Materialism and idealism

angry-godMaterialism and Idealism are opposite ways of understanding every issue.

Materialism and idealism are not two abstract theories about the nature of the world, of little concern to ordinary people engaged in practical activities. They are opposite ways of understanding every issue, and consequently they express different approaches to these issues in practice and lead to very different conclusions from practical activity.

Nor should we use the terms “materialism” and “idealism,” as some do, to express opposing views in the field of morality; idealism as an expression of the sublime, materialism as an expression of the lowly and egoistic. If we use these terms in this way, we will never understand the opposition between idealist and materialist philosophical views; because this mode of expression, as Engels says, means nothing less than “an unforgivable concession to the Philistine[1] prejudice against the word ‘materialism,’ a prejudice which has taken root in the Philistine under the influence of the long-standing popish slander of materialism. By materialism the Philister understands gluttony, drunkenness, vanity and carnal pleasures, greed for money, avarice, the pursuit of the bargain and stock-jobbing, in short, all those filthy vices in which he himself indulges secretly. Idealism, on the other hand, means belief in virtue, love for all mankind and, in general, belief in a ‘better world,’ of which he preaches to others.

Before attempting a general definition of materialism and idealism, let us consider how these two ways of understanding things are expressed in relation to some simple and familiar questions. This will help us to understand the distinction between materialist and idealist views.

Take, for example, a natural and familiar phenomenon such as thunderstorms. What causes thunderstorms?

The idealistic way of understanding this question is that thunderstorms are the result of the wrath of god, who, being angry, sends down thunder and lightning on mankind that has done something wrong.

The materialistic way of understanding thunderstorms is that thunderstorms are the action of natural forces of nature. For example, the ancient materialists believed that thunderstorms were caused by material particles in the clouds striking one another. Of course, this explanation, as we now understand it, is false, but it was an attempt at a materialistic, as opposed to an idealistic, explanation. Today, thanks to science, we know considerably more about thunderstorms, but also far from everything to consider this natural phenomenon well-studied. Modern science believes that the causes of thunderstorms are thunderstorm clouds, which form in the atmosphere under certain conditions, under the influence of different air currents. Within these clouds, or between the cloud and the Earth’s surface, there appear electrical discharges – lightning, accompanied by thunder, which frightened ancient people so much.

We see that the idealistic explanation tries to link the phenomenon in question to some spiritual cause – in this case the wrath of god – while the materialistic explanation links the phenomenon in question to material causes.

Nowadays, most people would agree to accept the materialistic explanation of the causes of a thunderstorm. Modern science has stepped far forward, largely replacing the idealistic component of people’s worldview. But, unfortunately, this does not apply to all spheres of people’s social life.

Take another example, this time from public life. Why do the rich and the poor exist? This is a question that worries many people.

The most outspoken idealists answer this question simply by saying that god created people this way. It is god’s will that some should be rich and others poor.

But much more common are other explanations, also idealistic, only more subtle. For example, the idea that some people are rich because they are diligent, prudent, and thrifty, while others are poor because they are wasteful and foolish. People who hold onto this kind of explanation say that it is all the result of the eternal “human nature”. Human nature and society, they argue, are such that a distinction must arise between the poor and the rich.

Another explanation of the same kind is that the poor are poor because they work little and badly, while the rich are rich because they work “hard”. The reason, allegedly, is the same (being of purely idealistic nature) – innate human qualities. Some people are lazy, others are industrious, and that determines a person’s prosperity from the start.

As in the case of explaining the cause of the storm, so in the case of explaining the cause of the existence of the poor and the rich, the idealist looks for some spiritual cause – if not in the will of god, the divine mind, then in certain innate traits of the human mind or character.

The materialist, on the other hand, looks for the reason for the existence of rich and poor in the material, economic conditions of social life. He sees the cause of the division of society into rich and poor in the mode of production of material goods, when one part of the population owns land, another owns means of production, while the rest must work for them. And no matter how hard the poor work, no matter how much they save, they will still remain poor, while the owners will become richer and richer via the product of the poor people’s labour that they have appropriated.

Thus we see that the distinction between the materialist and idealist views can be very important, not only in a theoretical sense, but also in a very practical sense.

