Lenin: the theory of knowledge of dialectical materialism – part two

Immanuel Kant by Karl Friedrich Hagemann, 1801, marble, Kunsthalle, Hamburg

The ‘thing-in-Itself’

In the theory of knowledge, as in every other sphere of science, we must think dialectically, that is, we must not regard our knowledge as ready-made and unalterable, but must determine how knowledge emerges from ignorance, how incomplete, inexact knowledge becomes more complete and more exact.

Once we achieve the point of view that human knowledge develops from ignorance, we shall find millions of examples of it just as simple as the discovery of alizarin in coal tar, millions of observations not only in the history of science and technology but in the everyday life of each and every one of us that illustrate the transformation of “things-in-themselves” into “things-for-us”, the appearance of “phenomena” when our sense-organs experience an impact from external objects, the disappearance of “phenomena” when some obstacle prevents the action upon our sense-organs of an object which we know to exist. The sole and unavoidable deduction to be made from this – a deduction which all of us make in everyday practice and which materialism deliberately places at the foundation of its epistemology – is that outside us, and independently of us, there exist objects, things, bodies and that our perceptions are images of the external world.

V.I.Lenin, Materialism and Empirio-criticism: Critical Comments on a Reactionary Philosophy, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1975, 88


Part two/to be continued…

Plant on Hegel: the importance of praxis to knowledge


Gustave Courbet, The Stonebreakers, oil on canvas, 1849. Destroyed, Dresden, Germany, 1945.

Theoretical mind is the attempt of the self-conscious person to take possession of the world through the exercise of the intellect, but Hegel argues that without the supplement of practical activity such a grasp cannot be achieved. In practical activity man transforms objects and once they are thus transformed by human activity, the products can be appropriated by the human intelligence. Full self-consciousness is achieved when the mind can fully elucidate its own relationship to the world in practical activity. This is a point of crucial importance. A conceptual grasp of an object can only be attained when that object has been formed and structured by human praxis

Accordingly, full self-consciousness is achieved when man can have a full grasp of the kinds of transformations which he has effected through his practical activity on a world which is not the mere product of his mind, but which can be shaped by his will, this process at the same time contributing to his own development as a person.

Raymond Plant, Hegel, An Introduction, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1983, 151-2


Lenin: the theory of knowledge of dialectical materialism

Sensations and Complexes of Sensations

For every scientist who has not been led astray by professorial philosophy, as well as for every materialist, sensation is indeed the direct connection between consciousness and the external world; it is the transformation of the energy of external excitation into the fact of consciousness. This transformation has been, and is, observed by each of us a million times on every hand. The sophism of idealist philosophy consists in the fact that it regards sensation as being not the connection between consciousness and the external world, but a fence, a wall, separating consciousness from the external world – not an image of the external phenomenon corresponding to the sensation, but as the “sole entity”. Avenarius gave but a slightly changed form to this old sophism, which had been already worn threadbare by Bishop Berkeley. Since we do not yet know all the conditions of the connection we are constantly observing between sensation and matter organised in a definite way, let us therefore acknowledge the existence of sensation alone – that is what the sophism of Avenarius amounts to.

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


Part one/to be continued…


Lenin: Is motion without matter conceivable? – part two

Let us imagine a consistent idealist who holds, let us say, that the entire world is his sensation, his idea, etc. (if we take “nobody’s” sensation or idea, this changes only the variety of philosophical idealism but not its essence). The idealist would not even think of denying that the world is motion, i.e., the motion of his thoughts, ideas, sensations. The question as to what moves, the idealist will reject and regard as absurd: what is taking place is a change of his sensations, his ideas come and go, and nothing more. Outside him there is nothing. “It moves” – and that is all. It is impossible to conceive a more “economical” way of thinking. And no proofs, syllogisms, or definitions are capable of refuting the solipsist if he consistently adheres to his view.

The fundamental distinction between the materialist and the adherent of idealist philosophy consists in the fact that the materialist regards sensation, perception, idea, and the mind of man generally, as an image of objective reality. The world is the movement of this objective reality reflected by our consciousness. To the movement of ideas, perceptions, etc., there corresponds the movement of matter outside me. The concept matter expresses nothing more than the objective reality which is given us in sensation. Therefore, to divorce motion from matter is equivalent to divorcing thought from objective reality, or to divorcing my sensations from the external world – in a word, it is to go over to idealism. The trick which is usually performed in denying matter, in assuming motion without matter, consists in ignoring the relation of matter to thought. The question is presented as though this relation did not exist, but in reality it is introduced surreptitiously; at the beginning of the argument it remains unexpressed, but subsequently crops up more or less imperceptibly.

