Section 2: Materialism

As to Marxist philosophical materialism, it is fundamentally the direct opposite of philosophical idealism.

The principal features of Marxist philosophical materialism are as follows:

a) Materialist

Contrary to idealism, which regards the world as the embodiment of an “absolute idea,” a “universal spirit,” “consciousness,” Marx’s philosophical materialism holds that the world is by its very nature material, that the multifold phenomena of the world constitute different forms of matter in motion, that interconnection and interdependence of phenomena as established by the dialectical method, are a law of the development of moving matter, and that the world develops in accordance with the laws of movement of matter and stands in no need of a “universal spirit.”

“The materialistic outlook on nature,” says Engels, “means no more than simply conceiving nature just as it exists, without any foreign admixture.” (Marx and Engels, Vol. XIV, p. 651.)

Speaking of the materialist views of the ancient philosopher Heraclitus, who held that “the world, the all in one, was not created by any god or any man, but was, is and ever will be a living flame, systematically flaring up and systematically dying down”‘ Lenin comments: “A very good exposition of the rudiments of dialectical materialism.” (Lenin, Philosophical Notebooks, p. 318.)

b) Objective Reality

Contrary to idealism, which asserts that only our consciousness really exists, and that the material world, being, nature, exists only in our consciousness’ in our sensations, ideas and perceptions, the Marxist philosophical materialism holds that matter, nature, being, is an objective reality existing outside and independent of our consciousness; that matter is primary, since it is the source of sensations, ideas, consciousness, and that consciousness is secondary, derivative, since it is a reflection of matter, a reflection of being; that thought is a product of matter which in its development has reached a high degree of perfection, namely, of the brain, and the brain is the organ of thought; and that therefore one cannot separate thought from matter without committing a grave error. Engels says:

“The question of the relation of thinking to being, the relation of spirit to nature is the paramount question of the whole of philosophy…. The answers which the philosophers gave to this question split them into two great camps. Those who asserted the primacy of spirit to nature … comprised the camp of idealism. The others, who regarded nature as primary, belong to the various schools of materialism.” (Marx, Selected Works, Vol. I, p. 329.)

And further:

“The material, sensuously perceptible world to which we ourselves belong is the only reality…. Our consciousness and thinking, however supra-sensuous they may seem, are the product of a material, bodily organ, the brain. Matter is not a product of mind, but mind itself is merely the highest product of matter.” (Ibid., p. 332.)

Concerning the question of matter and thought, Marx says:

It is impossible to separate thought from matter that thinks. Matter is the subject of all changes.” (Ibid., p. 302.)

Describing Marxist philosophical materialism, Lenin says:

“Materialism in general recognizes objectively real being (matter) as independent of consciousness, sensation, experience…. Consciousness is only the reflection of being, at best an approximately true (adequate, perfectly exact) reflection of it.” (Lenin, Vol. XIII, pp. 266-67.)

And further:

– “Matter is that which, acting upon our sense-organs, produces sensation; matter is the objective reality given to us in sensation…. Matter, nature, being, the physical-is primary, and spirit, consciousness, sensation, the psychical-is secondary.” (Ibid., pp. 119-20.)

– “The world picture is a picture of how matter moves and of how ‘matter thinks.'” (Ibid., p. 288.)

– “The brain is the organ of thought.” (Ibid., p. 125.)

c) The World and Its Laws Are Knowable

Contrary to idealism, which denies the possibility of knowing the world and its laws, which does not believe in the authenticity of our knowledge, does not recognize objective truth, and holds that the world is full of “things-in-themselves” that can never be known to science, Marxist philosophical materialism holds that the world and its laws are fully knowable, that our knowledge of the laws of nature, tested by experiment and practice, is authentic knowledge having the validity of objective truth, and that there are no things in the world which are unknowable, but only things which are as yet not known, but which will be disclosed and made known by the efforts of science and practice.

Criticizing the thesis of Kant and other idealists that the world is unknowable and that there are “things-in-themselves” which are unknowable, and defending the well-known materialist thesis that our knowledge is authentic knowledge, Engels writes:

“The most telling refutation of this as of all other philosophical crotchets is practice, namely, experiment and industry. If we are able to prove the correctness of our conception of a natural process by making it ourselves, bringing it into being out of its conditions and making it serve our own purposes into the bargain, then there is an end to the Kantian ungraspable ‘thing-in-itself.’ The chemical substances produced in the bodies of plants and animals remained such ‘things-in-themselves’ until organic chemistry began to produce them one after another, whereupon the ‘thing-in-itself’ became a thing for us, as, for instance, alizarin, the coloring matter of the madder, which we no longer trouble to grow ill the madder roots in the field, but produce much more cheaply and simply from coal tar. For 300 years the Copernican solar system was a hypothesis with a hundred, a thousand or ten thousand chances to one in its favor, but still always a hypothesis. But when Leverrier, by means of the data provided by this system, not only deduced the necessity of the existence of an unknown planet, but also calculated the position in the heavens which this planet must necessarily occupy, and when Galle really found this planet, the Copernican system was proved.” (Marx, Selected Works, Vol. I, p. 330.)

