Gerry Healy


The Relevance of Materialism and Empirio-Criticism Today

 (Marxist Monthly Vol. 2 No. 2, April 1989)



   Mach and his followers claimed that their subjective idealist philosophies were entirely compatible with the basic propositions of historical materialism. Franz Blei, a close disciple of Avenarius, wrote in a Journal edited by the latter an article entitled Metaphysics in Political Economy. Lenin replied as follows: ‘All the teachers of empirio-criticism wage war on the “metaphysics” not only of explicit and conscious philosophical materialism, but also of natural science, which instinctively adopts the standpoint of the materialist theory of knowledge.’ (P. 314-315 Vo1.14)

Machism – A Mirror with a Crooked Face

   Lenin quotes an excerpt from Blei which reads as follows: ‘The purpose of the present investigation’, wrote Blei, ‘is to show that all political economy until now, in its endeavour to interpret the phenomena of economic life, operates with metaphysical premises; that it … “derives” the “laws” governing an economy from the “nature” of the latter, and man is merely something accidental in relation to these “laws” … ‘In all theories political economy has hitherto rested on metaphysical grounds; all its theories are unbiological and therefore unscientific and worthless knowledge’ (P.315 Vo1.14). In this statement the empirio-criticist Blei opened up a direct attack on the economic theories of Marx and Engels. He dismissed them as ‘theoreticians’ who ‘do not know what they are building their theories on, what the soil is of which these theories are the fruit.’ (P.315 Vol.14).

   In reply to this subjective idealist rigmarole of Blei, Lenin reproduced a lengthy quotation which was taken by Blei from Engels’ preface to The Poverty of Philosophy by Marx. ‘Marx’, wrote Engels, ‘came to the study of French socialism and political economy with a socialist world outlook (our emphasis) and his aim as regards knowledge was to provide the “theoretical foundation” for his world outlook in order to safeguard his initial value. He found the law of value in Ricardo … but the conclusions which the French Socialists drew from Ricardo could not satisfy Marx in his endeavour to “safeguard” his E-value brought into a vital-difference, i.e., his “world outlook”, for these conclusions had already entered as a component part into the content of his initial value in the form of “indignation at the robbery of the workers” and so forth.

   ‘The conclusions were rejected as “being formally untrue economically” for they are “simply an application of morality to political economy”. But what may be formally untrue economically, may all the same be true from the point of view of world history. If the moral consciousness of the mass declares an economic fact to be unjust, that is proof that the fact itself has been outlived, that other economic facts have made their appearance, owing to which the former one has become unbearable and untenable. Therefore, a very true economic content may be concealed behind the formal economic incorrectness.’ (P.316 Vol. 14)  

   This quotation was falsified by Blei who attributed to Avenarius the claim that ‘consciousness’ was separated off ‘from this process’.  Lenin goes on to analyse Blei’s understanding of Avenarius meticulously:

   ‘After the “cognition”’, wrote Blei, ‘that an economic fact must be concealed behind the “moral consciousness of injustice, comes the final section: the theory of Mars is a statement, ie, an E-value, a vital-difference which passes through three stages initial, middle, and final’’’. To which Lenin replied: ‘R. Avenarius’ philosophical journal is indeed enemy territory for Marxists. And we invite the reader to overcome for a minute his legitimate aversion for the buffoons of bourgeois science and to analyse the argument of Avenarius’ disciple and collaborator.’ (P.316-317 Vo1.14).

   Lenin presented six propositions relating to Blei’s association with Mach and Avenarius. To Blei’s claim ‘that Marx is a metaphysician’, [argument number one – Ed.], Lenin replied: ‘This argument contains nothing original to Blei personally. We have already seen scores and hundreds times that all the founders empirio-criticism and the Russian Machists accuse materialism of metaphysics, or more accurately, they repeat the hackneyed argument of the Kantians, Humeans and idealists against materialist metaphysics.’ (P.317-318 VoI.14).

