What’s the Problem with Lenin’s Materialism and Empirio-Criticism?

Date: 2024-05-10T19:41:25+00:00

Location: cosmonautmag.com

The modern-day left continues to repeat fairy tales that Lenin’s early philosophical work is vulgar, undialectical and abandoned by its author in later years. None of these stories stack up, writes Lawrence Parker.

V.I. Lenin’s 1909 Materialism and Empirio-Criticism (MEC) is a work severely freighted by its historiography. Like The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky (1918), MEC is more often referred to than read. And that’s where anyone who’s interested in the philosophy of Marxism should start. Read MEC and think about it. I’ve always enjoyed this book. If you like reading philosophical critiques that dissect various thinkers, then you’ll like MEC. It deals with the particulars of a philosophical trend that Lenin detested, using the method that he had learnt in the Second International from Georgi Plekhanov and Friedrich Engels. This article is not a substitute for reading MEC. Rather it will introduce the work as a kind of force field of various (mis)conceptions. By undermining some of the more obvious crudities surrounding MEC, it might help people become interested in the text rather than merely wallowing in an abundance of secondary dross.

MEC in Context

At the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries, empirio-criticism (also known as empirio-monism and empirio-symbolism, the philosophy of “critical experience” and so on), or Machism (after the Austrian physicist and philosopher Ernst Mach), spread across Europe. Emerging as a variety of positivism, it claimed to be a scientific philosophy which had allegedly overcome the one-sidedness of both materialism and idealism, although Lenin saw it, correctly in my view, as a reactionary, subjective-idealist trend. Several Social-Democrats who saw themselves as Marx’s disciples came to regard empirio-criticism as the latest word in science and the influence of Machism in the Second International should be situated against a more general growth of idealist ideas around neo-Kantianism. Dialectical materialism was said to be old-fashioned and in need of updating. 

In the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP), the philosophy of Mach (accompanied by religious ideas that pejoratively became known as “god-building”) influenced both Bolsheviks (Alexander Bogdanov, Vladimir Bazarov and Anatoly Lunacharsky and others) and Mensheviks (Nikolai Valentinov, Pavel Yushkevich and others). Opponents of Machism were also spread across the two factions, notably Lenin and Plekhanov, and thus the argument around MEC was not about Bolsheviks versus Mensheviks. Lenin confronted the idealism of Machism in the context of a struggle against organizational liquidationism after the collapse of the 1905-07 Russian Revolution, at points fighting alongside Plekhanov’s pro-party Menshevik faction. 

A Nest of Bad Debts

From the outset, we should note that much of the criticism of MEC relies upon external formulations and a nest of bad debts owed to other theories surrounding Lenin’s intellectual development and the history of Bolshevism. The amalgamated story goes something like this: MEC represents a crude form of materialism that Lenin later rejected at the beginning of the First World War in favor of the dialectical materialism portrayed in a turn to Hegel represented by the Philosophical Notebooks. This movement away from the philosophical crudities of MEC, which is also seen to be inherent in the supposed un-dialectical materialism of the late Engels and Second International figures such as Kautsky, apparently allowed Lenin to reformulate his ideas about imperialism and, by 1917, rearm Bolshevism by overthrowing “old Bolshevism,” and its stagist theory of the Russian Revolution, in favor of the April Theses. 

In fact, none of these ideas that lay clustered alongside the notion that MEC is some kind of pre-dialectical materialism bear close examination and many have been recently unpacked by Lars T. Lih and others. I don’t have time to go into all of these individual, external myths and legends that criticism of MEC relies on, but this cluster of erroneous notions throws up some interesting methodological curios in and of itself. When these ideas are separated out (to the extent that they can be) one can see that in and of themselves, they are worthless i.e., Kautsky and Engels were not undialectical thinkers, Lenin did not rearm Bolshevism in 1917 and so on. But the ideological miasma around MEC doesn’t gain its power from the historical veracity of the individual ideas that sustain it. That emerges from the cluster of relations between these bad ideas and their totalizing effect. One mistaken formulation is piled on top of another to erect a linear and holistic narrative that is at least plausible to those beguiled by it. The overall effect is something like that pulled apart by Immanuel Kant in the Critique of Pure Reason, where he considered various arguments for God’s existence and showed how such arguments were, in fact, merely made up of other fallacious notions. In these scenarios, the specific thing being examined, in this case MEC, is less important than its cluster of relations with other things. This is a fallacy that overrides the particular for an often-superficial universal that lacks any objective, causal ground. 

