Elementary Principles of Philosophy
by Georges Politzer

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1. Why must we study philosophy?

WE PROPOSE, in the course of this work, to present and explain the elementary principles of materialist philosophy.

Why? Because Marxism is intimately linked with a philosophy and a method: those of dialectical materialism. It is therefore indispensable to study this philosophy and this method in order to fully understand Marxism and to refute the arguments of bourgeois theories as well as to undertake an effective political struggle.

Indeed, Lenin said, “Without revolutionary theory, there can be no revolutionary movement.” (V. I. Lenin, What Is To Be Done?) This means firstly: we must tie theory and practice together.

What is practice? It is the act of realizing. For example, industry and agriculture realize (i.e., transform into reality) certain theories (certain chemical, physical or biological theories).

What is theory? It is the knowledge of the things which we want to realize.

A person may be only practical—but then he realizes routinely. A person may be only theoretical—but then what he conceives of is often unrealizable. It is necessary therefore for there to be a connection between theory and practice. The question is to know what this theory is to be and what its connection with practice is to be.

We think that the militant worker must have a correct method of analyzing and reasoning in order to realize a correct revolutionary action. We believe that he needs a method that is not a dogma providing him with ready-made solutions, but rather one that takes facts and circumstances, which are never the same, into account and that never separates theory from practice, reasoning from life. It is precisely this method which is contained in the philosophy of dialectical materialism, the basis of Marx-ism, which we propose to explain.

2. Is the study of philosophy a difficult thing?

It is generally thought that the study of philosophy is a very difficult thing for workers and demands a specialized knowledge. It must be admitted that the way in which bourgeois manuals have been written certainly would confirm this idea and discourage workers.

We are not trying to deny the difficulties presented by study in general and by philosophy in particular; but these difficulties are perfectly surmountable, and they stem from the fact that it is a question of something new for many of our readers.

From the beginning, moreover, we are going to ask them to reexamine the definitions of words which have been distorted in colloquial speech.

3. What is philosophy?

Commonly, a philosopher is understood to be either someone who has his head in the clouds or someone who always sees the good side of things, who does not worry too much about things. However, quite the contrary, a philosopher is someone who wants to find certain precise answers for certain questions; and if we consider that philosophy tries to explain the problems of the universe (Where does the world come from? Where are we going? etc.), we see that, consequently, the philosopher is concerned with many things, and, conversely to what is said, worries quite a bit.

Hence, to define philosophy, we shall say that it seeks to explain the universe and nature and that it is the study of the most general problems.

Less general problems are studied by the sciences. Philosophy is thus an extension of the sciences in the sense that it derives from the sciences and is dependent on them.

We hasten to add that Marxist philosophy provides a method for resolving all problems and that this method belongs to what is called materialism.

4. What is materialist philosophy?

Here again a confusion exists which we must quickly denounce. Commonly, we consider a materialist to be someone who only wishes to enjoy material pleasures. Playing on the word “materialism,” which contains the word “matter,” people have given it a completely false meaning.

While studying materialism, in the scientific sense of the word, we are going to return its true meaning to it. Our being materialists does not prevent us from examining materialism or from having an ideal and fighting for its triumph.

The first men tried to explain nature and the world but were unable to. The sciences enable us to explain the world and the phenomena which surround us; however, the discoveries which have permitted the sciences to progress are quite recent.

The ignorance of the first men was therefore an obstacle to their quest for truth. That is why in the course of history, because of this ignorance, we see religions sprouting up, which also try to explain the world, but by supernatural forces. This is an antiscientific explanation. However, gradually, as science develops and as the centuries pass, men will try to explain the world by material facts based on scientific experiments. It is from there, from this desire to explain the world by the sciences, that materialist philosophy is born.

In the following pages, we are going to study what materialism is, but, from now on we must remember that materialism is nothing other than the scientific explanation of the universe.

While studying the history of materialist philosophy, we shall see how difficult the struggle against ignorance has been. We must state, moreover, that even today this struggle is not over, since materialism and ignorance continue to subsist side by side.

It is in the heart of this struggle that Marx and Engels intervened. Understanding the importance of the great discoveries of the 19th century, they enabled materialist philosophy to make enormous advances in the scientific explanation of the universe. It is in this way that dialectical materialism was born. They were the first to understand that the laws which govern the world can also explain the progress of societies. This was how they formulated the famous theory of historical materialism.

In this work we propose to study first, materialism, then dialectical materialism and finally historical materialism. But, firstly, we would like to establish the relationship between materialism and Marxism.

5. What is the relationship between materialism and Marxism?

This can be summarized in the following way:

1. The philosophy of materialism constitutes the basis of Marxism. (V. I. Lenin, The Three Sources and Three Component Parts of Marxism)

2. This materialist philosophy, which seeks to provide a scientific explanation for the problems of the world, progresses, in the course of history, at the same time as the sciences. Consequently, Marxism has resulted from the sciences, is based on them and evolves with them.

3. Before Marx and Engels, at several times and in different forms, there were materialist philosophies. But, in the 19th century, the sciences having taken a great step forward, Marx and Engels renewed this old materialism with the help of modern science and gave us modern materialism, which is called dialectical materialism, and which constitutes the basis of Marxism.

We see from these few explanations that the philosophy of materialism, contrary to what is said, has a history. This history is intimately linked with that of the sciences. Marxism, based on materialism, did not come out of the brain of a single man. It is the result and the continuation of the old materialism, which was already very advanced with Diderot. Marxism is the flowering of the materialism developed by the Encyclopedists of the 18th century. Marxism is a living theory, and to show right away the manner in which it looks at problems, we are going to take an example which everyone knows: the problem of class struggle.

What do people think about this question? Some think that the fight for their daily bread has nothing to do with political struggle. Others think that it is sufficient to fight in the street, denying the necessity of organization. Still others claim that only political struggle will provide a solution to this question.

For the Marxist, the class struggle includes:

The problem must therefore be placed simultaneously in these three contexts.

a. One cannot fight for daily bread without fighting for peace, without defending liberty, and without defending all those ideas which help the struggle for these objectives.

b. The same thing holds true for the political struggle, which, since Marx’s time, has become a true science: one is obligated to take into account at the same time the economic situation and ideological currents in order to fight such a struggle.

c. As for the ideological struggle, which appears through propaganda, in order for it to be efficient one must take into account the economic and political situations.

