Gerry Healy


The Relevance of Materialism and Empirio-Criticism Today

(Marxist Monthly Vol. 1 No. 10, December 1988)

                                                      PART THREE OF SEVEN PARTS


   All shades of Idealism start from the primacy of thought in which nature is of secondary importance. In the work under review, Lenin’s Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, which appears in Volume 14 of his Collected Works, Lenin writes:

    ‘In his  Ludwig Fuerbach, Engels declares that the fundamental philosophical trends are materialism and idealism. Materialism regards nature as primary and spirit as secondary; it places being first and thought second.  (Collected Works, Vol. 14, page 99)  Lenin goes on, quoting Engels:

  ‘Engels shows that there is “yet another side” to this basic philosophical Question, viz., “in what relation do our thoughts about the world surrounding us stand to this world itself? Is our thinking capable of the cognition of the real world? Are we able in our ideas and notions of the real world to produce a correct reflection of reality?  The overwhelming majority of Philosophers give an affirmative answer to this question.”’ (Page 99-100 Vol. 14). Foremost amongst those are philosophers trained in the use of dialectical logic as the theory of knowledge.

   There is another group of philosophers, Engels continues, ‘those who question the possibility of any cognition, of at least an exhaustive cognition of the world. To ` them, among the more modern ones, belong Hume and Kant … against whom Hegel had already presented the decisive arguments … The most telling refutation of this and all other philosophical crotchets (Schrullen) is practice, namely experiment and industry.’ (Page 101 Vol. 14).

The Thing-in-Itself – “From Ignorance to Knowledge.”

   Things exist independently and objectively in the external world beyond the range of our consciousness. These ‘things’ or ‘things in themselves, are knowable’, says Engels, in refutation of all shades of agnosticism, whether their origin is from Berkeley, Hume, Kant or Mach. Thus from coal tar, we can produce the dye alizarin, although as Lenin explains: ‘It is beyond doubt that alizarin existed in coal tar yesterday, yet it is equally beyond doubt that yesterday we knew nothing of the existence of this alizarin and received and received no sensations from it.’ From this, he concludes, ‘there is definitely no difference in principle between the phenomenon and the thing-in-itself, and there cannot be any such difference. The only difference is between what is known and what is not yet known. (P.103 Vol.14).  

   Dialectical logic as a theory of knowledge is a world scientific outlook. It starts with the proposition that our knowledge is relative, developing through continuous changes which are not immediately perceptible in our consciousness. Thus, processes of which we are ignorant today, can be consciously perceived by us tomorrow, for, as Lenin insists, ‘incomplete and in inexact knowledge becomes more complete and more exact’ (P, 103 Vol. 14) … ‘Once we accept the point of view that human knowledge develops from ignorance, we shall find millions of examples of it, just as simple as the discovery of alizarin in coal tar, millions of observations not only in the history of science and technology but in the everyday life of each and every one of us, that illustrate the transformation “things-in-themselves” into “things-for-us”, the appearance of phenomena when our sense organs experience an impact from external objects, the  disappearance of phenomena when some obstacle prevents the action upon our  sense-organs of an object which we know to exist.’ (Page 103 Vol.14)

   Materialist dialectics, through the use of dialectical logic, enables us to understand that ‘outside of us, independently of us, there exist objects, things, bodies and that our perceptions are images of the external world.’ . (P.103 Vol.14).

   The agnostic is eclectically unable to distinguish his or her ‘I think’ from the materialist theory of knowledge, whose starting point is the identity of the external source of sensation, through the interaction of ‘things-in-themselves’, independently of consciousness. Lenin insists that ‘the “objective truth” (gegenstaendliche Wahrheit) of thinking means nothing else than the existence of objects, things-in-themselves, truly reflected by thinking … phenomena are “things-far-us” or copies of the objects in themselves.’ (P.104 VoI.14).

