Diderot’s materialism as one-half of Marx’s historical materialism

Profile picture of Samson ZhangSamson Zhang
Nov 28, 20219 min read

“As regards politics, [Diderot’s] influence is nonexistent” during the French revolution, writes historian Daniel Mornet (1). While Voltaire and Rousseau were buried at the Paris Pantheon as intellectual heroes at the turn of the 19th century, Diderot remained relatively uncelebrated. But Diderot’s name rang in the cries of another great revolution: that of the Russian Bolsheviks a century later. Karl Marx named Diderot as his favorite writer in 1865 (2), and Friedrick Engels wrote in 1886 that “if ever anybody dedicated his whole life to the ‘enthusiasm for truth and justice’...it was Diderot.” (3) In particular, “Conversation Between D’Alembert and Diderot” stands out as an oft-referenced text in Russian revolutionary literature; it is the only work by Diderot listed in the Marxist Internet Archive’s “Miniature Library of Philosophy” (4). Lenin’s 1908 polemic against Ernst Mach, which quotes “Conversation” extensively, suggests the reason for Diderot and “Conversation” in particular’s importance: the text is a powerful argument for the materialism on which Marxist theory is based (5).

Marx’s philosophy of dialectic or historical materialism, the view that material conditions are the root drivers of historical change, not ideas, formed the basis for the ideologies that drove the Bolshevik revolution. Specifically, class conflict was the material force that Marxist historians identified as the root of revolution. In the Marxist analysis, the French revolution was not driven at the root by the emergence of new ideas about liberty and society. Rather, the increase in productivity starting in the Renaissance created a bourgeois middle class, whose contributions to production became incompatible with the power they were afforded by ruling clergy and nobility classes (6). It’s fundamentally due to these material conditions created by technological development, Heller argues, that enlightenment thinkers arrived at philosophies favorable to the overthrow of existing governments, leading to the French revolution. “These philosophers were by no means impelled, as they thought they were, solely by the force of pure reason. On the contrary, what really pushed them forward most was the powerful and ever more rapidly onrushing progress of natural science and industry,” Engels wrote in 1886 (7). In his 1902 pamphlet What is to be done?, Lenin applied the same analysis to develop a strategy to lead Tsarist Russia to socialist revolution. He ordered (in strong but ultimately only hopeful writing, as Lenin was out of direct power in exile in Western Europe at the time) the revolutionary vanguard to imbue the discontent masses with the consciousness that they can be part of a struggle not only against their immediate working and living conditions, but against the entire underlying structure where those who own the means of production are separate from and have power over those who only have their labor to offer (8).

While the synthesis of materialistic and dialectic methods is regarded as Marx’s distinct innovation, its two component philosophies stand squarely on the shoulders of previous thinkers. The dialectic understanding of history asserts that history meaningfully progresses over time rather than being cyclical or directionless. Hegel, who Marx studied extensively, was the source of Marx’s dialectics. Materialism lays the foundation that reality can be fully understood in terms of matter. Peter Howard Kaufman points out that Soviet scholars, the most influential interpreters of Marx’s philosophy if not Marx himself, “firmly situate the historical locus for the crystallization of materialist philosophy in Enlightenment France” (10); thus French enlightenment philosophy was the source of Marx’s materialism.

Diderot in particular was seen by Soviet critics as “a leader of the French materialists” who expounded a materialistic philosophy that “was, in effect, a precursor of dialectical materialism” (12), as Arnold Miller summarizes in his survey of Soviet literature about Diderot. Indeed, he identifies “the enduring Soviet interests in regard to Diderot” as consisting of “his materialism, his atheism, his anticipations of ‘dialectic,’ [and] his interest in science as a method of transforming the environment through technology.” (13) Diderot was useful to Marxists because his arguments against traditional idealism and in favor of materialism provided ammunition for Marxists’ fight against ongoing “reactionary” idealism. Lenin relies on Diderot heavily in his 1908 polemic against Ernst Mach, for example. He quotes Diderot’s definition of idealists as philosophers who, “being conscious only of their existence and of the sensations which succeed each other within themselves, do not admit anything else,” and subsequent characterization of such a philosophy as one “only the blind could have originated” that “is the most difficult to combat, although the most absurd of all.” Lenin then quotes the entire two-page discussion about the emergence of life from an insensible egg directly from “Conversation Between d’Alembert and Diderot” as sufficient reasoning for the truth of materialism over idealism, concluding that supporters of Mach’s idealism had not introduced any new arguments that Diderot had not already overcome in exposition of his own materialism more than a century before (14).