Thus we see that all these problems are intimately linked and, hence, one can make no decision about any aspect of this great problem, the class struggle—in a strike for example—without taking into consideration each aspect of the problem and the problem as a whole.

Therefore, it is the person who is capable of fighting in all these areas who will give the best leadership to the movement.

This is how a Marxist understands the problem of class struggle. Now, in the ideological struggle which we must carry on every day, we find ourselves faced with problems which are difficult to resolve: the immortality of the soul, the existence of God, the origins of the world, etc. It is dialectical materialism which will give us a method of reasoning, which will allow us to resolve all these problems and, as well, to expose all those attempts to distort Marxism, while claiming to complete or renew it.

6. Campaigns of the bourgeoisie against Marxism

These attempts at falsification are based on quite varied arguments. Some people try to stir up the socialist authors of the pre-Marxist period (before Marx) against Marxism. In this way, we often see the “utopians” used against Marx. Others use Proudhon; still others draw from the revisionists before 1914 (although they were skillfully refuted by Lenin). But what must be especially emphasized is the campaign of silence which the bourgeoisie has undertaken against Marxism. It has done everything to prevent the Marxist form of materialist philosophy from being known. Particularly striking in this regard is the whole of philosophical instruction given in France.

In establishments of secondary education philosophy is taught. But one could go through this whole instruction without ever learning that there exists a materialist philosophy elaborated by Marx and Engels. When materialism is spoken of in the philosophy manuals (for it must be mentioned!), Marxism and materialism are treated separately. Marxism is generally presented uniquely as a political doctrine, and when historical materialism is spoken of, it is not mentioned in connection with the philosophy of materialism. Finally, dialectical materialism is totally neglected.

This situation does not exist solely in the primary schools and the high schools: it is exactly the same in the universities. Typically, in France one can be a “specialist” in philosophy, endowed with the highest diplomas available from French universities, without knowing that Marxism has a philosophy, which is materialism, and without knowing that traditional materialism has a modern form, which is Marxism, or dialectical materialism.

What we ourselves wish to show is that Marxism includes a general concept not only of society, but even of the universe itself. It is therefore useless, contrary to what some claim, to regret that the great defect of Marxism is its lack of philosophy, and to try, as some “theoreticians” of the workers’ movement do, to find this philosophy which Marxism lacks. For Marxism does have a philosophy: dialectical materialism.

Nevertheless, in spite of this campaign of silence, despite all the falsifications made and precautions taken by the ruling classes, Marxism and its philosophy are becoming better and better known.


H. Selsam and H. Martel, eds., Reader in Marxist Philosophy: From the Writings of Marx, Engels, and Lenin (New York: International Publishers. 1963) “Introduction,” pp. 17-44.


1. How should we begin the study of philosophy?

IN OUR introduction, we said repeatedly that the philosophy of dialectical materialism was the basis of Marxism.

The goal which we propose for ourselves is the study of this philosophy; but, in order to attain this goal, we must advance by stages.

When we speak of dialectical materialism, we have before us two words: dialectical and materialism, which means that materialism is dialectical. We know that materialism already existed before Marx and Engels, but that it was they, with the help of the discoveries in the 19th century, who transformed this materialism and created “dialectical” materialism.

We shall examine later on the meaning of the word “dialectical,” which designates the modern form of materialism.

But since there were materialist philosophers before Marx and Engels (for example, Diderot in the 18th century), and since all materialists have points in common, we must first study the history of materialism before taking up dialectical materialism. We must also know the concepts with which people oppose materialism.

2. Two ways to explain the world

We have seen that philosophy is the “study of the most general problems” and that its goal is to explain the world, nature and man.

If we open a bourgeois philosophy manual, we are bewildered by the numerous different philosophies which we find. They are designated by a variety of more or less complicated words all ending in “ism”: criticism, evolutionism, intellectualism, etc., and this variety creates confusion. The bourgeoisie, moreover, has done nothing to clarify this situation; on the contrary. But we can already classify these systems and distinguish two large currents, two clearly opposed concepts:

3. Matter and spirit

When philosophers took it upon themselves to explain the world, nature and man, in fact everything that surrounds us, they were obliged to make some distinctions. We ourselves can state that there are some things, material objects, which we see and touch. Then there are other realities which we cannot see or touch, or measure, such as our ideas.

Hence, we may classify things in this way: on the one hand, those which are material; on the other hand, those which are not material and which belong to the domain of the spirit, thought and ideas.

This is how philosophers found themselves in the presence of matter and spirit.

4. What is matter? What is spirit?

We have just seen, generally, how people came to classify things according to whether they are matter or spirit.

But we should note that this distinction is made in different forms and in different words.

Thus, instead of speaking of spirit we speak also of thought, of our ideas, of our conscience, and of the soul; the same as when we speak of nature, of the world, of the earth, or of being, we are really talking about matter.

Similarly, when Engels, in his book Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy, speaks of being and thought, being signifies matter and thought signifies spirit.

To define what thought or spirit, being or matter is, we shall say:

Thought is the idea which we conceive of things; some of these ideas ordinarily come to us through our sensations and correspond to material objects; other ideas, like those of God, of philosophy, of the infinite, of thought itself, do not correspond to material objects. The essential thing to remember is that we have ideas, thoughts or feelings because we see and we feel.

Matter or being is what our sensations and our perceptions show and present to us; more generally, it is everything which surrounds us, which is called the “exterior world.” For example, my piece of paper is white. Knowing that it is white is an idea, and it is my senses which give me this idea. But matter is the piece of paper itself.

This is why, when philosophers speak of the relations between being and thought, or between spirit and matter, or between consciousness and the brain, etc., it all deals with the same question and means: between matter and spirit, or between being and thought, which is the more important term? Which one is prior to the other? This is the fundamental question of philosophy.

