Materialism and idealism differ in their answers to the question of the source of our knowledge and of the relation of knowledge (and of the “mental” in general) to the physical world; while the question of the structure of matter, of atoms and electrons, is a question that concerns only this “physical world”. When the physicists say “matter disappears” they mean that hitherto science reduced its investigations of the physical world to three ultimate concepts: matter, electricity and ether; now only the two latter remain. For it has become possible to reduce matter to electricity; the atom can be explained as resembling an infinitely small solar system, within which negative electrons move around a positive electron with a definite (and, as we have seen, enormously large) velocity. It is consequently possible to reduce the physical world from scores of elements to two or three elements (inasmuch as positive and negative electrons constitute “two essentially distinct kinds of matter”, as the physicist Pellat says – Rey, op. cit., pp. 294-95). Hence, natural science leads to the “unity of matter” (ibid.) – such is the real meaning of the statement about the disappearance of matter, its replacement by electricity, etc., which is leading so many people astray. “Matter disappears” means that the limit within which we have hitherto known matter disappears and that our knowledge is penetrating deeper; properties of matter are likewise disappearing which formerly seemed absolute, immutable, and primary (impenetrability, inertia, mass,1 etc.) and which are now revealed to be relative and characteristic only of certain states of matter. For the sole “property” of matter with whose recognition philosophical materialism is bound up is the property of being an objective reality, of existing outside the mind.
The error of Machism in general, as of the Machist new physics, is that it ignores this basis of philosophical materialism and the distinction between metaphysical materialism and dialectical materialism. The recognition of immutable elements, “of the immutable essence of things”, and so forth, is not materialism, but metaphysical, i.e., anti-dialectical, materialism. That is why J. Dietzgen emphasised that the “subject-matter of science is endless”, that not only the infinite, but the “smallest atom” is immeasurable, unknowable to the end, inexhaustible, “for nature in all her parts has no beginning and no end” (Kleinere philosophische Schriften, S. 229-30). That is why Engels gave the example of the discovery of alizarin in coal tar and criticised mechanical materialism. In order to present the question in the only correct way, that is, from the dialectical materialist standpoint, we ask: Do electrons, ether and so on exist as objective realities outside the human mind or not? The scientists will also have to answer this question unhesitatingly; and they do invariably answer it in the affirmative, just as they unhesitatingly recognise that nature existed prior to man and prior to organic matter. Thus, the question is decided in favour of materialism, for the concept matter, as we already stated, epistemologically implies nothing but objective reality existing independently of the human mind and reflected by it.
V.I.Lenin, Materialism and Empirio-Criticism: Critical Comments on a Reactionary Philosophy, 1908, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1975, pp. 240-246
Part one/to be continued…
1. This refers apparently to mechanical mass, which classical physics regarded as an eternal and unchanging property of matter. ↩
Text, with minor errors, at: