Front Page Titles (by Subject) 6.: Nature's Changefulness - The Illusion of the Epoch: Marxism-Leninism as a Philosophical Creed
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6.: Nature’s Changefulness - 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).
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© 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.
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In order to bring out the logical structure of the Marxist dialectics of nature, I will start my discussion of it with the principle that Stalin mentions second, namely with the principle that “nature is not a state of rest and immobility, stagnation and immutability, but a state of continuous movement and change,” etc. Anyone unfamiliar with philosophical literature will be surprised, perhaps, that it should be necessary to deny that nature is at rest and immutable, for it seems to be as plain as anything could be that changes are constantly going on. At the present moment, for example, the reader is running his eye down the page and thus losing sight of part of it and bringing another part of it into view, and this is surely a sort of change. Speculative philosophers, however, have written poems and books in which they have argued that change is impossible and that whatever is real is eternal, that is to say, outside time altogether. I think we may take it, therefore, that, when Marxists assert that nature changes, one of the things they are doing is denying this form of speculative metaphysics, just as they are denying idealism when they repeat the realist platitude. And just as the realist platitude has point only as a counter to idealism, so the assertion of change has point only as a counter to such metaphysicians as Parmenides and Bradley. Now whatever these metaphysicians say, things seem to change. Rivers seem to flow and fires seem to flicker. But according to the metaphysicians we have mentioned rivers do not really flow, fires do not really flicker, and it is only seemings or appearances that really flow and flicker. Thus it would appear that on their view appearances change but realities do not. Are there then appearances? If there are, then appearances are real and realities can change. If there are not, then rivers do not even seem to flow, and fires do not even seem to flicker. If the metaphysician accepts the first alternative, he abandons his assertion that there is no change; if he accepts the second, either he flies in the face of all experience, or he means something very different by “rivers,” “fires,” “flows,” and “flickers” from what is ordinarily meant by these words. For ordinarily we mean by these words the flowing rivers and flickering fires that appear to us, not some recondite reality that only philosophers talk about. Unless the metaphysician is prepared to argue that it is always false to say such things as that rivers flow and fires flicker, his assertion that reality is changeless is not quite what at first sight it seems to be, and is compatible with the changefulness that is so obvious. In so far as Marxists mean to say something like this, it seems to me that they are correct to assert the reality of change.
A second point that Marxists may have in mind when they assert the reality of change is that the physical basis of the world we live in is the changeful, sub-microscopic world of electro-magnetism, of quanta and positrons, in which speeds and movements occur which are enormously greater and smaller than anything we meet with at the macroscopic level. That is, the Marxist accepts the scientific view of the physical world according to which what is behind the ordinary appearances of things is something much more labile than the appearances themselves. The Platonists had held that behind the appearances there were changeless forms. Contemporary physics holds that behind the appearances there is something even more changeful than they. Marxists claim to accept the view of modern physics. (It is interesting to note here another parallel between Marxism and ancient Stoicism. “The Stoics,” writes M. Bréhier in his book on Chrysippus, “transformed the whole of logic into dialectic.” In particular, they argued against the Platonic view that all movement is degrading, and refused to reduce activities, such as “walking,” to states of the agent.)
In the third place, however, Marxists appear to hold the view, first put forward in Ancient Greece by Heraclitus, that only change is real and that rest is a mere appearance. Perhaps we may go so far as to say that the notion of absolute permanence or immutability does not refer to anything we could experience, but is rather an ideal limit. Lightning flashes are impermanent by comparison with houses, but houses are impermanent by comparison with mountain ranges. We always assess changes by reference to backgrounds of permanence, but we find that these backgrounds are themselves subject to change by reference to some further background. We can find no changeless physical thing. The everlasting hills are everlasting only by comparison with the generations of men. We may say with the Marxists, therefore, that the attempt to discover the laws of natural processes is the attempt to understand things “from the standpoint of their movement, their change, their development, their coming into being and going out of being.” It does not follow from this, however, that nothing endures, that all things flow, unless we are using the word “endure” to mean “absolute permanence,” and the word “flow” in a sense in which stagnant pools and mountains flow. It is one thing to say that absolute permanence is not found in nature, and quite another thing to suggest that all nature is equally changeful. It would be absurd to call a man who is a hundred years old a young man just because a range of mountains has existed for hundreds of thousands of years. When, therefore, someone says that nature is changeful, we may agree that this is true, and that it is a useful thing to say to someone else who had said that nature is changeless. But if what is meant is that there is no rest or permanence in nature in the ordinary meanings of “rest” or “permanence,” then the statement is misleading in a way that has something in common with the misleadingness of the statement that change is not real. For it is obvious that, even though everything changes, some things change more than others. Just as, therefore, to say that nothing changes is to deny the manifest differences among things, so to say that everything changes may at any rate draw the mind away from these manifest differences. There is an absurdity in the suggestion that nothing changes because the very attempt to suppose it necessarily appears to involve change—as we strain our attention and reflect—and therefore does involve change in the ordinary sense of the word. There is not this absurdity in the suggestion that nothing moves, since the immobility of the things concerning which it makes sense to say that they move is quite consistent with changes in our thought about them, and quite consistent with changes in intensity, as with the intensities of heard sounds or seen colors. But there is no absurdity in the supposition that everything changes, and that what seems to be permanence is really very slow change. Nor is there any absurdity in the notion that everything about which it makes sense to say that it moves does really move, and that what seems to be immobility is really very slow movement. The reason for this difference is that whereas changelessness and immobility are absolute notions that admit of no degree—not changing is just not changing, and any departure from that must be a change, must be something opposed to changelessness—change and movement are relative notions that admit of degree, and therefore allow a place for changelessness and immobility as very small degrees of change or of movement. If this is so, it follows that metaphysical systems like that of Leibniz which make use of fundamental notions such as activity that admit of degree are superior to systems like those of Parmenides, Spinoza, or Bradley, in which the emphasis is on an absolute unchanging being. That is to say, metaphysical systems cannot be all rejected out of hand for defects that exist only in one class of them. I do not think, therefore, that the Marxist metaphysics is, as metaphysics, as objectionable as the metaphysics of changelessness to which it is opposed.