The 'Thing-In-Itself,' or V. Chernov Refutes Frederick Engels
Our Machians have written so much about the “thing-in itself” that were all their writings to be collected they would result in mountains of printed matter. The "thing-in-itself” is a veritable bête noire with Bogdanov and Valentinov, Bazarov and Chernov, Berman and Yushkevich. There is no abuse they have not hurled at it, there is no ridicule they have not showered on it. And against whom are they breaking lances because of this luckless “thing-in-itself”? Here a division of the philosophers of Russian Machism according to political parties begins. All the would-be Marxists among the Machians are combating Plekhanov’s “thing-in-itself"; they accuse Plekhanov of having become entangled and straying into Kantianism, and of having forsaken Engels. (We shall discuss the first accusation in the fourth chapter; the second accusation we shall deal with now.) The Machian Mr. Victor Chernov, a Narodnik and a sworn enemy of Marxism, opens a direct campaign against Engels because of the “thing-in-itself.”
One is ashamed to confess it, but it would be a sin to conceal the fact that on this occasion open enmity towards Marxism has made Mr. Victor Chernov a more principled literary antagonist than our comrades in party and opponents in philosophy. For only a guilty conscience (and in addition, perhaps, ignorance of materialism?) could have been responsible for the fact that the Machian would-be Marxists have diplomatically set Engels aside, have completely ignored Feuerbach and are circling exclusively around Plekhanov. It is indeed circling around one spot, tedious and petty pecking and cavilling at a disciple of Engels, while a frank examination of the views of the teacher himself is cravenly avoided. And since the purpose of these cursory comments is to disclose the reactionary character of Machism and the correctness of the materialism of Marx and Engels, we shall leave aside the fussing of the Machian would-be Marxists with Plekhanov and turn directly to Engels, whom the empirio-criticist Mr. V. Chernov refuted. In his Philosophical and Sociological Studies (Moscow, 1907—a collection of articles written, with few exceptions, before 1900) the article “Marxism and Transcendental Philosophy” bluntly begins with an attempt to set up Marx against Engels and accuses the latter of “naïve dogmatic materialism,” of “the crudest materialist dogmatism” (pp. 29 and 32). Mr. V. Chernov states that a “sufficient” example of this is Engels’ argument against the Kantian thing-in itself and Hume’s philosophical line. We shall begin with this argument.
In his Ludwig Feuerbach, Engels declares that the fundamental philosophical trends are materialism and idealism. Materialism regards nature as primary and spirit as secondary; it places being first and thought second. Idealism holds the contrary view. This root distinction between the “two great camps” into which the philosophers of the “various schools” of idealism and materialism are divided Engels takes as the cornerstone, and he directly charges with “confusion” those who use the terms idealism and materialism in any other way.
“The great basic question of all philosophy,” Engels says, “especially of modern philosophy, is that concerning the relation of thinking and being,” of “spirit and nature.” Having divided the philosophers into “two great camps” on this basic question, Engels shows that there is “yet another side” to this basic philosophical question, viz., “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? [Fr. Engels, Ludwig Feuerbach, etc., 4th Germ. ed., p. 15. Russian translation, Geneva ed., 1905, pp. 12-13. Mr. V. Chernov translates the word Spiegelbild literally (a mirror reflection), accusing Plekhanov of presenting the theory of Engels “in a very weakened form” by speaking in Russian simply of a “reflection” instead of a “mirror reflection.” This is mere cavilling. Spiegelbild in German is also used simply in the sense of Abbild]
“The overwhelming majority of philosophers give an affirmative answer to this question,” says Engels, including under this head not only all materialists but also the most consistent idealists, as, for example, the absolute idealist Hegel, who considered the real world to be the realisation of some premundane “absolute idea,” while the human spirit, correctly apprehending the real world, apprehends in it and through it the “absolute idea.”
“In addition [i.e., to the materialists and the consistent idealists] there is yet a set of different philosophers—those who question the possibility of any cognition, or at least of an exhaustive cognition, of the world. To them, among the more modern ones, belong Hume and Kant, and they have played a very important role in philosophical development. . . .”
