With Lenin, Against Hegel? 

In this article Alberto Toscano considers three texts that allow us to explore the place that a recovery and reinterpretation of Lenin's 'Materialism and Empirio-Criticism' played in setting the agenda of European Marxist philosophy after the crisis of ’56.


Lenin Molny Palace


Introduction: An ‘Eastern’ Materialism?

By way of contrast to the texts I’ll be considering in the body of this article, I’d like to begin by briefly recalling the role of negative references to Lenin’s Materialism and Empirio-Criticism (MEC) for the self-definition of a ‘Western Marxist’ philosophy. In its famous combination of polemical partisanship and unequivocal objectivism, MEC served as a paradigm of ‘Eastern Marxism’ conceived as the abandonment of the dialectic for a philosophy of state communism, in both Adorno’s Negative Dialectics and Merleau-Ponty’s Adventures of the Dialectic, the text which popularized the expression ‘Western Marxism’ (with the negative note by Simone Weil in La Critique Sociale, November 1933 as a precursor). This is a position tidily summarised in Herbert Marcuse’s quip, from Soviet Marxism: ‘Lenin's Materialism and Empirio-criticism replaced the dialectical notion of truth by a primitive naturalistic realism, which has become canonical in Soviet Marxism’ (149). To get a flavor of these positions, and to prepare a contrast with the texts I’ll be concerned with today, let me begin by quoting two key passages from Merleau-Ponty and Adorno.

His adversaries were not wrong to criticize Lenin's philosophical ideas for being incompatible with what they themselves called, as Korsch says, 'Western Marxism." Lenin had written his book in order to reaffirm that dialectical materialism is a materialism, that it supposes a materialistic diagram of knowledge ... in taking up again the old allegory of ideas-images, Lenin thought he was going to establish the dialectic solidly in things. He forgot that an effect does not resemble its cause and that knowledge, being an effect of things, is located in principle outside its object and attains only its internal counterpart. This was to annul all that has been said about knowledge since Epicurus ... Hegel had indeed been able to show that, in a philosophy of history, the problem of knowledge is surmounted, because there no longer can be a question of timeless relations between being and thought, but only of relations between man and his history, or even between the present and the future, and the present and the past. ... This new dogmatism, which puts the knowing subject outside the fabric of history and gives it access to absolute being, releases it from the duty of self-criticism, exempts Marxism from applying its own principles to itself, and settles dialectical thought, which by its own movement rejected it, in a massive positivity. (Adventures of the Dialectic, pp. 59-60)

The image theory denies the spontaneity of the subject, a movens of the objective dialectics of productive forces and conditions. If the subject is bound to mulishly mirror the object—necessarily missing the object, which only opens itself to the subjective surplus in the thought—the result is the unpeaceful spiritual silence of integral administration.

Nothing but an indefatigably reified consciousness will believe, or will persuade others to believe, that it possesses photographs of objectivity. The illusions of such a consciousness turn into dogmatic immediacies. When Lenin, rather than go in for epistemology, opposed it in compulsively reiterated avowals of the noumenality of cognitive objects, he meant to demonstrate that subjective positivism is conspiring with the powers that be. His political requirements turned him against the goal of theoretical cognition. A transcendent argumentation disposes of things on the basis of its claim to power, and with disastrous results: the unpenetrated target of the criticism remains undisturbed as it is, and not being hit at all, it can be resurrected at will in changed constellations of power. (Negative Dialectics, 205-6)

But did MEC also play a different function in the development of so-called ‘Western Marxism’ in the postwar period, ones that perhaps broke with the schema, common to Adorno and Merleau-Ponty of a true dialectics against dialectical materialism, and with the very distinction of Eastern and Western Marxism in its Cold War modalities?

            In this article I want to consider three texts that allow us to explore the place that a recovery and reinterpretation of MEC played in setting the agenda of European Marxist philosophy after the crisis of ’56. All three have not been translated into English, notwithstanding the translation of several other works by the authors in question. They are Henri Lefebvre’s 1957 Pour connaître la pensée de Lénine (PCPL), Lucio Colletti’s 1958 Introduction to Lenin’s Philosophical Notebooks, published in a revised version as Part I of Il marxismo e Hegel (1969; the English text Marxism and Hegel is a translation of Part II alone), and finally Dominique Lecourt’s 1973 Une crise et son enjeu (Essai sur la position de Lénine en philosophie) [A Crisis and its Stakes: Essay on Lenin’s Position in Philosophy], published in Louis Althusser’s Théorie series for François Maspero, as a critical complement of sorts to Althusser’s own Lenin and Philosophy.

