Reading Lenin: Materialism and Empirio-Criticism Thomas Riggins

August 9, 2014 12:00 am Published by Leave your thoughts


How is this philosophy doing 20 years on from its heyday with Mach and Avenarius? Like any ideology, Lenin says, it “is a living thing which grows and develops,” so let us see what it is doing today (1908). Lenin picks a book to look at: “Introduction to Philosophy” (1903) by Hans Cornelius. Cornelius is recommended by Mach himself. Cornelius ends up with immortality and God, yet claims to be neither an idealist nor a materialist!

This shows that Lenin’s contemporary, Bogdanov is all wet in understanding what is going on in philosophy as he makes the claim that God, free will, and immortality cannot fit into Mach’s philosophy. How then can Mach see Cornelius as a disciple?
The whole thrust of this section is to show how, in philosopher after philosopher, English, French, or German, Mach’s and Avenarius’ philosophy of empirio-criticism is used to justify fideism and all sorts of religious notions. We need not go over these philosophers as they are not particularly well known today (2014). The Russian Machist “Marxists” seem oblivious to all this and write as if Machism is a new form of philosophy outside of the confines of fideism.


Bogdanov claims to be following Engels’ views (referred to as “the sacramental formula of the primacy of nature over mind”) but Lenin will show that this is incorrect. In “Empirio-monism” Bogdanov writes that “he regards all that exists as a continuous chain of development, the lower links of which are lost in the chaos of elements, while the higher links, known to us, represent the experience of men — psychical and, still higher, physical experience.”

But this is not Engels’ view and it certainly is not materialism. “Nature,” Lenin points out, “is in fact reached [by Bogdanov] as the result of a long transition, through abstractions of the ‘psychical’.” A few lines later Lenin says “The essence of Idealism is that the psychical is taken as the starting-point; from it external nature is deduced, and only then is the ordinary human consciousness deduced from nature.” We know that the “elements” referred to in the “chaos of elements” are equal to “sensations.”

Bogdanov denies all religions, yet his philosophy is a gateway to fideism since the inchoate elements/sensations have a physical origin from which the human mind deduces the physical world. No matter how “atheistic” a philosopher may be, this road always lead to “God” in one form or another.

Bogdanov speaks of “cognitive socialism” arising as a result of humans socially organising their experiences. This is “insane twaddle” according to Lenin. “If socialism is thus regarded, the Jesuits are ardent adherents of ‘cognitive socialism’, for the starting-point of their epistemology is divinity as ‘socially-organised experience’. And there can be no doubt that Catholicism is a socially-organised experience; only, it reflects not objective truth (which Bogdanov denies, but which science reflects), but the exploitation of the ignorance of the masses by definite social classes.” 

However, no philosophy is stagnant and Bogdanov’s has evolved over the years from his first book (1899) to the present (i.e., Lenin’s present, 1908). There have been four stages in the development of Bogdanov’s thought: 1) a “natural-historical” materialist phase when he was “semi-consciously and instinctively faithful to the spirit of natural science”; 2) he became a follower of Ostwald’s “energetics”* described by Lenin as “a muddled agnosticism which at times stumbled into idealism.” Ostwald’s “Lectures on Natural Philosophy” is dedicated to Mach. 3) Bogdanov, without completely leaving Ostwald behind, soon went over to Mach. 4) Trying to eliminate the subjective idealist elements in Mach, Bogdanov wrote his “Empirio-monism” in order “to create a semblance of objective idealism.”

Lenin says that Bogdanov is now 180 degrees from his starting point. He now has a 5th stage to go through and he can return to the ranks of the materialists. He must reject all that remains of Machian idealism in his thought. Lenin will have to wait and see if he does. [But you can check out the Bogdanov article in Wikepedia to see what happened to him.]

*Wilhelm Ostwald (1853-1932) won the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1909. There is a short but interesting article about his life at: HYLE–International Journal for Philosophy of Chemistry, Vol. 12, No.1 (2006), pp. 141-148. HYLE Biography Wilhelm Ostwald (1853-1932) by Mi Gyung Kim– you can just google: Wilhelm Ostwald energetics.

This section is a supplement dealing with some criticisms from the Machist side of propositions coming from the Marxist side. Our old friend Bazarov has a good time making fun of an error of Plekhanov’s– namely his theory that sensations are symbols or “hieroglyphs of real things and not their copies and images”. Sticking with Engels, Lenin says, “Engels speaks neither of symbols nor of hieroglyphs, but of copies, photographs, images, mirror-reflections of things.”

Bazarov attacks Plekhanov, however, not to correct him according to the views of Engels, but to indirectly attack Engels by making fun of materialism from a Machist standpoint disguised as “Marxism.” To clarify what is going on, Lenin will discuss Helmholtz’s* [“a scientist of the first magnitude”] theory of symbols (symbols, hieroglyphs, are the same) and how it was criticised by both materialists and Machists, as well as by other idealists. Like most scientists Helmholtz’s philosophical opinions are confused and inconsistent, according to Lenin. But let’s see if we can give Helmholtz the benefit of the doubt. The following quote from his “Physiological Optics” Lenin cites as an example of “agnosticism”: “I have … designated sensations as merely symbols for the relations of the external world and I have denied that they have any similarity or equivalence to what they represent.”

