Below appears an excellent chapter from Nikolai Bukharin’s book, unpublished in his lifetime, Philosophical Arabesques (1937-1938). The whole collection is really quite good, but this portion on epistemology is particularly superlative. Lately I’ve been reading up on Marxism and the problem of truth: the way it involves the relation of subject to object, as well as theory to practice. I have to admit, Bukharin’s competence in treating difficult questions of philosophy surprised me a little. Not just because I’d read his short 1921 textbook on Historical Materialism — which, while insightful at times, is on the whole very mediocre — but because of Lenin’s low estimation of Bukharin as a philosopher. Shortly before his death, the Bolshevik leader recorded in his “Testament” that
Bukharin is not only a most valuable and major theorist of the Party; he is also rightly considered the favorite of the whole Party. His theoretical views can be classified as fully Marxist only with great reserve, however, for there is something scholastic about him (he has never made a study of dialectics and, I think, never fully understood it).
Karl Korsch and Georg Lukács, whose studies of the philosophical legacy in Marx’s thought remain unparalleled, took Bukharin to task for this theoretical deficit. “For one faction (typified by Bukharin’s book The Theory of Historical Materialism),” wrote the former, “the whole of ‘philosophy’ has fundamentally already reached a point that in reality it was to reach only in the second phase of Communist society after the full victory of the proletarian revolution, viz. the transcended standpoint of an unenlightened past.” Lukács wrote that “Bukharin attributes to technology a far too determinant position, which completely misses the spirit of dialectical materialism.”
At first, Bukharin sided with the “mechanist” faction of communist interpreters of Marx. Other notable adherents included Abram Deborin and László Rudas, bêtes noires of both Korsch and Lukács, who admonished them for their Hegelianism. This sensibility was rather in line with Bukharin’s training as an economist and his enthusiasm for the natural sciences. During the 1930s, though, he made a renewed study of German classical philosophy. Following his imprisonment in 1937 at the hand of his onetime ally Stalin, Bukharin finally got around to writing a treatise on philosophy. He was adamant that it be published, whatever his fate:
The most important thing is that the philosophical work not be lost. I worked on it for a long time and put a great deal into it; it is a very mature work in comparison to my earlier writings, and, in contrast to them, dialectical from beginning to end.
Unsurprisingly, his wishes were not honored. These manuscripts only surfaced after the Soviet Union’s fall in 1991. You can download the translation by clicking on the link above or read the chapter on practice below the photographs underneath. Additional works by Bukharin are available here as well:
- Critique of Rosa Luxemburg’s Accumulation of Capital (1915)
- Imperialism and World Economy (1916)
- The Politics and Economics of the Transition Period (1920)
- Historical Materialism (1923)
Practice in general and the place of practice in the theory of knowledge
Earlier, we dealt with the naïve claim of the agnostics to be reasoning on the basis of their sense perceptions alone, and thus to be able to demonstrate the unreality or incognizability of the external world.
This claim proved to be baseless and comic. From this we may conclude that any philosophical reasoning, since it operates with concepts, which are a social product, the product of thousands of years of mental work, must because of this very fact operate on the broad basis of all the achievements of science, leaving behind all the fuss and bother of foolish subjectivists.
Science, however, tells us that in historical terms, the starting point was the active, practical relationship between humanity and nature. Not contemplation, and not theory, but practice; not passive perception, but action. In this sense Goethe’s dictum “In the beginning was the deed,” when counterposed to the evangelical-Platonic-Gnostic dictum “In the beginning was the word” — that is, logos, or reason — furnishes us with a precise expression of historical reality. Marx noted this repeatedly: in his notes on the book by Adolf Wagner, in which he heaps scorn on the closeted professorial view according to which objects are passively “given” to humanity; in his Holy Family; in his Theses on Feuerbach; throughout the whole text of Capital; and together with Engels, in the brilliant pages of The German Ideology.