            My approach to these texts, which if replaced within their theoretical, political and biographical contexts would demand very extended commentary, will be quite schematic, presenting a symptomatic permutation of positions around MEC that address three broad concerns:

            a. How does MEC relate to Lenin’s notebooks on Hegel logic? This question turns out to resonate with two related questions: Is a realist or objectivist materialist epistemology compatible or not with a truly dialectical Marxism? And: Is MEC a model for a break with the Hegelian legacies in Marxism, and if so is this to be welcomed or abhorred?

            b. What is the proper articulation between Marxism (and Marxist politics), philosophy and science?

            c. What concept of matter (if any) is demanded by a Marxist materialism? And how is this concept of matter to be related to scientific concepts of matter?

            I will also want to reflect on a corollary (d), regarding the theories of abstraction at work in these interpretations of the MEC.

            Especially in what concerns (a) as we will see the three texts provide the three possible permutations, as follows:

            Lefebvre: The notebooks on Hegel’s Logic (and other philosophical texts) overcomes the limits of MEC by embracing a properly dialectical conception of reality.

            Colletti: The notebooks manifest a dangerous backsliding from the polemical advances of MEC, a restoration of an idealism of matter which is an epistemological and materialist retreat from the MEC’s affirmation of the heterogeneity between thought and objective reality, and the primacy of the latter (as well as MEC’s greater appreciation of the importance of Kant for a modern materialism).

            Lecourt: There is no ultimate incompatibility between MEC and Lenin’s wartime notebooks on Hegel in terms of their fundamental philosophical infrastructure, a continuity identified by Lecourt in terms of the notion of a reflection without a mirror.

1. Lefebvre, or, Complex Reflection

Lefebvre frames his discussion of Lenin’s philosophy, in Part III, of PCPL, by noting the importance of Engels’s called to transform and verify materialism in response to the novelties emerging from the natural sciences. He reproduces Lenin’s statement which identifies the changing stakes of materialism in terms of the powerful emergence of epistemology within bourgeois ideology (and various Marxist revisionisms), noting that while that Marx and Engels rightly stressed dialectics and history over materialism, the epoch threw up a radically different theoretical conjuncture, in which bourgeois philosophy has absorbed in a deformed guise a number of the tenets of the dialectic but with relativist and revisionist ends, as summarized in the epochal affirmation that matter has vanished. Notwithstanding Lefebvre’s association with some of the main features of Western Marxism, in PCPL he strongly notes Lenin’s warning that Marxist orthodoxy has retreated to the terrain of philosophy and the philosophy of history, and in its abandonment of natural, scientific materialism had left the way open for relativist solutions. It is significant here that Lefebvre sees parallels between the debates of 50 years before and the controversies in French Marxism, not least Merleau-Ponty’s Adventures, in which the attempt, in Lefebvre’s words (129n1) to construct an idealism from below goes hand in hand with a stigmatization of MEC as the paragon of an ‘Eastern’ vulgar dogmatic Marxism. Contrariwise, we can see Lenin’s operation in MEC for Lefebvre as a model of the need to reframe and revitalize Marxist philosophy within the mutable conjunctures of conflict and critique of bourgeois philosophy. Put back in its historical context, Lenin’s operation cannot be taken as one of mere affirmation or defense of dogmatism. On the contrary, for Lefebvre: ‘With Lenin, we cannot repeat this enough, Marxist thought detached itself both from orthodox immobilism and from a revisionism that brought principles into question’ (130). MEC belongs to the necessary double movement of returning to principles and applying them to the new problems of the present, thus restoring while renewing the basic tenets of Marxism.

