Materialism and Empiriocriticism: Critical Comments on a Reactionary

Materialism and Empiriocriticism: Critical Comments on a Reactionary Philosophy


one of V. I. Lenin’s basic philosophical works, written in 1908 and first published in 1909. The book was written during the period of reaction brought on by the defeat of the Revolution of 1905–07. At that time the defense of dialectical and historical materialism against revisionist attacks and the refutation of the philosophy of empiriocriticism were urgent political and theoretical tasks for Marxists, inasmuch as some Social Democrats were trying to replace the Marxist world view with the idealist philosophy of empiriocriticism. Lenin gave a thorough critique of the philosophy of empiriocriticism (Machism), neo Kantianism, and pragmatism and defended and developed dialectical and historical materialism, summarizing, from a materialist standpoint, the scientific achievements after the death of Engels. Lenin’s work marked a new stage in the development of Marxist philosophy.

Of great importance was Lenin’s elaboration of the basic question of philosophy and his definition of the concept of matter as “a philosophical category denoting objective reality which is given to man by his sensations, and which is copied, photographed, and reflected by our sensations, while existing independently of them” (Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 18, p. 131). This formulation also contains a general definition of consciousness, interpreted as a reflection of matter. Lenin’s definition of matter does not depend on the recognition that certain qualities studied by natural science, such as mass, inertia or impenetrability, belong to matter as its general and universal attributes. His definition, therefore, is flexible, and no discovery of previously unknown or unexpected qualities in matter can come into conflict with the basic principles of dialectical materialism. In considering the second aspect of the basic question of philosophy— whether the world is knowable—Lenin emphasized that it was inseparable from the first aspect. Recognizing that matter is primary and consciousness secondary, a consistent materialist must inevitably recognize that matter is unconditionally knowable.

Lenin revealed the dialectics of the absolute and relative in solving the problem of the correlation between matter and mind. In resolving the basic question of philosophy, matter is contrasted with consciousness. Lenin pointed out, however, that “the antithesis of matter and mind has absolute significance only within the bounds of a very limited field: in this case exclusively within the bounds of the fundamental epistemological problem of what is to be regarded as primary and what as secondary. Beyond these bounds the relative character of this antithesis is indubitable” (ibid, p. 151). Nevertheless, Lenin emphatically warned against abolishing this antithesis entirely. He argued that the fact of the reality of mind and of its actual existence does not give us the right to identify mind with matter or to regard thought as being material. Lenin revealed the basic aspects of matter, its fundamental and universal attributes. These are, first, the attribute of reflection, inherent in all matter and related to, but not identical with, sensation, which is inherent only in matter organized in a special way. The second aspect is the inexhaustibility of matter in any of its forms, its infinity in depth. He criticized the conception of sensations as hieroglyphs, symbols, or conventional signs.

Lenin developed the Marxist doctrine of truth, revealing the relation between objective, relative, and absolute truth. He showed that pre-Marxist materialism and philosophical relativism interpreted truth metaphysically. Pre-Marxist materialism failed to understand the relation between absolute and relative; the absolute nature of truth was thought to exclude completely its relative quality. Philosophical relativism counterposed the relativity of truth to its objectivity and dogmatically asserted that the relative aspect of knowledge absolutely excludes objectivity. In actuality, objective truth appears in the form of relative truth and contains elements of absolute truth.

In Materialism and Empiriocriticism, Lenin enriched Marxist teachings on the role of practice in the theory of knowledge. Emphasizing the great importance of theoretical thought in knowledge, Lenin formulated the proposition that there is an inseparable tie between the dialectical-materialist theory of knowledge and practical activity, emphasizing that “the standpoint of life, of practice, should be first and fundamental in the theory of knowledge” (ibid, p. 145), that the criterion of practice must be included as fundamental in the theory of knowledge. Lenin criticized the distortion of the criterion of practice, which is found, for example, in pragmatism. He disclosed the contradictory nature of the criterion of practice: on the one hand, it has a certain “indefiniteness,” making it impossible to fully confirm or refute a particular scientific concept and thus preventing scientific knowledge from becoming a frozen absolute; on the other hand, it is definite enough to allow scientific views to be differentiated from nonscientific ones and “to wage a ruthless fight against all varieties of idealism and agnosticism” (ibid, p. 146).

Lenin also developed further a number of basic categories of dialectical materialism in this work. In discussing motion, he especially emphasized its inseparability from matter and the need to find the material bearer of motion in all cases in which new, as yet unexamined forms of motion are discovered. In his analysis of the categories of space and time he stressed that the motion of matter can occur only in space and time.

In analyzing the category of causality Lenin showed that with the advance of science this concept changed, becoming more precise and profound. But the changeability and relativity of our concepts does not mean that causality is not rooted in the objective nature of things. Lenin showed that it is inadmissible to replace the question of the source of our concepts of causality with the question of the relativity and changeability of these concepts and with the question of how accurately the law of causality is formulated. Criticizing the idealists’ claims that the mind is capable of creating universal forms of matter’s existence or of dictating laws to nature, Lenin showed that a basic idea common to Hume and Kant consists in the denial of nature’s conformity to objective laws, in the derivation of principles, postulates, or premises from the subject, the human mind. The difference between Hume’s viewpoint (“sensation, experience tell us nothing about necessity”) and the Kantian-Machist formula (“man prescribes laws to nature”) is a secondary difference between agnostics who are basically alike in their denial of the existence of objective laws in nature.