Contrary to the ravings of idealist philosophy to the effect that thought makes worlds, and that even matter is the creation of spirit (for example, the world-positing “I” of Fichte), it is human practice that creates a new world, actually transforming the “substance of nature” in line with human wishes. Historically, it was social humanity, the social-historical human being, and not an abstraction of the intellectual side of humanity, personified by philosophers as the subject, that above all produced, ate, and drank. It was only later, through the division of labor, that theoretical activity became separated off and isolated as an independent (or relatively independent) function, becoming restricted to particular categories of people, “mental workers,” with the various social and class modifications of this category. Theoretical cognition arose out of practice as well. The active, practical relationship to the external world, the process of material production, which, as Marx put it, conditions the “exchange of substances” between humanity and nature, is the basis for the reproduction of the entire life of social humanity. The chattering of the high priests of the so-called philosophy of life [Lebensphilosophie], including Nietzsche and a series of present-day biological-mystical hysterics, bypasses this fundamental fact, just as numerous representatives of classical idealist philosophy also bypassed it. Of course! After all, from the point of view of Kant the simple acts of sawing wood, smelting iron, or making liquid oxygen constitute a breakthrough into the “transcendental,” that fearful transgression which is “impossible”! What a mess the “practical” bull creates in this china shop full of unknowably subtle statuettes!
In fairness to Hegel, that “colossal old fellow,” as Engels affectionately called him, it should be acknowledged that although Marx and Engels had to wage a desperate, impassioned, and ultimately victorious struggle against the “drunken speculation” of Hegelian idealism, Hegel did have an understanding of practice, of labor and its tools. Moreover, the embryo of historical materialism, in the form of brilliant conceptions, was present in his works. We shall have cause to be convinced of this subsequently…
The field of practice, or of the practical attitude toward the world, can be understood in a broad sense that includes such processes as, for example, respiration — that is, the extensive material interaction of society and nature. In a more narrow sense, the word practice relates to production and consumption. Finally, it relates to the reproduction of humanity (see Engels, The Origin of the Family, etc.), the field of sexual relations, and intrasocietal practice, that is, the practice involved in changes to social relations, to real, material social relations. Here, in this discussion we shall touch above all on practice as the relations between humanity and nature, practice as it appears in the actual transformation of the material world that is of the very “things-in-themselves” on which so many philosophers have broken their teeth and before which they have beaten a retreat.
To know an object, Hegel observes somewhere, means to take control of it as such. This point of view is quite productive, and deserves to be developed. In particular, it should be developed in relation to the question of practice. Here it is particularly clear that for human beings, the matter of the external world is transformed into raw material, into objects of deliberate action, objects to be processed in line with a preconceived goal. Here, as Hegel defines it, the “feeling of singularity” stands counterposed “to inorganic nature, as its own external condition and material” (The Philosophy of Nature). Manifesting itself as raw material, that is, as the object of action, the substance of nature is transformed “artificially” into something else, into a different quality, into the object of direct assimilation. The real power of humanity over nature is revealed in this process:
Whatever forces nature has developed and set in motion against humanity… humanity always finds a way of counteracting them, deriving these means from nature, using nature against itself. Human guile is able to direct one natural force against another, forcing them to annihilate one another. Standing behind these forces, humanity is able to maintain itself intact. (The Philosophy of Nature) 
It should be said: not just to “ protect and preserve himself,” but “to develop himself.” In the present case, however, this is of secondary significance. Hegel also saw the role of tools, in the case of animal-instrumental organs (see the morphological theory of Academician Severtsov), for human beings, above all the tools of labor. Hegel wrote directly of the latter in The Science of Logic:
…the plough is more honorable than are immediately the enjoyments [which are] procured by it and which are ends. The tool lasts, while the immediate enjoyments pass away and are forgotten. In his tools man possesses power over external nature, even though in respect of his ends he is, on the contrary, subject to it.