Did Lenin Forget About MEC?

Some of the bold argumentation around Lenin’s philosophical development relies on a set of factually incorrect assertions. Tony Cliff’s at times laughable Lenin biography has always been notorious. Its thesis appears to be partly based on the fact that its subject had the intense misfortune to be active in the movement without the supervision of Uncle Tony and hence Lenin must be pushed through the fantasy mincer of the “IS/SWP tradition.” This is fully in evidence in relation to MEC. Cliff writes: 

Lenin’s own work Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, however, also suffered from the lack of real contact with a live movement. (One need only compare it with the magnificent, dialectically terse, and lively Philosophical Notebook[s], vol. 38 of Lenin’s Collected Works.) It is significant that he never repeated its arguments in later pamphlets and articles, as he always did with his other writings. No special articles in the press elaborated the theses of this book. Nor is it referred to in any of Lenin’s writings, including his vast correspondence, after 1909.1 

Conscious of reader sanity, we won’t be pursuing the interesting argument that Lenin lacked contact with a “live movement.” What is notable is the way that Cliff’s silly prattle is appropriated by others. Kevin Anderson argues along the same lines that MEC was something that Lenin largely forgot about.

“Although this work became famous after Lenin’s death, [MEC] was hardly, then or later, ‘the theoretical preparation for the Bolshevik party’, as the official Moscow preface claims. If this was also Lenin’s view, then it is surprising that his brief 1921 chronology, ‘Notes on the history of the RCP…’ written for Bukharin, does not even list the year 1908, and the years 1909-1910 are simply titled ‘liquidationism’. In Lenin’s eyes, evidently, this is no fundamental work but rather the product of an obscure polemic inside Bolshevism during the years of despair and defeat that followed the 1905 revolution.”2

While I am skeptical about the Moscow notion of “the Bolshevik party,” given the Bolsheviks were a faction of the RSDLP when MEC was prepared, I must inform readers from the outset that the “official Communist” commentary in Lenin’s Collected Works around MEC and that in various editions of the Great Soviet Encyclopedia is a good deal more useful than the material presented by Cliff, Anderson, and company.3  But let us deal with these wild assertions of Cliff’s and Anderson’s in more detail—the Collected Works turn out to be not so kind to their trivial theses. 

First, let us look at the claim that Lenin made no reference to MEC after 1909. In 1913, Lenin prepared an entry “On Bolshevism,” a potted history and popular outline of his faction, for the second volume of N.A. Rubakin’s Among Books. Lenin sent the article to Rubakin with a letter stipulating that the article “should not be altered in any way,” and it was then published in full. One section reads:

In 1908-09 the Vperyod group (Machism in philosophy and otzovism, or boycotting the Third Duma, in politics—Bogdanov, Alexinsky, Lunacharsky and others) broke away from the Bolsheviks. In 1909-11, in fighting against them (cf. V. Ilyin [another Lenin pseudonym], Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, Moscow, 1909), as well as against the liquidators (Mensheviks who denied the need for an illegal party), Bolshevism came close to the pro-party Mensheviks (Plekhanov and others), who had declared a resolute war on liquidationism.4

Lenin thus situated MEC squarely in a two-sided struggle against the left-liquidationism of Bogdanov and company, and the right-liquidationism of certain Menshevik circles.

We have references beyond 1909. Lenin wrote an entry on Karl Marx for the Encyclopedia Dictionary published by the Granat Brothers in 1915 (Lenin began work on this in 1914).5 Here, Lenin proffered a detailed bibliography of suggested reading. Particularly in the context of questions of neo-Kantian and agnostic strains of thought, Lenin recommends his recent clash with Bogdanov and company:

See also the polemic between A. Bogdanov, V. Bazarov and others, on the one hand, and V. Ilyin, [Lenin] on the other (the views of the former being contained in An Outline of the Philosophy of Marxism, St Petersburg, 1908; A. Bogdanov, The Downfall of a Great Fetishism, Moscow, 1909, and elsewhere, and the views of the latter, in Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, Moscow, 1909).6

