Plekhanov on Bergson

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Some interesting comments on Bergson by way of Georgi Plekhanov’s pen (Russian revolutionary and Marxist theoretician, opponent of Lenin and the Bolsheviks):

….we shall draw the reader’s attention to what might be described as the materialist element in Bergson’s views.

Here, for instance, on page 99 of his Creative Evolution, we read:

The vegetable manufactures organic substances directly with mineral substances: as a rule this aptitude enables it to dispense with movement and consequently with feeling. Animals, which are obliged to go in search of their food, have evolved in the direction of locomotor activity, and consequently of a more and more ample, more and more distinct consciousness. (p 99)

This means that the development of consciousness is conditioned by the needs of being. Apply this remark, which, incidentally, is only the translation into the language of contemporary biology of one of Aristotle’s most profound thoughts, to the explanation of the development of social thought and you will get the theory of historical materialism. Bergson, indeed, comes quite close to this theory, it might even be said that he is one of its followers. He writes:

As regards human intelligence, it has not been sufficiently noted that mechanical invention has been from the first its essential feature, that even today our social life gravitates around the manufacture and use of artificial instruments, that the inventions which like milestones mark the road of progress have also traced its direction. (pp 118-19)

This is one of the basic principles of historical materialism. But as will be seen by the reference in the footnote on page 119, Bergson was familiar only with the very vulgar variety of historical materialism represented by P Lacombe in his book Sociological Foundations of History. Marx’s historical materialism has remained quite unknown to Bergson, otherwise he would not have credited Lacombe with something that had been done much earlier and better by Marx. Being unfamiliar with historical materialism in its classical formulation, Bergson could not grasp the proper significance of the changing succession of relations of production in the process of development of human society.

[…]

Life is a creative action, an ‘élan’. Matter is the halting of the élan, the cessation of the creative action. We are sure that nowadays many Russian readers will find this both easy to comprehend and profound. We congratulate them heartily, and wish them further penetration, under Bergson’s guidance, into the essence of life seen from its internal aspect. To those who are not attracted to the present philosophical fashion for idealism, we shall, in ending this long review, offer the remark that Bergson in his intuitive philosophy makes two great errors.

First, the attempt to observe the process of the formation of reality from its internal aspect is condemned in advance to dismal failure; nothing has ever, or can, come out of it but a dense fog of mysticism. Why? Spinoza gave the answer already in Proposition 23 in Part 2 of his Ethics.

Secondly, the process of becoming, about which Bergson has such a lot to say, is understood by him very one-sidedly: the element of existence is utterly missing. This, of course, facilitates the decomposing of ‘the material world’ into a simple ‘jet’, which he advocates in the interests of his mystical idealism: but thereby he transforms dialectics into simple sophistry, as has been made clear from the history of Greek philosophy.

Bergson sympathises with Plotonius, which is quite natural and could not be otherwise. But that Bergson has an attraction for certain theoreticians of French syndicalism is one of the most ludicrous misunderstandings known in the history of philosophical thought, so rich in misunderstandings. It demonstrates the low theoretical level reached by the theoreticians of French syndicalism, so low that, in fact, they cannot fall any lower.

____________

There can be little doubt that it is none other than Georges Sorel who is the largest of Plekhanov’s final comments here. He was, after all, the primary theoretician of the syndicalist movement at its most powerful, and had argued for the unity of Marxist thought with Bergson’s philosophy (though he was far from the only one).

Sometime soon—tomorrow evening at the earliest—I’ll post a rather rough translation I’ve put together on the correspondence between Bergson and Sorel, which hopefully will illuminate further the ins and outs of this little triad.

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