Sunday, June 1, 2008

Reading Lenin 17

READING LENIN: Materialism and Empiro-criticism [ 17 ]
Thomas Riggins

Using our editor's blog to further Marxist education seems like a good idea. So here is a famous work of Lenin's that outlines what Marxist philosophy is all about. It's 100 years old this year and we might ask ourselves what is still valid in this classic. Have new philosophic developments in the last 100 years made this work outmoded? I'm going to post some reflections on the book section by section and anyone who wants to read along and comment is welcome to do so. I hope to post weekly updates and Sunday seems the best day to this as it is a free day for me.


In this section Lenin points out that the so called Russian "Marxist" Machists, Valentinov and Bogdanov, try to show the weaknesses of materialism by criticizing the ideas of contemporary bourgeois materialists such as Buchner [1824-1899] Vogt [1817-1895] and Moleschott [1822-1893]. They then apply these these criticisms to Marxist materialism.

This is a big distortion according to Lenin. No one has criticized the bourgeois materialists more than Marx and Engels. But Marx and Engels criticized them for the limitaions in their materialism, not for the materialism itself, which is what the Machists object to.

Engels ponts out three basic limitations of the bourgeois materialists. They did not advance beyond the materialism they inherited from the eighteenth century-- i.e., they did not develop it. The three limitations are, first, they were mechanical materialists. Today we would call them "reductionists." Engels says (in his "Ludwig Feuerbach") that they indulged in "the exclusive application of the standards of mechanics to processeses of a chemical and organic nature."

Second was the "ANTI-DIALECTICAL CHARACTER OF THEIR PHILOSOPHY." Because of this Engels calls them metaphysical materialists, using "metaphysics" as equivalent to "non dialectical." This usage has spread in Marxism but it is not the way the word is used in philosophy and it sometimes causes misunderstandings, especially when people talk about dialectics as a form of metaphysics.

Third, Lenin says, "was the preservation of idealism 'up above', in the realm of the social sciences, a non-understanding of historical materialism." So M & E were not attacking them because of their materialism but because they were not materialist enough. For not seeing that, Lenin calls Valentinov and Bogdanov "ignoramuses."

The rest of this section is basically a repeat of the above arguments applied to Duhring. The Machists in Germany attacked him as an extreme leftist materialist, while Engels doesn't think much of Duhring as a philosopher of materialism at all. This is the reason for the section's title. While the Machists thought Duhring was too much of a materialist, Lenin says, "For Engels, ON THE CONTRARY, Duhring was NOT A SUFFICIENTLY steadfast, clear and consistent materialist."


We have talked about Dietzgen before. He was a self educated worker who arrived at Dialectical Materialism on his own, but had sometimes a confused way of expressing himself. Lenin writes, "Dietzgen, unlike Engels, expresses his thoughts in a vague, unclear, mushy way. But apart from his defects of exposition and individual mistakes he not unsuccessfully champions the 'MATERIALIST THEORY OF KNOWLEDGE', 'DIALECTICAL MATERIALISM.'"

At one time his writings were well known on the left and he was a big influence. But today he is not so well known. This is no doubt because the works of Marx, Engels and Lenin are widely available and much clearer.

Some of the Machists appealed to Dietzgen to support their views but at heart he was a true materialist and follower of Marx and Engels. Lenin says, "J. Dietzgen could find favour with the reactionary philosophers because he occasionally gets muddled."

At the close of this section Lenin lists the "socialist authorities." They were, in 1908: Karl Marx, Frederick Engels, Paul Lafargue* [1842-1911], Franz Mehring** [1846-1919], and Karl Kautsky [1854-1938]. We know Kautsky fell from Grace due to his support of WWI. The new list then became Marx, Engels, Lenin. After Lenin died Stalin added himself. Stalin's theoretical writings were never on the same level as Marx, Engels and Lenin and he was removed from the list in 1956 (for violations of socialist legality and for creating a cult around himself). He also killed many innocent people in a drive to always be numero uno). Different national parties often try to make their ephemeral leaders "socialist authorities" but this rarely succeeds. Mao is still holding on in some parties. Gramsci is highly respected in some circles, not to mention Che. My own feeling is that a generation from now the list will be Marx, Engels, Lenin and Castro.

* A famous quote from Marx concerns PL's views at one time:
"Lafargue was the subject of a famous quotation by Karl Marx. Shortly before Marx died in 1883, he wrote a letter to Lafargue and the French Workers' Party leader Jules Guesde, both of whom already claimed to represent "Marxist" principles. Marx accused them of "revolutionary phrase-mongering" and of denying the value of reformist struggles. This exchange is the source of Marx's remark, reported by Friedrich Engels: "ce qu'il y a de certain c'est que moi, je ne suis pas Marxiste" ("what is certain is that [if they are Marxists, then] I myself am not a Marxist")."-- Wikepedia

** FM wrote the first (and some think the best) bio of Karl Marx. He was also one of the three top leaders of the Spartacist League along with Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg.


