Lenin – “matter has disappeared”: part one

 

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…

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Note

1. This refers apparently to mechanical mass, which classical physics regarded as an eternal and unchanging property of matter.

Text, with minor errors, at:
https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1908/mec/five2.htm#v14pp72h-258

Engels on dialectics, part six: science and philosophy

 

Natural scientists believe that they free themselves from philosophy by ignoring it or abusing it. They cannot, however, make any headway without thought, and for thought they need thought determinations. But they take these categories unreflectingly from the common consciousness of so-called educated persons, which is dominated by the relics of long obsolete philosophies, or from the little bit of philosophy compulsorily listened to at the University (which is not only fragmentary, but also a medley of views of people belonging to the most varied and usually the worst schools), or from uncritical and unsystematic reading of philosophical writings of all kinds. Hence they are no less in bondage to philosophy, but unfortunately in most cases to the worst philosophy, and those who abuse philosophy most are slaves to precisely the worst vulgarised relics of the worst philosophies.

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Natural scientists may adopt whatever attitude they please, they are still under the domination of philosophy. It is only a question whether they want to be dominated by a bad, fashionable philosophy or by a form of theoretical thought which rests on acquaintance with the history of thought and its achievements.

‘Physics, beware of metaphysics’, is quite right, but in a different sense.

Natural scientists allow philosophy to prolong an illusory existence by making shift with the dregs of the old metaphysics. Only when natural and historical science has become imbued with dialectics will all the philosophical rubbish – other than the pure theory of thought – be superfluous, disappearing in positive science.

Friedrich Engels, Dialectics of Nature, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1976, 209-210

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Marx and Engels: on the relationship between the ruling class and the ruling ideas

 

The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas: i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, consequently also controls the means of mental production, so that the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are on the whole subject to it. The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relations, the dominant material relations grasped as ideas; hence of the relations which make the one class the ruling one, therefore, the ideas of its dominance. The individuals composing the ruling class possess among other things consciousness, and therefore think. Insofar, therefore, as they rule as a class and determine the extent and compass of an historical epoch, it is self-evident that they do this in its whole range, hence among other things rule also as thinkers, as producers of ideas, and regulate the production and distribution of the ideas of their age: thus their ideas are the ruling ideas of the epoch. For instance, in an age and in a country where royal power, aristocracy, and bourgeoisie are contending for domination and where, therefore, domination is shared, the doctrine of the separation of powers proves to be the dominant idea and is expressed as an ‘eternal law’.

The division of labour, which we already saw above as one of the chief forces of history up till now, manifests itself also in the ruling class as the division of mental and material labour, so that inside this class one part appears as the thinkers of the class (its active, conceptive ideologists, who make the formation of the illusion of the class about itself their chief source of livelihood), while the others’ attitude to these ideas and illusions is more passive and receptive, because they are in reality the active members of this class and have less time to make up illusions and ideas about themselves. Within this class this cleavage can even develop into a certain opposition and hostility between the two parts, but whenever a practical collision occurs in which the class itself is endangered they automatically vanish, in which case there also vanishes the appearance of the ruling ideas being not the ideas of the ruling class and having a power distinct from the power of this class. …