V.I.Lenin, Materialism and Empirio-Criticism: Critical Comments on a Reactionary Philosophy, 1908, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1977, pp. 247-248


Lenin: Is motion without matter conceivable?

8. Two Black Holes Dancing in 3C 75. Particle jets are moving at 1200 kilometres per second.

The fact that philosophical idealism is attempting to make use of the new physics, or that idealist conclusions are being drawn from the latter, is due not to the discovery of new kinds of substance and force, of matter and motion, but to the fact that an attempt is being made to conceive motion without matter. And it is the essence of this attempt which our Machists fail to examine. They were unwilling to take account of Engels’ statement that “motion without matter is unthinkable”. J. Dietzgen in 1869, in his The Nature of the Workings of the Human Mind, expressed the same idea as Engels, although, it is true, not without his usual muddled attempts to “reconcile” materialism and idealism. Let us leave aside these attempts, which are to a large extent to be explained by the fact that Dietzgen is arguing against Büchner’s non-dialectical materialism, and let us examine Dietzgen’s own statements on the question under consideration. He says: “They [the idealists] want to have the general without the particular, mind without matter, force without substance, science without experience or material, the absolute without the relative” (Das Wesen der menschlichen Kopfarbeit, 1903, S. 108). Thus the endeavour to divorce motion from matter, force from substance, Dietzgen associates with idealism, ranking it with the endeavour to divorce thought from the brain. “Liebig,” Dietzgen continues, “who is especially fond of straying from his inductive science into the field of speculation, says in the spirit of idealism: ‘force cannot be seen’” (109). “The spiritualist or the idealist believes in the spiritual, i.e., ghost-like and inexplicable, nature of force” (110). “The antithesis between force and matter is as old as the antithesis between idealism and materialism” (111). “Of course, there is no force without matter, no matter without force; forceless matter and matterless force are absurdities. If idealist natural scientists believe in the immaterial existence of forces, then on this point they are not natural scientists…but seers of ghosts” (114).

Thus we see that scientists who were prepared to assume that motion is conceivable without matter were to be encountered forty years ago too, and that “on this point” Dietzgen declared them to be seers of ghosts. What, then, is the connection between philosophical idealism and the divorce of matter from motion, the separation of substance from force? Is it not “more economical”, indeed, to conceive motion without matter?

Part one/to be continued…

V.I.Lenin, Materialism and Empirio-Criticism: Critical Comments on a Reactionary Philosophy, 1908, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1977, pp. 246-254, 247

Marx, Foucault and panopticism


As Marx began his analysis of capitalism with that of what lay at its heart, of what suffuses it – the commodity, Foucault began his analysis of western society by describing that society in panoptic extremis – during a plague: ‘It is a segmented, immobile, frozen space. Each individual is fixed in his place…Inspection functions ceaselessly. The gaze is alert everywhere’.1 As the leper was cast out from society into a leprous community, nineteenth century society with its asylums, penitentiaries, schools and hospitals was a composite of outcasts – one built on binary divisions (mad/sane, dangerous/harmless, normal/abnormal) – and against these separated outcasts are ranged the mechanisms of power.

Foucault’s analysis moves from an abstract ideal of power – the Panopticon (designed by Bentham – proponent of the greatest happiness and felicific calculus and author of ‘If pains must come, let them extend to few’) – to its development in panoptic capitalist society. Foucault concludes ‘Is it surprising that the cellular prison…should have become the modern instrument of penalty?’2

Where Bentham’s Panopticon is comprised of a ring of seen packaged around a hub of seeing, Foucault’s panoptic society is a study in the most subtle and unrelenting pain of observation and containment, of a society in which the few masters who view are unknown, diffused amongst their subjects, and whose subjects themselves are their own impossibility of release.

The Panopticon as society is a naturalist – observing, assessing and classifying. It is a laboratory for punishment and experimentation. It supervises – its mechanisms, its personnel, its director. It functions – optimising efficiency, at the basis of society, developing the productive forces. It is institutionally enclosing while societally enforcing – from exceptional discipline to a discipline without bars, locks or chains. The permanently seen, like the chained elephant, are their own benign subjugators. We, as individuals, have become the panoptic machine state – Leviathan gazing down.

Discipline – ‘a type of power, a modality for its exercise, comprising a whole set of instruments, techniques, procedures, levels of application, targets…a technology’3 – developed in knowledge and power, has grown from quarantined and institutional to distributed and panoptic. Disciplines are now co-extensive with the state. They maximise their intensity and profitability at the lowest possible cost. They increase docility and utility. They are the ever-so-discrete techniques of capitalism.