5. The fundamental problem or question of philosophy

Each one of us has wondered what happens to us after death, where the world comes from, and how the earth was formed. And it is difficult for us to admit that there has always been something. We tend to think at a certain moment there was nothing. That is why it is easier to believe what religion teaches: “the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters… then matter came.” Likewise, we wonder where our thoughts are, and thus we have the problem of the relationship between the brain and thought. Moreover, there are many other ways of asking the same question. For example, what is the relation between will and ability? “Will” means here spirit or thought; and “ability” signifies what is possible: being or matter. Also, we frequently run into the question of the relation between “social conscience” and “social being.”

The fundamental question of philosophy is presented, therefore, in different ways. We see how important it is always to recognize the way in which the problem of the relation between matter and spirit is presented, for we know that there can be only two answers to this question:

6. Idealism or materialism

This is how philosophers were caused to take a position on this important question.

The first men, completely ignorant, having no knowledge of the world or of themselves, and possessing only poor technical means of acting on the world, attributed the responsibility for everything which surprised them to supernatural beings. In their imagination, they arrived at the conclusion that each one of us has a double existence. Troubled by the idea of this “double,” they came to imagine that their ideas and their sensations were produced not by activities of their “bodies, but of a distinct soul which inhabits the body and leaves it at death….” (Frederick Engels, Ludwig Feuerbach, New York: International Publishers, 1941, p. 20.)

Afterwards was born the idea of the immortality of the soul and of a possible life of the spirit independent of matter.

Similarly, the weakness and anxiety of these men, when confronted with the forces of nature and all those phenomena which they did not understand and which the level of technology did not permit them to dominate (germination, storms, floods, etc.), led them to suppose that, behind these forces, there were all-powerful beings, “spirits” or “gods,” benevolent or malevolent, but, in any case, capricious.

Thus they believed in gods, in beings more powerful than men, but they imagined them in the form of men or animals, as material bodies. It was only later that souls and gods (then the only God, which replaced the gods) were conceived of as pure spirits.

Then they arrived at the idea that there existed in reality spirits who had a quite specific life, completely independent of that of bodies, and who did not need bodies to exist.

Later this question was raised in a more precise manner with relation to religion, in the following form: “Did god create the world or has the world been in existence eternally? The answers which the philosophers gave to this question split them into two great camps.” (Engels, Feuerbach, p. 21.)

Those who, adopting the unscientific explanation, acknowledged the creation of the world by God, i.e., affirmed that spirit had created matter, formed the faction of idealism.

The others, those who tried to give a scientific explanation of the world and who thought that nature or matter was the principal element, belong to the different schools of materialism.

At their origin, these two expressions, idealism and materialism, meant only that.

Hence, idealism and materialism give two opposed and contradictory answers to the fundamental problem of philosophy.

Idealism is the unscientific concept of the world. Materialism is the scientific concept of the world.

We shall see the proof of this statement later, but we can say at present that, while one may observe in one’s experience that there are bodies devoid of thought, like stones, metals, or earth, one can never find, on the other hand, the existence of a spirit without a body.

To conclude this chapter unambiguously, we see that to answer the question “How is it that man thinks?” there can be only two quite different and totally opposed answers:

First answer: Man thinks because he has a soul.

Second answer: Man thinks because he has a brain.

According to which answer we give, we will be led to give different solutions to the problems which flow from this question.

According to our answer, we are idealists or materialists.


F. Engels, Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy, Chapters 1 and 2 (link to MIA)

H. Selsam and H. Martel, eds., Reader in Marxist Philosophy: From the Writings of Marx, Engels, and Lenin (New York: International Publishers, 1963), pp. 7-39.

G. V. Plekhanov, Fundamental Problems of Marxism (link to MIA)


1. Moral idealism and philosophical idealism

WE HAVE denounced the conclusion created in popular language regarding materialism. The same confusion is found with regard to idealism, indeed, we mustn’t confuse moral idealism with philosophical idealism.

Moral idealism consists of devoting oneself to a cause or an ideal. The history of the international workers’ movement teaches us that an incalculable number of revolutionaries, of Marxists, devoted themselves even to the point of sacrificing their lives for a moral ideal. However, they were adversaries of that other idealism which is called philosophical idealism.

Philosophical idealism is a doctrine whose basis is the explanation of the world by spirit.

It is the doctrine which answers the fundamental questions of philosophy by saying, “It is thought which is the principal, the most important, the first element.” And idealism, by affirming the primary importance of thought, declares that it is thought which produces being, or, in other words, that “it is spirit which produces matter.”

Such is the primary form of idealism; it has found its full development in religions by affirming that God, “pure spirit,” is the creator of matter.

Religion, which has claimed and still claims to be beyond philosophical discussion, is in reality, on the contrary, the direct and logical representation of idealist philosophy.

Now, when science gradually intervened in the course of history, it became necessary to explain matter, the world and things otherwise than by God alone. For, from the 16th century onwards, science began to explain natural phenomena without taking God into account and without using the hypothesis of creation.

To combat these scientific, materialist and atheistic explanations better, it therefore became necessary to push idealism further and to deny the very existence of matter.

That was the aim, in the beginning of the 18th century, of an English bishop, Berkeley, who has been called the Father of Idealism.

2. Why should we study Berkeley’s Idealism?

The goal of his philosophical system was then to destroy materialism, to try to show us that material substance does not exist. He writes in the preface to his book Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous: “If these principles are accepted and regarded as true, it follows that atheism and skepticism are, with the same stroke, completely beaten, that obscure questions are made clear, that nearly insoluble questions are resolved and that the men who used to enjoy paradoxes are brought back to common sense.”

Thus, for Berkeley the truth is that matter does not exist and that it is paradoxical to claim the contrary.

We are going to see how he goes about showing us this. I think that it is not useless to insist on this, so that those who wish to study philosophy will take Berkeley’s theory into very great consideration.

I know full well that Berkeley’s theses will make some smile, but we mustn’t forget that we are living in the 20th century and that we benefit from all the studies of the past. We shall see, moreover, when we study materialism and its history, that materialist philosophers of the past also bring a smile to the lips at times.

We should know, however, that Diderot, who was the greatest materialist philosopher before Marx and Engels, attached some importance to Berkeley’s system since he describes it as “a system which, to the shame of human intelligence and philosophy, is the most difficult to combat, although the most absurd of all.” (Diderot, quoted by Lenin in Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, New York: International Publishers, 1927, p. 27.)