If now in considering the course of history we detach the ideas of the ruling class from the ruling class itself and attribute to them an independent existence, if we confine ourselves to saying that these or those ideas were dominant at a given time, without bothering ourselves about the conditions of production and the producers of these ideas, if we thus ignore the individuals and world conditions which are the source of the ideas, then we can say, for instance, that during the time the aristocracy was dominant, the concepts honour, loyalty, etc., were dominant, during the dominance of the bourgeoisie the concepts freedom, equality, etc. The ruling class itself on the whole imagines this to be so. This conception of history, which is common to all historians, particularly since the eighteenth century, will necessarily come up against the phenomenon that ever more abstract ideas hold sway, i.e. ideas which increasingly take on the form of universality. For each new class which puts itself in the place of one ruling before it is compelled, merely in order to carry through its aim, to present its interest as the common interest of all the members of society, that is, expressed in ideal form: it has to give its ideas the form of universality, and present them as the only rational, universally valid ones. The class making a revolution comes forward from the very start, if only because it is opposed to a class, not as a class but as the representative of the whole of society, as the whole mass of society confronting the one ruling class. It can do this because initially its interest really is as yet mostly connected with the common interest of all other non-ruling classes, because under the pressure of hitherto existing conditions its interest has not yet been able to develop as the particular interest of a particular class. Its victory, therefore, benefits also many individuals of the other classes which are not winning a dominant position, but only insofar as it now enables these individuals to raise themselves into the ruling class. When the French bourgeoisie overthrew the rule of the aristocracy, it thereby made it possible for many proletarians to raise themselves above the proletariat, but only insofar as they become bourgeois. Every new class, therefore, achieves domination only on a broader basis than that of the class ruling previously…

Once the ruling ideas have been separated from the ruling individuals and, above all, from the relations which result from a given stage of the mode of production, and in this way the conclusion has been reached that history is always under the sway of ideas, it is very easy to abstract from these various ideas ‘the Idea’, the thought, etc. as the dominant force in history, and thus to consider all these separate ideas and concepts as ‘forms of self-determination’ of the Concept developing in history. It follows then naturally, too, that all the relations of men can be derived from the concept of man, man as conceived, the essence of man, Man. This has been done by the speculative philosophy. Hegel himself confesses at the end of the Geschichtsphilosophie that he ‘has considered the progress of the concept only’ and has represented in history the ‘true theodicy’ (p. 446). Now one can go back again to the producers of the ‘concept’, to the theorists, ideologists and philosophers, and one comes then to the conclusion that the philosophers, the thinkers as such, have at all times been dominant in history: a conclusion, as we see, already expressed by Hegel.

The whole trick of proving the hegemony of the spirit in history (hierarchy Stirner calls it) is thus confined to the following three attempts.

No. 1. One must separate the ideas of those ruling for empirical reasons, under empirical conditions and as corporeal individuals, from these rulers, and thus recognise the rule of ideas or illusions in history.

No. 2. One must bring an order into this rule of ideas, prove a mystical connection among the successive ruling ideas, which is managed by regarding them as ‘forms of self-determination of the concept’ (this is possible because by virtue of their empirical basis these ideas are really connected with one another and because, conceived as mere ideas, they become self-distinctions, distinctions made by thought).

No. 3. To remove the mystical appearance of this ‘self-determining concept’ it is changed into a person – ‘self-consciousness’ – or, to appear thoroughly materialistic, into a series of persons who represent the ‘concept’ in history, into the ‘thinkers’, the ‘philosophers’, the ideologists, who again are understood as the manufacturers of history, as the ‘council of guardians’, as the rulers. Thus the whole body of materialistic elements has been eliminated from history and now full rein can be given to the speculative steed.

This historical method which reigned in Germany, and especially the reason why, must be explained from its connection with the illusion of ideologists in general, e.g., the illusions of the jurists, politicians (including the practical statesmen), from the dogmatic dreamings and distortions of these fellows; this is explained perfectly easily from their practical position in life, their job, and the division of labour.

Whilst in ordinary life every shopkeeper is very well able to distinguish between what somebody professes to be and what he really is, our historiography has not yet won this trivial insight. It takes every epoch at its word and believes that everything it says and imagines about itself is true.

Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1976, 67-71

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Engels on Russia

…no more in Russia than anywhere else would it have been possible to develop a higher social form out of primitive agrarian communism unless – that higher form was already in existence in another country, so as to serve as a model. That higher form being, wherever it is historically possible, the necessary consequence of the capitalistic form of production and of the social dualistic antagonism created by it, it could not be developed directly out of the agrarian commune, unless in imitation of an example already in existence somewhere else. Had the West of Europe been ripe, 1860-1870, for such a transformation, had that transformation then been taken in hand in England, France etc., then the Russians would have been called upon to show what could have been made out of their Commune, which was then more or less intact. But the West remained stagnant, no such transformation was attempted, and capitalism was more and more rapidly developed. And as Russia had no choice but this: either to develop the Commune into a form of production from which it was separated by a number of historical stages, and for which not even in the West the conditions were then ripe – evidently an impossible task – or else to develop into Capitalism, what remained to her but the latter chance?

Engels to Nikolai Frantsevich Danielson in St. Petersburg; London, October 17, 1893, Marx Engels, Selected Correspondence, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1982, 438-439

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Lenin on matter: part four

Lenin in Red Square, 1920

Matter has disappeared, they tell us, wishing from this to draw epistemological conclusions. But has thought remained? – we ask. If not, if with the disappearance of matter thought has also disappeared, if with the disappearance of the brain and nervous system ideas and sensations, too, have disappeared – then it follows that everything has disappeared, and your argument as a sample of “thought” (or lack of thought) has disappeared. But if thought has remained – if it is assumed that with the disappearance of matter, thought (idea, sensation, etc.) does not disappear, then you have surreptitiously gone over to the standpoint of philosophical idealism. And this always happens with people who wish, for the sake of “economy”, to conceive of motion without matter, for tacitly, by the very fact that they continue their argument, they are acknowledging the existence of thought after the disappearance of matter. This means that a very simple, or a very complex philosophical idealism is taken as a basis; a very simple one, if it is a case of frank solipsism (I exist, and the world is only my sensation): a very complex one, if instead of the thought, ideas and sensations of a living person, a dead abstraction is taken, that is, nobody’s thought, nobody’s idea, nobody’s sensation, but thought in general (the Absolute Idea, the Universal Will, etc.), sensation as an indeterminate “element”, the “psychical”, which is substituted for the whole of physical nature, etc., etc. Thousands of shades of varieties of philosophical idealism are possible and it is always possible to create a thousand and first shade; and to the author of this thousand and first little system (empirio-monism, for example) what distinguishes it from the rest may appear important. From the standpoint of materialism, however, these distinctions are absolutely unessential. What is essential is the point of departure. What is essential is that the attempt to think of motion without matter smuggles in thought divorced from matter – and that is philosophical idealism.

V.I.Lenin, Materialism and Empirio-Criticism: Critical Comments on a Reactionary Philosophy, 1908, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1975, pp. 248-49

Part Four/To be continued…

Engels on the Kantian ‘thing-in-itself’

A toy Spaniel, a dwarf Spitz and a Maltese next to a basket (1855), Johann Friedrich Wilhelm Wegener

The form of development of natural science, in so far as it thinks, is the hypothesis. A new fact is observed which makes impossible the previous method of explaining the facts belonging to the same group. From this moment onwards new methods of explanation are required – at first based on only a limited number of facts and observations. Further observational material weeds out these hypotheses, doing away with some and correcting others, until finally the law is established in a pure form. If one should wait until the material for a law was in a pure form, it would mean suspending the process of thought in investigation until then and, if only for this reason, the law would never come into being.

The number and succession of hypotheses supplanting one another – given the lack of logical and dialectical education among natural scientists – easily gives rise to the idea that we cannot know the essence of things (Haller and Goethe). This is not peculiar to natural science since all human knowledge develops in a much twisted curve; and in the historical sciences also, including philosophy, theories displace one another, from which, however, nobody concludes that formal logic, for instance, is nonsense.

