Elementary Principles of Philosophy
by Georges Politzer

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AFTER having defined: first, the ideas common to all materialists; second, the arguments of all materialists against idealist philosophies; and finally, having demonstrated the error of agnosticism, we are now going to draw the conclusions from this instruction and reinforce our materialist arguments by answering the following questions:

1. What is matter?

Importance of the question. Each time that we have a problem to solve, we should state the question very clearly. In fact, here, it is not so simple to give a satisfactory answer. In order to do so we must construct a theory of matter.

In general, people think that matter is what you can touch, what is resistant and hard. In Greek antiquity matter was defined in this way.

Thanks to science, we know today that this is not exact.

2. Successive theories of matter

(Our goal is to go through as simply as possible the different theories related to matter, without entering into scientific explanations.)

In Greece it was thought that matter was a solid and impenetrable reality which could not be divided infinitely. There comes a moment, so it was said, when the pieces are no longer divisible. These particles were called atoms (atom=indivisible). A table is then a conglomeration of atoms. It was also thought that these atoms were different from each other: there were smooth and round atoms like those of oil; others were rough and crooked, like those of vinegar.

it was Democritus, a materialist of antiquity, who established this theory; he was the first to have tried to give a materialist explanation of the world. He thought, for example, that the human body was composed of coarse atoms, that the soul was a conglomeration of finer atoms and, as he recognized the existence of gods but still wanted, however, to explain everything as a materialist, he claimed that the gods themselves were composed of extra-fine atoms.

In the 19th century this theory was profoundly modified.

People still thought that matter was divided into atoms and that the latter were hard and mutually attractive particles. The theory of the Greeks had been abandoned: these atoms were no longer crooked or smooth. But people still maintained that they were impenetrable, indivisible and mutually attracted to each other.

Today, it has been shown that the atom is not an impenetrable and indivisible particle of matter. Rather it is itself composed of particles called electrons which revolve at high speed around a nucleus where almost the totality of the atom’s mass is found. If the atom is neutral, the electrons and nucleus have an electric charge, but the positive charge of the nucleus is equal to the sum of the negative charges carried by the electrons. Matter is a conglomeration of these atoms. It may resist penetration due to the motion of the particles which compose it.

The discovery of these electrical properties of matter, particularly that of electrons, provoked an attack by idealists in the beginning of the 20th century on the very existence of matter. “There is nothing material about an electron,” they claimed. “It is nothing more than an electrical charge in motion. If there is no matter in the negative charge, why should there be any in the positive nucleus? Thus matter has disappeared. There is only energy!”

Lenin, in Materialism and Empirio-Criticism (ch. 5), clarifies things by showing that energy and matter are inseparable. Energy is material and motion is but the way of life of matter. In short, idealists interpreted the discoveries of science backwardly. While the latter was uncovering aspects of matter until then unknown, they concluded that matter does not exist, under the pretext that it does not conform to the idea people used to have of it, when it was believed that matter and motion were two different realities.

3. What matter is for materialists

In this regard, it is indispensable to make a distinction; we must see first:

and then:

The answer which materialists give to the first question is that matter is an external reality, independent of the mind, and which does not need the mind to exist. Lenin says about this, “matter is the objective reality given to us in sensation, and so forth.” (Lenin, Empirio-Criticism, p. 145.)

Now, to the second question, “What is matter like?”, materialists answer, “It is up to science, not us, to answer.”

The first answer has been invariable from antiquity to today.

The second answer has varied and must vary because it depends on science and on the state of human knowledge. It is not a conclusive answer.

We see that it is absolutely indispensable to state the problem correctly and not to let idealists mix up these two questions. We must separate them and show that it is the first question which is primary and that our answer to it has always been invariable.

“For the sole ‘property’ of matter with whose recognition philosophical materialism is bound up is the property of being an objective reality, of existing outside the mind.”

4. Space, time, motion and matter

While we claim, because we find it to be so, that matter exists outside of us, we also must make it clear that:

Idealists, on the other hand, think that space and time are ideas in our minds (it was Kant who first supported this idea). For them, space is a shape which we give to things and it originates in man’s mind. The same is true for time.

Materialists maintain, on the contrary, that space is not in us, but rather we are in space. They also contend that time is an indispensable condition for the unfolding of our lives and that, consequently, time and space are inseparable from what exists outside of us, i.e., matter. “For the basic forms of all being are in space and time, and existence out of time is just as gross an absurdity as existence out of space.” (Frederick Engels, Anti-Dühring, New York: International Publishers, 1939, p. 60.)

