Gerry Healy


News Line, 19 May 1981, page 12.

Second in Lecture Series

   The Young Marx and Empiricism

   The original edition of the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, published in the German language, appeared between the months of March and August 1844. It brought to an end the era of idealist speculative philosophy whose mainspring in those days was Hegel, hence the significance of the chapter entitled Critique of the Hegelian Dialectic and the End of Philosophy as a Whole.

   Almost 90 years later, (1932), an edition was published in the English language, but it was not until 30 years on, (early 1960’s), that the present edition appeared, evoking some discussion in “New Left” and academic circles. This discussion had the disadvantage that a lot of time was spent speculating on the so-called differences between the “Young Marx” and the old Marx, as if he was not one and the same person.

   What was being evaded was his settling of accounts with Hegelianism. This chapter strikes powerful blows today at the source of the rampant idealism which has contributed so much to holding back the development of revolutionary Marxism among the working class and the intelligentsia in the major capitalist countries, and in particular in Britain.

   In a book entitled Communism and Philosophy, published shortly before he died, the late Maurice Cornforth, who for many years was a leading Communist Party intellectual, reveals much of this confusion. Cornforth was one of those Cambridge under-graduates of the early 1930’s who decided to devote their lives to the struggle for communism, only to find themselves trapped in the historical school of Stalinist falsification and betrayal.

   Cornforth soldiered on for Stalinism regardless, only to become more and more disorientated, especially after the revelations of the 20th Congress of the CPSU early in 1956. He then tended to retreat into the idealist and speculative philosophical hideouts of those intellectuals moving into the Fabian “peaceful road to socialism” camp of Labourite reformism, from whence they and Cornforth originated.

   Cornforth refers to a statement by Marx which appears in his introduction to the Manuscripts of 1844, that the contents of the Manuscripts were based upon a “wholly empirical analysis”. The relevant section reads:

   “It is hardly necessary to assure the reader conversant with political economy that my results have been attained by means of a wholly empirical analysis, based upon a conscientious critical study of political economy.” (Page 63, Lawrence and Wishart edition.)

   Later we will explain how this statement by Marx is wholly consistent with the dialectical process and practice of cognition. Let us, first of all, examine the context in which Cornforth is using it.  It would be wrong to assume that he is justifying empiricism as a method and quoting Marx to lend authority.

   This is not so, and he goes to great lengths to explain what he means by “empiricism”. First, he stresses his outright condemnation of what he calls the method of “vulgar empiricism”, which is the belief that all knowledge begins with the “sensuous perception of the external world”. Secondly, he replaces this method of living perception, which is, of course, empiricism, with the method of what he describes as “scientific empiricism”.

   On page 104, [Communism and Philosophy], he offers the following explanation of what he means:

   ‘Theorising about things or processes, the existences or occurrences of which are verifiable in experience and by reference to records of experience, and which arrives at conclusions by finding ways and means to test them in experience by reference to records is distinguished as “empirical”.

   ‘Thus “empirical” theorising and “empirical “ analysis preclude all abstract speculative theorising about theoretically postulated things or processes not verifiable in experience by reference to records or experience.’

  It is the point of view expresses here that prompts Cornforth to stress what he believes to be the ‘wholly empirical analysis’ of Marx. He uses the term ‘scientific empiricism’ in a neo-positivist way, emphasising the need for what amounts to ‘logical investigation’. Neo-positivism as a trend is especially common amongst scientists influenced by the ‘Vienna Circle’ amongst whose founders was the idealist philosopher Mach. It became especially influential amongst scientists after 1922, with Mach himself bringing some influence to bear on Einstein in his work on the theory of relativity.

   This is same Mach whose idealism Lenin criticised so sharply in Materialism and Empirio-Criticism. Such criticism, however, does not mean the Mach made no contribution to scientific developments. When studying Mach, who was an idealist philosopher, one must take into account that it is quite common for idealist philosophers to make positive contributions, as Mach did in his ‘physical analysis of mechanics’ in relation to the development of the theory of relativity.

   Unless this is done, we have to mistakenly assume that since the overwhelming body of scientists are idealists, then their contribution to science is irrelevant to Marxism. This in no way invalidates the fact that their neo-positivist ‘logical investigation’ of statements of the different branches of science, concerning their extension and development, is not the dialectical method of Marxism. On the contrary, as Lenin stressed in Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, (page 348), ‘The philosophy of the scientists Mach is to science what the kiss of the Christian Judas was to Christ.’

On The Process and Practice of Cognition

   Cornforth’s separation from what he calls ‘vulgar empiricism’ is a much more fundamental break from the dialectical method of Marx than at first would appear to be the case.

   ‘We do not’, he writes on page 106, ‘as some “vulgar” empiricist philosophers have made out, simply “receive” sense impressions, but we imaginatively conceive in what relation we find ourselves.’

   This is nothing more that a revamping of the Hegelian idealist method. For the question immediately arises, if we do not proceed from living perception through reflection of the objective world, but substitute instead subjective images of our relationships to it, then we are imposing these abstract image relationships upon the objective world. Cornforth is trapped in the Hegelian straightjacket. He fares no better when stressing the need to examine these abstract ‘image relationships’ with reference to further and even earlier abstract records of ‘verifiable experiences’ tested out by still even more earlier references to ‘records’ equally abstract.

   He is well and truly ‘estranged’ in these abstractions, and shouting about ‘scientific empiricism’ cannot get him off the hook. As we shall see, it takes him more deeply into the swamp of middle-class academics who slavishly rehash Hegelian idealism as ‘original thinking’. Meanwhile they scurry as fast as they can away from the working class and the socialist revolution into the camp of the bourgeois idealist counter-revolution.