Foucault’s entire argument is abstract and nebulous. In his discussion of panoptic capitalism he referred to class domination and the bourgeoisie once each and not once to the working class. Surplus value becomes ‘surplus power.’4 He wrote that the panopticon ‘represented the abstract formula of a very real technology, that of individuals,’5 of ‘anonymous instruments of power.’6 Observation itself is democratised – anyone can exercise the power of the gaze – ‘The seeing machine…has become a transparent building in which the exercise of power may be supervised by society as a whole.’7 – it is a point that he repeats throughout the chapter. By so doing, he obscured, in effect denied class relations. ‘Disciplines’ and ‘power’ are intentional, not those who employ them, the agents of the dominant class. Foucault wrote ‘It (discipline) must also master all the forces that are formed from the very constitution of an organised multiplicity; it must neutralise the effects of counter-power…which form a resistance to the power that wishes to dominate it.‘8

Compare this with The Communist Manifesto in which the argument is materially anchored in production and the struggle of classes. Where Marx and Engels wrote of what the bourgeoisie do, Foucault wrote of what ‘discipline’ and ‘power’ do. Where the argument of Marx and Engels exposes materially, that of Foucault is autonomous, ominous and miasmic.

Foucault did not understand how nature works, that consciousness as manifest in ‘power’ and ‘discipline’ et cetera does not fundamentally determine the movement of matter, it is a manifestation of it. His account in this chapter is nihilistic – there is no hope, no redeeming truth or principle, no way forward. Foucault did not understand the nature of ‘panopticism’ in relation to capitalism. He argued the rise of panopticism is parallel to the rise of capitalism – that just as the economic take-off of the West began with the accumulation of capital, ‘the methods for administering the accumulation of men made possible a take-off in relation to power from traditional violent forms to subtle subjection.9

He added that these two processes cannot be separated, that the ‘problem’ of the accumulation of men required ‘the growth of an apparatus of production capable of both sustaining them and using them…the techniques that made the cumulative multiplicity of men useful accelerated the accumulation of capital.’10 Even here, where Foucault is at his most confusedly concrete, he thought that ‘each makes the other possible and necessary’11 rather than it being a single process whereby, on the basis of the objective development and refinement of the means of production there was a concomitant development and refinement in the processes of human relations, consciousness and domination.



1. Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans., Alan Sheridan, Vintage, New York, 1995, 195

2. Ibid., 227-8

3. Ibid., 215

4. Ibid., 223

5. Ibid., 225

6. Ibid., 220

7. Ibid., 207

8. Ibid., 219

9. Ibid., 221

10. Ibid.

11. Ibid.


Matter and motion

Monarch chrysalis

The indestructibility of motion cannot be conceived merely quantitatively; it must also be conceived qualitatively; matter whose purely mechanical change of place includes indeed the possibility under favourable conditions of being transformed into heat, electricity, chemical action, life, but which is not capable of producing these conditions from out of itself, such matter has forfeited motion; motion which has lost the capacity of being transformed into the various forms appropriate to it may indeed still have dynamis but no longer energeia, and so has become partially destroyed. Both, however, are unthinkable.

Friedrich Engels, Dialectics of Nature, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1976, 37


What is Man?

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), Vitruvian Man, c. 1490. Pen, ink and wash on paper, Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venezia

And from the first animals were developed, essentially by further differentiation, the numerous classes, orders, families, genera, and species of animals; and finally vertebrates, the form in which the nervous system attains its fullest development; and among these again finally that vertebrate in which nature attains consciousness of itself – man.

Friedrich Engels, Dialectics of Nature, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1976, 33


How do we know the world?

From perception to thought

From living perception to abstract thought, and from this to practice, – such is the dialectical path of the cognition of truth, of the cognition of objective reality. Kant disparages knowledge in order to make way for faith: Hegel exalts knowledge, asserting that knowledge is knowledge of God. The materialist exalts the knowledge of matter, of nature…

V.I.Lenin, Collected Works, Vol., 38 (Philosophical Notebooks), Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1976, 171.


Lenin: Is there objective truth? Part four

Pieter Claesz, ‘Still Life with Musical Instruments’, 1623. The painting illustrates the senses through musical instruments, a compass, a book, food and drink, a mirror, incense and an open perfume bottle. The tortoise may be an illustration of touch or an allusion to the opposite (the tortoise isolating in its shell).

Acceptance or rejection of the concept matter is a question of the confidence man places in the evidence of his sense-organs, a question of the source of our knowledge, a question which has been asked and debated from the very inception of philosophy, which may be disguised in a thousand different garbs by professorial clowns, but which can no more become antiquated than the question whether the source of human knowledge is sight and touch, hearing and smell. To regard our sensations as images of the external world, to recognise objective truth, to hold the materialist theory of knowledge—these are all one and the same thing. To illustrate this, I shall only quote from Feuerbach and from two textbooks of philosophy, in order that the reader may judge how elementary this question is.