            But how much of a guide can Lenin be to the renewal of a Marxist philosophy, 50 years after his only explicitly philosophical work? This question guides Lefebvre, who also makes the parallel with the paucity of systematic philosophical reflection in Marx and Engels themselves. He identifies the key nexus of Lenin’s intervention in a gap left in the work of Marx and Engels, namely the ‘hiatus’ between their theory of ideological reflection (in the German Ideology, Capital’s account of fetishism or Marx’s political writings) and ‘the theory of knowledge, the theory of the true reflection of the real’ (132). But this shift to epistemology requires confronting the question of abstraction. Lefebvre puts the problem very lucidly in the following passage, which as a note indicates, is also a critique of both Lukács and Plekhanov:

Lenin saw the problem perfectly well. If you don’t want Marxist theory to fracture, and to meet its stumbling block in science – if you do not want all the sectors of knowledge to progressively escape it – you need to show that the history of ideologies is intimately (dialectically) linked to the process whereby human beings move from ignorance to knowledge. It is therefore necessary for reflection [le reflet (ou la réflexion)] not just to be social reflection (ideological superstructure) but also, and at the same time, and contradictorily, reflection of the real and of the external world. It is necessary that abstraction be considered not just as the production of the division of labour, but as the instrument of knowledge. It is therefore necessary philosophically to reprise and restore the principles of Marxism, which are interpreted in such a way that the ‘orthodox’ passed from economic categories (those of the division of labour) to ideologies by neglecting specifically philosophical categories and notions (133).

            It is this predicament that requires the development of a theory of reflection – a term which Lefebvre notes is in no way univocal. Here Lefebvre quotes Lenin’s famous formula on sensations copying, photographing, reflecting objective reality, but immediately qualifies it by noting how it is difficult to square with what he takes to be a key dimension of Lenin’s sketch of a materialist epistemology, which builds on Engels to argue the relativity without relativism of human knowledge. In Lefebvre’s words, ‘Every knowledge is approximative, provisional, revisable, momentary – and yet it envelops something absolute; not only an infinitely distant absolute, but an already present content; a grain of truth, which the ensuing development with extract and deploy. Nothing is absolute, everything is relative. But there is a dialectical relation between the absolute and the relative: a unity between these contradictory terms.’ (134) And later: ‘The absolute is at the very heart, if we can put it like this, of the relative, in its bosom’ (197). Such a dialectic both embraces and surpasses relativism, it is a dialectical unity of the absolute and the relative, or rather the overcoming of the raw distinction between the absolute and the relative is a definition of the dialectic itself. This is why the photographic metaphor is so problematic, since as Lefebvre notes it ‘is difficult to see how a relative knowledge can emerge from sensations that reflect the real object like a photograph or a copy’ (134). For dialectical relativity to obtain sensation it can’t be a reified unit, it must be a phenomenon, namely something that includes contradiction within itself, and whose contradiction can only be resolved by a passage to ‘abstract thought’, a thinking that doesn’t reflect the apparent but the essential, that engages not in a sensory but in a conceptual reflection. Here Lefebvre reads back into the MEC a very important note from Lenin’s philosophical notebooks, on Aristotle’s metaphysics, where he talks about human cognition as something that is not ‘a reflection in a mirror, but a complex, doubled, zigzagging act – an act that includes the possibility of an imaginative flight beyond life’, where we might even, as Lefebvre comments, be able to distinguish a fertile dream from an empty revelry.

            In the Notebooks, Lenin clearly recognizes that penetrating the real also involves an activity of abstraction, of distancing oneself from it and that this necessary doubling is also what opens up the space for ideological distortion. In Lefebvre’s gloss: ‘Ideology therefore reflects social and historical conditions, the separation between intellectual and manual labour, class positions; but at the same time it finds its condition in the process of knowledge.’ While immediate sensation and spontaneous consciousness are in a sense beneath the truth/falsity distinction: ‘everything depends on what reflection [réflexion], which attains the true reflection [reflet] (the concept), draws through a series of reflexive approaches (of mediations) from immediate phenomena and appearances.’ (136)