Hence, we think that there is a reality independent of our consciousness. We all believe that the world existed before us and will continue to exist after us. We believe that the world does not need us in order to exist. We are convinced that Paris existed before our birth and, unless it is razed to the ground, will continue to exist after our death. We are certain that Paris exists, even when we are not thinking about it; likewise, there are tens of thousands of cities we have never visited, whose names we do not even know, but which exist nevertheless. Such is the general conviction of humanity. Science has enabled us to give a precision and solidity to this argument, thus reducing all the idealist trickeries to zero. “Natural science positively asserts that the earth once existed in such a state that no man or any other creature existed or could have existed on it. Organic matter is a later phenomenon, the fruit of a long evolution.” (Lenin, Empirio-Criticism, p. 69.)

Hence, while science provides us with the proof that matter exists in time and in space, it teaches us as well that matter is in motion. This last detail, which has been provided by modern science, is very important, for it destroys the old theory according to which matter was incapable of motion, i.e., inert. “Motion is the mode of existence of matter. Never anywhere has there been matter without motion, nor can there be.” (Engels, Anti-Dühring, p. 68.)

We know that the world in its present state is the result, in all domains, of a long evolution and, consequently, the result of a slow, but continuous, motion. We specify then, after having shown the existence of matter, that “There is nothing in the world but matter in motion, and matter in motion cannot move otherwise than in space and time.” (Lenin, Empirio-Criticism, p. 177.)

5. Conclusion

The result of these findings is that the idea of God, the idea of a “pure spirit” which created the universe, makes no sense, for a God outside of space and time is something which cannot exist.

We must share the idealist mystique and, consequently, we must allow no scientific control in order to believe in a God existing outside of time, i.e., existing at no moment, and existing outside of space, i.e., existing nowhere.

Materialists, strengthened by the conclusions of science, maintain that matter exists in space and at a certain moment (in time). Consequently, the universe could not have been created, for in order to create the world, God would have needed a moment which was at no moment (since for God time does not exist) and it would have been necessary for the world to have sprung out of nothing.

In order to acknowledge creation, we must first accept that there was a moment when the universe did not exist. Next we must admit that something came from nothing, which science cannot accept.

We see that idealist arguments, when confronted by science cannot stand, whereas those of materialist philosophers are inseparable from science. Thus we underline once more the intimate relations which link materialism with science.


F. Engels, Anti-Dühring, pp. 9-92 (link to MIA)

V. I. Lenin, Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, Chapter 5 (link to MIA)


1. Union of theory and practice

THE GOAL of the study which we are pursuing is to know what Marxism is, to see how the philosophy of materialism, by becoming dialectical, is identified with Marxism. We already know that one of the bases of this philosophy is the close connection between theory and practice.

This is why, after having seen what matter is for materialists and what matter is like, it is essential to state, after these two theoretical questions, what it means to be a materialist, i.e., how the materialist acts. This is the practical side of the question.

The basis of materialism is the acknowledgment of being as the source of thought. But is it enough to keep repeating that? In order to be a true supporter of consistent materialism we must be so: 1) in the sphere of thought and 2) in the sphere of action.

2. What does it mean to be a supporter of materialism in the sphere of thought?

Being a supporter of materialism in the sphere of thought means knowing how to apply the fundamental formula of materialism: being produces thought.

When we say, “being produces thought,” we are expressing an abstract formula, because the words “being” and “thought” are abstract words. “Being” refers to being in general, “thought” to thought in general. Being, as well as thought in general, is a subjective reality (see in Part One, chapter 4, the explanation of “subjective reality” and “objective reality”). It does not exist: it is what is called an abstraction. To say “being produces thought” is thus an abstract formula because it is composed of abstractions.

Hence, for example: we all know very well what horses are, but if we speak of the horse, we mean the horse in general; well then, the horse in general is an abstraction.

If we substitute for the horse “man” or “being” in general, these are also abstractions.

But if the horse in general does not exist, what does? Horses in particular. The veterinarian who says, “I treat the horse in general, but not the horse in particular,” would be laughed at; so would the doctor who says the same thing about men.

Being in general, therefore, does not exist; but what does exist is particular beings, which have particular qualities. The same thing is true for thought.

We can say then that being in general is something abstract, whereas being in particular is something concrete; the same for thought in general and thought in particular.

A materialist is someone who can recognize in every situation, who can concretize where being is and where thought is.

Example: The brain and our ideas.

We have to know how to transform the abstract general formula into a concrete formula. Thus, a materialist will identify the brain as being and our ideas as thought. He will reason by saying, “It is the brain (being) which produces our ideas (thought).” This is a simple example, but let us take the more complex example of human society and see how a materialist will reason.

The life of society is composed (basically) of an economic life and a political life. What are the relations between economic life and political life? What is the primary factor of this abstract formula which we want to transform into a concrete formula?

For the materialist, the primary factor, i.e., being, the one which gives life to society, is economic life. The secondary factor, thought which is created by being and which can live only through it, is political life.

