Enduring Points in Lenin’s Materialism and Empirio-Criticism

Enduring Points in Lenin’s Materialism and Empirio-Criticism

Stansfield smith

Here is a selection of the more enduring and valuable quotes and points Lenin made in Materialism and Empirio-Criticism (1908), a work not often read by Marxists. This book could be summarized as: Materialism responds to the latest incarnation of idealism.

Idealism takes different forms. The most extreme claims nothing exists beyond my sense experience, so even if I do see a tree fall in the woods, the tree is still not real, only my conjuring it up. A less extreme form asserts there is an unknowable power underlying and creating the world which does exist, commonly called God. As science advances, and the god idea becomes more discredited, new versions of idealism arise, as among astro-physicists who advocate string theory.  Political analysis provides a fertile ground for conspiracy theories: around 9-11, Kennedy assassinations, “Zionist” control of the US, the coronavirus “hoax” and other purported hoaxes, even versions of the “deep state.” To varying degrees, these, and other theories, such as some psychobiological ones (Konrad Lorenz, Robert Ardrey, E.O. Wilson) or Modern Monetary Theory, veer off from a materialist class explanation into idealism.  Conspiracy theories and declared hoaxes, which we continually encounter in our political work, open the door to an endless array of versions – such cults vary on where they depart from materialist analysis and how far they take off into flights of fancy.

 Lenin pointed out that advancements in science reinforce the legitimacy of a materialist view of the world. He noted that scientists of the time were typically materialists in practice, but not in philosophical orientation – still true today.  Even Einstein falls in this category, calling himself agnostic. These scientists have similarities with people in a pre-revolutionary situation, who are revolutionary in practice, but ideologically maintain their traditional political ideology.

Most scientists, like most people, possess what Lenin describes as “naive realism.”

The “naïve realism” of any healthy person who has not been an inmate of a lunatic asylum or a pupil of the idealist philosophers consists in the view that things, the environment, the world, exist independently of our sensation, of our consciousness, of our self and of man in general. (69)[1] Materialism deliberately makes the “naïve” belief of mankind the foundation of its theory of knowledge. (69-70)

Lenin presents the contrast between these two philosophical approaches in a simple manner: 

Are we to proceed from things to sensation and thought? Or are we to proceed from thought and sensation to things? The first line, i.e., the materialist line, is adopted by Engels. The second line, i.e., the idealist line, is adopted by Mach. (42)

Lenin maintained a thorough knowledge of the works of the historic philosophers and those of his own time. He also possessed considerable knowledge of contemporary scientific developments, although his book makes no mention of Einstein and his 1905 work on the Special Theory of Relativity.

Kant and neo-Kantism: the thing-in-itself and thing-for-us 

Lenin directed his book against the Marxist current in Social Democracy advocating the idealist philosophy of neo-Kantism. Kant held that two versions of reality exist: that of the thing-in-itself (noumena), which we will never fully know, and that of the thing-for-us (phenomena), being our knowledge of the thing.

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. (198)

…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. (360) 

Lenin’s Marxist neo-Kantian idealist contemporaries rejected Kant’s thing-in-itself, that there are things, existence, beyond our sensations and experience. In contrast, materialists recognize the thing-in-itself as reality. They view the thing-for-us as what we sense and experience, and come to know, mostly through science, of the thing-in-itself.

There is definitely no difference in principle between the phenomenon and the thing-in-itself, and there can be no such difference. The only difference is between what is known and what is not yet known. And philosophical inventions of specific boundaries between the one and the other, inventions to the effect that the thing-in-itself is “beyond” phenomena (Kant), or that we can and must fence ourselves off by some philosophical partition from the problem of a world which in one part or another is still unknown but which exists outside us (Hume)—all this is the sheerest nonsense… (103)

The materialists, we are told, recognise something unthinkable and unknowable —“things-in-themselves”— matter “outside of experience” and outside of our knowledge. They lapse into genuine mysticism by admitting the existence of something beyond, something transcending the bounds of “experience” and knowledge. (23)

