In defence of Marxist philosophy

Alongside our lead article on Lenin’s real political legacy, MARTIN POWELL-DAVIES examines his materialist philosophy, which has come under recent criticism by the prominent physicist and author Carlo Rovelli.

In 1909, the Russian revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin published one of his less well-read works, Materialism and Empirio-Criticism. It was based on nine months of research he conducted in 1908 into the scientific and philosophical debates taking place amongst leading scientists of the time.

Lenin’s book took aim at the then fashionable philosophy of ‘Empirio-Criticism’. This was a way of thinking that had been set out by the Austrian physicist Ernst Mach and then adapted by Aleksandr Bogdanov, then a leading Bolshevik, under the label of ‘Empirio-Monism’. 

The development of quantum physics and Einstein’s theory of relativity meant that the debates being analysed by Lenin were soon overtaken by new scientific theories and evidence. The book’s contents are therefore often overlooked. However, Italian theoretical physicist and popular science writer, Carlo Rovelli, gave it unexpected publicity in his best-selling paperback Helgoland, published in 2020.

Rovelli is a scientist who is interested in philosophy, particularly in looking at past ideas that might help inform today’s debates on the strange nature of ‘quantum reality’. In Helgoland, he writes that “the issues debated by Lenin and Bogdanov have returned in contemporary philosophy”.

Rovelli’s book revisits those debates but the author comes down on the side of Bogdanov. He writes that Lenin was “an extraordinary politician” but “no great philosopher”. However, Rovelli has reached those conclusions by, firstly, misinterpreting Lenin and, secondly, by adopting some of the same confused ideas that Bogdanov adopted over a century ago.

Materialism and idealism

If there is one clear thread running through Lenin’s book, it is his insistence that there are two distinct but contrasting trends in philosophy – materialism and idealism.

Both an idealist and a materialist would agree that human beings find out about the world around us through our senses. But Lenin explains that a materialist believes that our senses give us an ‘image’, if sometimes imperfectly, of the real objective world that exists around us. However, an idealist outlook believes that thoughts and sensations are primary, that they are the only reality that we perceive.

Lenin argues that anyone who is ‘agnostic’ on this divide will inevitably fall into the idealist error of ‘solipsism’ – the belief that nothing outside your own mind can be certain to exist. Lenin puts Mach and Bogdanov into this ‘agnostic’ category, writers trying to find a supposedly better ‘middle ground’ between “one-sided” idealism and materialism. In fact, Lenin argues, they just end up creating confusion, camouflaged by clever sounding ‘new’ terminology.

Bogdanov sought to add a new angle to Mach’s philosophy by introducing the notion that objectivity in human models of physical reality comes about when individual ideas become collectively accepted as “socially organised experience”. Lenin warns that Bogdanov’s philosophy is “disguised in Marxist terminology and decked out in Marxist words. ‘Socially organised experience,’ ‘collective labour process,’ and so forth are Marxist words, but they are only words, concealing an idealist philosophy’”.

By this definition, unscientific biblical teaching about creationism and the age of the Earth, ‘collectively accepted’ by millions of believers, could be categorised as being ‘objective’ truths. Lenin warns that Bogdanov’s model lapses into idealism because it fails to recognise that because “the physical world exists independently of humanity and of human experience, [it] existed at a time when no ‘sociality’ and no ‘organisation’ of human experience was possible”.

Does objective truth exist?

Rovelli, failing to understand the gulf that separated Lenin’s thought from the falsified version of it that emerged through Stalinism, accuses Lenin of both political and philosophical ‘dogmatism’. He writes that Lenin “presents the historical materialism of Marx and Engels as if it were timelessly valid”, in a way that “fails to accord with the dynamic of scientific thought”.

But, in doing so, he is repeating the same mistaken criticisms that Bogdanov had raised against Lenin while pursuing mistaken ultra-left political strategies such as demanding that the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party withdrew their representatives from the State Duma (parliament).

In the pages of Materialism and Empirio-Criticism Lenin shows that Rovelli is wrong to make the accusation that Marxist thought resists change in scientific thought. No, it welcomes every scientific advance as another step towards a full picture of the nature of objective reality in which we exist.