Lenin himself dedicated many pages to Berkeley’s philosophy and writes, “the ‘recent’ Machians have not adduced a single argument against the materialists that had not been adduced by Bishop Berkeley.” (V. I. Lenin, Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, New York: International Publishers, 1970, p. 30.)

Finally, here is a judgment of Berkeley’s immaterialism which is given in a history of philosophy manual used in French high schools: “A certainly still imperfect but admirable theory which should destroy forever, in philosophical minds, the belief in a material substance.”

This points out how important his philosophical reasoning is for everyone, although for different reasons, as these quotations have shown you.

3. Berkeley’s Idealism

The goal of this system therefore is to show that matter does not exist. Berkeley used to say:

For Berkeley things exist; he does not deny their nature and their existence. But he claims that they exist only in the form of sensations which make us know them and concludes that our sensations and objects are one and the same thing.

Things exist, that is certain, he said, but in us, in our minds; and they have no reality outside of the mind.

We conceive of things with the help of vision; we perceive them with the help of touch; the sense of smell tells us of their odor; that of taste informs us of their taste; hearing tells us of sounds. These different sensations give us ideas which, combined together, make us give them a common name and regard them as objects.

“Thus, for example, a certain color, taste, smell, figure and consistence having been observed to go together, are accounted one distinct thing, signified by the name apple; other collections of ideas constitute a stone, a tree, a book, and the like sensible things.” (Lenin, Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, p. 15.)

We are then deluding ourselves when we think we know the world and things to be exterior to us, since they exist only in our minds.

In his book, Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous, Berkeley demonstrates this argument in the following way:

Since it is absurd to believe that a thing can be in itself different at the same time, we must conclude that this thing exists only in our minds.

What does Berkeley do then in his method of reasoning and discussion? He strips objects and things of all their properties.

“You say that objects exist because they have a color, an odor, a flavor, because they are big or small, light or heavy? I am going to show you that this does not exist in the objects, but in our minds.

“Here is a piece of cloth: you tell me it is red. Are you sure? You think that the red color is in the cloth itself. Are you certain? You know that there are animals that have eyes which are different from ours and who will not see this cloth as red; the same for a man who has jaundice and who will see it as yellow! So what color is it? That depends, you say? The red color, therefore, is not located in the cloth but in the eye, in us.

“You say that this cloth is light? Let it fall on an ant and it will certainly find it heavy. Then who is right? You think that the weather is hot? If you had a fever, you would find it cold. So is it hot or cold?

“In a word, if the same things can be at the same instant red, heavy or hot for some and for others exactly the opposite, this means that we are victims of illusions and that things exist only in our minds.”

By removing all properties from objects, we arrive at the conclusion that the latter exist only in our thoughts, that is, that matter is an idea.

Already, before Berkeley, Greek philosophers used to say, and correctly so, that certain qualities such as taste and sound were not in things themselves but rather in us.

But what is new about Berkeley’s theory is that he extends this observation to all the qualities of objects.

Greek philosophers had in fact established the following distinction between qualities of things:

On the one hand, there are primary qualities, that is, those which are in objects, such as weight, size, resistance, etc.

On the other hand, there are secondary qualities, that is, those which are in us, such as odor, flavor, heat, etc.

Yet Berkeley applies the same thesis to primary qualities as to secondary qualities, namely that all qualities and properties are not in objects but in us.

If we look at the sun, we see it as round, flat and yellow. Science teaches us that we are mistaken, that the sun is not flat or yellow. Thus, with the help of science, we disregard certain false properties which we assign to the sun, but not to the point of concluding that it does not exist! However, such is the conclusion Berkeley arrives at.

Berkeley is certainly not mistaken in showing that the distinction made by the Ancients does not stand up to scientific analysis, but he commits an error in reasoning, a sophism, by drawing conclusions from these observations which the latter do not imply. He shows in fact that the qualities of things are not as our senses show them to be, i.e., that our senses fool us and deform material reality, and he concludes right away that material reality does not exist.

4. Consequences of idealist arguments

The proposition being “everything exists only in our minds,” we must conclude that the exterior does not exist.

Pushing this line of reasoning to its conclusion, we would say, “I alone exist, since I know other men only through my ideas, since other men are, like material objects, only collections of ideas.” This is what is called in philosophy “solipsism” (which means only myself).

Berkeley, as Lenin tells us in his book mentioned above, defends himself instinctively against the accusation of supporting such a theory. We even find that solipsism, the extreme form of idealism, has been supported by no philosopher.

This is why, in our discussions with idealists, we should insist on bringing out the fact that arguments which deny the existence of matter, to be logical and consistent, must ultimately lead to this absurd extremity, solipsism.

5. Idealist arguments

We have sought to summarize Berkeley’s theory as simply as possible because it is he who has most frankly set forth what philosophical idealism is.

But it is certain that, to really understand these arguments, which are new for us, it is now indispensable to take them very seriously and to make an intellectual effort. Why?

Because we shall see later on that even when idealism is presented in a more hidden way with new words and expressions, all idealist philosophies are really only restating the arguments of “old Berkeley.” (Lenin).

We shall also see how much idealist philosophy, which has dominated and continues to dominate the official history of philosophy, bringing with it a method of thought with which we are saturated, has been able to penetrate us in spite of an entirely secular education.

Since the basis of the arguments of all idealist philosophies is found in the reasoning of Bishop Berkeley, in order to summarize this chapter we are going to try to define what these main arguments are and what they are attempting to show us.

    (1) Spirit creates matter

This is, we know, the idealist answer to the fundamental question of philosophy; it is the primary form of idealism which is reflected in different religions, where it is maintained that spirit created the world.

This declaration can have two meanings:

Either God created the world, and the latter exists in reality, outside of us. This is the ordinary idealism of theology.

Or God created the illusion of the world by giving us ideas which correspond to no material reality. This is the “immaterialist idealism” of Berkeley, who tries to show us that spirit is the sole reality, matter being a product fabricated by our minds.

