Chapter 1 Marxism
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Chapter 1 Marxism

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Lenin As Philosopher


John Harper,

Lenin als Philosoph. Kritische Betrachtung der philosophischen Grundlagen des Leninismus

, Amsterdam 1938. [1]
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Chapter 1. Marxism

Chapter 2. Middle-Class Materialism [2]

Chapter 3. Dietzgen

Chapter 4. Mach

Chapter 5. Avenarius

Chapter 6. Lenin

Chapter 7. The Russian Revolution

Chapter 8. The Proletarian Revolution

Lenin’s Philosophy
by Karl Korsch (1938)

Notes 1. Lenin as Philosopher was first published in Amsterdam as Lenin als Philosoph. Kritische Betrachtung der philosophischen Grundlagen des Leninismus, under the pseudonym John Harper, by the Bibliothek der Rätekorrespondenz, No.1. Ausgabe der Gruppe Internationaler Kommunisten in Holland, in 1938. This German-language edition was distributed in the US by International Council Correspondence. The first French translation was published in 1947 in Internationalisme the journal of the Gauche Communiste de France. The first English translation was published by New Essays in New York in 1948. 2. The phrase “middle class” is here used as a translation for the German word “bürgerlich”. The more modern term used in Marxist discourse for this concept is “bourgeois” (i.e. relating to the capitalist or bourgeois class) in order to distinguish it from the rather imprecise term "middle class", which is often used as a broad description for white-collar workers, professionals, the self-employed etc. Similarly when this text refers to “the middle class” it is referring to the bourgeoisie or capitalist class. (Note by MIA)

Lenin as Philosopher


The Russian Revolution was fought under the banner of Marxism. In the years of propaganda before the First World War the Bolshevist Party came forward as the champion of Marxist ideas and tactics. It worked along with the radical tendencies in the socialist parties of Western Europe, which were also steeped in Marxian theory, whereas the Menshevist Party corresponded rather to the reformist tendencies over here. In theoretical controversies the Bolshevist authors, besides the so-called Austrian and Dutch schools of Marxism, came forward as the defenders of rigid Marxist doctrines. In the Revolution the Bolshevists, who now had adopted the name of Communist Party, could win because they put up as the leading principle of their fight the class war of the working masses against the bourgeoisie. Thus Lenin and his party, in theory and practice, stood as the foremost representatives of Marxism.

Then, however, a contradiction appeared. In Russia a system of state-capitalism consolidated itself, not by deviating from but by following Lenin’s ideas (e.g. in his

State and Revolution

). A new dominating and exploiting class came into power over the working class. But at the same time Marxism was fostered, and proclaimed the fundamental basis of the Russian state. In Moscow a “Marx-Engels Institute” was founded that collected with care and reverence all the well-nigh lost and forgotten works and manuscripts of the masters and published them in excellent editions. Whereas the Communist Parties, directed by the Moscow Comintern, refer to Marxism as their guiding doctrine, they meet with more and more opposition from the most advanced workers in Western Europe and America, most radically from the ranks of Council-communism. These contradictions, extending over all important problems of life and of the social struggle, can be cleared up only by penetrating into the deepest, i.e. the philosophical, principles of what is called Marxism in these different trends of thought.

Lenin gave an exposition of his philosophical ideas in his work

Materialism and Empirio-Criticism

that appeared in Russian in 1908, and was published in 1927 in German and in English translations. Some of the Russian socialist intellectuals about 1904 had taken an interest in modern Western natural philosophy, especially in the ideas of Ernst Mach, and tried to combine these with Marxism. A kind of “Machism”, with Bogdanov, Lenin’s most intimate collaborator, and Lunatcharsky as spokesmen, developed as an influential trend in the socialist party. After the first revolution the strife flared up again, connected as it was with all the various tactical and practical differences in the socialist movement. Then Lenin took a decisive stand against these deviations and, aided by Plechanov, the ablest representative of Marxian theory among the Russians, soon succeeded in destroying the influences of Machism in the socialist party.

In the Introduction to the German and English editions of Lenin’s book, Deborin – at that time the official interpreter of Leninism, but afterwards disgraced – exalts the importance of the collaboration of the two foremost theoretical leaders for the definite victory of true Marxism over all anti-marxist, reformist trends.

“Lenin’s book is not only an important contribution to philosophy, but it is also a remarkable document of an intra-party struggle which was of utmost importance in strengthening the general philosophical foundations of Marxism and Leninism, and which to a great degree determined the subsequent growth of philosophical thought amongst the Russian Marxists ... Unfortunately, matters are different beyond the borders of the Soviet Union ... where Kantian scholasticism and positivistic idealism are in full bloom.”

Since the importance of Lenin’s book is so strongly emphasised here, it is necessary to make it the subject of a serious critical study. The doctrine of Party-Communism of the Third International cannot be judged adequately unless their philosophical basis is thoroughly examined.

Marx’s studies on society, which for a century now have been dominating and shaping the workers’ movement in increased measure, took their form from German philosophy. They cannot be understood without a study of the spiritual and political developments of the European world. Thus it is with other social and philosophical trends and with other schools of materialism developing besides Marxism. Thus it is, too, with the theoretical ideas underlying the Russian revolution. Only by comparing these different systems of thought as to their social origin and their philosophical contents can we arrive at a well-founded judgement.