Power, possession, force, and hegemony over nature for the purposes of life and the “direct expansion” of life are everyday categories for Hegel. Here, and in all his analogous constructs, the great idealist indeed stands on the verge of historical materialism. He is the living embodiment of “measure” and transition (in the person of Marx) into his own dialectical opposite.
The process of production is thus a process of taking control of the external world and of remaking it in line with definite ends, or goals, which in their turn are determined by a whole series of circumstances. But what does this process signify? It signifies a change in the qualities and characteristics of the objective world, and the creation of new qualities and characteristics which were needed, which before the productive process occurred stood out as goals, and which, therefore, were posited in advance. This goal-setting activity is consummated, or achieves its realization, when the productive process reaches completion.
What is the outcome here from the point of view of agnosticism in general, and of Kantian agnosticism in particular? The same outcome encountered by Zeno, with his assertion that motion was impossible, when Diogenes demonstrated by walking that indeed motion exists. How can one assert that the external world is unknowable (both as a whole and in its parts), that the object of labor is incognizable, when this object is turned into another in line with the wishes of a subject who supposedly knows nothing about it? From coal, or with its help, we make cast iron, liquid fuel, benzene, lubricants, volatile liquids, paints, perfumes, a great multitude of items, but supposedly we have no idea, God help us, what this coal is in itself! Meanwhile, the question is resolved quite simply: we know the qualities and characteristics of the “thing-in-itself,” depending on and in relation to other factors, to temperature, to pressure, to its relationships with various substances, and by altering these relationships, through our knowledge of the laws that govern them, we obtain “another” coal. All this expresses itself in Hegelian fashion; that is, in altered forms, new qualities, new “things-in-themselves” as parts of the objective world. Hence, we do know the qualities of coal!
Practice is “living,” active proof of this knowledge, a proof arising through the objective process itself, in action, manifested in the process of material transformation, which goes ahead according to the “reasoned will” of the subject. Practice tells us convincingly that we know the qualities of things and their laws. The fact that the subject of this practice is himself or herself subject to these laws (both when positing goals and when using the laws of nature to realize these goals) does not disprove this knowledge, hut on the contrary, confirms it. Freedom is cognized necessity [Freiheit ist Einsicht in die Notwendigkeit]. The fact that a technological process conforms to the laws of nature allows us to conquer nature while ourselves being subject to it. This point was understood perfectly by Francis Bacon, who provided a popular exposition of it in his work Novum Organum in 1620. Because the subject is “bound” by the laws of nature, and knows what these laws are, he or she is free. The fact that the subject creates “freely” proves that he or she knows. The real subject of history, that is, the social-historical person, in the process of reproducing his or her life (that is, social-historical life) is countless times convinced in practice of the reality of his or her knowledge and of the “this-sided” nature of his or her thinking.
Here it is appropriate to recall a semi-anecdotal incident involving Georgy Plekhanov, who in translating one of Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach imparted to a particular passage a meaning precisely the opposite of the original. Marx wrote that through practice, a human being needed to demonstrate the “this-sidedness” [Diesseitigkeit] of his or her thinking; Plekhanov transformed this into “that-sidedness,” evidently deciding that there was a misprint, and that Marx had meant to say that practice involves accomplishing a leap into the “transcendental.” It is possible to express oneself metaphorically in this fashion, and there would not be any great error except for the fact that Marx’s idea was different. He meant to say that no leap was required, that no process of transcendence was necessary, since there was nothing transcendental; there was no second, extra-rational, noumenal world, but only one, objective world, a single nature, in which human beings are also active, thus showing that so-called “this-sidedness” is also real, and has no need of any extra-rational duality.
