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The influence of Friedrich Engels on Alexander Bogdanov’s Basic Elements of the Historical View of Nature


Alexander Bogdanov’s first work of philosophy, Basic Elements of the Historical View of Nature, was fundamentally influenced by Friedrich Engels. As a Marxist philosopher seeking to elaborate a comprehensive, systematic, and scientific worldview appropriate for worker–students, Bogdanov found inspiration in Engels’s Anti-Dühring, which provided him with his monist conception of being and his ‘historical view of nature’ and pointed him toward three critical elements of his work: the monism of motion (energy), Spinoza’s naturalist and determinist system, and Charles Darwin’s conception of natural selection. Bogdanov’s overall goal was to demonstrate that in nature, life, the psyche, and society there is no such thing as self-generated motion; all change occurs because of external action. For the individual and for society this means that existence determines consciousness, and societies evolve as a result of their struggle for existence, which is manifested first and foremost in labor.

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  1. For example, Sochor (1988) mentions Wilhelm Ostwald, Henry Louis Le Chatelier, Charles Darwin, and Herbert Spencer. Gloveli and Biggart (1991) name Ostwald, Darwin, Ernst Haeckel, Ludwig Noire, George Simmel, Alois Riehl, Théodule Ribot, Félix le Dantec, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Joseph Dietzgen. Gare (2000) mentions Ludwig Noire and discusses the relevance of Haeckel and Ostwald. A few scholars suggest the importance of Spinoza. Bugaeva (2016) points out that Bogdanov uses Spinoza’s treatment of emotions in Empiriomonism. Gare (2000) suggests that Spinoza influenced Bogdanov through his reading of Haeckel, while Wegner (2011) links Spinoza to Bogdanov by way of Spinoza’s influence on Haeckel and Mach.

  2. Only Alexander Vucinich, James White, and Nikolai Krementsov have written more than one or two sentences about it, and even they devote no more than a few pages to it (Vucinich 1976; White 1998, 2019a; Krementsov 2011).

  3. Alexander Vucinich calls Bogdanov’s historicism ‘a synthesis of Darwin and Ostwald’ (Vucinich 1976). Krementsov (2011) calls it ‘a peculiar mix of Herbert Spencer’s positivism, Ernst Haeckel’s monism, Charles Darwin’s evolutionism, and Karl Marx’s historical materialism’, White (1998) discusses the influence of classical German philosophy on Bogdanov through his reading of Ludwig Noiré.

  4. The great exception here is James White who has argued that ‘If Bogdanov’s critics had taken the time and effort to compare Bogdanov’s ideas with those of Marx, especially with Marx’s early writings, they would have found that, far from being a heretic, Bogdanov represented the mainstream of Marx’s thought and had highlighted some of its main themes’ (White 2019a). See also White (1978).

  5. Plekhanov condemned Basic Elements as a ‘decisive rejection of materialism’ (White 2019a). In 1908, in the course of the split between Lenin and Bogdanov, Lenin’s ‘Ten Questions to a Lecturer’, which were intended to expose Bogdanov’s deviation from Marxism, made no reference to Marx at all, but only to Bogdanov’s supposed rejection of Engels and of ‘dialectical materialism’. Lenin began with ‘1. Does the lecturer acknowledge that the philosophy of Marxism is dialectical materialism ? If he does not, why has he never analysed Engels’ countless statements on this subject?’ He followed this with a series of statements by Engels that he called on Bogdanov to accept or refute (assuming that Bogdanov would refute them) (Lenin 1962).

  6. In Empiriocriticism, Bogdanov criticizes materialists who argue that matter is what causes sensations but who do not realise that this inevitably leads to Kant’s notion of things-in-themselves. ‘This was approximately the point of view of the French materialists of the eighteenth century and of the modern philosophers Engels and his Russian disciple, Bel’tov [Plekhanov].’ (Bogdanov 2019 [1906]). Bogdanov also devoted a considerable part of his chapter, ‘Dialectical Materialism,’ in The Philosophy of Living Experience to a thorough critique of Engels’s discussion of the dialectic in the Anti-Dühring (Bogdanov 2016 [1923]).

  7. Bogdanov wrote his first two works, A Short Course of Economic Science and Basic Elements of the Historical View of Nature as a result of leading Social-Democratic workers’ study groups. In 1899 he was arrested for ‘social propaganda’ and spent four years in provincial exile. He collaborated with Lenin in the creation of the Bolshevik party, and during the Revolution of 1905, he wrote tactical leaflets about armed uprising, served on the Bolshevik bureau in St. Petersburg, and served on the Executive Committee of the St. Petersburg Soviet of Workers’ Deputies. He continued to be an active Bolshevik until his break with Lenin in 1908.

  8. Engels’s Dialectics of Nature was not published until 1925.

  9. For detailed coverage see White (1981, 2019b).

  10. Lenin was writing in a legally published journal and could not write ‘Marx’ or ‘Marxism’ because of tsarist censorship.

  11. The fact that many individuals who were labeled ‘Narodist’ were actually followers and friends of Marx is not important here. Discussions of this can be found in Mendel (1961), Kindersley (1962) and Pipes (1970), but by far the most comprehensive treatment appears in White (1996, 2019b).

  12. “After all, must not energy have something that carries it!’, say the advocates of matter. ‘But why?’ logically asks Ostwald, ‘Is nature really obliged to consist of a subject and a predicate?” (Bogdanov 1899).

  13. Bogdanov did not completely resolve the problem of mind-matter dualism until he adopted the neutral monism of Richard Avenarius and Ernst Mach in Empiriomonism.

  14. Although Spinoza (1883) expressed this in terms of ‘man’, he really applied it to all of nature, since his propositions regarding the human mind (and body) apply ‘not more to men than to other individual things all of which, though in different degrees, are animated’.


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I am grateful to the anonymous reviewers for their very helpful critiques and advice.

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Rowley, D.G. The influence of Friedrich Engels on Alexander Bogdanov’s Basic Elements of the Historical View of Nature. Stud East Eur Thought 73, 407–424 (2021).

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  • Bogdanov
  • Engels
  • Monism
  • Naturalism
  • Determinism
  • Dialectic