The following text has been automatically reproduced by an Optical Character Recognition (OCR) algorithm. It may not have been checked over by human eyes. For matters of precision please consult the original pdf.

On Materialism

On Materialism·
Wal Suchting




Si Fu, name the basic questions of

Are things external to us, selfsufficient, independent of us, or
are things in us, dependent on us,
non-existent without us?

What opinion is the correct one?

There has been no decision about
it ….

Why has the question remained

The Congress which was to made
the decision took place two hundred
years ago at Mi Sant monastery, which
lies on the bank of the Yellow River.

The question was: Is the Yellow
River real or does it exist only in
people’s heads? But during the
congress the snow thawed in the
mountains and swept away the Mi Sang
monastery with all the participants
in the congress. So the proof that
things exist externally to us, selfsufficiently, independently of us was
not furnished.

– Brecht [1]

Abandoning the study of John Stuart Mill only
for that of Lachelier, the less Mme de Cambremer
believed in the reality of the external world,
the more desperately she sought to establish
herself, before she died, in a good position
in it.

– Proust [2]


Marx called himself a ‘materialist’ and Engels dubbed
the account of society and history which he regarded
as sharing with Marx, ‘historical materialism’ (or
‘the materialist conception of history’). What does
this commitment to ‘materialism’ come to? The aim of
this paper is to outline an answer to that question.

2 A first answer
Marx says what he means by his general materialism in

For Hegel, the process of thinking … is the
creator of the real world, which is only its
external appearance. With me the reverse is
* This paper is essentially a swmnary report on a more extensive inquiry which
originated with and has been centred upon a study of Lenin’s MateriaUsm and
F>npirio-Crit1:aism. It presents, as far as possible, some account of those
parts of the larger piece that do not bear directly on that book. For the
sake of brevity I have omitted the bulk of references to relevant literature,
retaining for the most part only a few pointers to the works of Marx, Engels
and Lenin. Other references, in particular exchanges with other current
writers on the subject, would have illuminated my own positions, which are
set out perhaps too compendiously, but these will appear iR the more complete

true, the world of ideas being nothing but the
material world transposed (umgesetzte) and
translated into the human head. [3]
This statement of materialism involves two theses:

firstly, that the material world pre-exists ideas,
thinking, and secondly, that the latter is or can be
the vehicle of accurate knowledge of the former. I
shall call these the Independence and Knowability
Theses respectively (for short, henceforth, ‘IT’ and
‘KT’). Engels’ work on Feuerbach contains a substantially similar formulation [4]. A necessary and
sufficient condition for idealism is a denial of IT.


Some problems with this answer

There are difficulties with this answer, at least if
it is set up as an exhaustive one. I shall mention
two of them.

(a) What of historical materialism?

How, if at all, does this characterization apply to
historical materialism? The query arises if only
from the fact that social-historical affairs would
seem to be at least partly constituted by such
things as intentions, implying some forms of awareness, and hence that such states of affairs are not
causally independent of such forms.

(h) The answer is dogmatic
How are IT and KT to be defended? Consider IT and
indeed prescind from the problem just noted. How can
anyone possibly know whether the material world
existed before any form of consciousness did, and
indeed if it would exist if human beings (and any
other conscious inhabitants of the cosmos) were to
disappear? And, with regard to KT, how could anyone
know if this were true? For, if there were some
nook or cranny of nature which human beings could not
know about, then we could not know that we could not
know, otherwise we would know something about it,
contrary to hypothesis.

Now all this is likely to be dismissed by the
robust-minded as a typical philosopher’s paradox,
which fortunately, in this case at least, can be
easily rejected. For, it will surely be said, we
need only appeal to the best science, which tells us
that the earth existed long before humans – reference
to the fossil records suffices. And, as for the
captious subtlety about knowledge, surely the
triumphant progress of science over the last few
piece which I hope to publish in the near future. As regards the literature,
I am uniquely indebted to Al thusser, particularly PhiZosophie et phiZosophie
spontan~e des savants, ‘Lenin and Philosophy’, and Essays in SeZf-Critiaism
and Lecourt, Une Crise et son enjeu. In more personal terms I am deeply
indebted to John Burnheim for conversations about the themes of the paper
and remarks upon drafts of various pieces, and to Roy Edgley for written
comments at various stages. Both have helped me in ways too numerous to
acknowledge in detail.


centuries is sufficient warrant for its further

However, that ‘inductive’, scientific arguments of
this sort are in no way decisive, or, indeed, in some
cases even relevant, should be evident to anyone who
is at all familiar with the ways in which traditional
philosophers have tried to take account precisely of
facts like those just mentioned (Berkeley for
instance), or, for example, the ways in which
Christians tried to cope with the evidence of the
fossil record in the early days of Darwinian evolutionary theory. There is no scientific result which
idealism cannot cope with by some further elaboration
of the doctrine. Such devices may appear to the
materialist to be the merest fabrications, patently
designed only to save a position and having no other
theoretical justification. But this is so only from
a materinlist standpoint, which involves a commitment
to the best results of the sciences, unglossed by
idealism. That is, after this standpoint has been
adopted~ then science can afford (massive) evidence
in favour of materialism. So we seem to be on the
merry-go-round of a circular argument if we seek to
defend materialism (as so far formulated anyway) by
appeals to science.


Another start

The preceding may suffice at least to arouse some
degree of uneasiness about the initial characterization of materialism (and idealism), and so stimulate
an attempt to find a fresh place to start.