   In the process of cognition, the dangers of the agnostic approach continually arise. Practice, instead of being the most important category in the theory of knowledge is reduced to ‘blind activity’, which is guided by a theory based upon fixed self-created images. It never leaves the sensuous area of agnosticism In Volume 14, Lenin emphasises what Engels, Feuerbach and J. Dietzgen had to say in the struggle  against the agnostics. Engels writes:

   ‘Our agnostic admits that all our knowledge is based upon the information  imparted to us by our senses’. The agnostic informs us that ‘whenever he speaks of objects or their qualities, he does in reality not mean these objects and qualities, of which he cannot know anything for certain, but merely the impressions which they have produced on his senses’ (P.107 Vol.14).

   Lenin then poses the all important question:

  ‘What two lines of philosophical tendency does Engels contrast here? One line is that the senses give us faithful images of things, that we know the things in themselves, that the outer world acts on our sense organs. This is materialism – with which the agnostic is not in agreement. What then is the essence of the agnostic line? It is that he does not go beyond sensations, that he stops this side of phenomena, refusing to see anything “certain” beyond the boundary of sensations.’ (P.1 08 VoI.14).

   These are the philosophical roots of eclecticism. Nobody will launch a forthright attack on dialectical logic as a theory of knowledge, but in practice they will proceed as agnostics peddling their own self-created images. Lenin continues the explanation:

   ‘When Mach says objects are complexes of sensations Mach is a Berkeleian; when Mach “corrects himself, and says that “elements” (sensations) can be physical in one connection and psychical in another, Mach is an agnostic, a Humean. Mach does not go beyond these two lines in his philosophy, and it requires extreme naivete to take this muddlehead at his word and believe that he has actually “transcended”  both materialism and idealism. From the moment we turn to our own use these objects, according to the qualities we perceive in them, we put to an infallible test the correctness or otherwise of our sense-perceptions. If these perceptions have been wrong, then our estimate of the use to which an object can be turned must also be wrong, and our attempt must fail. But if we succeed in accomplishing our aim, if we find that the object does agree with our idea of it, and does answer the purpose we intended it for, then that is positive proof that our perceptions of it and of its qualities so far, agree with reality outside ourselves.’ (Page 108-9 Vol. 14)

                                                         Determinations of Reflection

   The materialist theory of reflection starts from the identity of the external source of the image of sensation. A training in the use of dialectical logic enables us to negate the ‘In-Itself’ of objects responsible for the sensation. These objects, existing independently of us in the external world, interact with one another as process. The law of negation of the negation reveals them as
shades or sides within which is the ever-changing universal material whole. Through he negation of the negation and the completion of objective laws we establish a synthesis with the historical which in turn provides the impulse for analysis. (See Part 2, November 1988 ‘Marxist Monthly’).

   The historical cannot be chopped into pre-selected abstract and lifeless quotations. It can only be understood as history in a state of ‘becoming’, that is, in a state of constant motion. In this dialectical relation the process of becoming manifests the unity of the mutually contradictory moments of ‘arising’ and ‘passing away’. The ‘superseding’ of ‘becoming’, which Lenin outlines in the footnotes on P.107 of Vol. 38, requires us to
analyse this contradictory process. The material for analysis is contained within the synthesis of history in a state of becoming. Such analysis reveals an ever changing form which whilst manifesting the historical properties of the ‘content’ cannot be Identical since it contains the ‘in-itself’ of an object which incorporates the contradiction between form and content dialectically responding to the process of history in a state of ‘becoming’.

   Without a dialectical understanding of the role of contradiction which is existent matter in constant motion and change, it is impossible to apprehend the
essence of dialectically negated knowledge. For essence in its three subdivisions, Semblance, Appearance and Actuality, is a process through which dialectically negated ‘shades’ or ‘parts are reflected as contents of  internal contradiction as a ‘sum and unity of opposites’. These ‘parts’ as ‘opposites’ are analysed independently and in opposition to one another, a process dialectically  establishes the truth of their appearance, in which their common substance is established.  This substance contains the process causality of its ‘parts’, whose material properties become more pronounced through the negation of cause into effect, and vice-versa into and from the external world. The Actuality of this process then becomes the fore-runner of Notions whose theoretical implications guide our practice in the external world of the class struggle. The constant solution of contradictions requires the reduction of constant positive negations from the Identity of the source of external excitation and their analysis as historical contents as the ‘in-itself’ of its ever-changing forms.

