The Fight Against Philosophical Revisionism: In What Sense Ought Lenin’s Materialism and Empirio-Criticism to be Studied

by A. Fried

Preface: We are recirculating an article by A. Fried, published in 1929, vol. 8 no. 8 of The Communist, the former theoretical organ of the Communist Party USA (CPUSA). This piece provides fantastic historical context for understanding Lenin’s seminal philosophical text Materialism and Empirio-Criticism. The article elaborates on the importance for Communists of adhering to the only principled materialistic philosophical world outlook: dialectical materialism. Without sufficient grounding in the theory of knowledge, Marxist-Leninists will be unable to consistently apply their scientific philosophy. We have altered the language to make the text within the article gender-neutral.

Introduction by Gertrude Haessler

While the author of this review has applied his criticism to the experiences of the German labor movement, his criticism can apply with even greater force for the American proletariat. Lenin’s refutation of the idealistic bourgeois thinking, written in 1907 in Russia, is not limited to the time nor to the country; it is a criticism of bourgeois thought in general and applies particularly to the American philosophical school. In America, bourgeois idealistic philosophy penetrates the entire system. It is at work in the labor movement, where the Socialists and labor bureaucrats, the liberals and liberal professors are the vehicles of the idealistic attitude to the problems of the class struggle, and thus carry over the degenerating and corrupting philosophy of the bourgeoisie into the ranks of the working class.

Voluntaristic idealism, which the author of this review mentions, is particularly prevalent within the labor movement and inevitably affects every section of the periphery of the communist movement and even within it, as we have recently witnessed in the Party discussions. This view approaches political and economic problems from the standpoint of the role of the individual alone, in place of seeing the individual in relation to the class and political party, and the whole social economic forces in which they work.

Those who followed the Trotsky discussion and those who participate in the struggle from day to day, are keenly aware of the influence of this idealistic philosophy within the labor movement. But not until the Comintern Address to our membership was published, did any of us realize to what extent it had penetrated into the ranks of our own Party. Not only Professor Carver, whom Lenin analyzes in this book, not only the Muste Group of social reformists, but even certain of the leaders of our own Party became carriers of this bourgeois method of thinking. And the very insidiousness of this influence can be seen from the fact that our Party was little conscious of its presence until the Communist International itself pointed it out.

As Lenin disposes of the revisionism of the Marxist theory of the state with crushing force, so he disposes of the attempts of revisionism of the Marxist theory of knowledge. American readers will do well to study carefully the work of Lenin, and this able review by a German comrade will be of assistance in the understanding of the subject.

The Fight Against Philosophical Revisionism

After years of preparation, Lenin’s work, Materialism and Empirio-Criticism has appeared in the German language. Since two contributions have already appeared in the Party press, which give the train of thought of this work in an excellent manner, it remains to describe the contents once more by way of summing up.[1] [2] It seems to us of utmost importance to realize clearly what the significance of this book is from the standpoint of the revolutionary class struggle at the present time, and from what viewpoints this work should not only be read but also made use of within the revolutionary labor movement. Lenin’s work is not a “purely” philosophical work written for philosophy’s sake, but a product of the politico-ideological fight against philosophical revisionism, against the attempt to merge Bolshevism with the idealistic theory of knowledge — and thus it is part of the fight against revisionism in general. It is therefore worth examining the situation in which the revolutionary labor movement finds itself today, and to stimulate a systematic study of Lenin’s work from this standpoint. The following remarks are intended to serve this purpose.

1. A superficial observation might easily lead to the conclusion that the revolutionary labor movement in Germany has little or absolutely nothing to do with philosophical problems in the narrower sense of the term. There are no differences of opinion within the Communist movement on dialectic materialism. This is also characteristic of our fraternal parties in Great Britain, France and in Czechoslovakia (and America — Editor.). Insofar as individual comrades prepare and publish articles in this sphere, their activity does not go beyond the Marxist research work of the Soviet Union.