So, the idea that Lenin never referred again to MEC is false. But even more damagingly for a whole school of thought that treats Lenin’s 1914-16 Philosophical Notebooks as the living negation of the “dogmatic” MEC and a foundation point for a “conversion” to dialectics, Lenin refers to the controversy that fueled his 1909 work in the very midst of that so-called conversion. In the 1915 “Conspectus of Hegel’s book ‘Lectures on the history of philosophy,’” in a section on Socrates, Lenin makes the famous statement that is often culled from the Notebooks: “Intelligent idealism is closer to intelligent materialism than stupid materialism.”7 But directly below this is a note, “[t]o be elaborated,” where Lenin writes: “Plekhanov wrote on philosophy (dialectics) probably about 1,000 pages (Beltov [Plekhanov’s pseudonym] + against Bogdanov + against the Kantians + fundamental questions, etc., etc.) Among them about the large Logic [by Hegel] in connection with it, its thought (i.e., dialectics proper, as philosophical science) nil!!” I am unsure as to what “nil!!” means in this context, but it cannot mean a lack of dialectics, or lack of awareness of Hegel on the part of Plekhanov, given that The Development of the Monist View of History (1895) does, indeed, recommend a thorough study of Hegel and his Logic.8 And, of course, it was Plekhanov’s critique of Bogdanov that was one of the foundational points of Lenin’s own critique of Machist idealism in MEC, where he was generally on Plekhanov’s side, albeit with some reservations about his philosophical mentor’s anti-Bolshevik factionalism on such issues.9 Lenin characterized Plekhanov in 1908 as “the only Marxist in the international Social-Democratic movement to criticize the incredible platitudes of the revisionists from the standpoint of consistent dialectical materialism”.10 The intellectual backdrop of MEC and its “fundamental questions” are still part of Lenin’s thoughts around Hegel in 1915. 

On this silly idea of Lenin “abandoning” MEC and its defense of materialism (and here we really have reached the point of using sledgehammers to crack nuts) we have the fact that he was quite prepared to reissue the work in 1920 without a health warning, telling readers of his hopes “it will prove useful as an aid to an acquaintance with the philosophy of Marxism, dialectical materialism, as well as with the philosophical conclusions from the recent discoveries in natural science.”11 I don’t think I could write anything more clearly to illustrate Lenin’s ease with his old work—these are not the words of someone who thought he had recently been engaged with some kind of epoch-defining “philosophical break.”

Finally, we must consider Anderson’s contention that Lenin’s “‘Notes on the history of the RCP…’ written for Bukharin, does not even list the year 1908, and the years 1909-10 are simply titled ‘liquidationism’…”12 Conclusion: no mention of MEC, hence an example of its unimportance to its author. First, this is a hastily assembled list of bullet points. The whole note is 369 words long. True, Lenin doesn’t elaborate on 1908-10 but he doesn’t elaborate on anything else either… because it’s simply a schematic chronology covering the struggle in the RSDLP. But there are other sources that look back on this period in more detail – notably the ‘Concluding remarks to the symposium Marxism and Liquidationism’ from April 1914. Lenin writes: “The spring of 1909 saw a formal break between the Bolsheviks (as represented by their leading body) and the so-called Vperyodists, who accepted otzovism13 or considered it a ‘legitimate trend’ and defended ‘god-building’ and the reactionary philosophy of Machism.”14 In which of Lenin’s works did he traduce reactionary Machism? MEC, of course! The notion that Lenin simply abandoned this work is twaddle, and the arguments of Cliff and Anderson don’t stand up to scrutiny. 

Was Lenin Interested in Philosophy?

Karl Korsch, writing in 1930, offered an interpretation of MEC that subsequently fed into two complementary narratives: the bourgeois, Cold War idea of Lenin as a charlatan and huckster; and the far-left version of “Lenin the stick-bender,” who never really believed in what he was saying beyond its utility in particular moments of the class struggle. Korsch argued: “It is clear that Lenin is not primarily concerned with the theoretical problem of whether the materialist philosophy he propounds is true or untrue. He is concerned with the practical question of its uses for the revolutionary struggle of the proletariat…”15 The Catholic Jesuit priest and historian of philosophy Frederick Copleston offered a further iteration of Korsch’s fundamental idea: “… Lenin was not by temperament a philosopher. When he made excursions into philosophy, it was to defend what he regarded as orthodox Marxism, orthodox theory being required for right practice… His own attack on empirio-monism was motivated not by any lively interest in philosophical problems for their own sake but by a determination to preserve Marxist materialism intact…”16 There’s a chunk of evidence that suggests quite the contrary to the assertions of Korsch and Copleston. 

