Gerry Healy



 The Relevance of Materialism and Empirio-Criticism Today

 Marxist Monthly, Vol. 1 No. 9, November 1988




 In Britain, where bourgeois ideology is taught daily in the universities and educational system generally, there is a constant reproduction of the idealist and metaphysical method of the philosophy of Kant.  This is accomplished through neo-Kantian theories. The ‘thing-in-itself’, which is constantly changing in the external world independently of thought, is either discarded or interpreted in a subjective idealist way. Scientific concepts and philosophical categories are subjectively presented as logical constructions. The neo-Kantians proceed from a subjective contrasting of the different qualities of the natural and social sciences on the basis of Kant’s doctrine that the external world is unknowable. They proceed in this way with self-created images conjured up in thought.

   Because of the complete political bankruptcy of the class collaboration policies of the Labour leadership, with its total capitulation to Thatcherite policies, the neo-Kantians are especially active within the universities and Fabian circles of the Labour Party. This is historically verifiable, since Bernstein, (1850-1932), the founder of reformism, based upon the class collaboration of the Second International, proclaimed the slogan of ‘back to Kant’. Bernstein waged a constant struggle throughout his life against materialist dialectics. As the leader of German Social Democracy, he treated Marxist and Hegelian dialectics as identical. He denied the possibility of scientific socialism, regarding socialism as a moral and ethical ideal.

   Bernstein rejected in principle the dictatorship of the proletariat and replaced it with the reformist concept of the decline and dying away of the class struggle. He refused to recognise any revolutionary role for the working class except the winning of minor reforms within the framework of capitalism. Hence his revisionist assertion, ‘the movement is everything, the end is nothing.’ In this historical period of the ‘death agony of capitalism’ we have an intensification of the ideological ‘death agony of reformism’.

   It is historically understandable why the political ghost of Bernstein should appear on the scene with its ‘back to Kant’ banner. The objective idealist theories of Neo-Kantianism fit in well with the revisionist conception that there is no scientific explanation for the class problems in society. This is the ideological road of Kinnock, who walks firmly in Thatcher’s footsteps – the footsteps of Neo-Kantianism.

   It is the tradition that on the first Sunday at the opening of the annual Labour Party Conference the reformist leaders always arrange to be photographed attending church; whilst the ‘lefts’ will wait to do ‘their own thing’ at mid-morning meetings when the church service is over. Thus, the method of subjective idealist neo-Kantianism relates to Neo-Thomism. Thomas Aquinas, (1225-1274), developed the theological form containing a subjective idealist content. Neo-Thomists regard God as the prime cause of the supernatural forces that govern all individual behaviour. Any influence by the practical activity of men and women in changing the world is resolutely excluded.

   Neo-Thomism is the subjective idealist breeding ground of ‘intuitionalism’, which interprets value as absolute. Intuitionalists advocate objective idealist theories such as logical positivism. For this branch of subjective idealism, the object of cognition does not exist outside the consciousness of the subject focused upon it. Logical positivism in known in the USA as radical empiricism or pragmatism.

   It incorporates the agnostic philosophies of Berkeley and Hume together with their subjective idealist content. They are represented presently in British philosophy under the guise of so-called ‘Radical Philosophy’ which is the subjective idealist brainchild of those who advance the theory of ‘State Capitalism’ in the Soviet Union. They peddle it especially in the so-called ‘Chesterfield movement’ of Benn, Heffer and Co., where the development of materialist dialectical theory to guide practice is non-existent.

 Two Basic Forms of Idealism                                                      

   Objective Idealism claims that thought or the spirit is primary and matter is secondary, since it can only be negated from thought. For objective idealists such as Hegel, the ‘absolute idea’ was the prime cause which created and determined everything in the world, nature, which exists outside man. Since it is not difficult to transform the abstract ‘absolute idea’ which is a form of thought into an equally abstract idea of God, there is a connection between objective idealism, neo-Thomism, and the different forms of religion in general.

   Subjective idealism denies the existence of any reality outside the human consciousness of the subject. Subjective idealists claim that reality is a creation of the individual’s consciousness. This in turn leads to solipsism in which only man and his consciousness exist. To the solipsist, the objective world, including people, exist only in the mind of the individual, which in turn leads to the conclusion that ‘I’ or the ‘Self’ is all that exists. In practice, under capitalism, this invariably leads to what is considered to be the main thing in life, ‘looking after Number 1’ which is the individual self.