The materialist will say then that economic life explains political life, since political life is a product of economic life.

This declaration, made here only summarily, is at the root of what is called historical materialism and was made for the first time by Marx and Engels.

Here is another more delicate example: the poet. Certainly numerous elements come into play to “explain” the poet, but here we want to show one aspect of the question only.

It is generally said that the poet writes because he is inspired. Is this sufficient to explain why the poet writes this instead of that? No. He certainly has ideas in his head, but he is also a being who lives in society. We shall see that the primary factor, the one which gives the poet his own life, is society, since the secondary factor is the ideas which the poet has in his brain. Consequently, one of the elements, the fundamental element, which “explains” the poet will be society, i.e., the milieu in which he lives in society. (We shall reencounter the “poet” when we study dialectics, for then we shall have all the elements to study the problem properly.)

From these examples we see that the materialist is someone who, everywhere and always, at each moment and in every case, knows how to apply the formula of materialism.

3. How is one a materialist in practice?

(1) First aspect of the question.

We have seen that there is no third philosophy and that, if one is not consistent in the application of materialism, either one is an idealist, or one obtains a mixture of idealism and materialism.

The bourgeois scientist, in his studies and in his experiments, is always a materialist. This is normal since, in order to advance science, one must work on matter and, if the scientist really thought that matter exists only in his mind, he would find it useless to experiment.

There are thus several varieties of scientists:

In fact, the latter have not known how or have not wanted to organize their ideas. They are in perpetual contradiction with themselves. They separate their work, necessarily materialist, from their philosophical concepts. They are “scientists,” yet, while they may not deliberately deny the existence of matter, they think, not very scientifically, that it is useless to know the real nature of things. They are “scientists,” but they believe, without any proof, in impossible things. (See the case of Pasteur, Branly and others who were believers; whereas the scientist, if he is consistent, must abandon his religious beliefs.) Science and faith are absolutely opposed.

(2) Second aspect of the question

Materialism and action: While it is true that the real materialist is one who applies the formula at the base of this philosophy everywhere and in every case, he must also be careful to apply it correctly.

As we have just seen, one must be consistent, and to be a consistent materialist, one must transpose materialism into action.

To be a materialist in practice is to act in accordance with philosophy by taking reality as the primary factor, and thought as the secondary factor.

We are going to see the attitudes of those who, without realizing it, regard thought as the primary factor and are then at that moment idealists without knowing it.

1. What do we call someone who lives as though he were alone in the world? An individualist. He lives within his shell; the outside world exists only for him. For him, the important thing is himself, his thought. He is a pure idealist, or what is called a solipsist. (See the explanation of this word in Part One, ch. 2.)

The individualist is selfish, and being selfish is not a materialist attitude. A selfish person restricts the universe to his own person.

2. The person who learns for the pleasure of learning, as a dilettante, who assimilates well, has no difficulties, but keeps it all for himself. He assigns primary importance to himself, to his thought.

The idealist is closed to the outside world, to reality. The materialist is always open to reality; this is why those who take courses in Marxism and who learn easily ought to try to transmit what they have learned.

3. The person who argues about everything in relation to himself undergoes an idealist distortion.

For example, with regard to a meeting in which things were said which were disagreeable for him, the idealist will say, “This is a bad meeting.” This is not how things should be analyzed; the meeting should be judged in relation to its organization, to its goal, and not in relation to oneself.

4. Neither is sectarianism a materialist attitude. Because the sectarian has understood the problems and is in agreement with himself, he maintains that others must be like him. This is again giving primary importance to oneself.

5. The doctrinarian who has studied the texts and has drawn definitions from them is still an idealist when he is satisfied with quoting materialist texts, when he lives only with his texts, for then the real world disappears. He repeats these formulas without applying them to reality. He gives primary importance to the texts, to ideas. Life takes place in his consciousness in the form of texts and, in general, it is found that the doctrinarian is also a sectarian.

Believing that revolution is a question of education, saying that by explaining “once and for all” to workers the necessity of a revolution they must understand and that, if they do not understand, it is not worth it to try to make a revolution, all of this is sectarianism and not a materialist attitude.

We must observe the cases where people do not understand, find out why this is so, note the repression, the propaganda of bourgeois newspapers, radio, cinema, etc., and look for all the possible ways in which to make what we want understood, by leaflets, brochures, newspapers, schools, etc.

To lack a sense of reality, to live in the clouds, and, practically, to make plans without taking situations and realities into account, is an idealist attitude, which assigns primary importance to beautiful plans without seeing whether or not they are practicable. Those who are constantly criticizing, but who do nothing to improve the situation, who propose no remedy; those who lack a critical sense towards themselves, all of these people are inconsistent materialists.