Chapter 1 Marxism

The evolution of Marx’s ideas into what is now called Marxism can be understood only in connection with the social and political developments of the period in which they arose. It was the time when industrial capitalism made its entry into Germany. This brought about a growing opposition to the existing aristocratic absolutism. The ascending bourgeois class needed freedom of trade and commerce, favourable legislation, a government sympathetic to its interests, freedom of press and assembly, in order to secure its needs and desires in an unhampered fight. Instead it found itself confronted with a hostile regime, an omnipotent police, and a press censorship which suppressed every criticism of the reactionary government. The struggle between these forces, which led to the revolution of 1848, first had to be conducted on a theoretical level, as a struggle of ideas and a criticism of the prevailing system of ideas. The criticism of the young bourgeois intelligentsia was directed mainly against religion and Hegelian philosophy.

Hegelian philosophy in which the self-development of the “Absolute Idea” creates the world and then, as developing world, enters the consciousness of man, was the philosophical guise suited to the Christian world of the epoch of the “Restoration” after 1815. Religion handed down by past generations served, as always, as the theoretical basis and justification for the perpetuation of old class relations. Since an open political fight was still impossible, the struggle against the feudal oligarchy had to be conducted in a veiled form, as an attack on religion. This was the task of the group of young intellectuals of 1840 among whom Marx grew up and rose to a leading position.

While still a student Marx admitted, although reluctantly, the force of the Hegelian method of thought, dialectics, and made it his own. That he chose for his doctor’s thesis the comparison of the two great materialistic philosophers of ancient Greece, Democritus and Epicurus, seems to indicate, however, that in the deep recesses of sub-consciousness Marx inclined to materialism. Shortly thereafter he was called upon to assume the editorship of a new paper founded by the oppositional Rheinish bourgeoisie in Cologne. Here he was drawn into the practical problems of the political and social struggle. So well did he conduct the fight that after a year of publication the paper was banned by the State authorities. It was during this period that Feuerbach made his final step towards materialism. Feuerbach brushed, away Hegel’s fantastic system, turned towards the simple experiences of everyday life, and arrived at the conclusion that religion was a man-made product. Forty years later Engels still spoke fervently of the liberating effect that Feuerbach’s work had on his contemporaries, and of the enthusiasm it aroused in Marx, despite critical reservations. To Marx it meant that now instead of attacking a heavenly image they had to come to grips with earthly realities. Thus in 1843 in his essay Kritik der Hegelschen Rechtsphilosophie (A Criticism of the Hegelian Philosophy of Law) he wrote:

“As far as Germany is concerned the criticism of religion is practically completed; and the criticism of religion is the basis of all criticism ... The struggle against religion is indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion ... Religion is the moan of the oppressed creature, the sentiment of a heartless world, as it is the spirit of spiritless conditions. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness, the demand to abandon the illusions about their condition is a demand to abandon a condition which requires illusions. The criticism of religion therefore contains potentially the criticism of the Vale of Tears whose aureole is religion. Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers which adorned the chain, not that man should wear his fetters denuded of fanciful embellishment, but that he should throw off the chain and break the living flower ... Thus the criticism of heaven is transformed into the criticism of earth, the criticism of religion into the criticism of Law, and the criticism of theology into the criticism of politics.”

The task confronting Marx was to investigate the realities of social life. In collaboration with Engels during their stay in Paris and Brussels, he made a study of the French Revolution and French socialism, as well as of English economy and the English working-class movement, which led towards further elaboration of the doctrine known as “Historical Materialism”. As the theory of social development by way of class struggles we find it expounded in

La misère de la philosophie

(written in 1846 against Proudhon’s

Philosophie de le misère

), in

The Communist Manifesto

(1848), and in the oft-quoted preface to

Zur Kritik der Politischen Oekonomie


Marx and Engels themselves refer to this system of thought as materialism, in opposition to the “idealism” of Hegel and the Young Hegelians. What do they understand by materialism? Engels, discussing afterwards the fundamental theoretical problems of Historical Materialism in his


and in his booklet on Feuerbach, states in the latter publication:

“The great basic question of all philosophy, especially of modern philosophy, is that concerning the relation of thinking and being...Those who asserted the primacy of the spirit to nature and, therefore, in the last instance, assumed world-creation in some form or other, comprised the camp of idealism. The others, who regarded nature as primary, belong to the various schools of materialism.”

That not only the human mind is bound up with the material organ of the brain, but that, also, man with his brain and mind is intimately connected with the rest of the animal kingdom and the inorganic world, was a self-evident truth to Marx and Engels. This conception is common to all “schools of materialism.” What distinguishes Marxist materialism from other schools must be learned from its various polemic works dealing with practical questions of politics and society. Then we find that to Marx materialistic thought was a working method. It was meant to explain all phenomena by means of the material world, the existing realities. In his writings he does not deal with philosophy, nor does he formulate materialism in a system of philosophy; he is utilising it as a method for the study of the world, and thus demonstrates its validity. In the essay quoted above, for example, Marx does not demolish the Hegelian philosophy of Law by philosophical disputations, but through an annihilating criticism of the real conditions in Germany.

In the materialist method philosophical sophistry and disputations around abstract concepts are replaced by the study of the real world. Let us take a few examples to elucidate this point. The statement “Man proposes, God disposes” is interpreted by the theologian from the point of view of the omnipotence of God. The materialist searches for the cause of the discrepancy between expectations and results, and finds it in the social effects of commodity exchange and competition. The politician debates the desirability of freedom and of socialism; the materialist asks: from what individuals or classes do these demands spring, what specific content do they have, and to what social need do they correspond? The philosopher, in abstract speculations about the essence of time, seeks to establish whether or not absolute time exists. The materialist compares clocks to see whether simultaneousness or succession of two phenomena can be established unmistakably.