This is why idealists declare that:

    (2) The world does not exist outside of our thoughts

This is what Berkeley wants to show us by declaring that we are mistaken to attribute to things properties and qualities which belong to them, when these exist only in our minds.

For idealists, benches and tables exist, but only in our thoughts and not outside of us, for

    (3) It is our ideas which create things

In other words, things are the reflection of our thoughts. Indeed, since it is the mind which creates the illusions of matter, since it is the mind which gives the idea of matter to our thoughts, since the sensations which we experience in the presence of things do not originate in the things themselves, but only in our thoughts, the source of the reality of the world and of things is our thoughts; consequently, everything which surrounds us does not exist outside of our minds and can only be the reflection of our thoughts. But, for Berkeley, as our mind would be incapable of creating by itself these ideas, and since, moreover, it does not do whatever it wishes with them (as would be possible if it created them itself), we must admit that there is another, more powerful mind which is the creator. It is therefore God who creates our minds and who imposes on us all the ideas of the world which are found there.

These are then the principal theses on which idealist doctrines are founded and the answers which they give to the fundamental question of philosophy. It is now time to see what answer materialist philosophy gives to this question and to the problems raised by these propositions.


G. Berkeley, The Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous (link to pdf)

V. I. Lenin, Materialism and Empirio-Criticism pp. 9-31 (link to MIA)


1. Why should we study materialism?

WE HAVE seen that, for the question “What are the relations between being and thought?” there can only be two opposed and contradictory answers. In the preceding chapter we have studied the idealist answer and the arguments presented to defend idealist philosophy.

We must now study the second answer to this fundamental problem (a problem, we repeat, which is found at the base of any philosophy) and see what arguments materialism puts forth in its defense. All the more so because materialism is a very important philosophy for us since it is the philosophy of Marxism.

Consequently, it is indispensable to know materialism well, especially because the concepts of this philosophy are very poorly known and have been distorted. It is important also because, through our education, through the instruction which we have received, we are all more or less, without realizing it, imbued with idealist concepts. (We shall see, moreover, in other chapters several examples of this and why this is so.)

2. Where does materialism come from?

We have defined philosophy generally as an effort to explain the world and the universe. But we know that, along with the state of human knowledge, these explanations have changed and that two attitudes have been adopted to explain the world in the course of the history of humanity: one is antiscientific, appealing to a superior spirit or spirits, to supernatural forces; the other is scientific, being founded on facts and experience.

One of these concepts is defended by idealist philosophers, the other by materialist philosophers.

This is why, from the beginning of this book we have said that the first idea which we should entertain about materialism is that this philosophy represents the “scientific explanation of the universe.”

Whereas idealism was born from the ignorance of man—and we shall see how this ignorance has been maintained in the history of societies by cultural and political forces which shared idealist concepts—materialism was born from the struggle of science against ignorance or obscurantism.

This is why this philosophy was fought so hard and why, in its modern form (dialectical materialism), it is little known, if not totally ignored or misunderstood by the official academic world.

3. How and why materialism has evolved

Contrary to what those who fight this philosophy and who say that this doctrine has not evolved for twenty centuries claim, the history of materialism shows us that there is something in this philosophy which is alive and always moving.

Over the centuries, man’s scientific knowledge has progressed. In the beginning of the history of thought, in Greek antiquity, scientific knowledge was practically nonexistent. The first scientists were at the same time philosophers, because during this period philosophy and the newly-born sciences formed a whole, the one being the extension of the others.

Later on, when the sciences made precisions in the explanation of the phenomena of the world, precisions which interfered with and were even in contradiction with the dogmas of idealist philosophies, a conflict between philosophy and science was born.

The sciences being in contradiction with the official philosophy of this period, it became necessary for them to separate. So “the sciences were in a hurry to get out of the philosophical hodgepodge and to leave the sweeping hypotheses to the philosophers in order to concentrate on limited problems, those which are ripe for an early solution. At the moment the distinction between the sciences and philosophy took place.” (Rene Maublanc, La Vie ouvrière, 25 November, 1935.)

But materialism, born with the sciences, linked to and dependent on them, has progressed and evolved with them, so that with modern materialism, that of Marx and Engels, it has succeeded in reuniting science and philosophy in dialectical materialism.

Later on we shall study this history and evolution, which are attached to the progress of civilization, but already we can note, and this is very important to retain, that materialism and science are linked together and that materialism is absolutely dependent on science.

It remains for us to establish and define the bases of materialism, bases which are common to all the philosophies which, in different ways, are derived from materialism.

4. What are the materialist principles and arguments?

To answer, we must go back to the fundamental question of philosophy, that of the relations between being and thought: which of the two is the more important?

Materialists declare firstly that there is a definite relation between being and thought, between matter and spirit. For them it is being or matter which is the primary reality, the first thing, and it is spirit or mind which is the secondary and posterior reality, dependent on matter.

So, for materialists, it is not spirit or God who has created the world and matter, but rather the world, matter or nature which has created spirit: “mind itself is merely the highest product of matter.” (Engels, Feuerbach, p. 25.)

This is why, if we reconsider the question which we asked in the second chapter, “How is it that man thinks?”, materialists answer that man thinks because he has a brain and that thought is the product of the brain. For them, there can be no thought without matter, without a body. “…our consciousness and thinking, however supra-sensuous they may seem, are the product of a material, bodily, organ, the brain.” (Engels, Feuerbach, p. 25.)

Consequently, for materialists, matter and being are something real, existing outside of our thoughts, and do not need thought or spirit to exist. Likewise, since spirit cannot exist without matter, there is no immortal soul which is independent of the body.

Contrary to what idealists say, the things which surround us exist independently of us: they give us our thoughts; and our ideas are only the reflection of the things in our brains.

That is why, with respect to the second aspect of the question of the relations between being and thought:

…in what relation do our thoughts about the world surrounding us stand to this world itself? Is our thinking capable of the cognition of the real world? Are we able in our ideas and notions of the real world to produce a correct reflection of reality? In philosophical language this question is called the question of the “identity of thinking and being,”… (Engels, Feuerbach, p. 21.)

