Sunday, July 6, 2008

Reading Lenin 22

READING LENIN: Materialism and Empiro-criticism [ 22 ]
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.


Lenin will now discuss Machism and religion. He reminds us that there are two basic trends in philosophy: materialism and idealism and that the basic question between these TWO GREAT CAMPS revolves around the question of the priority or matter over mind or vice versa.

Lenin opposes all attempts to blur this twofold division within philosophy by the invention of a "third way" that tries to squirm around these two schools. The greatness of Marx, according to Lenin, was his "insistence upon MATERIALISM and contemptuous derision of all obscurity, of all confusion and all deviations towards IDEALISM." Engels also followed this path both before and after the death of Marx.

Engels opposed the neo-Kantians, the positivists and Machists as well as the Humeans. Speaking about Engels' views on Thomas Huxley, Lenin wrote, "That 'positivism' and that 'realism' which attracted, and which continue to attract, an infinite number of muddleheads, Engels declared to be AT BEST A PHILISTINE METHOD OF SMUGGLING IN MATERIALISM while publicly abusing and disavowing it." Lenin asks if Engels said that about Huxley, "a very great scientist", what would he say about today's [1908] muddleheads?

Lenin answers his own question by writing, "they are a contemptible MIDDLE PARTY in philosophy, who confuse the materialist and idealist trends on every question." They produce nothing but "conciliatory quackery." This quackery is also used by religion to gain respectability. By and large religion is the great ally of reaction and bourgeois domination.

Lenin quotes J. Dietzgen: "The materialist theory of Knowledge is 'a universal weapon against religious belief' and not only against the 'notorious, formal and common religion of the priests, but also against the most refined, elevated professorial religion of muddled idealists'" So,it appears it was from Dietzgen that Lenin picked up "muddle- heads" an expression he is overly fond of using. Lenin appears to think that one of the functions of Marxist journalism and writing is to disabuse the public of any faith in faith.

Lenin agrees that Ostwald, and Mach, and Poincare and all the others (almost) are important scientists making contributions to physics, chemistry, history, etc., but they cannot "BE TRUSTED ONE IOTA when it comes to philosophy." Nor can they be trusted in political science, outside of "factual and specialised investigations." This is because both philosophy and political science are, in our society, PARTISAN endeavors.

Lenin adds an interesting footnote at this point about another "reactionary bourgeois philosophy"-- one we still have with us-- namely, PRAGMATISM. Lenin has gotten hold of William James' PRAGMATISM. A NEW NAME FOR SOME OLD WAYS OF THINKING, published in 1907, and has not been impressed. "Pragmatism ridicules the metaphysics both of materialism and idealism, acclaims experience and only experience, recognises practice as the only criterion, refers to the positivist movement in general, ESPECIALLY TURNS FOR SUPPORT TO OSTWALD, MACH, PEARSON, POINCARE AND DUHEM, for the belief that science is not an 'absolute copy of reality' and ... successfully deduces from all this a God for practical purposes, and only for practical purposes, without any metaphysics, and without transcending the bounds of experience."

This is not very different from Machism, according to Lenin, and is similar to Bogdanov's view, especially with regards to James' definition of "Truth"-- i.e., "a class-name for all sorts of definite working values in experience."

So what is "the task of Marxists" when confronted with all this anti-materialist literature? It is to take what is worthwhile from bourgeois thought and shape it in conformity with Marxism. Lenin tells us we can make NO PROGRESS is our thinking, about "new economic phenomena" (but other areas of knowledge are also meant) unless we make use "of the works" of the bourgeois intellectuals. So one task is to study them and not just our own people. The second task is to enrich dialectical and historical materialism with the valid information gained. We should NOT REVISE Marxism to be in accord with bourgeois thought.

Lenin uses Lunacharsky as an example of a Marxist who has allowed himself to be tainted by the influence of Machism to such an extent that he entertains notions derived from RELIGION (shudder). Some of Lunacharsky's statements: he speaks of the "deification of the higher human potentialities" and mentions "religious atheism" and "scientific socialism in its religious significance" and even writes "For a long time a new religion has been maturing within me." Lenin doesn't go for this. I note that around this time the British philosopher Bertrand Russell was talking about Social Democracy as a form of religion.

Lenin says, "this attitude [is] in no way like that of Marx, Engels, J. Dietzgen and even Feuerbach, but is the VERY OPPOSITE." Lenin is not at all neutral on this issue. "The neutrality of a PHILOSOPHER in the question IS IN ITSELF servility to [religion]." And: "Once you deny objective reality given us in sensation, you have already lost every weapon against [religion]."

Lenin says that Lunacharsky's mixing up of religious and Marxist categories is "shameful." Lenin is totally opposed to piecemeal Marxism, of taking some parts of the theory and ignoring others. It is true the Marxism is a guide to action and not a dogma, but it is a unified theory in which every doctrine is logically implied by and logically implies every other. You cannot, for example, reject the dictatorship of the proletariat on the one hand and on the other speak sensibly about class struggle and its outcome. "A single claw ensnared and the bird is lost," Lenin writes. Idealism and religious chatter a la Bogdanov, Lunacharsky, Yushkevich, etc., "this is what one inevitably comes to if one does not recognise the materialist theory that the human mind REFLECTS an objectively real external world."

Stay tuned for next week's thrilling conclusion of MATERIALISM AND EMPIRIO-CRITICISM starting with Chapter 6 Section 5 "Ernst Haeckel and Ernst Mach".

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