Mr. V. Chernov, quoting these words of Engels’, launches into the fray. To the word “Kant” he makes the following annotation:
“In 1888 it was rather strange to term such philosophers as Kant and especially Hume as ‘modern.’ At that time it was more natural to hear mentioned such names as Cohen, Lange, Riehl, Laas, Liebmann, Goring, etc. But Engels, evidently, was not well versed in ‘modern’ philosophy” (op. cit., p. 33, note 2).
Mr. V. Chernov is true to himself. Equally in economic and philosophical questions he reminds one of Turgenev’s Voroshilov, annihilating now the ignorant Kautsky, [V. Ilyin, The Agrarian Question, Part I, St. Petersburg, 1908, p. 1908.] now the ignorant Engels by merely referring to “scholarly” names! The only trouble is that all the authorities mentioned by Mr. Chernov are the very Neo-Kantians whom Engels refers to on this very same page of his Ludwig Feuerbach as theoretical reactionaries, who were endeavouring to resurrect the corpse of the long since refuted doctrines of Kant and Hume. The good Chernov did not understand that it is just these authoritative (for Machism) and muddled professors whom Engels is refuting in his argument!
Having pointed out that Hegel had already presented the “decisive” arguments against Hume and Kant, and that the additions made by Feuerbach are more ingenious than profound, Engels continues:
“The most telling refutation of this as of all other philosophical crotchets (Schrullen) 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 incomprehensible [or ungraspable, unfassbaren—this important word is omitted both in Plekhanov’s translation and in Mr. V. Chernov’s translation] ‘thing-in-itself.’ The chemical substances produced in the bodies of plants and animals remained just such ‘things-in-themselves’ until organic chemistry began to produce them one after another, where upon 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 tar” (op. cit., p. 16).
Mr. V. Chernov, quoting this argument, finally loses patience and completely annihilates poor Engels. Listen to this:
“No Neo-Kantian will of course be surprised that from coal tar we can produce alizarin ‘more cheaply and simply.’ But that together with alizarin it is possible to produce from this coal tar and just as cheaply a refutation of the ‘thing-in-itself’ will indeed seem a wonderful and unprecedented discovery—and not to the Neo-Kantians alone.
Engels, apparently, having learned that according to Kant the ‘thing-in-itself’ is unknowable, turned this theorem into its converse and concluded that everything unknown is a thing-in-itself” (p. 33).
Listen, Mr. Machian: lie, but don’t overdo it! Why, before the very eyes of the public you are misrepresenting the very quotation from Engels you have set out to “tear to pieces,” without even having grasped the point under discussion!
In the first place, it is not true that Engels “is producing a refutation of the thing-in-itself.” Engels said explicitly and clearly that he was refuting the Kantian ungraspable (or unknowable) thing-in-itself. Mr. Chernov confuses Engels’ materialist conception of the existence of things independently of our consciousness. In the second place, if Kant’s theorem reads that the thing-in-itself is unknowable, the “converse” theorem would be: the unknowable is the thing in-itself. Mr. Chernov replaces the unknowable by the unknown, without realising that by such a substitution he has again confused and distorted the materialist view of Engels!
Mr. V. Chernov is so bewildered by the reactionaries of official philosophy whom he has taken as his mentors that he raises an outcry against Engels without in the least comprehending the meaning of the example quoted. Let us try to explain to this representative of Machism what it is all about.
Engels clearly and explicitly states that he is contesting both Hume and Kant. Yet there is no mention whatever in Hume of “unknowable things-in-themselves.” What then is there in common between these two philosophers? It is that they both in principle fence off “the appearance” from that which appears, the perception from that which is perceived the thing-for-us from the “thing-in-itself.” Furthermore, Hume does not want to hear of the “thing-in-itself,” he regards the very thought of it as philosophically inadmissible, as “metaphysics” (as the Humeans and Kantians call it); whereas Kant grants the existence of the “thing-in-itself,” but declares it to be “unknowable,” fundamentally different from the appearance, belonging to a fundamentally different realm, the realm of the “beyond” (Jenseits), inaccessible to knowledge, but revealed to faith.
What is the kernel of Engels’ objections? Yesterday we did not know that coal tar contained alizarin. Today we 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.
And if that is so, three important epistemological conclusions follow:
- Things exist independently of our consciousness, independently of our perceptions, 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.
