Gerry Healy


The Relevance of Materialism and Empirio-Criticism Today

(Marxist Monthly, Vol. 2, No. 1,  March 1989)


   To understand more fully the problems of natural science, especially physics at the beginning of the century, it necessary that we outline them once again, in greater detail:

1895- The discovery of the spontaneous emission of radiation from the chemical element uranium from which physicists derived the complex composition of the atom.

1897- The discovery of the electron within the atom

1898 – The discovery of radium as a new radioactive chemical element.

1899- The existence of an electro-magnetic mass was proved by measuring the pressure of light.

1900- The founding of the quantum theory which elaborates on discrete particles which characterize the state of micro-objects, their discrete actions and energy states.

1903- The formation of the theory of the radioactive decay of the atom as the process of transmutation of the elements.

1905- The elaboration of the concept of the photon as a particle or quantum of light developed  the special theory of relativity and on this basis formulated the law of the correlation of mass and energy.

   In Chapter 5 of Materialism and Empirio-Criticism [Full title: The Recent Revolution in Natural Science and Philosophical Idealism’], Lenin deals with the essence of the crisis in physics of this decade. ‘One cannot’, he wrote, ‘take up any of the writings of the Machists or about Machism without encountering pretentious references of the ‘new physics’, [our emphasis] which is said to have refuted materialism…’ ‘the connection between the new physics and Machism and other varieties of modern idealist philosophy is beyond doubt’. ‘to ignore this connection’, alleged Lenin, ‘ 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.  Engels says explicitly that “with each new epoch-making discovery even in the sphere of natural science [“not to speak of the history of mankind”] materialism has to change its form” (‘Ludwig Feuerbach’, German edition, p 19).

   ‘Hence,’ Lenin concludes, ‘a revision of his natural-philosophical propositions is not only not “revisionism”, in the accepted meaning of the term, but, on the contrary, is an essential requirement of Marxism.  We criticize the Machists not for making such a revision, but for their purely revisionist trick of betraying the essence of materialism under the guise of criticizing its form and of adopting the fundamental propositions of reactionary bourgeois philosophy without making the slightest attempt to deal directly, frankly and definitely with assertions of Engels’ which are unquestionably of extreme importance for the given question, as for example, his assertion that “motion without matter is unthinkable” ( see Anti-Duhring p. 410)

   …’in its philosophical aspect, the essence of the “crisis in modern physics” is that the old physics regarded its theories as “real knowledge of the material world”, i.e. a reflection of objective reality.   The new trend in physics [1895-1905- our insert] regards theories only as symbols, signs, and marks for practice, i.e. it denies the existence of an objective reality independent of our mind and reflected by it… the materialist theory of knowledge, instinctively accepted by the earlier physics, has been replaced by an idealist and agnostic theory of knowledge, which against the wishes of the idealists and agnostics, has been taken advantage of by fideism.’ (pages 256-257 Vol 14)

   ‘The basic materialist spirit of physics, as of all modern science, will overcome all crises, but only by the indispensable replacement of metaphysical materialism by dialectical materialism’. (p.306 vol 14)… ‘the crisis in modern physics consists in the latter’s departure from a direct, resolute and irrevocable recognition of the objective value of its theories,  But facts are stronger than all attempts at reconciliation’ (p.306 Vol 14).

   In his analytical treatment of the most important propositions of the ‘new physics’, Lenin emphasizes the need to establish the necessity between the philosophical and the particular approach…’ it is far from being our intention,’ Lenin writes, ‘to deal with specific physical theories.  What interests us exclusively is the epistemological conclusions that follow from certain definite propositions and generally known discoveries’ (p.252 Vol 14). [Our emphasis]: Lenin then proceeds to provide details of the propositions advanced by the ‘physical idealists’.

