CHAPTER FIVE SECTION SEVEN: A RUSSIAN "IDEALIST PHYSICIST"
We can basically skip over this section as it adds nothing new to Lenin's argument. It is a review of an obituary of a Russian scientist, N. I. Shishkin [died 1906], by "our notorious reactionary philosopher" L. M. Lopatin [1855-1920]. Shishkin was a Machist and was praised by Lopatin, whose work "lies in the borderland between philosophy and the police department." Lenin was in exile and cut off from Russian intellectual developments when he wrote MEC and this short section was written to give the Russian audience something to chew on. According to the Great Soviet Encyclopedia, Lopatin was an idealist whose philosophy was a form of personalism influenced by Leibniz and his theory of monads.
SECTION EIGHT: THE ESSENCE AND SIGNIFICANCE OF "PHYSICAL" IDEALISM
There are two major points that Lenin wants to make at the outset of this section. "Firstly", he says, "Machism is ideologically connected with only one school in one branch of modern natural science. Secondly, and this is the main point, what in Machism is connected with this school is not what distinguishes it from all other schools and systems of idealist philosophy, but what it has in common with philosophical idealism in general.” One has only to compare the French, German, English and Russian representatives of Machism, as Lenin has done, to see that this is so.
What we find is that the main idea of the Machist version of the new physics is "denial of the objective reality given us in sensation and reflected in our theories, [and] doubt as to the existence of such a reality."
Lenin thinks the popularity of this idealistic "deviation towards reactionary philosophy" is only temporary ("a transitory period of sickness") -- a growth ailment he calls it, "mainly caused by the abrupt break-down of old established concepts." We should all be able to understand this. The abrupt break-down of the USSR and eastern European socialism in our own time has led to similar reactionary consequences not only in science and philosophy but in the theory and practice of Marxism as well.
If Marxism is a science, i.e., "scientific socialism"-- then these words of Lenin about physics should also apply to it. "The materialist spirit of physics, as of all modern science, will overcome all crises, but only by the indispensable replacement of metaphysical materialism by dialectical materialism."
This raises some serious questions. Few scientists today call themselves "dialectical materialists." Can we say they are "shamefaced" dialectical materialists? Can we say they are practicing diamat more or less unconsciously?
Lenin gives a long quote from Abel Rey the gist of which is that as physics has become more and more mathematical it has begun to lose contact with real objects and to deal with mathematical abstractions. Lenin thinks this is one of the reasons for the growth of idealist tendencies in the new physics.
Another reason is the growth of relativism. This is not a reference to the theory of relativity, first proposed by Einstein in 1905, and Einstein is never mentioned in MEC. Lenin thinks that the principle of the relativity of our knowledge leads to idealistic conclusions in the brains of people ignorant of dialectics.
The fact that the old truths of physics are breaking down and being replaced has made many think that there is no objective truth-- only relative. Diamat, as expounded by Engels in Anti-Duhring, maintains that "truth" is indeed relative and changes as we learn more about the objects of nature, but relative truths still reflect objects that exist independently of man. It is not true that "there can be no objective truth independent of mankind."
"Engels," Lenin writes, "reproached the earlier materialists for their failure to appreciate the relativity of all scientific theories, for their ignorance of dialectics and for their exaggeration of the mechanical point of view."
The last few pages of this chapter, yes we are finally finishing Chapter Five (one more to go), are devoted to a book by Duhem, Theory of Physics. In this book Duhem writes "A law of physics, properly speaking, is neither true nor false, but approximate." That would be fine, says Lenin-- if Duhem really understood the "but." Diamat recognizes the provisional nature of all knowledge and as science advances that our world conception will also advance (and sometimes retreat).
Duhem, the practicing physicist, also thinks this way. But, ignorant of dialectics, he has been led into Machism and sometimes thinks the reason laws are "but approximate" is because there is no actual objective reality out there, independent of mankind, in the first place. Lenin doesn't say that Duhem is in a "muddle" but he does say he is vacillating.
Physical idealism is the result of the failure of mechanical materialism to deal with the revolutionary new developments in physics and will vanish when science takes the step from metaphysical to dialectical materialism.
Lenin chose physics to illustrate his theories. He could have picked any number of sciences had he so wished. I should also note the conditions of 1908 are not unique. Marxism itself, as a scientific world view, is going through a similar crisis today as was physics in 1908. Lenin's methods of analysis are as useful today as they were then.
Ever since the "Prague Spring" and the "Cultural Revolution" Marxism has been in crisis. The fall of the Soviet Union is but one consequence, not the cause. Like the 1908 crises in physics, the crisis in Marxism is one of relativism where old established ideas have been thrown aside by new historical events and no new consensus has emerged. Each national party has its own version and formerly despised views historically considered as revisionist, opportunist or products of bourgeois idealism are back on the agenda under new names and guises parading about as the latest interpretations of "scientific socialism."
To paraphrase Lenin, all the old truths of Marxism, including those which were regarded as firmly established and incontestable, prove to be relative truths, leading many to believe there can be no objective universally applicable Marxist principles and each national party is free to go its own way.
This is all the result of the breakdown of the international communist and workers movement as a result of World War II and its aftermath and the current weakness of the Marxist parties in the face of world imperialism. But there are signs of a new world historical shift to the left. Again, to paraphrase Lenin, this shift is being made and will be made by modern Marxists; but it is advancing towards the only true dialectical materialist philosophy and method of struggle by zig zags, not in a straight line, and instinctively not consciously, gropingly and unsteadily with no clear vision of the final conflict and goal, and oftentimes with its back to it.
We should keep all this in mind, and especially the need for theory and ideological struggle to strengthen the progressive movement and we should especially study the history of the movement over the last two centuries so that the errors of the past will not become the failures of the future.
Keep this in the forefront as we approach the end of Materialism and Empirio-criticism.
Next Up, we begin with Chapter Six.
Thomas Riggins is a retired philosophy teacher (NYU, The New School of Social Research, among others) who received a PhD from the CUNY Graduate Center (1983). He has been active in the civil rights and peace movements since the 1960s when he was chairman of the Young People's Socialist League at Florida State University and also worked for CORE in voter registration in north Florida (Leon County). He has written for many online publications such as People's World and Political Affairs where he was an associate editor. He also served on the board of the Bertrand Russell Society and was president of the Corliss Lamont chapter in New York City of the American Humanist Association.