For example, a materialistic view of thunderstorms helps us to take precautions against them, such as installing lightning rods on buildings. But if we explain thunderstorms in idealistic terms, then all we can do to avoid them is pray to god. Further, if we accept the idealistic explanation of the existence of the poor and the rich, then we have no choice but to accept and resign ourselves to the status quo – to rejoice in our dominant position and indulge in moderate charity if we are rich, and to curse our fate and beg for alms if we are poor. By contrast, armed with a materialist understanding of society, we can find a way to change society, and therefore our own lives.

Although some people in capitalist society are interested in the idealistic explanation of what is happening, it is in the interest of the vast majority of others to learn to explain phenomena and events in a materialistic way in order to properly understand them and have the opportunity to change their lives.

Engels wrote of idealism and materialism: “The great basic question of all philosophy, especially of modern philosophy, is the question of the relation of thinking to being… Philosophers have divided into two great camps according to how they have answered this question. Those who asserted that spirit existed before nature, and who, therefore, ultimately recognized in one way or another the creation of the world … constituted the idealist camp. Those, on the other hand, who regarded nature as the basic origin, joined the various schools of materialism.”[3]

Idealism is a mode of explanation that considers the spiritual to be prior to the material, whereas materialism considers the material to be prior to the spiritual. Idealism holds that all material things supposedly depend on and are determined by something spiritual, while materialism holds that all spiritual things depend on and are determined by material things.

The materialistic way of understanding things, events, and their interrelationships is opposite to the idealistic way of understanding. And this fundamental difference between the two manifests itself both in general philosophical conceptions of the world as a whole and in conceptions of individual things and events.


At its core, idealism is religion, theology. “Idealism is popishness,”[5] Lenin said. All idealism is the continuation of the religious approach to any issue, even if some individual idealist theories have shed their religious shell. Idealism is not separable from superstition, belief in the supernatural, the mysterious and the unknowable.

On the contrary, materialism seeks to explain these matters from the material world, with factors that can be tested, understood and controlled.

The roots of the idealistic view of things are, therefore, the same as those of religion.

Ideas about the supernatural and religious ideas owe their origins to people’s helplessness before the forces of nature and their ignorance. Forces that people cannot understand are personified with the powers of some spirits or gods, that is, with supernatural beings that cannot be known.

For example, people’s ignorance of the real causes of such frightening phenomena as thunderstorms resulted in fantasy-like explanations – that it was the manifestation of gods’ anger.

For the same reason, such an important phenomenon as the cultivation of grain crops was attributed to the activity of spirits – people began to believe that the grain grows under the action of a special spiritual force contained in it.

Since primitive times, people have embodied the forces of nature in this way. With the rise of class society, when people’s actions and deeds began to be caused by social relations that were dominant over them and incomprehensible to them, people invented new supernatural forces. These new supernatural forces were a duplication of the social order that existed then. People invented gods that rose above all mankind, just as kings and aristocrats rose above the common people.

Religion and idealism always contain at their core this doubling of the world. They are dualistic and invent an ideal, or supernatural, world which dominates the real, material world.

Very characteristic of idealism are such oppositions as soul and body; god and man; the heavenly realm and the earthly realm; the forms and ideas of things assimilated by the mind and the world of material reality perceived by the senses.

For idealism, there is always a higher, supposedly more real immaterial world which precedes the material world, is its ultimate source and cause, and to which the material world is subordinate. For materialism, by contrast, there is only one world-the material world, the one in which we live.

By idealism in philosophy we mean any doctrine which holds that outside of material reality there is another, higher, spiritual reality, from which material reality must be explained.

Some varieties of modern idealist philosophy

Almost three hundred years ago in philosophy there appeared and still exists one direction called “subjective idealism.” This philosophy teaches that the material world does not exist at all. Nothing exists except sensations and ideas in our minds, and no external material reality corresponds to them.

This kind of idealism has become very fashionable now. It tries to pass itself off as a modern “scientific” worldview, which has supposedly “overcome the limitations of Marxism” and is more “democratic” because it considers every point of view correct.