—materialists declare: Yes! we can know the world, and the ideas which we entertain about this world are more and more correct, since we can study it with the help of the sciences, and since the latter are continually proving to us through experience that the things which surround us have indeed a reality which is their own, independent of us, and that man can already in part reproduce these things by creating them artificially.

To summarize, we shall say then that materialists, with respect to the fundamental problem of philosophy, maintain:

Editors’ Note

To fully understand this chapter, relate it to the information found in Part Two, Chapter 2, Section 2, and in Part Six, Chapter 1.

When Engels says that thought is a “product” of the brain, we should not deduce from this that the brain secretes thought like the liver secretes bile. On the contrary, Engels fought this point of view (notably in Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy. See also Lenin, Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, Ch. 1 and 2).

Consciousness is not the secretion of an organ, it is the function of the brain. It is not a “thing” like bile or hormones. It is an activity. In certain more complex organic conditions which cause the cerebral cortex to intervene—organic conditions which are themselves social conditions, as Politzer shows us later—human activity is conscious.


G. V. Plekhanov, Fundamental Problems of Marxism, pp. 40-47 (link to MIA)


1. How we should state the question

NOW THAT we know the arguments of idealists and materialists, we are going to try to find out who is right.

Let us recall that we must remark, on the one hand, that these arguments are absolutely opposed and contradictory, and, on the other hand, that as soon as one defends one theory or the other, this position leads to conclusions whose consequences are very important.

In order to know who is right, we must refer to the three points with which we have summarized each argument:

Idealists maintain:

Materialists maintain exactly the opposite.

To facilitate our work, we must first study what seems to be common sense and what surprises us the most.

These are two arguments defended by Berkeley’s “immaterialist” idealism and whose conclusions lead, as with all theologies, to our third question:

These are some very important questions since they are related to the fundamental problem of philosophy. Consequently, it is by discussing them that we are going to find out who is right. These questions are particularly interesting for materialists, in the sense that the materialist answers to these questions are common to all materialist philosophies—and, consequently, to dialectical materialism.

2. Is it true that the world exists only in our thoughts?

Before studying this question we must explain two philosophical terms which we are obligated to use and which we shall often encounter in our readings:

Idealists say that the world is not an objective reality, but a subjective one.

Materialists say that the world is an objective reality.

To show us that the world and things exist only in our thoughts, Bishop Berkeley decomposes them into their properties (color, size, density, etc.). He shows us that these properties, which vary with individuals, are not in the things themselves, but rather in the mind of each one of us. He deduces from this that matter is an aggregate of properties which are not objective but subjective and that consequently, matter does not exist.

If we take the example of the sun again, Berkeley asks us if we believe in the objective reality of this yellow disk, and he shows us, by his method of discussing properties, that the sun is not yellow and is not a disk. Hence, the sun is not an objective reality, for it does not exist by itself; rather it is a simple subjective reality, since it exists only in our thoughts.

Materialists declare that the sun exists, nevertheless, not because we see it as a flat and yellow disk, for this is naive realism, the realism of children, and primitive men who had only their senses to control reality. Rather it is by invoking science that they declare that the sun exists. Science enables us in fact to rectify the errors that our senses make us commit.

But, in this example of the sun, we must state the problem clearly.

Along with Berkeley, we say that the sun is not a disk and it is not yellow; but we do not accept his conclusions: the negation of the sun as an objective reality.

We are not discussing the properties of things, but their existence.

We are not arguing in order to know if our senses fool us and deform material reality, but to know if this reality exists outside of our senses.

Well then! Materialists maintain the existence of a reality outside of us, and they furnish arguments which are science itself.

What do idealists do to show us that they are right? They argue about words, make long speeches and write numerous pages.

Let us suppose for a moment that they are right. If the world exists only in our minds, then did it not exist before men? We know that this is false, since science shows us that man appeared very late on earth. Some idealists will say to us then that before man there were animals and that thought could have inhabited them. But we know that before animals there existed an uninhabitable earth on which no organic life was possible. Still others will say to us that even if only the solar system existed and man did not exist, thought and spirit existed in God. It is thus that we arrive at the supreme form of idealism. We must choose between God and science. Idealism cannot be supported without God, and God cannot exist without idealism.

Here is exactly how we should state the problem of idealism and materialism: Who is right, God or science?

Science will show us by practice and experience that the world is an objective reality and permit us to answer the question:

3. Is It true that it is our ideas which create things?

Let us take, for example, a bus which passes at the moment when we are crossing the street. We are accompanied by an idealist with whom we are arguing about whether things have an objective or a subjective reality and whether it is true that our ideas create things. It is quite certain that, if we do not want to get run over, we will both be very careful. Thus, in practice, the idealist is obliged to recognize the existence of the bus. For him, practically speaking, there is no difference between an objective bus and a subjective bus. This is so true that practice easily proves that, in life, idealists are materialists.

We could cite many examples on this subject, where we would see that idealist philosophers and those who support this philosophy do not disdain a certain “objective lowness” in order to obtain what is, for them, only a subjective reality.

That is why, moreover, we no longer see anyone claiming, like Berkeley, that the world does not exist. The arguments are much more subtle and covert. (Consult, for an example of the way in which idealists argue, the chapter entitled “The Discovery of the World-Elements” in Lenin’s book, Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, p. 45.)

Hence, it is, to borrow Lenin’s words, “the criterion of practice” which will allow us to confound idealists.

The latter, moreover, will not fail to point out that theory and practice are not the same, that they are two completely different things. This is not true. It is practice alone, through experience, which will show us whether a concept is right or wrong.

Hence, the example of the bus demonstrates that the world has an objective reality and is not an illusion created by our minds.

Since Berkeley’s theory of immaterialism cannot stand up against the sciences nor resist the criterion of practice, it now remains for us to see whether, as all the conclusions of idealist philosophies, religions and theologies claim, spirit creates matter.

4. Is it true that spirit creates matter?

As we have seen above, for idealists, spirit has its supreme form in God. He is the final answer, the conclusion of their theory. That is why the problem of spirit vs. matter, i.e., whether it is the idealist or the materialist who is right, takes the form “God vs. science” in the final analysis.

Idealists claim that God has existed for all eternity and that, having undergone no change, he is always the same. He is pure spirit, for whom time and space do not exist. He is the creator of matter. To support their affirmation of God, again idealists present no argument. To defend the creator of matter, they have recourse to a lot of mysteries which a scientific mind cannot accept.

