Front Page Titles (by Subject) 1.: Basic Ideas of Marxist Naturalism - The Illusion of the Epoch: Marxism-Leninism as a Philosophical Creed
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
1.: Basic Ideas of Marxist Naturalism - H.B. Acton, The Illusion of the Epoch: Marxism-Leninism as a Philosophical Creed 
The Illusion of the Epoch: Marxism-Leninism as a Philosophical Creed (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2003).
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
© 1962 by H. B. Acton. The copyright to this edition, in both print and electronic forms, is held by H.B. Acton’s estate. It is reproduced here by permission and may not be reproduced in any form without written permission.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
Basic Ideas of Marxist Naturalism
Just as Marxist realism is the denial of the idealist theory of knowledge put forward by Berkeley, and of its phenomenalist offshoots, so Marxist naturalism arises from criticism of Hegel’s speculative idealism. Hegel believed that it could be shown, by the dialectical method, that the universe as a whole is a rational mind within which matter and mere vegetative and animal life are dependent abstractions. On this view, someone who said that the world is material would be neglecting most of its most significant features, someone who said that it was alive would be neglecting many, but not quite so many of its most significant features, and someone who said, with understanding of what was implied in it, that the world is a mind, would be saying what is true and would not be denying that it had material and animal features too. Hegel claimed that his speculative idealism was the most complete philosophy that had hitherto been put forward, that it did justice to what there was of truth in previous philosophies, and that it was superior to Berkeley’s in that it put sense knowledge in its proper, rather subordinate place. The arguments are elaborate, and difficult to summarize, but their principle is that all views other than the view that the world is Absolute Spirit can be shown to involve contradiction, whereas the theory of Absolute Spirit retains all that is true in each of the more limited views without being itself limited in any important way. Hegel thus thought he had established a sort of philosophical religion, for he held that the Hegelian philosophy was the definitive rational expression of the truths which in Christianity, the highest form of religion, were expressed in imaginative terms only. The element of this view that is most important for our present purposes is the claim to establish by philosophical argument, that is to say by speculation, that all conceptions short of the Absolute Idea involved contradictions, and that nature is not an independent being but a moment or aspect of Spirit. “Nature,” Hegel wrote in the Encyclopedia (§ 248), “in itself, in its concept, is divine, but exists in such a way that its mode of being does not correspond to its concept; on the contrary, nature is the unresolved contradiction. . . . Nature appears as the primary, as immediate being, only to that consciousness which is itself external and immediate, that is, only to the sensuous consciousness.”
Now in opposition to all this Marxists argue that nature not only appears to be primary, as Hegel had said, but that it really is primary, and that there is nothing fundamentally misleading in our sense perceptions of it. In his Ludwig Feuerbach, Engels argued that there are at bottom only two main philosophies, idealism and materialism. According to the idealists, mind in some form or another is the primary being from which everything else has sprung, while according to the materialists matter is the primary being from which mind has taken its origin. Engels goes on to say that the group of philosophers known as the Young Hegelians turned “back to Anglo-French materialism” in order to develop their criticisms of the Hegelian system, and that the appearance of Feuerbach’s Essence of Christianity (1841) was decisive in giving form to the materialist outlook of Marx and himself. “Enthusiasm was general; we all became at once Feuerbachians.”1 Now in this book Feuerbach had upheld the two theses mentioned above, viz., that sense experience is trustworthy and reveals nature to us, and that nature is the source of mind and consciousness and stands in no need of a supernatural Creator. More particularly he argued that speculative philosophy is the form that theology takes in an age when natural science has discredited it, and that the explanation of theological doctrines is to be found in the needs and desires of men. “Man,” wrote Feuerbach, “—this is the mystery of religion—projects his being into objectivity, and then again makes himself an object to this projected image of himself thus converted into a subject; he thinks of himself, is an object to himself, but as the object of an object, of another being than himself. . . . Thus, in and through God, man has in view himself alone. It is true that man places the aim of his action in God, but God has no other aim of action than the moral and eternal salvation of man; thus man has in fact no other aim than himself. The divine activity is not distinct from the human.”2 From all this a number of closely related topics emerge: (a) It is held that sense perception is reliable, and reveals an independently existing material world. (b) It is held that nature stands in need of no supernatural Creator, but is itself the source of men and minds. (c) It is held that we can improve our knowledge of nature by employing the methods of the natural sciences, but that the methods of theology and speculative philosophy do not lead to knowledge of anything supernatural. (d) It is held that a natural account can be given of the religious beliefs of men, and that, in particular, God is an imaginative projection of human needs and desires.
We need spend no longer on (a), since we have treated this topic fairly fully in the preceding chapter. But it is important to see how (b), (c), and (d) are connected. Clearly (b) is considered to follow from our scientific knowledge, so that the fundamental questions are whether scientific knowledge is to be preferred to theology and speculative philosophy, and whether these latter give any knowledge of the world at all. Thus (c) is logically prior to (b). (c), however, is also logically prior to (d). For (d) purports to be a psychological (or, as Feuerbach put it, an “anthropological”) account of belief in God, and could only be regarded as not “explaining away” such belief if God’s existence could be proved by theology or speculative philosophy or (contrary to (b) above) by some scientific procedure other than that of psychology or “anthropology.” Thus, if the theological and speculative methods are valueless, and if the only way of getting knowledge of the world is by means of the methods of the natural sciences, then belief in God is unfounded unless scientific methods establish it—and the assertion of (b) is that they do not—and religious beliefs and practices have to be accounted for in psychological or sociological terms. Let us, then, first discuss (c), the Marxist view that the scientific methods are supreme.
[1. ]Ludwig Feuerbach, pp. 27–28 (English translation, London, 1935).
[2. ]The Essence of Christianity, translated by Marian Evans (George Eliot) (London, 1854), p. 29. This book, which is very important for the understanding of Marxism, will be discussed in Part Two, Chapter I, below.