Gerry Healy


The Relevance of Materialism and Empirio-Criticism Today

Marxist Monthly. Vol. I, No. 8, October 1988

PART 1 of 6 PARTS.   

   This book is beyond doubt Lenin’s greatest work on materialist dialectics. It was written between February and October 1908 and published in May 1909. The urgency of compilation and publication revealed the determination of Lenin and the Bolsheviks to draw battle-lines between dialectical materialism and all international shades of bourgeois ideology

   Lenin wrote the book at a period of Russian history when the Czarist dictatorship had brutally suppressed the bourgeois revolution of 1905. By the end of 1907, the counter-revolution now firmly established, Lenin was obliged to embark on his second emigration which lasted approximately ten years. The ideological forms of the counter-revolution manifested themselves in science, literature and culture, accompanied by decadence and demoralisation. In philosophy the most reactionary forms of idealism flourished which denied the materialist law-governed character of nature, society and thought, by emphatically rejecting the scientific possibility of their cognition. Such reactionary counter-revolutionary forces singled out the working class and its Bolshevik leadership for attack with all the most pernicious political means at their disposal, hence the urgency for Lenin and the Party to champion the defence of Marxist philosophy as its most important historical task.

Ernst Mach (1838 - 1916)


   ‘Anyone in the least acquainted with philosophical literature’, wrote Lenin, (Materialism and Empirio-Criticism,Collected Works, Vol.14, page 22, 1972 edition.), must know that scarcely a contemporary professor of philosophy, (or theology), can be found who is not directly or indirectly engaged in refuting materialism. They have declared materialism refuted a thousand times, yet are continuing to refute if for the thousand and first time. All our revisionists are engaged in refuting materialism … The materialists, we are told, recognise something unthinkable and unknowable – “things in themselves” – matter “outside of experience” and outside our knowledge.’ (Op. Cit. page 23)

   Chief amongst these opponents of Lenin was Ernst Mach, 1838-1916, the Austrian physicist,   philosopher and subjective idealist. Mach was supported in his revisionist theory of Empirio-Criticism by Bognadov, 1873- 1938, a Russian philosopher, economists and Social Democrat. He joined the Bolshevik Party in 1903, was expelled in 1909, and went on to found the Organisation of Proletarian Culture, (Proletcult), in 1917. In 1899 he advocated the doctrine known as energism whose followers explained all phenomena of nature not through their material source but by charges in energy separated from its material source. Amongst these were Mach and W. Ostwald. The theoretical roots of ‘Energism’ are to be found in the successes achieved by natural science in the last decade of the nineteenth century, which resulted in changes in ideas concerning the forms of the structure of matter.

   The end of the nineteenth century saw a revolution in the forms of the natural sciences.  There was the discovery of X-rays in 1885, the presence of radio-activity in 1896, the discovery of the electron in 1897. Such leaps in the developments of the natural sciences encountered the utmost confusion of concepts previously elaborated empirically by scientists influenced by metaphysical thinking. To them, at first, the new discoveries in the field of physics appeared inexplicable. Hitherto, classical physics was based upon the metaphysical identification of changes in matter and its structure. Scientists steeped in metaphysical materialist categories became philosophical idealists. They began to repudiate the objective significance of scientific theory and replace it with pseudo-scientific theories about the disappearance of matter.

   The world-wide achievements of science itself, irrespective of whether the scientist proceeds from metaphysical and objective idealist tendencies or not, must, whether they like it or not, be materialist and dialectical, in whatever area of matter they are investigating. This applies even if the area in which the scientist is working is separated from all the others on a global scale. It is present in dialectical cognition which is responsible for revealing all developments in science. The theories of ‘energism’, as philosophical concepts advocated by Mach, Bogdanov, Ostwald and Others, to prove the disappearance of matter and its conversion into energy, were a conscious blow the materialist dialectics as a world scientific outlook. It deepened the crisis in physics and became the theoretical source for physical idealism.

   It was under such bourgeois ideological influences that the attack on physics became a problem for world science and an issue concerning the class struggle in Czarist Russia itself. The defeat of the 1905 revolution coincided with the preceding crisis within the scientific community and interacted with it in the reactionary aftermath of this defeat. Physical idealism provided an impulse towards religious mysticism and a movement away from Marxism among those scientists and intellectuals who had joined the Bolsheviks from 1905 onwards.