I think that this is in fact to be found, to begin
with, in Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach. In the first he
writes that ‘the chief defect of all hitherto existing materialism … is that objectivity, reality, the
sensible world’ is not conceived as ‘sensible human
activitY3 practice, … as activity which belongs to
the objective world’. And the second thesis runs:

The question whether objective truth can be
attributed to human thinking is not a question
of theory but a practical question. In practice
must man prove the truth, i.e. the reality and
power … of his thinking. [5]
Forty years or so later Engels spelled out the same
line of thought in the work to which Marx’s Theses
were first published as an appendix. Engels is
discussing the views of philosophers such as Hume
and Kant ‘who question the possibility of any knowledge, or at least of an exhaustive knowledge, of the
world’. He writes: [6]
The most telling refutation of this as of all
other philosophical crotchets is practice,
namely, experiment and industry. If we are
able to prove the correctness of our conception
of a natural process by making it ourselves,
bringing it into being out of its conditions
and making it serve our own purposes into the
bargain, then there is an end to the Kantian
ungraspable ‘thing-in-itself’. The chemical
substances produced in the bodies of plants
and animals remained just such ‘things-inthemselves’ until organic chemistry began to
produce them one after another, whereupon the
‘thing-in-itself’ became a ‘thing-for-us’, as,
for instance, alizarin, the colouring matter
of the madder, which we no longer trouble to
grow in the madder roots in the field, but
produce much more cheaply and simply from coal

Engels attests, then, to put it very briefly, that
(1) as a result of practical interventions in the
world, we can (2) know things that we did not know

Lenin’s commentary on the second point is full of

instruction [7]. He starts thus:

Engels clearly and explicitly states that he is
contesting both Hume and Kant …. What is the
kernel of Engels’ objection? Yesterday we did
not know that coal tar contains alizarin.

Today we have learned that it does. The question
is, did coal tar contain alizarin yesterday?

Of course it did. To doubt it would be to make
a mockery of modern science.

He continues:

And if that is so, three important epistemological conclusions follow:

(1) Things exist independently of our consciousness, independently of our sensations, outside
of us, for it is beyond doubt that alizarin
existed in coal tar yesterday and it is equally
beyond doubt that yesterday we knew nothing of
the existence of this alizarin and received no
sensations from it.

(2) There is definitely no difference in
principle between the phenomenon and the
thing-in-itself …. The only difference is
between what is known and what is not yet
known …

(3) In the theory of knowledge … we must
not regard our knowledge as ready-made and
unalterable, but must determine how knowledge
emerges from ignorance, how incomplete, inexact knowledge becomes more complete and more

Now if we take what Lenin says at face value, he does
seem to think of himself as presenting an argument:

thus he speaks of ‘conclusions’, and of something’s
being a ‘deduction’. (I shall come back to this
whole question later in Section 10.)
Meanwhile let
us treat wha.t has been cited as an argument. What
then are the premises, what the conclusions, and how
are they related?

The main premise would seem to be ~hat there exist
(indefinitely many) cases of the coming to be (as a
result of practical interventions) of knowledge – at
a certain time people know things they did not know
before. That is, the preliminary assumption is that
some knowledge about the world exists. Lenin’s
example, taken from Engels, is the knowledge thC’.t
coal tar contains alizarin. Now he says that three
epistemological ‘conclusions follow’ from this.

These are listed (1) – (3) in the passage cited above.

Conclusion (1) is essentially the ‘ontological’

formulation of materialism embodied in the IT. What
is the relation between this ‘conclusion’ and the
basic premise? In particular, what, if any, is the
argument? The answer would seem to be that, in a
sense, there is no argument. The train of thought,
as it might be called cautiously, seems to be the
following. (a) Today we know that coal tar contains
alizarin. (b) Yesterday the alizarin which comes
from coal tar was not an object of knowledge for us.

(c) Coal tar contained alizarin yesterday. Therefore
(d) alizarin existed in coal tar yesterday, independently of our knowing it dirl. Now (a) and (b) may be
taken to be just versions of the initial main premise.

Of (c) Lenin says that it is ‘beyond doubt’: ‘to doubt
it would be to make a mockery of modern science’. In
other words, someone cannot consistently both deny
(d) and also take the results of modern science
seriously. (An alternative to (c) is to assume, for
example, that knowing about alizarin in coal today
actually brings it into existence, so that it is a
matter of creation rather than discovery.) Indeed
this seems to be also the general character of the
justification of the primary assumption that knowledge
exists. So, overall, the ‘argument’ is that if you
take the results of scientific practice seriously
then you are committed to IT.

Now if conclusion (1) bears upon the first component of the materialist position – the ‘ontological’

one, IT – conclusions (2) and (3) bear on the second
component, the ‘epistemological’ one, embodied in KT.

The train of thought to (2) seems to be this. If
we have examples of what was not known yesterday
becoming known today, then, in the absence of reasons
to the contrary, we are justified in thinking that
this process of acquisition of fresh items of knowledge has no limit, that there is no point where what
is unknown today cannot become known tomorrow. Conclusion (2) is thus anti-scepticaZ in import.

Conclusion (3) is, in effect, the converse of the
preceding, and the train of thought similar. If
cases like that of the discovery of alizarin in coal
tar give us grounds for affirming the open-endedness
of the process of acquisition of knowledge, and are
thus anti-sceptical in significance, then the very
sa~e cases and the very same conclusion, when considered from this very aspect of open-endedness,
reveal, as their other face, the idea that any given
stage in the development of knowledge is only a
tentative, alterable, revisable, corrigible one,
subject to transformation into more exact knowledge,
but still knowledge no less subject to correction.

Thus conclusion (3) is anti-dogmatic in import.

The combination of conclusions (2) and (3) is the
full thesis of the openness of knowledge from a materialist standpoint, that is, the thesis that the
development of knowledge is not limited in principle
by any horizon, eitper of unsolvable or of definitively solved problems – in other words KT.

Thus (1) – (3) conjointly add up to the ‘official’

characterization of materialism in terms of IT and KT.


‘Philosophical’ and ‘scientific’ materialism

But how much nearer are we to an adequate characterization of materialism? Certainly we can now see
more clearly that both constituents of the original
characterization of materialism are in some sense
consequences or implications of this original, primary
assumption of the existence of items of knowledge
generated in material practices, and hence that this
assumption is a more: fundamental approach to materialism than either IT o~ KT.

Nevertheless, we still have the problem of circular
argument. Thus in the case of ‘conclusion’ (1), for
instance – namely, that X existed yesterday, though
only discovered today – it would of course have been
possible to make contrary assumptions: that it simply
came into existence, uncaused, at the moment of discovery, or that God caused it to do so, or that the
procedure of discovery brought it into existence (so
that it was not so much discovery as creation), or
whatever. We are inclined to dismiss such possibilities because we think that they are – to put it
mildly – scientifically implausible: inconsistent both
with scientific results and with regulative principles
of scientific thinking (e.g. regarding the search for
identifiable sufficient conditions). This is basically to register a commitment to the unglossed
results of material practices which aim at the acquisi tion of knowledge and the solving of problems. Tha.t
commitment having been made the theses of materialism
are easily unpacked – but not until then.