- There is definitely no difference in principle between the phenomenon and the thing-in-itself, and there can be no such difference. The only difference is between what is known and what is not yet known. And philosophical inventions of specific boundaries between the one and the other, inventions to the effect that the thing-in-itself is “beyond” phenomena (Kant), or that we can and must fence ourselves off by some philosophical partition from the problem of a world which in one part or another is still unknown but which exists outside us (Hume)—all this is the sheerest nonsense, Schrulle, crotchet, invention.
- In the theory of knowledge, as in every other branch of science, we must think dialectically, that is, 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 exact.
Once we accept the point of view that human knowledge develops from ignorance, we shall find millions of examples of it just as simple as the discovery of alizarin in coal tar, millions of observations not only in the history of science and technology but in the everyday life of each and every one of us that illustrate the transformation of “things-in-themselves” into “things-for-us,” the appearance of “phenomena” when our sense-organs experience an impact from external objects, the disappearance of “phenomena” when some obstacle prevents the action upon our sense-organs of an object which we know to exist. The sole and unavoidable deduction to be made from this—a deduction which all of us make in everyday practice and which materialism deliberately places at the foundation of its epistemology—is that outside us, and independently of us, there exist objects, things, bodies and that our perceptions are images of the external world. Mach’s converse theory (that bodies are complexes of sensations) is nothing but pitiful idealist nonsense. And Mr. Chernov, in his “analysis” of Engels, once more revealed his Voroshilov qualities; Engels’ simple example seemed to him “strange and naïve”! He regards only gelehrte fiction as genuine philosophy and is unable to distinguish professorial eclecticism from the consistent materialist theory of knowledge.
It is both impossible and unnecessary to analyse Mr. Chernov’s other arguments; they all amount to the same pretentious rigmarole (like the assertion that for the materialists the atom is the thing-in-itself!). We shall note only the argument which is relevant to our discussion (an argument which has apparently led certain people astray), viz., that Marx supposedly differed from Engels. The question at issue is Marx’s second Thesis on Feuerbach and Plekhanov’s translation of the word Diesseitigkeit.
Here is the second Thesis:
“The question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory, but is a practical question. In practice man must prove the truth, i.e., the reality and power, the ‘this-sidedness’ of his thinking. The dispute over the reality or non-reality of thinking which is isolated from practice is a purely scholastic question.”
Instead of “prove the this-sidedness of thinking” (a literal translation), Plekhanov has: prove that thinking “does not stop at this side of phenomena.” And Mr. V. Chernov cries: “The contradiction between Marx and Engels has been eliminated very simply. . . . It appears as though Marx, like Engels, asserted the knowability of things-in-themselves and the ‘other-sidedness’ of thinking” (loc. cit. p. 34, note).
What can be done with a Voroshilov whose every phrase makes confusion worse confoundedl It is sheer ignorance, Mr. Victor Chernov, not to know that all materialists assert the knowability of things-in-themselves. It is ignorance, Mr. Victor Chernov, or infinite slovenliness, to skip the very first phrase of the thesis and not to realise that the “objective truth” (gegenständliche Wahrheit) of thinking means nothing else than the existence of objects (i.e., “things-in-themselves”) truly reflected by thinking. It is sheer illiteracy Mr. Victor Chernov, to assert that from Plekhanov’s paraphrase (Plekhanov gave a paraphrase and not a translation) “it appears as though” Marx defended the other-sidedness of thought. Because only the Humeans and the Kantians confine thought to “this side of phenomena.” But for all materialists, including those of the seventeenth century whom Bishop Berkeley demolished (see Introduction), “phenomena” are “things-for-us” or copies of the “objects in themselves.” Of course, Plekhanov’s free paraphrase is not obligatory upon those who desire to know Marx himself, but it is obligatory to try to understand what Marx meant and not to prance about like a Voroshilov.