   Lenin, in a series of quotations from Hegel, establishes that -

   ‘Truth, too, is the Positive, as knowledge, corresponding with its
object, but it is this self-equality only insofar as knowledge has already taken up a negative attitude to the Other, [the Positive- GH], has penetrated the object. (Page 137, Vol. 38)

subject which negates truth from the Positive external world, interpenetrates the objective external world which, in turn, obliges the cognising subject to proceed to further negations so that the ‘shades’ or ‘parts’ become more pronounced.  Lenin continues to quote Hegel -

   ‘If now the primary Determinations of reflection – Identity, Variety and  opposition – are established in a proposition, then the determination into which they pass over as into their truth (namely Contradiction) should much more so be comprehended and expressed in a proposition: all things are contradictory in themselves, in this meaning, that
this proposition as opposed to the others expresses much better the truth and essence of things.’ (Page 138 Vol. 38)

   Standing Hegel on his materialist feet,
Identity is the source of sensation in the external world. Through a variety of negations which record the motion and change of the object at the external source of sensations, each ‘shade’ and ‘part’ is in opposition to one another. This records the build-up of the properties of each negation through internal contradiction. The ‘Determinations of Reflection’ which are activated at the external Identity of the source of the image of sensation. As Lenin approvingly quotes Hegel in explaining the dialectics of Variety: ‘This negation further determines itself into Opposition, which now is posited Contradiction.’ (P.139 VoI.38).

   Lenin continues quoting Hegel with approval:

   ’But it has been a fundamental  prejudice of hitherto existing logic, and of ordinary imagination, that Contradiction is a determination having less essence and immanence than Identity; but indeed, if there were any question of rank, and the two determinations had to be fixed as separate, Contradiction would have to be taken as  the more profound and the more fully essential. For opposed to it Identity is only the determination of simple Immediacy, or of dead Being, while Contradiction is the
root of all movement and vitality, and it is only in so far as it contains a contradiction that anything moves and has impulse and activity’ (P.139 VoI.38).

   Since the dialectical relation between the material objective world and social consciousness is a material and physical relationship, contradiction cannot be reduced to an idealist image since it  contains as essential material content.

                                                          The Process of Cognition.

On page 110 of Volume 14 Lenin gives a quotation from Engels:

   ‘So long as we take care to train and to use our senses properly, and to keep our action within the limits prescribed by perceptions properly made and properly used, so long we shall find that the result of our action proves the conformity of our perceptions with the objective nature of the things perceived. Not in one single instance, so far, have we been led to the conclusion that our sense-perceptions scientifically controlled, induce in our minds ideas respecting the outer world that are, by their very nature, at variance with reality, or that there is an inherent incompatibility between the outer world and our sense-perceptions of it.’

   Approximately half a century later, Leon Trotsky had occasion to refer to the need ‘to train and use our senses properly’ in his compilation entitled ‘In Defence of Marxism’ (Page 70), and to write: ‘Dialectic training of the mind, as necessary to a revolutionary fighter as finger exercises to a pianist, demands approaching all problems as
processes [emphasis in original] and not as motionless categories.’ The reference by Engels to ‘sense perception scientifically controlled’ refers to the use of dialectical logic as a world scientific outlook which is the theory of knowledge of materialist dialectics. Without such a scientific control, those who remain untrained slide over to the camps of agnosticism and subjective idealism.

Lenin refers to this danger as follows: ‘By means of the Machist expression “immediately given”, you begin to confuse the difference between agnosticism, idealism and materialism. To emphasise how this the confusion can arise, Lenin quotes Bazarov as a follower of Mach who claims that ‘the real can be found only beyond the boundaries of everything that is
immediately given.  