What he.s just been said may appear as circular as
Descartes noted the infidels found the interlocking
of belief in the Scripture and belief in God. And
considered as a move purely within the domain of
theory it is. But, as we shall see, there are extratheoretical considerations which break the circle.

For the moment what the preceding shows is that it is
necessary to distinguish between at least two different senses of ‘materialism’. The first is what may be

called ‘scientific’ materialism, and consists of
various factual assertions about the world, as for
example, that inorganic matter temporally preceded
and was the causal condition for organic matter, and
that ‘mental’ phenomena have such and such causal
relations to physical ones. (Perhaps ‘natural scientific materialism’ would be more accurate, in order to
allow for historical materialism’s also being a
scientific materialism. But all that is in question
is a label.)
The second sort of materialism is what
may be called ‘philosophical’ materialism (perhaps
better: ‘methodological materialism’). Speaking for
the moment wholly from within the domain of theory
(the point of the qualification will come out later)
this is not a set of assertions about the world (or
anything else) but, in the etymologically primitive
sense of the word, a ‘position’: a place where one
stands. Lenin says that materialism is a ‘line’.

In the sense of that multifaceted description which
is relevant here, ‘line’ is a directly political
metaphor: they are lines in a way in which political
groupings have lines. These are programmes, stances,
attitudes, orientations, strategies. Such are based
upon factual assertions, but they are not primarily
reports of fact; they are the laying down of guidelines for informed action to bring about certain
changes. To be a materialist in this sense is to
‘take a stand’, from the vantage-point of which
certain perspectives are vouchsafed and not others.

In this sense materialism is literally a ‘Weltanschauung’ – a ‘view’ or ‘outlook’ on the world.

Materialism as a line is justified much as a straightforwardly political line is, namely, by considering
the ultimate effects on the political situation
induced by following that line. So ‘philosophical
materialism’ is the policy (etc.) of seeking the solutions of theoretical and practical problems in the
results of appropriate material practices unglossed
by interpretations which would call inro question the
existence of the subject-matter of the practice independent of the inquiry or the possibility of knowing
it in detail without primary reference to nonmaterial determinants [8].


‘Traditional’ materialism, and idealism

I characterized ‘philosophical materialism’ as a
certain programme or standpoint or ‘position’ to do
with the primacy of the idealistically unglossed
results of material practices in inquiry and problemsolving in general. Now a practice is a regular way
of transforming a certain sort of pre-existing situation by applying various sorts of instruments to it
by the use of labour-power (ultimately at least,
human labour-power). The practice might be ordinary
economic practice, in which case the situation might
be one of transforming an ingot of steel into a sheet
of the same by using rollers. Or it might be political practice in which case the situation might be one
of transforming a certain set of desires, interests,
and so on into a set sufficiently consensual to
permit the reproduction of the particular society,
by means of certain procedures of delegation or representation. Or it might be a scientific-experimental
practice, in which an object is worked upon by a beam
balance (and associated procedures of computation)
so as to yield an answer to the question: ‘What is
the object’s mass?’ Or it might be anyone of numberless other cases. But what is true of any and all of
them is that the fundamental aspect of the situation
is the mode of transformation and hence the instY’1Amentation (in a broad sense of that word). It is this
which defines what aspects of the objective situation
are open to inquiry, and what the scope of the
inquiry thus defined. It is the mode of transforma3

tion or instrumentation th~t marks off, within a
certain context, what, on the one hand, counts asthe
‘object’, what the ‘object-for-us’ (e.g. the electric
charge on a body is an aspect of the latter which is
irrelevant for inquiry if we do not have some way of
dealing with it: it is at most an intrusive factor);
it also marks off, on the other hand, what counts as
the ‘subject’ of the inquiry, for whatever is going
on in the depths of tha.t subjectivity it counts for
nothing until it is embodied in some mode of manipulating the world, directly or indirectly, and is then,
in effect, identical with it. Thus ‘subject’ and
‘object’ are not two items pre-constituted with
respect to the practice that unites them; rather, it
is the practice that is primary, ‘subject’ and ‘object’ (in the particular context) being constituted
within that practice.

Now it is possible of course to abstract the two
terms or poles of the practical relation from this
relation and consider them in isolation, one of them
being inevitably regarded as primary and constituting
with respect to the other. The standpoint of the
primacy of the subject – in any of the various forms
in which subjecthood may be exemplified – is the
(theoretical) root of idealism(the way of ideas,
what is special about the subject). The idealism may
be of a directly ontological sort (the world-generating Subject of Christianity being the most obvious
and influential exemplar), or it may be of an – in
orlgln at least – epistemological sort, where the
limits of all knowledge are defined by the characteristics of the subject. (Thus the ‘primacy’ of mind
with respect to nature in the original formulation of
idealism can be either a temporal-causal one or one
relating to this real or logical construction of
knowledge.) The standpoint of the primacy of the
object is the root of what may be called traditional
materialism, ‘all hitherto existing materialism’, as
Marx says in the first of the Theses on Feuerbach.

According to this positjon the object imprints itself
in some way on the subject (another sort of object)
which thus reflects the object like a mirror.

‘ … objectivity, reality, the sensible world is
conceived only in the form of the object or of
observation …. ‘ (‘observation’: ‘Anschauung’,
passive registration, intuition [9]). So idealism
and traditional materialism belong to the same
(dogmatic) problematic, the one simply inverting the
order of primacy defined by the other, and hence
being simply mirror-images of each other. It is no
wonder then that materialisms of this sort tend to
lapse into idealisms when the problems of the relations Qf the subject to the object are looked at more
closely (problems of representationalism etc.).

rhus what I have called ‘traditional materialism’

is.a doctrine which holds in solution, as it were,
two materialisms. On the one hand there is ‘scientific’ materialism, which is the proper bearer of traditional materialism’s assertions about the world. On
the other hand there is ‘philosophical’ materialism,
which is what remains: not a doctrine which occupies
a part of theoretical space, but one which demarcates
a part of that space.


This formulation of materialism and the problems

of the earlier one
The approach to the problem of a characterization of
a Marxist materialism indicated in Sections 5 and 6
(and particularly 5) above has a number of advantages,
not the least of which is that it is not subject to
the two problems outlined in Section 3. I shall consider just the second of those problems here, leaving
the discussion of historical materialism until

Section 11.

