Materialism and Empirio-criticism

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Materialism and Empirio-criticism (Russian: Материализм и эмпириокритицизм), or Materialism and Empirio-criticism. Critical Comments on a Reactionary Philosophy in full, is a work written by Vladimir Lenin in 1908 and published in 1909, the result of an immense amount of scientific research carried out by Lenin during nine months. He had to tone down some passages of the work so as not to give he tsarist censorship an excuse for prohibiting its publication. It was published in Russia under great difficulties, with Lenin insisting on the speedy issue of the book, stressing that “not only literary but also serious political obligations” were involved in its publication. This work has played a decisive part in combating the Machist revision of Marxism. It enabled the philosophical ideas of Marxism to spread widely among the mass of party members and helped the party activists and progressive workers to master dialectical and historical materialism.[1] Upon the establishment of the Soviet Union, it became an obligatory subject of study in all institutions of higher education,[2] as a seminal work of dialectical materialism, a part of the curriculum called "Marxist–Leninist Philosophy". Within this work, Lenin argued that human perceptions correctly and accurately reflect an objective external world, in a rejection of idealism.[3] Further, he formulates the fundamental philosophical contradiction between idealism and materialism as follows: "Materialism is the recognition of 'objects in themselves' or objects outside the mind; the ideas and sensations are copies or images of these objects. The opposite doctrine (idealism) says: the objects do not exist, outside the mind'; they are 'connections of sensations'."[4]


Chapter 1: The Theory of Knowledge of Empirio-Criticism and of Dialectical Materialism I

Lenin discusses the philosophical writings of Ernst Mach and Richard Avenarius on science and how they are "solipsistic".

He postulates that philosophy may be divided into one of two lines, the main criterion for the difference between them being how they each approach the relationship between sensations and things. Materialism asserts the primacy of a thing, and idealism the primacy of sensation. Positivism attempts to take a middle position, but just comes out as "confused idealism", disguised as realism. Engels is noted to be the representative of the "materialist line" in Anti-Dühring. To idealism Lenin attributes the views of the physicist Mach, who wrote The Analysis of Sensations); for whom things are "complexes of sensations" (that is, units of experience). At the same time, Machism is interpreted as "ruminated Berkeleyism", that is, a continuation of the philosophy of Bishop Berkeley, which Lenin characterizes to be of solipsism and subjective idealism. The term "empirio-criticism" (that is, criticism or analysis of experience) coincides in meaning with Machism, but is broader in scope, since it includes the teachings of Avenarius, Henri Poincaré, Pierre Duhem and Karl Pearson, as well as the empirio-monism of the "Russian Machist" Alexander Bogdanov.

Lenin then brings the materialism of Engels, Marx and Ludwig Feuerbach to the point of view of Denis Diderot. Idealism is regarded by him as a "mindless philosophy" because there "thought exists without a brain". Empirio-criticism (the newest variety of idealism) is branded as fideism, an "absurd and reactionary theory", "scientific-philosophical gibberish", "professorial nonsense" and "hopeless scholasticism". Materialism (as a point of view and a line in philosophy), according to Lenin, begins with the "recognition" or "acceptance" of the independence of the source of our sensations from our consciousness. This position is based on the "adamant belief" of the existence of the earth before man. Lenin admits that such a position is criticized by opponents as metaphysical for "going beyond the limits of experience".

Chapter 2: The Theory of Knowledge of Empirio-Criticism and of Dialectical Materialism II

Lenin, Viktor Chernov and Vladimir Bazarov confront the views of Ludwig Feuerbach, Joseph Dietzgen and Friedrich Engels and comment on the criterion of practice in epistemology.

The second chapter begins with an analysis of Chernov's attacks on Georgi Plekhanov for assuming matter to be a thing-in-itself. Lenin again returns to the distinction introduced by Engels between materialism and idealism, which have already been called "camps". He recalls the thesis of materialism about the existence of things, for example, of alizarin (a chemical compound) before consciousness. Further, Chernov's position is branded as "pretentious nonsense" and "ignorance". Following Engels, Lenin affirms the possibility of knowing things-in-themselves, contraposing materialism to agnosticism. Bazarov is criticized for the fact that Engels was for him, "processed by Mach, fried and served under Machian sauce". Lenin writes in a particularly ironic tone about "transcendence"; the transition from sensations to things, in which agnostics accuse materialists. Further, the agnosticism of Bogdanov is considered, who denied the objective nature of truth and saw in it only an "ideological form". Lenin criticizes this assertion, as it admits the possibility of different, contradicting truths. Here he gives his definition of matter as "an objective reality that is given to a person in his sensations". Materialism is brought up in regards to Democritus, and idealism to Plato. Lenin contraposes the relativism of modern idealists with dialectical materialism, which asserts the possibility of comprehending absolute truth. An example of truth is the thesis that Napoleon died on May 5, 1821. The criterion of an essence is thus demonstrated to be its practice.

Chapter 3: The Theory of Knowledge of Empirio-Criticism and of Dialectical Materialism III

Lenin seeks to define "matter" and "experience" and addresses the questions of causality and necessity in nature as well as "freedom and necessity" and the "principle of the economy of thought".

