Lenin: Empirio-criticism and historical materialism – part fifteen

Georges Braque, Violin and Pitcher, 1910, oil on canvas, Kunstmuseum Basel, Basel, Switzerland

Georges Braque, Violin and Pitcher, 1910, oil on canvas, Kunstmuseum Basel, Basel, Switzerland


…The vast majority of scientists, both generally and in this special branch of science in question, viz., physics, are invariably on the side of materialism. A minority of new physicists, however, influenced by the break-down of old theories brought about by the great discoveries of recent years, influenced by the crisis in the new physics, which has very clearly revealed the relativity of our knowledge, have, owing to their ignorance of dialectics, slipped into idealism by way of relativism. The physical idealism in vogue today is as reactionary and transitory an infatuation as was the fashionable physiological idealism of the recent past.

…behind the epistemological scholasticism of empirio-criticism one must not fail to see the struggle of parties in philosophy, a struggle which in the last analysis reflects the tendencies and ideology of the antagonistic classes in modern society. Recent philosophy is as partisan as was philosophy two thousand years ago. The contending parties are essentially, although this is concealed by a pseudo-erudite quackery of new terms or by a weak-minded non-partisanship – materialism and idealism. The latter is merely a subtle, refined form of fideism, which stands fully armed, commands vast organisations and steadily continues to exercise influence on the masses, turning the slightest vacillation in philosophical thought to its own advantage. The objective, class role of empirio-criticism consists entirely in rendering faithful service to the fideists in their struggle against materialism in general and historical materialism in particular.

V.I.Lenin, Materialism and Empirio-criticism: Critical Comments on a Reactionary Philosophy, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1975, 335-336


Full text at Marxists Internet Archive


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

Lenin: The Theory of Knowledge of Dialectical Materialism – Part Seven

Absolute and Relative Truth

From the standpoint of modern materialism, i.e., Marxism, the limits of approximation of our knowledge to objective, absolute truth are historically conditional, but the existence of such truth is unconditional, and the fact that we are approaching nearer to it is also unconditional. The contours of the picture are historically conditional, but the fact that this picture depicts an objectively existing model is unconditional. When and under what circumstances we reached, in our knowledge of the essential nature of things, the discovery of alizarin in coal tar or the discovery of electrons in the atom is historically conditional; but that every such discovery is an advance of “absolutely objective knowledge” is unconditional. In a word, every ideology is historically conditional, but it is unconditionally true that to every scientific ideology (as distinct, for instance, from religious ideology) there corresponds an objective truth, absolute nature. You will say that this distinction between relative and absolute truth is indefinite. And I shall reply: it is sufficiently “indefinite” to prevent science from becoming a dogma in the bad sense of the term, from becoming something dead, frozen, ossified; but at the same time it is sufficiently “definite” to enable us to dissociate ourselves in the most emphatic and irrevocable manner from fideism and agnosticism, from philosophical idealism and the sophistry of the followers of Hume and Kant. Here is a boundary which you have not noticed, and not having noticed it, you have fallen into the swamp of reactionary philosophy. It is the boundary between dialectical materialism and relativism.

We are relativists, proclaim Mach, Avenarius, Petzoldt. We are relativists, echo Mr. Chernov and certain Russian Machists, would-be Marxists. Yes, Mr. Chernov and Machist comrades – and therein lies your error. For to make relativism the basis of the theory of knowledge is inevitably to condemn oneself either to absolute scepticism, agnosticism and sophistry, or to subjectivism. Relativism as a basis of the theory of knowledge is not only recognition of the relativity of our knowledge, but also a denial of any objective measure or model existing independently of mankind to which our relative knowledge approximates. From the standpoint of naked relativism one can justify any sophistry; one may regard it as “conditional” whether Napoleon died on May 5, 1821, or not; one may declare the admission, alongside scientific ideology (“convenient” in one respect), of religious ideology (very “convenient” in another respect) to be a mere “convenience” for man or mankind, and so forth.

Dialectics – as Hegel in his time explained – contains an element of relativism, of negation, of scepticism, but is not reducible to relativism. The materialist dialectics of Marx and Engels certainly does contain relativism, but is not reducible to relativism, that is, it recognises the relativity of all our knowledge, not in the sense of denying objective truth, but in the sense that the limits of approximation of our knowledge to this truth are historically conditional.

V.I.Lenin, Materialism and Empirio-criticism: Critical Comments on a Reactionary Philosophy, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1975, 120-121


Part seven/to be continued…