The distinction in question renders innocuous the
problem of the defensibility of IT and KT. For, given
a commitment to philosophical materialism, scientific
materialism vouchsafes solid evidence for the existence of the world independently of consciousness.

And since philosophical materialism is a programme
and not a set of straightforward assertions, the
commitment is not to the assertion of the knowability
of the world in general and in detail, but to a mode
of inquiry which is not limited by assumptions to the
contrary. It could be that the method of exploring
the world with the tools of material practices
should eventually run into insuperable difficulties;
but there is no reason at the moment to think that
this is likely, so, as far as this goes at least,
commitment to philosophical materialism is in order.

(Cf. the Principle of Determinism interpreted as a
maxim of inquiry rather than as a substantive
assertion about the world.)
Apart from the reasons already given for introducing a distinction between ‘philosophical’ and
‘scientific’ materialism, there is a further reason,
namely, that this distinction permits a decisive
rejection of any tendency to identify materialism
with some particular scientific theory or theories,
a tendency which has one or both of two results:

either in ‘materialism’ forming an obstacle to the
advance of inquiry or in such advances being interpreted as refutations of ‘materialism’. Though he
does not in fact make the above distinction between
materialisms, Rayrnond Williams has put this danger so
well that I cannot do better them quote him on the

… materialism … in its earliest phases
… defines its own categories in terms of
demonstrable physical investigations. Yet
… in the continuing process of investigation, the initial and all successive” categories
are inherently subject to radical revision,
and in this are unlike the relatively protected
categories of presumed or revealed truths; …

[further] in the very course of opposing
systematic universal explanations of many of
the common-ground processes, provisional and
secular procedures and findings tend to be
grouped into what appear but never can be
systematic, universal and categorical explanations of the same general kind. Thus material
investigation … finds itself pulled …

toward closed generalizing systems: finds
itself materialism or a materialism. There
is thus a tendency for any materialism, at
any point in its history, to find itself stuck
with its own recent generalizations, and in
defence of these to mistake its own character:

to suppose that it is a system like others,
of a presumptive explanatory kind, or that it
is reasonable to set up contrasts with other
(categorical) systems, at the level not of
procedures but of its own past ‘findings’ or
‘laws’. What then happens is obvious. The
results of new material investigations are
interpreted as having outdated ‘materialism’.

Or, conversely, defence of ‘the materialist
world-view’, specified in certain positions
now frozen in time, involves contempt for or
rejection of apparently incompatible evidence
and procedures, and their categorical assignment to systems taken to be alternative and
of the same kind: in the ordinary rhetoric,
‘idealism’. Intellectual confusion is then
severe enough, but it is made worse by the
fact, on the one hand, that much of the new
‘evidence’ and ‘procedures’, especially in its

interpreted and theoretically presumed forms,
is indeed incompatible, not only (which is not
important) with the frozen ‘world-view’ but
with the significant criteria of the materialist enterprise; and by the fact, on the other
hand, that within the world-view, however
frozen, there is still hard, often very hard
evidence of a kind that is indeed likely to
be smothered in the difficult process of the
search for genuine compatibilities and
necessary reformulations. [10]
It was precisely this identification of a transitory
(if long and crucial) phase in the history of natural
science with materialism as such which brought it
about, round the turn of the century, that advances
beyond this phase tended to drive some into a reactionary defence of the ‘old’ against the ‘new’

science (the former becoming an ‘obstacle’ – on which
see later) but some into idealism, the claim being
that ‘matter’ had ‘disappeared’.


Materialism or idealism?

It is now necessary to ask a further question (for
the moment, in the inadequate language of a teleology
of choice): Why adopt the position of ‘philosophical’


Put most broadly the answer is developed as
(1) The alternatives are materialism and
idealism. (2) Idealism is unacceptable because
(A) it generates certain cognitive consequences for
theory and practice which (B) are inconsistent with
(what may be called) ’emancipatory’ interests.

These summary indications must now be spelled out a

(AJ Idealism has certain distinctive cognitive
Very broadly speaking we can distinguish three sorts
of such consequences. (1) Idealisms invariably involve complications and mysteries which materialism
does not. (2) In particular every consistent idealism is ultimately either a theism of some sort or a
solipsism. (3) These may be regarded as special
cases of another consequence, namely, that every
idealism generates ‘closures’ in theory, puts
‘obstacles’ of certain sorts on the path of the
development of knowledge.

Let us look at these in a little more detail.

(1) Idealisms typically invite entanglement in one
or other of the constructions which have their
classic exemplifications in the history of philosophy

– the elaborate philosophical stories of a Berkeley,
a Kant, a Hegel. This is what Lenin is driving at in
saying that idealism ‘is nothing but a disguised and
embellished ghost story’ [11]. Now it is not
impossible that ghosts exist. The point is that
normally we take it that they do not, and special
reasons have to be provided to make us believe in
their existence, given the acceptance of certain
broad features of ordinary practice and scientific
theory. From this point of view the argument for
materialism has rather the character of an onusargument: in the circumstances it is rather that
idealism has to show cause why it, rather than
materialism, should be taken seriously.

It may be noted that the point made here jibes
neatly with what Engels says in a passage of Ludwig
Feuerbach which has been but little attended to in
comparison with the sentence which Lenin cites.

Engels begins by giving a characterization of materialism in terms of the independence of the natural
world from mind, and in terms of the knowability of
the former by the latter. But later in the same
work (towards the beginning of Chapter IV), he makes
a rather different statement on materialism, the
connection of which with the earlier one he does not
make clear. He tells us in the later passage how the
post-Hegelian tendency in the l840s, ‘essentially
connected with the name of Marx’, involved a return
to ‘the materialist standpoint’:

That means it was resolved to comprehend the
real world … just as it presents itself to
everyone who approaches it free from preconceived idealist crotchets (Schrullen).