Feuerbach had preceded Marx in using the materialist method, insofar as he pointed out that religious concepts and ideas are derived from material conditions. He saw in living man the source of all religious thoughts and concepts. “Der Mensch ist, was er isst” (Man is what he eats) is a well-known German pun summarising his doctrine. Whether his materialism would be valid, however, depended on whether he would be successful in presenting a clear and convincing explanation of religion. A materialism that leaves the problem obscure is insufficient and will fall back into idealism. Marx pointed out that the mere principle of taking living man as the starting point is not enough. In his theses on Feuerbach in 1845 he formulated the essential difference between his materialistic method and Feuerbach’s as follows:

“Feuerbach resolves the religious essence into the human essence (das menschliche Wesen). But the human essence is no abstraction inherent in each single individual. In its reality it is the ensemble of the social relationships” (Thesis 6). “His work consists in the dissolution of the religious world into its secular basis. The fact, however, that the secular foundation lifts itself above itself and establishes itself in the clouds as an independent realm is only to be explained by the self-cleavage and self-contradictions of this secular basis. The latter itself, therefore, must first be understood in its contradictions, and then, by the removal of the contradiction, must be revolutionised in practice” (Thesis 4).

In short, man can be understood only as a social being. From the individual we must proceed to society, and then the social contradictions out of which religion came forth, must be dissolved. The real world, the material, sensual world, where all ideology and consciousness have their origin, is the developing human society – with nature in the background, of course, as the basis on which society rests and of which it is a part transformed by man.

A presentation of these ideas may be found in the manuscript of

Die Deutsche Ideologie


The German Ideology

), written in 1845 but not published. The part that deals with Feuerbach was first published in 1925 by Rjazanov, then chief of the Marx-Engels Institute in Moscow; the complete work was not published until 1932. Here the theses on Feuerbach are worked out at greater length. Although it is manifest that Marx wrote it down quite hurriedly, he nevertheless gave a brilliant presentation of all the essential ideas concerning the evolution of society, which later found their short expression, practically, in the proletarian propaganda pamphlet,

The Communist Manifesto

and, theoretically, in the preface to

Zur Kritik der Politischen Oekonomie


Critique of Political Economy


The German Ideology

is directed first of all against the dominant theoretical view which regarded consciousness as the creator, and ideas developing from ideas as the determining factors of human history. They are treated here contemptuously as “the phantoms formed in the human brain” that are “necessary sublimates of their material, empirically verifiable life process bound to material premises.” It was essential to put emphasis on the real world, the material and empirically-given world as the source of all ideology. But it was also necessary to criticise the materialist theories that culminated in Feuerbach. As a protest against ideology, the return to biological man and his principal needs is correct but it is not possible to find a solution to the question of how and why religious ideas originate if we take the individual as an abstract isolated being. Human society in its historical evolution is the dominant reality controlling human life. Only out of society can the spiritual life of man be explained. Feuerbach, in his attempt to find an explanation of religion by a return to the “real” man did not find the real man, because he searches for him in the individual, the human being generally. From his approach the world of ideas cannot be explained. Thus he was forced to fall back on the ideology of universal human love. “Insofar as Feuerbach is a materialist,” Marx said, “he does not deal with history, and insofar as he considers history, he is not a materialist.”

What Feuerbach could not accomplish was accomplished by the Historical Materialism of Marx: an explanation of man’s ideas out of the material world. A brilliant survey of the historical development of society finds its philosophical summary in the sentence: “Men, developing their material production and their material intercourse along with this, their real existence, alter their thinking and the products of their thinking.” Thus, as relation between reality and thinking, materialism is in practice proven to be right. We know reality only through the medium of the senses. Philosophy, as theory of knowledge, then finds its basis in this principle: the material, empirically given world is the reality which determines thought.

The basic problem in the theory of knowledge (epistemology) was always: what truth can be attributed to thinking. The term “criticism of knowledge” (Erkenntniskritik) used by professional philosophers for this theory of knowledge, already implies a viewpoint of doubt. In his second and fifth theses on Feuerbach Marx refers to this problem and again points to the practical activity of man as the essential content of his life:

“The question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but a practical question. In practice man must prove the truth, i.e. the reality and power, the this-sidedness of his thinking” (Thesis 2). “Feuerbach, not satisfied with abstract thinking, appeals to sensuous perception (Anschauung), but he does not conceive sensuousness (die Sinnlichkeit) as a practical human-sensuous activity” Thesis 5).

Why practical? Because man in the first place must live. His bodily structure, his faculties and his abilities, and all his activity are adapted to this very end. With these he must assert himself in the external world, i.e. in nature, and as an individual in society. To these abilities belongs the activity of the organ of thought, the brain, and the faculty of thinking itself. Thinking is a bodily faculty. In every phase of life man uses his power of thought to draw conclusions from his experiences, on which expectations and hopes are built, and these conclusions regulate his behaviour and his actions. The correctness of his conclusions, the truth of his thinking, is shown by the very fact of his existence, since it is a condition for his survival. Because thinking is an efficient adaptation to life, it embodies truth, not for every conclusion, but in its general character. On the basis of his experiences man derives generalisations and rules, natural laws, on which his expectations are based. They are generally correct, as is witnessed by his survival. Sometimes, however, false conclusions may be drawn, with failure and destruction in their wake. Life is a continuous process of learning, adaptation, development. Practice is the unsparing test of the correctness of thinking.

