V. I. Lenin
Original publication: marxists.org

For the Benefit of Machian Muddleheads (1908)

14 minutes | English | The Soviet Union

Between the Russian Revolution of 1905 and the outbreak of the First World War, Lenin dedicated a great deal of study and effort to participating in the politico-philosophical disputes of his day. Marxism had risen to theoretical prominence by claiming the mantle of science in the field of society, but by the turn of the century self-avowed Russian Marxists were following leading physicists like Ernst Mach (of “Mach number” fame) in spurning its ambitious philosophical foundations. Concerned, Lenin wrote to his sister: “I regard it as extremely important to counterpose Chernyshevsky to the Machists.”

In this remixed document I combine excerpts from section 4.1 of Materialism and Empirio-criticism (1908) with the Chernyshevsky appendix 4.1a in order to lay out the main arguments as they pertain to the question of materialism.
 — R. D.


The Criticism of Kantianism from the Left and from the Right [1]

Materialists have been criticising Kant from a standpoint diametrically opposite to that from which Mach and Avenarius criticise him.

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. When Kant assumes that something outside us, a thing-in-itself, corresponds to our ideas, he is a materialist. When he declares this thing-in-itself to be unknowable, transcendental, other-sided, he is an idealist. Recognising experience, sensations, as the only source of our knowledge, Kant is directing his philosophy towards sensationalism, and via sensationalism, under certain conditions, towards materialism. Recognising the apriority of space, time, causality, etc., Kant is directing his philosophy towards idealism.

Both consistent materialists and consistent idealists (as well as the “pure” agnostics, the Humeans) have mercilessly criticised Kant for this inconsistency. The materialists blamed Kant for his idealism, rejected the idealist features of his system, demonstrated the knowability, the this-sidedness of the thing-in-itself, the absence of a fundamental difference between the thing-in-itself and the phenomenon, the need of deducing causality, etc., not from a priori laws of thought, but from objective reality. The agnostics and idealists blamed Kant for his assumption of the thing-in-itself as a concession to materialism, “realism,” or “naïve realism.” The agnostics, moreover, rejected not only the thing-in-itself, but apriorism as well; while the idealists demanded the consistent deduction from pure thought not only of the a priori forms of perception, but of the world as a whole (by magnifying human thought to an abstract Self, or to an “Absolute Idea,” or to a “Universal Will” etc., etc.).

Mach and Avenarius reproached Kant not because his treatment of the thing-in-itself was not sufficiently realistic, not sufficiently materialistic, but because he assumed its existence; not because he refused to deduce causality and necessity in nature from objective reality, but because he assumed causality and necessity at all (except perhaps purely “logical” necessity). The immanentists were at one with the empirio-criticists, also criticising Kant from the Humean and Berkeleian standpoint. For instance, Leclair in 1879, in the work in which he praised Mach as a remarkable philosopher, reproached Kant for his “inconsistency and connivance at realism” as expressed in the concept of the “thing-in-itself” — that “nominal residuum of vulgar realism.” [2] Another immanentist, Johannes Rehmke, reproached Kant because he realistically walled himself off from Berkeley with the thing-in-itself:

“The philosophical activity of Kant bore an essentially polemical character: with the thing-in-itself he turned against German rationalism [i.e., the old fideism of the eighteenth century — V. L.], and with pure contemplation against English empiricism. […] I would compare the Kantian thing-in-itself with a movable lid placed over a pit: the thing looks so innocent and safe; one steps on it and suddenly falls into […] the ‘world-in-itself’.” [3]

That is why Kant is not liked by the associates of Mach and Avenarius, the immanentists; they do not like him because in some respects he approaches the “pit” of materialism!

