From ProleWiki, the proletarian encyclopedia

Idealism is a philosophical outlook based on the principle that matter is not independent from the mind or spirit and as such that reality is subjective, dependent on one's experience of the world.[1][2]

It exists in contrast to materialism, which forms the basis of the scientific outlook of the world and scientific socialism.


Idealism and materialism have existed as schools of philosophy since at least Ancient Greece, though these theories took centuries to mature. In this society, materialism was merely the idea that everything in the world is made of matter.

Yet idealism came to exist somewhat naturally. The first humans observed phenomena that they didn't understand (such as storms, volcano eruptions, seed germination...) and attributed these activities to unseen spirits, which formed the basis of the first human religions, also known as animism (the belief that items, places, and things are inhabited by spirits).

Later, as humans experimented and learned about the world, animism would turn into polytheism, and then into monotheism and God. The idea of the spirit (or soul) is still at the center of idealist thought.

Berkeley, a philosopher of the 18th century, is perhaps the person who reached the highest stage of idealism as a philosophy and has developed it to its end.

Theories and shortcomings

Following Berkeley's theories, he claimed that reality only exists in one's head as, for example, some may find an item to be heavy while others, who are perhaps stronger, will find it to be quite easy to carry.

Yet the weight of an item is an objective quality; it weighs the same no matter who picks it up, and no matter how it feels in their hand. While there are subjective properties to an item (taste, size, shape, colour for example), Berkeley claimed that objective properties were in fact subjective. This means reality does not exist and science would be unable to exist if that were true. Or in other words, while humans see the sun as a yellow-white disc with rays (when seen from the Earth), science was able to determine that it is neither a disc nor yellow-white, nor does it have rays. The sun exists in an objective reality independent from our subjective interpretations. In the materialist interpretation, we are not discussing the properties of things, but their existence.

Idealists therefore claim that mind creates matter. Therefore, it follows that the world does not exist outside of our thoughts. And ultimately, our ideas create things, where things are the reflection of our thoughts. An apple becomes an apple only when we apply several properties to it such as colour, shape, taste, etc. Yet, as we have seen in the example of the Sun, things exist in an objective reality that may be completely different from our subjective interpretation.

Religious ties and opposition to science

Ultimately, idealism will always turn to God to justify its arguments. As it was born of human religious beliefs (themselves based on ignorance of the material world), it can only exist when supported by these beliefs. If it follows that the world exists only in our mind, then how can science explain that the world existed before humans? Idealists will say that animals existed before humans and that perhaps they could think. But we also know that the world existed without any form of life for millennia. Thus idealists will claim that God has always existed, and that God is capable of thought. When choosing between idealism and materialism, one has to choose between God and science.

Moreover, how does idealism explain human consciousness and the existence of thought? They claim God imbued human beings with a soul, an immaterial concept that has yet to be observed, and that this soul allows us to think and therefore create reality and act upon the world. In the materialist framework, we understand that thoughts are created by the brain, a material object.

God is an ultimate being, an affirmation that cannot be proven (and will not be proven by idealists, who simply accept that God exists). Science however demonstrates through practice and experience that the world exists objectively.


In the scope of dialectics, idealists claim that ideas move things forward. That people had the right ideas at the right time and this moved society forward. For example, the steam engine was invented at the right time and thus allowed productivity to flourish, which led to capitalism establishing itself as the dominant mode of production.

In Hegelian idealism, it is ultimately God that is responsible for dialectics, much in the same way it was for Berkeley.

Yet ideas are dependent on material conditions. The steam engine could not have existed before steam was understood to create power which could be harnessed to move gears. It also had no practical use before the relations of production were organized enough that it became viable to use steam machines.

These same material conditions also create the ideas that people are capable of forming. Scientific socialism could not have existed as it does today before capitalism, since it is made possible with the productive capabilities of factories and steam machines (now electronic). While thinkers of the Middle Ages and earlier could have invented something close to communism (say common ownership of the means of production), they could not have foreseen capitalism and the machines it would use. They could not have foreseen the existence of the bourgeoisie and proletariat.


Religion, particularly organized religions such as Christianity or Islam, contain highly immaterial and idealist thought. Religion commonly overlooks the mundane and observable parts of reality in favor of a often purely abstract and invisible deity. Adherents of organized religions typically view morality as not something that is an invention of humans, and that is dynamic, but as something largely stagnant; given by a god, and that is constant, regardless of the advancement of human civilization. Religion, with its commonly idealistic nature, has often been used as a tool by liberals to justify the idea of "natural rights", or by reactionaries, as a means of claiming that social change is "decadence" or otherwise immoral.


Liberalism largely relies on immaterial values and policies. Liberals view certain legal-rights as totally inherent to society, if not completely "god-given", furthermore, Liberals often care little for what -real- material conditions are like for the vast majority of the population. For example, Liberals will often speak about "economic freedom", however, what this really means is simply the degree throughout which a corporation can exploit their workers without the government caring. If one were to go by the Liberal definition of "economic freedom", then the more "economic freedom" a nation has, the worse it is for the working class. Freedom is not free if it does not exist anywhere outside the fantasy of a politician's mind, or if only a tiny amount of people can benefit from this "freedom", at the expense of the majority.[3]


Materialists, such as Marxists, oppose idealism as the two are in contradiction. Moreover, materialism represents the scientific conception of the world (which when applied to socialism forms scientific socialism) whereas idealism represents the utopian conception of the world.


  1. “Idealism is the way of interpreting things which regards the spiritual as prior to the material, whereas materialism regards the material as prior. Idealism supposes that everything material is dependent on and determined by something spiritual, whereas materialism recognizes that everything spiritual is dependent on and determined by something material. And this difference manifests itself both in general philosophical conceptions of the world as a whole, and in conceptions of particular things and events.”

    Maurice Cornforth (1971). Materialism and the dialectical method (p. 20). New York: International Publishers. ISBN 9780717803262 [LG]
  2. “The great basic question of all philosophy, especially of more recent philosophy, is that concerning the relation of thinking and being.
    The answers which the philosophers gave to this question split them into two great camps. Those who asserted the primacy of spirit to nature and, therefore, in the last instance, assumed world creation in some form or other [...] comprised the camp of idealism. The others, who regarded nature as primary, belong to the various schools of materialism.”

    Friedrich Engels (1886). Ludwig Feuerbach and the end of classical German philosophy: 'Materialism'.
  3. Young, Shaun P. (2002). Beyond Rawls : an analysis of the concept of political liberalism. University Press of America. ISBN 2002020126



Politzer, Georges: Elementary Principles of Philosophy (1946)