(Preliminary remarks before Section 1)

Lenin's preliminary remarks are to remind us that he is not dealing with physics but with epistomology. His time was a time of revolutionary advances in physics-- relativity theory, quantum mechanics, radioactivity, etc., simillar to our times-- i.e., string theory, multiple universes, the big bang, etc. The "Marxist" Machists were using the new developments in physics in Lenin's day to try and attack materialism because many of the principles of that philosophy had been been formulated before the "new" physics.

This being the case, it is good that Lenin quotes a passage from "Ludwig Feuerbach" in which Engels says that "with each epoch-making discovery even in the sphere of natural science ["not to speak of the history of mankind"], materialism has to change its form."

So, what are we to deal with in this chapter on physics? There are many new schools of physics, as well as philosophy, looking to meet up. If we want physics to be materialism's suitor we must show that the latter is the most compatible of the contending match ups.


Well, from our point of view this is not "modern physics" so I am not going to spend a lot of time on it. The roots of our own contemporary physics [2008] however do go back to this time: the discovery of the electron, relativity, etc. The concept of the "ether" is still in use, however, at this time (1908).

Lenin discusses two books. First, "The Value of Science" by Henri Poincare. This book says that the old physical "laws" are being undermined by the new discoveries. The author concludes that physics isn't really about an objective reality and he ends up saying, in his own words: "whatever is not thought is pure nothing." So, he is in the camp of Mach and the idealists.

The other book is by Abel Rey: "The Physical Theory of the Modern Physicists." Lenin gives his take on Rey's views: "Anti-intellectualism is a doctrine that denies the rights or claims of reason. Hence, in its philosophical aspect, the essence of the 'crisis in modern physics' is that the old physics regarded its theories as 'real knowledge of the material world', i.e., a reflection of objective reality. The new trend in physics regards theories only as symbols, signs, and marks for practice, i.e., it denies the existence of an objective reality independent of our mind and reflected by it."

In essence, Rey is saying that "matter" has disappeared! Lenin's next section will deal with this and is where we will take up next week (Section 2. "Matter Has Disappeared").

See Read Lenin 16 here


Warren Greer said...

After following the series on Lenin, I have become concerned that there is little or no response from readers, and I hope this is not taken as a lack of interest. It is a complex topic, and one which I do not feel able to comment, but I hope by the end of the series to be much better equipped. Bravo, and keep going!

Thomas Riggins said...

Thanks Warren. There is an anti-intellectual culture in the USA, fostered by the ruling class, but it has also spread into the working class and its party and it may hamper us from having the right polices in some instances.

Anonymous said...

Good analytical commentary Tom. Distorting Marx and Lenin and for that matter any other important revolutionary theorist in the service of the ruling class(or just sometimes to advance yourself and your reputation) has unfortunately been with use since the post Paris Commune period when Marx's writings and the influence of Marxist thought expanded massively, along with the rise of workers parties and unions founded by people who considered themselves Marxists.
As for the "fall from grace," remember Tom that Lenin's battle with Kautsky was much more significant, over the very nature of imperialism itself, and Kautsky in the post WWI period in his last years lent his name to anti-Communist Social Democracy(as the executor of Karl Marx estate his name was of great importance).
Also, I was reminded by your reference to Jules Guesde the trials and tribulations that our movement has experienced through the world. In the 1890s in the French Socialist Party, Guesde took the position that the Socialists should not join with the liberals in supporting the cause of Alfed Dreyfus because this was a battle inside the capitalist class. Jean Juarres, taking the position that the Republic itself was in danger as were all of the advances made by the working class if the militarist right gained power through its manipulation of the crisis and its fomenting anti-Semitic mobs, won out and built what was the first United Front in history, leading to the first socialist in history joining a goverment. In 1914, Juarres leader of the Socialist party, actively opposed France becoming involved in WWI before war was declared and was assassinated by a rightwing militarist. Guesde, still around and long a symbol of the left, then returned to leadership and promptly supported the war.
Norman Markowitz

Thomas Riggins said...

Thanks for the comment Norman. Wasn't Lenin against that "first socialist" to join a government. I think he was for socialists being in the parliament but not being a part of the executive-- i.e., a minister.

Anonymous said...

I think you are right on that point, and that first socialist, Millerand, didn't turn out to be such a prize package either, later supporting WWI from a right social democratic position--but these events happened before Iskra, a few years before the 1903 Bolshevik-Menshevik division, when Lenin was still very young at heart, Victoria was still Queen of England, and the U.S army was still occupying Cuba after "liberating" it Spain.