Lenin on Freedom and Necessity

December 15, 2013 12:00 am Published by Leave your thoughts

This is a short section but exceedingly interesting. It begins with a quote from Lunacharsky praising Engels for having a “wonderful page” in “Anti-Dühring” which he says is a “wonderful page of religious economics.” Lunacharsky says this might lead a non-religious person to “smile.” Lenin says it rather leads not to a smile but a feeling of “disgust” with his (Lunacharsky’s) “flirtation with religion.” This, along with the last section, is giving me the impression that Lenin didn’t care much about religion.

The passage from Engels is so important that Lenin quotes it in its entirety, and I must also if we are to see how off base Lunarcharsky’s interpretation is. Here is what Engels wrote:

“Hegel was the first to state correctly the relation between freedom and necessity. To him, freedom is the appreciation of necessity. ‘Necessity is BLIND only INSOFAR AS IT IS NOT UNDERSTOOD. Freedom does not consist in an imaginary independence from natural laws, but in the knowledge of these laws, and in the possibility this gives of systematically making them work towards definite ends. This holds good both in relation to the laws of external nature and to those which govern the bodily mental existence of men themselves — two classes of laws which we can separate from each other at most only in thought but not in reality. Freedom of the will therefore means nothing but the capacity to make decisions with knowledge of the subject. Therefore the FREER a man’s judgement in relation to a definite question, the greater is the NECESSITY with which the content of this judgement will be determined…. Freedom therefore consists in the control over ourselves and over external nature, a control founded on knowledge of natural necessity.”

According to Lenin, Engels is making four important points in this passage (none of them having anything to do with being soft on religion). First, the recognition of objective laws of nature and natural necessity– i.e., materialism. Second, “the necessity of nature is primary and human will and mind secondary.” Third, he accepts “blind necessity” i.e., “the existence of a necessity UNKNOWN to man. Fourth, he jumps from theory to practice and it is this practice which “provides an OBJECTIVE criterion of truth.”

All this adds up to the fact that Engels’ views are entirely based on the philosophy of dialectical materialism. The Russian Machists take a little bit of dialectical materialism from Engels (the “wonderful pages”), a dash from Marx, then some idealism and agnosticism from Mach, mix it all together “and call this hash a DEVELOPMENT of Marxism.” As far as Lenin is concerned they are nothing more than “philosophical obscurantists.” The Russian “Marxists,” inspired by Mach, continue to see him and empirio-criticism, not as a part of the subjective idealist movement or as an eclectic mix, but as compatible with the ideas of Marx and, for most, those of Engels as well.

Lenin now moves on to Chapter Four of his book called “The Philosophical Idealists as Comrades-in Arms and Successors of Emperio-criticism.”

The Criticism of Kantianism from the Left and from the Right”

The first point Lenin makes is that Mach himself states, in “Analysis of Sensations,” that he started out as a Kantian and then identified more with Berkeley and Hume. So there is no doubt about his relation to the Idealist tradition. But what of Avenarius?

Avenarius claims that as far back as 1876 he, though liking Kant, was the first to “purify” him by getting rid of the a priori nature of reason (i.e., the categories or filters by which we MUST experience the world) and by dumping the “thing-in-itself” because it is not experienced but, he writes, “imported into it [experience] by thought.”

Lenin says that Avenarius’ views are the same as Mach’s and that it is not true that he was the first to object to apriorism and the “thing-in-itself.” In 1792 Schulze-Aenesidemus [Aenesidemus, an ancient Skeptic, was the pen name of Gottlob Ernst Schulze 1761-1833, Schopenhauer’s teacher at Gottingen] had made the same objections. They had also been made by Fichte. The “thing-in-itself” was too much of a concession to materialism and the categories were not themselves experienced, being preconditions.

The Russian Machists have missed the point that Avenarius and Mach have criticized Kant from the Right (idealism) not the Left (materialism). What is more, they have made (they being Bogdanov, Bazarov, Yushkevich and Valentinov) the charge that Plekhanov has made a “luckless attempt to reconcile Engels with Kant by the aid of a compromise — a thing-in-itself which is just a wee bit knowable.” Lenin says this quote from their works shows a “bottomless pit of utter confusion” both of Kant and of classical German philosophy [one of the three component parts of Marxism].

Lenin says, “The principal feature of Kant’s philosophy is the reconciliation of materialism with idealism, a compromise between the two, the combination within one system of heterogeneous and contrary philosophical trends.”

Yes, but here is a question to think about. Why is this not a dialectical unity of opposites, a synthesis of a thesis (idealism) and antithesis (materialism), making Kantianism a higher philosophy than either of the others? Why is dialectical materialism so hostile to Kantianism rather than trying to make a synthetic unity with it?

At any rate, the Russian Machists did not notice, I think, that Lenin is saying when Engels or Plekhanov use the term “thing-in-itself” they are not referring to Kant’s transcendental noumena but to the objective independently existing objects we find in the real world. Plekhanov is not trying to “reconcile Engels with Kant.”

Lenin ends this section by quoting Feuerbach and his follower Albrecht Rau and Engels’ disciple Paul Lafargue as well as Kautsky (his book “Ethics”) about the perils of Kantianism and he concludes by saying, “Thus the ENTIRE SCHOOL of Feuerbach, Marx and Engels turned from Kant to the left, to a complete rejection of all idealism and of all agnosticism. “The Russian Machists may call themselves ‘Marxists’ but they are far from Marx and his ideas in philosophy.”

We will continue with chapter four in the next installment.


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This post was written by Thomas Riggins

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