Thursday, July 9, 2009
Lenin: Materialism and Empirio-Criticism (1909)
“Matter is a philosophical category designating the objective reality which is given to man by his sensations, and which is copied, photographed and reflected by our sensations, while existing independently of them. Therefore, to say that such a concept can become ‘antiquated’ is childish talk, a senseless repetition of the arguments of fashionable reactionary philosophy. Could the struggle between materialism and idealism, the struggle between the tendencies or lines of Plato and Democritus in philosophy, the struggle between religion and science, the denial of objective truth and its assertion . . . have become antiquated during the two thousand years of the development of philosophy?” In Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, Lenin continues his more well-known political activities by making a specifically philosophical intervention. Surveying idealism, empiricism, immanentism, positivism, and “empirio-criticism” (the last associated with the positivist philosophy of Ernst Mach), Lenin discerns underneath the changing labels and terminologies a widespread idealist “camp.” He argues that the various empirio-criticisms of his time merely repeat George Berkeley’s idealism and its attack on materialism. Drawing from Engels’ Anti-Duhring and Ludwig Feuerbach, Lenin asserts that there are two fundamental “trends” in philosophy: idealism and materialism. Materialism proceeds “from things to sensation and thought.” It “takes matter as primary and regards consciousness, thought and sensation as secondary.” In contrast, idealism proceeds “from thought and sensation to things.” For Lenin, partisanship in philosophy is necessary. One must draw a line of demarcation between materialism and idealism and support the former in its fight against the latter. He claims “Marx and Engels were partisans in philosophy from start to finish; they were able to detect the deviations from materialism and concessions to idealism . . . in each and every ‘new’ tendency.” Attempts to reconcile the two trends or to discover a third trend will fail and must be avoided because they weaken materialism (and therefore Marxism) and secretly spread forms of idealism. The opposition of materialism and idealism has important consequences for science. Lenin believes most scientists (as well as “sane” people in everyday life) have an “instinctive materialism.” But too often that materialism is based upon dubious metaphysical notions of the “immutable substance of things.” When this “metaphysical materialism” comes into conflict with the discoveries of modern physics, it appears that “Matter has disappeared.” As a result, many scientists turn to idealism and claim that the theories of physics are “symbols” of matter rather than objective knowledge of it. They confuse relativism with dialectics, taking the admission that theories are only an approximation of reality as proof that there is no objective knowledge. According to Lenin, however, modern physics should not threaten materialism because “the sole ‘property’ of matter with whose recognition philosophical materialism is bound up is the property of being an objective reality, of existing outside our mind.” Lenin’s argument about the fundamental lines of philosophy and the instinctive materialism of the scientists should sound familiar: Althusser’s Philosophy and the Spontaneous Philosophy of the Scientists clearly takes as its model and inspiration Materialism and Empirio-Criticism. Althusser brings out the political consequences of Lenin’s philosophical intervention more than Lenin does himself. Lenin makes a brief reference to the fact that the “general cause” of idealism lies “outside the sphere of philosophy” and in the book’s conclusion he states: “it is impossible not to see in the struggle of parties in philosophy, a struggle which in the last analysis reflects the tendencies and ideology of the antagonistic classes in modern society.” But apart from Lenin's regular assertion that idealism is anti-Marxist, this political context is only implicit in the rest of the book’s argument. The book's orientation towards a very concrete political conjuncture as well as its relevance to our own conjuncture isn't assisted by Lenin's highly unstructured and repetitive attacks on obscure schools of philosophy and on lesser figures such as Mach and Avenarius. One of Lenin’s targets that should be singled out is Alexander Bogdanov, who was perhaps Lenin’s only competitor for leadership of the Bolsheviks at the time. Though Lenin claims only to be criticizing Bogdanov’s philosophy, it is clear that Lenin’s philosophical intervention had exceptionally immediate political effects in regards to Bogdanov. According to Lenin, Bogdanov’s “empirio-monism” appears to correct Marxism, but in actuality it is idealist and therefore reactionary and anti-Marxist. Bogdanov believed that proletariat ideology had to be created before revolution, and he was later a major figure in the development of Proletcult. Lenin objects that by equating social being with social consciousness, Bogdanov denies the primacy of material reality. Lenin contends: “To think that philosophical idealism vanishes by substituting the consciousness of mankind for the consciousness of the individual, or the socially-organized experience for the experience of one person, is like thinking that capitalism will vanish by replacing one capitalist by a joint stock company.” In a recent seminar at UCLA, Nathan Brown argued that Quentin Meillassoux’s After Finitude can be read as a Leninist philosophical intervention, and it is striking how closely Lenin comes to a number of Meillassoux’s claims. For example, Lenin’s argument that the more sophisticated forms of modern idealism provide “loopholes” for fideism is reiterated by Meillassoux’s claim that Kant’s protection of the in-itself secures a space for religious belief. Lenin even seems to anticipate Meillassoux’s argument about the arche-fossil by showing how idealism is unable to respond to evidence that the earth existed prior to man and his perceptions. Brown claimed that Meillassoux, who refutes Kant by passing through his argument rather than rejecting it from outside, contributes a philosophical support for materialism that Lenin, with his limited philosophical training, was unable to offer. Indeed, in Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, Lenin tends to lump Kant together with Hume as agnostics who tend towards idealism, and therefore Kant poses no greater a problem for Lenin than does Berkeley. Lenin’s reflective theory of knowledge, which posits that matter is “copied, photographed and reflected by our sensations,” also does not confront Kant’s challenge. A particularly symptomatic example is the sentence: “The recognition of theory as a copy, as an approximate copy of objective reality, is materialism.” If we substitute photography – one of Lenin’s other epistemological figures – for copy in this sentence, we might ask, is there a difference between a “photograph” and an “approximate photograph”? Does the latter have any sense?