Back to article index
Previous page


But the main problem that concerns us here is not a problem of Idealism but of Materialism, and neither by Lenin nor by Plekhanov is it properly addressed. Empirio-Criticism was basically an attempt to overcome the dualism of matter and consciousness by dissolving the material world into consciousness. Plekhanov and Lenin wished to re-assert the integrity of the material world. But they did not challenge, or attempt to explain, the integrity of the conscious self that observes the material world, even if they studiously avoid calling it 'soul' or 'spirit'. Implicitly therefore the dualism of matter and consciousness (or, if you prefer, 'spirit') was left intact - the problem that empirio-critics were attempting to address was shrugged away. Materialism, like Mach's Empirio-Criticism and Bogdanov's Empirio-Monism, is a monist theory. But if matter, independent of how we experience it, is the only stuff in the Universe, then how do we account for experience? Obviously in some way it is generated by the physical brain. Neurologists will tell us that subjective experiences are accompanied by perceptible events in different parts of the brain - 'neurons firing'. Yet subjective experience as a product of neurons firing seems to be an effect that is radically different from the cause. And the problem is immediately posed: if subjective thoughts and feelings are a pure product of neurons firing, what is the impulse that causes the neurons to fire?

Here, to continue with our discussion of materialism in the Soviet Union, it may be worth remembering that Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936) continued to work in Russia after the revolution. Pavlov's research on dogs encouraged a theory of the mind function as an automatic reflex reaction to external stimuli. In an address in 1925 to a congress celebrating the work of the Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleyev (1834-1907), discoverer of the periodic table, Trotsky, in trouble but not yet finally deprived of power and influence, said [10]:

'Psychology is similarly related to physiology. It is not for nothing that physiology is called the applied chemistry of living organisms. Just as there exists no special physiological force [he is referring to the "special force" Vitalists thought was necessary to explain life - PB] so it is equally true that scientific, ie materialist psychology has no need of a mystic force - soul - to explain phenomena in its field, but finds them reducible in the final analysis into physiological phenomena. This is the school of the academician Pavlov; it views the so-called soul as a complex system of conditioned reflexes which in their turn find, through the potent stratum of chemistry, their root in the subsoil of mechanics and physics.'

[10] Leon Trotsky: 'Dialectical Materialism and Science', talk given on 17 September 1925, New International, Vol 6, No.1, February 1940, pp.24-31. Available through the Trotsky page on I have it from this source and can't give precise page references.

The same is true of 'society':

'Society is a product of the development of primary matter, like the earth's crust or the amoeba. In this manner, scientific thought with its methods cuts like a diamond drill through the complex phenomena of social ideology to the bed-rock of matter, its compound elements, its atoms with their physical and mechanical properties.'

The conditioned reflex certainly provides a means of explaining the relation between a purely material, physical or chemical, force and something that could be called 'behaviour'. But it still doesn't seem to account for actual subjective experience. Pavlov was explicitly following the intuition of René Descartes in the seventeenth century who explained all animal behaviour in terms of reflexes and concluded that it could all be accounted for without positing any such thing as conscious awareness. For Descartes, conscious awareness was a property of the soul which existed uniquely in human beings and hence he has been taken as the whipping boy, one might say, for 'Cartesian dualism' - the view that there are two sorts of stuff in the Universe, spirit and matter. But his real innovation was, more than anyone before him, to explain behaviour in materialist terms as a purely mechanical or automatic response to external stimuli transmitted through the nervous system. A hard materialist view would simply extend this stimulus-response mechanism to the whole of human behaviour and eliminate or marginalise the importance of subjective awareness.