Twenty-Fifth Anniversary of the Death of Joseph Dietzgen
V. I. Lenin
Joseph Dietzgen, a tannery worker and one of the most eminent German Social-Democratic philosophical writers, died twenty-five years ago, in 1888.
Joseph Dietzgen was the author of a number of works (most of them translated into Russian) that include The Nature of the Workings of the Human Mind (published in 1869), A Socialist's Excursions into the Theory of Knowledge, Acquisition of Philosophy, etc. It was Karl Marx, in a letter to Kugelmann on December 5, 1868, who made the best appraisal of Dietzgen and his place in the history of philosophy and of the working-class movement:
"A fairly long time ago he sent me a fragment of a manuscript on the ‘faculty of thought' which, in spite of a certain confusion and of too frequent repetition, contains much that is excellent and—as the independent product of a working man—admirable."
Such is the importance of Dietzgen—a worker who arrived at dialectical materialism, i.e., Marx's philosophy, in dependently. In forming an assessment of the worker Dietzgen it is of great value to remember that he never considered himself the founder of a school.
Dietzgen spoke of Marx as the leader of a trend as early as 1873, when few people understood Marx. Dietzgen emphasised that Marx and Engels "possessed the necessary philosophical training". And in 1886, a long time after the publication of Engels's Anti-Dühring, one of the chief Marxist philosophical works, Dietzgen wrote of Marx and Engels as the "recognised founders" of a trend.
This must be borne in mind when judging the many sup porters of bourgeois philosophy, i.e., idealism and agnosticism (including Machism), who attempt to take advantage of "a certain confusion" in Dietzgen's writing. Dietzgen himself would have ridiculed such admirers and would have repulsed them.
To become politically conscious, workers should read Dietzgen but should never for a moment forget that he does not always give a true picture of the doctrine of Marx and Engels, who are the only writers from whom philosophy can be learned.
Dietzgen wrote at a time when simplified, vulgarised materialism was most widespread. Dietzgen, therefore, laid his greatest stress on the historical changes that had taken place in materialism, on the dialectical character of materialism, that is, on the need to support the point of view of development, to understand that all human knowledge is relative, to understand the multilateral connections between, and interdependence of, all phenomena in the universe, and to develop the materialism of natural history to a materialist conception of history.
Because he lays so much stress on the relativity of human knowledge, Dietzgen often becomes confused and makes incorrect concessions to idealism and agnosticism. Idealism in philosophy is a defence, sometimes extremely elaborate, sometimes less so, of clericalism, of a doctrine that places faith above science, or side by side with science, or in some way or another gives faith a place. Agnosticism (from the Greek words "a" no and "gnosis" knowledge) is vacillation between materialism and idealism, i.e., in practice it is vacillation between materialist science and clericalism. Among the agnostics are the followers of Kant (the Kantians), Hume (the positivists, realists and others) and the present-day Machists. This is why some of the most reactionary bourgeois philosophers, the most thorough-placed obscurantists and direct defenders of clericalism, try to "use" Dietzgen's mistakes.
By and large, however, Dietzgen was a materialist. He was an enemy of clericalism and agnosticism. "The only thing we have in common with earlier materialists," wrote Dietzgen, "is that we accept matter as the prerequisite to, or foundation of, the idea." That "only thing" is precisely the essence of philosophical materialism.
"The materialist theory of knowledge," wrote Dietzgen, "may be reduced to a recognition of the fact that the human organ of knowledge does not irradiate any metaphysical light but is a bit of nature that reflects other bits of nature." That is the materialist theory of the reflection in human knowledge of eternally moving and changing matter, a theory that evokes hatred and horror, calumny and distortion on the part of all official, professorial philosophy. And how Dietzgen berated and branded the "certificated lackeys of clericalism", the idealist professors, the realists and others—how he lambasted them with the deep passion of a true revolutionary! "Of all parties," Dietzgen rightly said, speaking of the philosophical "parties", i.e., materialism and idealism, "the vilest is the party of the centre".
To this "vile party" belong the Luch editorial board and Mr. S. Semkovsky (Luch No. 92). The editors made a tiny reservation. "We do not share the general philosophical point of view", they say, but the exposition of Dietzgen's views is "correct and clear".
That is an appalling untruth. Mr. Semkovsky unconscionably misquoted and distorted Dietzgen, seizing upon the "confusion" and ignoring Marx's appraisal of Dietzgen. Incidentally, both Plekhanov, a socialist who possesses the greatest knowledge of the philosophy of Marxism, and the best Marxists of Europe have recognised that appraisal in full.
Mr. Semkovsky distorts both philosophical materialism and Dietzgen, talking nonsense on the question of "one or two worlds" (this, supposedly, is the "key question"! Learn a little, my friend, at least read Engels's Ludwig Feuerbach) and on the question of the universe and phenomena (Dietzgen is supposed to have reduced the real world to nothing but phenomena; this is clerical and professorial slander of Dietzgen).
It is impossible to list all Mr. Semkovsky's distortions. Let workers interested in Marxism know that the Luch editors are a union of liquidators of Marxism. Some want to liquidate the underground, i.e., the Party of the proletariat (Mayevsky, Sedov, F. D., etc.), others, the idea of the hegemony of the proletariat (Potresov, Koltsov, etc.), the third, the philosophical materialism of Marx (Mr. Semkovsky & Co.), the fourth, the internationalism of proletarian socialism (the Bund members Kosovsky, Medem and other supporters of "cultural-national autonomy"), the fifth, the economic theory of Marx (Mr. Maslov with his theory of rent and the "new" sociology) and so on and so forth.
This blatant distortion of Marxism by Mr. Semkovsky and the editors who defend him is only one of the more obvious examples of the "activities" of this literary "union of liquidators".
Published: Pravda No. 102, May 5, 1913.|
Signed: V. Ilyin.
Published according to the Pravda text.
Source: Lenin Collected Works, Progress Publishers, 1977, Moscow, Volume 19, pages 79-82.
Translated: The Late George Hanna
eSource: Marxists.org - Marxists Internet Archive