Front Page Titles (by Subject) 1.: Anti-metaphysical, Positivistic Aspect of Historical Materialism - The Illusion of the Epoch: Marxism-Leninism as a Philosophical Creed
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1.: Anti-metaphysical, Positivistic Aspect of Historical Materialism - 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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Anti-metaphysical, Positivistic Aspect of Historical Materialism
We have now examined the most fundamental notions of the Marxist philosophy, and have seen what is meant by the assertion that Marxism is both a materialistic and a dialectical view of the world. We have seen, in particular, that Marxists deny the efficacy of speculative thinking and assert the all-sufficiency of scientific thinking in which theory and practice are conjoined. Now considered in its most general aspect, the Marxist version of Historical Materialism is the view that a scientific understanding may be—indeed has been—obtained of the development of human society. It is thus one of the several attempts at constructing a “science of history” that were made in the middle years of the nineteenth century and aroused those controversies that are associated with the names of Buckle, Froude, Spencer, and Droysen. That Marx recognized some kinship between his view of history and the “scientific” view expounded by Buckle in his History of Civilization in England (1857) may be seen from the letter—best known for the discussion of Darwin contained in it—he wrote to Engels on 18 June 1862. Referring to the announcement of the death of Buckle, he says: “Poor Buckle, whom a ‘friend’ slanders in today’s Times by means of a testimonium pietatis.” The friend was Mr. J. S. Stuart Glennie, who had been with Buckle when, a few weeks before, he had died in the Middle East (the letter is written from Beyrout), and the testimonium pietatis, I suppose, is Mr. Glennie’s hope that Buckle was “now enjoying that immortality without the hope of which, as he once said to me with tears in his eyes, ‘life would be insupportable,’ and in the more immediate presence, and with deeper knowledge of that God in whom he firmly believed.” Mr. Glennie, however, goes on to summarize Buckle’s “science of history” in the following terms: “(1) Political economy—the science of wealth—is the deductive science through which the investigation of natural is connected with that of social phenomena, and thus the way is prepared for one universal science. (2) The laws of society are different from those of the individual; and the method of averages, with which has to be compared the mathematical theory of probability, is that by which the former are to be investigated. (3) In social phenomena the intellectual, in individual the moral, laws are chiefly or alone to be considered: all moral social changes are thus preceded by intellectual changes.”1 Although this is very different from the Marxist view, such points of kinship as the importance attributed to economics and the secondary character attributed to morals are striking enough. Buckle, too, like Marx, associated his “science of history” with an attack on speculative philosophy, which he calls “metaphysics.” “In no other department,” he had written, “has there been so much movement, and so little progress,”2 but his conclusion was that as there are no means of settling the dispute, there would always be supporters of the two parties, “sensationalists” and “idealists.”
Let us, then, make our transition from the fundamental notions of the Marxist system to the theory of Historical Materialism by considering the positivist, anti-metaphysical foundations of the latter. Marxists claim to give a scientific account, not only of the development of human society, but also of the human propensity to engage in theological and metaphysical speculation. That is, those who accept the theory of Historical Materialism both deny the theoretical efficacy of metaphysical speculation and also claim to show how it is that men come to misdirect their thinking by vacuously speculating instead of observing and experimenting. Perhaps it should be pointed out at this stage that to give a “scientific” account of how men come to adopt religious ideas and to work out theologies and metaphysical theories is not the same thing as to refute the religious, theological, and metaphysical theories in question. For these theories might be true even though men came to adopt them for some such reason as that belief in them rendered their lives more bearable. If such “scientific” accounts of religious and metaphysical theorizing are also to be refutations of it, then it must also be shown that metaphysical speculation is incapable of revealing truths about the world, that the methods of the empirical sciences are the only methods by which the world can be understood, and that these methods can be successfully applied to human and social affairs. Thus the fundamental Marxist thesis is identical with that of positivism, viz., that nothing can be known but what sense perception and the methods of science reveal. If this were rejected, then it would be possible to hold both that the Marxist account of the human origin of religion and theology was correct, and that certain religious, theological, or metaphysical propositions were true. That the Marxists unquestionably regard their account of the social origin of religion, theology, and metaphysics as showing the illusory character of religious, theological, and metaphysical “truths,” is an added indication that they accept the positivist view about metaphysical speculation. Psychologists who give somewhat similar accounts of religious belief sometimes guard themselves against criticism by saying that they are speaking only as psychologists, not as theologians or metaphysicians. But on the positivist view, to speak as a theologian or metaphysician (i.e., as a speculative philosopher) is to speak idly, pointlessly, misleadingly. The theory of Historical Materialism is held to unmask the deception, but it can only claim to do so on the basis of the positivist theory of science.
It will be remembered that I illustrated Marx’s positivism by reference to his jibe that metaphysical or speculative thinkers—he had Hegel particularly in mind—suppose that the particular things of the world are manifestations of the Idea, as if the various species of fruit such as apples and pears and strawberries were manifestations of Fruit Itself.3 In the technical language of the philosophy of his day, Marx accused the metaphysicians of mistaking the predicate for the subject, the general characteristic (“fruitness”) for the real thing (the particular apple). Now Marx accused Hegel of making this same mistake in his theory of politics. In § 263 of his Philosophy of Right (1821) Hegel had written: “The actual Idea is mind, which, sundering itself into the two ideal spheres of its concept, family and civil society, enters upon its finite phase, but it does so only in order to rise above its ideality and become explicit as infinite actual mind. It is therefore to these ideal spheres that the actual Idea assigns the material of this its finite actuality, viz. human beings as a mass, in such a way that the function assigned to any given individual is visibly mediated by circumstances, his caprice and his personal choice of his station in life.”4 This is extraordinarily obscure, and we need not enter upon a detailed interpretation. But from the context it appears that Hegel is asserting (among other things) that it is the Absolute Idea as manifested in the State which provides the rational explanation of the family and the economic organization of society—if we may thus roughly designate what Hegel called “civil society”—and that without these manifestations the Absolute Idea would not be infinite and real.
