. Hegelian idealism in the hands of the English idealists has been turned into an ideological weapon.

The truth of the matter is that the organized community exists only to serve the interests of the individuals who comprise it. The individual does not exist merely to serve the interests of the community. Where the latter theory is held it merely disguises the exploitation of the many in the interests of the few. The “State” or “Community” that is served being nothing more or less than the minority that wields the State machine, the owning class.

The idealist method of attributing a higher will to the individual which is nothing to do with what he desires, but which enables him to transcend his merely individual self is simply a device for giving an appearance of justice and democracy to what must otherwise appear the purely arbitrary and tyrannical acts of a class state.



1. Dewey, The Quest for Certainty, p. 18.

2. Dewey, p. 20.

3. L. J. Russell, Introduction to Philosophy.

4. Descartes, Discourse on Method, part VI.

5. By “practical reason” Kant does not mean scientific reasoning but the very opposite, reasoning which takes life in all its concrete richness, including moral and religious considerations.

6. Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy, p. 117.

7. Hart, Inside Experience, p. 115.

8. Joad, Modern Political Theory.

Next: II. The Dialectic as a Theory of Knowledge