   Argument number two: Marxism is as “metaphysical” as natural science, (physiology). And here again it is not Blei who is “responsible” for this argument, but Mach and Avenarius; for it was they who declared war on “natural-historical metaphysics.’ (P.318 Vol. 14)

   Argument number three: Marxism declares that “personality” is a quantit
é négligeable, a cipher, that man is “something accidental”, subject to certain “immanent laws of economics”, that an analysis des Gefundenen,  i.e., of what is found, of what is given, etc., is lacking. This argument is a complete repetition of the circle of ideas of the empirio-critical “principal co-ordination”, i.e. of the idealist crotchet in Avenarius’ theory’  

   Argument number four: Marx’s theory is “unbiological”, it knows nothing of “vital differences” and suchlike spurious biological terms which constitute the “science” of the reactionary professor, Avenarius. (P.318 Vo1.14). ‘Argument number five: the partisanship, the partiality of Marx’s theory and the preconceived nature of his solution. The empirio-criticists as a whole, and not Blei alone, claim to be nonpartisan both in philosophy and in social science. They are neither for socialism nor for liberalism. They make no differentiation between the undamenta1 and irreconcilable trends of materialism and idealism in philosophy, but endeavour to rise above them … ‘

   Argument number six: ridiculing “objective” truth. Blei at once sensed, and rightly sensed, that historical materialism and Marx’s entire economic doctrine are permeated through and through by a recognition of objective truth. And Blei accurately expressed the tendencies of the doctrines of Mach and Avenarius when “from the very threshold”, so to speak, he rejected Marxism precisely because of the idea of objective truth, when he at once declared that there was indeed nothing behind the Marxist teaching save the “subjective” views of Marx.’ (P.319 Vol.14)

   ‘And if our Machists renounce Blei (as they surely will) we shall tell them: You must not blame the mirror for showing a crooked face. Blei is a mirror which accurately reflects the tendencies of  empirio-criticism, and a renouncement by our Machists would only bear witness to their good intentions – and to their absurd eclectics I endeavours to combine Marx and Avenarius.’ (.P.319 Vol.14)

German Empirio-Criticists

   Joseph Petzoldt, together with Blei, was another prominent German empirio-criticist who in his book The World Problem from the Positivist Standpoint identified several of Mach’s disciples as idealists, Including Avenarius and Mach himself. Petzoldt maintained ‘that it is only  “recent positivism” and “recent natural science” which have at last succeeded in eliminating these “metaphysical” concepts’. (p.27 Vol.14)

   Blei contented himself with ‘being a mere disciple’ of Mach and Avenarius whereas Petzoldt was an open, fully-fledged empirio-criticist. Blei posed the question of Marxism explicitly. Petzoldt rejected the theories of Marx and Engels out of hand, expressing the views of the empirio-criticists in a positivist form.

   In his  book, the Introduction to the Philosophy of Pure Experience, Petzoldt wrote: ‘Human development bears its goal within itself, it too tends towards a perfect [volkommenen] state of stability’… ‘The signs of this are abundant and varied’, writes Lenin, summarising Petzoldt’s argument. ‘For instance, are there many ardent radicals who do not in their old age become “more sensible”, more restrained? True, this “premature stability” is characteristic of the philistine. But do not philistines constitute the “compact majority” … Our philosopher’s conclusion, which he gives in italics, is this: “The most essential feature of all the aims of our reasoning and creative activity is stability.’” (p.319-320VoI.14)

   Petzoldt in his yearning for ‘stability’ manifested the subjective idealist trend of empirio-criticism, contrary to the Marxists who regard the material conditions of life as the basis of social development. Against them, Petzoldt counter-posed the subjective-idealist conception of ‘stability’, which is the hallmark of individualism. According to Petzold, the tendency towards ‘stability’ was manifested in ethics, aesthetics, ‘the formal theory of knowledge’ and the nature of the social system. He maintained that this tendency would eventually lead to economic and social equality established as the result of the human striving for stability.  He firmly rejected the Marxist theory of the establishment of social property in the means of production and ignored the material aspects of social life and expressed his open hostility towards the class struggle and the development of theory to guide our practice in that struggle. He, together with Mach, displayed an equal hostility towards socialism. As Lenin emphasised in the footnotes on p.321-322, Vol.14, ‘It is in the same spirit that Mach expresses himself in favour of the bureaucratic socialism Popper and Menger, which guarantees the “freedom of the individual”, whereas, he says, the doctrine of the Social Democrats, which “compares unfavourably” with this socialism, threatens a “slavery even more universal than that of a monarchical or oligarchical state”’.