   Despite their differences over some issues, both forms of idealism share the basic premise of the primacy of thought over the material world. This can in turn lead to the reactionary theories of Fideism which subordinates the objective practical experiences of science to the defence of religious dogma. In this relation fideism asserts that science provides only knowledge of phenomena, that is, ‘facts’, which are secondary to their physical material causes. By limiting the objective experiences of science, fideism claims that science cannot reveal the whole truth. Fideism thus denies the existence of material objective truth and replaces it with religious faith. The close relation between the two forms of idealism and their subservience to religion are repeatedly emphasised by Lenin in his book Materialism and Empirio-Criticism. The title itself poses the two irreconcilable opposites which are the philosophy based on Materialism and its subjective idealist opposite Empirio-criticism.

The Criticism of Kant From the Left and the Right.

   The philosophical doctrines of Ernst Mach and his followers amounted in effect to old agnostic and idealist theories dating back to Hume and Berkeley. Mach and his co-thinker, Avenarius, started out with the ‘Back to Kant’ call of the reformist Bernstein in the 1870’s. As a result, they were obliged to embrace Berkeley and Hume. Lenin explains on page 194 of Vol. 14, in a quote from Mach:

   ‘His, [Kant’s – GH], critical idealism’, Mach says, ‘was, as I acknowledge with the deepest gratitude, the starting point of my critical thought. But I found it impossible to remain faithful to it. Very soon I began to return to the views of Berkeley … [and then] arrived at views akin to those of Hume … And even today I cannot help regarding Berkeley and Hume as far more consistent thinkers than Kant.’ (Ernst Mach, Analysis of Sensations, page 292)

   ‘The principle feature of Kant’s idealism’, wrote Lenin in response to Mach’s view, ‘is the reconciliation of materialism with idealism, a compromise between the two, the combination within one system of heterogeneous and contrary philosophical trends.  When Kant assumes that something outside us, a thing-in-itself, corresponds to our ideas, he is a materialist. When he declares this thing-in-itself to be unknowable, transcendental, other-sided, he is an idealist. Recognising experience, sensations, as the only source of our knowledge, Kant is directing his philosophy towards sensationalism. Recognising the apriority of space, time, causality etc., Kant is directing his philosophy towards idealism. Both consistent materialists and consistent idealists as well as the “pure” agnostics, the Humeans, have mercilessly criticised Kant for this inconsistency.’ (Page 196, Vol.14)

   Kant’s agnosticism opened the door to idealism of an a priori character, which was used to qualify knowledge as a product of consciousness independent of practice. He (Kant) maintained that knowledge obtained by means of sensory perception is untrue. For Kant, space and time were not material forms of matter, but forms created by thought. He presented causality and necessity as forms of reason instead of objective connections as a law of nature.

   ‘The Machists,’ emphasised Lenin, ‘criticised Kant for being too much of a materialist, while we criticised him for not being enough of a materialist. The Machists criticise Kant from the right, we from the left.’ (Page 199 Vol.14)

   Thus the materialists Feuerbach, Marx and Engels turned from Kant to the left, to a complete rejection of all forms of idealism and agnosticism. Lenin explains that:

   ‘The line of Hume and Berkeley reappeared in a slightly renovated verbal garb. Mach and Avenarious reproached Kant not because his conception of the thing-in-itself is not sufficiently realistic, not sufficiently materialistic, but because he admits its existence; not because he refuses to deduce causality and necessity in nature from objective reality, but because he admits any causality and necessity at all, (except “logical” necessity). The immanentists were at one with the empirio-criticists, also criticising Kant from the Humean and Berkeleian standpoint.’ (Ibid.)

   The immanentists rejected the theory of reflection, replacing it with a neo-realism. They criticised Kant’s ‘thing-in-itself’ from the right and demanded a turn to Berkeley and Hume’s ‘only that which exists can be the object of thought’ , (agnosticism), replacing it with the subjective idealist theory of ‘consciousness in general’, containing the self-created images of objects. Thus ‘they were at one with the empirio-criticists’ Mach and Avenarious. For Mach, ‘science was purely descriptive, and he eliminated form it all content negated through sensuous practice.

From Agnosticism to Positivism

   Mach’s return to the 18th. century philosophies of Berkeley and Hume left his Russian followers, such as Bogdanov, somewhat bewildered by the speed of such a return to the philosophical forerunners of Kant. Lenin recognised that Mach had become a philosophical adherent of positivism, which was founded in the 1830’s by Auguste  Compte, (1798-1857), a French philosopher. He was supported by the English philosophers John Stewart Mill and Herbert Spencer, who played important roles in the development of positivist views over that historical period.

