Lenin: the recent revolution in natural science, and philosophical idealism – part thirteen


The Essence and Significance of “Physical” Idealism (continued)

The other cause which gave rise to “physical” idealism is the principle of relativism, the relativity of our knowledge, a principle which, in a period of abrupt break-down of the old theories, is taking a firm hold upon the physicists, and which, if the latter are ignorant of dialectics, inevitably leads to idealism.

This question of the relation between relativism and dialectics plays perhaps the most important part in explaining the theoretical misadventures of Machism. Take Rey, for instance, who like all European positivists has no conception whatever of Marxian dialectics. He employs the word dialectics exclusively in the sense of idealist philosophical speculation. As a result, although he feels that the new physics has gone astray on the question of relativism, he nevertheless flounders helplessly and attempts to differentiate between moderate and immoderate relativism. Of course, “immoderate relativism logically, if not in practice, borders on actual skepticism” (215), but there is none of this “immoderate” relativism, you see, in Poincaré. Just fancy, one can, like an apothecary, weigh out a little more or a little less relativism and thus save Machism!

As a matter of fact, the only theoretically correct formulation of the question of relativism is given in the dialectical materialism of Marx and Engels, and ignorance of it is bound to lead from relativism to philosophical idealism. Incidentally, the failure to understand this fact is enough by itself to render Mr. Berman’s absurd book, Dialectics in the Light of the Modern Theory of Knowledge, utterly valueless. Mr. Berman repeats the old, old nonsense about dialectics, which he has entirely failed to understand. We have already seen that in the theory of knowledge all the Machists, at every step, reveal a similar lack of understanding.

All the old truths of physics, including those which were regarded as firmly established and incontestable, prove to be relative truths – hence, there can be no objective truth independent of mankind. Such is the argument not only of all the Machists, but of the “physical” idealists in general. 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 independent of mankind; 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, are for the “modern” theory of knowledge a book with seven seals.

V.I.Lenin, Materialism and Empirio-criticism: Critical Comments on a Reactionary Philosophy, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1975, 288-289


Truth is deepening, dialectical and ‘living. I think of the development and accumulation of relative truths (it was once true that the earth is flat) as cutting facets on the diamond of (theoretically) absolute truth – through their development they increasingly reveal and more closely approximate (theoretically) absolute truth. Truth is therefore inseparable from uncertainty.



Part thirteen/to be continued…

Full text at Marxists Internet Archive

Image sources: 1st/2nd/3rd

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