Dialectics - The logic of revolution
Philosophy and natural science
Democracy and Class Struggle says the October Revolution of 1917 is also not just about the event but about the social processes behind the event and the revolutionary philosophical outlook of Lenin which is here vigorously defended by Evald Ilenykov
As for ‘philosophers’ who write today as if Lenin was not interested in dialectics when he was working on Materialism and Empirio-Criticism but was simply defending the ‘universal ABC’s of all materialism’, it must be that they just have not carefully read this chapter of his book.
Or, what is also possible, they have a conception of dialectics which is essentially different from Lenin’s and about which he speaks not only here, but in all his subsequent works on philosophy including the Philosophical Notebooks and the article ‘On the Significance of Militant Materialism’.
The development of the revolutionary process from 1908 to 1917 completely demolished the pretensions of the Russian Machists in the realm of social and political thought. On the basis of their philosophy they proved to be incapable of creating any influential fraction in the revolutionary movement, not to mention a party which was theoretically and politically able to lead this movement. Not a single one of the progressive forces in the country – and most of all, of course, the revolutionary proletariat – took their philosophy seriously.
The course of events most clearly of all showed that the logic of their thinking was merely the logic of those who had completely lost their heads; a logic dooming them to impotence, without giving or being able to give a scientifically grounded political orientation.
But it was precisely the pretension to being scientific which was the essence of Bogdanov’s position as well as that of the other Russian disciples of Mach. They seriously believed that their philosophical constructions were the ‘philosophy of 20th century natural science’, that it was distinguished by the ‘force of strict and consistent scientific methods’, and that the genuine Marxist point of view consists of an orientation toward a ‘scientific method’ and its application to the cognition of social life.
Their appeal to the authority of natural science was the main line of their argumentation. ‘One can learn a great deal from Mach. And in our stormy times, in our country which is drowned in blood, the most valuable lesson that he teaches is: a tranquil steadiness of thought, strict objectivism of method, ruthless analysis of everything accepted on faith, and the unsparing extermination of all the idols of thought’ – proclaimed Bogdanov and his cothinkers at every step.
Therefore, no matter how formally irreproachable Plekhanov’s criticism of Machism as terminologically disguised Berkeleianism was, it made virtually no impression upon the Machists. ‘Who cares,’ they would say, ‘that our philosophy doesn’t correspond to the criteria of “Baron Holbach” or the “verbal trinkets of Hegel”? This upsets and disturbs us not in the slightest – our strength lies in our agreement with the principles of contemporary scientific thought.’
It is not surprising that Bogdanov considered it sufficient to simply brush Plekhanov and his supporters aside with one phrase from all their criticism – he didn’t even want to examine their ‘polemical ploys’ against Mach which accused him of idealism and even solipsism. ‘All this,’ he said, ‘is nonsense, having nothing to do with the essence of the argument, which is that Mach teaches mankind “the philosophy of 20th century natural science,” while Plekhanov has stayed behind with the “philosophy of 18th century natural science, as contained in the formulations of Baron Holbach”.’
‘Modern natural science’, ‘the logic of thinking of contemporary natural scientists’ – this was the basic ‘beach-head’ for the Russian positivists in their war against materialist dialectics. And as long as they held on to this beach-head, no ‘philosophical’ argumentation had any effect upon them. And it was precisely this which neither Plekhanov nor his disciples understood. Or to be more precise, they didn’t understand the importance of this circumstance, for it was impossible not to notice the fact – the Machists themselves in all their writings loudly proclaimed that their philosophy was the ‘philosophy of modern science’, the philosophical generalisation of its successes and achievements.
But Plekhanov passed by this aspect of the matter in silence, which the Machists joyfully interpreted as an argument in their favour. They described Plekhanov’s position as the position of a reactionary who was hindering the process of ‘enriching’ Marxism ‘with the methods of exact or so-called “ positive” science.’
Thus until Lenin joined the polemic, to a reader who had not thoroughly investigated the essence of the argument, the situation looked something like this: on the one hand there was the ‘school’ of Plekhanov-Orthodoks-Deborin, who neither knew nor cared to know and apply in politics ‘the methods of exact science’ and who were stubbornly trying to reinforce archaic concepts and fetishes in Marxism which had supposedly been thoroughly refuted by 20th century natural science; an equals sign was placed between Plekhanov’s school as it was thus described and materialist dialectics.
On the other hand there was the group that was attacking this ‘conservative school’ – Bogdanov, Bazarov, Suvorov, Lunacharsky, Yushkevich, Valentinov, Berman and Helphond – who were calling for the union of Marxism with natural science and fighting for a revolutionary, active trend of thought both in natural science and in politics. Mach played here the role of an authoritative symbol of the revolution in natural science, the role of a fully empowered and universally recognised leader of revolutionary philosophical thinking in the sphere of understanding nature.
Such a portrayal of the essence of the argument, in which there was a fairly good dose of demagogy (frequently involuntarily, for the Machists themselves sincerely believed their arguments), was able to win over and actually did win the sympathies of those people who were of a revolutionary frame of mind but who were not very well versed in philosophy; they were won over to the side of empirio-criticism and its variations. There were quite a few of these people both among the workers and among the scientific-technological intelligentsia. And it was for their minds that the philosophical battle was waged.
Plekhanov’s silence on this point – in the debate over the question about the relationship between dialectical materialist philosophy and 20th century natural science – the Machists joyfully interpreted as direct and irrefutable proof of their correctness and their advantage over Plekhanov (over materialist dialectics).
Therefore Plekhanov’s silence, as well as the loud demagogy of the Machists, could have made and actually did make an impression upon the reader which was highly unfavourable for the authority of materialist dialectics. In addition, the Machists very assiduously tried to discover in Plekhanov’s writings even insignificant inaccuracies regarding the special problems of natural science and the terminology of its specialised fields. They played these up with malicious joy, but they rejoiced even more at the definite vagueness which Plekhanov sometimes allowed in his formulations of extremely serious propositions of philosophical materialism; this is the well-known slovenliness which is often encountered in Plekhanov’s writings but which he evidently did not consider very significant. For instance, the definition of sensations as a special kind of ‘hieroglyph’.
In the context of the discussion of the problem as a whole, these inaccuracies and vagueness were perhaps not all that terrible, but when they were torn out of this context, they gave cause for malicious back-biting concerning the ‘consistency’ and ‘principled nature’ of his position.
But these, of course, were only minor details. The main deficiency in Plekhanov’s position was that he ignored what was actually the central question raised by the Machists: the relationship of the philosophy of Marxism – dialectical materialism, materialist dialectics – to the events which had taken place in natural science, i.e. to the improvements which had been made in the logic of the thinking of natural scientists. This was the central point of the question, and only Lenin understood at that time the full significance of this fact for the philosophy of Marxism.
And only he was able to examine this extremely complex question on a truly principled level. It was on such a level that even now, 70 years later (and what years!), it remains a standard for any Marxist who ventures to examine the problems of the relationship between philosophical dialectics and developing natural scientific thought or theoretical science.
Of course, the chapter in Lenin’s book The Latest Revolution in Natural Science and Philosophical Idealism struck a crushing blow at Machism as the most typical variety of positivism in general, which had until then portrayed itself as the only philosophy having the supposed right to lay down the law in the name of 20th century natural science, in the name of modern science. This blow proved to be so crushing to the Machists because it was unexpected: the empirio-critics had grown too accustomed to considering that they had a monopoly on the philosophical problems of natural science. They did not expect Lenin’s blow to come from this direction. But the blow proved to be not only well-aimed, but irrefutable.
The chief advantage of Lenin’s criticism of the Russian Machists over Plekhanov’s consisted of the fact that while Lenin agreed with Plekhanov in his assessment of Machism, he tried to examine the roots of this philosophy. That is, he struck his blow not at the effects, but at the causes. He did not proceed to pluck off the tops of the flowers; he tore out the roots. This is the main significance of Lenin’s chapter about the ‘revolution in natural science’. And in this lies the fundamental and timely instructiveness of Lenin’s method of struggle against idealism for us today.
