Everything was better in the past, even the left-wing extremists: Lenin produced philosophical treatises, organised a clandestine political party to seize power in Russia, generated innumerable political tracts, made speeches, formulated economic positions, cut deals, commanded a country in war, and edited a newspaper. It is hard to imagine an activist figure in the 21st century—a cell leader in Extinction Rebellion, for example—engaged in a similar breadth of activism and erudition. They have almost certainly not given much thought to philosophy, other than a few fridge magnet quotes from Gandhi, perhaps.
Indeed, if you asked a politician from any political party whether they think there is an external world that exists independently of the mind, I doubt you would receive a coherent answer; they would probably say that they follow the latest scientific studies on the matter. Few would have delved so deep as to consider whether the various philosophical standpoints gel with their political projects, though most would be aware that “epistemology” is a high-status word and would probably be prepared to deploy it—often extensively—in a display to demonstrate that they are smart. In this respect, Lenin, for all his demerits, appears as a striding genius and subtle philosopher-king when compared to today’s politicians—then again, his reactionary foes were probably even better. Lenin’s tendency to have a view on everything is itself inherently totalitarian; why should a politician have a view on ontology or ballet or steam locomotives? Lenin trained as a lawyer, and everyone would have been much better off if he had stuck to that.
Now, Lenin was no genius in philosophy; his genius really lay in political organisation, but it is still noteworthy that within the hubbub of revolutionary conspiracy he paused to consider 18th-century idealist philosophy, absorb the current state of physics, and produce his own views on philosophy and science insofar as they pertained to his revolutionary project. He did so in a coherent way; if you were to grade his philosophical works as a university essay he would be a safe 2:1—he ably summarises the material, but he adds little that is innovative or original; yet his attempt is still impressive when you consider that this was not his main activity or field.
I think that to work as Lenin did would be inconceivable for a leftist today, and that is because Lenin himself was produced by the 19th century and so was provided with the intellectual tools, ethos, and work ethic to take a broad view on life. Contemporary leftists, by contrast, were birthed by soft socialism in the West and hard socialism in the East; and so they reflect a degraded outlook and capability range—and this is before we consider the possibility that intelligence levels have declined overall.
The subject under discussion in this essay is Lenin’s 1909 work Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, a title that for some reason excites me—though it may well bore others. This book constitutes Lenin’s substantial comment on philosophy. The basic impetus behind Lenin’s philosophical discourse was a conflict between materialism and idealism and, in particular, a drift, in his view, by contemporary Russian Marxists towards idealism. Broadly, materialists hold that only matter exists, whereas idealists hold that our world is composed from ideas—by which they mean non-materiality; for example, consciousness. So a materialist would hold that consciousness is a product of biochemical processes in the brain, whereas the idealist would hold that consciousness is in some respect non-material.
To divide philosophical thought into idealist and materialist schools is in itself slightly suspect: Lenin did so, and he did so because Engels said that all philosophies are either materialist or idealist; and, further, materialism is progressive, whereas idealism is reactionary—therefore, the “goodies” are materialists and the idealists are the “baddies”. To divide thought in this way—effectively into in-group and out-group—suggests a less than certain commitment to the truth; for once humans have arranged ideas under the headings “the baddies” and “the goodies” they tend to fit everything into the schema, even if reality contradicts the groups. Engels did not go so far as to in-group and out-group these positions, but Lenin takes the germ suggested by Engels and develops it into fully articulated in-groups and out-groups; for him anything that is “idealist” has to be forcefully smacked down. Indeed, his book’s subtitle dubs it an investigation into “reactionary philosophy”, but surely for philosophers there is only truth, whether the truth is reactionary or progressive—if those categories mean anything—does not matter.
Yet by the end of Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, Lenin flatly states that there are “parties” in philosophy, with the idealists being in the reactionary “party”—sometimes he likens them to his Marxist rivals, the Mensheviks—whose basic motivation to articulate idealism is that they are “salesmen” for the capitalists and general lackeys for priests and the bourgeoisie. Why this should be so does not survive scrutiny. Businessmen rarely have an interest in philosophy; aha, Lenin might reply—the state they control has an interest, and the state patronises idealist philosophers to justify its rule. As with all Marxists, Lenin neglects the many times the state has expropriated businessmen—for overtly socialist reasons or otherwise; if the state happens to patronise idealist philosophy this is more by accident than design, for the state does not serve private enterprise. Of course, the idea that the state is the tool of the bourgeois class is inherent to Marxism; so Lenin’s view flows naturally from that.