It is interesting to note that while among people who call themselves socialists we encounter an unwillingness or inability to grasp the meaning of Marx’s “Theses,” bourgeois writers, specialists in philosophy, sometimes manifest greater scrupulousness. I know of one such writer who studied the philosophy of Feuerbach and in connection with it Marx’s “Theses.” That writer is Albert Lévy, who devoted the third chapter of the second part of his book on Feuerbach to an examination of the influence of Feuerbach on Marx. [Albert Lévy, La philosophie de Feuerbach et son influence sur la littéruture allemande [Feuerbach’s Philosophy and His Influence on German Literature] Paris, 1904, pp. 249-338, on the influence of Feuerbach on Marx, and pp. 290-98, an examination of the “Theses.”] Without going into the question whether Lévy always interprets Feuerbach correctly, or how he criticises Marx from the ordinary bourgeois standpoint, we shall only quote his opinion of the philosophical content of Marx’s famous “Theses.” Regarding the first Thesis, Lévy says: “Marx, on the one hand, together with all earlier materialism and with Feuerbach, recognises that there are real and distinct objects outside us corresponding to our ideas of things. . . .”
As the reader sees, it was immediately clear to Albert Levy that the basic position not only of Marxist materialism but of every materialism, of “all earlier” materialism, is the recognition of real objects outside us, to which objects our ideas “correspond.” This elementary truth, which holds good for all materialism in general, is unknown only to the Russian Machians. Lévy continues:
“. . . On the other hand, Marx expresses regret that materialism had left it to idealism to appreciate the importance of the active forces [i.e., human practice], which, according to Marx, must be wrested from idealism in order to integrate them into the materialist system. But it will of course be necessary to give these active forces the real and sensible character which idealism cannot grant them. Marx’s idea, then, is the following: just as to our ideas there correspond real objects outside us, so to our phenomenal activity there corresponds a real activity outside us, an activity of things. In this sense humanity partakes of the absolute, not only through theoretical knowledge but also through practical activity; thus all human activity acquires a dignity, a nobility, that permits it to advance hand in hand with theory. Revolutionary activity henceforth acquires a metaphysical significance. . . .”
Albert Lévy is a professor. And a proper professor must abuse the materialists as being metaphysicians. For the professorial idealists, Humeans and Kantians every kind of materialism is “metaphysics,” because beyond the phenomenon (appearance, the thing-for-us) it discerns a reality outside us. A. Lévy is therefore essentially right when he says that in Marx’s opinion there corresponds to man’s “phenomenal activity” “an activity of things,” that is to say, human practice has not only a phenomenal (in the Humean and Kantian sense of the term), but an objectively real significance. The criterion of practice—as we shall show in detail in its proper place (§ 6)—has entirely different meanings for Mach and Marx. “Humanity partakes of the absolute” means that human knowledge reflects absolute truth ; the practice of humanity, by verifying our ideas, corroborates what in those ideas corresponds to absolute truth. A. Lévy continues:
“. . . Having reached this point, Marx naturally encounters the objections of the critics. He has admitted the existence of things-in-themselves, of which our theory is the human translation. He cannot evade the usual objection: what assurance have you of the accuracy of the translation? What proof have you that the human mind gives you an objective truth? To this objection Marx replies in his second Thesis” (p. 291).
The reader sees that Lévy does not for a moment doubt that Marx recognised the existence of things-in-themselves!
 In preparing the first edition of Materialism end Empirio-criticism for the press, A. I. Ulyanova-Yelizarova altered the words “a more honest literary antagonist” to “a more principled literary antagonist”. Lenin objected to this correction and on February 27 (March 12), 1909, he wrote to his sister: “Please do not tone down anything in the passages against Bogdanov, Lenaeharsky and C0. Toning down is impossible. You have done away with the statement that Cheraov is a ’more honest’ antagonist than they are, and that is a great pity. That shade is not brought out. It is not in accord with the whole nature of my accusations. The crux of the matter is that our Machists are dishonest, basely craven enemies of Marxism in philosophy” (Collected Works, present edition, Volume 37., p. 416).
 See K. Marx and F. Engels, Selected Works, Vol. II, Moscow, 1958, pp. 369-71.
 Lenin is referring to Voroshilov, a character depicted by I. S. Turgenevirs his novel Smoke, as the type of a pseudo-learned dogmatist. Lenin gave a description of him in his work “The Agrarian Question and the ’Critics of Marx’\thinspace” (see present edition, Vol. 5, p. 151).
 See F. Engels, Luduwig Feuerbach end the End of Classical German Philosophy (K. Marx and F. Engels, Selected Works, Volume 11, Moscow, 1958, p. 371).
 K. Marx, “Theses on Feuerbach” (K. Marx and F. Engels, Selected Works, Vol. II, Moscow, 1958, p. 403).