It was resolved mercilessly to sacrifice
every idealist crotchet which could not be
brought into harmony with the facts conceived
in their own and not in an imaginary interconnection. And materialism means nothing
more than this. [12] (emphases added)
Note that Engels does not say that materialism is
committed to a view of the world as it immediately
presents itself – which would be crass empiricism/
positivism, rejected by him elsewhere [13] – but as
it presents itself to someone free of idealist preconceptions, ‘crotchets’. (Cf. Engels’ use of this
term in the passage cited at the beginning of Section
4 above.)
In the light of the exegesis presented
here the inner connection between Engels’ two prima
facie quite heterogeneous characterisations of
materialism should be clear.

(2) The logical conclusion or presupposition of
every consistent idealism is a theism of some kind or
another [14] (or a solipsism). That is, if nature is
not independent of a subject or subjects, as materialism claims, then it must be the product of some
creative subject – and to this, as Aquinas says
succinctly, ‘everyone gives the name of God’. (If
not, we may add, what is at least prima facie nature
must be an illusion of some kind and this – since the
external world includes other people, or what passes
for such – is solipsism.)
(3) More generally, idealism tends to have a
‘blocking’ effect, that is, the effect of putting of
obstacles on the path of inquiry. It is unnecessary
to list here detailed examples of the various barricades which idealist philosophy has placed from time
to time on the progress of inquiry: the ‘foundations’

of all possible knowledge (e.g. ‘impressions’ and
‘ideas’), or type of inference (e.g. Aristotelian
logic), or explanation (e.g. teleological), or the
nature of space and time (e.g. Kant) , or the nature
of consciousness (the mind as necessarily conscious
of its own nature), and so on. (This is not to say
that knowledge has never developed within the context
of an idealism, or that materialism has never func5

tioned in blockages. But insofar as the first has
occurred it was not due to the framework qua idealist
and idealism always exacts its price eventually by
holding up the development even of the knowledge
which may have originally developed within it. The
history of Platonism furnishes examples. On the
second possibility see the end of Section 7 above.)
Indeed one of the most general things that may be
said about traditional philosophy is that it has
endeavoured to subject science to itself in one or
another way, either by subsuming science as a mere
stage on the path to more perfect knowledge (e.g. the
Platonic eidos or the Hegelian Idea), or by circumscribing it ~y some allegedly unalterable forms of
‘understanding’ or ‘reason’ (e.g. Locke, Kant, Husserl
each in his own way). And this attempted subjection
of science has its root in idealism’s point of departure in the knowing subject: the nature and limits of
knowledge are allegedly set by the cognitive powers
of this subject. For materialism on the contrary the
limits of knowledge are contingent, variable, shifting, set by the contingent, variable, shifting limits
of forms of practical intervention. The limits are
typically set in the twin modes of dogmatism and
scepticism [IS]. In some cases this dogmatism simply
prescribes what is knowable tout court. In other
cases these limits are seen as having a ‘beyond’ with
respect to rational scientific procedures, a beyond
which is then the province either of scepticism or of
some allegedly higher form of knowledge, either metaphysical or of a sort perhaps better identified as
faith or the like.

(E) The cognitive consequences of idealism for theory
and practice are inconsistent with what may be called
(without any but verbal allusion to Habermas)
’emancipatory interests’

I started this section by asking a question (in the
justificatory mode): Why materialism? I said that
this question was to be answered in two steps. The
first of these was to point to certain consequences
of the contrary standpoint, namely, idealism. These
consequences or effects are, I have suggested, twofold, namely, the interpretation of the knowledgesituation in an unnecessarily complicated manner, and
the generation of theisms and of obstacles to the
production of knowledge. Now a final question confronts us, assuming the cogency of this preceding
part of the argument: What exactly is unacceptable
about these consequences from a materialist standpoint?

As to (1), I shall not dwell upon the complications
of idealism beyond saying that, other things being
equal, a straightforward account is to be preferred
to a complicated one: I explicitly flag this as something which I am taking for granted.

As to (2), history shows that theisms and religions in general have, overall, worked to initiate
other forms of human enslavement or to maintain old
ones. The only possible thoroughgoing, consistent
enemy of theism is a standpoint from which nature
exists independently of all forms of mind, namely,
materialism. (As to solipsism, we have yet to hear
of a politics on this basis.)
As to (3), blocks to the advancement of learning
are not in the interests of emancipation from exploitation: it is always in the interests of the exploited
to know as much as possible about the nature of their

In these respects it should be noted that I am not
saying either of two things. Firstly, I am not saying that knowledge by or in itself (whatever that
means) is emancipatory. This would be an idealism.

Knowledge can be emancipatory only when it is
embodied in appropriate social practices. Secondly,

I am not sa~ring that the advance of knowledge cannot,
in certain circumstances, be counter-emancipatory:

such advances may open up the possibility of creating
new mechc.nisms of exploitation and oppression as well
as new ways of fighting them. The point is just that
lack of knowledge is in general something which works
in the interests of exploitation whereas new knowledge may work in the interests of the exploited.

Thus, in sum, the argument has been that idealism
typically generates certain consequences in theory
which in turn have effects as regards the distribution
of social power. So, in the final analysis, the
answer to the question ‘materialism or idealism?’ is
a political answer, though one mediated by the
theoretical consequences of idealism.


‘Spontaneous’ materialism and


contradictory unity of materialism and idealism
On the above view, then, materialism and idealism, as
philosophies, should be looked at in Marxist perspective as ‘lines’ in the sense of regulative principles
or procedure, like political lines. They induce
opposed effects, cognitively and socially. Since
these effects relate to specific objective social
forces, materialism and idealism are also ‘lines’ in
the yet further sense of military lines: they divide
groups into warring camps. Hence the thesis that the
history of philosophy is the history of the struggle
between the two.