Let us try to briefly formulate the main principles in Lenin’s struggle against the Russian Machists, which show how this struggle radically differs from Plekhanov’s defence of materialism.
... One cannot take up any of the writings of the Machists or about Machism without encountering pretentious reference to the new physics, which is said to have refuted materialism, and so on and so forth. Whether these assertions are well-founded is another question, but the connection between the new physics, or rather a definite school of the new physics, and Machism and other varieties of modern idealist philosophy is beyond doubt. To analyse Machism and at the same time to ignore this connection – as Plekhanov does, is to scoff at the spirit of dialectical materialism, i.e., to sacrifice the method of Engels to the letter of Engels.
This ‘scoffing at the spirit of dialectical materialism’ by Plekhanov is shown by the fact that during the debate with the Machists, because of a number of considerations (among them Lenin noted the desire to inflict moral and political damage on the Bolsheviks by portraying ‘Bogdanovism’ as the philosophy of Bolshevism) he limited his task to demonstrating that the philosophy of dialectical materialism and Bogdanov’s philosophy are two different things. He set out to prove that dialectics and materialism are integral components of Marxism and by no means the verbal atavism of Hegelian and Feuerbachian philosophy, as Bogdanov’s supporters had tried to suggest to the reader.
Plekhanov fulfilled this task with serious knowledge of the matter. He contrasted the system of the philosophical (epistemological) views of Marx and Engels with the system of Bogdanov’s psychophysiological phraseology and demonstrated that these were different things which had nothing in common. There was either Marxism, which is inconceivable and impossible without dialectical materialist philosophy, without materialist epistemology and dialectical logic, or there was the epistemology and logic of Machism, which are fundamentally hostile to Marxism and destructive to it – this was the truth which Plekhanov demonstrated, and here Lenin was in complete solidarity with him.
But the limited character of the task which Plekhanov assigned himself resulted in weakening his argumentation against the Machists. And they lost no time in exploiting this weakness. That is: in demonstrating the fundamental incompatibility of the Machists’ epistemology with the genuine understanding of philosophical problems by Marx and Engels, Plekhanov naturally chose first of all to contrast the philosophical texts of one side with the other, ‘the letter of Engels and Marx’ with the ‘letter of Bogdanov’. He made such a comparison in a masterful fashion, proving to the reader, as surely as two times two makes four, that here there was the inexorable alternative; either / or.
For some time, the followers of Bogdanov did not even argue with this proof. More than that, they saw perfectly well themselves, and openly admitted that the ‘letter’ of their philosophical constructions differed from everything Marx and Engels had said and written about philosophy, materialism and dialectics. Moreover, they looked upon this as their chief virtue and advantage over the Plekhanov ‘school’. He, they would say, stubbornly clings to the ‘letter’, to every utterance from Marx and Engels, while we are ‘creatively developing’ the philosophy of Marxism. We will bring it into agreement and correspondence with the latest successes and achievements of natural science.
And the more clearly it was that Plekhanov demonstrated the incompatibility of their innovations with the system of philosophical views of Marx and Engels, the louder they talked about the conservatism and dogmatism of Plekhanov’s attitude towards the ‘letter’ of the classics, about Plekhanov’s attempts to deliver up propositions formulated at a different time and under different conditions as eternal truths, as absolutes, or as fetishes, appropriate for all times and for any circumstances.
This argument was able to make an impression upon many people, especially since, in the area of the sharpest problems of the socio-political plane, Plekhanov by 1905 had actually already begun to display (and the later it was, the more this showed) a definite conservatism, a tendency to freeze the development of Marxist thought. This circumstance gave the Machists cause to declaim about how Plekhanov was sacrificing to the ‘letter’ of the philosophy of the classics the true essence, the actual logic of their thought.
The argument raged, therefore, not over the concrete positions or statements of Marx and Engels, but over the method of thinking with the aid of which they extracted, elaborated, formulated and derived the scientific truths of the communist world view and scientific socialism.
Was this mode (method) of scientific thinking and scientific investigation materialistic dialectics? Or was it actually something else? The Machists were convinced, and tried to convince others, that all the statements and all the utterances of Marx and Engels were simply the phraseological (purely verbal, purely terminological and formal) heritage of that philosophical tradition, in the atmosphere of which was formulated the scientific thought of the classics, and nothing more. And the scientific method which was used, they said, during the creation of the theory of scientific socialism, including most of all its foundation – the political economy of Marxism, Capital – has nothing in common, and never has had anything in common, they would say, with discussions about materialist dialectics. This, they said, is the most ‘common’ scientific method, which is used to obtain results by any modern science, and particularly, it goes without saying, by physics.
It is easier and most expedient (most ‘economical’) to learn from this ‘genuinely scientific’ method from modern physics, or, more concretely, from Ernst Mach, one of its acknowledged leaders. They insisted that Mach discloses in his writings the secrets of the ‘genuine’ method of thinking of modern science. At the same time he reveals the ‘truly scientific’ aspects of the method of thinking of Capital’s author, cleansed of the rubbish of the antiquated Hegelian phraseology and terminology.
It was this aspect of the argumentation of the Machists in the Social-Democracy that was not touched upon by Plekhanov’s mode of criticism. And it was precisely for this reason that Plekhanov’s attack on Machism fell short of its goal.
Indeed, if the mode (method) of thinking based on Mach’s theory of knowledge is actually the method which modern physics has used to obtain all its successes and achievements, then what difference does it make whether it is called materialist or idealist? In other words, if the epistemology and logic of Mach-Bogdanov is actually the theory of knowledge and logic of modern science, modern physics, mathematics, and so forth, then Bogdanov is essentially correct as opposed to Plekhanov, although he differs from the ‘letter of Engels’ which is only defended by Plekhanov.
This then was the heart of the argument. And it was precisely here that Plekhanov proved to be not at his best. With absolute precision he had classified Machist philosophy as idealist. He showed how it was therefore reactionary in its socio-political consequences, insofar as ‘bourgeois theoretical reaction, which is now wreaking genuine havoc in the ranks of our leading intelligentsia, occurs in our midst under the banner of philosophical idealism ...’ Moreover, ‘we are threatened with particular harm by those philosophical doctrines which are idealist in all their essence, but which at the same time pass themselves off as the latest word in natural science ...’
Plekhanov was, of course, correct, that they only presented themselves ‘as the last word in natural science’ without actually having anything in common with it at all. But this needed to be demonstrated. To simply say that they had no right to be speaking in the name of modern natural science and to then place a period, without even trying to expose this pretension, meant, under the conditions of that time, the making of an unforgivable concession to his opponent. The effort of the Machists to portray themselves as the spokesmen of the ‘spirit’ of modern natural science was, of course, an illusion, self-deception, and demagogy of the purest sort. But it was, alas, an illusion which was far from groundless. It was an illusion of the same kind as other naturalistic illusions of bourgeois consciousness. It was an objectively conditional semblance, or appearance, as a result of which the purely social (that is, what historically comes into existence and historically passes away) properties of things were taken for their natural (and therefore eternal) qualities and for the definitions of the things themselves – for their scientific characteristics.
The Machists not only portrayed their teachings ‘as the last word in natural science’, they unfortunately took as the basis for similar illusions the numerous utterances of the natural scientists themselves, including even the greatest scientists; they based themselves on those philosophically helpless conclusions which the scientists had drawn from their own discoveries.
The real source of nourishment for ‘Bogdanovism’ as one of the many varieties of idealism was the philosophical incompetence of many representatives of modern science, their confusion when faced with the difficult philosophical problems which arise before them in the course of their work.
In the given instance this confusion emerged in the form of a lack of knowledge about materialist dialectics, i.e. about the actual logic and theory of knowledge of modern materialism, and about modern scientific cognition of the surrounding world. This was accompanied by a false conception of materialist dialectics as idealist philosophical speculation. As was perfectly well shown in Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, ignorance of dialectics was the catastrophe leading to the degeneration of the spontaneous materialism of natural scientists – their ‘natural’ epistemological position – into the most vulgar and reactionary varieties of idealism and clericalism, which was diligently encouraged by professional philosophers, the conscious or spontaneous allies of clericalism.