   He refers to the views of the well-known French physicist Henri Poincare and quotes Poincare’s Value of Science as follows: ‘We are faced’, says Poincare, with the “ruins” of the old principles of physics, “a general debacle of principles”.  It is true, he remarks, that all the mentioned departures from principles refer to infinitesimal magnitudes: it is possible that we are still ignorant of other infinitesimals counteracting the undermining of the old principles.  Moreover radium is very rare.  But at any rate, we have reached a “period of doubt”’ (p 253 Vol 14).  To which Lenin sharply replies: ‘We have already seen what epistemological deductions the author draws from this “period of doubt”.” Lenin then proceeds to quote Poincare to reveal the source of the idealist confusion: ‘ “It is not nature which imposes on [or dictates to] us the concepts of space and time, but we who impose them on nature;  whatever is not thought, is pure nothing”’. ‘These deductions’, wrote Lenin, ‘are idealist deductions’. The breakdown of the most fundamental principles shows (such is Poincare’s trend of thought) that these principles are not copies, photographs of nature, not images of something external in relation to man’s consciousness, but products of his consciousness’ (our emphasis, p. 253 Vol. 14)

   Poincare drew the physical idealist conclusion that radium, which had been discovered as a radioactive substance by Pierre and Marie Curie in 1898, had undermined the principle of the conservation of energy.  He wrongfully concluded that the discovery by the English physicist Thompson, of the existence of the electron within the atom, dispensed with the principle of the conservation of the mass.  Hence his pessimistic conclusion of a ‘period of doubt’.  Such pessimism, in fact, had no scientific foundation, since the principles of the conservation of energy and mass were in no way undermined by the discoveries in physics [1895-1905].  Sceptical speculation such as Poincare’s on phenomena not yet sufficiently known exclude the fact that the objective dialectical laws which the material world manifests in thought, also operate on the material world beyond thought.

   The main source of the confusion which lay at the source of the crisis in physics [1895-1905] arose from the fact that many physicists had begun to doubt the existence of matter, wrongly concluding that ‘matter had disappeared’.  ‘the essence of the crisis [matter has disappeared- our insertion] in modern physics consists in the breakdown of the old laws and basic principles, in the rejection of an objective reality existing outside the mind, that is, in the replacement of materialism by idealism and agnosticism, ‘Matter has disappeared,”- one may thus express the fundamental and characteristic difficulty in relation to many particular questions which has created this crisis’. (p. 258 Vol 14)

   Lenin starts with the French physicist, Louis Houllevigue, who wrote a book, The Evolution of the Sciences, which refers to the ‘the new theories of matter’.  He poses the question point blank: ‘Does Matter exist?’ and replies accordingly:  ‘The atom dematerializes….and matter disappears.’ This idealist proposition was immediately and gleefully adopted by Valentinov, a close follower of Mach.  Lenin quotes him as follows:

   ‘The statement that the scientific foundation of the world can find a firm foundation “only in materialismis nothing but a fiction, and what is more, an absurd fiction’ (p. 258 Vol 14).

   Lenin goes on:

   ‘He [Valentinov] quotes as a destroyer of this absurd fiction Augusto Righi, the well-known Italian physicist, who says that the electron theory “is not so much a theory of electricity as of matter; the new system simply puts electricity in the place of matter”. To which the Machist Valentinov comments: ‘why does Righi permit himself this offence against sacred matter?  Is it perhaps because he is a solipsist, an idealist, a bourgeois criticist, an empirio-monist, or even someone worse?’ (p. 259. Vol 14)

   Valentinov considered his sarcastic remark constituted a real blow against materialism.  Was it not, after all, an Italian physicist, Righi, who defended the ‘disappearance of matter’ and what right had a philosopher of Lenin’s stature to dispute him?  Lenin, in turn, demonstrates to Valentinov that the conclusion of Righi that ‘matter had disappeared’ had no relation to the philosophical concept of matter.  Those physicists who claimed that the atom as the ultimate ‘building black’ of matter had disappeared, to be replaced by electrons as ‘building blocks’ were simply concluding that one physical structure (the atom) was being replaced by another and more profound physical structure.  Such a replacement in itself has nothing to do with the philosophical solution of the problem.  As Lenin explains it ‘materialism and idealism differ in their answers to this question of the source of our knowledge and of the relation of knowledge (and of the “mental” in general) to the physical world; while the question of the structure of matter, of atoms and electrons, is a question that concerns only this “physical world”’.