Why did the recrudescence of idealism concern the revolutionary activist Lenin, anyway? This is quite a subtle question that I shall speak about later, but in the meantime here is the superficial answer: idealism can be used to support the contention that God exists in one form or another and, therefore, suggests religion is a worthwhile activity; for the Marxist, religion can only be seen as a tool to exploit and delude the masses and this contention is supported by the notion that there is only matter, the Marxist philosophical method is dialectical materialism.
Hence, for Lenin, any chink in materialism—any suggestion that there is more to life than matter—was a threat to Marxism to be ruthlessly suppressed. Obviously, if religious ideas can be shown to be true in some form it does not refute socialism and communism as such; but it certainly refutes the atheistic forms of those beliefs that have been prevalent for over two centuries now. Further, most religions support private property to one degree or another; hence any socialist or communist will almost inevitably run up against a religious prohibition against what they wish to implement, so it is really very difficult to be socialist or communist and not to be a materialist as well; and this is because religions encode inherited wisdom for various tribes, and most tribes have found that prohibitions against theft and a defence of private property lead to stable cooperation and healthy societies—so to get at private property it turns out that you need to get at religion as well.
However, idealism does not simply support the notion that a personal God exists. Hegel was an idealist and for him we are involved in an unfolding of consciousness towards the Absolute: the Absolute draws us upwards through dialectical splits—just as a cell divides and yet the new cell retains a resemblance to the original in its new state—which, finally, will return us to our most primitive state, except re-expressed in a perfected form. Imagine, for example, that we start life in a small and primitive—though warm and convivial—village and, after centuries of development, end up in a hyper-efficient space colony that has only a hundred or so people in it. In other words, after moving through cosmopolitan cities and sea adventures, we arrive back at the personal intimacy of the village except in conditions of technological luxury and civilisation. Hegel imagines the same journey for consciousness; and he would say that the personal God was a metaphor or simplification to explain the Absolute to the masses, who could never grasp the recondite philosophical concept behind it. So idealism supports religion as a sociological phenomenon at second-hand really, but for Lenin it is all the same; and his real concern is basically: this idea could convince people the Orthodox Church and Tsardom are legitimate.
Now, not being a Bolshevik—or being a former Bolshevik, of sorts—I am not obliged to tell you that what Lenin produced in this book was genius or even represents a contribution to philosophy. It is an impressive and erudite work; and it is notable that a man who was primarily a politician could produce such a work, even at the time. It is far more sophisticated than anything Hitler, for example, produced in the intellectual line; although he seems to have been more a visual thinker, with his interest in painting and architecture, than a word thinker like Lenin the lawyer—and perhaps that tells us something about people who lean to the left or the right. Yet Lenin’s work is not substantial; it is more polemic than investigation into the truth; as you would expect from Lenin, a man renowned for his speeches and his disdainful comments about his opponents.
Lenin’s basic thesis is as follows: in the 18th century the idealist philosopher Berkeley claimed to show the supremacy of ideas over matter; and this proved the existence of God, since Berkeley held that for things to exist they must be perceived; and yet there are obviously parts of reality not perceived by humans that continue to exist and influence other parts of reality; ergo, there is another “supermind”—aka God—who perceives these aspects of reality while we are absent and so causes them to subsist; in Lenin’s Russia, certain Marxists thinkers had been influenced by 19th-century physicists and philosophers who had, Lenin contends, merely rediscovered Berkeley’s arguments and dressed them in new clothes—since Berkeley had been, in Lenin’s view, refuted it followed that the contemporary so-called Marxists who restated Berkeley were reactionaries who ultimately defended God and, by extension, the established order with false concepts.
However, Lenin does not really support his thesis with much argument; he was often described as an abusive man, in the sense that he would use language to browbeat people; and this is evident in Materialism and Empirio-Criticism. His opponents are “blockheads”, “childish”, “reactionaries” and so on; and often Lenin’s disdainful language is a substitute for any argument whatsoever. In fairness to Lenin, he is sharp enough—as a lawyer—to notice that people, especially philosophers, tend to think that if you change the names round then you can pass off an old concept as a new one—something the Bolsheviks would become expert at, funnily enough. Further, he is aware that certain people—those keen to defend religion, or any concept under fire—will exploit ambiguities in language to support their claims; and, in many respects, philosophy is an investigation into the ambiguities present in language and, hopefully, a clarification of language so that people are not bewitched or deceived by ambiguities.