Krupskaya recounted that during his exile in Shushenskoye in 1898-1901, in the evenings, Lenin “usually read books on philosophy—Hegel, Kant or the French materialists” and was engaged in correspondence with his comrades over philosophical problems.17 Evald Ilyenkov, a ferocious opponent of the idea Lenin was suddenly converted to Hegel and dialectics during the First World War, takes from this that “Lenin had been writing his book [MEC] not only during these months [February to October 1908] but throughout his entire preceding life.”18

But Lenin’s aggressive lack of originality and his interest in philosophy are apparent enough from the pages of MEC, which positively bulges with notes and dissections of thinkers. He even apologizes at one stage:

“The reader is probably fuming at us for quoting at such length this incredibly trivial rigmarole, this quasi-scientific tomfoolery decked out in the terminology of [Richard] Avenarius.19 But wer den Feind will verstehen, muss im Feindes Lande gehen—who would know the enemy must go into the enemy’s territory. And R. Avenarius’ philosophical journal is indeed enemy territory for Marxists.”20 

Lenin’s philosophical inclination is also shown in his praise of Engels’ intellectual procedure:

That Engels followed the new developments in philosophy is evident from Ludwig Feuerbach. In the 1888 preface, mention is even made of such a phenomenon as the rebirth of classical German philosophy in England and Scandinavia, whereas Engels (both in the preface and in the text of the book) has nothing but the most extreme contempt for the prevailing Neo-Kantianism and Humism. It is quite obvious that Engels, observing the repetition by fashionable German and English philosophy of the old, pre-Hegelian errors of Kantianism and Humism21, was prepared to expect some good even from the turn to Hegel (in England and Scandinavia), hoping that the great idealist and dialectician would help to disclose petty idealist and metaphysical errors.23 

This “turn to Hegel” in the British context was a reference to an idealist trend initiated by James Hutchinson Stirling and his book The Secret of Hegel (1865), and expanded upon by philosophers such as F.H. Bradley and others. Whether this school disclosed or compounded metaphysical errors is another story, but we can note the relative open-mindedness and intellectual curiosity that Lenin is recommending as a method. Partisanship, and what Copleston saw as a determination to root out Marxist philosophical revisionism, did not rule out a lively interest in the terrain of engagement, or an appreciation that non-Marxist philosophy could have positive, as well as negative, by-products.  

We can even contrast Engels’ and Lenin’s treatment of what was dubbed “Anglo-Hegelianism” with that afforded to it by the tradition of “English philosophy” as represented by figures such as Sir Geoffrey Warnock, former vice-chancellor of Oxford University. He damned figures such as Bradley and the influence of German idealism in no less partisan a manner than Lenin damned Bogdanov and Machism. Warnock argued:

… it is clearly very far from being the case that the brand of philosophy [i.e., ‘Anglo-Hegelianism’] from which reaction was so soon to occur was in England time-hallowed and venerably traditional. It was in fact an exotic in the English scene, the product of a quite recent revolution in ways of thought due primarily to German influences… Of course, the fact that absolute idealism was a recent and very much an alien import does not entail that it deserved the extinction which overtook it. But to think of it as traditional is to imply on its behalf a claim to respect to which it is not entitled… Hume or Berkeley would have been sadly puzzled by the pages of [FH] Bradley, to say nothing of Hegel’s.24

In other words, this was a puzzling and brief alien infusion, German, and against the traditions of the mainstream of English philosophy. Now, “Anglo-Hegelianism” (although the precise influence of Hegel is an open question) was certainly an interregnum of sorts, and it is true enough that writers such as Bradley wrote in a demanding and abstruse fashion. But, in other senses, Warnock is obviously offering a highly partisan, conservative paean to English virtues, which comes across as a good deal less open than the attitude of Engels and Lenin. By turns, we can see that Lenin wasn’t some kind of interloper in this arena, strung out on a fetishized political plane but rather, as he humbly referred to himself in the preface, merely another “seeker” in philosophy. 

Why is the Soviet Interpretation of MEC Superior?

In contrast to the rituals of inserting MEC into a narrative of a grand philosophical break from 1914-16, Soviet writers were generally much better at understanding the objective circumstances of the work.

A.O. Sternin placed MEC in the context of the “defeat of Russia’s first bourgeois-democratic revolution of 1905-07.”25  In the context of the Tsarist repression of the working class, Sternin added:

Bourgeois intellectuals, many of whom sympathized with the revolutionary movement when it was on the rise, now lapsed into despondency, pessimism and loss of faith in the forces of the revolution. They saw the defeat of the revolution as the defeat and collapse of the whole revolutionary ideology, of Marxism and materialism in general. Dialectical materialism was said to be old-fashioned and outdated, while religion was proclaimed to be the ‘supreme achievement’ of the human spirit. There was a mushrooming of various religious-idealist societies, circles and trends.26 

Hence the turn in RSDLP circles to the idealism of Machist philosophy and god-building. 