   Lenin summed up the views of the German empirio-criticists as follows: ‘The infinite stupidity of the philistine, smugly retailing the most hackneyed rubbish under cover of a new “empiric-critical” systematisation and terminology – that is what the sociological excursions of Blei, Petzoldt and Mach amount to. A pretentious cloak of verbal artifices, clumsy devices of syllogistics, subtle scholasticism – in short, as in epistemology, so in sociology, the same reactionary content under the same flamboyant signboard.

The Source of the Revisionist Concept of ‘Living Marxism’

When it came to sociology and the theory of knowledge, the Russian Machists were just as reactionary as their German counterparts. In Bogdanov’s system of Empirio-Monism, he defended the subjective idealist interpretation of history which he declared to be the result of collective notions derived from socially organised experience. He applied his ‘theory’ in a somewhat different form to social phenomena, in which he said that social being was identical to social consciousness. ‘In their struggle for existence’, Bogdanov wrote, ‘men can unite only with the help of consciousness: without consciousness, there can be no intercourse. Hence, social life in all its manifestations is a consciously psychical life [emphasis in original) … sociality is inseparable from consciousness. Social being and social consciousness are in the exact meaning of these terms, identical.’ (p.322 ,Vol.14)

   To this Lenin replied: ‘Whatever “exact” meaning Bogdanov may have invented for the terms “social being” and “social consciousness”, there can be no doubt that the statement we have quoted is not correct.  Social being and social consciousness are not identical (our emphasis), just as being in general and consciousness in general are not Identical. Lenin explains:

   ‘From the fact that in their intercourse men act as conscious beings, it does not follow at all that social consciousness is identical; with social being. In all social formations of any complexity – and the capitalist social formations in particular – people in their intercourse are not conscious of what kind of social relations are being formed, in accordance with what laws they develop, etc. For instance, a peasant when he sells his grain enters into “intercourse” with the world producers of grain in the world market, but he is not conscious of it; nor is he conscious o the kind of social relations that are formed on the basis of exchange.’ (P. 323 Vol.14)

   Marx emphasised that social consciousness reflects social being, but whilst this reflection can be an approximately true copy, to speak of identity is absurd, as Lenin explains:

   ‘“Social consciousness reflects social being” that is Marx’s teaching. A reflection may be an approximately true copy of the reflected, but to speak of identity is absurd, Consciousness In general reflects being – that is a general thesis of all materialism: it is impossible not to see its direct and inseparable connection with the thesis of historical materialism; social consciousness reflects social being’. (P. 323 Vol.14)

   ‘Bogdanov’s attempt to correct and develop Marx unnoticeably is an obvious distortion of this materialist basis in the spirit of idealism.’ (Ibid.) It follows in the footsteps of another Machist, Bazarov, who declared that ‘sense-perception is the reality existing outside us. ‘This’, wrote Lenin, is plain idealism, a plain theory of the identity of consciousness and being’.

   Bogdanov insisted that being is consciousness, thereby refuting the dialectical unity of dialectical and historical materialism. This theory ‘is in short nonsense and an absolutely reactionary theory.’ (p.324 Vol.14) It is on the basis of such a ‘reactionary theory’ that all revisionist groups slush around in the permanent swamp of eclecticism. It is in such a  political swamp that they fish around for such ‘attractive’ names as ‘Marxism Today’ and ‘Living Marxism’, attempting to provide a gloss of political credibility whilst crawling around in a swamp of eclectic confusion. They like to create the false impression that they are creative Marxists’ when they are nothing but the crudest eclecticists, reconciling social being with social consciousness. Their political labels are simply the creation of subjective idealists. They are forms or images devoid of an historical materialist content.