Without recognizing the existence of external material reality, subjective idealism, put forward as a doctrine of knowledge, denies that we can know anything about objective reality outside of us, and claims, for example, that “each of us has his own truth,” that there is no absolute truth, and there are as many truths as there are people.

When capitalism was still a progressive force, bourgeois thinkers believed that it was possible to learn more and more about the real world and thus to control the forces of nature and infinitely improve the condition of mankind. Now, in the modern stage of capitalism, they have begun to argue that the real world is unknowable, that it is a domain of mysterious forces beyond our understanding. It is not difficult to see that the vogue for such doctrines is only a symptom of the decay of capitalism, a harbinger of its ultimate demise.

We have already said that, at its core, idealism is always a belief in two worlds, the ideal and the material, with the ideal world being primary and superior to the material world. Materialism, by contrast, knows only one world, the material world, and refuses to invent a second, imaginary, higher ideal world.

Materialism and idealism are irreconcilably opposed. But this does not prevent many bourgeois philosophers from trying to reconcile and combine them. There are many different attempts in philosophy to find a compromise between idealism and materialism.

One such attempted compromise is well known as “dualism”. This philosophy, like any idealist philosophy, believes that there is the spiritual that is independent of and distinct from the material, but unlike idealism, it tries to assert the equivalence of the spiritual and the material.

Thus, it interprets the world of non-living matter in a purely materialistic way: in it, from its point of view, only natural forces act, while spiritual factors exist and act beyond it and have nothing to do with it. But when it comes to explaining consciousness and society, here, this philosophy declares, is the field of activity of the spirit. In social life, it argues, one must look for an idealistic rather than a materialistic explanation.

This compromise between materialism and idealism, therefore, amounts, in effect, to the fact that such philosophers and their supporters remain idealists, since in all the most important questions about man, society and history they continue to hold idealistic views as opposed to materialistic ones.

A similar duality of outlook in bourgeois society is characteristic, for example, of intelligentsia involved in technical professions. Their profession forces them to be materialists, but only at work. In matters concerning society, however, these people often remain idealists.

Another compromising philosophy is known as “realism”. In its modern form it arose in opposition to subjective idealism.

“Realist” philosophers say that the external, material, world does exist independently of our perceptions and is reflected in some way in our sensations. In this, “realists” agree with materialists as opposed to subjective idealism. Indeed, one cannot be a materialist without being a consistent realist as far as the issue of the real existence of the material world is concerned. But to assert that the external world exists independently of our perception of it is not materialistic. For example, the famous Catholic philosopher of the Middle Ages, Thomas Aquinas, was a “realist” in this sense. To this day, most Catholic theologians regard anything other than “realism” in philosophy as heresy. But at the same time they maintain that the material world, which does exist, was created by god and is maintained and governed all the time by the power of god, the spiritual power. Therefore, they are idealists, not materialists.

Moreover, the word “realism” is greatly misused by bourgeois philosophers. It is thought that because you recognize that this or that is “real,” you can call yourself a “realist”. Thus, some philosophers, who call themselves “realists”, believe that the world of material things is real and that there is some abstract world outside of space and time which is also real. Others argue that although there is nothing but perceptions in our minds, since these perceptions are real, they too are “realists”. All this just shows that some philosophers are quite inventive in their interpretation of the term “realist”.

The main points of idealism and materialism and their opposition

The main points advanced by any form of idealism may be formulated as follows:

1. Idealism asserts that the material world is dependent upon the spiritual world.

2. Idealism asserts that the spirit, or mind, or idea can and does exist apart from matter. (The most extreme form of this claim is subjective idealism, which holds that matter does not exist at all and is a pure illusion.)

3. Idealism asserts that there is a realm of the mysterious and unknowable, “above” or “beyond” or “behind” that which can be established and known through perception, experience and science.

In turn, the basic tenets of materialism can be stated as follows:

1. Materialism teaches that the world is material by its very nature, that everything that exists appears on the basis of material causes, arises and develops in accordance with the laws of motion of matter.

2. Materialism teaches that matter is objective reality, existing outside and independent of consciousness, and that the spiritual does not exist apart from the material at all, but that everything spiritual or conscious is a product of material processes.

3. Materialism teaches that the world and its laws are fully knowable and that while much may be unknowable, there is nothing that cannot be known and studied.