Let us first consider this in relation to natural science. In the practice of this science, thought finds its purest and most abstract form. This is why philosophical scientists take this form as the subject of their deductions and pay little attention to its similarity to the thinking of everybody in his everyday activity. Yet thinking in the study of nature is only a highly developed special field in the entire social labour process. This labour process demands an accurate knowledge of natural phenomena and its integration into “laws of nature”, in order to utilise them successfully in the field of technics. The determination of these laws through observation of special phenomena is the task of specialists. In the study of nature it is generally accepted that practice, experiment, is the test of truth. Here, too, we find that the observed regularities, formulated as laws of nature, are generally fairly dependable guides to human practice; though they are frequently not entirely correct and often balk expectation, they are improved constantly through the progress of science, If, therefore, man at times was referred to as the “legislator of nature” it must be added that nature often disregards his laws and summons him to make better ones.

The practice of life, however, comprises much more than the scientific study of nature. The relation of the scientist to the world, despite his experiments, remains observational. To him the world is an external thing to look at. But in reality man deals with nature in his practical life by acting upon it and making it part of his existence. Man does not stand against nature as to an external alien world. By the toil of his hands man transforms the world, to such an extent that the original natural substance is hardly discernible, and in this process transforms himself too. Thus man himself builds his new world: human society, embedded in nature transformed into a technical apparatus. Man is the creator of this world. What meaning, then, has the question of whether his thinking embodies truth? The object of his thinking is what he himself produces by his physical and mental activities, and which he controls through his brain.

This is not a question of partial truths. Engels in his booklet on Feuerbach referred to the synthesising of the natural dye alizarin (contained in madder) as a proof of the truth of human thinking. This, however, proves only the validity of the chemical formula employed; it cannot prove the validity of materialism as against Kant’s “Thing-in-itself.” This concept, as may be seen from Kant’s preface to his

Criticism of Pure Reason

, results from the incapacity of bourgeois philosophy to understand the earthly origin of moral law. The “Thing-in-itself” is not refuted by chemical industry but by Historical Materialism explaining moral law through society. It was Historical Materialism that enabled Engels to see the fallacy of Kant’s philosophy, to prove the fallaciousness of which he then offered other arguments. Thus, to repeat, it is not a question of partial truths in a specific field of knowledge, where the practical outcome affirms or refutes them. The point in question is a philosophical one, namely, whether human thought is capable of grasping the deepest truth of the world. That the philosopher in his secluded study, who handles exclusively abstract philosophical concepts, which are derived in turn from abstract scientific concepts themselves formulated outside of practical life – that he, in the midst of this world of shadows, should have his doubts, is easily understood. But for human beings, who live and act in the practical everyday world, the question cannot have any meaning. The truth of thought, says Marx, is nothing but the power and mastery over the real world.

Of course this statement implies its counterpart: thinking cannot embody truth where the human mind does not master the world. When the products of man’s hand – as Marx expounded in

Das Kapital

– grow into a power over him, which he no longer controls and which in the form of commodity exchange and capital confronts him as an independent social being, mastering man and even threatening to destroy him, then his mind submits to the mysticism of supernatural beings and he doubts the ability of his thinking to distinguish truth. Thus in the course of past centuries the myth of supernatural heavenly truth unknowable to man overshadowed the materialistic practice of daily experiences. Not until society has evolved to a state where man will be able to comprehend all social forces and will have learned to master them – in communist society in short – will his thinking entirely correspond to the world. But already before, when the nature of social production as a fundamental basis of life and future development has become clear to man, when the mind – be it only theoretically at first – actually masters the world, our thinking will be fully true. That means that by the science of society as formulated by Marx, because now his thesis is fulfilled, materialism gains permanent mastery and becomes the only comformable philosophy. Thus Marxian theory of society in principle means a transformation of philosophy.

Marx, however, was not concerned with pure philosophy. “Philosophers have interpreted the world differently, but what matters is to change it,” he says in his last thesis on Feuerbach. The world situation pressed for practical action. At first inspired by the rising bourgeois opposition to absolutism, then strengthened by the new forces that emanated from the struggle of the English and French working class against the bourgeoisie, Marx and Engels, through their study of social realities, arrived at the conclusion that the proletarian revolution following on the heels of the bourgeois revolution would bring the final liberation of mankind. From now onward their activity was devoted to this revolution, and in “The Communist Manifesto” they laid down the first directions for the workers’ class struggle.

Marxism has since been inseparably connected with the class fight of the proletariat. If we ask what Marxism is, we must first of all understand that it does not encompass every thing Marx ever thought and wrote. The views of his earlier years, for instance, such as quoted above, are representative only in part; they are phases in a development leading toward Marxism. Neither was it complete at once; whereas the role of the proletarian class struggle and the aim of communism is already outlined in

The Communist Manifesto

, the theory of capitalism and surplus value is developed much later. Moreover, Marx’s ideas themselves, developed with the change of social and political conditions. The character of the revolution and the part played by the State in 1848, when the proletariat had only begun to appear, differed in aspect from that of later years at the end of the century, or today. Essential, however, are Marx’s new contributions to science. There is first of all the doctrine of Historical Materialism, the theory of the determination of all political and ideological phenomena, of spiritual life in general, by the productive forces and relations. The system of production, itself based on the state of productive forces, determines the development of society, especially through the force of the class struggle. There is, furthermore, the presentation of capitalism as a temporary historical phenomenon, the analysis of its structure by the theory of value and surplus value, and the explanation of its revolutionary tendencies through the proletarian revolution towards communism. With these theories Marx has enriched human knowledge permanently. They constitute the solid foundation of Marxism as a system of thought. From them further conclusions may be drawn under new and changed circumstances.