Social Being is Independent of Social Consciousness   

   Bogdanov attempted to justify his subjective idealist position, insisting that there could be no social being without social and individual consciousness. Of course it is true that as people enter social intercourse and organise social production they always act as conscious beings. However, it does not at all follow that social consciousness is social being. Lenin provides a brilliant analysis of the method of historical materialism. He writes on p.325 Vol.14.:

   ‘Every individual producer in the world economic system realises that he is introducing this or that change into the technique of production; Every owner realises that he exchanges certain products for others; but these producers and these owners do not realise that in doing so they are :thereby changing social being. The sum-total of these changes in all their ramifications in the capitalist world economy could not be grasped ever seventy Marxes. The most important thing is that the laws of these changes have been discovered, that the objective logic of these changes and of their historical development has in its chief and basic features been disclosed – objective, not in the sense that a society of conscious beings, of people, could exist and develop independently of the existence of conscious beings (and it is only such trifles that Bogdanov stresses by his “theory”), but in the sense that social being is independent of the social consciousness of people. The fact that you live and conduct your business, beget children, produce products and exchange them, gives rise to an objectively necessary chain of events, a chain of development which is independent of your social consciousness, and is never grasped by the latter completely. The highest task of humanity is to comprehend this objective logic of economic evolution (the evolution of social life) in its general and fundamental features, so that it may be possible to adapt to it one’s social consciousness and the consciousness of the advanced classes of all capitalist countries in as definite, clear and critical a fashion as possible.’

Dialectical and Historical Materialism – A Single Piece of Steel

   Whilst the word forms of Lenin’s exposition of historical materialism will be accepted by all left talking professors and their hangers-on in the student fraternity, they are [become? Ed] devoid of content. It is their bourgeois education which, in effect, becomes the real content, as in the case of Bogdanov, Bazsrov, Petzoldt, Blei and other disciples of Mach. Through this bourgeois training, as Lenin explains. ‘the dead lays hold of the living’. This is what emerged in the forefront of the 1986 state-organised split in the Workers Revolutionary Party. Slaughter, Kemp, Pilling, and Brotherstone consciously chose the professorial road as against full time work in the Party. They followed Bogdanov’s road in which ‘the
dead scholastic appendage, against the will of and independently of the consciousness of Bogdanov, converts his philosophy into a serviceable tool of the Schubert-Solderns and other reactionaries, who in a thousand different  keys, from a hundred professorial chairs, disseminate this dead thing as a living thing, direct it against the living thing for the purpose of stifling the letter.’ (p.325 Vol. 14)

   All modern everyday reactionaries follow Bogdanov.  They are the sworn enemies of bourgeois reaction, but since they affirm ‘the identity of social being and social consciousness’, end up in the ideological camp of the most reactionary imperialist forces.

   In the following short paragraph Lenin outlines the method of materialist dialectics as a world scientific outlook. (P. 326 Vol.14) ‘Materialism in general recognises objectively real being (matter) as independent of the consciousness, sensation, experience, etc., of humanity. Historical materialism recognises social being as independent of the social consciousness of humanity. In both cases consciousness is only the reflection of being, at best an approximately true (adequate, perfectly exact) reflection of it. From this Marxist philosophy, which is cast from a single piece of steel, you cannot eliminate one basic premise, one essential part, without departing from objective truth, without falling a prey to bourgeois reactionary falsehood.’

   The process of cognising the objective material world of the class struggle dialectically proceeds from the abstract to the concrete. From the first simple negation, through the manifestation of the objective laws; the unity, conflict and interpenetration of opposites, i.e., the motion of the objective external world into subjective abstract and finite thought. Simultaneously the quantity of matter contained in the form of the object/objects responsible for the image of sensation at the source of its identity in the external world, is negated into the finite quality of the abstract image of sensation. The limit of this finite quality, which constitutes he contradict, creates the impulse for the second negation, (negation of the negation), back into the infinite ever-changing world. In this dialectical relation between the objective external world and subjective  thought, the theory of knowledge of dialectical logic establishes an ‘approximately true’ reflection of the external world.  