Hence Lenin derived his entire subsequent strategy of many years regarding the majority of scientists: stubborn, consistent work to win them over to his side. It meant then and means today – to win them to the side of dialectical materialism, to the side of the materialist dialectics. Otherwise it is impossible to overcome idealism, the idealistically reactionary interpretation of the successes and achievements of modern science and technology.
Until the majority of scientists understands and is able to consciously apply materialist dialectics as the logic and theory of knowledge in their own field, idealism will grow out of the development of natural science itself. The credit and trust of people will be used by those very reactionary idealist schools, one of which is ‘Bogdanovism’.
The strength of Machist (and more widely – positivist) idealist philosophy lies in the philosophical weakness of many modern scientists. It was Lenin who found the courage to tell them this truth which they found so unpleasant, to say it directly, without any diplomacy, while perfectly well recognising that this bitter truth might wound their self-esteem. To publicly make such a diagnosis required quite a bit of moral courage: especially to tell the greatest modern day scientists to their face that they had not yet learned how to think in a truly scientific manner when it came to the theory of knowledge and to logic!
But the central point was not only Lenin’s personal moral courage, but also the intellectual courage which was unquestionably demanded by the principles of the philosophy which he defended on every page of Materialism and Empirio-Criticism. He proceeded from the fact that what people find to be the most bitter and unpleasant truth is in the long run more ‘useful’ for them than the most pleasant and flattering lie and falsehood. He was committed to this view by materialism itself.
Consistent materialism, i.e. the essential and consciously thought-out philosophical foundations of the Marxist world view, stubbornly requires a critical attitude toward everything that is said and written in the name of modern natural science; including statements by its greatest authorities, the representatives of the ‘new physics’.
In 1908 there were, for instance, E. Mach and H. Poincare – stars of the first magnitude in the heavens of theoretical physics of that day.
It was about them, and not about the petty muddlers in science, that Lenin felt it was necessary to say:
Not a single one of these professors, who are capable of making very valuable contributions in the special fields of chemistry, history or physics, can be trusted one iota when it comes to philosophy. Why? For the same reason that not a single professor of political economy, who may be capable of very valuable contributions in the field of factual and specialised investigations, can be trusted one iota when it comes to the general theory of political economy. For in modern society the latter is as much a partisan science as is epistemology.
Actually, not a single word of theirs can be trusted when it comes to the theory of knowledge, logic, or the method of scientific thinking, for they professionally do not know this field and therefore they become confused, and stagger at every step, continually stumbling into idealism, i.e., into a philosophical position which is essentially anti-scientific and hostile to science in general, including their own specialised science. And even under these conditions they continue to be leading theoreticians in their own, specialised field of thought.
A paradox? Yes, the same type of paradox which fills the pages of history in general and the history of science in particular. And on the basis of a careful philosophical and theoretical analysis Lenin shows the essence of this paradox. He shows how such an unnatural combination becomes possible. The combination of scientific thinking which is realised by scientists who are physicists and specialists (chemists, biologists, mathematicians, and others) with an inadequate awareness or false knowledge of the essence of their work, an anti-scientific (‘pseudo-scientific’) understanding of the actual laws of their own thinking, i.e. of those objective laws of cognition to which are finally subordinated – whether individual scientists want it that way or not, whether they are conscious of it or not – the movement both of cognition as a whole and in its separate fields.
In actual fact, scientists are continually and at every step thinking in defiance of the logic and theory of knowledge which they consciously profess, for they are compelled to do this by the powerful pressure of the accumulation of facts and of the indisputable authority of experimental data i.e. by the force and power of the fully material conditions of thought and its laws. People who are really engaged in the process of cognising nature (including Mach, Duhem, Pearson and others) continuously are forced to execute the type of mental moves and ‘operations with concepts’ which, from the standpoint of the logic and theory of knowledge that they consciously profess, are not only inexplicable, but quite simply not according to the law, or even against the law.
According to materialism, i.e. the clear and consistent materialist theory of knowledge, such situations present nothing enigmatic. They only graphically demonstrate that without exception, all progress, evolution and revolutions which occur within consciousness (within social consciousness), are determined and explained by the fact that this consciousness – despite all the illusions which it can create on this account – is forced in its own development to subordinate itself, as if to a higher authority, to the power of ‘Mister Fact’. Or to be more precise, to that concrete accumulation of facts, independent of consciousness (psyche, spirit, thinking, however they are further described in detail) and existing outside of it, which in the language of philosophy is called the material world or, for the sake of brevity, simply matter.
In reality, while research is actually being carried out, the thinking of any serious scientist is governed by precisely this epistemological orientation and remains scientific only as long as it is actually governed by it. Lenin was therefore fully justified in insisting upon the fact that natural science has adopted the standpoint of the materialist theory of knowledge in the past and continues to do so today.
Another matter is the verbal (terminological) form which different scientists give to the fundamental principles of their work. For a whole variety of reasons this verbal form now and then proves to be philosophically inexact, inadequate or incorrect. And philosophical idealism immediately clings to this kind of verbal imprecision.
Philosophical materialism (the materialist theory of knowledge, logic which is materially understood) is orientated toward a strict, critical differentiation between what scientists actually do in their specialised fields and how they speak and write about it. Idealism, on the other hand (and this is especially characteristic of 20th century positivism), is always orientated only toward the words and utterances of scientists, as the ‘initial data’ of their specialised analysis and their philosophical work.
Idealists concentrate, of course, not just upon any words, but upon those which can best be used to reinforce the idealist reconstructions of the real process of cognising nature and to interpret this process in an idealist way. As a result, those assertions which, in the mouths of the scientists themselves, were terminologically incorrect descriptions of real events in the path of cognition, are presented as the precise expression of their essence and as conclusions drawn from natural science.
And such assertions are no rarity, especially since the idealist-positivists are precisely engaged in trying to arm natural scientists with philosophically inexact, muddled and incorrect terminology, given out as the last word in modern philosophy. It becomes a closed circle. Thus the image is created that it is natural science which refutes both materialism and dialectics, while the ‘philosophy of natural science’ (as positivism prefers to call itself) is simply and unpretentiously summing up the true epistemological positions of natural science.
To create this image the positivists instil in scientists a muddled conception both of matter and of consciousness. Meanwhile they try to discredit the simple, clear and carefully considered definitions of the primary concepts of materialist philosophy with labels that are primitive, naive, non-heuristic and antiquated.
As a result, 20th century positivists have managed to achieve considerable success insofar as the whole environment in which the majority of scientists for the time being live and work, ‘estranges them from Marx and Engels and throws them into the embrace of vulgar official philosophy’. Hence, ‘the most outstanding theoreticians are handicapped by a complete ignorance of dialectics’.
These words of Lenin’s which were spoken more than 70 years ago remain absolutely true even today in relation to the capitalist world and the situation of the scientist in it.
Moreover, the assault of bourgeois ideology on the minds of scientists, which had as its basic goal then and still has it now the discrediting of materialism and dialectics, has nowadays become much more concentrated, much more persistent and much more refined in its methods.
Modern positivism has elevated the creation of ever newer and more artificial terms to such an art, that the Machism of Bogdanov’s times seems positively dilettantish in this regard. In 1908 this style had just barely come into vogue and it had only managed to yield the first, rather timid shoots in the field of positivist thought, but Lenin already felt that it was necessary to have done with it, for this was no innocent linguistic amusement or some simple play with words, but something far worse. He saw in it the tendency to create a special jargon in which it was convenient and easy to express patently idealist lies in such a verbal form that you could not immediately recognise them.
Such a jargon was created and ‘perfected’ in a very simple manner – by studiously imitating the specialised language of one or another of the natural sciences: either physics or mathematics or biology. This was accomplished by imitating the external peculiarities of the language of scientists – often by simply borrowing from them not only separate terms but whole blocks of words which slowly took on a different meaning. The philosophical (i.e. epistemological) constructions of the positivists would therefore appear to be quite understandable to the scientist, insofar as the available concepts of natural scientists, the expressions to which he was accustomed, served as the basic material here as well.