The last form of this outlook is the ‘thing-in-itself’. In the first place, this assertion that we cannot know the thing-in-itself (Hegel, Encyclopaedia, paragraph 44) passes out of the realm of science into that of fantasy. Secondly, it does not add a word to our scientific knowledge, for if we cannot occupy ourselves with things, they do not exist for us. And, thirdly, it is a mere phrase and is never applied. Taken in the abstract it sounds quite sensible. But suppose one applies it. What would one think of a zoologist who said: ‘A dog seems to have four legs, but we do not know whether in reality it has four million legs or none at all’? Or of a mathematician who first of all defines a triangle as having three sides, and then declares that he does not know whether it might not have 25? That 2×2 seems to be 4? But scientists take care not to apply the phrase about the thing-in-itself in natural science, they permit themselves this only in passing into philosophy. This is the best proof how little seriously they take it and what little value it has itself. If they did take it seriously, what would be the good of investigating anything?

Taken historically the thing would have a certain meaning: we can only know under the conditions of our epoch and as far as these allow.

Friedrich Engels, Dialectics of Nature, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1976, 240-241

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David Hume, ‘The problem of induction’ and the workingman’s sausage

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David Hume is credited with developing induction. He argued that our inductive generalisations rest on the assumption that unobserved cases will follow the patterns that we discovered in observed cases but that one cannot make induction deductively certain. We cannot know that nature is uniform.

Hume distinguished between relations of ideas and matters of fact. He regarded deductive reasoning as demonstrative (involving certainty, established through relations of ideas) and inductive reasoning as probable (involving matters of fact, known by experience).

Hume denied the objective character of causality, arguing that there is no necessary relationship between cause and effect.

He insisted that philosophy cannot go beyond experience and that there is no solution to the ‘problem of induction’ which he set as a syllogism. He asked how we can move from a first premise that all observed A’s have been B to the conclusion that all A’s without restriction have been, are, and will be B.

He thought it can be addressed from two perspectives – that of redundancy (‘All A’s have been observed’), which is disqualified because it cannot be an argument from experience, and that of ‘the principle of the uniformity of nature’.

He also ruled this out because it could only be known to be true by a question-begging appeal to arguments of the very kind here in question (Nature has always been uniform. How does one know? Because it has always been uniform.). Further, such a premise would have to imply that all the A’s experienced by anyone constitute in all respects a perfectly representative sample of A’s.

Hume’s ‘moral’ conclusion was that argument from experience must be without rational foundation.

‘He seems nevertheless to have felt few scruples over the apparent inconsistency of going on to insist, first, that such argument is grounded in the deepest instincts of our nature, and, second, that the rational man everywhere proportions his belief to the evidence – evidence which in practice crucially includes that outcome of procedures alleged earlier to be without rational foundation…Argument from experience should be thought of not as an irreparably fallacious attempt to deduce conclusions necessarily wider than available premises can contain, but rather as a matter of following a tentative and self-correcting rule, a rule that is part of the very paradigm of inquiring rationality – that one would think that other A’s have been and will be the same, until and unless a particular reason is discovered to revise these expectations.’1

Lenin wrote that the sophism of idealist philosophy is that it regards sensation as being not the connection between consciousness and the external world, but a barrier between the two, not an image of the external phenomenon, but the sole entity.2

Whence arises the relations of ideas in deduction – from other ideas, or from within a form of matter which is utterly part of the world?

The (theoretically) absolute truth in nature is approached (the deepening of truth, inseparable from change and uncertainty) through a compound of relative truths by a process of sensory experience, brain processing of that experience and the testing of the resulting ideas in practice.

And this debate, which ultimately traces to that concerning the precedence of matter (objective reality) or consciousness as thought over the other, is directly related to ideology.

‘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.’3

Notes

1. In A. Flew, Ed.,  A  Dictionary of Philosophy, London: Pan, 1984, 172

2. V.I.Lenin, Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, Critical Comments on a Reactionary Philosophy, 1908, Progress, Moscow 1977, 38

3. Ibid., 185-186; Paul Lafargue, “Le matérialisme de Marx et l’idéalisme de Kant”, Le Socialiste, February 25, 1900.

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Comment on ‘The Suicidal Empire’ and the rise of China

Deng_Xiaoping

Deng Xiaoping in 1979

I disagree with ‘salvaging the principle of empire’ (Dmitry Orlov, ‘The Suicidal Empire’, Desultory Heroics) as a solution to the problems discussed by the author above. To do that would be to remain entrenched in them, under the name of another nation.