It is typical that in most cases agnostics of the positivist stripe have skirted around the question of practice. The pure-blooded subjective idealists simply “created” the world out of themselves. Objective idealism presupposed an “authentic world” in the form of an idea; in its most aristocratic form, represented by Plato, it viewed ordinary mortals as prisoners for whom contemplation of the idea was unattainable, since they were fettered eternally in a cave. According to agnostics such as Pearson, human beings have only signs, symbols, and “empiriosymbols.” These categories are all purely passive; we are not dealing here with Fichtean “creation out of oneself” (Hegel jokes that when Fichte puts on a coat, he thinks he is creating it), in which the world is like a spider’s web emitted bubble-fashion by the spider. This is not voluntarist and actualist pragmatism. No. Here we have signs, signals, conventional designations, “hieroglyphs.” Practice, however, destroys all such concepts, since it alters the very starting point, presenting the subject in his or her active-creative instead of passive contemplative functions. Least of all is the subject in the midst of external nature a prisoner in chains, confined to a cave by a “noble” slave-owning philosopher. Such a subject is not a slave, but to an increasing degree controls the surrounding natural world, despite also being completely dependent on it (another dialectical contradiction!).
Scientific categories are in no sense conventional signs, labels selected arbitrarily for the purpose of distinguishing between things, like Hegel’s already-mentioned human earlobe. Scientific categories are representations of objective characteristics, qualities, relationships, and laws of things and of real processes, objective processes, material processes. Practice, too, demonstrates this in thoroughly convincing fashion. As [Vladimir] Ilyich [Lenin] puts it succinctly: “The result of activity is the test of subjective cognition and the criterion of objectivity which truly is.”
From a certain point of view it might be said that practice is superior to theory (conditionally, relatively!), since it is through practice that thought (theory) manifests itself in the objective, takes material shape, and is objectified in the real world. Simple syllogisms are syllogisms, the gyration and inversion of ideas, that is, movement in the sphere of thought. Metaphorically speaking, they are understood laws, reflections of laws, coordinated with subjective aims. Through practice, they become steeped in the objective; they take material form in the technological process and. its satisfactory result, that is, they manifest their truthfulness, their correspondence with reality. The correctness of thought is embodied in the “correct” flow of the material process and in the “correct” material result-that is, a result corresponding to the goal. The process “flows” in line with the concept of a material law, on the basis of which this process was coordinated earlier with a certain goal to which it has also led. Its progress and its end result have already been presupposed, consciously anticipated…Figuratively speaking, thought has been projected into matter, and has been tested by way of the material, proving its own power through the power of practice. It is in this that the supreme theoretical cognitive, epistemological significance of practice consists.
In this connection, let us recall the a priori categories of Kant. These are not treated by Kantians as “innate ideas,” nor as a historical prius. For Kantians, they are a logical prius, indispensable forms of sensory experience which serve to impose order, mechanisms through which the chaos of phenomena is trans formed into an ordered cosmos. As Kant himself states in his Prolegomena, they serve “as it were, for the storage of phenomena, so that these can be read as experience.” Outside these categories, experience is impossible; it is something formless. Within them, experience takes on form, while they in tum acquire content. These categories, according to Kant, are extra-experiential; they themselves are conditions, indispensable, a priori conditions for any and all experience. Such are the categories of quantity, quality, relation (together with the categories of substance, causality, and interaction), and modality. Also, the forms of perception: time and space. What place can mere practice have amid such company?
All these categories and forms of perception however, are considered to be a priori because they were formed on the basis of experience and have been confirmed by practice, billions upon billions of times over many tens of thousands of years. They represent the most persistent, general, constantly encountered patterns, perennially tested by practice, by all that endlessly diverse, immensely prolonged labor practice of humanity. On this basis, they have been retained as universal axioms of experience. We shall not enter now into a discussion of the four sets of three categories, or make examining them a particular topic. Here we are interested in other things. Let us take for example, time. Is it really not clear that any act of labor presupposes an “orientation in time”? In hunting, agriculture, irrigation, seafaring, journeys through deserts — in each case, in the molecules of labor experience, and in the larger aggregations of such experience, the anticipation (or expectation) of certain temporal relationships has been tested and verified through practice. The measurement of time, and time as an objective form of the existence of the material world, have had a corresponding reflection in the human brain, a reflection obtained through experience and tested endlessly in practice.