Ilyenkov said something very similar about the context of MEC: “His [Lenin’s] intervention was concerned with the fate of a new wave of revolution in Russia. 1905 had not resolved a single one of the fundamental problems [that] confronted the nation. Whether the new revolution would be victorious, or once again be drowned in a sea of blood—this is actually what the argument was about.”27 By abandoning dialectical materialism, Russian Marxists would be deprived of the ability to theorize and analyze the revolution itself; hence, Lenin’s rearguard action against Bogdanov’s idealism. 

In following this line of argument, Soviet writers were channeling Lenin, who wrote in 1920: “The years of reaction (1907-10). Tsarism was victorious. All the revolutionary and opposition parties were smashed. Depression, demoralization, splits, discord, defection, and pornography took the place of politics. There was an ever-greater drift towards philosophical idealism; mysticism became the garb of counter-revolutionary sentiments.”28

However, where later Soviet writers differ from Lenin is in the sense of one of the concrete forms that this period of reaction took i.e., liquidationist sentiments in the RSDLP that found expression in attempts to “supplement” Marxist philosophy with the alien ideas of Machism. As we have seen, Lenin makes such a link very clearly, but Sternin makes no mention of this mediation in his book-length study. Ilyenkov’s monograph on MEC has one quote from Lenin where there is a single reference to Menshevik-liquidators.29 But Illyenkov acknowledges “in the realm of philosophy, [Lenin] expressed his solidarity with G.V. Plekhanov, with the acknowledged leader of the Menshevik fraction.”30 But Lenin was also willing to work in alliance with the faction that Plekhanov led from around 1908, the anti-liquidationist, pro-party Mensheviks, and some members of the faction took part in the Prague All-Russian Conference of the RSDLP (1912), which purged the party of the Menshevik-Liquidators, who wished to end the RSDLP’s work in the Russian underground in favor of legal opportunities. Similarly, Lenin saw Otzovists (or Recallists) such as Bogdanov as left-liquidationist i.e., wanting to liquidate the work of the RSDLP in legal institutions. Even though this history was known and written about by Soviet historians in post-war encyclopedias, for example, there was clearly a reticence to make the links between this and what were seen as fundamentalist texts such as MEC.31  This reflected a reliance on the narrative derived from the Stalin years, whereby Bolshevik and Menshevik were simple antitheses, with the Bolsheviks breaking away from the latter to form a “party of a new type” in 1912. Not wanting to linger too long on Lenin’s alliances with the Menshevik Plekhanov, in theoretical and practical arenas, means that the struggle against liquidationist politics in the RSDLP starts to fade and MEC thus becomes a product of a more generalized backdrop of reaction. In other words: some of the truth, but not all of it.   

Was MEC Abusive Towards Lenin’s Opponents?

For Anderson, this question is an open-and-shut case in that “the vituperative and scholastic style of Lenin’s book gives it a well-deserved reputation for crudity and dogmatism.”32 We will deal with the issue of Lenin’s so-called dogmatism below. In fact, the remarks of Anderson on vituperation are little more than repeating concerns from 1908-09, when MEC was published. Ivan Skvortsov-Stepanov and Lenin’s sister Anna Ulyanova helped Lenin to publish MEC with the Socialist Revolutionary publishing house Zveno. Both the publisher and Lenin’s two helpers argued that “the personal abuse that abounded in the book should be toned down,” a request to which  Lenin apparently reluctantly acceded.33 Similarly, a 1909 review of MEC by Menshevik writer Lyuba Isaakovna Axelrod (pen name Ortodoks; a follower of Plekhanov) argued that Lenin’s polemical style was “marred by a coarseness and abuse which were intolerable in a philosophical work.”34

Reading MEC now, it is obvious that this so-called abuse was decidedly limited. Lenin argued at one point in the book: “Bogdanov personally is a sworn enemy of reaction in general and of bourgeois reaction in particular. Bogdanov’s ‘substitution’ and theory of the ‘identity of social being and social consciousness’ serve this reaction. It is sad, but true.”35 In other words, Bogdanov’s personal morality as a revolutionary wasn’t being attacked; but his ideas had scorn heaped upon them because Lenin thought they served the politics of reaction. In any case, Lenin a) knew that comrades such as Bogdanov were extremely sensitive about polemical tone and b) as an aggressively unoriginal writer, he was merely copying the idioms of his Marxist teachers.   