 From Mach to Kant, Hume, and Berkeley

   Mach and his followers proceeded from the agnostic philosophy of David Hume, (1711-1776), for whom reality was only a stream of impressions whose causes were unknown and unknowable. He insisted that the description of the world should include only ‘neutral elements of experience’ which he identified with sensations. For Mach, concepts were symbols or empty word forms denoting ‘complexes of sensations’. Things-in-themselves, and science in general, he regarded as a ‘totality of hypotheses’. Mach’s revisionist philosophy was connected with that of Kant, (1724-1804), who claimed that things-in-themselves were in principle inaccessible to human knowledge. All we could know of them was the phenomena of experience, and the external world beyond such phenomena he declared unknowable. In this relation Kant regarded knowledge, [that is, certain, a priori knowledge such as the laws of mathematics – Ed], as the necessary product of faith. Through this dualistic approach Kant related things in the external world with the phenomena of thought. In effect Kant’s understanding of the source of knowledge remained captive to this idealist dualism.

   In this relation, Kant’s dualism embraced Hume’s agnosticism. Dualism, for Kant, consisted of two worlds – the external world which is declared unknowable and the world of thought, phenomena, which  were primarily the only knowledge available of the external world. Thus the external material world was equated to the positivist world of thought.This positivism dated back to the idealist philosopher Bishop Berkeley, (1685-1783), who in his Treatise Concerning the History of Human Knowledge wrote:-

   ‘It is evident to anyone who takes a survey of the objects of human knowledge, that they are either ideas actually imprinted on the senses, or else such as are perceived by attending to the passions and operations of the mind; or lastly, ideas formed by the help of memory and imagination.’ (Quoted by Lenin, pages 23-24 Vol.14).

   In this relation Berkeley now replaces the expression ‘collection of ideas’ by what to him is an equivalent expression, ‘combination of sensations’. Berkeley accuses the materialists of a ‘repugnant tendency to go still further, of seeking some source of this complex – that is – combination of sensations, ‘to divorce the sensation from the object.’ He goes on, ‘in truth the object and the sensation are the same thing, and cannot therefore be abstracted from each other. (Page 25 Vol.14).

   For Berkeley, the notion of the external world was caused by God and the effect was the ‘symbol’ or the ‘idea’. He did not reject nature as such because he saw nature as the work of god. ‘We are not deprived of any one thing in nature’, he wrote. Nature remains and the distinctions between realities and chimeras remains, only ‘they both exist equally in the mind.’ Lenin explains Berkeley’s philosophy as follows:

   ‘Berkeley does not deny the existence of real things! He denies “only” the teaching of the philosophers, viz, the theory of knowledge, which seriously and resolutely takes as the foundation of all its reasoning the recognition of the external world and the reflection thereof in the minds of men.’ (Page 29, Vol.14)

   For Hume, the agnostic, God, whom he equated with faith, existed in the senses, and in opposition to the view that we can know the external world through sense perception he wrote:  

   ‘But this universal and primary opinion of all men is soon destroyed by the slightest philosophy, which teaches us that nothing can ever be present to the mind but an image of perception, and that the senses are only the inlets, through which these images are conveyed, without being able to produce any immediate intercourse between the mind and the object. The table, which we see, seems to diminish as we remove farther from it; But the real table, which exists independently of us, suffers no alteration; it was, therefore, nothing but its image, which was present to the mind. These are the obvious dictates of reason; and no man who reflects ever doubted that the existences which we consider when we say “this house” and “this tree” are nothing but perceptions in the mind … The mind has never anything present to it but perceptions, and cannot possibly reach any experience of their connection with objects. The supposition of such connection [with objects] is therefore, without any foundation in reasoning.’(Page 33-34 Vol.14)

   Lenin remarks that ‘Hume did not go beyond sensations’. He insisted that ‘our perceptions are our only objects’ The difference between the idealist Berkeley and the agnostic Hume was that for Berkeley the external world of nature was God’s work, whereas for Hume the external world was an ‘open question’. You could attribute it to God, but primarily it was a product of thought given by self-created images which already existed in the senses of the individual.