            With these dialectical preliminaries under his belt (which already articulate Lenin’s philosophical polemic in Hegelian terms, contra Colletti), Lefebvre approaches MEC, laying great stress on the articulation in that text of a theoretical-political crisis of Marxism with an ideological-epistemological crisis of the natural sciences, a crisis which (and one imagines here Lefebvre to be speaking very much to his present) is also very much the occasion of a renewal of Marxism, as well as a restatement of its guiding principles, which in this case obviously concerns the very meaning to be accorded to materialism. The bond between the natural-scientific questioning of materialism and Marxist revisionism is obviously what is at stake. To diagnose this crisis involves thinking the link between the crisis of (non-dialectical) mechanistic materialism and the crisis of bourgeois ideology (in view of their Marxist issue). With our mind partly on the Althusserian analysis of this predicament in Lecourt, it is interesting to note that Lefebvre will see Lenin’s text as a corrosive analysis of the way in which the bourgeois scientist (savant) tries ‘to “think his science” in function of the ideas of his class: idealism, mysticism, subjectivism, etc. Spontaneously, he judges he has a certain object of study before him: material reality. But this naïve, spontaneous materialism of scientists does not suffice […].’ (150) The spontaneous materialism stumbles when faced with the mutations in scientific theory and in bourgeois ideology. As Lefebvre observes: ‘Bourgeois ideology in contradiction with science (idealism denying the very object of science: material nature, movement becoming inconceivable without a material support) ends up in a “crisis” of science. This crisis is only in appearance […] an internal “crisis” of science: it is due, in one of its important aspects, to the inevitable interaction in the thinking of scientists between the ideological superstructures of bourgeois society and new knowledge about matter’. (150) Here is where Lenin’s lucidity is at its greatest, as he cuts through the Gordian knot of science and ideology around the issue of materialism, by doubling the very notion of matter (we’ll return to how Colletti and Lecourt diagnose this move, to which they also lend crucial importance).

            We have a philosophical category of matter and scientific conceptions of matter, specific to natural sciences. Matter in philosophy is eminently simple (and we could say eminently polemical), its sole property to be, as Lenin argues, an objective reality existing outside of our consciousness. The absolute and categorical recognition of this externality is a veritable axiom of dialectical materialism, separating it from agnosticism and relativist idealism. As Lefebvre comments, this notion of matter is equivalent to the ancient philosophical notion of being as what lies before and beyond consciousness. It does not tell us what matter is, but that it is. As he observes: ‘The philosophical notion of matter is both the emptiest and most abstract of all notions, because it has no determinate content – and the richest, the fullest of notions, because it designates infinite nature, infinitely profound and multiple in its unity’. (151) It is a notion that in Lenin’s terms can neither age nor vanish – it is entirely untouched by the train of scientific revolutions. This absolute philosophical concept of matter can then be seen as the asymptote or attractor for the relative-absolute conceptions of matter thrown up by the specific sciences. It is also a non-demonstrable tenet (hence its irreducible polemicity, as noted especially by Althusser, which makes partisanship in philosophy inescapable, and over-determined by the revolutionary and reactionary orientations of materialism and idealism – orientations which Lefebvre does not really clarify here). Since idealism cannot be logically refuted, it can only be fought against, as a politically-laden philosophical postulate, which as such is indestructible, ever reborn in new guises. Likewise ‘one cannot demonstrate, one cannot prove materialism. The materialist fights for his position, for his party. […] The philosophical position is a political position’. (154) But this opposition between materialism and idealism is only absolute in terms of fundamental philosophical categories. Outside of this domain, Lefebvre notes, it is only relative (or else materialism would never need to be… dialectical). It is as though absolute polemic were a feature of philosophy and politics, but not of the broader swathe of knowledges and practices that come to compose historical and dialectical materialism. This also requires a concept of reflection that cannot be unilateral or absolute, since Marxism ‘defines consciousness as reflection [reflet ou réflexion] of the natural and social being of man, as the reflection of his practical and social activity, and therefore as a complex reflection, rising from sensation and perception to knowledge and ideas. Therefore as a reflection that is itself active’. And further: ‘Dialectical materialism implies the theory of knowledge, active reflection [réflexion or reflet actifs] penetrating through practice and knowledge into an infinitely, inexhaustibly vast reality. Dominating it little by little, transforming blind necessity into freedom’ (159).

            It is only by distinguishing the different levels at which materialism operates (as the polemical dilemma of materialism versus idealism, in the historical formation of philosophical concepts and their concrete polemics, and in epistemology proper, according to Lefebvre) that we can also see how – as is patently obvious in the case of Hegel – idealism could turn out to be more important for materialism than certain strains of materialism.

            For Lefebvre, Lenin’s central idea is that of the objectivity of the dialectic. In what sense do the Notebooks ‘sublate’ MEC? Above all in the sense that they introduce a theory of abstraction, of an abstraction of the concept, of a full concept, rich in content.