   This is followed by a simplified description of the sources of confusion. ‘For the materialist the “factually given” is the outer world, the image of which is our sensations. For the idealist, the “factually given”, is sensation, and the outer world is declared to be a “complex of sensations”. For the agnostic  the “immediately given” is also sensation, but the agnostic
does not go on either to the materialist recognition of the reality of the outer world, or to the idealist recognition of the world as our sensation.’ (P .111-112 VoI.14).

   Lenin continues on the same page: ‘And from Engels’ words it is perfectly clear that for the materialist, real being lies
beyond the bounds of the “sense-perceptions ..  impressions and ideas of man, while for the agnostic, it is impossible to go beyond the bounds of these perceptions. Bazarov believed Mach, Avenarius and Schuppe when they said that the “immediately” (or factually) given, connects the perceiving self with the perceived environment in the famous “Indissoluble” co-ordination, and endeavours, unobserved by the reader, to impute this nonsense to the materialist Engels!’ ,(p .112 V01.14) .. .’There are no other senses except human, ie “subjective” senses, for we are speaking from the standpoint of man and not of a hobgoblin. You, [Bazarov-GH],  are again starting to impute Machism to Engels,  imply that he says: the agnostic regards senses, or, to be more precise, sensations, as only subjective (which the agnostic does not do!) while Avenarius and I have “co-ordinated” the object into an indissoluble connection with the subject: (P.112-113 VoI.14). Such an ‘indissoluble connection’ can only be understood as a ‘complex of sensations’.

                                             Transcendence of Self-Created Images

   Ludwig Feuerbach emphasised that ‘the world in itself is a world that exists without us’. (P.118 Vo1.14)  ‘It is ridiculous’, said Feuerbach, ‘to postulate a “transcendence” from the world of phenomena to the world-in-itself, a sort of   impassable gulf created by priests and taken over from them by the professors of philosophy.’ (P .118 VoI.14). ‘Transcendence is a transition from the image of sensation to a judgment which consists of another self-created Image which creates a barrier between the world of thought phenomena and the real material world in itself. It thus creates a boundary between the world-in-itself negated through moving abstractions, i.e,. negations of internal contradictions, (unity of ‘old’ and ‘new’), and their transition into appearance’.

   The objects in the external world which form the source of our notions and ideas are distinct from our notions and ideas as products of nature. As Lenin explains in Vol. 14, P.119: ‘The objects of our ideas are distinct from our ideas, the thing-in-itself from the thing-for-us, for the latter is only a part, or only one aspect, of the former, just as man himself is only a fragment of nature reflected in his ideas.

    In Vol. 38 of his Collected Works, in an article on page 361 entitled On the Question of Dialectics, Lenin expands on this relation when he writes: ‘Every universal is (a fragment, or an aspect, or the essence of) an individual’  The ‘Universal’ here is nature. That is why ‘every individual enters incompletely into the universal. etc, etc’ negating fragments or sides of objects in the process of continuous change. ‘Sensation’, writes Lenin, ‘is the action of a thing-in-itself, existing objectively outside us, upon our sense organs – such is Feuerbach’s theory. Sensation is a subjective image of the objective world, of the world in-and-for itself.’

   Returning to volume 14, we find Lenin making the same point;

   ‘All the mysterious, sage and subtle distinctions between the appearance and the thing-in-itself are sheer philosophical balderdash. In practice each one of us has observed time without number the simple and obvious transformation of the “thing-in-itself” into phenomenon, into the “thing-tor-us”. It is precisely this transformation that is cognition’ (P.120 Vol. 14).

   Lenin approvingly quotes Joseph Dietzgen , the American philosopher, on this process as follows:  ‘We shall easily see that the ‘world in itself’ and the world as it
appears to us, the phenomena of the world, differ from each other only as the whole [world-in-itself, GH] differs from its parts .. [shades or sides which are negated from the whole, GH]. A phenomenon differs no more and no less from the thing which produces it than the ten-mile stretch of a road differs from the road itself ,” ‘But a difference, there is, to be sure, viz, the passage beyond the bounds of sense-perceptions, to the existence of things outside us. (P 120, Vol.14)

   ‘Feuerbach, and J. Dietzgen after him, vigorously dispute any “fundamental” difference between the transformation of the thing-in-itself into the thing-for-us’, writes Lenin. ‘The reason for Bogdanov’s distortion of materialism lies in his failure to understand the relation of absolute to relative truth.’ (P.122 Vol. 14).  