4. Conclusion

From these examples, we see that the faults which are found in us all to a greater or lesser degree are idealist faults. We are afflicted with them because we separate practice from theory and because the bourgeoisie, which has influenced us, likes us not to attach any importance to reality. For the bourgeoisie, which supports idealism, theory and practice are two completely different things having no relation. These faults are thus harmful and we should fight them, for the bourgeoisie profits from them. In short, we should observe that these faults, engendered in us by society, by the theoretical bases of our education and culture, and rooted in our childhood, are the work of the bourgeoisie—and rid ourselves of them.


UP TO now we have studied what materialism in general is and what ideas are common to all materialists. Now we are going to see how materialism has evolved since antiquity to become modern materialism. In short, we are going to trace the history of materialism.

In so few pages, we shall not attempt to explain the 2,000 years of history of materialism; we simply want to give some general information which may guide future readings.

In order to study this history well, even summarily, it is indispensable to see why, at each instant, things happened as they did. It would be better not to cite certain historical names than not to apply this method. But, while we do not wish to overload the brains of our readers, we think, nevertheless, that it is necessary to name, in chronological order, the main materialist philosophers who are more or less already known to them.

This is why, in order to simplify the work, we are going to devote the first pages to the purely historical side of the question; then, in the second part of this chapter, we shall see why the evolution of materialism had to undergo the form of development which it did.

1. The need for studying this history

The bourgeoisie does not like the history of materialism, and that is why this history, taught in bourgeois books, is altogether incomplete and always false. Several methods of falsification are used:

1. As the great materialist thinkers cannot be ignored, they are spoken of in relation to everything they have written except their materialist studies, and people forget to mention that they are materialist philosophers.

There are many cases of forgetfulness in the history of philosophy such as it is taught in the high schools and the university, but we shall cite as an example Diderot, who was the greatest materialist thinker before Marx and Engels.

2. In the course of history, there have been numerous thinkers who were either materialists without knowing it or inconsistent materialists. That is, those who, in some of their writings, were materialists, while in others they were idealists: Descartes, for example.

Yet history written by the bourgeoisie covers up everything which, in the case of these thinkers, not only influenced materialism, but also gave birth to an entire current of this philosophy.

3. Then, if these two methods of falsification do not succeed in camouflaging certain authors, they are simply made to vanish.

This is how the history of literature and philosophy in the 18th century is taught while d’Holbach and Helvetius, who were great thinkers of this period, are “ignored.”

Why are things like this? Because the history of materialism is particularly instructive for knowing and understanding the problems of the world; and also because the development of materialism is fatal for those ideologies which uphold the privileges of the ruling classes.

These are the reasons why the bourgeoisie presents materialism as a doctrine which has not changed, which has been fixed for twenty centuries, while on the contrary, materialism has been something alive and constantly moving. “But just as idealism underwent a series of stages of development, so also did materialism. With each epoch-making discovery even in the sphere of natural science it has to change its form; …” (Engels, Feuerbach, pp. 25-26.)

Now we understand better the need for studying, even summarily, this history of materialism. In order to do so, we must differentiate two periods: 1) from the origin (Greek antiquity) up to Marx and Engels; 2) from the materialism of Marx and Engels up to the present day. (We shall study this second part along with dialectical materialism.)

We call the first period “pre-Marxist materialism” and the second period “Marxist materialism” or “Dialectical materialism.”

2. Pre-Marxist materialism

    (1) Greek antiquity

Let us recall that materialism is a doctrine which has always been linked to science and which has evolved and progresses with it. When, in Greek antiquity, in the 6th and 5th centuries before Christ, science begins to appear with the “Physicists,” a materialist current is formed which attracts the best thinkers and philosophers of this period (Thales, Anaximenes, Heraclitus). These first philosophers will be, as Engels says, “naturally dialecticians.” They are struck by the fact that motion and changes are encountered everywhere and that things are not isolated, but intimately linked together.

Heraclitus, who is called the “father of dialectics,” said, “Nothing is immobile; everything flows; we do not bathe twice in the same river, for it is never, for two successive moments, the same: from one instant to another, it has changed; it has become different.”

Heraclitus was the first to try to explain motion and change and to see the reason for the evolution of things in contradiction.

The concepts of these first philosophers were correct; however, they were abandoned because they had been formulated a priori, i.e., the state of science in that period could not prove what they maintained. Moreover, those social conditions necessary for the flowering of dialectics (we shall see further on what these are) had not yet been realized.

It is only much later, in the 19th century, that the conditions (social and intellectual) allowing science to prove the correctness of dialectics will be realized.

Other Greek thinkers had materialist concepts: Leucippus (5th century B.C.), who was the instructor of Democritus, had already discussed the problem of atoms, the theory of which was established by the latter.