As can be seen, all of the basic tenets of materialism are completely opposite to the basic tenets of idealism. The opposition of materialism to idealism, expressed in its most general form, is not the opposition of abstract theories about the nature of the world, but the opposition between different ways of understanding and interpreting every issue. This is why it is so important.

It should be pointed out that Marxist-Leninist philosophy (working class philosophy) is characterized by its extremely consistent materialism in dealing with every issue, making no concessions to idealism.

Consider some of the most common ways in which the opposition between materialism and idealism manifests itself.

For example, idealists convince us not to rely “too much” on science. They assure us that the most significant truths lie beyond the achievements of science. So they persuade us not to think about things on the basis of evidence, experience, practice, but trust those who claim to know better and possess some “higher” source of information.

Thus, idealism is the best friend and reliable pillar of any form of reactionary propaganda. It is the philosophy of the capitalist media and the mass media. It patronizes superstition of all kinds, prevents us from thinking for ourselves and from approaching moral and social problems scientifically.

Further, idealism asserts that the most important thing for all of us is the inner life of the soul. It convinces us that we will never solve our human problems except by some kind of inner rebirth. This, by the way, is a favorite theme of the speeches of well-fed people. But such ideas also find sympathy among workers. They persuade us not to struggle to improve our living conditions, but to improve our souls and bodies.

This kind of ideology is not uncommon in our society either. Our readers, too, have probably encountered all those talks about how “a perfect society consists of perfect people, and therefore we must begin with self-improvement, because by doing so we will improve all of society as well”. The bourgeois ideologues who actively propagate such concepts do not tell us that the best way for our own material and moral improvement is to join the struggle of socialism and achieve the reorganization of the our current society.

Further, an idealistic approach is often found among those who sincerely aspire to socialism. For example, some of our citizens believe that the main defect of capitalism is that under capitalism goods are distributed unfairly and that if only we could force everyone, including capitalists, to accept the new principles of justice and law, then all the negatives of capitalism could be done away with – all people would be well-fed and happy. For them, socialism is nothing more than the realization of an abstract idea of justice. This position is based on the false idealistic conception that the ideas we hold are supposed to determine the way we live and the way our society is organized. They forget to look for material causes, which are the root and cause of all social phenomena. After all, it is not the ideas people hold about the distribution of wealth, but the material fact that this mode of production is based on the exploitation of workers by capitalists, which determine the manner of distribution of products in a capitalist society, when one part of society enjoys wealth while another and a much larger part of society lives in poverty. As long as this mode of production exists, there will be these extremes in our society – wealth on one side and poverty on the other – and socialist ideas of justice will oppose capitalist ideas of justice. Consequently, the task of all people striving for socialism is to organize the struggle of the working class against the capitalist class and bring it to its conquest of political power.

All these examples convince us that idealism always serves as a weapon of reaction and that if sincere fighters for socialism turn to idealism, they are always and inevitably become influenced by bourgeois ideology.

Yes, progressive movements in the past have embraced idealist ideology and fought under its banner. But this only shows that they already contained the seeds of future reaction; they expressed the desire of the new exploiting class to seize power. For example, the great revolutionary movement of the English bourgeoisie of the 17th century took place under idealistic, religious slogans. And the same appeal to God that justified Cromwell’s execution of the king also easily justified his suppression of the revolt of the masses.

Idealism is essentially a conservative force – an ideology that helps to defend the status quo and maintain illusions in people’s minds about the current state of affairs.

Every real social progress – every increase in the productive forces and progress in science – necessitates materialism and is supported by materialistic ideas. For this reason the whole history of human thought has been essentially a history of the struggle of materialism against idealism, a history of overcoming idealist illusions and delusions.

Prepared by MLLM Work Way as part of the “Dialectical materialism. Basic course” series.

[1] Philister is a contemptuous name for a narrow-minded man devoted to routine; a complacent philistine, an ignorant philistine characterized by a hypocritical, sanctimonious demeanor.

[2] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Selected Works, vol. 357-358.

[3] K. Marx and F. Engels, Selected Works, vol. II, pp. 349-350.

[4] V. I. Lenin, Philosophical Notebooks

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