The very word ‘element’ – a key word in Machism – has such an origin. Indeed, if a physicist or chemist in Mach’s times were told straightforwardly: your field of science is actually involved in investigating ‘complexes of your sensations’, he would not accept this wisdom as the expression of the essence of his work. Or even more so as a conclusion drawn from his own research. When, however, he is told that he is investigating ‘complexes of elements’ (even though this is secretly understood to be sensations), he immediately accepts this phrase as a matter of course, since he has long since grown accustomed to using the word ‘element’ to mean hydrogen or radium, the electron or the atom. He accepts the language of this ‘clear’ and flattering philosophy, grows accustomed to it, and continues to speak in it even when he is no longer discussing hydrogen or the electron, but the process of the scientific cognition of hydrogen or the electron.
It was precisely in this manner that the lamentably famous expression arose, that ‘matter has disappeared’. The first to use this phrase was a physicist, not a philosopher. Why? Following what logic? The logic was very simple. First of all the ‘philosophy of natural science’ instilled in him its understanding of the word ‘matter’, after investing it with the meaning borrowed from modern physics, i.e. after placing an equals sign between matter and the available conceptions of the physicists.
The physicist took a step forward and said farewell to his previous conceptions for the sake of new ones. In the language which he had been taught by the ‘philosophy of natural science’, this was expressed with absolute logic in the following way: he said farewell to the concept of matter. The progress of the physicist’s knowledge had ‘refuted’ the concept of matter, and matter had disappeared, for what had been discovered in place of the former could no longer be called matter.
Such a phrase could not come from the mouth of a physicist who knew the correct, but not the positivist, definition of matter. But from a physicist who agreed with the ‘positivist-scientific’ definition of matter, it would not only be natural, but even formally correct.
But if when used by the physicist this phrase was an inadequate verbal formulation of an actual fact – of a real step forward on the path of cognising physical reality (the physicist here had simply used the word ‘matter’ out of place) when used by the philosopher-idealist the phrase takes on a very different meaning. From the inexact expression of a real fact it has become transformed into the ‘exact’ expression of a state of things which does not exist and which has been dreamed up by idealists.
In such a situation (or any like it) the task of the philosopher-Marxist, according to Lenin, consists in bringing to light the real fact which is poorly and unclearly expressed in the words of the scientist, and expressing it in philosophically correct and epistemologically irreproachable language. This means making this fact philosophically clear for the scientist himself and helping him to realise this fact correctly. Lenin’s attitude was completely different toward the specialist-philosopher who consciously gambled on the carelessness and gullibility of the scientist-non-philosopher, and on his lack of knowledge in the field of epistemology. Here the tone of the conversation was something else.
To brand the scientist as an idealist is just as mean and stupid as to make the worthless (and damaging for the revolution) public indictment of an illiterate peasant who is praying that God grant him rain, by calling him an ideological accomplice of the petty-bourgeois bureaucratic order and an ideologist of reaction. With a priest, it is a different matter. And not the wretched little village priest who shares the peasants’ naive beliefs, but the educated priest who knows Latin, the writings of Thomas Aquinas, and even Kant, who is the professional enemy of materialism and the revolution, living as a parasite on ignorance and superstition.
What remains highly instructive to this day is Lenin’s ability to draw a clear boundary line between philosophically incorrect expressions which are continually found among the greatest scientists, and the way which these expressions are used in the works of the positivists.
If there were no such expressions among the natural scientists, the idealists would find it very difficult to refer to science. But as long as these instances are not rare, idealism will have a formal and verbal basis for portraying itself as the philosophy of modern natural science, the philosophy of 20th century science. ‘The idealist philosophers,’ writes Lenin, ‘pick up on the slightest mistake, the slightest confusion in the expressions of the great scientists, in order to justify their own renovated defence of fideism.
Thus the slightest carelessness on the part of the scientist in using specialised philosophical ‘words’ (which immediately causes no particular harm to the course of scientific reasoning, that is why the natural scientist is not inclined to regard this too seriously), potentially conceals within itself great harm even for natural science.
While he is inclined to search for the rational kernel even in such phrases of the natural scientists as ‘matter has disappeared’, i.e. to bring to light those real facts which stand behind them, Lenin does not spare similar expressions when they are repeated from the philosophical chair. Here he never looks for the rational kernel, no matter how tiny it may be. With Mach the philosopher it is a different question than with Mach the physicist. For this very reason Lenin generally says nothing about the merits or deficiencies of Mach’s purely physical views – physics and the physicists have to pass judgement here. But Mach as the author of Analysis of Sensations and Knowledge and Error deserves the most severe judgement on the basis of an entirely different set of laws.
But if Mach somehow remains under these conditions a good physicist, his philosophical disciples have no relationship with physics or with any other field of actual scientific cognition. Whatever physics they know is only through its idealistically distorted image in the crooked mirror of Mach’s philosophy, only from the words of Mach himself and his adherents who blindly and slavishly believe in his words. By fatally linking all philosophical concepts with the available (and therefore, naturally, transitory) , state of scientific knowledge, positivism turns these concepts into obstacles which the development of science must sweep to the wayside.
Such an attitude toward philosophical concepts is organically linked to the positivist conception of philosophy itself, of its subject, role, and function in scientific understanding. According to these notions, ‘modern’ philosophy – as distinguished from the former, ‘metaphysical’ philosophy – is nothing but the generalised summation, aided by hindsight, of everything that has been achieved by the labours of the other sciences; it is the accumulation of results which have been brought together in one aggregate whole. It is the abstractly expressed current state of scientific knowledge, nothing more, a ‘general theory of being’. This is the self-same ‘scientific monism’ which was dealt with earlier and which Lenin so ruthlessly criticised!
Listen to this: ‘ ... This law of social economy is not only the principle of the internal unity of social science (can you make anything of this, reader?), but also the connecting link between social theory and the general theory of being’ ...
Well, well, here we have the ‘general theory of being’ discovered anew by S. Suvorov, after it has already been discovered many times and in the most varied forms by numerous representatives of scholastic philosophy. We congratulate the Russian Machists on this new ‘general theory of being’! Let us hope that their next work will be entirely devoted to the substantiation and development of this great discovery!
Characteristic of all the Russian Machists, by the very nature of the problem, is the desire to present a unified picture of being, or, to use the words of S. Suvorov, ‘a general theory of being’, which is constructed exclusively out if the facts of modern science and the data of scientific experimentation, and which is carefully cleansed of all vestiges of the old, ‘unscientific’ and ‘pre-scientific’ philosophy. ‘Only when we resolve, in final form, the task,’ writes Berman, ‘of working out the criticism by which we could distinguish scientific truth from error, will we be able to get to work resolving the problems which comprise the true object of philosophy, the problem of what the world is as a whole’.
It was for the sake of carrying out an assignment of this sort that the Machists undertook a review of the Marxist resolution of the problem concerning this very same ‘criterion’. But such a review was simply epistemological propaedeutics, and its goal was the creation of a ‘general theory of being’, a unified picture of being, and a theory about what the world is as a whole.
Epistemology for them was only a means, an instrument or a tool for constructing a picture of the world as a whole. This tool must be made in advance and sharpened, since they all believe that no such instrument exists as a part of Marxism. Dialectics is not taken by these people to be such an instrument. Here, they say, is where not only Marx and Engels, but all their disciples, made their mistake. ‘Isn’t it strange that with not only a theory of dialectics which is fully thought out in the scientific sense, but even a somewhat precise basis for those ideas which taken together they call dialectics’, Berman continues to express his view.