Kant set out to subjectivize the objective, but in apriorism itself, the shadow of objectivity is already present. It is no accident that in the case of another “a priori” concept, the category of causality, the great Königsberg ascetic finished up in such confusion that he was again forced volens-nolens to objectify this subjective, which according to his doctrine was a category. This occurred when he constructed a bridge of causality between “things-in-themselves” and the subject, whose senses they “affect.” When the priests of Egypt foretold the floods of the Nile and in this way oriented works of agriculture; when the Babylonians dug canals and built temples and palaces according to calendars; when irrigation works in China, and the building of the Great Wall, were conducted according to chronological indications; when Taylor introduced time and motion study; when gigantic five-year plans in the Soviet Union were implemented according to calendar schedules — what do you think? Was the notorious “a priori form of perception” not verified in practice in every wave of the flood of time? Of course it was. Not, however, as the a priori form of perception of Kant’s transcendental subject, but as the objective shape of the world, reflected in the concept of time. The same applies to space, causality, and so forth. In short, here as well practice has played, is playing, and will play an exceptionally important role. How can we fail to understand the epistemological, theoretical-cognitive significance of practice?
But this category too, like everything on earth, is capable of being misinterpreted.
Will there be troubled times, or not?
Will only weeds grow in the garden?
Unfortunately, there have been weeds growing in the philosophical garden too. They have been sown by so-called pragmatism, and today’s fascist “actualists” have turned them into a real narcotic, blooming in the garbage dumps of fascist ideology. William James expanded the concept of experience, including in it everything that is possible and impossible (“what you want, you ask for”), right up to the point of mystical religious experience (see his Varieties of Religious Experience). In his works, practice” took on its own similarly universal character, encompassing any volitional situation, any activity no matter how manifested. The “practice” of religious feeling and of mystical raving was also “practice.” The businessman, exploiting, trading, carousing, praying for forgiveness from his sins, a man making money, for whom time is money and not an “a priori form of perception” — this ultimate American philistine has found a fitting ideology in pragmatism. The practical criterion of truth has accordingly degenerated as well. The starting point here has ceased to be objective change in the objective world (which, from the point of view of theory, includes the verification of cognition through practice), but is now “usefulness,” understood in an exceedingly broad and subjective sense. If a lie is useful to a swindler, then that lie is the truth. If religion comforts an old woman, then it is the truth. Here, in the “instrumentalist,” “pragmatist” point of view, in “usefulness,” everything has become degenerate. In social terms, this is the ideology of the bourgeois trader; logically it is worthless, the prostitution of the concepts of experience, practice, activity, and truth.
Nevertheless, “practice in general” and “practice in the theory of knowledge” have reached their extreme levels of degeneracy in the modern-day fascist “philosophers” (sit venia verbo — i.e., if I may be excused for using the word “philosopher” in this context). On the basis of their bloody belligerency and social demagogy, that is, of their whole system of deceptions, masks, and myths (the making of imaginary worlds elevated into a method with a principled foundation), a philosophy of extreme voluntarism arises. The subject is declared to be a “political being” (not merely a social being”). Everything which is of use to the politics of fascism is true; truth, therefore, is an emanation of fascist “practice” (about which no more need be said). But since the degree of usefulness is defined by Herr Hitler, the criterion of truth, the epistemological criterion, lies in the hands of this gentleman, like Aaron’s rod in the Bible. There is no “philosophy of revelation” to compare with this! Here things are much simpler: “revelation” flows directly from the eloquent tongue of the head bandit! Whatever would Schelling make of this? The old but eternally new principle of correspondence to reality (this absolute principle, which manifests itself in relative fashion on the scale of all cognition) here falls away completely. The fact that the thesis “Communists set fire to the Reichstag” is advantageous to the fascist brigands means that it is true. Myth is raised here to the status of principle. As can readily be seen, this represents the extreme degree of degeneration of philosophical thought. To the extent that one can talk about cognition at all in this case, cognition negates itself. The object of cognition disappears and in its place an illusion is installed; the ideology is that of deception.