Epicurus (341-270 B.C.), disciple of Democritus, was a very great thinker whose philosophy was completely distorted by the Church in the Middle Ages. Out of hate for philosophical materialism, the latter presented the Epicurian doctrine as a deeply immoral doctrine, as a vindication of the lowest passions. In reality, Epicurus was an ascetic whose philosophy aimed at giving a scientific (and thus antireligious) foundation for human life.

All these philosophers were aware that philosophy was tied to the fate of humanity, and we already find there, on their part, an opposition to the official theory, an opposition to idealism.

But one great thinker dominates the Greece of antiquity: Aristotle, who was rather an idealist. His influence was considerable. This is why we must cite him especially. He drew up the inventory of human knowledge of this period and filled the gaps created by the new sciences. A universal mind, he wrote numerous books on every subject. Through the universality of his knowledge, from which only the idealist tendencies were retained while the materialist and scientific aspects were neglected, he had a considerable influence on philosophical concepts until the end of the Middle Ages, i.e., for twenty centuries.

During all this period, then, the tradition of antiquity was followed and all thinking was done through Aristotle. A savage repression raged against all those who thought otherwise. Nevertheless, towards the end of the Middle Ages, a struggle broke out between idealists who denied the existence of matter and those who thought that there was a material reality.

In the 11th and 12th centuries, this dispute was pursued in France and especially in England.

In the beginning, it is principally in the latter country that materialism develops. Marx said, “Materialism is the true son of Great Britain.”10

A bit later, it is in France that materialism will flower. In any case, in the 15th and 16th centuries we see two currents appear: one, English materialism; the other, French materialism, whose union will contribute to the prodigious blossoming of materialism in the 18th century.

    (2) English materialism

The authentic father of English materialism and all modern experimental science is Bacon. The science of nature is, in his eyes, the true science and physics, based on the experience of the senses, is its most noble and fundamental part. (See Engels, “Introduction,” Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, p. 10.)

Bacon is famous as the founder of the experimental method in scientific study. The important thing for him was to study science in the “great book of Nature.” This was particularly interesting at a period when science was studied in the books which Aristotle had left several centuries before.

For example, here is how they went about studying physics: on a certain subject the passages written by Aristotle were taken up; next the books by Thomas Aquinas, who was a great theologian, were taken up, and what the latter had written about the passage by Aristotle was read. The teacher would make no personal commentary, let alone discuss what he thought about it, but rather referred to a third work which repeated Aristotle and Saint Thomas. That was the science of the Middle Ages, which was called scholasticism: it was a bookish science, because only books were studied.

It was against this scholasticism, this set and rigid instruction, that Bacon reacted by appealing for study in the “great book of Nature.”

At this period, one question was raised:

Where do our ideas come from? Where does knowledge come from? Each one of us has ideas, the idea of house, for example. This idea comes to us because there are houses, say the materialists. Idealists think that it is God who gives us the idea of houses. As for Bacon, he said that the idea exists only because we see or touch things, but he could not as yet prove it.

It was Locke (1632-1704) who undertook to show how ideas come from experience. He showed that all ideas come from experience and that only experience gives us ideas. The idea of the first table came to man before it existed because, through experience, he was already using a tree trunk or a stone as a table.

With Locke’s ideas, English materialism passes into France in the first half of the 18th century, for, while this philosophy was developing in a particular way in England, a materialist current had formed in France.

    (3) Materialism in France

The birth of a clearly materialist current in France can be dated from Descartes (1596-1650). Descartes had a great influence on this philosophy, but, in general, it is not mentioned;

At this time, when feudal ideology was very much alive, even in the sciences, and when people studied in the scholastic way we have seen, Descartes engaged in a struggle against this situation.

Feudal ideology is imbued with a religious mentality. It therefore considers that the Church, representing God on earth, has a monopoly on truth. It follows from this that no man can claim to know the truth without subordinating his thought to the teachings of the Church. Descartes tears this concept apart. Of course, he does not attack the Church as such, but he strongly maintains that any man, believer or not, can attain the truth through the exercise of his reason (“natural light”).

Descartes declares from the beginning of his Discourse on Method that “Intelligence is the best shared thing in the world.” Consequently, everyone has the same rights with respect to science. And if, for example, he criticizes the medicine of his time (The Imaginary Invalid by Molière echoes Descartes’ criticisms), it is because he wants to establish a science which is a true science, based on the study of nature and rejecting the science which was taught before him, in which Aristotle and Saint Thomas were the only “arguments.”

Descartes lived in the beginning of the 17th century; in the following century, the French Revolution was to explode; that is why it can be said that he comes out of a world, which is about to be born. This position makes Descartes a conciliator: he wants to create a materialist science while, at the same time, he is an idealist, for he wants to save religion.

