Marxism and the Open Mind


John Lewis



[The basis of this essay appeared under the title Marxism
and Modern Idealism in the Marxism Today Series edited by
Professor Benjamin Farrington. A section has been added
criticizing Zhdanov’s views on Partisanship in Philosophy.]


PHILOSOPHY has been conceived to be a purely academic pursuit of no possible interest to the man of action, the speculative activity of curious minds with nothing better to do. Its subject matter is supposed by many to be that which lies beyond everyday experience and is therefore in its very nature either unknowable or non-existent.

But as a matter of fact the man in the street has more philosophical notions in his head than he knows and they affect both his thinking and his actions. It has been well said that 'we have no choice whether we shall form philosophies for ourselves, only the choice whether we shall do so consciously and in accord with some intelligible principle or unconsciously and at random. The man who is contemptuous of philosophy may be merely a man with an unexamined philosophy, whose assumptions are uncritically held and many of whose judgments are prejudices. ‘The unexamined life’, said Socrates, ‘is not worth living,’ and an unexamined philosophy may prove to be equally unsatisfactory.

A moment’s reflection reveals the extent to which modern thinking is saturated with unexamined philosophical notions [ . . . .]



It is the contention of Marxists that idealism has become a reactionary philosophy, ‘the means for preserving traditional dogmas and illusions, the ally of clericalism and superstition’.

If this is so then we shall expect to find the conflict between materialism and idealism constituting the ideological struggle which runs parallel to and interacts with the social struggle, with the class war. It is indeed remarkable how in our time idealism in its many forms plays a reactionary role.

It would not be difficult to show how many forms of idealism, from the subjectivism that reduces the world to sensations in individual minds to the scepticism which declares that we cannot know reality or the laws of its working and therefore throws doubts on the scientific control of nature and society, all play a definitely reactionary role today. [1] The vindication of science, trust in reason and experiment, the confidence that we can know and master not only nature but life and mind and society are all part of the advance of man and have to be fought for and established on the plane of thought.

This is what is meant by partisanship in philosophy. It is nothing new in the history of philosophy, for the great ideological battles of the past were part and parcel of the social struggles of those times.

But the struggle against idealism frequently takes a polemical form which does it less than justice. It is sometimes asserted that ‘idealism has at all times been the means for preserving traditional dogmas and illusions, the ally of clericalism and superstition’. [2] Does this mean that wherever in history we find idealism as a philosophy, and in whatever form we find it, it is to be condemned? Is this consistent with the fact that idealism presents aspects of truth neglected by materialism, that it does more justice to the qualitative aspects of the world, to development,

1 See the essay in this volume entitled The Marxist Answer to the Challenge of Our Time.

2 Cornforth, loc. cit., p. 395.


to human consciousness and human history? Can we at one and the same time allow this to its credit and yet declare that idealism is nothing more than a form of superstition? Nor is it enough to argue as some Marxists do, that these aspects of truth are really ‘materialist elements’, for they most certainly are not. They have of course contributed to the modification of the older mechanical materialism into its dialectical form, but when they first appeared they were indissolubly united with the very idealism which is rejected. The good and the bad in philosophy do not lie side by side in an easily separable manner so that one can simply pick out the true and reject the false. Kant’s theory of the forms or categories of the mind without which we cannot think objectively at all, is both idealist and a contribution to scientific thought; but of course it can be reinterpreted in non-idealist terms, and is thus freed from its subjectivist form.

And what about Plato? His rejection of sense experience as illusory and his demand that we should seek for the general law behind the data in a world of transcendental forms or ideas is both scientific and idealist at the same time.

In the case of Galileo the situation is a very curious one. Galileo made the fundamental scientific discoveries which constitute the basis of our modern understanding of the physical world, yet he held, with Locke and Russell, that physical objects are known by their mental effects. Two results follow: (1) that apart from our sense organs things have no colour, sound, and, as Berkeley would add, solidity and shape; (2) our perceptions are only the way our minds react to quantitative differences. Of course this led straight to Berkeley’s idealism which reduced the physical world to mental events. Descartes saw clearly enough what Galileo and Locke missed, that if mind and matter are distinct you cannot sense matter and matter cannot  impress itself on mind, nor can thought make matter move. They cannot affect one another in any way. For these men matter was one thing and mind was another. Are these philosophers idealists? Galileo and Locke are thoroughly scientific. They are responsible for the rejection of various forms of supernaturalism and of the idea that truth can be substantiated by ecclesiastical authority. But they are really the founders of modern idealism; for the whole of Berkeley’s position and



after him the idealism of Kant and Hegel stems from this root.

It is not at all convincing to try to separate the materialism from the idealism. These men were children of their own time and could not but think in the categories of that time. It is impossible to translate their thought into our rigid dichotomy of materialism and idealism. We cannot therefore simply condemn the idealist element in their thought as a means of preserving traditional dogmas and fostering superstition. That was not the effect of their ideas in their day. That is what idealism can be in our time, but ‘ideas sometimes change their character with the movement of society’, the same idea which is reactionary today may have been in essence progressive at its first appearance.


If idealism has been described as at all times an ally of superstition, it has been claimed that materialism is essentially scientific and has always been the weapon of those who are fighting to change society and who are therefore hostile to the ideology in which the existing social order is enshrined. [1] But Marxists also point out that in the eighteenth-century materialism was mechanistic; and mechanistic materialism, they say, is really a form of idealism. It is itself ‘a product of an idealist approach’. It retains much of the idealist position. ‘It lapses into idealist illusions.’ ‘It sought to interpret the world in terms of a metaphysical scheme of ideas.’ It made ‘man into the passive object of abstract laws which are one more idealist disguise of the power of the bourgeois state’. Thus mechanistic materialism is at the same time materialistic and progressive, and a form of reactionary idealism. This is a little difficult to understand.

I think it is confusing to treat the older materialism as a form of idealism. It is stretching the term too widely. Whitehead has given us a much better evaluation of the strength and achievements of mechanistic materialism and of its errors. He says ‘in the first place, we must note its astounding efficiency as a system of concepts for the organization of scientific research. . . . It [. . . .]

1 Cornforth, ‘Partisanship in Philosophy’, Communist Review, Jan. 1948


SOURCE: Lewis, John. Marxism and the Open Mind. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books, 1957. Chapter 1: Idealism  and Ideologies, pp. 1-23. Excerpts: pp. 1, 14-16.

Note: This essay differs substantially from Marxism and Modern Idealism. The section that was specifically added for this chapter, on partisanship, is reproduced here.

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