Socialist Equality Party (United States)
The Historical and International Foundations of the Socialist Equality Party (United States)

Lenin’s Defense of Materialism

In later years, Trotsky commented that Lenin’s work was distinguished by the highest level of theoretical conscientiousness. This found particular expression in Lenin’s defense of Marxism against different forms of philosophical idealism and subjectivism that threatened to disorient the socialist movement. Lenin’s decision to devote an entire year to the writing of Materialism and Empirio-Criticism (1908-09) reflected his awareness of the immense danger posed by the widespread influence of philosophical idealism within the socialist movement, not only neo-Kantianism—often associated with efforts to base socialism on ethics—but also openly irrationalist conceptions, expressing the influence of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, which glorified voluntarism and the subjective will to action. Lenin opposed idealist subjectivism as incompatible with a scientific understanding of the laws governing capitalist society and the revolutionary struggle.

Lenin insisted, “The philosophy of Marxism is materialism.” He stated that materialism “has proved to be the only philosophy that is consistent, true to all the teachings of natural science and hostile to superstition, cant and so forth.” He explained that Marxism had developed materialism beyond the form in which it existed in the eighteenth century, by enriching it “with the achievements of German classical philosophy, especially of Hegel’s system, which in its turn had led to the materialism of Feuerbach.” The great contribution of German classical philosophy was the elaboration of dialectics, defined by Lenin as “the doctrine of development in its fullest, deepest and most comprehensive form, the doctrine of the relativity of human knowledge that provides us with a reflection of eternally developing matter.”[1] Writing on the eve of World War I, Lenin provided this concise explanation of the philosophical standpoint of Marxism:

Marx deepened and developed philosophical materialism to the full, and extended the cognition of nature to include the cognition of human society. His historical materialism was a great achievement in scientific thinking. The chaos and arbitrariness that had previously reigned in views on history and politics were replaced by a strikingly integral and harmonious scientific theory, which shows how, in consequence of the growth of the productive forces, out of one system of social life another and higher system develops—how capitalism, for instance, grows out of feudalism.

Just as man’s knowledge reflects nature (i.e., developing matter), which exists independently of him, so man’s social knowledge (i.e., his various views and doctrines—philosophical, religious, political and so forth) reflects the economic system of society. Political institutions are a superstructure on the economic foundation. We see, for example, that the various political forms of the modern European states serve to strengthen the domination of the bourgeoisie over the proletariat.

Marx’s philosophy is a consummate philosophical materialism which has provided mankind, and especially the working class, with powerful instruments of knowledge.[2]

After the publication of Georg Lukács’ History and Class Consciousness in 1922, numerous efforts were made by academically-trained intellectuals, schooled in idealist philosophy, within and on the periphery of the socialist movement, to counterpose dialectics to materialism; and even to discredit works such as Materialism and Empirio-Criticism as examples of a “vulgar materialism” that Lenin supposedly repudiated once he undertook a systematic study of Hegel’s Science of Logic in 1914-15. Such claims, which were (and continue to be) based on a gross distortion of not only Lenin’s Philosophical Notebooks but also of his intellectual biography, played a major role in the bourgeois assault on the foundations and heritage of classical Marxism that gathered strength against the backdrop of the triumph of Stalinism in the USSR, the rise of fascism in Germany, and the physical liquidation of large sections of the theoretically-educated revolutionary cadre of Europe. The “dialectic” to which the idealists paid a purely rhetorical tribute has nothing whatsoever to do with the “doctrine of development” referred to by Lenin, let alone with the genuinely scientific method, described by Engels, which “comprehends things and their representations, ideas, in their essential connection, concatenation, motion, origin, and ending.”[3] It was, rather, a “dialectic” from which nature, the material universe existing prior to and independent of man, was excluded. It was (and is) the pseudo-dialectic of a subjectively-conceived interaction of the discontented petty-bourgeois intellectual and his environment, in which that individual—unbound by objective laws that govern the development of nature, society and consciousness—is free to “create” the world as he or she sees fit.


“Three Sources and Three Component Parts of Marxism,” in V. I. Lenin, Collected Works, Volume 19 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1968), p. 24.


Ibid., p. 25.


Anti-Dühring, in: Marx-Engels Collected Works, Volume 25, p. 23.