When, during his time, it was asked, 'Why are there live animals?', the response came from the ready-made answers of theology: because there is a principle which makes them live. Descartes, on the contrary, maintained that the laws of animal life are the same as those of matter. Moreover, he believed and affirmed that animals are nothing other than machines of flesh and muscle, as other machines are made of iron and wood. He even thought that both had no sensations and when, at the Abbey of Port-Royal, during the weeks of study, men who claimed they shared his philosophy pricked some dogs, they would say, “How well made Nature is, one would almost say they suffer!”

For Descartes, the materialist, animals were therefore machines. On the other hand. Descartes, the idealist, says that man is different and defended by Descartes give birth, on the one hand, to a clearly materialist current and, on the other hand, to an idealist current.

Among those who continue the materialist Cartesian branch, we may recall La Mettrie (1709-1751). Adopting the thesis of the “animal- machine,” he extends it even to man. Why shouldn’t the latter be a machine? He sees even the human soul as a mechanism in which ideas are mechanical movements.

It is at this period that English materialism, with Locke’s ideas, penetrates into France. From the juncture of these two currents a more evolved materialism will be born. This will be:

    (4) The materialism of the 18th century

This materialism was defended by philosophers who were also fighters and admirable writers. Continually criticizing social institutions and religion, applying theory to practice and always in battle with the established authorities, they were sometimes imprisoned at the Bastille or Vincennes.

It is they who united their works in the great Encyclopédie, in which they established the new orientation of materialism. They had, moreover, a large influence since this philosophy was, as Engels says, “the conviction of all cultivated youths.”

In all the history of philosophy in France, this was the only period in which a philosophy with a French character became truly popular.

Diderot, who was born in Langres in 1713 and died in Paris in 1784, dominates the entire movement. What should be said firstly, and which bourgeois history does not say, is that he was the greatest materialist thinker before Marx and Engels. Diderot, Lenin said, almost arrived at the conclusions of contemporary (dialectics) materialism.

He was a real militant: always struggling against the Church and the social order, he saw jail cells from the inside. History written by the contemporary bourgeoisie has hushed this up. But one must read the Conversations between d’Alembert and Diderot, Rameau’s Nephew and Jacques the Fatalist in order to understand the enormous influence of Diderot on materialism.

In the first half of the 19th century, due to historical events, we witness a retreat of materialism. The bourgeoisie of every country makes propaganda in favor of idealism and religion, for not only does it not wish to see progressive (materialist) ideas propagated, but also it must put both thinkers and the masses asleep in order to stay in power.

It is then that we see Feuerbach in Germany proclaiming his materialist convictions, in the midst of all the idealist philosophers, and “...placed materialism on the throne again.” (Engels, Feuerbach, p. 18.)

Developing essentially a critique of religion, he reverts, in a healthy and relevant way, to the bases of materialism which had been forgotten and thus influenced the philosophers of his time.

We come to that period of the 19th century where one notes an enormous progress in science, due in particular to the following three great discoveries: the living cell, the transformation of energy, and the theory of evolution (See Engels, Feuerbach, p. 46.) which will enable Marx and Engels, who were influenced by Feuerbach, to evolve materialism so as to give us modern materialism, or dialectical materialism.

We have just traced, quite briefly, the history of materialism before Marx and Engels. We know that the latter, though they may have agreed with the materialists who preceded them on a number of common points, also found that the work of their predecessors included numerous faults and gaps.

In order to understand how they transformed pre-Marxist materialism, it is therefore absolutely necessary to find out what these faults and gaps were and why this was so.

In other words, our study of the history of materialism would be incomplete if, after having listed the different thinkers who contributed to the progress of materialism, we did not try to find out how and in what direction this progress was made and why it underwent this or that type of evolution.

We are particularly interested in the materialism of the 18th century, since it was the culmination of different currents of this philosophy.

Hence, we are going to study what the errors of this materialism were and what gaps it left. However, since we should never look at only one side of things, but rather see them in their entirety, we shall also point out its merits.

Materialism, at first dialectical, was not able to continue on this basis. Dialectical reasoning, because of a deficiency in scientific knowledge, had to be abandoned. It was first necessary to create and develop the sciences. “It was necessary first to examine things before it was possible to examine processes.” (Engels, Feuerbach, p. 45.)

Hence, it is the very intimate union of materialism and science which will enable this philosophy to become again, on more solid and scientific bases, the dialectical materialism of Marx and Engels.

We shall find, then, the birth certificate of materialism next to that of science. But, while we can always find where materialism comes from, we should always establish as well where idealism comes from.

3. Where does idealism come from?

If, in the course of history, idealism has been able to exist alongside religion, tolerated and approved by it, this is in reality because it was born and derives from religion.