Now, I am not going to reproduce what Lenin discusses because it would be to rehash an internal disagreement between early 20th-century Marxists that would interest only on a scholarly level. My goal is more to explain to you how Lenin thought—his style of thought—and also his broad philosophical direction; for example, whether, as Lenin states, his opponents had purposefully mutilated an Engels quote to support their interpretation of 19th-century physics is not within my purview. Broadly, I will say this: Lenin was a man who had made up his mind; his purpose in the book is not to explore ideas or seek the truth, his purpose is to lay down, as the Bolsheviks said, the line—and woe betide any “blockheads” who did not agree with the line, for their heads would soon be on the block.
Lenin’s primary engagement with ideas is through sarcasm and sneers. Such is Lenin’s affection for sarcasm and mordant remarks in lieu of argument, I was reminded of the contemporary libertarian YouTuber Stefan Molyneux (another bald man, as with Lenin; high testosterone, perhaps?) whose catchphrase when in single cyber combat with leftists is: “Not an argument!” Molyneux would have many occasions to deploy his rhetorical club with Lenin, if the two had met, for Lenin offers very little in the way of argument: he offers sneers, sarcasm, and frequently begs the question—and perhaps this was what it took to win a court case in Tsarist Russia, since he was trained as a lawyer. Yet there is little substance in what Lenin has to say; and this is because he is very much a man who has decided what is true—everything Marx and Engels ever said—and is merely engaged in this work so as to make the facts fit the theory, the theory itself being self-evidently true.
Lenin feels surprisingly contemporary, albeit he is more erudite than most leftists today; he would fit in very nicely with the chronic Twitter users who sneer and snark at each other all day long. People often say they can imagine what an ancient figure from history would be like on Facebook or Twitter, and with Lenin there is no doubt that he would be right at home with contemporary progressives—if anything Twitter would be his ideal platform, a real chance to display his sarcasm and sneers. The persistence of this type through history—across borders, even—gives some credence to the idea that political beliefs are biological; it must be in the blood to be this way. There is definitely a “Lenin type”, as recognisable today as in Russia in 1909.
It must be connected with a refusal to accept reality; it is the teenager who uses sarcasm and sneers as a primary means to try and get their way; and this is because they are impotent, ignorant, and irresponsible. Interestingly, Lenin produced another famous pamphlet called “Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder; yet if anybody was infantile, it was Lenin: he really rages, whines, and sneers at what others have said rather than offering a solid refutation or solution—Lenin was the great bawling infant, not his opponents.
I suppose, technically, Lenin was adolescent, not infantile; but it is close enough—and yet anyone who disagrees with Lenin is “infantile” or “childish”; notably, with considerable arrogance, Lenin blithely pushes aside such luminaries as Hertz, whose electrical experiments led him towards idealism. You do not have to accept what Hertz said—any scientist, for that matter—simply because he was a notable scientist; Einstein supported socialism, Einstein was wrong about that—whatever else he was right about. Yet it is Lenin’s attitude that is suspect, not his insufficient deference to Hertz. Lenin has already decided that Hertz must be wrong, so Hertz is wrong; and this is, of course, all “obvious” and “simple” to Lenin.
With regards to the then nascent quantum physics that seemed to lend some credence to idealism by supplanting atomism with fields of energy, Lenin is confident that this is all the “birth pangs” of dialectical materialism in science; his confidence derives from Engels, who thought that the method he and Marx had developed could explain not only economics, politics, and history but science as well—Engels was like that really, a mid-Victorian gent and amateur who, naturally, being for progress and science, thought that the social theories he and Marx adumbrated would join up seamlessly with whatever novelty the Royal Society produced that week. For Lenin, this Victorian optimism had hardened into a conviction that all “real science” would lead into dialectical materialism; obviously, if it failed to do so it was “obscurantism” and “mysticism”, not science—and if it did not support his conclusions now, it would support them very shortly.
As with all psychological projection, Lenin’s accusations as regard other people apply solely to him; for Lenin, his enemies are “dogmatists” and “fideists” (they rely on faith alone to justify their intellectual positions) and yet, when it comes down to it, Lenin dogmatically asserts that Marx and Engels are right about everything and that people only contradict Marx and Engels because they have failed to read them—or failed to read them hard enough, or else they are in the pay of the bourgeois class. Lenin is dogmatic and has total faith in Marx and Engels; a total faith which, as it turns out, stood him in good stead: it gave him the unshakeable will to seize power in Russia—nothing to do with the truth, though.
Amusingly, given current debates where the left is cast as defender of postmodern relativism, we find Lenin banging on about objective truth against his “idealist” Marxist opponent Bogdanov, who held a view rather similar to that put forward by Jordan Peterson and Jonathan Pageau; namely that the way we experience the world is socially mediated so that, for example, sprites and hobgoblins are real for the peasantry—real for their mode-of-understanding the world, adequate for their level of navigation—albeit not real (being shorthand representations of deeper phenomena) from the scientific perspective. For Lenin, begging the question, as was his wont, such a view cannot be trusted because otherwise Catholicism would be true—and Catholicism, for Lenin, is taken to be wrong because it is obviously wrong; ergo, ideas that would give credence to Catholicism must be wrong too.