Analogous reasoning about the subject of philosophy in A. Rey’s book provokes sharp epithets on Lenin’s part. Here is the path of this reasoning: ‘Why should not philosophy, therefore, in the same way, be a general synthesis of all scientific knowledge, an effort to represent the unknown as a function of the known, in order to aid in discovering it and keep the scientific spirit in its true orientation?’ (Next to this passage in the margins of the book stands the expressive: “blagueur!”, i.e. braggart, liar). ‘It would differ from science only in the greater generality of the hypothesis; instead of being the theory of a group of isolated and very circumscribed facts, philosophical theory would be the theory of the totality of the facts that nature presents us with, the system of nature, as it used to be called in the 18th century, or at any rate a direct contribution to a theory of this kind’. (Next to these words, underlined by Lenin, stands the word: “fool!”).
His evaluation is so angry because Lenin sees all too clearly: Rey’s ideas about the subject and tasks of philosophy have as their source the same ‘classic’ as the ideas of Bogdanov. Both are a rehash of the axioms of Mach and Avenarius.
Such an understanding of the tasks of philosophy naturally condemns it to the simple summing up of the results obtained by natural science. Lenin felt that it was very important and necessary to inform the reader about the latest scientific facts in physics and chemistry, about the structure of matter, i.e. to offer him precisely that generalised compendium of all the latest scientific knowledge and all the modern achievements of science and technology. Lenin, however, neither considered nor called this understanding philosophy. Moreover, he was immediately upset when it was offered in place of the philosophy of Marxism, and even under the title of the ‘latest’ philosophy.
Lenin was absolutely clear and unequivocal when he raised the questions about the relationship between the ‘form’ of materialism and its ‘essence’, and about the inadmissibility of identifying the former with the latter. The ‘form’ of materialism is made up of those concrete scientific ideas about the structure of matter (about ‘the physical world’, about ‘atoms and electrons’) and those natural-philosophical generalisations of these ideas, which inevitably prove to be historically limited, changeable, and subject to reconsideration by natural science itself. The ‘essence’ of materialism consists of the recognition of objective reality existing independently of human cognition and reflected by it. The creative development of dialectical materialism on the basis of the philosophical conclusions drawn from the latest scientific discoveries’ Lenin sees neither the revision of the ‘essence’ itself, nor in the perpetuation of scientists’ ideas about nature and about ‘the physical world’ aided by natural-philosophical generalisations, but in deepening our understanding of ‘the relationship of cognition to the physical world’, which is tied to new ideas about nature. The dialectical understanding of the relationship between the ‘form’ and ‘essence’ of materialism, and between ‘ontology’ and ‘epistemology’ constitutes the ‘spirit of dialectical materialism’.
‘Hence,’ writes Lenin in summing up the genuinely scientific interpretation of the question of creatively developing dialectical materialism, ‘a revision of the “form” of Engels’ materialism, a revision of his natural-philosophical propositions is not only “revisionism”, in the accepted meaning of the term, but, on the contrary, is an essential requirement of Marxism. We criticise the Machists not for making such a revision, but for their purely revisionist trick of betraying the essence of materialism under the guise of criticising its form ...’
While mercilessly castigating Bogdanov’s and Suvorov’s conception of philosophy, Lenin consistently and at every point counterposes to it the conception which had crystallised in the works of Marx and Engels, and develops this conception further. Philosophy, in the system of the Marxist (dialectical materialist) world view, exists and develops by no means for the sake of constructing global or cosmic systems of abstractions in which each and every trace of difference or contradiction disappears. Just the opposite is the case. It exists for the truly scientific and concrete investigation of the problems of science and life, for the genuine augmentation of our knowledge of history and nature. In the system of views of Marx and Engels philosophy serves such a concrete cognition of nature and history. Here universality and concreteness are not excluded, but presuppose each other.
The materialism of this philosophy is contained in the way it orients scientific thinking towards an ever more precise understanding of the phenomena of nature and history in all their objectivity and concreteness, with all their contradictions (i.e. with all their dialectical characteristics), and with all their independence from the will and consciousness of people, or from the specific structure of their body, their brain, their sense organs, their language or any other subjective peculiarities. ‘Philosophy,’ however, in its Machist and Bogdanovian variation gives scientific thinking precisely the opposite orientation. It directs man’s thinking toward the creation of the ‘utmost abstractions’ in whose ‘neutral’ embrace all differences, all contradictions, and all opposites have died out. This is direct evidence of the idealism of its epistemological axioms. Indeed, ‘elements of the world’, ‘logical frameworks’, ‘abstract objects’, ‘systems in general’, ‘God’ and ‘the absolute spirit’ – all these are only pseudonyms concealing one and the same thing: the idealistically mystified consciousness of man.
The main, link in the entire strategy of the Machists’ campaign against the philosophy of Marxism consisted of the attempt to sever the living unity between materialist dialectics as a theory of development and as a theory of knowledge and logic, first by isolating ‘ontology’ from ‘epistemology’, and then by counterposing one to the other, thereby destroying the essence of dialectics as a philosophical science. The design was simple: having made such a separation it would be easiest of all to identify the materialist world outlook with any sort of concrete and historically limited scientific ‘picture of the world’, with the ‘physical’, and then ascribe the flaws and errors of this ‘ontology’ to all materialism. On the other hand, the same operation could be performed with materialist epistemology by identifying it with whatever was the latest scientific conception of the ‘psychical’. By identifying philosophy as the generalised summation of scientific facts, claims could be made that natural science itself gives birth to idealism. To destroy what distinguishes philosophy, its system of concepts and its approach to phenomena, meant to ascribe idealism to natural science itself. Lenin unmasked these schemes by giving a clear demonstration of what constitutes ‘the fundamental materialist spirit’ of modern natural science, which gives birth to dialectical materialism.
According to Lenin, the latest results of science, in themselves, or the ‘positive facts’, as such, are by no means subject to philosophical generalisation (and consequently, to inclusion in the system of philosophical knowledge). Rather what is subject to philosophical generalisation is the development of scientific knowledge, the dialectical process of the ever more profound, all-sided and concrete comprehension of the dialectical processes of the material world, so that it cannot be excluded that even tomorrow natural science itself will re-evaluate its results in a ‘negative’ manner. While interpreting the revolution in natural science from the standpoint of dialectical materialist philosophy, Lenin draws generalised conclusions about how the objective content of scientific knowledge can be fixed and evaluated only from the standpoint of the dialectical materialist theory of knowledge which reveals the dialectics of objective, absolute and relative truth. He shows how ‘ontology’ is just as inseparably connected with ‘epistemology’, as the categories expressing the dialectical nature of truth are connected with objective dialectics. To include the ‘negative’ in the conception of the ‘positive’, without losing the unity of opposites (and this is what constitutes dialectics) is impossible without an ‘epistemological’ approach to the ‘ontology’ of scientific knowledge. Genuinely scientific philosophical generalisation must consist, according to Lenin, of the ‘dialectical reworking’ of the entire history of the development of cognition and practical activity, and of the interpretation of the achievements of science in the context of its integral historical development. From such a position Lenin broached the question of the relationship between philosophy and natural science. The Machists, however, were precisely counting on discrediting materialism by tearing its true content out of this historical context.
From an analogous position, positivism looks upon the theory of knowledge (epistemology). Its scheme is to counterpose epistemology as a ‘strict and exact science’ to materialist dialectics as a philosophical science, and then to criticise dialectics in the light of such an ‘epistemology’. This plan is even reflected in the title of Berman’s book, Dialectics in the Light of the Modern Theory of Knowledge. In essence, however, this is not a theory of knowledge at all, but once again the accumulation of ‘the latest facts’ from research in psychology, psychophysiology, the physiology of the sense organs, and so forth. The interpretation and application of these facts in isolation from ‘ontology’, from the universal laws of development of nature and society, made it possible to counterpose ‘epistemology’ to dialectics.
Lenin clearly shows the incompatibility of the scholastic ‘epistemology’ of the Machists with the genuinely-scientific theory of knowledge – with the theory of the investigation of the real world by actual man (and not the fictitious ‘epistemological subject’) and with the actual logic of the development of science. And if the theory of knowledge and logic (the theory of thinking) are understood in a dialectical materialist way, then there is no reason to fear that consistently advancing the idea of the concurrence of dialectics, logic and the theory of knowledge will lead to ‘an underestimation of the significance of philosophy as a world view’ or of its ‘ontological aspect’. This is correctly feared by those who understand epistemology and logic to be sciences which are locked into a study of the facts of consciousness or the ‘phenomena of consciousness as such’ (regardless of whether this is individual or ‘collectively organised’ consciousness), and which direct their attention at the external world only insofar as it is already represented in this consciousness.