   No matter how much theoretical knowledge the subject possesses and regardless of how many ‘records of experiences’ we have at our disposal to check it out, the subject must still make sensuous contact with the objective world. This is indeed an empirical beginning made through external reflection and cannot be avoided. Cornforth can call it ‘vulgar empiricism’ if he likes, but it is the dialectical method of Lenin who explains it as follows:

   ‘Knowledge is the reflection of Nature by Man. But this is not a simple, not an immediate, not a complete reflection but a process of a series of abstractions, the formation and development of concepts, laws etc, (through science = the logical idea), embrace conditionally, approximately the universal law-governed character of eternally moving and developing Nature.

   ‘Here there are actually, objectively three members; (1) Nature; (2) Human cognition = the human brain as the highest product of this same Nature and (3) the form of reflection of Nature in human cognition, and this form consists precisely of concepts, laws, categories etc.

   ‘Man cannot comprehend = reflect = mirror Nature as a whole, in its completeness, its “immediate totality”, he can only eternally come closer to this creating abstractions, concepts, laws, as scientific picture of the world, etc, etc.’ (Collected Works, Vol. 38, page 182.)

   The dialectical method of cognition is both a process and a practice. As the ‘reflection of Nature by man’ it is a process, but it is very much a matter of trained practice to avoid imposing an abstract image upon what you perceive, before you analyse the initially concealed properties of the ‘thing’ or content of the moment of the universal you reflect. The unity of subject and object through external reflection is not a one-sided predominance of the powers of the individual. The source of the sensation acquired through the reflecting unity of subject and object is in the external world, which objectively and independently predominates over the subject.

   The abstract image of sensation whose properties are still concealed is the thing-in-itself, which must not be prematurely imagined or have abstract images imposed upon it. It is the abstract image of the immediacy of the universal whole. With the emergence of this abstract universal whole (thing-in-itself) we have also the end of subjective Cognition.


   This abstract thing-in-itself is the true reflected image of the positive universal whole. Since subjective external reflection cannot control the objective world, we must penetrate it as reflectively we empirically find it.  But this is also the end of this initial empirical positive action. The positive then polarises into a negative which as a reflection of the self-movement of matter is also a ‘moving negative’ in transition into the abstract knowledge we possess.

   This transition produces essence in which the properties perceived build up to the point of existence, where they make their appearance as a part of a new whole. Essence is formed into appearance, through the transition of the sources of new knowledge into the old knowledge which we already possess. Contradiction emerges and is resolved through the appearance of Essence in existence. Quality, as the negative of the original Positive, becomes quantity through Negation of the Negation.

The Dialectical Method and Marx’s Empiricism

   The driving force within Cognition is Necessity created by objective Nature itself. We allow the properties continuously acquired through reflection to build up and manifest themselves through Essence into Appearance of parts; to be mentally re-constructed into a new whole in the actuality of the real world. This process of Cognition gives rise to Notions – theoretical ideas which then become a guide to practice.  This is the dialectical method expressed by Marx in his introduction to the Manuscripts.

   In the 1830’s and early 1840’s bourgeois economic theory was in the main guided by the method of Hegelian idealist Philosophy. A careful reading of the Introduction will reveal that his ‘wholly empirical analysis’ was based upon what he described as a conscientious critical study of political economy.

   He was anxious to avoid a work in which the parts would be treated in such a way that they would appear as a ‘general truth’. He set out to reveal the class struggle interconnections between political economy and ‘the state, law, ethics, civil life etc.’ To achieve this he had to avoid the impression of ‘arbitrary systemisation’ and let the subjects appear out of the blind necessity created by the class struggle against bourgeois political economy as a whole.

   His analysis therefore was ‘wholly empirical’ since he relied on the movement of the objective class struggle to guide his selection and political treatment of the parts interconnected through the necessity concealed in the class struggle with bourgeois economy. From the ‘wholly empirical analysis’ of the parts he proceeded to settle accounts with the ‘Hegelian dialectic and Philosophy as a whole.’ This method has nothing in common with the neo-positivism of Cornforth. Marx ‘set out to examine the class nature of bourgeois economy as it revealed itself in the political institutions of capitalism’.

   The neo-positivism of Cornforth reflects a totally different class content. He justifies his rejection of the dialectical method of Marxism in the following quotation:

   ‘At the same time, the “working class” and “working class movement” in the countries of advanced industrial capitalism have radically changed. A party espousing working-class interests cannot look for support just in so far as it espouses the interests mainly of the so-called industrial “proletariat”. With modern technique the latter are a stationary or dwindling quantity compared with the mass of technicians, scientific and technical workers and professional workers without which a modern society cannot function.’ (Pages 27-28 Communism and Philosophy)

   No one doubts the growth in numbers of technicians, white-collar and technical workers, but to say that they are replacing the industrial working class in Britain, as Cornforth implies, is to create a false impression to fit your own idealist theories.

   One can understand the reason why certain groups of scientists by the nature of the work which they do can be attracted for a time to the neo-positivist ‘logical investigation’ approach, but with Cornforth the issues are not the same. He has  turned away from the working class as the most progressive class and revolutionary force in history, whereas the white collar and technical workers have turned towards the working class as hundreds and thousands have joined their appropriate trade union and are to be found arms linked with the working class in one industrial action after another against Toryism today.

   And no one knows better than they how the blind alley of capitalist private ownership of the means of production creates millions of jobless and impending pauporisation of the masses. Cornforth’s false impressions are designed to fit the theory of the reformist peaceful road to socialism.

   The more the working class and its white collar allies move leftwards, the more Cornforth, who died a staunch member of the Communist Party, moves into the camp of class-collaboration and defeat. But that is not the camp of Marx who lived and died a great revolutionary fighter.