But we can trace further the root of the struggle
between materialism and idealism. The point of
departure here is the reflection that what I have
called ‘philosophical’ materialism (in contrast with
‘scientific’ materialism) did not always exist: both
phylo- and onto-genetically, philosophical materialism as an explicit line is rooted in and based upon
what may be called ‘spontaneous’ materialism, which
is a certain quotidian, unreflexive attitude towards
the world. In a different context Luk~cs has put the
relevant point here so well that I cannot do better
than to quote him:

… people in their everyday life typically
react in a spontaneously materialist fashion
to the objects of their environment, whether
or not these reactions by the subject of the
practice are afterwards interpreted. This is
an immediate consequence of the nature of
labour. Every process of labour presupposes
a complex of objects, of laws, which determine
it with regard to its type, its motions, its
modes of performance, and so on, and these are
treated spontaneously as existing and function-

ing independently of human consciousness. The
nature of labour consists precisely in the
observing, the exploring and utilising of this
independently existing being and ch.mge. Even
at the stage where the primitive does not yet
produce tools, but only seizes on stones of
specific shapes and throws them away after use,
he must already have made definite observations
about which stones are suitable for specific
uses, by virtue of their hardness, form, and
so on. The very fact that, from among many
stones he chooses one as apparently suitable,
the very type of choice, shows that man is
more or less conscious of the fact that he is
obliged to act in an external world that is
independent of him, tpat he therefore must
attempt, as well as he is able, to explore
this environment which exists independently of
him, to dominate it in thought through observation, in order to be able to exist, in order
to avoid the dangers that threaten him. Even
danger as a category of the inner life of human
beings shows that the subject is more or less
conscious of confronting an external world
which exists independently of his consciousness. [16]
This phylogenetic situation has its ontogenetic
complement in the formation of the life of every
individual human being.

But, as Luk§cs also points out [17], this spontaneous materialism, though inextinguishable, can and
does peacefully coexist with all manner of nonmaterialist ideas of a magical, animistic and religious nature, in short a far-reaching anthropomorphic
and ultimately idealist view of the world. This has
roots “lhich demand a separate ina,uiry. It must
suffice to mention two factors. The first is the
importance of the early division of social labour
which separates out a group largely or totally free
from the exigencies of material productive labour and
so from the sources par excellence of spontaneous
materialism. Such a group tends to ascribe to the
ideas with which they are largely concerned a primary,
demiurgic significance [18]. The second is the pervasive tendency of pre-scientific thought to explain
the unfamiliar in terms of the familiar (as it is
characteristic of scientific thought to explain the
familiar in terms of the unfamiliar). Now there is
nothing more familiar thc.n our experience of intentional action, of agency, and hence the universal
occurrence, at least in early stages of thought about
the world, of explanations of the mysterious in terms
of the actions of beings more or less like ourselves
in important respects.

This ‘spontaneous’ idealism, corresponding to
‘spontaneous’ materialism, is the fount and origin of
idealism as an explicit, more or less systematised
philosophical trend. The latter, in struggle with a
primitive materialism, articulating the spontaneously
materialist attitude to the world, and already in
struggle with spontaneous idealism, evokes, calls
into being, both idealism and materialism, each
representative and agent of social forces. This is a
process thc.t can be followed paradigmatically in
early Greek philosophy which can be seen as a first
attempt to de-anthropomorphize earlier thought by an
essentially materialist viewpoint (dialectical too,
but that is another story), and then as an attempt,
culminating in Plato, to combat precisely this
materialist assault. (Plato, in his famous passage
on the battle of the Gods and the Giants [19], said
long ago just what Engels said more recently about
the fundamental place of the struggle between material
ism and idealism in the history of philosophy.)
Idealism is constantly reborn, both in its spon-

taneous form and as reflected and systematized in
philosophical doctrines. As pointed out above it
finds a natural ‘culture’ in the division between
mental and manual labour; and the tendencies generated
here are fostered by the role which idealism plays in
ideologies appropriate to the maintenance of exploitative societies (cf. the preceding section). Again,
as indicated above, idealisms take root at points
where it is a question of coping with the unfamiliar
by means of inadequate theoretical tools, either
those restricted to concepts taken from everyday
thinking, or ones stemming from scientific theories
which have reached the limits of their applicability.

Hence the familiar presence of idealism in thought
about human beings and society, any sort of adequate
theorization of which does not precede roughly the
mid-nineteenth century (Marx and Freud), and at
turning-points in the history of scientific theury
(relativity and quantum theory).

Thus the idea of struggle is constitutive of the
materialism/idealism couple. They are, both systematically and historically, Siamese twins. But this,
the very ground of their unity, their inseparability
– that they continuously generate each other – is
also the ground of the conflict between them, since
the whole raison d’~tre of the one is to oppose the
other. Thus they are ‘internally’ related by
struggle: it is not that each is constituted independently of the other and only afterwards engages in
struggle with the other, but rather that they are
born in struggle. (They form a ‘unity of opposites’.)

The idealism of the philosophical enterprise

I began the main part of the discussion of the nature
of materialism and idealism from Section 3 onwards in
a mode which smacked strongly of the teleology of
choice, of the framework of justification. The course
of the argument led to the view that materIalism and
idealism are, in the final analysis, expressions of
certain practical orientations which are themselves
both bases and consequences of specific social groupings. Though it was inevitable that the discussion
would have to begin in the justificatory mode which
is familiar and customary, it is necessary at this
point (borrowing Wittgenstein’s metaphor) to kick
away the ladder by which I have reached it. Questions
of justification give way to questions of explanation. If I have so far put the question in terms of
constructing justificatory arguments for the adoption
of materialism or idealism, arguments which might be
taken to be ones apt to produce convinction in someone as regards the materialist or idealist positions,
I must now replace this mode with another and see
that the real question (which cannot be pursued any
further here) is: what detePmines the distribution of
bearers/agents of ideoZogy to materialist/idealist
positions? The programmatic, schematic answer is:

those factors which determine the course of the class
struggle. (One consequence of this is an exclusion of
voluntarism in the matter of ideological class
struggle. For if the standpoints of materialism and
idealism are rooted in the sphere of the practical,
then ideological class struggle in these directions
has an only ‘relative autonomy’, and change of distribution of ideological agents is basically not a
matter of recommending different interpretations of
the world, but of changing it in such a way as to
effect different distributions. This is of course
only to reiterate the theme of Marx’s 11th Thesis on
Feuerbach about the necessity to change rather them
simply ‘interpret’ the world.)
Now it is characteristic of the whole traditional
philosophical enterprise that it conceives of philosophy as a special, genuinely theoretical branch of

knowledge issuing in distinctive sorts of propositions
the choice between which is decided within the subject
itself by means of theoretical arguments. (There are
exceptions, probably the chief of whom is Nietzsche.