Because of this scientific basis, however, Marxism is more than a mere science. It is a new way of looking at the past and the future, at the meaning of life, of the world, of thought; it is a spiritual revolution, it is a new world-view, a new life-system. As a system of life Marxism is real and living only through the class that adheres to it. The workers who are imbued with this new outlook, become aware of themselves as the class of the future, growing in number and strength and consciousness, striving to take production into their own hands and through the revolution to become masters of their own fate. Hence Marxism as the theory of proletarian revolution is a reality, and at the same time a living power, only in the minds and hearts of the revolutionary working class.

Thus Marxism is not an inflexible doctrine or a sterile dogma of imposed truths. Society changes, the proletariat grows, science develops. New forms and phenomena arise in capitalism, in politics, in science, which Marx and Engels could not have foreseen or surmised. Forms of thought and struggle, that under former conditions were necessary must under later conditions give way to other ones. But the method of research which they framed remains up to this day an excellent guide and tool towards the understanding and interpretation of new events. The working class, enormously increased under capitalism, today stands only at the threshold of its revolution and, hence, of its Marxist development; Marxism only now begins to get its full significance as a living force in the working class. Thus Marxism itself is a living theory which grows, with the increase of the proletariat and with the tasks and aims of its fight.

Chapter 2
Middle-Class Materialism [1]

Returning now to the political scene out of which Marxism emerged, it must be noted that the German revolution of 1848 did not bring full political power to the bourgeoisie. But after 1850 capitalism developed strongly in France and Germany. In Prussia the Progressive Party began its fight for parliamentarism, whose inner weakness became evident later when the government through military actions met the demands of the bourgeoisie for a strong national State. Movements for national unity dominated the political scene of Central Europe. Everywhere, with the exception of England where it already held power, the rising bourgeoisie struggled against the feudal absolutist conditions.

The struggle of a new class for power in State and society is at the same time always a spiritual struggle for a new world view. The old powers can be defeated only when the masses rise up against them or, at least, do not follow them any longer. Therefore it was necessary for the bourgeoisie to make the working masses its followers and win their adherence to capitalist society. For this purpose the old ideas of the petty bourgeoisie and the peasants had to be destroyed and supplanted with new bourgeois ideologies. Capitalism itself furnished the means to this end.

The natural sciences are the spiritual basis of capitalism. On the development of these sciences depends the technical progress that drives capitalism forward. Science, therefore, was held in high esteem by the rising bourgeois class. At the same time this science freed them from the conventional dogmas embodying the rule of feudalism. A new outlook on life and on the world sprang up out of the scientific discoveries, and supplied the bourgeoisie with the necessary arguments to defy the pretensions of the old powers. This new world outlook it disseminated among the masses. To the peasant farm and the artisan workshop belong the inherited biblical faith. But as soon as the sons of the peasants or the impoverished artisans become industrial workers their mind is captured by capitalist development. Even those who remain in pre-capitalistic conditions are lured by the more liberal outlook of capitalist progress and become susceptible to the propaganda of new ideas.

The spiritual fight was primarily a struggle against religion. The religious creed is the ideology of past conditions; it is the inherited tradition which keeps the masses in submission to the old powers and which had to be defeated. The struggle against religion was imposed by the conditions of society; hence it had to take on varying forms with varying conditions. In those countries where the bourgeoisie had already attained full power, as for instance in England, the struggle was no longer necessary and the bourgeoisie paid homage to the established church. Only among the lower middle class and among the workers did more radical trends of thought find some adherence. In countries where industry and the bourgeoisie had to fight for emancipation they proclaimed a liberal, ethical Christianity in opposition to the orthodox faith. And where the struggle against a still powerful royal and aristocratic class was difficult, and required the utmost strength and exertion, the new world view had to assume extreme forms of radicalism and gave rise to middle-class materialism. This was so to a great extent in Central Europe; so it is natural that most of the popular propaganda for materialism (Moleschott, Vogt, Büchner), originated here, though it found an echo in other countries. In addition to these radical pamphlets, a rich literature popularising the modern scientific discoveries appeared, supplying valuable weapons in the struggle to free the masses of the citizens, the workers, and the peasants, from the spiritual fetters of tradition, and to turn them into followers of the progressive bourgeoisie. The middle-class intelligentsia – professors, engineers, doctors – were the most zealous propagandists of the new enlightenment.

The essence of natural science was the discovery of laws operating in nature. A careful study of natural phenomena disclosed recurring regularities which allowed for scientific predictions. The 17th century had already known the Galilean law of falling bodies and gravity, Kepler’s laws of the planetary motions, Snell’s law of the refraction of light, and Boyle’s law of the gas pressure. Towards the end of the century came the discovery of the law of gravitation by Newton, which more than all preceding discoveries exerted a tremendous influence in the philosophical thought of the 18th and 19th centuries. Whereas the others were rules that were not absolutely correct, Newton’s law of gravitation proved to be the first real exact law strictly dominating the motions of the heavenly bodies, which made possible predictions of the phenomena with the same precision with which they could be observed. From this the conception developed that all natural phenomena follow entirely rigid definite laws. In nature causality rules : gravity is the cause of bodies falling, gravitation causes the movements of the planets. All occurring phenomena are effects totally determined by their causes, allowing for neither free will, nor chance nor caprice.