Aram Vartanian’s analysis of “Conversation” points out several key properties of the text that made it so useful for Lenin and later Marxists. Vartanian argues that Diderot’s materialism meaningfully paralleled his political philosophy, and that both stemmed from his bourgeois class positionality and consciousness (15). Diderot’s advocacy for a monistic view of the body wherein consciousness emerges from matter and energy against the Cartesian dualistic view that separates mind and body is analogous to Diderot’s opposition to absolute or clergy/nobility power, Vartanian argues. Cartesian dualism represents a “head” of state ruling over a body that is either entirely mechanistic and thus under absolute rule, or inherently “baser and grosser” and under the rule of an aristocratic superior class (16). In contrast, Diderot’s monistic body, made up of a collection of vibrating strings which interact with each other, is conscious of itself rather than being assessed and governed by a separate entity. Vartanian is quick to point out that Diderot “was neither a revolutionary nor a republican,” and desired the “head” still to control the “body” while communicating with each other (17). In other words, Diderot opposes absolutism, not monarchy. Yet, the fundamentally materialistic basis on which Diderot builds his political philosophy is what was so useful for Marxists: the way that a body functions is determined by the interactions between component “strings” rather than an to immaterial “mind” or “spirit” in Diderot’s model, directly paralleling the Marxist materialist idea that the structure of a society is rooted in the material conditions of the classes of people within it rather than abstract ideologies removed from these material conditions. “Conversation” also contains a parallel to the specific, and in the Marxist view historically dominant, force of class struggle. Musing about the implications of his materialistic conception of life on the possibility of evolution, Diderot wrote, “the imperceptible earthworm...is perhaps in the process of developing into a large animal, and an enormous animal...is perhaps in the process of developing into an earthworm.” (18) This “illustration of the reversal of class fortunes occurring in the zoological sphere has almost the appositeness of a metaphor concerning the class-struggle in society,” Vartanian analyzes (19).

But for all the overlap between Diderot’s materialism and Marxist dialectical materialism, Marxist theorists recognized that it had several key shortcomings. Kaufman noted that, while “[lavishing] praise” on French materialism “as the illustrious forerunner to contemporary Marxism,” Soviet writers also worked “to distinguish [French and dialectical materialism] and leave no doubt as to the inferiority of the former.” (20) Chiefly, Diderot’s materialism lacked the sense of consequential forward historical motion of dialectical materialism. Kaufman summarizes the Soviet scholarship explanation for this gap in three points. First, Diderot didn’t have knowledge of Hegel’s dialectics as the underlying philosophy. Second, while Diderot based his materialist framework on the latest physical and life science at the time, his philosophy predated what Engel calls the three “decisive discoveries” that solidified the validity of materialism: those of the cell, of energy transfer, and of Darwinian evolution.” Third, Diderot lacked the “historical” perspective on the French revolution as the transition from feudalism to bourgeois capitalism, and the proletarian class’ eventual emergence as a revolutionary one (21). “The contributions of French Enlightenment materialism are a point of departure for Soviet philosophy, not a destination,” Kaufman wrote. Only with the addition of Hegelian dialectics and more up-to-date science did it become “possible to synthesize materialism and the dialectic in Marx and Engels' system of dialectical materialism.” (22)

Marxist Russian revolutionaries assigned a great deal of weight to the French revolution. In the Big Soviet Encyclopedia, the French revolution is referred to as the “Great French Revolution”; the only other “great” revolution in the encyclopedia is the October revolution of 1918, Kaufman notes (23). As far as the French Revolution was seen as a class revolution that necessarily preceded the Russian revolution, “Soviet Marxists [viewed] Diderot as an intellectual ancestor in this very general sense,” Miller writes (24). But Marxists’ intellectual relationship with Diderot extended far beyond this general acknowledgement of his historical situation. Rather, as shown by the writings of Engels, Marx, Lenin, and post-revolution Soviet critics, Diderot’s philosophy of materialism was recognized as a key foundational doctrine that, combined with Hegelian dialectics, formed the historical materialism that is the basis of Marxism.


  1. Daniel Mornet, The Intellectual Origins of the French Revolution (Colin, 1967)

  2. Karl Marx, “Karl Marx’s ‘Confession’” (International Review of Social History, 1956)

  3. Frederick Engels, “Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy” (1886), ch. 2

  4. “A Miniature Library of Philosophy” (Marxist Internet Archive, accessed 2021)

  5. Vladimir Lenin, Materialism and Empirio-criticism (1908, translated 1972)

  6. Henry Heller, The French revolution and historical materialism: Selected Essays (Brill, 2017)

  7. Heller, Selected Essays

  8. Engels, “Feuerbach”

  9. Vladimir Lenin, What is to be Done? (Wellred Books, 1935; orr. 1902)

  10. Peter Howard Kaufman, The solidarity of a philosophe: Diderot, Russia and the Soviet Union (Columbia University, 1991), 10

  11. Arnold Miller, “The annexation of a philosophe: Diderot in Soviet criticism, 1917-1960” (Diderot studies, 1971), 43

  12. Miller, “Annexation”, 36

  13. Miller, “Annexation”, 126

  14. Lenin, Materialism, “In Lieu of An Introduction”

  15. Aram Vartanian, "The Rêve de D'Alembert: A Bio-Political View" (Diderot Studies, 1973)

  16. Vartanian, "Bio-Political View", 49

  17. Vartanian, "Bio-Political View", 47

  18. Denis Diderot, “Conversation Between D’Alembert and Diderot” (1769)

  19. Vartanian, "Bio-Political View", 61

  20. Kaufman, Solidarity, 11

  21. Engels, “Feuerbach”

  22. Kaufman, Solidarity, 41

  23. Kaufman, Solidarity, 7

  24. Miller, “Annexation”, 36

Revolutionary Reading Club

Notes on Lenin and other revolutionary/critical/whatever social theory I stumble upon