We wish to state quite frankly, that this lack of interest toward fundamental theoretical problems reveals a weakness of our movement and at the same time conceals a danger. We can combat such ideological dangers to the international labor movement as the ultra-left and opportunist currents, as the Trotsky neo-Menshevism only (if we wish to succeed not only temporarily but permanently) in exposing the farthermost roots of these deviations, the inability to think dialectically. This obliges us, however, to train ourselves consciously to dialectical thinking, and this revolutionary educational work demands a combination of the practical political work with the living all-embracing study of the problems of materialistic dialectics. The infinitely low political level of the ultra-left attacks on the Communist Party in Germany raises the doubt whether there is any connection whatever in this tendency with any sort of philosophical and theoretical views. But the “classical” form of ultra-left thought, as expressed in Bordiga’s political activity, reveals in full clearness the features of a volunteerist idealism. And, though their hair stood on end, were any of our RFB comrades to be told that they tend toward “voluntary idealism,”[3] that would not alter the fact that they actually look upon the will to revolution as the unique factor and that they cannot grasp the dialectical relationship between reality, knowledge, will and action.

Struggle Against Skepticism, Agnosticism, and Relativism

2. From another standpoint also the relationship between philosophical problems and the revolutionary class struggle must just as sharply be worked out. The proletariat is constantly subjected to the degenerating influence of bourgeois thought. Skepticism, agnosticism, and relativism are gaining ground in the ideology of the broadest sections of the working class. This terminology is strange to the worker, as the case of a petty-bourgeois, athirst for knowledge, who did not know that they spoke prose each day until they were told so by their teacher. Nevertheless, the worker is subjected to the influence of skepticism, agnosticism, and relativism in a thousand ways. It is the task of the Communists to guide the proletariat as a class to that standpoint which the interests of the proletariat and its historic mission demand, and which alone forms the basis for materialism. That is the standpoint which dialectic materialism assumes in the question of truth and the perceptibility of truth. What is expressed in the most complicated forms of the relativistic theory of knowledge, appears in practical political life in such remarks as: “Who can get wise out of this whether the Communists or the Social-democrats are right. — One of them says this and the other that.” “What is truth?” despairingly asks the modern Pontius Pilate, the indifferent proletarian, while, in face of the contradictory representations, they abandon their conviction that truth actually exists.

The Communists can help the proletariat out of this acute crisis of relativism only if they themselves have a theoretically firm and clear outlook on the nature of truth, the knowledge of truth. That requires that they know the bourgeois origin of the relativist philosophy and that they themselves can find the path from relativism, liquidationism and disintegration, to dialectics, and point it out to the proletariat.

Philosophy: A Weapon of Class Struggle

3. Lenin’s Materialism and Empirio-Criticism offers us the basis for giving an ideological firmness and depth to the revolutionary labor movement in Western Europe; it hands us weapons for combatting the above dangers. But we must be able to use these weapons correctly. Without speaking metaphorically, this means that we must show that Lenin’s fight was necessary not only against Bogdanov, Mach and the Russian Machists and other sponsors of the idealistic theory of knowledge. It means that the philosophy of dialectic materialism must be represented as separate from polemic, and that it must be shown how this philosophy is a weapon of the practical class struggle. From such an application, our functionaries, who have had little or no training in philosophy, will have much. more benefit than if they begin to read Lenin’s book without the preliminary preparation required for a fruitful study.

Communists Must Understand the Theory of Knowledge

In this book Lenin has devoted the greatest part of his critical analysis to the exposition of the fundamental thesis of materialistic philosophy. There is an objective reality, independent of consciousness, existing prior to consciousness. This thesis is the basis of the philosophy of living active humanity, humans living in reality, of the historico-social person, and thus the basis of the philosophy of the proletariat. In this work Lenin laid the greatest emphasis on dialectical materialism, because he had the definite object of combating the falsification of Marxism by a “synthesis” of Marxism and the subjective theory of knowledge. In all of Lenin’s life work — and this cannot be emphasized too strongly — he concentrated his energies, just as Marx and Engels did, in working out materialistic dialectics: here lay the new tasks; here the materialistic principle had to be applied to the knowledge of social-economic reality. Lenin’s life work is the sole explanation and application of dialectics to society in the epoch of imperialism.

[1] English Edition, Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. XIII, Materialism and Empirio-Criticism. Critical Notes Concerning a Reactionary Philosophy. International Publishers, New York.

[2] Fritz Rueck (“Rote Fahne” No. 289, 1927) and Julius Wertheim (International Press Correspondence or Inprecorr) No. 118, 1927).

[3] Voluntaristic idealism — the theory which holds that will is the ultimate principle, both in experience and development of the individual and in the constitution and evolution of the universe. — Translator.

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