This fixed order of nature disclosed by science was in direct contrast to the traditional religious doctrines in which God as a despotic sovereign arbitrarily rules the world and deals out fortune and misfortune as he sees fit, strikes his enemies with thunderbolts and pestilence and rewards others with miracles. Miracles are contradictory to the fixed order of nature; miracles are impossible, and all reports about them in the Bible are fables. The biblical and religious interpretations of nature belong to an epoch in which primitive agriculture prevailed under the overlordship of absolute despots. The natural philosophy of the rising bourgeoisie, with its natural laws controlling all phenomena, belongs to a new order of state and society where the arbitrary rule of the despot is replaced by laws valid for all.

The natural philosophy of the Bible, which theology asserts to be absolute, divine, truth is the natural philosophy of ignorance that has been deceived by outward appearances, that saw an immovable earth as the centre of the universe, and held that all matter was created and was perishable. Scientific experience showed, on the contrary, that matter which apparently disappeared (as for instance in burning) actually changes into invisible gaseous forms. Scales demonstrated that a reduction of the total weight did not occur in this process and that, therefore, no matter disappeared. This discovery was generalised into a new principle; matter cannot be destroyed, its quantity always remains constant, only its forms and combinations change. This holds good for each chemical element; its atoms constitute the building stones of all bodies. Thus science with its theory of the conservation of matter, of the eternity of nature, opposed the theological dogma of the creation of the world some 6,000 years ago.

Matter is not the only persistent substance science discovered in the transient phenomena. Since the middle of the 19th century the law known as the conservation of energy came to be regarded as the fundamental axiom of physics. Here, too, a fixed and far reaching order of nature was observed; in all phenomena changes of the form of energy take place: heat and motion, tension and attraction, electrical and chemical energy; but the total quantity never changes. This principle led to an understanding of the development of cosmic bodies, the sun and the earth, in the light of which all the assertions of theology appeared like the talk of a stuttering child.

Of even greater consequence were the scientific discoveries concerning man’s place in the world. Darwin’s theory of the origin of species, which showed the evolution of man from the animal kingdom, was in complete contradiction to all religious doctrines. But even before Darwin, discoveries in biology and chemistry revealed the organic identity of all human and living creatures with non-organic nature. The protoplasm, the albuminous substance of which the cells of all living beings are composed and to which all life is bound, consists of the same atoms as all other matter. The human mind, which was elevated into a part of divinity by the theological doctrine of the immortal soul, is closely bound up with the physical properties of the brain; all spiritual phenomena are the accompaniment to or the effect of material occurrences in the brain cells.

Middle-class materialism drew the most radical conclusions from these scientific discoveries. Everything spiritual is merely the product of material processes; ideas are the secretion of the brain, just as bile is the secretion of the liver. Let religion – said Buchner – go on talking about the fugacity of matter and the immortality of the mind; in reality it is the other way around. With the least injury of the brain everything spiritual disappears; nothing at all remains of the mind when the brain is destroyed, whereas the matter, its carrier, is eternal and indestructible. All phenomena of life, including human ideas, have their origin in the chemical and physical processes of the cellular substance; they differ from non-living matter only in their greater complexity. Ultimately all their processes must be explained by the dynamics and movements of the atoms.

These conclusions of natural-science materialism, however, could not be upheld to their utmost consequences. After all, ideas are different from bile and similar bodily secretions; mind cannot be considered as a form of force or energy, and belongs in a quite different category. If mind is a product of the brain which differs from other tissues and cells only in degree of complexity, then, fundamentally, it must be concluded that something of mind, some sensation, is to be found in every animal cell. And because the cellular substance is only an aggregate of atoms, more complex but in substance not different from other matter, the conclusion must be that something of what we call mind is already present in the atom: in every smallest particle of matter there must be a particle of the “spiritual substance.” This theory of the “atom-soul” we find in the works of the prominent zoologist Ernst Haeckel, energetic propagandist of Darwinism and courageous combater of religious dogmatism. Haeckel did not consider his philosophical views as materialism but called them monism – strangely enough since he extends the duality of mind-matter down to the smallest elements of the world.

Materialism could dominate the ideology of the bourgeois class only for a short time. Only so long as the bourgeoisie could believe that its society of private property, personal liberty, and free competition, through the development of industry, science and technique, could solve the life problems of all mankind – only so long could the bourgeoisie assume that the theoretical problems could be solved by science, without the need to assume supernatural and spiritual powers. As soon, however, as it became evident that capitalism could not solve the life problems of the masses, as was shown by the rise of the proletarian class struggle, the confident materialist philosophy disappeared. The world was seen again full of insoluble contradictions and uncertainties, full of sinister forces threatening civilisation. So the bourgeoisie turned to various kinds of religious creeds, and the bourgeois intellectuals and scientists submitted to the influence of mystical tendencies. Before long they were quick to discover the weaknesses and shortcomings of materialist philosophy, and to make speeches on the “limitations of science” and the insoluble “world-riddles.”