2. Colletti, or, Against Hypostasis

Colletti is well-known in the Anglophone world principally due to the intercession of the New Left Review and Perry Anderson who raised him, along with Sebastiano Timpanaro, to the status of key Italian philosopher of a Marxist New Left, namely through the publication of his Marxism and Hegel and From Rousseau to Lenin. New Left Review was also the venue in which Colletti first clarified his break with Marxism, in a long politico-philosophical interview with Anderson that would only subsequently be published in Italian. Rather singularly among Western Marxists, Colletti found in the polemical anti-idealism of Lenin’s 1908 text, and perhaps above all in that text’s valuation of Kant over Hegel on the terrain of epistemology, his initial theoretical inspiration for a rallying to the Italian Communist Party and to Marxist theory. MEC would even remain as a point of reference after Colletti’s break with Marxist theory and politics, as his position switched – on grounds which contain considerable continuity, especially in their juxtaposition of a realist materialist epistemology against the dialectics of real contradictions and historicism – from a far left to a right critique of Marxism. In the pages of Società, beginning in 1952, Colletti reviewed MEC but also used its anti-idealist polemics as a starting point for critiques of the Croce-Gramscian historicism of the PCI and the attraction on the Left of figures like John Dewey. The priority of matter/nature/objectivity over thought, and the necessity for an epistemology of reflection or correspondence remained paramount in countering those positions that could be seen to volatilize matter in spirit, even if the latter’s name came to be praxis or practice – positions which, following Lenin, could be seen as the proposals of so many ‘third ways’ blurring the distinctions, the camps, of materialism and idealism. This initial work remained very much under the aegis of Galvano Della Volpe, and his drawing from Marx, depicted as the inventor of a moral Galileanism, of a method of determinate abstraction. The texts published in Società would be revised and combined to compose Colletti’s long essay introducing the 1958 Feltrinelli edition of Lenin’s philosophical notebooks, ‘Marxism and Hegel’, included as part I of the eponymous book in 1969.

            Colletti’s chapter on ‘Lenin and Hegel’, resonating with Lefebvre, relates Lenin’s critique of idealism, of an ideological misprision of reality founded on a process of hypostasis, to his critique of the division of labour, such that the separation between material relations and spiritual relations correlates to that between production and distribution. Bourgeois sociology is already founded on the epistemological distortions produced by bourgeois society. Colletti notes the following about Lenin’s early writings, from ‘Who are the Friends of the People’ to The Development of Capitalism in Russia:

[The] theoretical passion animating these writings is such that Lenin does not limit himself to referring back – or worse flattening - the ideological fact onto its social base, but he reconstructs it, developing all of its implications, including at the level of method. He sees, in other words, that just like the dualism that man projects on the object is the expression of a real dualism between subjects, between men, likewise the latter must also involve a dualistic separation of subject and object in the praxis of knowledge. In fact, if in the structure of the object ‘society’ I do not see as essential material relations it is because in this society the world of work and production has an inessential recognition, therefore because there is a separation between practice and theory, because theory in the end stands on its own. (152)

The critique of hypostasis is a critique of the process of abstraction that makes metaphysical thinking possible. Metaphysics – in Colletti’s interpretation of Lenin – turns its back on the multiplicity of facts to substitute it with a self-referential generic idea. MEC can thus be seen also in the context of an epistemological reflection on the means to neutralize hypostasis. This critique of hypostasis cannot rest on materialism as another conception of the world, for instance as a Democritean supplement to a Hegelian method, but has to be understood as ‘a materialism that exhausts itself without mythological residues in concrete scientific inquiry’ (156). Only holding form to the ‘exteriority of the empirico-material datum’ guarantees that the idea’s hypostasis-substitution of the real object is averted. Following the lesson of Della Volpe, hypostasis is to be countered by a determinate abstraction, in which attention to the individuating and discriminating of the material permits a work of generalization, as encountered, exemplarily, in Marx’s analysis of the bourgeois socio-economic formation. Generalisation depends on material factors such that ‘scientific generalisations and the real object of analysis in Capital are in a twofold relation of unity-distinction’. Determinate abstractions, empirical concepts, which allow for regularity, iterability, typicality, this is the kind of scientific simplification that in this Della Volpean reading of Lenin is proposed by Colletti.

            Once we grasp, as Lenin did, that Marx’s analysis grasps the economic formation of a society as a natural-historical process, then the passage to MEC is not a passage between two discontinuous orders of physical and historical being.

