G. V. Plekhanov
Original publication: marxists.org

The Difference Between Materialism and Kantianism (1898)

16 minutes | English | The Soviet Union

Excerpts from “On the Alleged Crisis in Marxism” (1898), Plekhanov’s rebuttal to a growing body of literature by Eduard Bernstein and Conrad Schmidt theoretically attacking materialism in order to buttress their politically anti-Marxist positions.

This article comprises roughly the second half of the original document. So as to not completely be left without an introduction, and to set the stage, I replaced the entire first half with a few spicy lines from a book that Plekhanov wrote a decade later, in 1907, about the same subject.
 — R. D.

All possible brands of Kantianism form the main bulwark in the struggle against materialism; it is the philosophical spiritual weapon employed by bourgeois reaction in the ideological sphere. In the field of social science, Kantianism is utilised for this purpose as a dualist doctrine which tears asunder the tie between being and thinking. Kantianism is not a philosophy of struggle, or a philosophy of men of action. It is a philosophy of half-hearted people — a philosophy of compromise. [1]

What is the difference between materialism and Kantianism? The difference is a vast one. It all lies in that which refers to the unknowable.

According to Kant, things-in-themselves are not what we perceive them to be, and the relations between them in reality are not what they seem to us; if we abstract ourselves from the subjective organisation of our senses, all the properties and all the correlations of objects in space and time vanish, as do space and time themselves, because they all exist only as phenomenona, i.e., only in us. The nature of things, regarded in themselves and independently of our own faculty of perception, is wholly unknown to us. Of such things, we know only the manner on which we perceive them; consequently, things belong to the area of the unknowable.

In this, the materialists are far from agreement with Kant.

According to Kant, what we know about things is only the way we perceive them. But if our perception of things does take place, that — again according to Kant — is because things affect us. Phenomena are the products of the effect on us of things-in-themselves, noumena. However, the exertion of an affect already means being in some relationship. One who says that objects (or things) in themselves affect us is saying that he knows some of the relations of such objects — if not among themselves then at least between them, on the one hand, and us, on the other. But if we know the relations existing between us and things-in-themselves, we also know — through the mediation of our faculty of perception — the relations existing between the objects themselves. This is not direct knowledge, but knowledge it is; once we possess it, we no longer have the right to speak of the impossibility of knowing things-in-themselves.

Knowledge means foresight. If we are able to foresee a phenomenon, we shall foresee how some things-in-themselves will affect us. All our industries and all our practical life are based on that foresight. Consequently, Kant’s proposition cannot be supported. Everything correct in it had already been voiced by the French materialists prior to Kant: [2] the essence of matter is incomprehensible to us, we gain an understanding of it only in the measure in which it affects us. This is what Engels said in his book Ludwig Feuerbach, and what Bernstein and Conrad Schmidt have failed to understand.

This distinction between materialism and Kantianism may seem inconsequential to you, yet it is highly important, not only from the theoretical point of view but also — and perhaps particularly — from the practical.

Kant’s “unknowable” leaves the door wide open to mysticism. In my German book Beiträge zur Geschichte des Materialismus[3] I showed that this “unknowable” is nothing else but God — a scholastic God. Matter, on the contrary, of which we gain a knowledge in the measure it affects us, totally precludes all and any theological interpretation. This is a revolutionary concept, which is why it is not to the liking of the bourgeoisie, who prefer — and very much so — Kant’s agnosticism (and our present-day Kantians).

When Bernstein calls us back to Kant, and when he criticises present-day materialism with the words “Wir glauben [an das Atom],” [4] he is thereby proving nothing but his own ignorance.

Let us now pass on to the materialist understanding of history. What is meant by this understanding?

This “understanding” has often been very poorly understood and, improbably, interpreted still more poorly. In its false interpretation it is vilely defamatory of the human race; but where is that theory which, poorly understood and badly interpreted, will not seem vile and absurd? [5] In reality, the materialist understanding of history is the only theory that enables us to understand human history as a law-governed process. In other words, it is the only scientific theory of history.

To give you an exact idea of the Marxist understanding of history, I shall first ask: what is meant by the idealist understanding? I shall begin by quoting from an eighteenth-century French author, now completely forgotten, but one who wrote a curious book. He was Cellier Dufayel, and the book was entitled Origine commune de la littérature et de la législation chez tous les peuples (Paris 1786). [6] He says:

“Just as literature is the expression of the litterateur’s thinking, law is, in its turn, the expression of the thinking of the legislator, taking that word in the broadest sense. There is then a common source both for literature and for legislation […] and that source is thought, whose origin is in man’s nature, which should be studied first and foremost, if one would proceed with method and advance with some certitude towards the goal one has set oneself.”

Here is an understanding of history that is completely idealistic: human thought is the source of law, i.e., of all social and political organisation. The development of that organisation is determined by human thought, which, in its turn, originates in man’s nature.

This idealistic interpretation of history is, with few exceptions, peculiar to all philosophers of the eighteenth century — even to the materialists. The weak point, the heel of Achilles, of this understanding of history will easily be seen. I shall describe it in a few words.

Were one to ask an eighteenth-century writer, say Cellier, how man’s ideas take shape, he would reply that they are a product of the social environment. But what is a social environment? It is the totality of those very social relations which, Cellier Dufayel himself asserts, originate in human thought. Hence we have before us the following antinomy:

  • The social environment is a product of thought;
  • Thought is a product of the social environment.

As long as we are unable to escape from this contradiction, we shall understand nothing either in the history of ideas or in the history of social forms.

If you take, for instance, the evolution of literary criticism in the nineteenth century, you will see it has been, and in part remains, quite powerless to solve this antinomy. Thus, Sainte-Beuve holds that every social revolution is accompanied by a revolution in literature. But where do social revolutions come from? They are caused by the development of human thought. Since, in civilised societies, the evolution of thought finds expression in the evolution of literature, we come up against the same antinomy: the development of literature hinges on social development, while social development is conditioned by the development of literature. Hippolyte Taine’s philosophy of art suffers from the same shortcoming.

We shall now see how Marx’s understanding of history successfully solves this antinomy.

Marx’s materialist understanding of history is the direct opposite of the eighteenth-century understanding. In a comparison of his own method with that of Hegel, Marx says in the Afterword to the Second German Edition of Capital:

“To Hegel, the life-process of the human brain, i.e., the process of thinking, which, under the name of ‘the Idea’, he even transforms into an independent subject, is the demiurgos of the real world, and the real world is only the external, phenomenal form of ‘the Idea’. With me, on the contrary, the ideal is nothing but the material world reflected by the human mind, and translated into forms of thought.” [7]

This is a materialist understanding of the history of human thought.

Engels expressed the same in a more popular form when he said that it is not consciousness that determines being, but being that determines consciousness.

It may, however, be asked: what does a way of life derive from if it is not determined by the mode of thought?

Social man’s way of life is determined by his means of subsistence, which in their turn depend on the state of the productive forces at the disposal of social man, i.e., of society. [8] The productive forces a tribe of savages dispose of determine that tribe’s way of life; the productive forces at the disposal of Europeans in the Middle Ages determined the structure of feudal society; the productive forces of our times determine the structure of present-day society, capitalist society, bourgeois society.

You are all no doubt well aware that the types of weaponry determine the organisation of an army, the plans of campaigns, the disposition of units, the orders issued, and so on and so forth. All this creates the profound distinction between the military system of the ancients and that of our days. In exactly the same way, the state of the productive forces, and the means and modes of production, determine the relations existing among producers, i.e., the entire social structure as well. But once we have a social structure as a fact, the way in which it determines the state of men’s mores and ideas will be readily understood.

Let us take an example the better to bring the point out.

The reactionaries have often accused the French philosophers of the eighteenth century — the Encyclopedists — of their propaganda having laid the ground for the French Revolution. That propaganda was no doubt a sine qua non [9] of the Revolution. It may, however, be asked: why was it that such propaganda should have started only in the eighteenth century? Why was it not conducted in the times of Louis XIV? Where is the answer to be sought? In the general properties of human nature? No, for they were the same in the times of Bossuet and in those of Voltaire. But if the French of Bossuet’s times did not hold the same views as did the French of Voltaire’s times, it was because of the change in France’s social structure. But what brought that change about? It was France’s economic development that did so. [10]

I shall take another example, this time borrowed from the history of French art. Kindly look at these two engravings made after Boucher, and at these two photographs of two celebrated pictures painted by Louis David. They are representative of two completely different stages in the history of French painting. [The specific works Plekhanov was referring to weren’t specified, so I picked some out on my own: the first pair is from before the French Revolution, the second from after. — R. D.] [11]

François Boucher (b. 1703-1770).

Jacques-Louis David (b. 1748-1825).

Note the distinctive features in Boucher’s art, compare them with the distinctive features in David’s art, and tell me whether the difference that exists between these two painters can be accounted for by the general properties of human nature. For my part, I do not see any possibility of that. Neither do I understand how those properties of human nature could explain to me the transition from Boucher’s paintings to David’s. Finally, I fail to understand which of the properties of human nature had to lead to the transition from François Boucher’s paintings to those of Jacques-Louis David happening at the end of the eighteenth century, and at no other time. Human nature can explain nothing here.

Again, it is not psychology but political economy that has to account for the evolution of social forms and human thought; it is not consciousness that determines being, but being that determines consciousness.

[1] G. V. Plekhanov, Fundamental Problems of Marxism (1907). [web] 

[2] Earlier in the original document Plekhanov refers to French materialists such as Julien Offray de La Mettrie (b. 1709-1751) and Claude Adrien Helvétius (b. 1715-1771). — R. D. 

[3] “Contribution to the History of Materialism.” — R. D. 

[4] “We (merely) believe in the atom.” — R. D. 

[5] The reference is to a preceding discussion about a neo-Kantian charge that Plekhanov rejects: that works like La Mettrie’s L’homme-machine [The Man-Machine] (1747) are “dangerous” insofar as they present humans as continuous with the natural world, thus not apart and superior to it. — R. D. 

[6] “The common origin of literature and legislation among all peoples.” — R. D. 

[7] Karl Marx, “Afterword to the Second German Edition of Capital Vol. 1” (1873). [web] 

[8] “The hand-mill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam mill, society with the industrial capitalist.” — Karl Marx, 1847. [web] — R. D. 

[9] An essential element or condition. — R. D. 

[10] Lenin and Plekhanov would eventually split (into Bolshevik and Menshevik camps) over what some have described as Plekhanov’s excessively deterministic view of history. One interesting way of tracing this disagreement is by (bear with me here) reading the documents related to Lenin’s notes on Plekhanov’s remarks on Chernyshevsky. [web] Chernyshevsky was criticized by Plekhanov for his utopian aspirations to change the world, and Lenin in turn would defend the possibility of human agency in the face of history — albeit always within the materialist framework. — R. D. 

[11] See also, for a much more detailed and very visual discussion of the transformation of stylistic changes art paralleling historical evolution, D. S. Mirsky’s 1937 Soviet Encyclopedia entry on Romanticism. [web] — R. D.