Only a small number of the more radical members of the lower and middle classes, who clung to the old political slogans of early capitalism, continued to hold materialism in respect. Among the working class it found a fertile ground. The adherents of anarchism always were its most convinced followers. Socialist workers embraced the social doctrines of Marx and the materialism of natural science with equal interest The practice of labour under capitalism, their daily experience and their awakening understanding of social forces contributed greatly towards undermining traditional religion. Then, to solve their doubts, the need for scientific knowledge grew, and the workers became the most zealous readers of the works of Bachmer and Haeckel. Whilst Marxist doctrine determined the practical, political and social ideology of the workers, a deeper understanding asserted itself only gradually; few became aware of the fact that middle-class materialism had long since been outdated and surpassed by Historical Materialism. This, by the way, concurs with the fact that the working-class movement had not yet reached beyond capitalism, that in practice the class struggle only tended to secure its place within capitalist society, and that the democratic solutions of the early middle class movements were accepted as valid for the working class also. The full comprehension of revolutionary Marxist theory is possible only in connection with revolutionary practice.

Wherein then, do middle-class materialism and Historical Materialism stand opposed to one another?

Both agree insofar as they are materialist philosophies, that is, both recognise the primacy of the experienced material world; both recognise that spiritual phenomena, sensation, consciousness, ideas, are derived from the former. They are opposite in that middle-class materialism bases itself upon natural science, whereas Historical Materialism is primarily the science of society. Bourgeois scientists observe man only as an object of nature, the highest of the animals, determined by natural Laws. For an explanation of man’s life and action, they have only general biological Laws, and in a wider sense, the laws of chemistry, physics, and mechanics. With these means little can be accomplished in the way of understanding social phenomena and ideas. Historical Materialism, on the other hand, lays bare the specific evolutionary laws of human society and shows the interconnection between ideas and society.

The axiom of materialism that the spiritual is determined by the material world, has therefore entirely different meanings for the two doctrines. For middle-class materialism it means that ideas are products of the brain, are to be explained out of the structure and the changes of the brain substance, finally out of the dynamics of the atoms of the brain. For Historical Materialism, it means that the ideas of man are determined by his social conditions; society is his environment which acts upon him through his sense organs. This postulates an entirely different kind of problem, a different approach, a different line of thought, hence, also a different theory of knowledge.

For middle class materialism the problem of the meaning of knowledge is a question of the relationship of spiritual phenomena to the physico-chemical-biological phenomena of the brain matter. For Historical Materialism it is a question of the relationship of our thoughts to the phenomena which we experience as the external world. Now man’s position in society is not simply that of an observing being: he is a dynamic force which reacts upon his environment and changes it. Society is nature transformed through labour. To the scientist, nature is the objectively given reality which he observes, which acts on him through the medium of his senses. To him the external world is the active and dynamic element, whilst the mind is the receptive element. Thus it is emphasised that the mind is only a reflection, an image of the external world, as Engels expressed it when he pointed out the contradiction between the materialist and idealist philosophies. But the science of the scientist is only part of the whole of human activity, only a means to a greater end. It is the preceding, passive part of his activity which is followed by the active part; the technical elaboration, the production, the transformation of the world by man.

Man is in the first place an active being. In the Labour process he utilises his organs and aptitudes in order to constantly build and remake his environment. In this procedure he not only invented the artificial organs we call tools, but also trained his physical and mental aptitudes so that they might react effectively to his natural environment as instruments in the preservation of life. His main organ is the brain whose function, thinking, is as good a physical activity as any other. The most important product of brain activity, of the efficient action of the mind upon the world is science, which stands as a mental tool next to the material tools and, itself a productive power, constitutes the basis of technology and so an essential part of the productive apparatus.

Hence Historical Materialism looks upon the works of science, the concepts, substances, natural Laws, and forces, although formed out of the stuff of nature, primarily as the creations of the mental Labour of man. Middle-class materialism, on the other hand, from the point of view of the scientific investigator, sees all this as an element of nature itself which has been discovered and brought to light by science. Natural scientists consider the immutable substances, matter, energy, electricity, gravity, the Law of entropy, etc., as the basic elements of the world, as the reality that has to be discovered. From the viewpoint of Historical Materialism they are products which creative mental activity forms out of the substance of natural phenomena.

This is one fundamental difference in the method of thinking. Another difference lies in dialectics which Historical Materialism inherited from Hegel. Engels has pointed out that the materialist philosophy of the 18th-century disregarded evolution; it is evolution that makes dialectic thinking indispensable. Evolution and dialectics since have often been regarded as synonymous; and the dialectic character of Historical Materialism is supposed to be rendered by saying that it is the theory of evolution. Evolution, however, was well known in the natural science of the 19th century. Scientists were well acquainted with the growth of the cell into a complete organism, with the evolution of animal species as expressed in Darwinism, and with the theory of evolution of the physical world known as the law of entropy. Yet their method of reasoning was undialectic. They believed the concepts they handled to be fixed objects, and considered their identities and opposites as absolutes. So the evolution of the world as well as the progress of science brought out contradictions, of which many examples have been quoted by Engels in his