Frankly, the way Lenin writes about Catholicism I have the suspicion that he was on the verge of a hysterical screed about the Inquisition—in the manner of the contemporary “Reddit atheist” or Richard Dawkins fan—but this never quite manifests, though it is clear that Lenin thinks Catholicism is deeply suspect; quite strange, given that his more immediate enemy was the Orthodox Church, barely mentioned in the entire piece.
Although it is amusing to see a leftist make the case for objective truth—a demonstration that the endlessly rehashed moral relativism versus moral objectivity clash is a chimera for the left-right debate—I saw here a complete recapitulation of the apologetics made for religion over the last few years by men like Peterson and Pageau, with symbolism and a flexible net of understanding constructed by consciousness being to the fore in the case for a religious attitude to the world. Lenin’s role as the defender of “objective science”—his own words, incidentally—is played by Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris; something to ponder, perhaps. Indeed, Lenin even references newly emerged men who call themselves “religious atheists”, a phenomenon attested to by Peterson among his fans. Substantially, nothing has changed in some 120 years since Lenin set this debate down—given that Berkeley encouraged people to engage with the world symbolically in 1710, we could say that nothing has changed in over 300 years; and we could probably go back further.
Lenin famously refused to listen to Beethoven, lest it soften his heart; it is a temptation to think that his brutality stemmed from his soulless rejection of aesthetic beauty, itself, perhaps, a facet of idealist consciousness; and yet Hitler adored Wagner, so clearly there is no bar to soulfulness, artistic appreciation, and ruthlessness. As Hitler demonstrates, Lenin’s rejection of Beethoven was superfluous: he would have been ruthless enough whether he listened to Beethoven or not—unless Hitler was, in fact, was softened by Wagner. I would suggest, however, that Lenin’s decision to reject Beethoven fed into the pervasive ugliness found in the Soviet Union, rather than the regime’s brutality in general. Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy managed to produce quite a few beautiful buildings and paintings, whereas the USSR largely produced block after block of concrete greyness—basically, ugliness. By his own account, Lenin’s attitude was not without brutal consequences; for you can see what music did for Lenin’s soul in his own words:
“…I can’t listen to music very often, it affects my nerves. I want to say sweet, silly things, and pat the little heads of people who, living in a filthy hell, can create such beauty. These days, one can’t pat anyone on the head nowadays, they might bite your hand off. Hence, you have to beat people’s little heads, beat mercilessly, although ideally we are against doing any violence to people. Hm—what a devilishly difficult job!”
Notably, the fascists were idealists—in the Hegelian sense, not quite in the sense that they affirmed a personal God—and so we see a glimmer here, I think, of what is lost when we become materialists: we lose beauty and a certain soulful engagement with the world. Questions of brutality or cruelty are irrelevant to this issue, except perhaps that beauty is a compensation for suffering in the world and justifies itself in this way. The materialist regimes—such as the USSR and contemporary America—produce suffering but without the redemption offered by beauty.
Earlier I noted that the clash between idealism and materialism was important for Lenin because, as a Marxist, it impinged on his notion that religion oppressed the masses and had to be removed. Idealism offers a glimmer that religious ideas might be, if not entirely true, somewhat true—and this disturbs the whole Marxist project. However, I think the preoccupation with idealism goes deeper than this political issue; after all, the left is also supposedly opposed to the monarchy, aristocracy, police, and—above all—the “capitalists”, otherwise known as the people who use private property very productively.
Private property is meant to be the nub for Marxists—socialists more generally—and priests and religions can and have been bought, subverted, or coerced in various ways. The debate over idealism and materialism does not really impinge on private property matters directly, only insofar as religions tend to offer a defence of private property—though this is far from their primary function. You can make a perfectly sound defence of private property without resort to philosophical idealism; and I do not think idealism or materialism really predisposes a person to be egalitarian or inegalitarian—not in the way these standpoints have obvious implications for notions about God, anyway. Indeed, it is perfectly possible to be an idealist and not support the Church or think there is a personal God; certainly Hegel was partially this way, and so were the fascists—so it is not as if idealism automatically implies support for churches and Christianity.