At the beginning of the century, Lenin was the only Marxist who understood and appreciated the enormous philosophical significance of dialectics as epistemology and logic. This was a significance which was neither understood nor appreciated at that time by either Kautsky or Plekhanov, not to mention other Marxists.
Here there is an inexorable choice. Either materialist dialectics is understood (and developed) in this plan as the logic and theory of man’s knowledge of the material world, and as the theory of its reflection in the historically developing consciousness of both individual man and the human race, or it is inevitably transformed into a ‘sum of examples’ which are borrowed (often in an absolutely uncritical way) from the most varied fields of knowledge and which only illustrate ready-made and previously-known, universal formulae of dialectics ‘in general’.
Such a method is still good enough for the popularisation of general formulae, but for their creative development – it is not. It fails to deepen by one millimetre either the comprehension of those general formulae of dialectics which are ‘confirmed’ by examples (even the most modern), or the comprehension of those examples which are used for the ‘confirmation’. Such a procedure benefits neither philosophy nor natural science. But it does do harm since it creates and nourishes the illusion that philosophy is not a science, but simply the abstract knocking together of ready-made, concrete scientific facts which are uncritically retold in an abstractly philosophical language, and nothing more. But by the same token, materialist dialectics itself is reinterpreted (or actually misinterpreted) in a typically positivist manner. And insofar as the natural scientist does not need dialectics of this type, in his eyes it is transformed into empty word-spinning, into abstract fiction, or into the subsuming of whatever one likes under abstract and universal schemas. This of course discredits philosophy in the eyes of the natural scientist, teaches him to look upon it with disdain and condescension, and thereby undermines Lenin’s idea about the alliance of dialectical materialist philosophy with natural science.
Therefore the transformation of materialist philosophy (of dialectics) into a ‘sum of examples’ contradicts the interests of such an alliance and, as the saying goes, ‘adds grist to the mill’ of positivism.
The alliance of philosophy with natural science, according to the way Lenin thought, can be enduring and voluntary only if it is mutually productive and if it mutually excludes any attempt to dictate or force any ready-made conclusions, both on the part of philosophy and on the part of natural science. Such an alliance for the sake of cognising the world is possible only with Lenin’s conception of philosophy. But the positivist conception immediately pushes both philosophy and natural science into a mode of dictating to each other, into mutually incompetent hectoring and sentences without appeal. When conceived of as a system of absolutely universal truths, philosophy not only has the right but the obligation to bless those scientific theories which formally (i.e. according to their verbal form) agree best of all with its dogmatically fixed formulations. On the other hand it is obligated to fulminate against and prohibit those theories which are poorly in accord with its letter, even though the former may be based on fictitious facts, while the latter may be based on real facts which are well established by experiment and which only suffer from being incorrectly expressed philosophically. Philosophical approval and support are given here to the theoretician who most skilfully uses the terminology and phraseology of the ontology which is accepted at the given time.
The theory of knowledge as Lenin understood it (and as it was understood by Marx and Engels, with whom Lenin is in full agreement when he formulates his views) is by no means the celebrated ‘epistemology’ which was the speciality of Mach, Bogdanov, and others, nor it is the dilettantish rummaging around in the psychophysiology of the brain and sense organs or in the subtleties of the vocabulary or syntax of language; it is a totally different science, with a different subject.
Its real subject is the entire historically (dialectically) developing process of social man’s objective cognition of the material world of both natural and socio-historical phenomena), the process of the reflection of this world in the consciousness of individual man and mankind. The process whose result and goal is objective truth. The process which is realised by billions of people in hundreds of successive generations. The process which at every step is verified by practice, experiment, and facts, which comes into being in the results of the entire totality of the concrete (‘positive’) sciences, and which is materially embodied not only and not even so much in the neuro-physiological mechanism of the brain, but in the form of technology and industry and in the form of the real, social and political conquests consciously made by revolutionary forces under the leadership of their avant-garde – the party.
As far as the positivist conception of the logic of thinking is concerned, the fundamental task is seen as the reconstruction, in general form, of those methods of research which are applied in practice by people connected with the sciences. Such a reconstruction is accomplished primarily according to those descriptions which are accepted as the absolutely precise and adequate portrayal of the logic of scientific development, but which may diverge very far from this logic.
Under the powerful influence of ‘Mr Fact’, scientists continually are thinking not only not in accordance with the accepted rules, but directly in defiance of them, often without realising it themselves or else, after the fact, trying to force a description of their actions under the aegis of one or another cliche which explains nothing. And in those instances where logical cliches clearly will not do, they rely on intuition, or guesswork; on revelation, etc.
A motif of that type – ‘scientists are more aware of how they think’ – distinctly reverberates in Bogdanov’s work, Belief and Science (on V I Ilyin’s book, Materialism and Empirio Criticism), where he tries to defend his philosophical positions from Lenin’s criticism. In it Bogdanov defends his view of philosophy as ‘the impotent attempt’ ‘to connect that which has been broken, to give people a unified and integral outlook of the world, to destroy the partitions which have isolated human experience in locked cells, to fill up the chasms of thought and to erect a bridge reaching from it to being, which is mysterious and threatening in its infinite complexity. It is obviously inconceivable to do all this within the framework of any speciality.’
Proceeding from such ideas about philosophy, Bogdanov counterposes to Lenin’s epistemological analysis only loud declamations, which from the very beginning reject Lenin’s criticism of his positions as incompetent insofar as this criticism, he says, proceeds from ‘the philosophical erudition of the workshop’. Bogdanov does not wish to listen to ‘people, who understand the study of philosophy to be the reading of books, and philosophical work to be the writing of new books of this type on the basis of those which have been read. Marxists must renounce such a naive conception with the least difficulty’, they must ‘know very well that philosophy is an ideology, i.e. “a superstructure”, or something derived, and that it is ridiculous therefore to construct it out of itself. One must begin with an explanation of the “base”, i.e. study the productive forces, which is done by the science of technology and by natural science ...’
‘For this reason,’ continues Bogdanov, ‘a rather well-educated expert “on the productive forces”, i.e. an expert in the field of technology and natural science, is generally fully justified in not considering the arguments of a representative of special philosophical “learning”, because as far as philosophical work is concerned, he is incomparably better prepared than the dusty epistemologist-specialist’.
This, then, is the leitmotif of positivism in its war against materialist dialectics as the genuine epistemology and logic of modern materialism; that is, against Lenin’s understanding of philosophy, its subject, its role and its function in the development of a scientific world outlook.
Bogdanov says this after Lenin has shown, on the basis of the most painstaking analysis, that the Machists’ references to modern natural science are thoroughly false, that positivism has absolutely no right to refer to ‘conclusions drawn from natural science’, that a ‘double falsity pervades all the talk about Mach’s philosophy being “the philosophy of 20th century natural science”, “the recent philosophy of the sciences”, “recent natural-scientific positivism” and so forth ... Firstly, Machism is ideologically connected with only oneschool in one branch of modern natural science,’ which is precisely the so-called ‘new physics’, and only that branch, and therefore it has no right whatsoever to speak in the name of all natural science, and especially in the name of all natural science of the 20th century. ‘Secondly, and this is the main point, what in Machism is connected with this school is not what distinguishes it from all other trends and systems of idealist philosophy, but what it has in common with philosophical idealism in general.’
As far as the above-mentioned school of ‘new physics’ is concerned, to which the Machists refer with certain foundation, in reality it ‘strayed into idealism, mainly because the physicists did not know dialectics’.
We have introduced the principal position of Lenin’s work which retains its critical significance even today, when the defenders of neo-positivism are also setting up their gnoseology (epistemology) and logic, and like the Machists at the beginning of the century, are leaning on the epistemologically inexact expressions of various representatives of the latest physics and mathematics.