Lenin quotes Engels explaining how Marxists believe that the nature of underlying reality, the ‘things-in-themselves’, can be revealed, as our knowledge becomes more complete. New experimental findings of course meant that our models of the nature of reality have had to change. For example, quantum theory has shown that the nature of reality is more complex than was recognised at the time Lenin was writing, but it must still seek to accurately describe the nature of objective reality.

Lenin emphasises Engels’ insistence on the ‘criterion of practice’ – “the result of our action proves the conformity of our perceptions with the objective nature of the things perceived”. He stresses the dialectical outlook of Marxism, an outlook that sees the world not, as its critics suggest, as one “devoid of sound and colour” but one that is “richer, livelier, more varied than it actually seems, for with each step in the development of science new aspects are discovered”.

In isolation, these philosophical debates can seem abstract. However, Materialism and Empirio-Criticism also includes chapters where Lenin applies his philosophy to the scientific debates of that time. They show that Lenin was far from ‘dogmatic’ about scientific theory. On the contrary, he explains that Marxism fully expects scientific theory to change as new scientific evidence emerges.

Dialectical materialism

Lenin was writing at a time when new unexplained experimental evidence was challenging accepted scientific theories, such as the existence of the ‘ether’. This was an invisible medium thought to be filling all space, required to allow light and other electromagnetic waves to travel through it. Writing about this ‘crisis in modern physics’, Lenin showed that he was well aware of these debates.

In setting out his general approach to scientific thought, Lenin refers to Engels’ writing on science which stressed that genuine Marxism, dialectical materialism, rejected a mechanical approach that imposed “fixed boundary lines and distinctions”. He adds that recent evidence, including in radioactivity and electromagnetism, had shown how things that had previously been thought to be entirely separate were, in fact, closely connected.

Lenin recognised, as understood by such a dialectical approach, that previously accepted models of science would show themselves to be correct only within certain limits. He draws attention to one of the then most recently proposed examples of this, the work of Larmor and Lorentz on the ‘time dilation’ and ‘length contraction’ needed to explain how physics applies to objects travelling at speeds close to that of light. These helped provide the basis of Einstein’s theory of special relativity.

Einstein’s development of relativity theory confirms the dialectical approach to the development of knowledge outlined by Lenin above. It’s clear that classical Newtonian mechanics only gave an accurate picture of the world around us within certain limits. Beyond these limits, a new, more refined, model of reality was required. Einstein’s theories provided the basis of that new model. Newtonian physics could no longer be seen as giving equally valid explanations of reality.

Far from being resistant to theoretical advances in physics, Lenin is clear that Marxism is a philosophy that insists that scientific theory must accord with practice – and consequently has to change when new scientific discoveries require it to do so. Far from insisting dogmatically that previous propositions must not be revised, Lenin asserts that “on the contrary, [this] is demanded by Marxism”.

‘Matter has disappeared’

Another new finding was based on the work of the British physicist JJ Thomson who had carried out experiments on ‘cathode rays’ and concluded that they must be made up of the negatively charged particles that we now call electrons.

Further experiments by the German physicist Walter Kaufmann, suggested (correctly) that an electron’s mass actually depended on its velocity. However, until Einstein was able to explain this finding as being due to ‘relativistic mass’ (summed up in his well-known E=mc2 equation), some scientists concluded (wrongly, as it turned out) that mass must therefore depend solely on electromagnetic forces. This was being interpreted by some scientists as proof that mass – and therefore matter – didn’t actually exist at all. Some philosophers went further to say that, therefore, there could be no basis for materialism.

Lenin’s response to these claims is significant. He doesn’t argue against the (apparent) scientific evidence of ‘zero mass’ but only that it provided no basis on which to draw a false ‘idealist’ conclusion that matter therefore does not exist. He writes that “the ‘disappearance of matter’ … has no relation to the epistemological distinction between materialism and idealism. When the physicists say that ‘matter is disappearing,’ they mean that hitherto science reduced its investigations of the physical world to three ultimate concepts: matter, electricity and ether; whereas now only the two latter remain”. “However bizarre from the standpoint of ‘common sense’ – all this is but another corroboration of dialectical materialism”.

In summary, Lenin stresses that new theories questioning the existence of ‘matter’ – or at least matter in the form it had previously been described – simply demonstrated “that our knowledge is penetrating deeper”, taking a further step, ‘from relative truth to absolute truth’, towards understanding the actual nature of objective reality.