Engels predicted in 1894 that the development of capitalism in China would force millions from that country and, given the size of China and the number of Chinese, would force the US and Europe to become socialist – in order to continue competing with China. He wrote ‘thus the conquest of China by capitalism will at the same time furnish the impulse for the overthrow of capitalism in Europe and America…’ (Engels to Friedrich Adolf Sorge in Hoboken; London, November 10, 1894, Marx Engels, Selected Correspondence, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1982, 450-451)

China is not capitalist and it carries the lessons of socialism – learned at immense cost both from its own history and from that of its revolutionary precursor the Soviet Union. Where Lenin, while acutely aware of the problems in developing from an impoverished base, failed with his limited NEP because of his hatred for the bourgeoisie, the Chinese, in also developing from an impoverished base, have learnt a crucial lesson – to relax an obsession with Marxist theory and a hatred for anything bourgeois and to recognise the necessity of incorporating financial reward for individual initiative as a key driver for economic development. The benefits of this have shown clearly since the reforms of Deng Xiaoping.

Those reforms have resulted in hundreds of millions being rapidly lifted into a degree of wealth referred to in the West as ‘the middle class’ – a development still very much underway. The middle class in the West, on the basis of its wealth, education and common values has had and continues to have (despite the present ongoing depletion of that class) a powerful political voice and I expect the Chinese with that same degree of wealth to want that as well. 

And this in a state governed by and with the benefits of a single party (without the wasteful stupidity of obligatory opposition) which shows not only great sensitivity to what is taking place in China and its position of leadership (e.g. their continuing crackdown on corruption) but a flexibility and a willingness to experiment with socialism.

The Chinese Communist Party is doing what the Communist Party in the Soviet Union would not and could not do. The significance of this sensitivity, flexibility and willingness by the Chinese Communist Party can’t be overstated.

In my view, the relationship between the Chinese Communist Party and this rapidly growing number of millions with wealth in China, in particular, will develop such that not only may Engels be proven correct in his prognostication that the development of China will motivate the advance of Europe and the United States (and hence the rest of the West) to socialism, but this process in China will also generate economic, political and social forms of organisation that will be models for the world.

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Lenin on matter: part three

…dialectical materialism insists on the approximate, relative character of every scientific theory of the structure of matter and its properties; it insists on the absence of absolute boundaries in nature, on the transformation of moving matter from one state into another, that from our point of view is apparently irreconcilable with it, and so forth. However bizarre from the standpoint of “common sense” the transformation of imponderable ether into ponderable matter and vice versa may appear, however “strange” may seem the absence of any other kind of mass in the electron save electromagnetic mass, however extraordinary may be the fact that the mechanical laws of motion are confined only to a single sphere of natural phenomena and are subordinated to the more profound laws of electromagnetic phenomena, and so forth – all this is but another corroboration of dialectical materialism. …The electron is as inexhaustible as the atom, nature is infinite but it infinitely exists. And it is this sole categorical, this sole unconditional recognition of nature’s existence outside the mind and perception of man that distinguishes dialectical materialism from relativist agnosticism and idealism.

V.I.Lenin, Materialism and Empirio-Criticism: Critical Comments on a Reactionary Philosophy, 1908, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1975, pp. 242-43

Part three/to be continued…

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Lenin on matter: part two

The ‘disappearing’ church, Limburg, Belgium

The ‘disappearing’ church, Limburg, Belgium

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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 former 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, 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.

V.I.Lenin, Materialism and Empirio-Criticism: Critical Comments on a Reactionary Philosophy, 1908, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1975, pp. 240-41

Part two/to be continued…

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Full text at Marxists Internet Archive

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