All the mysterious, sage and subtle distinctions between the phenomenon and the thing-in-itself are sheer philosophical balderdash. In practice each one of us has observed times without number the simple and palpable transformation of the “thing-in-itself” into phenomenon, into the “thing-for-us.” It is precisely this transformation that is cognition. (120)

Matter and Motion

Lenin upholds “as correct Engels’ assertion that “matter without motion is as inconceivable as motion without matter”” (15)

The dialectical materialist … regards motion as an inseparable property of matter…. Whether we say the world is moving matter, or that the world is material motion, makes no difference whatever. (270)

“…the real views of the materialists … do not consist in deriving sensation from the movement of matter or in reducing sensation to the movement of matter, but in recognising sensation as one of the properties of matter in motion. (47) 

The Mind Body Duality

In an idealist manner, philosophy and psychology have traditionally contrasted the mind or spirit to the body.

Materialism, in full agreement with natural science, takes matter as primary and regards consciousness, thought, sensation as secondary, because in its well-defined form sensation is associated only with the higher forms of matter (organic matter)… (46)

Materialism regards nature as primary and spirit as secondary; it places being first and thought second. Idealism holds the contrary view. This root distinction between the “two great camps” into which the philosophers of the “various schools” of idealism and materialism are divided.  “The great basic question of all philosophy,” Engels says, “especially of modern philosophy, is that concerning the relation of thinking and being,” of “spirit and nature.” (99)

It is, of course, utterly absurd to say that materialism ever maintained that consciousness is “less” real (280)

That both thought and matter are “real,” i.e., exist, is true. But to say that thought is material is to make a false step, a step towards confusing materialism and idealism. (244) 

That the conception of “matter” must also include thoughts … is a muddle, for if such an inclusion is made, the epistemological contrast between mind and matter, idealism and materialism… loses all meaning. That this contrast must not be made “excessive,” exaggerated, metaphysical, is beyond dispute. (245-6)

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. (361)

On Eternal Truths, Relative and Absolute Truth

Dühring scattered words right and left: ultimate, final and eternal truth. Engels jeered at him. Of course there are eternal truths, Engels said, but it is unwise to use high-sounding words in connection with simple things. If we want to advance materialism, we must drop this trite play with the words “eternal truth”; we must learn to put, and answer, the question of the relation between absolute and relative truth dialectically. (133)

From the standpoint of modern materialism i.e., Marxism, the limits of approximation of our knowledge to objective, absolute truth are historically conditional, but the existence of such truth is unconditional, and the fact that we are approaching nearer to it is also unconditional. The contours of the picture are historically conditional, but the fact that this picture depicts an objectively existing model is unconditional. (136)

For Engels absolute truth is compounded from relative truths. (134)

That absolute truth results from the sum-total of relative truths in the course of their development; that relative truths represent relatively faithful reflections of an object existing independently of man; that these reflections become more and more faithful; that every scientific truth, notwithstanding its relative nature, contains an element of absolute truth—all these propositions, which are obvious to anyone who has thought over Engels’ Anti-Dühring (309)

Human thought then by its nature is capable of giving, and does give, absolute truth, which is compounded of a sum-total of relative truths. Each step in the development of science adds new grains to the sum of absolute truth, but the limits of the truth of each scientific proposition are relative, now expanding, now shrinking with the growth of knowledge. (135)

Idealism “unscientifically separates the absolute truth from the relative truth. It makes of the ‘thing as it appears’ and the ‘thing-in-itself,’ that is, of the appearance and the verity, two categories which differ toto coelo [completely, fundamentally] from each other and are not contained in any common category” (121)

anybody without the slightest difficulty can think of scores of similar truths that are eternal and absolute and that only insane people can doubt (as Engels says, citing another example: “Paris is in France”). (131-132)  

Engels reproached the earlier materialists for their failure to appreciate the relativity of all scientific theories, for their ignorance of dialectics and for their exaggeration of the mechanical point of view. (310)

Engels’ recognition of objective law, causality and necessity in nature is absolutely clear, as is his emphasis on the relative character of our, i.e., man’s approximate reflections of this law in various concepts. (157)

The recognition of theory as a copy, as an approximate copy of objective reality, is materialism. (265)

…the recognition of the objective reality of the external world and of the laws of external nature, and of the fact that this world and these laws are fully knowable to man but can never be known to him with finality. (189)

Practice is the Basis for Determining Truth 

We have seen that Marx in 1845[2] and Engels in 1888 and 1892[3]  placed the criterion of practice at the basis of the materialist theory of knowledge. (138)

For the materialist the “success” of human practice proves the correspondence between our ideas and the objective nature of the things we perceive…If we include the criterion of practice in the foundation of the theory of knowledge we inevitably arrive at materialism, says the Marxist….    in their practical life men are entirely and exclusively guided by the materialist theory of knowledge. (140)

In the theory of knowledge, as in every other branch of science, we must think dialectically, that is, we must not regard our knowledge as ready-made and unalterable, but must determine how knowledge emerges from ignorance, how incomplete, inexact knowledge becomes more complete and more exact. (103)

[Lenin quotes Bazarov, a neo-Kantian] “. . . the agnostic asks, how do we know that our subjective senses give us a correct presentation of objects?”  “. . . But what do you term ‘correct’? [that is, how do we have knowledge of the actual object, independent of human mind and practice, to even raise the question of the presentation being correct? S.S.]—Engels rejoins.—That is correct which is confirmed by our practice; and consequently, since our sense-perceptions are confirmed by experience, they are not ‘subjective,’ that is, they are not arbitrary, or illusory, but correct and real as such. . . .” (112-113)

Of course, we must not forget that the criterion of practice can never, in the nature of things, either confirm or refute any human idea completely. (142)

If what our practice confirms is the sole, ultimate and objective truth, then from this must follow the recognition that the only path to this truth is the path of science, which holds the materialist point of view. (143)

For Engels all living human practice permeates the theory of knowledge itself and provides an objective criterion of truth. (190)

Freedom and Necessity  

Engels says: “Hegel was the first to state correctly the relation between freedom and necessity. To him, freedom is the appreciation of necessity. ‘Necessity is blind only in so far as it is not understood.’ Freedom does not consist in the dream of independence from natural laws, but in the knowledge of these laws, and in the possibility this gives of systematically making them work towards definite ends. This holds good in relation both to the laws of external nature and to those which govern the bodily and mental existence of men themselves—two classes of laws which we can separate from each other at most only in thought but not in reality. Freedom of the will therefore means nothing but the capacity to make decisions with knowledge of the subject. (187-8)

For until we know a law of nature, it, existing and acting independently and outside our mind, makes us slaves of “blind necessity.” But once we come to know this law, which acts (as Marx pointed out a thousand times) independently of our will and our mind, we become the masters of nature. The mastery of nature manifested in human practice is a result of an objectively correct reflection within the human head of the phenomena and processes of nature, and is proof of the fact that this reflection (within the limits of what is revealed by practice) is objective, absolute, and eternal truth. (190)[4]


Lenin recognizes revisionism as a normal process in the development of science, and therefore Marxism – but, of course, not all revisionism is an advance.