But in a definite sense he too was lodged in the same
problematic by virtue of identifying reason with a.rgument, and in dismissing the primacy of argument found
himself on the field of irrationalism.) Thus philosophy is thought of as having an essentially autonomous history determined by the internal logic of its

But all this is, from the standpoint summarized in
the opening paragraph of this section, thoroughly
idealist .. Thus the traditional philosophical enterprise is inherently idealist. In particular, idealism
itself is, quite apart from its content, idealist,
and, paradoxically enough – from the ordinary standpoint – so is traditional materialism (a result which
might have been expected, considering the thesis,
earlier set out, that idealism and traditional materialism are mirror images of one another theoretically).

There are no valid arguments from true premises,
rationally believed, which issue in the materialist
position – even if deduction is used in the commonsense, Sherlock Holmes sense. Indeed, there are no
purely discursive arguments of any sort which have
materialism as a conclusion.


Historical materialism

I have distinguished the following kinds of materialism: philosophical, scientific, traditional and
spontaneous. Where does ‘historical materialism’ fit
in here? With a consideration of this question I
take up a thread explicitly dropped at the beginning
of Section 7.

The claim of what Engels later called ‘historical
materialism’ or ‘the materialist conception of history’ was, in its founding document, The German
Ideology, to be a science of history rather than an
ideology which had history as its subject-matter,
specifically the particular ideological formation
called philosophy. But if it was this that was in
question, why call it historical materialism? As
Althusser has remarked [20], we do not talk about
chemical materialism, for example, rather than simply
chemistry. The answer, he goes on to indicate, is to
be sought in the historical context in which it arose
– the predominance not just of philosophies of history
but of specifically idealist philosophies of history.

So the name ‘historical materialism’ has a polemical
import. In the first place, then, historical materialism is a materialism insofar as it is consistent
with philosophical materialism in the sense given that
term at the end of Section 6 above. And this characterizatjon does not run into the trouble that the
initial rlefinition of materialism did in this context,
for it is perfectly compatible with philosophical
materialism that an object of inquiry should be
partly constituted by intentions and so on.

But its character as materialist in this general
agonistic sense does not suffice to characterize
historical materialism as a particular sort of
materialist theory. What is then considered as such?

Now this may well seem a very easy question to
answer, whatever may be the adequacy of the answer to
the problems of society and history. For surely Marx
said quite clearly what he meant by historical materialism in the famous preface to A Contribution to the
Critique of political Economy:

The mode of production of material life
conditions (bedingt) the general process of
social, political and mental (geistigen) life.

It is not the consciousness of men that determines (bestirnmt) their being, but, on the

contrary, their social being that determines
their consciousness. [21]
There are doubtless tricky problems about what this
thesis amounts to – problems for the solution of
which concerts like ‘determination (in the last
instance)’, ‘dominance’, ‘relative autonomy’, etc.

have been formed – and then problems about the
empirical adequacy of one or another version. But
surely this is what the materialism of historical
materialism comes to? Let us call it, just to be
able to refer to it briefly, ‘economic materialism’.

Marx gives us many paradigmatic examples of it. See,
for instance, the derivation of the bourgeois ideology of equality and freedom from the material conditions of the exchange-relation in the Grundrisse
[22] or, to cite a more compendious example, his
treatment of the relation of exchange-practices and
certain legal structures and practices in the
‘Marginalia to Adolf Wagner’s Textbook’ [23].

There can be no doubt at all that a central thesis
of Marx’s historical materialism is what I have
called ‘economic materialism’. But is this the only
central aspect of materialism here? To give some
purchase to the question, consider the further
question: How does economic materialism apply to
the economic itself? This may seem a needless
subtlety. But consider some of Marx’s analyses,
which we may take from the first couple of chapters
of the first volume of Capital. For example:

Men do not … bring the products of their
labour into relation with each other as values
because they see these objects merely as the
material embodiments of homogeneous human
labour. The reverse is true. By equating
their different products to each other in
exchange as values, they equate their different kinds of labour as human labour. They do
not know it, but they do it. Value, therefore,
does not have what it is written on its forehead. Rather, it transforms every product of
labour into a social hieroglyphic. Later on,
men try to decipher the hieroglyphic, to get
behind the secret of their own social product,
for the characteristic which objects of utility
have of being values is as much men’s social
product as is their language. [24]
Thus, to start with at least, the economic practice
is carried on in accordance with principles of which
the executors of the practice are unaware – it is not
that they have false ideas about the principles, but
rather that they do not have any ideas at all. It
just happens that way, like a child’s speaking of a
language. (Marx’s analogy with language at the end
of the passage is not a mere accidental flourish.)
‘They do not know it, but they do it.’ [25] At a
later stage the executors of the practice may form
theories about the functioning of the practice but it
is the objective character of the practice that will
be decisive here, not least in determining misapprehensions about the practice (e.g. ‘the fetishism of

Or, consider Marx’s derivation of money in the
following chapter on ‘The Process of Exchange’. At
the beginning of this chapter he traces, in a passage
of the utmost inspissation and subtlety, the way in
which money arises as a necessary condition for the
operation of a ramified commodity-producing economy.

The actual argument cannot even be summarized here,
but is in any case unnecessary for the purposes of
the present theme. All that is essential is the
gloss which Marx adds. ‘In their difficulties’,
Marx writes – that is, in their difficulties of being
in the situation of a ramifying commodity-producing
economy without the invention of money our commodity-owners think like Faust: ‘In the

beginning was the deed.’ They have already
acted before thinking. The natural laws of the
commodity have manifested themselves in the
natural instinct of the owners of commodities.

Here again, as in the previous case, a certain practice – that of commodity-exchange – extends itself in
accordance with the objective tendencies of its
functioning, the executors of the practice conforming
themselves to these tendencies. Again, it is not a
matter of a relation between a mode of production on
the one hand, and a superstructural feature on the
other, but between the objective structure of a
practice and the way in which it is carried on, the
latter including ideas about what is going on.

This idea of the primacy of material practices in
regard to the explanation of social life and its
changes, and in particular with regard to thought
about the latter may be called ‘practical materialism’.

It is different from what I have earlier called
‘economic’ materialism which asserts that one of
these practices, namely the economic, is primary with
regard to the determination (‘in the last instance’)
of the other practices which go to constitute a
society. ‘Practical’ and ‘economic’ materialism are
logically independent insofar as neither entails the
other ..

This distinction between ‘economic’ and ‘practical’



Turandot, Scene 4a (Gesammelte Werke, Suhrkamp ed., 5: 2211f).