   Through the ‘negation of the negation’ process, we establish a synthesis with the historical materialist history of the external world in state of becoming: i.e. in constant motion and change, which in turn establishes the union of analysis and synthesis. The synthesis with historical materialism in a state of ‘becoming’ contains analysis (union of analysis and synthesis). The analysis of the ‘in itself’ (form which contain its own content) reveals, through subsequent negations, the ever-changing forms which, through analysis, reveal the ever-changing historical materialist content in a state of ‘becoming’. In this way the concrete contains the sum and unity of abstractions as opposites which have been negated and already analysed from the external world. Thus the unity of dialectical and historical materialism constitutes a single piece of steel which cannot be separated ‘without falling a prey to ‘bourgeois reactionary falsehood’. Thus the concepts of ‘Marxism Today’ or ‘Living Marxism’ ignore the historical materialist ‘in itself’ content whose becoming is established through negations from the external world. The words ‘Today’ and ‘Living’ are based upon subjective idealist impressions of the concrete as it appears to those who propagate such revisionist nonsense, which utterly rejects the ‘in itself’ abstract content the concrete external world.

In the Footsteps of Mach and Bogdanov

In an article by Bogdanov on ‘What is Idealism’, he writes: ‘We arrive at the following conclusion: both where people agree on their judgment of progress and where they disagree, the basic meaning of the idea of progress is the same, namely, increasing completeness of harmony of conscious life.’ The Euro-Stalinists of Marxism Today and the advocates of ‘state capitalism’ in the Soviet Union who publish Living Marxism adapt themselves to the harmonising of word forms which, in Lenin’s words, express ‘moods more social over moods less social, that a progressive ideal is a reflection of the socially progressive tendency in the idealist psychology …They define nothing,’ wrote Lenin, ‘but the good intentions of the author and betraying a complete lack of understanding of what is idealism and what materialism.’ (p.326-327 Vo1.14)

   In Marxism Today and Living Marxism, as Lenin explains: ‘The only Marxism” here is a repetition of an already well-known conclusion, and all the “new” proof of it, all this ‘social energetics’ and ‘social ion” is a mere collection of words, a sheer mockery of Marxism,’ (P. 328, Vol. 14) ‘When applied to the sphere of the social sciences “these” are empty phrases. In fact, an enquiry into social phenomena  and an elucidation of the method of the social sciences cannot be undertaken with the aid of these concepts. Nothing is easier than to tack on an “energeticist” or “biologico-sociological” label on to such phenomena as crises, revolutions, the class struggle and so forth; but neither is there anything more sterile, more scholastic and lifeless than such an occupation.’

   The journals Marxism Today and Living Marxism dare not submit their analysis of the world economic and political crisis of capitalism a whole within its part, the class struggle in Britain, based upon the method of materialist dialectics as a world scientific outlook. They are unable to analyse and explain the interaction of this whole within the part. Consequently, they dig themselves in behind a barricade of empty word forms or labels, such as Marxism Today and Living Marxism, whose contents are nothing more than the crudest eclectical manifestation of bourgeois Ideology. They learned all this from the professorial chairs of university and public school life and it remains with them all their lives, no matter how “left” they talk. They walk in Bogdanov’s footsteps, energetically shopping around for labels or empty word forms which sound ‘left’, in order to consciously trap their unwary miss-educated followers.

   Lenin explains how these empty word forms serve to trap the unwary:

  ‘So instead of analysing the  “struggle for life” as represented historically in various definite forms of society, all that has to be done is to translate every concrete struggle into the phrase “struggle for life” … And Bogdanov’s “social energeticism”, (shopping around for labels – our insertion), his coupling of the doctrine of social selection with Marxism,  is just such phrase-mongering.’([p.328·329 Vol.14)

   ‘Just as in epistemology Mach and Avenarius did not develop idealism, but only overlaid the old idealist errors with pretentious terminological nonsense (“elements”, “principal co-ordination”, “introjection” , etc.), so in sociology, even when there is sincere sympathy for Marxist conclusions, empirio-criticism results in a distortion of historical materialism by means of pretentious, empty energeticist and biological verbiage.’ (p.329 Vol.14)

Materialism From Above – Idealism From Below

   All shades of state-controlled revisionist groups have an almost unlimited supply of left-phrases at their disposal. They take a materialist form which changes with their impressions of what they individually consider to be the requirements of the day-to-day needs of the content of the class struggle. In front of the working class students these sound ‘very militant’ in a materialist way; their content consists of the most vulgar manifestations of bourgeois ideology. It is in this way that the state maintains a firm control over these groups.

