Reading Lenin: Materialism and Empiro-criticism

March 18, 2013 12:00 am Published by Leave your thoughts

Lenin begins his book with “In Lieu of an Introduction” to set the stage for his attack on Russian Marxists (circa 1908) adopting positions that Lenin thinks are anti-materialist and based on what he considers to be the idealism of the physicist Ernst Mach.
It really is an introduction, about sixteen pages long, in which Lenin compares the so-called Marxists he is about to criticize to Bishop George Berkeley who is considered by many to have been a subjective idealist– i.e., someone who thinks the existence of “external” objects is dependent on the human mind.
Lenin says, “Denying the ‘absolute’ existence of objects, that is the existence of things outside human knowledge, Berkeley bluntly defines the view point of his opponents as being that they recognise the ‘thing-in-itself.'”
This is an unfortunate sentence, using as it does both Kantian terminology eighty years in advance of its creation and substituting the term “human knowledge” for Berkeley’s term “mind.”
A few pages later, Lenin corrects himself with a more nuanced view of Berkeley’s position. “Deriving ‘ideas’ from the action of a deity upon the human mind, Berkeley thus approaches objective idealism: the world proves to be not my idea but the product of a single supreme spiritual cause that creates both the ‘laws of nature’ and the laws distinguishing ‘more real’ ideas from less real, and so forth.”
Actually, Berkeley is an objective idealist as he holds that the objects we see existing in the world about us truly have an independent existence from human beings and the world would be just as it is even if there were no humans in existence. Lenin also believes this. What differentiates them is Berkeley has an extra entity which Lenin does not have– ie., a spiritual being “God” in whose Mind everything exists. Except for this, Lenin and Berkeley have pretty much the same world view (minus dialectics) when it comes to the “real” existence of the external world. Anyone who doubts this need only read “Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous” [1713]. In his desire to smash his contemporary philosophical opponents, Lenin has not given Berkeley his due. He is much more sophisticated than the people Lenin is opposing.
Berkeley’s philosophy of “to be is to be perceived” (esse est percipi) is nicely expressed by Ronald Knox:
There was a young man who said, “God
Must think it exceedingly odd
If he finds that this tree
Continues to be
When there’s no one about in the Quad.”
Dear Sir:
Your astonishment’s odd:
I am always about in the Quad.
And that’s why the tree
Will continue to be,
Since observed by
Yours faithfully,
Better is Lenin’s interpretation of the views of Hume and Diderot. His reading of Hume is filtered through Thomas Huxley (Darwin’s bull dog) and his 1879 book “Hume” from which he quotes. “‘Realism and idealism are equally probable hypotheses’ (i.e., for Hume). Hume does not go beyond sensations. ‘Thus the colours red and blue, and the odour of a rose, are simple impressions…. A red rose gives us a complex impression, capable of resolution into the simple impressions of red colour, rose-scent, and numerous others.” Hume admits both the ‘materialist position’ and the ‘idealist position;’ the ‘collection of perceptions’ may be generated by the Fichtean ‘ego’ or may be a ‘signification’ and even a ‘symbol’ of a ‘real something.’ This is how Huxley interprets Hume.” This is more or less how Hume is still interpreted and he is also still very popular in English speaking philosophical fora and lurks in the background of modern bourgeois philosophical “materialism” and “realism.”
In the same generation as Hume, Lenin appreciates the materialism of the French philosopher Diderot, and puts forth (in passing which I have emphasized) an important principle in the following quote. “And Diderot, who came very close to the standpoint of contemporary materialism (THAT ARGUMENTS AND SYLLOGISMS ALONE DO NOT SUFFICE TO REFUTE IDEALISM, AND HERE IT IS NOT A QUESTION FOR THEORETICAL ARGUMENT) notes the similarity of the premises both of the idealist Berkeley, and the sensationalist Condillac” (a French version of Locke from whom both he, Berkeley and Hume ultimately derive). We shall see later how important the passage I highlighted will become.
Lenin likes the way Diderot uses the example of a self-conscious piano to explain his views. Such a piano would be able to play on its own the “airs” played upon it. All the problems about the origin of our sensations– internal, external, etc., Diderot is quoted as saying would be solved by “a simple supposition which explains everything, namely, that the faculty of sensation is a general property of matter, or a product of its organisation.”
Now to conclude. This little introduction was just to give some background before Lenin takes up the cudgel against the “Marxist” idealists of his own day. We shall see that they all, to a greater or lesser extent, are influenced by the ideas of the Physicist Ernst Mach (remembered today not for his philosophy but for the Mach number– object speed divided by the speed of sound). “For the present,” then Lenin says, “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.”

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This post was written by Thomas Riggins

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