Yes, and today the source of such imprecision remains the same – ignorance of materialist dialectics as the logic and theory of knowledge of contemporary materialism, the materialism of Marx, Engels and Lenin.
Yes, and today ‘the idealist philosophers seize on the minutest error, the slightest vagueness of expression on the part of famous scientists in order to justify their refurbished defence of fideism.’
In 1908 they searched for and seized upon such ‘vagueness of expression’ on the part of H. Hertz. Now they are just as diligently seizing upon sentences they find useful from Einstein, Bohr, Born, Heisenberg, Schrödinger, and Wiener, and they are just as diligently suppressing their other statements which speak in favour of both materialism and dialectics.
No Marxist philosopher who is writing books criticising today’s positivism can ignore this particular circumstance. This criticism only proves to be effective when it is based on an analysis of the actual state of things in contemporary natural science: in quantum mechanics, cybernetics, mathematics, and so forth. And not on the utterances of the self-same physicists, mathematicians and cyberneticists regarding the methods of thinking employed by them in their specialised fields.
In order to equal Lenin, and not Bogdanov, then it is necessary not to re-examine materialist dialectics ‘in the light of the latest achievements of natural science and technology’, but, on the contrary, to critically analyse the logic of comprehending those contradictions, the objectively effective resolution of which leads to its latest achievements. And such an analysis is possible only in the light of a clearly, strictly and consistently applied materialist dialectics as the logic and theory of knowledge of modern materialism.
Whenever anyone begins to ‘creatively develop’ logic and the theory of knowledge in the light of completely uncritically accepted statements by representatives of science and technology, then he turns away from the road of Lenin on to the crooked pathway of Bogdanov.
It was precisely as a result of an uncritical attitude toward what was said at the beginning of the century in the name of modern natural science and in the name of the ‘new physics’, that Bogdanov and his philosophical friends fell into the most primitive subjective idealism: ‘As in philosophy, so in physics, our Machists slavishly follow the fashion, and are unable from their own, Marxist, standpoint to give a general survey of particular currents and to judge the place they occupy.’
It was the inability to make an independent, Marxist, i.e. dialectical-materialist, epistemological analysis of modern changes in the body of knowledge of physics, in its theoretical part, the inability to see behind the physicist’s statement ‘matter has disappeared’ the real fact, the real change in the concepts of physics, which is, philosophically, incorrectly expressed, and by no means the a priori predilection of Bogdanov and others for philosophical idealism which led them into the camp of reaction and clericalism (which Lenin was forced to call ‘fideism’ out of censorship considerations). The inability to think in a dialectical way was one of the main reasons why Bogdanov, as representative of the ‘new physics’, slipped into idealism.
Lenin insistently demonstrated the most important truth: in our time, a time of abrupt revolutionary changes (both in politics and in natural science), without dialectics, i.e. without the ability to think dialectically, it is impossible to hold on to the positions of materialism. Even with a subjective loathing toward clericalism, i.e. toward idealism and reaction, which was characteristic, undoubtedly, of Bogdanov. ‘Bogdanov personally,’ – wrote Lenin – ‘is a sworn enemy of reaction in general and of bourgeois reaction in particular.’
Without dialectics, materialism invariably proves to be not the victor (or a militant), but the vanquished, i.e. it inevitably suffers a defeat in the war with idealism, Lenin repeats a bit later in his philosophical testament, the article ‘On the Significance of Militant Materialism’. This is a fundamental idea with Lenin. Moreover, this idea is not simply stated in the form of a thesis, but proven by a meticulous analysis of the crisis-ridden state of affairs in physics, and by a meticulous, critical analysis of those concepts, the non-dialectical explanation of which led to ‘the slipping of the new physics into idealism’.
Among them belongs the principle (concept) of the relativity of our knowledge, including scientific knowledge, a principle ‘which, in a period of abrupt breakdown of the old theories, is taking a firm hold upon the physicists, and which, if the latter are ignorant of dialectics, inevitably leads to idealism.’
As for ‘philosophers’ who write today as if Lenin was not interested in dialectics when he was working on Materialism and Empirio-Criticism but was simply defending the ‘universal ABC’s of all materialism’, it must be that they just have not carefully read this chapter of his book. Or, what is also possible, they have a conception of dialectics which is essentially different from Lenin’s and about which he speaks not only here, but in all his subsequent works on philosophy including the Philosophical Notebooks and the article ‘On the Significance of Militant Materialism’.
The conception of dialectics as the logic and theory of knowledge of modern materialism, which permeates the entire text of Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, was formulated a bit later – in the Philosophical Notebooks. But ‘implicitly’ it is the essence of Lenin’s position in 1908 as well. Moreover, it is realised in the form of his analysis of concrete phenomena in physics and in philosophy. Lenin reflects upon and writes about materialist dialectics, and not purely and simply materialism throughout the entire book, especially in the chapter about the recent revolution in natural science. Here he investigates in particular, the dialectic contained in the concept of objective truth, the dialectical relationship between the relative and the absolute (the unconditional, which is established definitively and for all time) which constitutes objective knowledge. It is precisely this dialectic which Bogdanov was not able to manage; here he became completely muddled.
Once he had seen the relativity of knowledge – and it was impossible not to see it – he directed all of his enthusiasm toward the unmasking of every absolute, against the fact of the presence in knowledge of a content which indeed depends neither on a particular man nor on mankind, but which is consequently already ‘removed’ out from under the control of those conditions of space and time under which it was derived. It was derived, therefore, not only once, but once and for all. This, then, is what Bogdanov, or any other positivist, is fundamentally incapable of imagining or digesting. And he was incapable of imagining this because of his fundamental rejection of dialectics.
Yes, here there is a strict alternative: either acknowledge that as a result of scientific cognition, a content is obtained which mankind will never be compelled to repudiate, knowledge which we can fully guarantee to be a conquest for all time; or declare that any knowledge obtained by science is a purely subjective construct which the first new fact may well overturn.
In other words, without acknowledging the organic unity and the indissoluble interconnectedness of the relative and absolute within scientific knowledge, you do not have to speak about the objectivity or universality of this knowledge whatsoever. Any possibility of distinguishing truth from a subjective idea is destroyed, the experimental and practical verification of the knowledge is impossible. There is not and cannot be anything objective among our ideas (concepts, or theories).
Bogdanov disassociates himself from what he finds to be the unpleasant dialectic of the relative and the absolute in the development of scientific knowledge by means of diatribes against ‘all absolutes’, although along with these ‘absolutes’ he is forced to fulminate against the thesis of the very possibility of objective truth.
This question by no means centres on whether this or that concrete truth is objective. The central point being discussed is about the fundamental possibility of objective truth in general. According to Bogdanov, any truth is either objective or purely subjective; no third is given. The attempts to search for this third by way of investigating the development of cognition, the transformation of the objective into the subjective and vice versa, is for him, as well as for Berman, only an insidious fabrication of Hegelian speculation. For this reason his conception precludes the very posing of the question about the relationship of the object to the subject and the subject to the object.
Within the framework of his epistemology, the object as such can be discussed only insofar as it already finds representation in the subject (in one or another ‘organised experience’, i.e. in consciousness, in people’s state of mind). In the end, this means only insofar as this object already occurs in speech, in language, in the system of sentences about it, since thinking is understood to be exclusively ‘mute speech’ which is ‘internal’ and ‘inaudible to others’.
Such a conception of thinking is already clearly formed in his Empirio-Monism, when the word appears as the primary and fundamental, sensuously perceived instrument of ‘the organisation and harmonisation of collective experience’ (as Mach understood it, as a synonym for the physiologically explained psyche of people). By way of the word, there arises the self-same ‘collectively organised experience’, or the ‘collective psyche’. In the word, and only in the word, they exist strictly, as some kind of ‘sensuously perceived fact’, as a ‘subject of investigation’.