. Understanding in general and science in particular segregate and systematise into fixed concepts and rigid laws what in the real world of phenomena occurs in all degrees of flux and transition. Because language separates and defines groups of phenomena by means of names, all items falling into a group, as specimens of the concept, are considered similar and unchangeable. As abstract concepts, they differ sharply, whereas in reality they transform and merge into one another. The colours blue and green are distinct from each other but in the intermediary nuances no one can say where one colour ends and the other begins. It cannot be stated at what point during its life cycle a flower begins or ceases to be a flower. That in practical life good and evil are not absolute opposites is acknowledged every day, just as that extreme justice may become extreme injustice. Judicial freedom in capitalist development manifests itself as actual slavery. Dialectic thinking is adequate to reality in that in handling the concepts it is aware that the finite cannot fully render the infinite, nor the static the dynamic, and that every concept has to develop into new concepts, even into its opposite. Metaphysical, undialectical thinking, on the other hand, leads to dogmatic assertions and contradictions because it views conceptions formulated by thought as fixed, independent entities that make up the reality of the world. Natural science proper, surely, does not suffer much from this shortcoming. It surmounts difficulties and contradictions in practice insofar as it continually revises its formulations, increases their richness by going into finer details, improves the qualitative distinctions by mathematical formulas, completes them by additions and corrections, thereby bringing the picture ever closer to the original, the world of phenomena. The lack of dialectic reasoning becomes disturbing only when the scientist passes from his special field of knowledge towards general philosophical reasonings, as is the case with middle-class materialism.

Thus, for instance, the theory of the origin of species often leads to the notion that the human mind, having evolved from the animal mind, is qualitatively identical with the latter and has only increased in quantity. On the other hand, the qualitative difference between the human and the animal mind, a fact of common experience, was raised by theological doctrine, in enunciating the immortality of the soul, into an absolute anti-thesis. In both cases there is a lack of dialectic thinking according to which a similarity in original character, when through the process of growth the increasing quantitative difference turns into qualitative difference – the so-called inversion of quantity into quality – requires new names and characteristics, without leading to complete antithesis and loss of affinity.

It is the same metaphysical, non dialectic thinking to compare thought, because it is the product of brain processes with such products of other organs as bile; or to assume that mind, because it is a quality of some material substance, must be a characteristic quality of all matter. And especially, to think that because mind is something other than matter, it must belong to an absolutely and totally different world without any transition, so that a dualism of mind and matter, reaching down to the atoms, remains sharp and unbridgeable. To dialectic thinking mind simply is a concept incorporating all those phenomena we call spiritual, which, thus, cannot reach beyond their actual appearance in the lowest living animals. There the term mind becomes questionable, because the spiritual phenomena disappear gradually into mere sensibility, into the more simple forms of life. “Mind” as a characteristic existing quality, a separate something, which either is or is not there, does not exist in nature; mind is just a name we attach to a number of definite phenomena, some perceived clearly, others uncertainly, as spiritual.

Life itself offers a close analogy. Proceeding from the smallest microscopic organisms to still smaller invisible bacteria and viruses, we finally come to highly complicated albuminous molecules that fall within the sphere of chemistry. Where in this succession living matter ceases to exist and dead matter begins cannot be determined; phenomena change gradually, become simplified, are still analogous and yet already different. This does not mean that we are unable to ascertain demarcation lines; it is simply the fact that nature knows of no boundaries. A condition of quality “life”, which either is or is not present, does not exist in nature: again life is a mere name, a concept we form in order to comprehend the endless variety of gradations in life phenomena. Because middle-class materialism deals with life and death, matter and mind, as if they were genuine realities existing in themselves, it is compelled to work with hard and sharp opposites, whereas nature offers an immense variety of more or less gradual transitions.

Thus the difference between middle-class materialism and Historical Materialism reaches down to basic philosophical views. The former, in contradiction to the comprehensive and perfectly realistic Historical Materialism is illusionary and imperfect – just as the bourgeois class movement, of which it was the theory, represented an imperfect and illusionary emancipation, in contrast to the complete and real emancipation by way of the proletarian class struggle.

The difference between the two systems of thought shows itself practically in their position towards religion. Middle-class materialism intended to overcome religion. However, a certain view arisen out of social life cannot be vanquished and destroyed merely by refuting it with argumentation; this means posing one point of view against another: and every argument finds a counter-argument. Only when it is shown why, and under what circumstances such a view was necessary, can it be defeated by establishing the transient character of these conditions. Thus the disproof of religion by natural science was effective only insofar as the primitive religious beliefs were concerned, where ignorance about natural laws, about thunder and lightning, about matter and energy, led to all kinds of superstition. The theory of bourgeois society was able to destroy the ideologies of primitive agricultural economy. But religion in bourgeois society is anchored in its unknown and uncontrollable social forces; middle-class materialism was unable to deal with them. Only the theory of the workers’ revolution can destroy the ideologies of bourgeois economy. Historical Materialism explains the social basis of religion and shows why for certain times and classes it was a necessary way of thought. Only thus was its spell broken. Historical Materialism does not fight religion directly; from its higher vantage point it understands and explains religion as a natural phenomenon under definite conditions. But through this very insight it undermines religion and foresees that with the rise of a new society religion will disappear. In the same way Historical Materialism is able to explain the temporary appearance of materialist thought among the bourgeoisie, as well as the relapse of this class into mysticism and religious trends. In the same way, too, it explains the growth of materialist thought among the working class as being not due to any anti-religious argument but to the growing recognition of the real forces in capitalist society.


1. The phrase “middle class” is here used as a translation for the German word “bürgerlich”. The more modern term used in Marxist discourse for this concept is “bourgeois” (i.e. relating to the capitalist or bourgeois class) in order to distinguish it from the rather imprecise term “middle class”, which is often used as a broad description for white-collar workers, professionals, the self-employed etc. Similarly when this text refers to “the middle class” it is referring to the bourgeoisie or capitalist class. (Note by MIA)

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