When we look back to the origins of science and see that it is because of their great ignorance that primitive men fabricated in their minds the idea of God, we find that the idealists of the 20th century continue, like primitive man, to ignore everything which patient and perseverant work has enabled us to know. For, in the final analysis, God for the idealists cannot be explained; he remains for them a belief with no proof. When idealists try to prove to us the necessity of the creation of the world by saying that matter cannot have always existed, they turn to God, who, himself, never had a beginning. In what way is this explanation any clearer?

To support their arguments, materialists, on the other hand, use the science which men have progressively developed as they have made the “borders of their ignorance” recede.

Now, does science permit us to think that spirit created matter? No. The idea of a creation by a pure spirit is incomprehensible, for we know of nothing of the sort through experience. For that to have been possible, it would have been necessary, as the idealists say, for spirit to have existed alone before matter; whereas science shows us that this is not possible, and that there is never spirit without matter. On the contrary, spirit is always linked with matter. More specifically, we find that the mind of man is linked with the brain, which is the source of our ideas and thoughts. Science does not allow us to believe that ideas exist in a void.

Hence, it would be necessary for the mind of God, in order to exist, to have a brain. This is why we can say that it is not God who created matter, and thus man as well; but rather it is matter, in the form of the human brain, which created the spirit-God.

We shall see later on whether science gives us the possibility of believing in a God, or in something for which time would be without effect and for which space, movement and change would not exist. From now on we can conclude that in their answer to the fundamental problem of philosophy:

5. Materialists are right and science proves their assertions

Materialists are right to assert:

Note.—We must pay attention to the way in which idealists state problems. They declare that God created man; whereas we have seen that it is man who created God. They declare also that it is spirit which created matter, while we see that it is actually just the opposite. In these examples, there is a way of confusing perspectives which we felt obligated to point out.


V. I. Lenin, Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, pp. 32-93 (link to MIA)


1. Why a third philosophy?

AFTER these first chapters, it may seem to us that, in short, it must be rather easy to see our way through all the philosophical arguments since only two large currents share all theories: idealism and materialism. In addition, it may seem that those arguments which fight for materialism carry the decision absolutely.

It appears then that after some study we have found the way which leads to the philosophy of reason, materialism.

But things are not so simple. As we have already pointed out, modern idealists do not have the frankness of Bishop Berkeley. They present their ideas “in a much more artful form, and confused by the use of a ‘new’ terminology, so that these thoughts may be taken by naive people for ‘recent’ philosophy!” (Lenin, Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, p. 20.)

We have seen that we can furnish two answers to the fundamental question of philosophy which are totally opposed, contradictory and irreconcilable. These two answers are very clear and leave no room for confusion.

And, indeed, until about 1710, the problem was stated in this fashion: on the one hand were the materialists: those who claimed the existence of matter outside of our thoughts; on the other hand were the idealists: those who, with Berkeley, denied the existence of matter and claimed that this latter exists only in us, in our minds.

However, at this time, progress having been made in the sciences, other philosophers intervened who tried to decide between idealists and materialists by creating a philosophical current which created confusion between these two theories. This confusion has its source in the search for a third philosophy.

2. Arguments of this third philosophy

The basis of this philosophy, which was elaborated after Berkeley, is that it is useless to try to know the real nature of things and that we shall never know anything but appearances. This is why this philosophy is called agnosticism (from the Greek “a,” negation, and “gnosticos,” capable of knowing; hence, “incapable of knowing”).

According to agnostics, we cannot know if the world is, basically, spirit or nature. It is possible for us to know the appearance of things, but we cannot know their reality.

Let us take again the example of the sun. We have seen that it is not, as the first men thought, a flat and yellow disk. This disk was then only an illusion, an appearance (appearance is the superficial idea which we entertain about things; it is not their reality).

This is why, with regard to the argument between idealists and materialists over whether things are matter or spirit, whether they exist or not outside of our thoughts, or whether it is possible or not to know them, agnostics say that we can indeed know their appearance, but never their reality.

Our senses, they say, enable us to see and feel things, to know their exterior aspect, their appearance. These appearances then exist for us; they make up what is called, in philosophical language, the “thing for us.” But we cannot know the thing independent of us, with its own reality, which is called the “thing in itself.”

Idealists and materialists, who are constantly discussing these subjects, are comparable to two men, one of whom has blue glasses, the other red, and who are walking in the snow and arguing about its true color. Let us suppose that they can never take off their glasses. Will they be able to know the true color one day? No. Well then! The idealists and materialists who argue to find out which one is right wear blue and red glasses. Never will they know reality. They will have a knowledge of the snow “for them”; each will see it in his own way, but never will they know the snow “in itself.” Such is the reasoning of agnostics.

3. Where does this philosophy come from?

The founders of this philosophy are Hume (1711-1776), who was Scottish, and Kant (1724-1804), a German. Both tried to reconcile idealism and materialism.

Here is a passage of Hume’s arguments quoted by Lenin in his book Materialism and Empirio-Criticism:

We see that Hume admits firstly what meets with common sense: the “existence of an external universe” which does not depend on us. But, right after that, he refuses to admit that this existence is an objective reality. For him, this existence is nothing but an image; and our senses, which perceive this existence, this image, are incapable of establishing any kind of relation between mind and object.

In a word, we live in the middle of things like at the cinema, where we perceive the image of objects existing on the screen, but where, behind the images themselves, i.e., behind the screen, there is nothing.

Now, if we want to know how our minds know objects, can this not be due to “the energy of the mind itself, or from the suggestion of some invisible and unknown spirit, or from some other cause still more unknown to us?” (Hume quoted by Lenin, Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, p. 26.)

4. Its consequences

Here we have a seductive theory which is, moreover, very widespread. We find it in different forms throughout the course of history, among philosophical theories and, in our times, among all those who claim “to remain neutral and maintain themselves in a scientific reserve.”

We must then examine if these reasonings are correct and what their consequences are.