Here is analyzed Avenarius's work Critique of Pure Experience, where it is said that the notion of experience itself is adopted by both materialists and idealists. However, materialists such as Ludwig Feuerbach begin with the recognition of the "objective reality of the external world" and its laws. If agnostics such as Humists, Kantians, and Machians take experience as the primary given of knowledge, then Lenin sees in it "a simple reflection of nature". Lenin refers to the "great physicist and petty philosopher" Henri Poincaré as an agnostic, following this by describing cognition as the transformation of things-in-themselves into things for us.

Chapter 4: The Philosophical Idealists as Comrades-In-Arms and Successors of Empirio-Criticism

Lenin deals with left and right criticisms of Kant, with the philosophy of immanence, Bogdanov's empiri-monism, and the critique of Hermann von Helmholtz on the "theory of symbols".

The fourth chapter reveals the Kantian roots of empirio-criticism, in particular, the connection between Avenarius's Critique of Pure Experience and Kant's Critique of Pure Reason is indicated. The main difference between empirio-criticism is the rejection of the Kantian a priori and the assumption of the thing-in-itself, which, according to Lenin, returns this philosophy to Hume's agnosticism and Berkeleianism. Materialistic components such as the thing-in-itself are found in Kant's teaching itself, which allows Lenin to call the "new turn from Kant to agnosticism and idealism" reactionary; whereas "the school of Feuerbach, Marx and Engels went from Kant to the left, towards a complete rejection of all idealism and agnosticism". However, Lenin, referring to Engels, notes that agnosticism can play the role of "bashful materialism" (for example, in Thomas Huxley). Further, natural scientists are criticized, who despite being "the largest figures" in their field (such as Helmholtz), are very "inconsistent" in philosophy. Lenin even in the "dung heap of absolute idealism" finds the "pearl grain" of Hegel's dialectics, which allows contemporary dialectical materialism to rise above French materialism of the 18th century. In his methodology, Lenin introduces references to authorities (Marx, Engels, Lafargue, Mehring, Kautsky), declaring that his opponents also use authorities, only not socialist, but bourgeois. At the same time, authorities possess genius and perspicacity, as in Engels. If the representatives of their respective lines are consistent, then the adherents of the hostile camp are divided into "ardent" and "bashful".

Chapter 5: The Recent Revolution in Natural Science and Philosophical Idealism

Lenin deals with the thesis that "the crisis of physics" "has disappeared matter". In this context he speaks of a "physical idealism" and notes (on page 260): "For the only" property "of matter to whose acknowledgment philosophical materialism is bound is the property of being objective reality, outside of our consciousness".

This chapter is devoted to the "newest revolution in natural science" (at this time, X-rays, Becquerel rays, radium, the relationship of light and electricity), which contributes to the revival of philosophical idealism. In particular, there is a reference to The Values ​​of Science by Henri Poincaré, which says that the "electronic theory of matter" undermines the principles of conservation of matter and energy. As a result, physicists have the impression that “the atom is dematerialized”, into “matter that has disappeared”. However, Lenin asserts that it is not matter itself that disappears, but only some properties (mass, inertia, impenetrability) inherent in some of its states. Matter itself is an objective reality. In the latest discoveries, Lenin sees arguments in favor of dialectical materialism against the "confused" idealism. At the same time, Lenin insists on the relativity of the concept of "the essence" of a thing (electron or ether), but he distances himself from relativism and does not turn the same ether into a "working hypothesis" or "symbol". For example, "the sensation of red reflects fluctuations in the ether". The main criterion for distinguishing dialectical materialism from relativism is "unconditional recognition" (as opposition to "negation"). Deviations from this recognition become "quirks" and "rubbish".

Chapter 6: Empirio-Criticism and Historical Materialism

Lenin discusses authors such as Bogdanov, Sergei Suvorov, Ernst Haeckel and Ernst Mach. He also readdresses the question from Chapter 4: "From what side did N. G. Chernyshevsky criticize Kantianism?"

Lenin raises the topic of "partisanship" in philosophy. Lenin believes that Bogdanov's attempt to develop Marx constitutes a distortion, falsification, revision, retreat, contamination and rejection of Marxism. This approach expresses the principle of partisanship, when a philosophical trend turns into a military camp, requiring "restraint" in the fight against the opposite direction. Any compromise and reconciliation in this situation turns out to be a slide into the “despicable party of the middle”.


  1. Materialism and Empirio-criticism
  2. Rockmore, Tom; Levine, Norman, eds. (2018). "Lenin and Stalin: Theory and Politics". The Palgrave Handbook of Leninist Political Philosophy. Springer.
  3. Bakhurst, David (2018). "On Lenin's Materialism and empiriocriticism" (PDF). Studies in East European Thought. 70 (2–3, 28 June 2018): 107–119. doi:10.1007/s11212-018-9303-7.
  4. W. I. Lenin: Materialism and empirio-criticism. Critical remarks about a reactionary philosophy. Publisher for foreign language literature, Moscow 1947. Page 14.