Cities of the Flain, Part II (Remembranee of Things Past, 8: 96f).

Capital, 1: 102. (In this paper publ ished translations are revised – as
here – without notice, in accordance with the Marx-Engels Werke.) Cf. also
Grundrisse, 101£.

Engels, Ludwig Feuerbaeh, 345-347
Marx-Engels, Seleeted Works, 1: 13.

Engels, Ludwig Feuerbaeh, 347.

For the whole discussion see Materialism, 101ff.

Cf. also what is said about Engels’ alternative characterisation of
materialism in Section 8 below. This distinction between ‘philosophical’

and ‘scientific’ materialism jibes with Lenin’s distinction between two
senses of the term ‘matter’. On the one hand, there is ‘matter’ functioning
in a philosophieal context:

‘matter’ is here that which Lenin calls a
‘category’. In this sense ‘matter’ refers simply to that which (whatever
in its specific nature it is) exists independently of consciousness.

(‘Matter’ is here ‘topic-neutral’ to use Ryle’ s term.) As a ‘category’,
‘matter’ does not change its reference (Materialism, 130, 262). But on the
other hand there is ‘matter’ functioning in the seientifie context: ‘matter’

is here what Lenin calls a ‘concept’. In this sense ‘matter’ refers to the
speeifie nature of what exists independently of consciousness (that which is
referred to ‘topic-neutrally’ by ‘matter’ considered as a ‘category’), and
we know about it by reference to particular scientific theories (Materialism,
129, 269). Since theories change so does what we take matter in this sense
to be. This distinction between two senses of ‘matter’ is one which would
be induced precisely by the distinction between what I have called
‘philosophical’ and ‘scientific’ materialism.

9 Marx-Engels, Seleeted Works, 1: 13 (Cf. text to note 6 above).

10 Williams (reprint), 103f.

11 MateriaUsm, 182.

12 Engels, LudJ»ig Feuerbaeh, 361.

13 e.g. Dialeeties of Nature, 113.

14 Cf. Lenin, Materialism, 22.

15 Lenin’ s ‘relative’ and ‘absolute’ truth are polemical concepts aimed at
dogmatism and scepticism respectively.

16 Luklics, Die Eigenart des Asthetisehen, 45f. Cf. also 112.

17 Luklics, op.eit., 50.

18 Cf. Marx and Engels, The German Ideology, Marx-Engels, CoUeeted Works,
5: 92f., Engels to C. Schmidt, 27 October 1890, Marx-Engels, Seleeted Works,
3: 492ff.

19 Sophist, 246 a-c.

20 Lenin and Philosophy, 44.

21 Harx-Engels, Seleeted Works, 1: 503.

22 Grundrisse, 240ff.

materialisms is not made by Marx; at least it does
not come out explicitly in his writings though both
are present there. So the overt textual grounds for
introducing it are slight. I can only adduce the
points that, whilst the Theses on Feuerbach stress the
fundamental role of practice in the new materialism
(‘All social life is essentially practical’ [27]) it
is not specifically economic practice that is in
question at all, at least not explicitly; that in
The German Ideology the materialist conception of
history is demarcated from the idealist conception in
respect simply of the fact that the former ‘does not
explain practice from the idea but explains the formation of ideas from material practice’ [28]; that in
the same seminal work the materialist conception is
sometimes put as generally as: ‘It is not consciousness tha.t determines life, but life that determines
consciousness’ [29]; and that the second of the two
formulations quoted at the beginning of this section
from the ‘1859 Preface’ is very similar to the lastcited from The German Ideology – ‘being’ or even
‘social being’ is a great deal less specific than
‘mode of production of material life’. But if Marx
actually works with this sense of materialism without
making it explicit or even being specially aware of
it – as I have suggested may be the case – then this
is itself an example of the situation to which
practical materialism points.


Texts on Method, 210.


Capital, 1: l66f.

Marx clearly thought this sentence was very important. In the French
translation of J. Roy, whi ch he supervised, he inverts the order of the
original sentence, and, more importantly, emphasizes it: ‘Il le font, sans
le savoir’ (70). See also the important passage of supplementary explanation in the first edition of Capital, Vol. 1 , but not in later editions which
may be consulted in Value: Studies by Karl Marx, 36.

Capital, 1: 180.

Marx-Engels, Seleeted Works, 1: 15.

Marx-Engels, CoUeeted Works,S: 54.

ibid., 37.


Althusser, L., Philosophie et philosophie spontan~e des savants (]96?) , Paris,
Maspero, 1974
Althusser, L., Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, London, New Left Books,
Althusser, L., Essays in Self-Critieism, London, NLB, 1976.

Engels, F., Ludwig Feuerbaeh and the End of Classieal German Philosophy in
Marx-Engels, Seleeted Works in Three Volumes, Vo1.3.

Engels, F. Dialeeties of Nature, London, Lawrence and Wishart, 1941.

Lecourt, D., Une erise et son enjeu (Essai sur la position de Lenine en
philosophie), Paris, Maspero, 1973.

Lenin, V. 1., Materialism and Empirio-Critieism, Vo1.l4 of the CoUeeted Works,
Moscow, Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1962.

Luklics, G., Die Eigenart des Asthetisehen, Werke, Vols .11-12, Neuwied,
Luchterhand, 1963.

Marx, K., Grundrisse, Penguin/New Left Review, 1974.

Marx, K., Capital, Vol.l, Penguin/New Left Review, 1976.

Marx, K., Le Capital, Livre I (trans. J. Rey), Paris, Garnier-Flammarion, 1969.

Marx, K. Texts on Method (trans. T. Carver), Oxford, Blackwe11s, 1974.

Marx, K. Value: Studies by Karl Marx (trans. A. Dragstedt), London, New Park
Publications, 1976.

Marx, K. and F. Engels, Werke, Berlin, Dietz, 1956ff.

Marx, K. and F. Engels, CoUeeted Works, Moscow, Progress Publishers, 1975ff.

MRrx, K. and F. Engels, Seleeted Works in Three Volumes, Moscow, Progress
Publishers, 1969.

Williams, R., ‘Problems of Materialism’, New Left Review, No.l09, May-June 1978.

Reprinted in Problems of Materialism and Culture, London, NLB, 1980.


Buy the newest RP in printDownload the PDF