CHAPTER SIX: EMPIRIO-CRITICISM AND HISTORICAL MATERIALISM
The Russian Machists comprise two groups. The first is made up of conservatives and reactionaries grouped around V. Chernov (already discussed), and the other group is made up of "would be Marxists" who think they can harmonize the philosophy of Avenarius and Mach with that of Marx and Engels. Lenin, in this chapter, will show that this is a hopeless task.
SECTION ONE: THE EXCURSIONS OF THE GERMAN EMPIRIO-CRITICISTS INTO THE FIELD OF THE SOCIAL SCIENCES
Lenin begins by discussing an 1895 article by a disciple of Avenarius named Franz Blei [1871-1942], "Metaphysics in Political Economy." Among other things the article maintains that Marxism is metaphysical because of its belief in "materialism" and "objective" truth and "that there was indeed nothing behind the Marxist teaching save the 'subjective' views of Marx."
Lenin has no doubt that the party members, remember Bogdanov was a Bolshevik leader, flirting with Machism will reject Blei's version of Marxism. But, says Lenin, "You must not blame the mirror for showing a crooked face." Blie gives a true reflection of the social views of his movement. Rejecting his views would show the "good intentions" of the Russian "Marxist" Machists, but would show even better "their absurd eclectical endeavors to combine Marx and Avenarius."
The next Machist Lenin looks at is Petzoldt, whom we have seen before. He has a philosophy of "stability" which is based on "human nature." The tendency is for humanity to attain a state of "stability." This conflict free state will come about on its own by the operations of human nature. It cannot be brought about by socialism. But "moral progress" towards this stability and equality can be seen in our  time. Wages are going up for workers and profits are going down, and there is the foundation of the Salvation Army (!) all of which is evidence for Petzoldt's views! Lenin says this is just "hackneyed rubbish" and represents not a scientific understanding of social science but the "infinite stupidity of the philistine." Now it is time to look at the Russian Machists.
SECTION TWO: HOW BOGDANOV CORRECTS AND "DEVELOPS" MARX
Bogdanov wrote an article in 1902 in which he quotes the famous passage from Marx's introduction to Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy about consciousness being a reflection of material reality. Bogdanov then concludes, “Social being and social consciousness are, in the exact meaning of these terms, identical." Lenin thinks this is nonsense.
In complex societies, and especially in capitalism, people are not conscious of their social being. Thomas Frank's book, What is the Matter with Kansas, is an example of that. What Marx says is that social consciousness reflects social being. But just what does this mean? Lenin says, "A reflection may be an approximately true copy of the reflected, but to speak of identity is absurd. Consciousness in general reflects being-- that is a general thesis of all materialism."
I hate to say it, but there seems to be a problem with this formulation. Does it account for false consciousness? Working people voting for Republicans, or even Democrats for that matter, are not manifesting a consciousness that reflects their actual social being as cogs in the capitalist machine. What is the distorting mechanism and how does it supervene to block even an "approximately true copy of the reflected"? At any rate, Bogdanov is certainly wrong to be talking about an identity relation between reality and its reflection.
Lenin says Bogdanov's formulation is based on the idealism inherent in the Machist position that outer reality is the same as the sensations we have of it: that outer reality is in fact sensation. "Sense-perception is the reality existing outside us" as Bazarov puts it.
Bogdanov wants to be a good Marxist; Lenin says Bogdanov minus Machism "is a Marxist," but is hampered by his idealist deviations. With regard to Machism: "If certain people reconcile it with Marxism, with Marxist behaviour, we must admit that these people are better than their theory, but we must not justify outrageous theoretical distortions of Marxism."
Social production was complex in Marx's day and is even more complex today. Actions of producers in Iowa can have effects on people in Africa. The world economy of capitalism is so vast and interconnected that no one can know all that is going on. Even "seventy Marxes," Lenin says, could not grasp it. But Marx has discovered the objective laws that govern the development of capitalism, and this is the most important thing.
Once we understand this we understand "the highest task of humanity." And what is this task? It is to understand these objective laws, Lenin says "to comprehend this objective logic of economic evolution," so that we conform our social consciousness to this logic and the social consciousness "of the advanced classes of all capitalist countries." This is a task, I fear, we are woefully deficient at in the present social environment of capitalism.
Bogdanov and the Russian Marxists did not contribute to this task when they, whatever their good intentions, mixed up reactionary bourgeois idealism with Marxism. Historical materialism sees social being (here the capitalist process) as independent of human consciousness which reflects it with greater or lesser precision. The philosophy of Marx and Engels "is cast from a single piece of steel, you cannot eliminate one basic premise, one essential part, without departing from objective truth, without falling prey to bourgeois-reactionary falsehood." Is this too strong a statement? Is Lenin too fundamentalist? Or is this correct and far too many so-called Marxists, even in our own day, have fallen into a similar stance as that of Bogdanov? I don't mean being "Machist" but are they eliminating a fundamental pillar of Marxism (the dictatorship of the proletariat, the labor aristocracy, class struggle, democratic centralism, internationalism, etc.,) and expecting the house to remain standing?
Bogdanov's desire to "update" Marxism is not based on any real empirical analysis of the facts. In fact, Lenin says, he "is not engaged in a Marxist enquiry at all; all he is doing is to reclothe results already obtained by this enquiry in a biological and energeticist terminology. The whole attempt is worthless from beginning to end...."
At the close of this section Lenin makes some interesting comments about Marx and Engels that are certainly relevant today. He says that for Marx "the transfer of biological concepts in general to the sphere of the social sciences is phrase-mongering.” This is certainly true of social Darwinism, but what about modern attempts to do this? Has science advanced to where this is no longer phrase-mongering? I am thinking of sociobiology, evolutionary psychology and neuroscientific explanations being applied to the social sciences.
While Lenin has spent most of the time in MEC discussing epistemology, he nevertheless says that, as Marx and Engels transcended Feuerbach, they emphasized not materialist epistemology (which they certainly believed in) but rather "the materialist conception of history." He says they put the stress "rather on dialectical materialism than on dialectical materialism and insisted on historical materialism rather than on historical materialism.”
The Russian Machists have been confused by their embracement of empirio-criticism which is more interested in spreading an idealistic form of epistemology than it is in thinking seriously about the problems of historical materialism. This leads to the falsification of Marxism by non-materialist doctrines and is also a "characteristic feature of modern revisionism in political economy, in questions of tactics [especially in a possible tendency to confuse tactics and strategy--tr] and in philosophy generally, equally in epistemology and in sociology."
SECTION THREE: SUVOROV'S "FOUNDATIONS OF SOCIAL PHILOSOPHY"
This section is about an essay by S. A. Suvorov that appeared in the collection Studies 'in' the Philosophy of Marxism which book we have discussed before. Lenin heaps scorn on Suvorov for making up new terms for already existing aspects of historical materialism developed by Marx, and using biological examples to try and illustrate social phenomena. Suvorov would be making what today we call a "category mistake." Suvorov's essay is so out of date and behind the times we need not spend any more time on it. The book it appeared in was a collection by all of the usual Russian Machist suspects and elicited from Lenin the comment that "we arrive at the inevitable conclusion that there is an inseparable connection between reactionary epistemology and reactionary efforts in sociology."
Next Up: Section 4 of this chapter.
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.