Lenin wrote a formula about this which we should study. “Idealism is nothing other than a polished and refined form of religion.” What does this mean? Just this: idealism is able to present its concepts much more supplely than religion. To claim that the universe was created by a spirit floating above the darkness, that God is immaterial, then, abruptly to declare, as does religion, that he speaks (by the Word) and that he has a son (Jesus), these are a series of brutally presented ideas. By affirming that the world exists only in our thoughts, in our minds, idealism presents itself in a more covert fashion. In fact, we know that it is all the same in meaning, but the form is less brutal and more elegant. This is why idealism is a refined form of religion.

It is also refined because idealist philosophers know how to predict questions and lay traps in discussions, as Philonous did to poor Hylas in Berkeley’s dialogues.

But saying that idealism stems from religion is only putting off the problem. We should ask ourselves immediately:

4. Where does religion come from?

Engels has given us a very clear answer on this subject: “Religion arose from primitive conceptions of men.”

For the first men this ignorance is double: ignorance of nature and ignorance of themselves. We must keep this double ignorance in mind when we study the history of primitive man.

In Greek antiquity, which we regard, however, as an already advanced civilization, this ignorance seems infantile to us; for example, when we see that Aristotle thought that the earth was immobile and that it was the center of the universe around which the planets revolved. (The latter, which he thought numbered forty-six, were attached, like nails on a ceiling, and the whole thing turned around the earth.)

The Greeks also thought that there were four elements: water, earth, air and fire, and that it was not possible to decompose them. We know that all that is false, because now we decompose water, earth and air and we do not consider fire as a body of the same order.

The Greeks were also very ignorant about man, since they did not know the functions of the organs and considered the heart, for example, to be the source of courage!

If the ignorance of the Greek scholars, whom we regard as already very advanced, was so great, what must have been that of the men who lived thousands of years before us? The concepts which primitive men had of nature and of themselves were limited by ignorance. Nevertheless, these men tried to explain things. All the documents which we possess on primitive men tell us that these men were worried by dreams. We have seen, in the first chapter (See chapter 1, part IV.), how they had resolved this question of dreams by the belief in the existence of a “double” of man. In the beginning, they attribute a sort of transparent and light body, still having a material consistence, to this double. It is not much later that their minds give birth to the concept that man has an immaterial principle in himself, which survives after death, a spiritual principle (the word comes from “spiritus,” which in Latin means “breath,” the breath which departs with the last sigh, as the moment when the “ghost is given up” and only the “double” subsists). Hence, it is the soul which explains thought and dreams.

In the Middle Ages, there were strange ideas regarding the soul. It was thought that in a fat body there was a thin soul and in a thin body, a big soul; this is why, during this period, ascetics underwent long and numerous fasts in order to have a big soul, in order to make a lot of room for the soul.

Having acknowledged the survival of man after death, first in the form of a transparent double, then in the form of the soul, the spiritual principle, primitive men created gods.

At first believing in beings who were stronger than men but still existing in a material form, they gradually came to believe in gods who existed in the form of a soul superior to ours. And this is how, after having created a multitude of gods, each with his defined function, as in Greek antiquity, they arrived at the conception of a single God. Contemporary monotheistic religion was then created. So we can see that ignorance was at the origin of religion, even in its contemporary form.

Hence, idealism arose from primitive concepts of man, from his ignorance; whereas materialism, on the contrary, arose from the retreat of these limitations.

In the course of the history of philosophy, we shall witness the continual struggle between idealism and materialism. The latter seeks to draw back the limits of ignorance, and this will be one of its glories and one of its merits. Idealism, on the contrary, and the religion which nourishes it, make every effort to sustain ignorance and to take advantage of this ignorance of the masses in order to make them tolerate their oppression, their social and economic exploitation.

5. The merits of pre-Marxist materialism

We have seen materialism being born with the Greeks as soon as an embryo of science existed. Following the principle that when science develops, so does materialism, we find in the course of history;

Idealism and materialism, then, have completely opposed origins. Throughout the centuries, we find a battle raging between these two philosophies, one which is still going on in our time, and which has not only been academic.

This struggle, which spans the history of humanity, is a conflict between science and ignorance, between two currents. One draws humanity towards ignorance and maintains it in this ignorance. The other, on the contrary, tends towards the emancipation of man by replacing ignorance with science.

This conflict has sometimes taken serious forms, as at the time of the Inquisition, when we can cite the example of Galileo, among others. The latter declared that the earth revolves. This was a new piece of knowledge which was in contradiction with the Bible and Aristotle: if the earth revolves, this means that it is not the center of the universe, but simply a point in the universe so then the frontiers of our thoughts must be widened. What then is done in view of Galileo’s discovery?