                                                  Dialectical Relation Between Absolute
                                                               and Relative Truth

  Whilst sensation is a subjective image of the objective world if negated through the method of dialectical logic, it must be objective as the ‘in-itself’ of its finite historical content. Bogdanov, in his book Empiro-Monism which is quoted by Lenin on P.122 Vol. 14, declares:

   ‘As I understand it, Marxism contains a denial of the unconditional objectivity of any truth whatsoever, the denial of all eternal truths. What is meant by “
unconditional objectivity “?  “Truth for all eternity” is “objective truth in the absolute meaning of the word”, say Bogdanov in the same passage, and agrees to recognise “objective truth only within the limits of a given epoch.”’

   Lenin continues on the same page:

   ‘Two questions are obviously confused here: 1) Is there such a thing as objective truth, that is, can human ideas have a
content that does not depend on a subject, that does not depend either on a human                           being or on humanity?  2) Is so, can human ideas, which give expression to objective truth, express in all at one time, as a whole, unconditionally, absolutely, or only approximately, relatively? The second question is a question of the relation of absolute truth to relative truth … it is impossible to deny absolute truth without denying the existence of objective truth.’

   Bogdanov, as a subjective idealist, claimed that
‘truth is an Ideological form, an organising form of human experience’, (our emphasis, P.123 Vol. 14). In other words, ‘there can be no truth independent of humanity; there can be no objective truth.’ (Ibid.). To such declarations of subjective idealist agnosticism Lenin firmly replied:

    ‘Natural science leaves no room for doubt   that its assertion that the earth existed prior to man is a truth, This is entirely compatible with the materialist theory of knowledge: the existence of the thing reflected independent of the reflector (the independence of the external world from the mind) is the fundamental tenet of materialism’. If Mach is right, then, writes Lenin, ‘the assertion that the earth exists outside any human experience cannot be true.’ (P.124 Vol. 14).

   ‘But that is not all,’ Lenin continues. ‘If truth is only an organising form of human experience, then the teachings, say of Catholicism are also true. For there is not the slightest doubt that Catholicism is an “organising form of human experience” … Catholicism has been “socially organised, harmonised and co-ordinated” by centuries of development; it “
fits In” with the “chain of causality in the most indisputable manner; for religions did not originate without cause, it is not by accident that they retain their hold over the masses under modern conditions, and it is quite “in the order of things .. that professors of philosophy should adapt themselves to them’ (P.125 Vol. 14). Bogdanov’s ‘organising forms’ were a direct connection with religious experience and neo-Thomism. He was thus revealed as a solipsist and subjective idealist.

   Mach and his followers, such as Bogdanov, falsely claimed that all our knowledge was relative, which excluded ‘even the least admission of absolute truth. (P. 134 Vol.14). To which Lenin replies: ‘Human thought then by its nature is capable of giving, and does give, absolute truth, which is compounded of a sum-total of relative truths. Each step in the development of science adds new grains to the sum of absolute truth, but the limits of the truth of each scientific proposition are relative, now expanding, now shrinking with .he growth of knowledge.’ (P.135 Vol. 14). ‘When and under what circumstances we reached, in our knowledge of the essential nature of things, the discovery of alizarin in coal tar or the discovery of electrons in the atom is historically conditional … It is the boundary between dialectical materialism and relativism.’ (P.136 Vol. 14).