   Lenin analyses such historical development as follows: ‘Marx and Engels, as they grew out of Feuerbach and matured in the fight against the scribblers, naturally paid most attention to crowning the structure of philosophical materialism, that is, not to the materialist epistemology but the materialist conception of history. That is why Marx and Engels laid the emphasis in their works rather on dialectical materialism than on dialectical materialism and insisted on historical materialism rather than on historical materialism. Our would-be Marxist Machists approached Marxism in an entirely different historical period, at a time when bourgeois philosophy was particularly specialising in epistemology, and, having assimilated in a one-sided and mutilated form certain of the component parts of dialectics (relativism, for instance) was directing its attention chiefly to a defence or restoration of idealism below and not of idealism above’ (p.329-330 Vol.14)

   ‘At any rate,’ Lenin continues, ‘positivism in general, and Machism in particular, have been much more occupied in subtly falsifying epistemology – simulating materialism and concealing their idealism under a pseudo-materialist terminology - and have paid comparatively little attention to the philosophy of history. Our Machists did not understand Marxism because they happened to approach it from the other side, (emphasis in the original) so to speak, and they have assimilated – and at times not so much assimilated as learnt by rote – Marx’s economic and historical theory, without clearly apprehending its foundation, viz., philosophical materialism. And the result is that Bogdanov and Co. deserve to be called Russian Buchners and Duhrings turned inside out. They want to be materialist above, but are unable to rid themselves of muddled idealism below!  In the case of Bogdanov, “above” there is historical materialism, vulgarised, it is true, and much corrupted by idealism, “below” there is idealism, disguised by Marxist terminology and counterfeiting Marxist language.  “Socially organised experience”, “collective labour process”, and so forth, are Marxist words, but they are all only words, concealing an idealist philosophy that declares things to be complexes of “elements”, of sensations, the external world to be “experience”, or an “empirio-symbol” of mankind, physical nature to be a “product” of the “psychical” and so forth and so forth: (p.330 Vol.14)

Dialectical and Historical

   The emphasis which Lenin placed upon the “dialectical” and the “historical” establishes the essence of the method of materialist dialectics. The external identity of the image of sensation is also the source of external reflection of the universal whole. What is negated is a finite part of this “whole”, which in turn contains the “whole” as the historical content. From the first simple negation whose identity is in the external world as the historical “whole” in a state of infinite motion (becoming) external reflection negates the three major laws of the objective world into subjective thought. External reflection which establishes the identity of its source in the external world, constitutes the basis of the theory of knowledge which is dialectical logic in subjective thought. Dialectical logic reveals the objective laws, forms and general features of the interconnected external objects which caused its external identity. This is the origin of consciousness which enables human beings to cognise scientifically the dialectical laws of nature through dialectical logic.

   Materialist dialectics understands reflection as a dialectical process, from the external identity of reflection becoming reflection or mediation in the dialectical logic of subjective thought. The historical content and the logical form are a dialectical unity which contains the contradiction of  object and subject. A synthesis with the historical contains the logic of analysis, hence the historical in a state of becoming contains the logical, but the two coincide only in the sum and substance and contradictions of form and content. Through logical analysis, the historical is mediated in accordance with the development of the objective laws revealed in subjective thought through dialectical logic. Dialectical logic enables us to study how the separately negated ‘parts.’ function in the system as a whole.

   This developed whole preserves only the contradictions of the conditions under which it has developed, which reveal its specific nature in which, through the use of dialectical logic, its real history is revealed. The logical and the historical are two methods of study, which in the infinite motion of the external world are conditional. In effect the logical is the historical no longer in the concrete form in which it originally emerged. It now appears in a generalised theoretical way. The historical is the logical which incorporates the concrete historical development, expressing the essential aspects of dialectical logic. These in turn manifest expressing the essential aspects of dialectical logic. These in turn manifest the law governed nature of the process of cognising the development of the class struggle in the objective world.

   Lenin’s Materialism and Empirio-Criticism is a major political contribution to the struggle against the innumerable revisionist currents, many of which slavishly obey the bourgeois-ideological needs of the capitalist state. It is a manual of scientific disciplines without which there can be no understanding of the method of materialist dialectics.