This sensitivity to tone can be illustrated by referring to a 1907 response from Bogdanov to Plekhanov’s polemics against the former’s Empiriomonism.

You systematically call me ‘Mr. [gospodin] Bogdanov’, which, as you well know, is insulting to a comrade, and which, as you also well know, you have no right to do. You have brought to the notice of comrades that Empiriomonism is not Marxism, but only a variety of bourgeois criticism. You have ironically written of my ‘profundity,’ and not ironically that you have a ‘very low’ opinion of my ‘philosophical abilities.’ You have gone so far as to make transparent hints about how desirable it would be, if not to hang me, then at least to ‘exile’ me beyond the bounds of Marxism, and, if I’m not mistaken, ‘within 24 hours.’36

In a similar vein, here we have Engels’ scolding remarks aimed at German philosopher Eugen Dühring:

“And this man who praises his talents and his wares to the noisy accompaniment of cymbals and trumpets as loudly as any market quack, and behind whose great words there is nothing, absolutely nothing whatsoever—this man has the temerity to say of people like Fichte, Schelling and Hegel, the least of whom is a giant compared with him, that they are charlatans. Charlatan, indeed! But to whom had it best be applied?37

When we then turn to Lenin’s so-called abuse in MEC (in reality, sharp polemics that were disliked by those on the receiving end), all we see is a straightforward copy of the angular polemical tone of Plekhanov and Engels. Here, Lenin is talking about the Menshevik philosopher Pavel Yushkevich: “Clad like a harlequin in a garish motley of shreds of the “latest” terminology, there stands before us a subjective idealist, for whom the external world, nature and its laws are all symbols of our knowledge.”38 Rather than asking a question such as why is Lenin “abusive” in MEC, it would be more pertinent to ask: why is Lenin’s polemic being singled out as ‘abuse’?

Is MEC a Work of Vulgar Dogmatism?

For Anderson, “Lenin’s attack on Machism in [MEC] is both dogmatic and a vulgarization of Marxism, and certainly narrowly materialist.”39 This is a standard riposte and Ilyenkov draws attention to similar arguments from Eurocommunists such as Roger Garaudy, who “condescendingly acknowledges the services of [MEC] in presenting the fundamentals of materialism in general, which are neither characteristic of Marxist materialism nor related in any way to dialectics; this, he says, is ‘kindergarten materialism’ and nothing more.”40  Ilyenkov notes similar criticism from Gajo Petrović of the “Marxist-humanist” Yugoslav Praxis group, who, in the words of the former “added that the study of Hegel’s works forced Lenin to introduce substantial corrections in his characterization of materialism, idealism and dialectics…”41 For Raya Dunayevskaya (who has had a very unfortunate influence on writers from the “IS/SWP” brand of Trotskyism) there is the “old, vulgarized, abysmally narrow, materialistic philosophy” of Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, as against Lenin’s supposed “great new philosophic breakthrough on [Hegel’s] Larger Logic” in 1914-16.42

One wonders at this point whether any of the above authors studied the pages of MEC, given that Lenin there warns precisely against that which he is accused of—the practice of denigrating dialectics. In fact, he praises his forebears for preserving dialectics: 

Marx, Engels and J. Dietzgen did not worry about the elementary truths of materialism, which had been cried by the hucksters in dozens of books, but devoted all their attention to ensuring that these elementary truths should not be vulgarized, should not be over-simplified, should not lead to stagnation of thought (‘materialism below, idealism above’), to forgetfulness of the valuable fruit of the idealist systems, Hegelian dialectics—that pearl which those farmyard cocks, the Büchners, the Dührings and co… could not pick out from the dung heap of absolute idealism.43

To what extent did Lenin confine himself to a basic “kindergarten” materialism in the pages of MEC? The answer is: not at all. What is particularly noticeable in passages dealing with epistemological questions (around the theory of knowledge) is that Lenin, while defending materialism, was particularly concerned not to counterpose theory and practice in some absolutist grid where “matter” simply trumps “mind” in every example of human practice. This is strikingly apparent in the following passages, where Lenin draws out a dialectic between absolute and relative: 

The standpoint of life, of practice, should be first and fundamental in the theory of knowledge. And it inevitably leads to materialism, brushing aside the endless fabrications of professorial scholasticism. Of course, we must not forget that the criterion of practice can never, in the nature of things, either confirm or refute any human idea completely. This criterion also is sufficiently ‘indefinite’ not to allow human knowledge to become ‘absolute’, but at the same time it is sufficiently definite to wage a ruthless fight on all varieties of idealism and agnosticism.44 