   Lenin continues to elaborate on the question of the ‘disappearance of matter’. ‘when the physicists say “matter disappears” they mean that hitherto science reduced its investigations of the physical world to three ultimate concepts: matter, electricity and ether; now only the two latter remain….It is consequently possible to reduce the physical world from scores of elements to two or three elements (inasmuch as positive and negative electrons constitute “two essentially distinct kind of matter”..)…”Matter disappears” means that the limit within which we have hitherto known matter disappears and that our knowledge is penetrating deeper; properties of matter are likewise disappearing which formerly appeared absolute, immutable and primary (impenetrability, inertia, mass, etc.) and which are now revealed to be relative and characteristic only of certain states of matter.  For the sole “property” of matter with whose recognition philosophical materialism is bound up is the property of being and objective reality, of existing outside the mind’ (p 260-261 Vol. 14).

   Knowledge of matter and the ‘disappearance of matter’ in no way means that matter has disappeared.  For indeed the sole property of matter which concerns philosophical idealism is the property of being an objective reality. Lenin, in outlining the structure of matter, explains that our knowledge did not go beyond the atom and the electron.  Such knowledge, however, is approximate, which ranks as scientific stages in our knowledge of nature.  This is borne out by developments in science since Lenins’s lifetime.  At that time, the electron was the only micro-particle which was known.  Since then, scientists have discovered approximately three hundred micro-particles, which include light particles similar to the electron; particles of medium mass, heavy particles such as neuclons and heavy particles called hyperons.  Scientists have also discovered anti-particles, which constitute micro-particles, and may be transformed into one another in the same way as the electron, whose inexhaustibility was predicted by Lenin, merges with its anti-particle, the positron, through the emission of photons as quantas of light nature, in which all particles exist in just as inexhaustible a way as the particles themselves.

   ‘Dialectical materialism’, writes Lenin, referring to the infinite nature of these changes, transitions and transformations, ‘insists on the approximate relative [our emphasis] character of every scientific theory of the structure of matter and its properties; it insists on the absence of absolute boundaries in nature, on the transformation of moving matter from one state into another… However bizarre from the standpoint of ‘common sense’ the transformation of imponderable ether into ponderable matter and vice versa appear, however “strange’ may seem the absence of any other kind of mass in the electron save electro-magnetic mass… all this is but another corroboration of dialectical materialism.” (pages 262- 262 Vol 14). All those physicists who denied this ‘ended up’, as Lenin explains, ‘in denying matter, i.e. the objective reality of the physical world’….. ‘they ended up by denying all objective law in nature’.

   All attempts to divorce matter from motion is a product of idealist thinking which converts motion into a product of thought.  Claims by such physicists that motion can exist without matter amount to the same thing as their idealist claim that matter has disappeared.  All theories which divorce motion from matter are in essence subjective idealist, emphasizing the independence of thought from matter.  Lenin posed a number of questions which were difficult for the Machists to answer.  To their proposition that matter had disappeared and motion alone remained, he asked- has thought remained? For if thought has disappeared and the human brain as a material reality does not exist, which includes the nervous system, it would follow that all knowledge would have disappeared, including idealist knowledge.  ‘What is essential’, wrote Lenin, ‘is the point of departure.  What is essential is that the attempt to think of motion without matter smuggles in thought divorced from matter- and that is philosophical idealism. (p 268 Vol 14).