   The Empirio-Criticism of Mach, Bogdanov, Avenarius, Valentinov. Lunacharsky and Co. amounted to nothing more than sceptical speculation over their own self-created images. Such reactionary positivist equalisation of the ‘thinking subject’ to the ‘objective external world’ had its historical foundations in Berkeley, Hume and Kant.  Lenin remarks:

‘For the present we shall confine ourselves to one conclusion. The recent Machists have not adduced a single argument against the materialists that had not been adduced by Bishop Berkeley’. (Page 38 Vol.14)

   Empirio-criticism was simply one of the varieties of subjective idealism. Berkeley, Hume and Kant, together with Mach and his followers were in essence the sceptical free-thinking subjective idealists of their day. The Soviet philosopher Ilyenkov in his booklet Leninist Dialectics and the Metaphysics of Positivism likened philosophy to a seed, or genes in which ‘are concealed the still undeveloped, insufficiently clear contours and features of future positions, [and disagreements], concerning the most stirring problems, not only of today, which have already taken shape, but of tomorrow, which have already begun to show in outline, (Page 10)

   Two months into his preparations for writing Materialism and Empirio-Criticism Lenin had his last meeting with the Machists in Capri. After this meeting he decided that an all-out confrontation with the advocates of Empirio-Criticism had become unavoidable. As Ilyenkov emphasised , the ‘battle was inevitable. Once he returned from Capri Lenin plunged headlong into philosophy, pushing aside everything else no matter how much more important its seemed. “Never before have I neglected my newspaper so much. I read these wretched Machists for days on end. Yet I write articles for the newspaper with incredible haste.”’ (Op.Cit. page16)

   There was still a further factor in the growth of Empirio-Criticism or ‘critical experiment’ at the beginning of the 20th century. The epoch of imperialism had by that time been firmly established as the predominant trend in world capitalism. In the period leading up to World War I, (1914-18), the ruling classes of the major capitalist countries turned away from the bourgeois democracy established in the earlier pre-imperialist stage of capitalism. This applied especially in the fields of politics, economics and ideology where it took positivist subjective idealist forms of international opportunism. Empirio-Criticism appeared especially to the Russian Social Democratic physicists and scientists in general to be a ‘uniquely scientific philosophy’. For those who paraded as ‘disciples of Marx’ the positive equation of the ‘critical experiment of the subject’ with the world-wide development of the sciences as a whole provided a left cover for a reactionary individualist content.

 Lenin’s Struggle Against Gorky

Karl Kautsky, the reactionary leader of German Social Democracy, was quick to nail his Machist colours to the mast by claiming that Mach’s ‘theory of knowledge’ opened up the possibility of ‘supplementing Marxism’. A similar point of view was held by the Austrian social-democrat Fritz Adler. In a letter to Maxim Gorky on February 13, 1908, Lenin expressed himself most firmly against the ‘empirios’ as he called the subjective idealist philosophers Mach, Avenarius Bogdanov, Bazarov, Lunacharsky and others.

   ‘It is in regard to materialism as a world outlook that I think I disagree with you in substance. Not the “materialist conception of history”, (our “empirios” do not deny that), but philosophical materialism. That the Anglo-Saxons and the Germans owed their philistinism  to “materialism” and the Romance peoples their anarchism is something I emphatically dispute. Materialism as a philosophy, was everywhere pushed into the background by them.Neue Zeit, that most sober and well-informed organ, is indifferent to philosophy, was never a zealous supported of philosophical materialism, and of late has been publishing the empirio-critics without a single reservation. It is wrong, absolutely wrong, to think that dead philistinism could be deduced from the materialism which Marx and Engels taught! All the philistine trends in Social Democracy are most of all at war with philosophical materialism, [dialectical materialism – GH], No, the philosophy which Engels substantiated in Anti-Düring  keeps philistinism at arms-length. Plekhanov does harm to this philosophy by linking the struggle here with the factional struggle, but after all no Social Democrat ought to confuse the present Plekhanov with the old Plekhanov.’(See pages 385-386 Vol. 34, Collected Works, V.I. Lenin)

   Plekhanov here was striving to reduce the intensity of the factional with struggle against the Empirio-Critics.By doing so he was confusing the factional form which was contradiction, with its subjective idealist content. Whilst Plekhanov opposed Machist revisionism, his opposition was limited, because he failed to understand the connection between the subjective idealism of Mach and the crisis in the natural sciences. This was especially important because it revealed a movement away by Plekhanov from materialist dialectics as a world scientific outlook. Instead he tried to cover his political tracks of Menshevik factionalism by eclectically seeking to combine Machist revisionism with Bolshevism. He evaded the central issue in the dispute – that it is impossible to be a Marxist without being a firm advocate of materialist dialectics in philosophy. Lenin, in a private letter to Maxim Gorky on March 24, 1908, wrote:

   ‘Plekhanov, at bottom, is entirely right in being against them, only he is unable or unwilling or too lazy to say so concretely, in detail, simply, without unnecessarily frightening his readers with philosophical nuances. And at all costs I shall say it in my own way.’ (Op. Cit. page 388)

Lenin continues his struggle to win Gorky to his point of view:

   ‘What kind of “reconciliation” can there be, dear AM?  [AM is Maxim Gorky – GH]  Why it is ludicrous even to mention it. A fight is absolutely inevitable. And Party people should devote their efforts not to slurring it over, putting it off or dodging it, but to ensuring that essential Party work does not suffer in practice … How is this to be done? By “neutrality”? No, there cannot be and will not be any neutrality on such an issue.’ Further on in the letter Lenin continues, ‘You write the Mensheviks will gain from a fight. You are mistaken, AM! They will gain if the Bolshevik faction does not dissociate itself from the philosophy of the three Bolsheviks. In that case they will definitely win. But if the philosophical fight goes on outside the faction, the Mensheviks will definitely be reduced to a political line and that will be the death of them.’ (Ibid.)

Nine years later, in October 1917, Lenin’s historical prediction was verified. His patience with Maxim Gorky kept the latter in the camp of the Bolshevism. But working on Materialism and Empirio-Criticism in 1908, he revealed his enormous political patience with Gorky when he wrote ‘I think you could help a lot here – provided that, on reading my book, (Materialism and Empirio-Criticism) against ‘Studies’, you don’t become as furious with against me as I became against them’. (Page 90 Vol. 34). The same political patience is revealed in a postscript to a letter dated 16 April 1908 that Lenin sent to Lunacharsky who had openly declared for the Empirio-Criticism of Mach. The PS read: ‘I cannot return your compliments and I think you will soon take yours back. As for me, I have parted company (and probably for a longtime) with the preachers of  “the union of scientific socialism and religion” and with Machists as well. (Op.Cit. page 392.)

   In a further letter to Gorky, April16 1908, Lenin demonstrated what his firm defence of materialist dialectics against Machism meant. Referring to the symposium ‘Karl Marx 1818-1883’ he said:

   ‘I have already sent to be printed the most formal declaration of war. There is no longer any room for diplomacy here – of course I am speaking of diplomacy not in the bad sense, but in the good sense of the word. “Good” diplomacy on your part dear AM, (if you, too, have not come to believe in God), should consist in separation our joint (ie including myself) affairs in philosophy. A talk on other matters than philosophy won’t come off now; it would be unnatural.’

   In a postscript to Gorky’s wife, MF, Lenin writes; ‘Best regards to MF, she is not for God by any chance, is she? (Op. Cit. page 393)  

                  Lenin Rejects Yushkevich

    On November 10, 1908, Lenin wrote a letter to P. Yushkevich, a leading social Democrat and supporter of Mach. Addressing him curtly as ‘sir’, he wrote;

   ‘I do not agree with diluting Marxism nor to a free tribune in publications I know nothing of.’ (Op. Cit. page 396)

   Yushkevich was a prominent disciple of Mach who advocated ‘Empirio-Symbolism’. This was a term used to denote his variety of ‘critical experiences’. The main idea was that concrete truths were essences which were only symbols and did not reflect anything real. Both the mathematician Poincaré (1854-1912) and the physicist Mach considered matter as a logical symbol. For Yushkevich the objective world was only an aggregate of ‘symbols’. In effect Empirio-Symbolism is a subjective idealist trend.

   According to Bogdanov who, like Yuchkevich, was a foremost disciple of Mach and an advocate of ‘Empirio-Monism’, every process was organised experience, understood idealistically as a totality of sense-data. For Bogdanov the physical world consisted of experience organised socially and collectively, interacting with it, from which individuals could draw their own conclusions. Empirio-Monism equalised social being and social consciousness and was opposed by Lenin and Plekhanov.

To be continued by a further five parts.