In Materialism and Empiriocriticism, Lenin examined the new achievements in science and drew materialist conclusions from them. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries the natural sciences were undergoing a period of revolutionary change. The latest scientific discoveries had invalidated old metaphysical notions about the indivisibility of the atom, the immutability of the chemical elements, and the constancy of mass. The collapse of old scientific principles and the discovery of new aspects of the material world were regarded by some physicists as a crisis, the “disappearance of matter,” and they repudiated materialism. The “crisis of physics,” as Lenin described it, consisted in a turn toward idealism of a number of physicists (Lenin called their philosophical views “physical idealism”) at a time when old concepts had been suddenly demolished under the impact of new discoveries.

In his book Lenin revealed the social and epistemological roots of “physical idealism” and showed that conditions in the capitalist states prevented scientists from grasping the only scientific world view—dialectical materialism. The physicists “strayed” into idealism primarily because they did not know dialectics and therefore were “unable to rise directly and at once from metaphysical materialism to dialectical materialism” (ibid., p. 331). One of the reasons for the rise of “physical idealism,” Lenin pointed out, was the mathematicization of physical concepts. By making it possible to express scientific laws in the form of mathematical equations, from which deductions could be made that were verifiable in experience, scientific achievements created the illusion among some scientists that reason could dictate its laws to nature, that “’matter disappears,’ only equations remain” (ibid, p. 326). Another reason was the failure to understand the relation between the relative and the absolute in knowledge and the elevation of the relativity of our knowledge to the level of a “principle of relativism.” Without knowledge of dialectics, this principle 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” (ibid, p. 327). In analyzing the question of whether scientific theories are reflections of objective reality or, as the “physical” idealists asserted, merely conventional signs, symbols, and arbitrary products of human reason, Lenin successfully refuted the attempts of the physical idealists to deny the objectivity of scientific knowledge.

Lenin’s analysis of the crisis in physics and its solutions has a general significance applicable to natural science as a whole. It dealt a crushing blow to “physiological idealism,” which affirmed that sensations are not a reflection of the external world and thus slipped into a denial of objective reality.

One of the most important points in Lenin’s book is his proof that natural science is not impartial, not “neutral” in the struggle between the basic philosophical tendencies, the struggle between materialism and idealism. Lenin strongly refuted the bourgeois philosophers’ assertion that natural science was nonpartisan in the philosophical struggle.

Lenin showed that despite the efforts of the Machists and despite the idealist errors of certain scientists, even prominent ones, idealism would not succeed in turning natural science away from the materialist path. The principles of materialism lie at the basis of all natural science. The instinctive, philosophically unexamined belief of the overwhelming majority of scientists in the existence of objective reality and in the objective truth of knowledge Lenin termed natural-historical materialism.

Analyzing the general direction of the development of natural science, Lenin drew a conclusion of great theoretical and practical importance: natural science not only broadens and strengthens natural-historical materialism but also moves steadily toward a higher and more consistent form of materialism, dialectical materialism; this transition to dialectical materialism has become inevitable. “Modern physics is in travail; it is giving birth to dialectical materialism” (ibid, p. 332). And this applies not only to physics but to all natural science. The development of modern science has fully confirmed Lenin’s tenet.

In his book Lenin criticized the idealism of the Machists on questions of knowledge about society and further developed historical materialism. He exposed the reactionary nature of the biological theories of society and showed that the Machists, with their pretentious and empty energetistic and biological verbiage, wanted to conceal the irreconcilable class contradictions in capitalist society and to prove that this society would achieve total peace and prosperity by virtue of people’s “psychological tendency toward stability.” Lenin strongly criticized the views of the Russian Machists, notably, A. A. Bogdanov, S. A. Suvorov, and B. A. Bazarov, who had distorted historical materialism. He considered Bogdanov’s “theory” of the identity of social being and social consciousness to be absurd and sharply criticized Suvorov for calling the class struggle a negative, antisocial phenomenon. Lenin stressed that in Marxist philosophy, “which 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” (ibid., p. 346).

Lenin’s Materialism and Empiriocriticism is a model of militant Marxist partiinost’ (party-mindedness), of irreconcilable struggle against every deviation from revolutionary Marxism and for the communist world view. “Recent philosophy,” wrote Lenin, “is as partisan as was philosophy two thousand years ago. The contending parties are essentially … materialism and idealism” (ibid., p. 380). In contrast to the philosophical revisionists, who in his words were swimming “in the wake of bourgeois professorial ’science’ “(ibid., vol. 17, p. 1), Lenin showed that Marxist philosophy is the militant science of the revolutionary transformation of society and that it expresses the fundamental interests of the working class.

Lenin’s book is of great importance internationally. It is used by Marxist-Leninist parties in their struggle against contemporary revisionism and serves the great goal of the revolutionary transformation of the world. The work has exerted considerable influence on the development of natural science and has helped many scientists in Western countries arrive at a dialectical materialist position.


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