            Colletti stresses that MEC is a more nuanced, more complex text than might at first appear. It pivots around the principle of Marxist epistemology, the unity-distinction of thought and being, where unity stands for the knowability of the world, distinction to the extent that the very notion of science depends on the ineradicable externality of material reality to a thinking that can never exhaust it, replace it, or absolutise it. On the basis of this principle, MEC is anchored in two theses: (1) the objectivity of the world; (2) the approximate character of knowledge, which requires the test of practice and experimentation (162). Materialism, or ‘the hypothesis of matter’ is a premise and condition of scientific inquiry, but is not itself a product of it. For Colletti the impossibility of doing without matter, or even of affirming its vanishing, is attained via negativa, by anatomizing the twists and turnabouts, the contradictions and aporias of those immaterialisms that find in Ernst Mach their patron saint. As in Lefebvre the distinction between philosophical and scientific concepts of matter is crucial to the whole reflection on the relation between Marxism and the sciences of nature. Colletti stresses, in a way that Lefebvre does not, the fact that philosophical materialism thus construed puts no constraints on the experimental scientist. Against any Engelsian or Stalinist transformation of Marxism into a philosophy of nature Lenin’s materialism, according to Colletti, ‘has nothing to say about the structure or properties of the external world, it lets it be exclusively the task of the sciences to investigate and discover them’ (163). Colletti takes this philosophical conception of materialism as the basis to denounce as fundamentally anti-Leninist all the Stalinist variants of a Marxist science, from Lyssenkoism on down. ‘You cannot deduce from Marx either a serious biology nor a falsified and fabricated one’ (164). MEC itself is not a generalization of scientific results, but a necessary point of passage for contemporary Marxism seeking a materialist theory of knowledge – though Colletti finds the treatment of reason and of the specific articulations of a theory of knowledge wanting, in contrast to the polemical postulate of matter. What MEC lacks, for Colletti, is ‘a veritable theory of the concept and of scientific laws’, limiting the scope of the polemic, and of the materialism – which at the level of the postulate itself can remain at the level of Feuerbach or Dietzgen and not attain the level of Marx and Engels. What is insufficient in Lenin, according to Colletti, is the social determination or social form of knowledge, so to speak. As he writes:

[P]recisely to the extent that Lenin does not see (or does not see fully) the reciprocal functionality of reason and matter, neither does he manage fully to grasp the mediation between science and society; he does not succeed that is in grasping that, just as my knowledge cannot be universally valid, such as to open me to communication with others and introduce me into associated life, for the objectivity of its contents alone, so, inversely, the objectivity of my knowledge can be verified only for and in society, that is only in relations with other men.  (165)

            For Colletti this shows an insufficient attention not just to the role of practice in determining truth, but in the way that the social relation is the principle of theory, an insufficient attention to the historicity and sociality of science – a point on which Colletti rescues the thinking of Gramsci from its association with Crocean idealism. Lenin’s work, for all its merits, is also a product of the reduction or fragmentation of Marxist thought into compartmentalized components: metaphysical materialism on the one hand, Hegelian dialectic on the other. Colletti is adamant that dialectical materialism in its official acceptation, which combines Hegelian teleology with the principles of Enlightenment materialism, is not a modern, scientific materialism, since it implies a pre-Newtonian or Aristotelian conception of movement as qualitative change (rather than accepting that both movement and rest are states, as evident in the principle of inertia), and because it depends on a notion of real contradiction (rather than real opposition), which is at odds with scientific realism.

            Contrary to Lefebvre’s estimation, where it is the integration of the Hegelian dialectic that allows Lenin to overcome the limitations of his polemic against Machians and Bogdanovites, for Colletti the turn back to Hegel only serves to blunt the force of the materialist postulate while not allowing for a realist take on the sociality of knowledge. Like Engels, according to Colletti, Lenin misreads the passage from Hegel to Marx, as though it were merely a rectification, meaning that for him too (in the Notebooks) ‘matter ends up adding itself to the dialectic as an extrinsic element, without it being clear how it concretely enters into the constitution and formation of the new method’ (166), leading Lenin to mistake the hypostases of the Hegelian concept for anticipations of objectivity, and even more problematically to ascribe to the Hegelian critique of Kant – not realizing that repudiating the thing in itself is in Hegel the other side of an acritical identification of the real with the idea, a loss of that unity-distinction which lay behind, in MEC, the judgment that recognizes Kant’s contribution to a critical materialism. What is missed in the denunciation of the agnostic Kant of the noumenon is his ‘positive conception of the sensible, of a real and not formal distinction between being and thought’ (167). The attention of a Hegelian dialectic to the fluidity and mobility of the concept, to real contradictions that make it so that one and the same thing is and is not have a serious price: matter and real determinations are abandoned for the sake of a dialectic out of space and out of time (167). This opens the way for a Heraclitean interpretation of Marx as a philosopher of change and contradiction, losing sight of his method of determinate abstraction which permits, following Della Volpe, a circuit moving from concrete to abstract and back again. Between MEC and the Notebooks we have to choose.