Accusing Bogdanov, Bazarov, Yushkevich and the other followers of Mach of fideism (a reactionary theory, which prefers faith to science) and defending the well-known materialist thesis that our scientific knowledge of the laws of nature is authentic knowledge, and that the laws of science represent objective truth, Lenin says:

“Contemporary fideism does not at all reject science; all it rejects is the ‘exaggerated claims’ of science, to wit, its claim to objective truth. If objective truth exists (as the materialists think), if natural science, reflecting the outer world in human ‘experience,’ is alone capable of giving us objective truth, then all fideism is absolutely refuted.” (Lenin, Vol. XIII, p. 102.)

Such, in brief, are the characteristic features of the Marxist philosophical materialism.

It is easy to understand how immensely important is the extension of the principles of philosophical materialism to the study of social life, of the history of society, and how immensely important is the application of these principles to the history of society and to the practical activities of the party of the proletariat.

If the connection between the phenomena of nature and their interdependence are laws of the development of nature, it follows, too, that the connection and interdependence of the phenomena of social life are laws of the development of society, and not something accidental.

Hence, social life, the history of society, ceases to be an agglomeration of “accidents”, for the history of society becomes a development of society according to regular laws, and the study of the history of society becomes a science.

Hence, the practical activity of the party of the proletariat must not be based on the good wishes of “outstanding individuals.” not on the dictates of “reason,” “universal morals,” etc., but on the laws of development of society and on the study of these laws.

Further, if the world is knowable and our knowledge of the laws of development of nature is authentic knowledge, having the validity of objective truth, it follows that social life, the development of society, is also knowable, and that the data of science regarding the laws of development of society are authentic data having the validity of objective truths.

Hence, the science of the history of society, despite all the complexity of the phenomena of social life, can become as precise a science as, let us say, biology, and capable of making use of the laws of development of society for practical purposes.

Hence, the party of the proletariat should not guide itself in its practical activity by casual motives, but by the laws of development of society, and by practical deductions from these laws.

Hence, socialism is converted from a dream of a better future for humanity into a science.

Hence, the bond between science and practical activity, between theory and practice, their unity, should be the guiding star of the party of the proletariat.

Further, if nature, being, the material world, is primary, and consciousness, thought, is secondary, derivative; if the material world represents objective reality existing independently of the consciousness of men, while consciousness is a reflection of this objective reality, it follows that the material life of society, its being, is also primary, and its spiritual life secondary, derivative, and that the material life of society is an objective reality existing independently of the will of men, while the spiritual life of society is a reflection of this objective reality, a reflection of being.

Hence, the source of formation of the spiritual life of society, the origin of social ideas, social theories, political views and political institutions, should not be sought for in the ideas, theories, views and political institutions themselves, but in the conditions of the material life of society, in social being, of which these ideas, theories, views, etc., are the reflection.

Hence, if in different periods of the history of society different social ideas, theories, views and political institutions are to be observed; if under the slave system we encounter certain social ideas, theories, views and political institutions, under feudalism others, and under capitalism others still, this is not to be explained by the “nature”, the “properties” of the ideas, theories, views and political institutions themselves but by the different conditions of the material life of society at different periods of social development.

Whatever is the being of a society, whatever are the conditions of material life of a society, such are the ideas, theories political views and political institutions of that society.

In this connection, Marx says:

“It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.” (Marx Selected Works, Vol. I, p. 269.)

Hence, in order not to err in policy, in order not to find itself in the position of idle dreamers, the party of the proletariat must not base its activities on abstract “principles of human reason”, but on the concrete conditions of the material life of society, as the determining force of social development; not on the good wishes of “great men,” but on the real needs of development of the material life of society.

The fall of the utopians, including the Narodniks, anarchists and Socialist-Revolutionaries, was due, among other things to the fact that they did not recognize the primary role which the conditions of the material life of society play in the development of society, and, sinking to idealism, did not base their practical activities on the needs of the development of the material life of society, but, independently of and in spite of these needs, on “ideal plans” and “all-embracing projects”, divorced from the real life of society.