   Lenin analyses the writings of the German scientist Wilhelm Ostwald, which were known as energism.  Ostwald claimed that energy did not always require a material vehicle.  He posed the question that one could speak of motion without referring to what is in motion.  ‘Must Nature’, he wrote, ‘necessarily consist of subject and predicate?’ (p 270 Vol 14).  Ostwald’s reply pleased Bogdanov, because it amounted to ‘sheer sophistry’, and because the mental elimination from ‘nature’ of matter as the ‘subject’ only replaces it with the philosophy of thought as the subject, (i.e as the primary independent of matter). ‘Not the subject’ wrote Lenin, ‘but the objective source of sensation is eliminated and philosophy becomes Berkleyism, because ‘sensation becomes the subject’.

   ‘If energy is motion’ emphasized Lenin, ‘ you have only shifted the difficulty from the subject to the predicate, you have only changed the question, does matter move? into the question is energy material?  Does the transformation of energy take place outside my mind, independently of man and mankind, or are these only ideas, symbols, conventional signs, and so forth? And this question proved fatal to the ‘energeticist’ philosophy, that attempts to disguise old epistemological errors by a “new terminology”’ .(pages 270-271 Vol 14).

   Thus Lenin analysed and exposed the ideas of Ostwald as nothing more than sophistry.  All the things that exist in nature are in motion, which it contains as its objective property.  If we strive to reason dialectically, we can only do so by starting from that which exists in the external world in movement and change.  Our thought, Lenin constantly stressed, should reflect that which exists in material nature, infinitely moving and changing.  In dealing with motion through dialectical logic in thought, we can use both electrons and ether as the subject and predicate. Bogdanov as a Machist, who regarded ‘energy’ as a ‘pure symbol’ or sign and not a property of matter, clashed with Ostwald when the latter implied that energy was a product of thought when he declared it as a ‘symbol’.

   Bogdanov, Valentinov and their followers claimed that Mach’s philosophy was the philosophy of ‘twentieth century natural science’, although Machism is connected ideologically with that school of natural science which is physics, in which he is and was a subjective idealist, who denied the primacy of objective reality, existing independently of thought.   Such a physical idealism was in the time of Mach as well as in the present an international revisionist trend, which developed simultaneously in Germany, France, Britain and Russia.  Lenin notes that it is ‘all the more instructive….therefore to see how similar philosophical trends manifest themselves in totally different cultural and social surroundings’. (p229 Vol 14).  The essence of the crisis in physics, which led to the confusion of physical idealism, had its source in the old metaphysical scientific world outlook which lagged behind the need for a rapidly developing scientific knowledge.  

   This profound historical gap was expressed in a failure to understand the dialectical relation between absolute and relative truth, or as Lenin explains it on page 360 of Vol 38: ‘The distinction between subjectivism (skepticism, sophistry, etc.) and dialectics, incidentally, is than in (objective) dialectics the difference between the relative and the absolute is itself relative.  For objective dialectics there is an absolute within the relative.  For subjectivism and sophistry, the relative is only relative and excludes the absolute’.  The absolute consists of the infinite external material world in constant motion and change, which, as the source of sensation, is negated into relative finite thought, which because of the limitations provides the impulse for the negation of the negation back into the absolute external world.  Dialectical logic as a theory of knowledge, which is a world scientific outlook, enables us to reveal from the process of abstract to the concrete, the absolute within the relative, at all stages of the method of materialist dialectics.

   A considerable confusion was created by the attempts of Mach and his followers to reduce physics to the science of mathematics.  As Lenin explains, such ‘reactionary attempts are engendered by the very progress of science.  The great successes achieved by natural science, the approach to elements of matter so homogenous and simple that their laws of motion can be treated mathematically, cause the mathematicians to overlook matter. ‘”Matter disappears”, only equations remain.’ [ our emphasis]. At a new stage of development and apparently in a new manner, we get the old Kantian idea; reason prescribes laws to nature’. (p 308 Vol 14). ‘Hermann Cohen, who as we have seen, rejoices over the idealist spirit of the new physics, goes so far as to advocate the introduction of higher mathematics in the schools- in order to imbue high school students with the spirit of idealism, which is being driven out by our materialistic age’.