3. Lecourt, or, The Broken Mirror

Dominique Lecourt’s Une crise et son enjeu is a rare monograph within European Marxism on MEC, coming after his For a Critique of Epistemology (Bachelard, Canguilhem, Foucault) and coming in the wake of Althusser’s Lenin and Philosophy, with its elaboration of the Leninist theme of partisanship in philosophy. The great originality of Lecourt’s work, which features a patient reconstruction of the ‘crisis of the physical sciences’ that provides the context for Lenin’s intervention (including appendices reproducing some key texts in the debate referred to by Lenin himself), is to explore the hypothesis that materialist epistemology of MEC and the rediscovery of the Hegelian dialectic in the Notebooks should not be grasped through the prism of discontinuity. As Lecourt notes at the start of his inquiry, close perusal of MEC in its context throws up three seemingly paradoxical conclusions:

1. the reflection at stake in the so-called theory of reflection is a reflection without a mirror;

2. contrary to appearances, Lenin does not in any way support a sensualist theory of knowledge;

3. there is no contradiction between MEC and the Hegel notebooks of 1914-15, the thesis of reflection (without a mirror) finding its relay in that of process (without a subject). (16)

            Rather than producing an alternative theory of the production of knowledge, for Lecourt the aim of MEC is to prevent the creation in empirio-criticism of the kind of scientific ideology that would illusorily ‘resolve’ scientific problems in a manner that thwarts proper experimental research. ‘The advantage of a consistent materialism’, Lecourt observes, is ‘to clarify with a question the formulation of a problem which it is the task of the sciences to resolve’ (26). Like Colletti, Lecourt stresses that for Lenin philosophical materialism has no direct contribution to make to scientific specifications of matter. Rather, he shows that empirio-criticism falsely presents itself as the philosophical consequence of psychophysiological sciences, while, unlike a dialectical materialism, it is actually incompatible with them. The mistaken reading of Lenin depends on taking the illustrations of reflection through psychophysiological studies of perception as the philosophical content of the thesis. In the end, Lecourt observes, Lenin shows that there is simply no common terrain between idealist and materialist argument, rather than a confrontation between two comparable epistemologies.

            Lecourt argues that to grasp the nature of Lenin’s challenge we need to note the importance in his work of the order of questions. It is this order that distinguishes the two philosophical camps. The materialist position is that the primacy of being over thought takes the first place, while that of how knowledge of the external world is reached is secondary. The trick of empirio-criticism is to reverse the order. ‘This philosophy’, Lecourt comments, ‘subordinates the position of the fundamental question to the solution of the secondary question’ (33). The question of the acquisition of knowledge is here ultimately a scientific one (thus obviating Colletti’s critique of MEC’s limits), and in the end ‘knowledge of the mechanisms of the acquisition of knowledge is not a philosophical question’ (35), while the history of the production of knowledge remains merely sketched out. In the end Lenin’s materialist epistemology could be regarded as a kind of minimal, polemical or negative epistemology. Its grounding thesis of reflection is in effect a double thesis comprising the primacy of being over thought and the objectivity of knowledges. The moment that the second thesis is treated as the first the affirmation of materialism is subordinated to the access to the experience of matter. If the objectivity of knowledge is treated as the foundation of truth we are within one problematic that can take two forms: either putting the content of knowledge inside the object, and asking the subject to discover it; or inverting this and putting the content in the subject for whom the object is an occasion. This theory of knowledge is a closed system in which subject and object mirror one another. Knowledge is envisaged as the passive inscription of a thought-content.