“How banal,” wrote Feuerbach, “to deny that sensation is the evangel, the gospel (Verkündung) of an objective saviour.” (Feuerbach, Sämtliche Werke, X. Band, 1866, S. 194-95) A strange, a preposterous terminology, as you see, but a perfectly clear philosophical line: sensation reveals objective truth to man. “My sensation is subjective, but its foundation or cause (Grund) is objective” (S. 195). Compare this with the quotation given above where Feuerbach says that materialism starts from the sensuous world as an ultimate (ausgemachte) objective truth.

Sensationalism, we read in Franck’s dictionary of philosophy, (Dictionnaire des sciences philosophiques [Dictionary of the Philosophical Sciences], Paris, 1875) is a doctrine which deduces all our ideas “from the experience of the senses, reducing knowledge to sensations”. There is subjective sensationalism (skepticism and Berkeleianism), moral sensationalism (Epicureanism),1 and objective sensationalism. “Objective sensationalism is materialism, for matter or bodies are, in the opinion of the materialists, the only objects that can affect our senses (atteindre nos sens).”

“If sensationalism,” says Schwegler in his history of philosophy, (Dr. Albert Schwegler, Geschichte der Philosophie im Umriss [History of Philosophy in Outline], 15-te Aufl., S. 194) “asserted that truth or being can be apprehended exclusively by means of the senses, one had only [Schwegler is speaking of philosophy at the end of the eighteenth century in France] to formulate this proposition objectively and one had the thesis of materialism: only the sensuous exists; there is no other being than material being.”

These elementary truths, which have managed to find their way even into the textbooks, have been forgotten by our Machists.

V.I.Lenin, Materialism and Empirio-Criticism: Critical Comments on a Reactionary Philosophy, 1908, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1975, pp. 107-115



1. Skepticism: a philosophical trend that casts doubt on the possibility of knowing objective reality. It arose in ancient Greece as early as the 4th to 3rd centuries B. C. It was founded by Pyrrho and Aenesidemus and Sextus Empiricus were among its prominent exponents. The adherents of ancient skepticism drew agnostic conclusions from the premises of sensationalism. Making the subjectivity of sensation into an absolute, the skeptics insisted on the need to refrain from any definite judgments about things. They considered that man cannot go beyond his sensations and determine their truth.

During the period of the Renaissance, the French philosophers Michel Montaigne, Pierre Charron and Pierre Bayle made use of skepticism for combating medieval scholasticism and the Church.

In the eighteenth century skepticism was revived in the agnosticism of Hume and Kant, and an attempt to modernise ancient skepticism was made by Gottlieb Schulze (Aenesidemus). The arguments of skepticism were used by the Machists, neo-Kantians and other idealist philosophical schools from the middle of the nineteenth to the beginning of the twentieth century.

Epicureanism: the doctrine of the ancient Greek materialist philosopher Epicurus of the 4th to 3rd centuries B. C. and his successors. The aim of philosophy, according to this doctrine, was man’s happiness, freeing him from suffering and enabling him to attain a state of bliss. It taught that philosophy was called upon to overcome obstacles to happiness: the fear of death due to ignorance of the laws of nature and giving rise therefore to belief in supernatural divine forces.

According to Epicurus, there are only atoms and the void in the universe, in which atoms move down under their own weight. Falling with the same velocity, the atoms swerve from their rectilinear movement, collide and concatenate, forming various bodies. Epicurus recognised the objective character of the properties of things and regarded the universe as infinite, governed by natural and not by divine laws. He denied the immortality and non-materiality of the soul, and maintained that it was a material body of fine parts distributed through the whole body structure. His theory of the material nature of the soul was closely  linked with his atheism, which negated gods’ interference in the affairs of nature and man.

As regards the theory of knowledge, Epicurus was a sensationalist. He supposed that very subtle images proceed from things and penetrate the human soul through the sense-organs. Conceptions of things are formed on the basis of the sense perceptions of the soul, in which memory preserves only the general features of images. Epicurus regarded sense-perceptions themselves as the criterion of truth, and he considered that the source of errors lay in the accidental character of individual sensations or in the overhasty formation of judgments. Epicurus gave a materialist, though rather naïve, interpretation of the fundamentals of the cognitive process.

The idealists, who distorted the teaching of this great materialist of ancient Greece, made more attacks on Epicureanism than on the other philosophical theories of antiquity.

In the definition of sensationalism quoted by Lenin, Franck rightly regards Epicureanism as a variety of it, but he draws an incorrect distinction between Epicureanism and objective materialist sensationalism. In his conspectus of the Lectures on the History of Philosophy by Hegel who did not understand Epicurus’ theory and distorted it, Lenin showed that Epicureanism was a form of ancient Greek materialism.