   ‘This of course, is the ridiculous dream of a reactionary and, in fact, there is and can be nothing here but a temporary infatuation with idealism on the part of a small number of specialists.  But what is highly characteristic is the way the drowning man clutches at a straw,  the subtle means whereby representatives of the educated bourgeoisie artificially attempt to preserve, or to find a place for, the fideism, which is engendered among the masses of the people by their ignorance and their downtrodden condition and by the senseless barbarity of capitalist contradictions’.  (P. 308 Vol.14).

   To reduce the materiality of the external world into an equation is the height of physical idealism, which excluded the absolute within the relative, reproducing in turn subjective idealism and sophistry, which in periods of abrupt historical change generate self-created images in enormous quantities, which inevitably lead to paralysis of thought becoming self-destructive. Lenin goes on:

   ‘This question of the relation between relativism and dialectics plays perhaps the most important part in explaining the theoretical misadventure of Machism. Take Rey, for instance, who like all European positivists has no conception whatever of Marxian dialectics.  He employs the word dialectics exclusively in the sense of idealist philosophical speculation.  As a result, although he feels that the new physics has gone astray on the question of relativism, he nevertheless flounders helplessly and attempts to differentiate between moderate and immoderate relativism.  Of course, ‘immoderate relativism logically, if not in practice, borders on actual scepticism’. ( p 308-309 Vol 14)

   ‘All the old truths of physics, including those which were regarded as firmly established and incontestable, prove to be relative truths- hence, there can be no objective truth independent of mankind, [our emphasis]. Such is the argument, not only of all the Machists, but of the “physical” idealists in general. That absolute truth results from the sum-total of relative truths in the course of their development; that relative truths represent relatively faithfully reflections of an object independent of mankind; that these reflections become more and more faithful; that every scientific truth, notwithstanding its relative nature, contains an element of absolute truth- all these propositions, which are obvious to anyone who has thought over Engels’ Anti-Duhring, are for the “modern” theory of knowledge a book with seven seals’ ( p 309 Vol 14)

   Machism and idealism in general rely on a metaphysical view of knowledge.  They start with the propositions that knowledge can be purely absolute and unknowable or purely relative.  They refuse to recognize that the absolute exists within the relative, whereas ‘Engels reproached the earlier materialists for their failure to appreciate the relativity of all scientific theories, for their ignorance of dialectics and for their exaggeration of the mechanical point of view.  But Engels … was able to discard Hegelian idealism and to grasp the great and true kernel of Hegelian dialectics.  Engels rejected the old metaphysical materialism for dialectical materialism, and not for relativism that sinks in subjectivism’ [our emphasis] ( p. 310 Vol 14)

   All metaphysical points of view of the relativity of knowledge can only lead into the swamp of subjective idealism and skepticism.  Lenin demonstrated profoundly the essence of the crisis in the development of physics, indicating unhesitatingly the way out of it. ‘But if the theory of physics becomes more and more natural, that means that “nature”, reality, “reflected” by this theory exists independently of our consciousness - and that is precisely the view of dialectical materialism.’(p. 312 Vol 14).  ‘In short’, he continues, the “physical” idealisms of today, exactly like the “physiological’ idealism of yesterday, merely signifies that one school of natural scientists in one branch of natural science has slid into a reactionary philosophy, being unable to rise directly and at once from metaphysical materialism to dialectical materialism.  This step is being made, and will be made, by modern physics, but it is advancing towards the only true method and the only true philosophy of natural science, not directly, but by zigzags, not consciously, but instinctively, not clearly perceiving its “final goal”, but drawing closer to it gropingly, unsteadily, and sometimes even with its back turned to it.  Modern physics is in travail; it is giving birth to dialectical materialism.’ (p 313 Vol 14)

   Lenin defined his attitude to scientists dominated by bourgeois ideology as follows….’these people’s whole environment estranges them from Marx and Engels and throws them into the embrace of vulgar official philosophy’ (p 263 Vol 14).

  To be followed by a seventh and final part