Lenin describes how properties of matter which had previously seemed “absolute, immutable”, like mass, were now turning out not to be so. He makes clear that this shouldn’t come as any surprise – nor as any threat – to anyone looking at scientific developments in a dialectical manner, a manner which “insists on the absence of absolute boundaries in nature”. The only question which a dialectical materialist will insist upon, however, is the existence, in whatever new ways we model it, of an “objective reality existing independently of the human mind”.

Faced with the experimental evidence for the far from ‘common-sense’ predictions of quantum mechanics and general relativity, Lenin would have welcomed these new scientific theories as yet deeper explanations of the nature of objective reality.

The nature of quantum reality

Rovelli seems to think that Lenin’s emphasis on the philosophical divide between ‘materialism’ and ‘idealism’ is unnecessary. In his chapter in Helgoland on Lenin and Bogdanov, he writes that, if materialism is “the belief that a world exists beyond our minds… then… even the Pope is a materialist”.

It is true that the advance of science and culture has left less room for philosophical idealism compared to Lenin’s time. However, there are still many millions who adhere to literal religious explanations of evolution and other aspects of science. There are billions more who, at the same time as accepting modern science, also hold on to religious faith and the hope that some kind of spiritual existence can be continued outside the material world. While those individual beliefs may provide solace, they can also be used to generate prejudice and to blunt the desire for struggle, in the forlorn hope that there are easier, religious or spiritual, solutions to the world’s problems.

Rovelli would have been more accurate to have said that materialists believe that there is “only” a world that exists beyond our minds. On that basis, no, the Pope is certainly not a materialist.

In the scientific realm, even more so than in Lenin’s time, then, yes, the overwhelming majority of scientists, focused as they are on observing the real world around us, will inevitably adopt a materialist outlook, although still being subject to the social and economic pressures arising from capitalist production. However, particularly in the more theoretical aspects of science, such as quantum physics, the dangers of the kind of philosophical ‘agnosticism’ expressed by Bogdanov and Mach still persist.

There are some similarities in the debates between Lenin and Bogdanov and those that took place between theoretical giants Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr over the interpretation of quantum mechanics. Bohr was content to focus on abstract mathematical descriptions. Einstein felt physics had to go further. He welcomed Bohr’s probabilistic model as one could explain the behaviour, on average, of a collection of particles but saw it as an “incomplete description” that could not yet describe the behaviour or nature of individual particles.

Today, while quantum theory has successfully predicted phenomena from sub-atomic particles to stars, there are still significant scientific and philosophical debates about the exact nature of the reality that underlies its theoretical mathematics. Rovelli’s Helgoland outlines a number of alternative models, some of which Rovelli recognises as falling “into an implicit form of idealism”.

Helgoland was in part written to publicise Rovelli’s own favoured model of ‘Relational Quantum Mechanics’. This proposes that every object has to be seen in relation to its interaction with every other object and that particles only effectively ‘exist’ to us when we interact with, or ‘observe’, them. Relational Quantum Mechanics is certainly not without its critics, some of whom accuse Rovelli of disguising his exact meanings with “new words” – reminiscent of Lenin’s criticisms of Mach and Bogdanov.

Of course, Lenin’s scientific descriptions from 1909 are now inevitably dated. For example, his and Engels’ shorthand to describe objective reality as “matter in motion” is now too oversimplified a formulation. However, Rovelli would do well to re-read Lenin’s philosophy with a more open mind to see how it might assist in today’s philosophical and scientific debates. And, while scientific conceptions of space and time may have changed since 1909, the need for science to be able to successfully explain the nature of that reality has not. As Lenin wrote then:

“Human conceptions of space and time are relative, but these relative conceptions go to compound absolute truth. These relative conceptions, in their development, move towards absolute truth and approach nearer and nearer to it. The mutability of human conceptions of space and time no more refutes the objective reality of space and time than the mutability of scientific knowledge of the structure and forms of matter in motion refutes the objective reality of the external world”.

As a final point, it is commonplace for socialists to recall Marx’s ‘eleventh thesis’ on Feuerbach that “philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways, the point, however, is to change it”. Such a change is not only urgently needed to address the burning issues of poverty, inequality, war and climate change, but also to provide the time and resources to allow humanity to fully develop its understanding of the nature of the universe in which we exist.