This is not some kind of materialist a priori law that can simply be pasted on top of “examples” of human activity (that would lead back to scholasticism, i.e., the traditional doctrine of theology, that Lenin refutes). “Of course, even the antithesis of matter and mind has absolute significance only within the bounds of a very limited field—in this case exclusively within the bounds of the fundamental epistemological problem of what is to be regarded as primary and what as secondary. Beyond these bounds, the relative character of this antithesis is indubitable.”45 In other words, the relation between matter and mind in a particular historical instance must be worked out beyond the more “fundamental epistemological problem” that stops our conception of the mind from wandering off into scholasticism and erecting itself into a tyranny over and against our historical experience. Lenin’s dialectic in MEC is open-ended and fluid enough to steer a path between agnosticism and absolutism. 

We often get the impression, from “official” Communist and Maoist/Trotskyist literature, of Lenin laying the law down as a final word which, in the last instance, reflects the consummation of works such as MEC into a “Leninist” state ideology. However, Lenin’s words were always up for questioning inside the RSDLP. Bogdanov, of course, replied to Lenin in works entitled The Fall of the Great Fetish and Faith and Science.46 And, as we have seen, Lenin recommended reading the former (referred to as The Downfall of a Great Fetishism) in his encyclopedia entry on Karl Marx in 1914, alongside the whole polemic between Lenin and the RSDLP Machists. Things subsequently presented as dogma are rarely conceived as such.

Conclusion

To return to the terms of our introduction, MEC needs to be read and studied as a perfectly ordinary polemic of its period against a baleful philosophical trend. Given Lenin’s struggle against liquidationist politics at the time, it is clear why he would write such a book in this polemical style. And given his lifelong interest in philosophy, it’s also clear as to why he would write a work positively bulging with notes and asides on various philosophers. Indeed, it’s this relatively unpolished appearance that is part of MEC’s hidden charm. 

However, there is still an evident political need for certain comrades to go on repeating fairy stories that MEC is vulgar, undialectical, that Lenin didn’t rate it, and so on—all the false ideas that this article has confronted. Given that MEC merely defended orthodox Marxism (a positive point in its favor), one can only surmise that those comrades who wish to traduce the book think, like the neo-Kantians, positivists and Machists of the early 20th century, that Marxism is still in need of being “supplemented” by alien ideas. So, beware soothsayers who start lecturing you, dear reader, about MEC’s supposed vulgarities—you may find yourself ingesting a lethal dose of poison.

Liked it? Take a second to support Cosmonaut on Patreon! At Cosmonaut Magazine we strive to create a culture of open debate and discussion. Please write to us at CosmonautMagazine@gmail.com if you have any criticism or commentary you would like to have published in our letters section.