            Contrariwise, according to Lecourt’s reading of MEC, if the objectivity of knowledge is posited on the basis of the primacy of the real over thought, then we have an open system in which the scientific problem of the acquisition of knowledge is an experimentally available problem, and the task of philosophy is not the foundation of truth. Hence the conclusion that the theory of reflection (reflet) breaks with the philosophies of reflexivity (réflexion), while idealist theories require the primacy of the objectivity of knowledge over the primacy of being. Lecourt shows how given this idealist reversal of primacy one can also have three versions of the question of primacy itself: a consequent idealism which states the primacy of thought, a hesitant or masked idealism (otherwise known as agnosticism) which claims the identity of thought and being, and a contradictory idealism which treats the epistemological foundation of objectivity as primary but still claims a primacy of being or matter over thought. Lecourt also shows how Leninist partisanship involves a complex strategy, in this case that of occupying one adversary position (sensualist idealism) in order to destroy the enemy from within. What is more important for our purposes is Lecourt’s very interpretation of what a materialist epistemology could be. The polemical orientation of Lenin is clarified when we realise that MEC is not trying to produce a theory of knowledge, in the sense of a philosophical foundation of scientific objectivity. Once the primacy of being over thought is the primary thesis, the objectivity of knowledge is a thesis for knowledge, for experimental studies of knowledge acquisition.

            Diametrically opposed to Merleau-Ponty and Adorno alike, for Lecourt the right positioning of thesis 2 (the objectivity of knowledge), means that the whole of Lenin’s theory of reflection ‘can be read as the systematic decomposition of the phantasm of the mirror which haunts theories of knowledge’ (43). Reflection is not a passive inscription in a closed system of subject-object but an active reflection, a notion at odds with the metaphor of mirroring. Moreover, as Lefebvre himself had noted, the approximative or relative nature of knowledge, means that reflection cannot be ‘specular’. Not only is reflection active and approximative, but the centrality of practice to knowledge means that in the final analysis the basis of knowledge is social (here we can see how Lecourt posits in MEC what both Colletti and Lefebvre see as missing, with the latter looking for it in Hegel). It is practice that breaks the closure of idealist theories of knowledge. As Lecourt sums up:

What Lenin calls ‘materialist theory of knowledge’ is the set of theses induced by thesis 2 (the thesis of objectivity) posed in the materialist order that subordinates it to that of the primacy of being over thought (thesis of materiality). The set of these theses has as its function to open the field to scientific problems – coming under the sciences of nature and ‘historical materialism’ – posed by knowledge to the processes of the acquisition of knowledge. In this regard, the ‘theory’ they constitute differs radically from that which is traditionally designated by the theory of knowledge in the history of idealist philosophy: a closed system of philosophical responses to the problem of the foundation of the truth of knowledges. (47)

            A reflection without a mirror is thus ‘a reflection that takes place in a historical process of the acquisition of knowledges’ (47). This notion of process, which emerges from the cracking open of the mirroring of subject-object, is what links MEC to the Notebooks, notwithstanding the radically different materials they are operating with. It is important to note that for Lecourt the inability to grasp this continuity is a product of the quintessentially French mistake of thinking that Hegel is a thinker of the cogito, of the subject, while it is precisely subjectivism which Hegel’s logic brings into question. In doing so, Lecourt also provides a nuanced defense of Lenin’s use of Hegel’s critique of Kant, contra Colletti, identifying Lenin’s capacity to occupy those Hegelian positions which affirm the superiority of the absolute, or process, over subject – with the twist that Lenin’s take on the Hegelian dialectic involves stopping the absolute from once again becoming subject, as it does in Hegel. Both texts embody the same principle of partisanship in philosophy: always being able to discern the new stakes of the battle against idealism, of creatively occupying enemy positions (in a sense, there are no others), finally, in Lecourt’s words ‘to break with a purely speculative practice of philosophy to discern instead, in social practice, what, at each moment, determines the form of the combat’ (112).


Works cited

Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics (London: Routledge, 1990)

Lucio Colletti, Il marxismo e Hegel (Bari: Laterza, 1969)

Dominique Lecourt’s, Une crise et son enjeu (Essai sur la position de Lénine en philosophie) (Paris: F. Maspéro, 1973)

Henri Lefebvre, Pour connaître la pensée de Lénine (Paris: Bordas, 1957

V.I. Lenin, Materialism and Empirio-Criticism (Moscow: International Publishers, 1970)

Herbert Marcuse, Soviet Marxism: A Critical Analysis (New York: Columbia University Press, 1958)

Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Adventures of the Dialectic (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1973)

Simone Weil, ‘Sur le livre de Lénine «Matérialisme et empiriocriticisme»’ (1933), in Oppression et liberté (Paris: Gallimard, 1955)