Lenin: the philosophical idealists – part four

There are the most subtle and powerful proofs for the existence of God – astonishing intellectual achievements, the work of towering philosophical geniuses. Then there is materialism – which explores the relationship between philosophy, ideology and the workingman’s sausage.

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The Criticism of Kantianism from the Left and from the Right (continued)

…Engels, as we have seen, rebuked Kant for being an agnostic, but not for deviating from consistent agnosticism. Lafargue, Engels’ disciple, argued in 1900 against the Kantians (amongst whom at that time was Charles Rappoport) as follows:

“…At the beginning of the nineteenth century our bourgeoisie, having completed its task of revolutionary destruction, began to repudiate its Voltairean and free-thinking philosophy. Catholicism, which the master decorator Chateaubriand painted in romantic colours (peinturlurait), was restored to fashion, and Sebastian Mercier imported the idealism of Kant in order to give the coup de grâce to the materialism of the Encyclopaedists, the propagandists of which had been guillotined by Robespierre.

“At the end of the nineteenth century, which will go down in history as the bourgeois century, the intellectuals attempted to crush the materialism of Marx and Engels beneath the philosophy of Kant. The reactionary movement started in Germany – without offence to the socialist integralistes who would like to ascribe the honour to their chief, Malon. But Malon himself had been to the school of Höchberg, Bernstein and the other disciples of Dühring, who were reforming Marxism in Zurich. [Lafargue is referring to the ideological movement in German socialism in the later seventies.] It is to be expected that Jaurès, Fournière and our other intellectuals will also treat us to Kant as soon as they have mastered his terminology…. Rappoport is mistaken when he assures us that for Marx the ‘ideal and the real are identical’. In the first place we never employ such metaphysical phraseology. An idea is as real as the object of which it is the reflection in the brain…. To provide a little recreation for the comrades who have to acquaint themselves with bourgeois philosophy, I shall explain the substance of this famous problem which has so much exercised spiritualist minds.

“The workingman who eats sausage and receives a hundred sous a day knows very well that he is robbed by the employer and is nourished by pork meat, that the employer is a robber and that the sausage is pleasant to the taste and nourishing to the body. Not at all, say the bourgeois sophists, whether they are called Pyrrho, Hume or Kant. His opinion is personal, an entirely subjective opinion; he might with equal reason maintain that the employer is his benefactor and that the sausage consists of chopped leather, for he cannot know things-in-themselves.

“The question is not properly put, that is the whole trouble…. In order to know an object, man must first verify whether his senses deceive him or not…. The chemists have gone deeper – they have penetrated into bodies, they have analysed them, decomposed them into their elements, and then performed the reverse procedure, they have recomposed them from their elements. And from the moment that man is able to produce things for his own use from these elements, he may, as Engels says, assert that he knows the things-in-themselves. The God of the Christians, if he existed and if he had created the world, could do no more.”1

We have taken the liberty of making this long quotation in order to show how Lafargue understood Engels and how he criticised Kant from the left, not for those aspects of Kantianism which distinguish it from Humism, but for those which are common to both Kant and Hume; not for his assumption of the thing-in-itself, but for his inadequately materialist view of it.

Note

1. Paul Lafargue, ‘Le matérialisme de Marx et l’idéalisme de Kant’, Le Socialiste, February 25, 1900

V.I.Lenin, Materialism and Empirio-criticism: Critical Comments on a Reactionary Philosophy, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1975, 184-186

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Part four/to be continued…

Full text at Marxists Internet Archive

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