  1. Original emphasis unless stated. Tony Cliff, Lenin 1: Building the Party (1893-1914) (Pluto Press: London, 1975). Accessed at Marxist Internet Archive: https://www.marxists.org/archive/cliff/works/1975/lenin1/chap16.htm
  2. Kevin Anderson, Lenin, Hegel, and Western Marxism: A Critical Study (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1995), 19.
  3. As an aside, it is interesting that Paul Le Blanc chooses to step back from what one might call this Tony Cliff-derived “iconoclasm” on Lenin’s philosophy in his recent book. P Le Blanc Lenin: Responding to Catastrophe, Forging Revolution (London: Pluto Press, 2023)
  4. Lenin Collected Works, Volume 18 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1975), 485-486. Accessed at Marxist Internet Archive: https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1913/jan/00.htm
  5. Lenin Collected Works, Volume 21 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1974), 43-91. Accessed at Marxist Internet Archive: https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1914/granat/index.htm
  6. Ibid.
  7. V.I. Lenin, Conspectus of Hegel’s Book
    Lectures On the History
    of Philosophy from Lenin’s Collected Works, 4th Edition Volume 48 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1976), 269-300. Accessed at Marxist Internet Archive: https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1915/cons-lect/ch03.htm#socra
  8.  Georgi Plekhanov, Selected Philosophical Works, Vol.I. (Progress Publishers: Moscow, 1974). Accessed at Marxist Internet Archive: https://www.marxists.org/archive/plekhanov/1895/monist/index.htm
  9. Lenin: “Plekhanov in his criticism of Machism was less concerned with refuting Mach than with dealing a factional blow at Bolshevism. For this petty and miserable exploitation of fundamental theoretical differences, he has been already deservedly punished – with two books by Machian Mensheviks.” V.I. Lenin, Materialism and Empirio-Criticism (1908) from Lenin Collected Works Volume 14 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1972), 17-362. Accessed at Marxist Internet Archive: https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1908/mec/index.htm#six5
  10. V.I. Lenin, Marxism and Revisionism (1908) from Lenin Collected Works Volume 15 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1973), 29-39. Accessed at Marxist Internet Archive: https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1908/apr/03.htm
  11. V.I. Lenin, Materialism and Empirio-Criticism (1908)
  12. V.I. Lenin, Notes on the history of the RCP (1921) from Lenin Collected Works Volume 36 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1971), 552-554. Accessed at Marxist Internet Archive: https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1921/dec/01c.htm
  13. Bolsheviks who wanted to cease all participation of the RSDLP in legal establishments, in particular, to recall RSDLP representatives from the Duma.
  14. V.I. Lenin, Concluding Remarks to the Symposium Marxism and Liquidationism (1914) from Lenin’s Collected Works Volume 20 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1972), 265-273. Accessed at Marxist Internet Archive: https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1914/apr/00c.htm
  15. Karl Korsch, Marxism and Philosophy (London: NLB, 1970), 113.
  16. F Copleston Philosophy in Russia: from Herzen to Lenin and Berdyaev (Tunbridge Wells, 1986), 292.
  17. N. K. Krupskaya, Reminiscences of Lenin (International Publishers, 1970). Accessed at Marxist Internet Archive: https://www.marxists.org/archive/krupskaya/works/rol/
  18. Evald Ilyenkov, Leninist Dialectics and the Metaphysics of Positivism (1979) (New Park Publications, 1982).Accessed at Marxist Internet Archive: https://www.marxists.org/archive/ilyenkov/works/positive/posit0.htm
  19. A German/Swiss philosopher; a positivist and exponent of empirio-criticism.
  20. V.I. Lenin, Materialism and Empirio-Criticism (1908).
  21. After David Hume, Scottish philosopher and historian associated with ideas of empiricism and skepticism.
  22. 22 V.I. Lenin, Materialism and Empirio-Criticism (1908).
  23. GJ Warnock, English Philosophy Since 1900 (Oxford, 1961), 9.
  24. AO Sternin Lenin’s ‘Materialism and Empirio-Criticism’ (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1988), 9.
  25. Ibid., 9-10.
  26. Evald Ilyenkov, Leninist Dialectics and the Metaphysics of Positivism (1979)
  27. V.I. Lenin, “Left-Wing” Communism: an Infantile Disorder from Lenin’s Collected Works Volume 31 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1964), 17–118. Accessed at Marxist Internet Archive: https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1920/lwc/index.htm
  28. Evald Ilyenkov, Leninist Dialectics and the Metaphysics of Positivism (1979)
  29. Ibid.
  30. See https://communistpartyofgreatbritainhistory.wordpress.com/2024/02/10/great-soviet-encyclopedia-pro-party-mensheviks/ for more on this.
  31. Kevin Anderson, Lenin, Hegel, and Western Marxism: A Critical Study, 19.
  32. JD White, Red Hamlet: The Life and Ideas of Alexander Bogdanov (Netherlands: Brill, 2018), 238.
  33. Copleston, 297.
  34. V.I. Lenin, Materialism and Empirio-Criticism (1908).
  35. White op cit p188.
  36. Frederick Engels, Anti-Dühring. Herr Eugen Dühring’s Revolution in Science (1877) (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1947). Accessed at Marxist Internet Archive: https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1877/anti-duhring/index.htm
  37. V.I. Lenin, Materialism and Empirio-Criticism (1908).
  38. Anderson op cit p20.
  39. Evald Ilyenkov, Leninist Dialectics and the Metaphysics of Positivism (1979)
  40. Ibid.
  41. Raya Dunayevskaya, The Philosophic Moment of Marxism Humanism: Two Historic Writings (1989) from Raya Dunayevskaya Archive (#11723; #11733; #11753) accessed at Marxist Internet Archive: https://www.marxists.org/archive/dunayevskaya/works/1989/philosophic-moment/index.html
  42. V.I. Lenin, Materialism and Empirio-Criticism (1908).
  43. Ibid.
  44. Ibid.
  45. White op cit 241.