Skip to main content

Defending materialism: Lenin the philosopher

NICK MATTHEWS looks at the great Bolshevik leader’s intense three-week period of furious study in the British Library in 1908 and the timeless classic on Marxism and philosophy it produced: Materialism and Empirio-Criticism

LIKE many of the participants in the Marx Memorial Library symposium Lenin in Britain, held earlier this year (available on the MML website), I learned something new about Lenin.

The session I found particularly fascinating was the one by Robert Henderson. Robert was the former curator of the Russian collections at the British Library and his assiduous detective work in the library archives has helped map what Lenin spent his time doing during his six visits to London between 1902 and 1911.

The title of Robert’s excellent book, The Spark that Lit the Revolution, alludes to the fact that Lenin in 1902 had produced the Bolshevik newspaper Iskra (The Spark) at what was then the Twentieth Century Press at 37a Clerkenwell Green. This was despite the challenges of communication with Robert Quelch, editor of the Social-Democratic Federation journals Justice and Social Democrat. Lenin’s English was as poor as Quelch’s Russian.  

Since Henderson’s book was published in 2022, he has uncovered yet more information about Lenin’s time in London, which made his talk particularly memorable. Lenin spent an inordinate amount of his time in the British Museum the then-home of the British Library. I found myself becoming particularly fascinated by the time Lenin spent in the library in 1908.

That year on May 22 he signed the library admissions book and spent three solid weeks devouring a range of books on philosophy, history, and economics. Henderson points out that proof of Lenin’s industriousness comes from an unusual source.  

The Poet Laureate John Masefield said: “I often saw him in the British Museum reading room and always said to myself ‘I wonder who that extraordinary man is’, for anyone must have seen he was an extraordinary man, certain to make his mark on the world.”

Lenin consulted some 200 publications during this time, the end result of this deep study appeared in print the following year, as Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, Critical Comments on a Reactionary Philosophy.   

It shows the importance of philosophy to the early movement that Lenin took the time to produce an almost 400-page critique of empirio-criticism. Indeed Lenin was remarkably abusive of his opponents, he refers to them as “pettifoggers,” “fleacrackers” and “buffoons of bourgeois science.”

It may be surprising, but in the late 19th century Marxism had particular traction in Russia among the working class and the intelligentsia. The movement in Russia had a deep seriousness about philosophy and a tendency towards holistic thinking. Philosophy was not considered to be politically neutral.

It was in this context that Lenin was disturbed by the outbreak of a “Machist revisionism” of Marxism in his own party. The man Lenin was taking on was no intellectual slouch. Ernst Mach (1838-1916) was an Austrian-Czech physicist and philosopher, who contributed to the physics of shock waves.

The ratio of the speed of a flow or object to that of sound is named the Mach number in his honour. As a philosopher of science, he was a major influence on logical positivism and US pragmatism. Through his criticism of Newton’s theories of space and time, he foreshadowed Einstein’s theory of relativity.

From 1895 to 1901, Mach held a newly created chair for “the history and philosophy of the inductive sciences” at the University of Vienna. In his historico-philosophical studies, Mach developed a phenomenalistic philosophy of science.

He saw scientific laws as summaries of experimental events, constructed for the purpose of making complex data comprehensible, but later emphasised mathematical functions as a more useful way to describe sensory appearances. Thus, scientific laws, while somewhat idealised, have more to do with describing sensations than with reality as it exists beyond sensations.

For Lenin, this was “quasi-scientific tomfoolery.” However, setting aside Lenin’s colourful language there is a powerful argument in his book. While no professional philosopher, Lenin took it very seriously and set it in the context of the crisis in the natural sciences of the time that was profoundly philosophical.

Lenin became aware that something different was demanded of Marxism than the previous period had demanded of Marx and Engels. The perception was that modern physics had exposed science as merely a convenient fiction, a process of symbolisation. Opposing this, Lenin welcomed the new scientific discoveries but opposed what he saw as the reactionary philosophical implications that were being drawn from them.

Lenin could see that the majority of scientists were natural materialists. The evidence had demonstrated that the earth had existed prior to man thereby assuming the primacy of matter and therefore sensation and thought as secondary.

If you are interested in these arguments, they are wonderfully articulated in Helena Sheehan’s marvellous 1983 book Marxism and the Philosophy of Science: A Critical History (republished by Verso in 2017). Helena is a great guide to the arguments and the narrative moves quickly despite her getting into the trenches to argue with the protagonists.

Indeed she writes a splendid introduction to the recent reprint of Lenin’s book (International Publishers 2022): “So, what is the enduring value of this book? The integrality of approach is its outstanding feature, insisting on the essential and crucial connection between philosophy and politics.

“Both before and after the revolution, even in a rush of events of immediate and world-historical consequence, Lenin always found time to address philosophical debates as the deeper grounding for thinking through everything else.

He stressed the necessity of the defence of materialism and realism against all challenges that would erode the basis for the long and hard struggle on all fronts that would create a socialist future. We still need that approach in our own times.”


We're a reader-owned co-operative, which means you can become part of the paper too by buying shares in the People’s Press Printing Society.



Become a supporter

Fighting fund

You've Raised:£ 6,509
We need:£ 11,492
16 Days remaining
Donate today