   We negate ‘shades’ and ‘sides’ from the infinite universal ‘whole’ of the external world. Each negation is
relative to the previous one as well as to future negations. Such ‘shades’ or ‘sides’, when they become the subject of analysis emerge as relative ‘parts’ of the absolute ‘whole’, Or as Lenin explains this process on P.360 Vol. 38:

   ‘The distinction between subjectivism, (scepticism, sophistry etc.), and dialectics, incidentally, is that 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 Criterion of Practice in the Theory of Knowledge

   Marx in his second thesis on Feuerbach ‘placed the criterion of practice at the basis of the materialist theory of knowledge’: ‘The dispute over the reality or non-reality of thinking which is isolated from practice is a purely scholastic question,’ says Marx.’ (P.138 Vol. 14). As Lenin explains in Volume 38 of his Collected Works which contains his Philosophical Notebooks:
Practice is higher than (theoretical) knowledge, for it has not only the dignity of universality, but also of immediate actuality.’ (P.213 Vol. 38). Pragmatists and subjective idealists do not work with a theory of knowledge. They regard ‘success’ that which is needed by them to ensure success in their practice.

    Lenin quotes Mach as follows:

   ‘In practice,’ Mach writes in the Analysis of Sensations, ‘we can do as little without the idea of the self when we perform any act, as we can do without the idea of a body when we grasp at a thing.’ (P.140 Vol. 14). This egotistical point of view was explained by Lenin, who emphasised that ‘egoism is not an epistemological category’. (P .140 Vol. 14). ‘The question of the apparent movement of the sun around the earth is also beside the point, for in practice, which serves us as a criterion in the theory of knowledge, we must include also the practice of astronomical observations, discoveries, etc. There remains only Mach’s valuable admission that in their practical life men are entirely and exclusively guided by the materialist theory of knowledge; the attempt to obviate it “theoretically” is characteristic of Mach’s gelehrte scholastic and twisted idealistic endeavours.’ (P.140 Vol. 14).

   In the history of philosophy this was the position of G.E. Schulze, who occupied a position between Kant and Fichte. He justified the philosophy of scepticism in the following way: ‘“My scepticism does not concern the requirements of practical life,
but remains within the bounds of philosophy’ (our emphasis, GH. See P.141 Vol. 14). As Lenin analyses: ‘Feuerbach also, like Marx and Engels, makes an impermissible – from the point of view of Schulze, Fichte and Mach – “leap” to practice in the fundamental problems of epistemology. Criticising idealism, Feuerbach explains its essential nature by the following striking quotation from Fichte, which superbly demolishes Machism ‘You assume,’ writes Fichte, ‘that things are real, that they exist outside of you, only because you see them, hear them and touch them. But vision, touch and hearing are only sensations … You perceive not the objects but only your sensations.”, (our emphasis – GH. P.142 Vol. 14). ‘To which Feuerbach replies that a human being is not an abstract I, but either a man or woman, and the question whether the world is sensation can be compared to the question: is another human being my sensation, or do our relations in ,practical life prove the contrary?’

Feuerbach continues: ‘The fundamental defect of idealism is precisely that it asks and answers the question of objectivity and subjectivity, of the reality or unreality of the world, only from the standpoint of theory’ The answer must be proved in practice. Or as Lenin explains it: ‘Before we
perceive we breathe; we cannot exist without air, food and drink … If what our practice confirms is the sole, ultimate and objective truth, then from this must follow the recognition that the only path to this truth is the path of science, which holds the materialist point of view.’ (P.143 Vol. 14). Lenin continues:

   ‘The correspondence of this theory to practice cannot be altered by any future circumstances, for the same simple reason that makes it an eternal truth that Napoleon died on May 5, 1821. But inasmuch as the criterion of practice, i.e., the course of development of all capitalist countries in the last few decades, proves only the objective truth of Marx’s
whole social and economic theory in general, and not merely of one or other of its parts, formulations, etc., it is clear that to talk here of the “dogmatism” of the Marxists is to make an unpardonable concession to bourgeois economics. The sole conclusion to be drawn from the opinion held by Marxists that Marx’s theory is an objective truth is that by following the path of Marxian theory we shall draw closer and closer to objective truth (without ever exhausting It); but by following any other path we shall arrive at nothing but confusion and lies.’ (P.143 Vol. 14).

To be followed by a further four parts.