Engels says explicitly 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” (Ludwig Feuerbach). Hence, a revision of the “form” of Engels’ materialism, a revision of his natural-philosophical propositions is not only not “revisionism,” in the accepted meaning of the term, but, on the contrary, is an essential requirement of Marxism.  (251)

dialectical materialism insists on the approximate, relative character of every scientific theory of the structure of matter and its properties; it insists on the absence of absolute boundaries in nature, on the transformation of moving matter from one state into another. (261)

The Immutable Essence of Things 

From Engels’ point of view, the only immutability is the reflection by the human mind (when there is a human mind) of an external world existing and developing independently of the mind. No other “immutability,” no other “essence,” no other “absolute substance,” in the sense in which these concepts were depicted by the empty professorial philosophy, exist for Marx and Engels. The “essence” of things, or “substance,” is also relative; it expresses only the degree of profundity of man’s knowledge of objects; (262)

Social Being and Social Consciousness

“Social being” and “social consciousness” are not identical, just as being in general and consciousness in general are not identical. From the fact that in their intercourse men act as conscious beings, it does not follow that social consciousness is identical with social being. Social consciousness reflects social being—that is Marx’s teaching. A reflection may be an approximately true copy of the reflected, but to speak of identity is absurd. Consciousness in general reflects being—that is a general principle of all materialism. It is impossible not to see its direct and inseparable connection with the principle of historical materialism: social consciousness reflects social being. (323)

social being is independent of the social consciousness of men. The fact that you live and conduct your business, beget children, produce products and exchange them, gives rise to an objectively necessary chain of events, a chain of development, which is independent of your social consciousness, and is never grasped by the latter completely. The highest task of humanity [my emphasis, SS] is to comprehend this objective logic of economic evolution (the evolution of social life) in its general and fundamental features, so that it may be possible to adapt to it one’s social consciousness and the consciousness of the advanced classes of all capitalist countries in as definite, clear and critical a fashion as possible. (325)

Historical materialism recognises social being as independent of the social consciousness of humanity. In both cases consciousness is only the reflection of being, at best an approximately true (adequate, perfectly exact) reflection of it. (326)

The genius of Marx and Engels consisted in … show[ing] how to apply—this same materialism in the sphere of the social sciences, mercilessly brushing aside as litter and rubbish the pretentious rigmarole… the inability to comprehend and clearly present the struggle between the two fundamental epistemological trends [materialism and idealism] —this is what Marx and Engels persistently pursued and fought against throughout their entire activity.(336)

[1] Quotes taken from Lenin’s book are indented, followed by page numbers from Lenin, Collected Works, volume 14, Materialism and Empirio-Criticism

[2] The second thesis of Theses on Feuerbach, “The question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory, but is a practical question. In practice man must prove the truth, i.e., the reality and power, the ‘this-sidedness’ of his thinking. The dispute over the reality or non-reality of thinking which is isolated from practice is a purely scholastic question.” (104)

[3] Engels: Ludwig Feuerbach end the End of Classical German Philosophy (and the “Special Introduction to the English Edition of 1892” of his Socialism: Utopian and Scientific

[4] See also Marx, Capital, volume 3, chapter 48 on the realm of freedom and the realm of necessity: “In fact, the realm of freedom actually begins only where labour which is determined by necessity and mundane considerations ceases; thus in the very nature of things it lies beyond the sphere of actual material production. Just as the savage must wrestle with Nature to satisfy his wants, to maintain and reproduce life, so must civilised man, and he must do so in all social formations and under all possible modes of production. With his development this realm of physical necessity expands as a result of his wants; but, at the same time, the forces of production which satisfy these wants also increase. Freedom in this field can only consist in socialised man, the associated producers, rationally regulating their interchange with Nature, bringing it under their common control, instead of being ruled by it as by the blind forces of Nature; and achieving this with the least expenditure of energy and under conditions most favourable to, and worthy of, their human nature. But it nonetheless still remains a realm of necessity. Beyond it begins that development of human energy which is an end in itself, the true realm of freedom, which, however, can blossom forth only with this realm of necessity as its basis. The shortening of the working-day is its basic prerequisite.”

One thought on “Enduring Points in Lenin’s Materialism and Empirio-Criticism

  1. This is worth saving, a very interesting dissection, shedding light on important philosophical points. It reminds me that I have been trying to find where it was written “If everything was as it appeared, there would be no need of science.” If not in this classic, maybe some other.


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