Therefore, in Bogdanov’s schema there is subsequently no place for the material relations between people – for the economic relations between people and classes. He is forced to interpret them as the externally expressed psychical relations between classes, as the ideological schemas of the organisation of class experience. (Later this is expressed in ventures to create ‘a proletarian interpretation of the theory of relativity’ and other proletcult extravagances.) And all this began with an inability to unite in the theory of knowledge such opposites as the relative and the absolute. It must be either one or the other. Bogdanov never acknowledged any other logic.
With facts in hand, Lenin meanwhile shows that the genuinely difficult problem of the relativity of knowledge can only be dealt with by a person who is armed with materialist dialectics, the dialectics of Marx and Engels.
As a matter of fact, the only theoretically correct formulation of the question of relativism is given in the dialectical materialism of Marx and Engels, and ignorance of it is bound to lead from relativism to philosophical idealism. Incidentally, the failure to understand this fact is enough by itself to render Mr Berman’s absurd book Dialectics in the Light of the Modern Theory of Knowledge, utterly valueless. Mr Berman repeats the old, old nonsense about dialectics, which he has entirely failed to understand. We have already seen that in the theory of knowledge all the Machists, at every step, reveal a similar lack of understanding.
Lenin also ‘at every step’ – in every chapter and paragraph, concerning each problem of the theory of knowledge – counterposes to them this dialectics, working it over and demonstrating it in application to the problems not only of sensation, but of the image, concept, truth and sign-symbol. We will not enumerate all the problems of the theory of knowledge which are resolved in a dialectical materialist way in the course of Lenin’s polemic with the Machists. ‘The Register’ would prove to be too long.
In his book, Lenin says: here is the materialist dialectic in the theory of knowledge and in logic, in the resolution of absolutely concrete epistemological problems. Here is epistemology, elaborated with the dialectical materialist method, as well as the science of thinking – logic. This is the logic of the actual cognition of objective reality, of the ideal reproduction (reconstruction) of the material world, the world of material facts and the relations between material facts. Logic which assisted the creation of Capital (by means of its conscious and consistent application), the foundation of the theory of scientific socialism, and the elaboration of the strategy and tactics of the struggle for socialism.
The entirety of Marxism from top to bottom was established by means of the dialectical materialist method. In literally any work of Marx and Engels it is therefore both possible and necessary to study the logic of their thinking and the theory of knowledge which they consciously employed – dialectics. This must be studied not only in their writings, but in the real logic of the political struggle which they conducted throughout their entire lives. For dialectics is the logic not only of research, and not only of the unity of scientific works; it is also a logic of real causes which comes to life and enters into battle, finding realisation in whatever are the truly real causes changing the face of the surrounding world.
Neither Bogdanov nor Berman understood the real dialectics of Marx and Engels; they simply did not see it. And they only began to search for it (in order to refute it) among the statements about dialectics which can be found in the writings of the classics. This meant first of all, of course, among those fragments by Engels where he popularly explains the ABCs of dialectics, the most general propositions.
Berman’s entire ‘criticism of dialectics’ for example, is reduced to demonstrating that the ‘examples’, which Engels introduces in order to illustrate the correctness of dialectics, can easily be restated in different terms, without using ‘specifically Hegelian’ terminology. Berman proves nothing else. In general there is no mention in his book of any actual dialectics, either Hegelian, or much less Marxism. His book deals exclusively with words and terminology which, he says, Engels and Marx unwisely copied from Hegel.
By rummaging around in the ‘Hegelian’ lexicon and diligently explaining what is meant in pre-Hegelian and post-Hegelian logic by the terms ‘identity’, ‘contradiction’, ‘negation’, ‘opposition’, and ‘synthesis’, Berman triumphantly proves that ‘Hegel and his imitators use these terms in an extremely unscrupulous and completely uncritical manner’, i.e. ‘in various meanings’ and ‘in different contexts’. All this, he says, is because ‘Hegel treated formal logic with contempt’, ‘continuously lumped together’ contrary and contradictory judgements, and so forth. After he had calculated that ‘with Hegel the term “contradiction” has six different meanings’, Berman triumphantly decrees the ‘one solitary sense’ in which this term must henceforth be used. That is nonsense and nothing else. Whosoever uses this term in any other sense (and particularly in the ‘ontological’ sense!) will be excommunicated from Marxism and from ‘modern science’ in general by the Machist logic and theory of knowledge.
Let the reader judge for himself whether this ‘absurd little book by Mr Berman, which sets forth such old, old nonsense’, deserved special and serious refutation on Lenin’s part.
Lenin felt that it was neither necessary nor even possible to specially examine and refute Berman’s arguments against dialectics for the simple reason that the latter generally never dealt with any actual dialectics whatsoever. For Lenin, dialectics was the method of scientifically cognising objective reality, while Berman was concerned with the verbal expression of the psychophysiological states (‘experiences’) of any biological organism, i.e. he was not dealing with the same thing. To get involved with him in a debate over the details of his argumentation would mean to reach a prior agreement with him regarding the very subject of the argument, its boundaries, and limits, i.e. with all those general Machist premises from which he proceeded.
But Lenin had after all already smashed to smithereens these self-same premises by counterposing to them the dialectical materialist form, as it is concretely applied to the examination of epistemological problems.
Lenin counterposes to the Machist diatribes about logic and the theory of knowledge, the dialectical materialist (and not simply materialist) conception of the essence of those problems which genuine scientific cognition runs up against. He shows that dialectics with elemental force intrudes upon the thinking of scientists precisely as the logic of thought which alone allows them to find and grope their way to a truly radical escape from the crisis embracing natural science, the cognition of nature, and physics in particular. Lenin sees the task which the 20th century has placed before philosophy to be the careful elaboration of dialectics as the logic of scientific thought and as the genuinely scientific theory of knowledge capable of helping natural science to find its way out of its crisis-ridden state.
The Machist logic and theory of knowledge suggest to natural science only imaginary and purely verbal means of resolving the disagreements, conflicts and contradictions that have arisen within it. This is because the Machists see the actual presence of contradictions only within the verbal, terminological formulation of knowledge, but not within the very essence of the make-up of this knowledge, not within the attributes of concepts (for a concept in the language of dialectical philosophy is not the ‘meaning of a term’, but the understanding of the essence of the matter).
For this reason materialist dialectics orients the thinking of the scientist toward a sharp and clear explanation of contradictions and thereby directs the search for a completely concrete way to resolve them in a new and more profound (i.e. more objective) knowledge.
Machist logic is nothing more than the purely formal ‘harmonising’ of the verbal expression of whatever knowledge is at hand; it is incapable of pushing it on. Its way is purely nominal ‘elimination’ of contradictions which have already appeared in concepts, at the expense of the verbal manipulation of ‘signs’, ‘symbols’, ‘hieroglyphs’, and at the expense of forcible changes in the historically developed names of things in science.
Positivism is unsuccessfully working on the technique of such an ‘elimination’ of contradictions even to this day. As a theory of knowledge and logic, positivism has therefore played and continues to play what is essentially a retrograde role in the development of science. At best, this has been a conservative role, but more frequently it has been out and out reactionary, because the formal apparatus which it elaborates is fine for many things, but not for a critical analysis of the modern (i.e. that which has been achieved to this day) level of knowledge, and not for revealing the contradictions (and still unresolved theoretical problems) contained within this knowledge.
The attitude of every form of positivism toward the current state of scientific knowledge is essentially and fundamentally apologetic. Where an actual crisis has matured in the development of knowledge, where concepts, schools and tendencies (but not ‘terms’) are essentially coming into collision, positivism sees only uncontradictory peace and tranquillity, only the ‘movement forward’. It has neither the ability nor the desire to examine this movement in all its real and dramatic complexity, with all its contradictions and zig-zags, with all its roundabout and often even backward manoeuvres and evolution.
For this reason the positivists are so fond of speaking in the name of modern natural science and even in the name of all modern science, although they actually always speak only for one or another kind of tendency, current or school, which they accept and portray as the universal standard of science in general.
And at all times, their orientation is not toward the essence of the matter, but toward the terminology which is peculiar to it and to the manner of expression. They orient toward the literary or verbal form which has come into vogue, toward the fashionable style of thinking. But never, in any case, toward the science which is represented in Marx’s Capital.