And here are some examples of the criticism of Kant from the Left. Feuerbach reproaches Kant not for his “realism,” but for his idealism, and describes his system as “idealism based on empiricism.” [4] And his ardent follower, Albrecht Rau, writes:

“For the materialist a distinction between a priori knowledge and the ‘thing-in-itself’ is absolutely superfluous, for since he nowhere breaks the continuity of nature, since he does not regard matter and mind as two fundamentally different things, but as two aspects of one and the same thing, he need not resort to artifice in order to bring the mind and the thing into conjunction.” [5]

Further, Engels as we have seen, rebuked Kant for being an agnostic, but not for his deviation from consistent agnosticism. Lafargue, Engels’ disciple, argued in 1900 against the Kantians (amongst whom at that time was Charles Rappoport) as follows:

“The workingman who eats sausage and receives a hundred sous a day knows very well that he is robbed by the employer and is nourished by pork meat, that the employer is a robber and that the sausage is pleasant to the taste and nourishing to the body. ‘Not at all!’ say the bourgeois sophists, whether they are called Pyrrho, Hume or Kant. ‘His opinion is personal, an entirely subjective opinion; he might with equal reason maintain that the employer is his benefactor and that the sausage consists of chopped leather, for he cannot know things-in-themselves.’ The question is not properly put, that is the whole trouble.

The chemists have gone still further — they have penetrated into bodies, they have analysed them, decomposed them into their elements, and then performed the reverse procedure, they have recomposed them from their elements. And from the moment that man is able to produce things for his own use from these elements, he may, as Engels says, assert that he knows the things-in-themselves.”

And lastly, Karl Kautsky in his Ethics also criticises Kant from a standpoint diametrically opposed to that of Hume and Berkeley. He writes, arguing against Kant’s epistemology:

“That I see green, red and white, is grounded in my faculty of sight. But that green is something different from red testifies to something that lies outside of me, to real differences between the things. […] The relations and differences between the things themselves revealed to me by the individual space and time concepts […] are real relations and differences of the external world, not conditioned by the nature of my perceptive faculty. […] If this were really so [if Kant’s doctrine of the ideality of time and space were true — V. L.], we could know nothing about the world outside us, not even that it exists.” [6]

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. But our Machians followed the reactionary trend in philosophy — Mach and Avenarius — who criticised Kant from the standpoint of Hume and Berkeley.

Of course, it is the sacred right of every citizen, and particularly of every intellectual, to follow any ideological reactionary he likes. But when people who have radically severed relations with the very foundations of Marxism in philosophy begin to dodge, confuse matters, hedge and assure us that they “too” are Marxists in philosophy, that they are “almost” in agreement with Marx, and have only slightly “supplemented” him — the spectacle is a far from pleasant one.

From what angle did Chernyshevsky criticise Kantianism? [7]

It would not be superfluous to add here, albeit briefly, an indication of the epistemological position held by the great Russian Hegelian and materialist, N. G. Chernyshevsky.

Shortly after Albrecht Rau, the German disciple of Feuerbach, had published his criticism of Kant, the great Russian writer Chernyshevsky, who was also a disciple of Feuerbach, first attempted an explicit statement of his attitude towards both Feuerbach and Kant. Chernyshevsky had appeared in Russian literature as a follower of Feuerbach as early as the ‘fifties, but our censorship did not allow him even to mention Feuerbach’s name. In 1888, in the preface to the projected third edition of his The Aesthetic Relation of Art to Reality, Chernyshevsky attempted to allude directly to Feuerbach, but in 1888 too the censor refused to allow even a mere reference to Feuerbach! It was not until 1906 that the preface saw the light. [8] In this preface Chernyshevsky devotes half a page to criticising Kant and the scientists who follow Kant in their philosophical conclusions.

Here is the excellent argument given by Chernyshevsky in 1888:

“Natural scientists who imagine themselves to be builders of all-embracing theories are really disciples, and usually poor disciples, of the ancient thinkers who evolved the metaphysical systems, usually thinkers whose systems had already been partially destroyed by Schelling and finally destroyed by Hegel. One need only point out that the majority of the natural scientists who endeavour to construct broad theories of the laws of operation of human thought only repeat Kant’s metaphysical theory regarding the subjectivity of our knowledge.”