In order to keep humanity in ignorance, a religious court is set up and Galileo is ordered to apologize. Here is an example of the struggle between ignorance and science.

We ought then to judge the philosophers and scientists of this period by placing them within the context of this struggle of ignorance against science, and we shall find that by defending science they were defending materialism without knowing so themselves. Thus Descartes, through his arguments, furnished ideas which have enabled materialism to progress.

We should also see that this conflict throughout history is not simply a theoretical conflict, but also a social and political one. The ruling classes are always on the side of ignorance in this battle. Science is revolutionary and contributes to the emancipation of humanity.

The case of the bourgeoisie is typical. In the 18th century, the bourgeoisie is dominated by the feudal class; at that moment, the former is for science; it leads a struggle against ignorance and gives us l’Encyclopédie. In the 20th century, the bourgeoisie is the ruling class and, in the struggle between ignorance and science, it is for ignorance in a much more savage way than ever before (e.g., Hitlerism).

We see then that pre-Marxist materialism played a considerable role and had a very great historical importance. Throughout the conflict between ignorance and science it was able to develop a general concept of the world which was able to stand in opposition to religion and thus to ignorance. Also, thanks to the evolution of materialism, to the progress of its research, the conditions necessary for the birth of dialectical materialism were realized.

6. The faults of pre-Marxist materialism

In order to understand the evolution of materialism, to see clearly its faults and its gaps, we must never forget that science and materialism are linked together.

In the beginning, materialism was ahead of science, and this is why this philosophy was not able to assert its authority right away. It was necessary to create and develop science in order to prove that dialectical materialism was right, but that took more than twenty centuries. During this long period, materialism came under the influence of science, particularly that of the spirit of the sciences, as well as that of the most developed specific sciences.

This is why:

So, here we see what materialism was, coming out of a long and slow evolution of the sciences after the “hibernation period of the Christian Middle Ages.”

The big mistake of this period was to see the world as a big mechanism, to judge everything according to the laws of the science called mechanics. Regarding motion as being merely mechanical, it was thought that the same events would continually reproduce themselves. The machinelike aspect of things was seen, but not the living aspect. For this reason this materialism is called mechanical materialism.

Let us look at an example: how did these materialists explain thought? In this way: “The brain secretes thought as the liver secretes bile”! This is a bit simplistic! Marx’s materialism, on the contrary, gives a series of precisions. Our thoughts do not come only from the brain. We must see why we have certain thoughts and ideas, rather than others, and then we realize that society, surroundings, etc., make our ideas. Mechanical materialism considers thought to be a simple mechanical phenomenon. But it is much more! “This exclusive application of the standards of mechanics to processes of a chemical and organic nature—in which processes, it is true, the laws of mechanics are also valid, but are pushed into the background by other and higher laws—constitutes a specific but at that time inevitable limitation of classical French materialism.” (Engels, Feuerbach, pp. 26-27.)

This is the first big fault of 18th century materialism.

The consequences of this error were that history in general, i.e., the point of view of historical development, of evolution, was ignored. This materialism believed that the world does not evolve and that it returns at regular intervals to similar states; neither did it conceive of an evolution of man and animals.

This is the second fault of this materialism.

Its third mistake was that it was too contemplative; it did not sufficiently see the role of human action in the world and in society. Marx’s materialism teaches that we must not only explain the world, but also transform it. Man is an active element in history who can bring about changes in the world.

The action of Russian Communists is a living example of an action capable not only of preparing, making and bringing off a revolution, but also, since 1918, of establishing socialism in the midst of enormous difficulties.

Pre-Marxist materialism was not conscious of this concept of human action. At that time it was thought that man was a product of his milieu, whereas Marx teaches us that the milieu is a product of man and that man is therefore a product of his own activity in certain pre-established conditions. While man may be influenced by his milieu, he can also transform it and society; consequently, he can transform himself.

Hence, 18th century materialism was too contemplative, because it ignored the historical development of all things. This was inevitable at that time since scientific knowledge was not advanced enough to conceive of the world and things otherwise than through the old method of thinking: “metaphysics.”


K. Marx and F. Engels, The Holy Family (link to MIA)

G. V. Plekhanov, The Development of the Monist View of History, pp. 5-36 (link to MIA)

F. Engels, Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy, pp. 82-95 (link to MIA)

Control Questions

Chapter 1
  1. How could Pasteur be a scientist and a believer at the same time?
Chapter 2
  1. Show how book learning is both necessary and insufficient.
Chapter 3
  1. 1. Why was dialectical materialism not born in antiquity?
  2. 2. Indicate the principal materialist currents from Greek antiquity to the 18th century.
  3. 3. What are the errors and the merits of 18th century materialism?

Written Assignment
  1. Create a dialogue about God between an idealist and a materialist.