If it is truly impossible, as the agnostics claim, to know the true nature of things and whether our knowledge is limited to their appearances, we cannot then declare the existence of an objective reality and we cannot know if things exist by themselves. For us, for example, the bus is an objective reality; the agnostic, however, tells us that this is not certain, that we cannot know if this bus is thought or reality. He forbids us then to claim that our thought is the reflection of things. We see that we are right in the middle of idealist reasoning, for the difference between stating that things do not exist or simply that we cannot know if they exist is not very large!

We have seen that the agnostic makes a distinction between the “things for us” and the “things in themselves.” The study of the things for us is then possible: this is science. But the study of things in themselves is impossible, for we cannot know what exists outside of us.

The result of this reasoning is the following: the agnostic accepts science; and, as one cannot be scientific without expelling any supernatural force from nature, with regard to science he is a materialist.

But he hastens to add that, since science gives us only appearances, nothing proves that there is not something other than matter in reality, or even that matter exists or that God does not exist. Human reason can know nothing about this and should not be concerned with it. If there are other ways of knowing the “things in themselves,” such as religious faith, the agnostic does not want to know it and does not feel justified to discuss it.

Hence, with regard to the conduct of life and the construction of science, the agnostic is a materialist; but he is a materialist who dares not declare his materialism and who tries above all not to get into difficulty with idealists and not to enter into conflict with religion. He is a “shamefaced” materialist. (Frederick Engels, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, New York: International Publishers, 1935, p. 13.)

The consequence is that, by doubting the profound value of science, by seeing in it only appearances, this third philosophy tells us to attribute no truth to science and to consider it perfectly useless to try to know something or to try to contribute to progress.

Agnostics say: Formerly, men saw the sun as a flat disk and believed that such was reality; they were wrong. Today, science tells us that the sun is not as we see it, and it claims to explain everything. We know, however, that science is frequently mistaken, destroying one day what it had constructed the day before. Error yesterday, truth today, but error tomorrow. Thus, agnostics declare, we cannot know. Reason brings us no certainty. And if other means than reason, such as religious faith, claim to give us absolute certainties, not even science can prevent us from believing it. Hence, by diminishing confidence in science, agnosticism prepares the way for the return of religion.

5. How can this third philosophy be refuted?

We have seen that, in order to prove their assertions, materialists use not only science but also experience, which enables us to control science. Thanks to the “criterion of practice,” we can know, we can take cognizance of things.

Agnostics tell us that it is impossible to declare that the outside world exists or does not exist.

Yet, in practice, we know that the world and things exist. We know that the ideas which we have about things are founded, that the relations which we have established between things and us are real.

From the moment we turn to our own use these objects, according to the qualities we perceive in them, we put to an infallible test the correctness or otherwise of our sense perceptions. If these perceptions have been wrong, then our estimate of the use to which an object can be turned must also be wrong, and our attempt must fail. But if we succeed in accomplishing our aim, if we find that the object does agree with our idea of it, and does answer the purpose we intended it for, then that is positive proof that our perceptions of it and of its qualities, so far, agree with reality outside ourselves. And whenever we find ourselves face to face with a failure, then we generally are not long in making out the cause that made us fail; we find that the perception upon which we acted was either incomplete and superficial, or combined with the result of other perceptions in a way warranted by them—what we call defective reasoning. So long as we take care to train and to use our senses properly, and to keep our action within the limits prescribed by perceptions properly made and properly used, so long we shall find that the result of our action proves the conformity of our perceptions with the objective nature of the things perceived. Not in one single instance, so far, have we been led to the conclusion that our sense perceptions, scientifically controlled, induce in our minds ideas respecting the outer world that are, by their very nature, at variance with reality, or that there is an inherent incompatibility between the outer world and our sense perceptions of it. (Engels, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific. p. 14.)

To paraphrase Engels’ statement, we could say, “the proof of the pudding is in the eating.” If it did not exist or if it were only an idea, after having eaten it, our hunger would not be at all satisfied. Thus, it is perfectly possible for us to know things, to see if our ideas correspond to reality. It is possible for us to control the data of science by experience and industry which translates the theoretical results of science into practical applications. If we can make synthetic rubber, then science must know the “thing in itself” which is rubber.

We see then that it is not useless to try to know who is right, since beyond the theoretical errors which science may commit, experience gives us the proof every time that it is indeed science which is correct.

6. Conclusion

Since the 18th century, in the works of different thinkers who have borrowed more or less from agnosticism, we see that this philosophy has been torn between idealism and materialism. Under the disguise of new words, as Lenin says, claiming even to use the sciences to support their reasonings, they only create confusion between the two theories. Thus, they allow some people to have convenient philosophy, one which gives them the possibility of declaring that they are not idealists because they use science, but neither are they materialists, because they do not dare to pursue their arguments to their conclusion, because they are not consistent with themselves. “What, indeed, is agnosticism?”, writes Engels, “but, shamefaced materialism? The agnostic’s conception of nature is materialistic throughout. The entire natural world is governed by law, and absolutely excludes the intervention of action from without. But, he adds, we have no means either of ascertaining or of disproving the existence of some supreme being beyond the known universe.” (Engels, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, p. 13.)

Hence, this philosophy is playing into the hands of idealism and, all told, because they are inconsistent in their reasonings, agnostics lead right back to idealism. “Scratch an agnostic,” says Lenin, “and you will find an idealist.”

We have seen that we can know which is right, between materialism and idealism.

We see now that the theories which claim to conciliate these two philosophies cannot, in fact, but support idealism, that they do not provide a third answer to the fundamental question of philosophy and that, consequently, there is no third philosophy.


F. Engels, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, pp. 7-29 (link to MIA)

Control Questions

  1. 1. What importance does the study of philosophy have for the militant worker?
  2. 2. What more specific importance does the study of dialectical materialism have for him?
Chapter 1
  1. 1. What is the fundamental problem of philosophy?
  2. 2. Explain and correct the current confusion created by the words idealism and materialism.
Chapter 2
  1. What are the principal idealist arguments?
Chapter 3
  1. What are the points of opposition between idealism and materialism?
Chapter 4
  1. What should we say to those who claim that the world exists only in our thoughts?
Chapter 5
  1. Between materialism and idealism, is there room for a third philosophy?