Helmholtz is seemingly contradicting Engels. But let us agree our sensations give a “photograph” like image of reality. But a photograph of a cat is completely different from a cat. To actually be an agnostic, Helmholtz would have to say that he doesn’t know if there is anything in the external world responsible for his “cat” image (or “symbol”) and that perhaps it comes from some internal psychic process that we do not know about. But he does not say that.

Here is what he says, “Our concepts and ideas are effects wrought on our nervous system and our consciousness by the objects that are perceived and apprehended.” Lenin says this is “materialism.” The objects exist independently of us. But this does not contradict the previous statement. When I see a red rose I do so because my eyes have evolved to react to visible (to humans) light which is a small band of waves on the electromagnetic spectrum along with radio waves, X rays, infra red and ultra violet waves, etc. Bees have evolved eyes that can see ultra- violet waves which we don’t detect. Our “red rose” looks very different to a bee. The rose is red for us, in itself it is much more than it is for us. This is the sense which Helmholtz means by our sensation being a symbol.

Lenin and Helmholtz may be just having a verbal disagreement and not a disagreement of substance. Lenin says because Helmholtz says our sensations are symbols of the external world which, when we learn to read them properly can “direct our actions so as to achieve the desired result….,” he has lapsed into “subjectivism” and a denial of objective truth and reality. This is too strong and I believe it is incorrect. The rose is part of objective reality– it is red for us and ultra-violet for the bee. That the red rose is a symbol of my love– is that objective or subjective? I also think Lenin is wrong to say that Helmholtz presents a “flagrant untruth” when he says “An idea and the object it represents obviously belong to two entirely different worlds….” Helmholtz is only saying, more or less, what Plato (I think truthfully) would have said, viz., when I look at the “Mona Lisa” my sensation is not the same as the picture on the wall, and the picture on the wall is not anything like the woman painted by Leonardo.

That this is so is seen when Helmholtz says, “As to the properties of the objects of the external world, a little reflection will show that all the properties we may attribute to them merely signify the effects wrought by them either on our senses or on other natural objects.” Lenin also says this is materialism. All these terminological arguments are rooted in the Kantian background of many German thinkers. Most of whom would be on exhibit in Lenin’s Museum of Reactionary Fabrications of German Professordom. Lenin wants us to believe that our knowledge comes from interaction with the real world and is not a priori — i.e. given to us before any possible experience. But is not the following an a priori statement, even a Kantian one (!)– before you see anything at all in the world you know it must reflect a certain narrow band in the electro-magnetic spectrum. If it doesn’t it may exist but you will never see it, just as you will never hear the sound your dog hears from the dog whistle. And if this is an a priori truth gained from experience then it is a synthetic a priori truth, and Kant’s philosophy is back on the table. Materialism will have to deal with it. Lenin concludes that Helmholtz is a “shame faced materialist” with a Kantian slant, just as Huxley, save that the latter’s slant was towards Berkeley.
That Kantian element in Helmholtz is totally non necessary because he has a basically realist (materialist) position. Lenin provides a quote from Feuerbach’s student Albrecht Rau to back this up. “Had Helmholtz remained true to his realistic conception, had he consistently adhered to the basic principle that the properties of bodies express the relations of bodies to each other and also to us, he obviously would have had no need of the whole theory of symbols; he could then have said briefly and clearly: the sensations that are produced in us by things are reflections of the nature of those things.” Helmholtz has fallen victim to Ockham’s razor. Lenin ends this section by noting the critics of Helmholtz from the Machist side object to his being too much of a materialist, and concludes that Plekhanov did make a mistake when he was explaining materialism, but that Bazarov only muddied the waters and finally, from Kant and Helmholtz “the materialists went to the left, the Machists to the right.” 

* Hermann Ludwig Ferdinand von Helmholtz (August 31, 1821 – September 8, 1894) was a German physician and physicist who made significant contributions to several widely varied areas of modern science. In physiology and physiological psychology, he is known for his mathematics of the eye, theories of vision, ideas on the visual perception of space, color vision research, and on the sensation of tone, perception of sound, and empiricism. In physics, he is known for his theories on the conservation of energy, work in electrodynamics, chemical thermodynamics, and on a mechanical foundation of thermodynamics. As a philosopher, he is known for his philosophy of science, ideas on the relation between the laws of perception and the laws of nature, the science of aesthetics, and ideas on the civilizing power of science. A large German association of research institutions, the Helmholtz Association, is named after him.— from Wikepedia.

Helmholtz University was one of the major institutions of the DDR.

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This post was written by Thomas Riggins

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