The strength and vitality of Marxism-Leninism lies in the fact that it does base its practical activity on the needs of the development of the material life of society and never divorces itself from the real life of society.

It does not follow from Marx’s words, however, that social ideas, theories, political views and political institutions are of no significance in the life of society, that they do not reciprocally affect social being, the development of the material conditions of the life of society. We have been speaking so far of the origin of social ideas, theories, views and political institutions, of the way they arise, of the fact that the spiritual life of society is a reflection of the conditions of its material life. As regards the significance of social ideas, theories, views and political institutions, as regards their role in history, historical materialism, far from denying them, stresses the important role and significance of these factors in the life of society, in its history.

There are different kinds of social ideas and theories. There are old ideas and theories which have outlived their day and which serve the interests of the moribund forces of society. Their significance lies in the fact that they hamper the development, the progress of society. Then there are new and advanced ideas and theories which serve the interests of the advanced forces of society. Their significance lies in the fact that they facilitate the development, the progress of society; and their significance is the greater the more accurately they reflect the needs of development of the material life of society.

New social ideas and theories arise only after the development of the material life of society has set new tasks before society. But once they have arisen they become a most potent force which facilitates the carrying out of the new tasks set by the development of the material life of society, a force which facilitates the progress of society. It is precisely here that the tremendous organizing, mobilizing and transforming value of new ideas, new theories, new political views and new political institutions manifests itself. New social ideas and theories arise precisely because they are necessary to society, because it is impossible to carry out the urgent tasks of development of the material life of society without their organizing, mobilizing and transforming action. Arising out of the new tasks set by the development of the material life of society, the new social ideas and theories force their way through, become the possession of the masses, mobilize and organize them against the moribund forces of society, and thus facilitate the overthrow of these forces, which hamper the development of the material life of society.

Thus social ideas, theories and political institutions, having arisen on the basis of the urgent tasks of the development of the material life of society, the development of social being, themselves then react upon social being, upon the material life of society, creating the conditions necessary for completely carrying out the urgent tasks of the material life of society, and for rendering its further development possible.

In this connection, Marx says:

“Theory becomes a material force as soon as it has gripped the masses.” (Marx and Engels, Vol. I, p. 406.)

Hence, in order to be able to influence the conditions of material life of society and to accelerate their development and their improvement, the party of the proletariat must rely upon such a social theory, such a social idea as correctly reflects the needs of development of the material life of society, and which is therefore capable of setting into motion broad masses of the people and of mobilizing them and organizing them into a great army of the proletarian party, prepared to smash the reactionary forces and to clear the way for the advanced forces of society.

The fall of the “Economists” and the Mensheviks was due, among other things, to the fact that they did not recognize the mobilizing, organizing and transforming role of advanced theory, of advanced ideas and, sinking to vulgar materialism, reduced the role of these factors almost to nothing, thus condemning the Party to passivity and inanition.

The strength and vitality of Marxism-Leninism is derived from the fact that it relies upon an advanced theory which correctly reflects the needs of development of the material life of society, that it elevates theory to a proper level, and that it deems it its duty to utilize every ounce of the mobilizing, organizing and transforming power of this theory.

That is the answer historical materialism gives to the question of the relation between social being and social consciousness, between the conditions of development of material life and the development of the spiritual life of society.

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Questions for Study and Discussion on Marxist Philosophical Materialism

Q 13 Of what, according to philosophical materialism, does the world consist?

Q 14 What general difference is there between the idealist and materialist conceptions of the human mind?

Q 15 What is matter?

Q 16 What, according to materialists, is a valid test of our knowledge of the laws of nature? Give some concrete examples of this test being applied.

Q 17 On what must the practical activity of the party of the proletariat be based?

Q 18 On what basis can it be claimed that “socialism” is a science?

Q 19 “… the material life of society, its being, is … primary, …”. What do you think is meant by the “material life” of society?

Q 20 What is the origin of the social and political ideas in any society?

Q 21 Mention some social and political ideas that have clearly originated within capitalist society.

Q 22 Give some examples of social and political ideas that have had a great impact on modern societies.

Q 23 Which ideas are hampering the development of contemporary societies and which ideas are facilitating their development?

Q 24 What gives rise to new social ideas and theories?

Q 25 Why does the party of the proletariat need a social theory? Which is the appropriate social theory?

Link to: Answers to Section 2: Materialism