   Compte and his English followers called their philosophy ‘positive’, thereby indicating that it should not go beyond the framework of positive knowledge verified by the empirical sciences. For them positivist philosophy was to generalise scientific data, rejecting as artificial and meaningless all the centuries of previous work of philosophers in their struggle to establish the material relation between thinking and being. ‘Positivism’, in practice, denied the knowability of the objective world in movement and change. They denied that science and human practice could penetrate the material world and establish the essence and substance of things. Science, the positivists maintained, could only describe the external connection between phenomena, which they interpreted as arising from human sensations. Any suggestions that it was the motion of the material world which gave rise to the sensations they denounced as ‘metaphysical’.

   ‘Let us take A. Bogdanov’, wrote Lenin, (Page 168 Vol. 14). ‘In1899 when he was still a semi-materialist and had only just begun to go astray under the influence of a very great chemist and a very muddled philosopher, Wilhelm Ostwald, he wrote: “The universal causal connection of phenomena is the last and best child of human knowledge; it is a universal law, the highest of those laws which, to express it in the words of a philosopher, human reason dictates to nature.”’

   Bogdanov, Lenin sharply retorts, ‘either did not know, or would not admit, that this modern positivism is agnosticism, and that it denies the objective necessity of nature, which existed prior to, and apart from, all “knowledge” and all human beings.’ (Ibid.)

   Lenin then proceeds to place his finger firmly on the pulse of the dangers of the positive-agnostic approach by an emphatic rejection of these subjective idealist methods. ‘The idea that knowledge can “create” universal forms, replace the primeval chaos by order, etc., is the idea of idealist philosophy. The world is matter moving in conformity to law, and our knowledge, being the highest product of nature, is in a position only to reflect this conformity to law.’

   ‘To sum up, our Machists, blindly believing in the “recent” reactionary professors, repeat the same mistakes of Kantian and Humean agnosticism on the question of causality and fail to notice that these doctrines are in absolute contradiction to Marxism, i.e. materialism, and that they themselves are rolling down an inclined plane towards idealism.’  (Page 169 Vol. 14)

   The relevance of agnosticism and positivism are strikingly obvious today in relation to Thatcher’s Bonapartist ‘shoot-to-kill’ state. This appears especially in the field of security from the internal interference, through agents of the Bonapartist state, within the revolutionary working class. Warnings about such state intervention, as we experienced in the Workers Revolutionary Party in October 1985, when the use of internal state agents, plundering behind the scenes the Party’s financial resources, backed up by internal listening devices and telephone tapping on a vast scale, would invariably invoke an agnostic response. Such a response would neither affirm nor deny such things could be happening. But that, agnostically speaking, was as far as it went. Individuals would talk away on the phone as usual and rationalise the dangers of state listening devices, by acts of faith, that somehow their telephone calls were not being phone-tapped. It was in just this muddled agnostic atmosphere that the real state agents went to work by announcing behind the scenes that a serious alertness to security questions amounted to ‘paranoia’.

The Eclecticism of Mach and Avenarius

   Mach described his sensations as ‘psychical elements’ which he claimed were responsible for the external world which
surrounds him. He thereby combined the thought image of sensation eclectically with the external world in infinite motion, existing independently of all sensations and thought images. Both Mach and Avenarius falsely claimed that idealism and materialism were one-sided. Such ‘one-sidedness is necessary for materialist dialectics, which negates from the material external world ‘sides’, whose identity is material and whose content is represented by the form of ‘sensation’. This difference between the content of sensation and its form is contained within the antithesis of the object and objects responsible for the sensation in the external world, which is negated through dialectical logic into subjective thought. Any attempt to lump together these opposite processes is eclecticism. Lenin comments on such an eclectical process as follows:

   ‘An old song, most worthy professor! This is a literal repetition of Berkeley who said that matter is a naked, abstract symbol. But it is Ernst Mach, in fact, who goes naked, for if he does not admit that “sensible Content” is an objective reality existing independently of us, there remains only a “naked abstract” I, an I infallibly written with a capital letter and italicised, equal to the “insane piano which imagined that it was the sole existing thing in the world”. If the “sensible Content” of our sensations is not the external world, then nothing exists save the naked I engaged in empty “philosophical” fancies. A stupid and fruitless occupation.’ (Page 43 Vol. 14)

   Lenin continues his merciless criticism of Mach’s naked idealism:

   ‘The eclecticism is particularly marked in Mach’s latest philosophical work, Knowledge and Error, 2nd. Edition, 1906. We have already seen that Mach there declared that “there is no difficulty in constructing every physical element out of sensation, i.e., out of psychical elements” … Well, well, the titmouse promised to set the sea on fire … i.e. to construct physical elements from psychical elements, and then it turns out that physical elements lie beyond the boundary of psychical elements “which lie within the body”. A remarkable philosophy!’ (Page 64 Vol.14)

   Richard Avenarius (1843-1896), eclectically combined such opposites as consciousness and matter – the psychical and the physical. Like all positivists, Avenarius interpreted practice as nothing but human sensation. For Avenarius, the whole world appeared as a complex of sensations, ‘or practices.’ His theory did not differ in any essential way from Berkeley’s idea that ‘the world is my sensation, the product of my mind.’ He [Berkeley] was the first exponent of empirio-criticism. Lenin then goes on to show the relation between the views of Mach and Avenarius and those of Johann Gottlieb Fichte, (1762-1814)

   ‘Their claim to have risen above materialism and idealism, to have eliminated the opposition between the point of view that proceeds from the thing to consciousness and the contrary point of view – is but the empty claim of renovated Fichteanism.’ (Page 69, Vol. 14)

  These cannot be eclectically combined within consciousness. Fichte advocated the method of subjective idealism, following Berkeley and Hume, but Lenin gives the view of materialist dialectics by emphasising one of the basic scientific disciplines proper to this method:

   ‘ … things, the environment, the world, exist independently of our sensation, of our consciousness, of our
self and of man in general … independently of us there exist other people, and not mere complexes of sensations of high, short, yellow, hard, etc. – this same experience produces in us the conviction that things, the world, the environment, exist independently of us. Our sensation, our consciousness is only an image of the external world, and it is obvious that an image cannot exist without the thing imaged, and that the latter exists independently of the former.  (Ibid)

he Dialectical Logic of Semblance

   The identity of the source of sensation in the external world provides the impulse for the simple negation into the thought image of sensation. The materiality and difference of its content initially contains only a shade, or a side, of the object in the external world which is responsible for the sensation. To proceed falsely with the methods of objective or subjective idealism is to immediately provide the image of sensation with a name. This is the starting point of bourgeois ideological dangers. Through the law of the interpenetration of opposites we understand the interpenetration of the object (external world) negated into subject, (individual). A quantity of matter had been negated into finite quality, which, through its limitation, contains contradiction. This in turn provides the impulse to negate the first simple negation, (negation of the negation), completing the negation of finite quality back into the constant quantitative motion of the infinite external world, and thus completing the three main laws of materialist dialectics. Meanwhile, the identity of the object initially responsible for the sensation has changed, through the infinite motion of all the objects in the external world. Throughout this change the three antitheses of the completion of the three main objective laws; (a) identity negated into difference (b) necessity into chance, and (c) cause into effect, are negated into the external world. The change is manifested in;  (a) the original object responsible for the identity of the source of sensation which now, because of the change  has become a different object, (b) chance has been negated into necessity, (c) effect into new cause.   

   The dialectical relation between the antithesis necessity and chance is established through synthesis with the historical, which provides the impulse for the third negation into Semblance as; (1) nothing, non-existent (Nichtigkeit) which exists as its form with (2) its content, being as a moment of historical change. In Volume 38 of the Collected Works, Lenin’s philosophical notebooks, Lenin implicitly warns that Semblance can be transformed through self-created images into scepticism and Kantianism respectively. These images could have their source in agnosticism or positivism and be presented through pre-selected images as well as a variety of Neo-Kantian selections, (see page 130 Volume 38), which as Hegel explains, ‘comprehends the whole range of these manifold (self-created) determinations. (Page 131 Volume 38)

   Lenin hits back sharply at the objective and subjective idealists in the box on page 131 of Volume 38 when he writes; ‘You include in Schein [semblance or show] all the wealth of the world and you deny the objectivity of Schein!!’ Within relative limits the form and content of semblance is objective, since it is negated from its source in the external world. Lenin defines semblance thus; ‘Semblance (that which shows itself) is the Reflection of Essence in (it) itself.’ (Page 133 Vol.38). The sides and shades of the identity of the external source of sensation are negated through the use of dialectical logic into Essence. These internal contradictions constitute a unity of the old and the new material moments which have been negated from the external world. They express the real motion of the external world, negated through different moments, containing internal contradiction.

   All bourgeois ideology, whether agnostic, positivist, or all shades of Kantianism, exists through the pasting of lifeless, self-created images over the ever-changing processes of the class struggle in the real world. Such a method is irreconcilable with dialectical materialism as the scientific theory of world social revolution.

To be continues by a further five parts.