I think that the reason that the left is possessed by idealism as a problem has more to do with what the left actually is itself. The left is involved in selfish banditry under the guise of benevolence for the weak and materially disadvantaged: it intends to use the state to deprive people, often with considerable violence, of their property. Earlier, I noted that Lenin was somewhat like an omnipotent child in his rages and sarcasm, in his selfishness really; and an important implication from idealism is that man is not at the centre of everything—a proposition that sounds like a contradiction, because idealism frequently falls into solipsism; indeed, solipsism is the reductio ad absurdum of idealism, frequently used to refute it. And yet, solipsism is really a proposition that every man is a god, not the materialist’s bereft animal; a true solipsist thinks that when he dies the world ends; a remarkably egocentric position, you might think.
Yet, even if we accept the most extreme solipsism, the solipsistic individual is a creator; he is not interested in a project to expropriate another man, since he has actually created that man—in fact, he created the entire universe through his perception. Idealism represents a generative and productive view where a man makes his own world. The idealist who takes this seriously must have quite a firm locus of control; he is in charge of the universe itself, confident to act independently upon it. By contrast, the left always wants people to think that they are helpless and that “oppressors” are “doing things” to them; and this is why state action must be taken—and materialism aids this outlook, you are just a single animal organism and quite alone; to feel less alone, join the Party, comrade!
Further, idealism tends to lead to a suggestion that reality is fungible, interchangeable, and interconnected. For example, if consciousness is non-material we exist within an interconnected and, perhaps, interdependent web; and this is greater than any individual desire—consciousness may, perhaps, be linked in an acausal realm; perhaps we can merge with animals, stones, and trees in some way. Again, the single individual—the Hobbesian individual out for himself—shrinks away into the greater field that is consciousness; we are all creators, because we are one formation within a field of consciousness—we are very far from alone in a struggle of all against all.
Now, it might seem paradoxical to suggest that the Marxist or socialist—obsessed with collectivity and mass action—would be selfish, but, of course, really selfish people do not think they are selfish; they think they are benevolent, at some self-delusional level at least. Their selfishness derives, in part, from their self-conception as an individual atom, all alone in a world I never made, to whom things are “done”; and so there is a desire to get back or revenge oneself on the “doer”—at the widest level this is existence itself, since your existence as this individual atom doomed to suffer and die is cruel; but proximately the rage can be directed at anyone who seems successful, beautiful, or perhaps just satisfied with life in a general way—or who does not see life as a struggle between atoms in conflict.
Obviously, the materialist is a humanist; he thinks man—basically one man, him—is at the centre of everything, while at the same time, unlike the godlike idealist, this man is impotent except, perhaps, insofar as he advances science and technology—or advances his material gains in the world; and one way to advance your material gains is to take from other people, say through socialist revolution or banditry. After all, there is no particular reason not to do so; we are just matter, so what we do does not matter. We are not creators, rather we are schemers who want to take from other people through deception. When Lenin asserts that philosophers are just “in the pay” of the bourgeois state and develop their philosophies to fit the rulers he really describes exactly what happened to academic enquiry in the USSR; he says his opponents are this way, because this is how he really imagines his ideal state will be.
So the idealist is inhuman in his worldview: he is akin to a god insofar as he creates his entire world, and, further, remains responsible for that entire world—and insofar as his consciousness is non-material and interpenetrates the universe he is not alone and, in a sense, not the most important thing; or, rather, does not need to somehow impose himself to feel important, as the atomised materialist does.
Now, I do not want to simply reverse Lenin so that you come away with the idea materialism = “bad” and idealism = “good”, as I observed at the start the division—the conscious and intentional division—into two camps is itself a means to obscure the pursuit of truth; and, further, I do not have a worked out solution to the contest between idealism and materialism. Notably, throughout Materialism and Empirio-Criticism Lenin has a vituperative attitude to Kant; and he has this attitude because Kant mixed idealism and materialism together, rather than presenting two distinct camps that could be viewed antagonistically; in other words, Kant made a legitimate and sincere stab at the truth—whether wrong or right—whereas Lenin was a politician with an axe to grind, and that meant, for him, there were two “political parties” in philosophy.
However, I think we can say that materialism seems better disposed to socialistic ideas than idealism and, as described above, smoothes the passage of socialist-type views; and, insofar as it is self-evident that socialism does not work and contradicts reality, there must there be something suspect about materialism—at least the fanatical and absolute type put forward by Lenin, anyway. This is quite a peculiar observation, because, as previously noted, I see no reason why materialism should inherently predispose someone to a view about private property or equality; yet, as described above, it does seem to do so. We can say that there seems to be an element in materialism that facilitates a delusional approach to economics and political affairs, and this gives us grounds to doubt its wider truth.