Front Page Titles (by Subject) 3.: Phenomenalism, Idealism, and the Religious Outlook - The Illusion of the Epoch: Marxism-Leninism as a Philosophical Creed
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3.: Phenomenalism, Idealism, and the Religious Outlook - H.B. Acton, The Illusion of the Epoch: Marxism-Leninism as a Philosophical Creed 
The Illusion of the Epoch: Marxism-Leninism as a Philosophical Creed (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2003).
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Phenomenalism, Idealism, and the Religious Outlook
In effect, what Lenin (and subsequent Marxist writers) maintain is that the proposition that there can be no “material substance” (which I labelled (iii) on page 7), and the proposition that inanimate things such as tables are groups of sense data (which I labelled (v) on page 8), and which together comprise the essentials of phenomenalism, are inseparable from the other parts of Berkeley’s philosophy, so that once we accept them we open the way to theism and religion. Now this may be understood in two ways. In the first place it may be suggested that in fact phenomenalism is a step on the road to idealism and religion. On this view, what is being suggested is that whether or not idealism follows from phenomenalism and theism follows from idealism and religion follows from theism, those who accept the phenomenalist arguments either themselves pass on to idealism, theism, and religion, or at any rate encourage others to do so. In the second place it may be suggested that phenomenalism, idealism, theism, and religion are logically connected, so that were the first true, the second, third, and fourth would also have to be true. I think that Lenin held both of these views, and in this section I shall say something about each of them.
First, then, as to the view that phenomenalism is in fact connected with idealism, theism, and religion. Lenin, following Engels,9 believed that idealism and materialism were the only two philosophies that counted, that idealism was a system of thought that constantly endeavored to put the best possible face on what Marx (following Feuerbach) had called the “mystifications” of priests and other agents of the ruling classes, and that the revolutionary working class must base their thought and action on materialism if they are to succeed in freeing themselves from the bonds which their masters have fastened on them. Idealism, Lenin wrote, “is merely a subtle, refined form of fideism, which stands fully armed, commands vast organizations and steadily continues to exercise an influence on the masses, turning the slightest vacillation in philosophical thought to its own advantage.”10 His objection to phenomenalism is a social one. The emergence of phenomenalism as a philosophical theory which criticizes both idealism and materialism confuses the clear-cut issue which Lenin is intent on establishing. Who is not for the working class movement is against it. Idealism, theism, and religion, Lenin thought, are obviously against it, and any other view that is not wholeheartedly materialistic, although it may not be openly and consciously against it, is so in tendency, and perhaps covertly also. Thus he concluded: “The objective, class rôle played by empirio-criticism entirely consists in rendering faithful service to the fideists in their struggle against materialism in general and against historical materialism in particular.”11 Stalin allows these thinkers even less credit than Lenin when, in chapter 4 of the History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, he writes: “In reality, they were hostile to Marxism, for they tried to undermine its theoretical foundations, although they hypocritically denied their hostility to Marxism and two-facedly continued to style themselves Marxists.”12
I cannot hope to deal, at the present stage, with all the issues that would need attention if this view were to be discussed fully. In particular, it will be seen that Lenin thinks it relevant to criticize a philosophical theory about perception on the ground of its possible social and political repercussions. On the face of it, this may not seem defensible, since a true theory might conceivably have bad political results, and a theory which had good political results might conceivably be false. However that may be—it is a theme discussed on page 191 below—Lenin’s generalization that phenomenalism is allied with idealism and religion is much too narrowly based. He refers to a few Russian Social Democrats who flirted with empirio-criticism and suggested that some form of religious organization was desirable in which God was equated with the social good, and also to some associates of Mach and Avenarius who were willing to be called philosophical idealists. In the history of European thought as a whole, however, the exponents of phenomenalism have generally been indifferent, if not hostile, to religion. We need only mention such thinkers as Protagoras, Hume, Bentham, James Mill, J. S. Mill, and Karl Pearson. It is worth noting that J. S. Mill, a few sentences after he has given his phenomenalistic definition of matter, writes: “But I affirm with confidence that this conception of Matter includes the whole meaning attached to it by the common world, apart from philosophical, and sometimes from theological theories.”13 It is difficult to resist the conclusion that Lenin’s attitude to phenomenalism is that of the revolutionary administrator, for whom clear-cut decisions were essential. The revolutionary workers needed a this-worldly philosophy of matter to arm them against the enervating influence of religion, and Lenin felt that those who departed from the materialist simplicities were unreliable palterers.
We now pass to the contention that idealism, theism, and religious belief follow logically from the doctrine of phenomenalism. According to the phenomenalists, the only terms or expressions (apart from those of logic) that can have meaning are those which refer directly or indirectly to sense-experiences, among which, of course, are included experiences of pleasure and pain, of effort, resistance, and the like. Thus the term “matter,” if it is not used to refer to actual or possible sense-experiences, is meaningless, and the term “mind” is meaningless also, unless it is used to refer to actual or possible feelings associated with actual or possible sense-experiences. Now the term “God” is generally held to refer to an infinite, active, non-sensible spirit who transcends the natural world. Most phenomenalists, I think, would argue that meaning cannot be attached to such a term, that they cannot conceive what it would be like to experience God, and that therefore what religious people call “the worship of God” cannot be what they take it to be. If phenomenalism is true, and if God is held to be a being that could not be directly or indirectly experienced by the senses, then the existence of God cannot be meaningfully asserted or denied. To argue thus that the notion of God is meaningless is, it seems to me, to oppose the religious view of things much more radically than even atheists do. The atheist has common ground with the theist in so far as he admits that the theist’s belief has point, whereas the phenomenalist regards the dispute between them as insignificant, and when he says so both parties are disturbed.
We may conclude, therefore, that this part of Lenin’s attack on phenomenalism is less effective as a social tactic than he himself supposed. For, whereas phenomenalism, by denying meaning to any conceptions except those based directly or indirectly on sense-experience, consigns both God and material substances to a common and irrelevant grave, materialism, by asserting the reality of material substances beyond sense-experience, allows also the possibility of a God that transcends sense-experience too. Phenomenalism excludes God but appears committed to some sort of idealism. Materialism excludes phenomenalism but only at the expense of making God appear a possibility. The revolutionary tactician cannot afford to ignore this dilemma.
To be offset against the atheism of phenomenalism is, however, its alleged conflict with natural science. This made Lenin particularly suspicious of it, since he considered that the natural sciences provided the detailed content of materialism. Our next step, therefore, must be to consider his direct arguments against a phenomenalistic, and in favor of a realistic, theory of perception.
[9. ]In Ludwig Feuerbach and the Outcome of Classical German Philosophy.
[10. ]M. and E-C, p. 406.
[11. ]Ibid., p. 406.
[12. ]English translation, Moscow, Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1939, pp. 102–3.
[13. ]Examination of Sir William Hamilton’s Philosophy, p. 233 (my italics).