For the benefit of the Russian Machians who manage to muddle everything, let us say that Chernyshevsky is below Engels in so far as in his terminology he confuses the opposition between materialism and idealism with the opposition between metaphysical thought and dialectical thought; but Chernyshevsky is entirely on Engels’ level in so far as he takes Kant to task not for realism, but for agnosticism and subjectivism; not for recognition of the “thing-in-itself,” but for inability to derive our knowledge from this objective source.

“[…] they argue from Kant’s words that the forms of our sense-perception have no resemblance to the forms of the actual existence of objects. […]”

For the benefit of the Russian Machians who manage to muddle everything, let us say that Chernyshevsky’s criticism of Kant is the diametrical opposite of the criticism of Kant by Avenarius, Mach and the immanentists, because for Chernyshevsky, as for every materialist, the forms of our sense-perception do resemble the form of the actual — i.e. objectively-real—existence of objects.

“[…] that, therefore, really existing objects, their real qualities, and the real relations between them are unknowable to us. […]”

For the benefit of the Russian Machians who manage to muddle everything, let us say that for Chernyshevsky, as for every materialist, objects (or to use Kant’s ornate language, “things-in-themselves”) really exist and are fully knowable to us — knowable in their existence, their qualities, and the real relations between them.

“[…] and if they were knowable they could not be the object of our thought, which shapes all the material of knowledge into forms totally different from the forms of actual existence, that, moreover, the very laws of thought have only a subjective significance. […]”

For the benefit of the Machian muddlers, let us say that for Chernyshevsky, as for every materialist, the laws of thought have not merely a subjective significance; in other words, the laws of thought reflect the forms of actual existence of objects, fully resemble, and do not differ from, these forms.

“[…] that in reality there is nothing corresponding to what appears to us to be the connection of cause and effect, for there is neither antecedent nor subsequent, neither whole nor parts, and so on and so forth. […]”

For the benefit of the Machian muddlers, let us say that for Chernyshevsky, as for every materialist, there does exist in reality what appears to us to be the connection between cause and effect, there is objective causality or natural necessity.

“[…] When natural scientists stop uttering such and similar metaphysical nonsense, they will be capable of working out, and probably will work out, on the basis of science, a system of concepts more exact and complete than those propounded by Feuerbach. […]”

For the benefit of the Machian muddlers, let us say that Chernyshevsky regards as metaphysical nonsense all deviations from materialism, both in the direction of idealism and in the direction of agnosticism.

“[…] But meanwhile, the best statement of the scientific concepts of the so-called fundamental problems of man’s inquisitiveness remains that made by Feuerbach.”

By the fundamental problems of man’s inquisitiveness Chernyshevsky means what in modern language are known as the fundamental problems of the theory of knowledge, or epistemology.

Chernyshevsky is the only really great Russian writer who, from the ‘fifties until 1888, was able to keep on the level of an integral philosophical materialism and who spurned the wretched nonsense of the Neo-Kantians, positivists, Machians and other muddleheads. But Chernyshevsky did not succeed in rising, or, rather, owing to the backwardness of Russian life, was unable to rise, to the level of the dialectical materialism of Marx and Engels.

[1] V. I. Lenin, Ch. 4.1, Materialism and Empirio-criticism (1908). [web] 

[2] Der Realismus der modernen Naturwissenschaft, usw., S. 9. 

[3] Johannes Rehmke, Die Welt als Wahrnehmung und Begriff, Berlin, 1880, S. 9. 

[4] Werke, II, 296. 

[5] Ludwig Feuerbachs Philosophie, die Naturforschung und die philosophische Kritik der Gegenwart [Ludwig Feuerbach’s Philosophy, Natural Science, and the Modern Philosophical Critique], Leipzig, 1882, S. 87-89. 

[6] Russian Translation, pp. 33-34. 

[7] V. I. Lenin, Ch. 4.1a, Materialism and Empirio-criticism (1908). [web] 

[8] See N. G. Chernyshevsky, Collected Works, Vol. X, Part II, pp. 190-97.