Only this kind of social setting, which in its essence (that is, in the fundamental tendencies of its development) is aimed against these particular “philosophers” (as fabricators of ideology for and representatives of a decadent, rotten bourgeoisie), could engender its own negation in their heads. Hence also the pure voluntarism, combined with profound inner despair and pessimism, the latter drowned out by all sorts of bloodthirsty Horst Wessel songs and other products of fascist creativity. In this way capitalism, which as it progresses, is rushing toward non-being, from being to nothingness and otherness, also reduces to nothingness the process of cognition. For capitalism, dialectics is indeed tragic!
Practice, material practice gives birth to theory. It has always lain at the basis of theory, since mental labor arose out of material labor, separating itself off and becoming autonomous. Practice engenders theory, since it continually places new tasks before cognition. Theory, which is an extension of practice and at the same time its opposite, enriches practice and broadens it. We thus see here a truly dialectical movement. Practice is something counterposed to theory; theory negates practice, and vice versa. But theory passes over into practice. The unity of theory and practice is the reproduction of life in its fundamental definitions. This was also expressed in idealist terms by Hegel, who spoke of “the unity of the theoretical and practical idea” (in his Science of Logic, Encyclopedia, Philosophy of Nature, and elsewhere). Hence, if we understand P as being practice, T as theory, and P’ as enriched practice, the process as a whole is represented by the formula:
P-T-P’; P’-T’-P”; P”-T”-P”’ and so forth.
Out of the relationships between theory and practice there flows also the relationship between the criteria of truth. The practical, “instrumental” criterion coincides with the criterion of “correspondence to reality”; practical success is achieved because reason really was reason, because ideas corresponded to reality, and were a correct representation of it. In essence, the principle of economy also coincides with this, so long as it is understood in its rational form, and not in a form that justifies the saying “simple-mindedness is worse than thievery.” Thought is “economical” precisely when it corresponds to reality, when there is nothing in it that is superfluous, that is, incorrect, not corresponding to reality. When thinking is economical, the whole process of thought, taken as a whole, is at its most productive, since it is not led off onto crooked paths.
The various mediating mechanisms that provide a link between theory and practice include scientific experiment. Here there is practical change, material change in the substance of nature (for example, in laboratories under artificial conditions of a second order, so to speak), accompanied by a corresponding reworking of thought. Here we find the material tools for the process, highly complex apparatus, measuring instruments, marvelous technical devices which broaden our experience to an extraordinary degree (devices such as the microscope, X-ray equipment, microscales, and so on). The factory laboratory is an objectified complex in which knowledge and practice, industry and theoretical science make direct contact, and pass over into one another.
So far, we have touched on the variety of practice involved in changes to the substance of nature. But one can also speak of the practice involved in changes in social relations and in the theoretical side of this process (the social sciences). It is not hard to see that among the representatives of a mode of production that is doomed to perish, the radius of cognition inevitably diminishes, and science rapidly becomes transformed into apologetics; conservative, reactionary, counterrevolutionary practice has a corresponding ideological reflection. “Science” in this case becomes subjective, and its class subjectivism acts as a fetter on development, not as a form of it. Moreover, this “science” takes on forms that are actively hostile to the main tendencies of development, to a much greater degree than is the case with the theoretical areas of the natural sciences.
Marxism, by contrast, achieves the unity of great theory with great revolutionary practice; the practice of Lenin brilliantly confirmed his theory. Also stemming from this quality of Marxism are the brilliant predictions made by Marx and Engels, who foresaw historical events a century ahead. The French have a saying: Savoir c’est prévoir, “to know is to foresee.” Not only to foresee, however, but also to act successfully. Knowledge, foresight, and brilliant practical successes are the characteristic traits of Marxism, as social theory and as practice. The course of the whole world-historical process, including the development of science, confirms the correctness of the mighty generalizations of Marxist materialist dialectics.