In commenting on this passage, Marx writes: “In this passage his logical, pantheistic mysticism shows itself very clearly. . . . The real relation of the family and civil society to the State is conceived as their inner imaginary activity. The family and civil society are preconditions (Voraussetzungen) of the State; they are the genuinely active beings, but in speculation it is the other way round . . . [in fact] the family and civil society form themselves into the State. They are the active element (Sie sind das Treibende). But according to Hegel they are made by the actual Idea; it is not their own life that unites them into the State, but it is the life of the Idea which has made them from itself (die sie von sich dezerniert hat) . . . the fact is that the State emerges from the masses (aus der Menge—from the individuals?) as they exist as members of the family and of civil society, but speculation announces this fact as a deed of the Idea, not as the Idea of the masses, but as the deed of a subjective idea different from the fact. . . . The fact that serves as a point of departure [for Hegel] is not conceived as such but rather as a mystical consequence.”5 Again, in commenting on § 270 of the Philosophy of Right Marx describes Hegel’s method as follows: “The real interest is not the philosophy of right but logic. The work of [Hegel’s] philosophy is not to embody thought in political determinations but to dissipate existing political determinations into abstract conceptions. The philosophical moment is not the logic of the real fact but a mere matter of logic (. . . nicht die Logik der Sache, sondern die Sache der Logik). Logic does not serve to prove the State, but on the contrary the State serves to prove logic.”6 The next year Marx was to write in the Paris Manuscripts: “Sense experience (die Sinnlichkeit) (see Feuerbach) should be the basis of all science. Science is not real science unless it sets out from sense experience in its double form, sense awareness and sensed need (des sinnlichen Bedürfnisses)—unless therefore it sets out from nature. . . . The natural sciences will finally subordinate to themselves the science of man, just as the science of man will finally subordinate the natural sciences to itself; the sciences will thus become one.”7
We have here to deal with a number of obscure comments on a very obscure author, but it is clear at least that Marx rejects the Hegelian plan of explaining certain facts of human society in metaphysical terms. Now in his Preface to the Philosophy of Right Hegel had written: “This book then, containing as it does the science of the State, is to be nothing other than the endeavour to apprehend and portray the State as something inherently rational.”8 Rationality, according to Hegel, is displayed in a whole the parts of which are intimately related with one another so that the whole is implicit in each part and each part is essential to the whole. Thus, his Philosophy of Right was, among other things, an attempt to show that families and civil society are not rational wholes of this nature, but that the State, and particularly a constitutional monarchy, is nearer to being a whole of this nature. Aristotle had attempted something of the same sort when, in Book I of the Politics, he had argued that individual men, families, and villages were incomplete beings by comparison with the city-state. It will be seen that Hegel’s method is not only based on his metaphysical view of rationality, but is also one in which judgments of value are aimed at, for the less rational forms of social organization are judged to be defective by reference to the more rational ones, however unavoidable the defects may be. It is this whole metaphysical-evaluative method that Marx rejects in the writings that I have just quoted from. He is asserting that society should be studied by the methods of the empirical sciences. The facts of social life should, therefore, first be ascertained by observation (“sense experience”); among these facts will be the actual needs of men (“sensed needs”); the value of social institutions should then be assessed in terms of these empirically ascertained “sensed needs” rather than in terms of some logical or metaphysical ideal; and then it will be found that the nature of real men and their “sensed needs” will throw light on the ideal society and on the nature of metaphysical thinking, rather than vice versa.
Such, it seems to me, is a principal theme of these early essays of Karl Marx, a theme which already points toward what later came to be known as the Materialist Conception of History. The rejection of metaphysics leads to a demand for the “scientific” examination of human society, and this, in its turn, leads to the claim that any assessments or valuations of human institutions should be in terms of needs that can be ascertained by scientific methods of examination. Theories about human society, it is argued, should be based on observed facts (“sense experience”), and social institutions should be assessed in terms of human desires (“sensed need”). Social institutions may thus be observed with a view to finding more effective means of satisfying human needs, and since both natural and social science are human concerns for the satisfaction of human wants, both are really subordinate to a fundamental science of human wants which is social science par excellence. These, I might say, were also the views of Auguste Comte, which had been published in Paris in the form of lectures between 1829 and 1842.
Now there is a difficulty in this whole conception which we should notice before we pass on to further aspects of the Marxist view. The difficulty arises from a certain vagueness in the word “need.” A man’s needs may be understood in the sense of everything he desires. To satisfy his needs would then be to satisfy as many of his desires as possible. But what one man wants may conflict with what another man wants, and so the problem arises of deciding which wants of which men shall have precedence. It would be generally supposed that one man’s desire to torture another one is a desire that ought not to be fostered, and we generally take it for granted that social science should find means for satisfying, not any and every desire, but legitimate desires. If this is taken for granted, then the notion of a “need” is not a purely empirical one based solely on “sense.” On the contrary, it conceals a moral assessment behind its apparently purely factual façade. Anyone, therefore, who claims to show that men’s moral ideals arise from their “needs,” in this sense of the word, is misleading himself and others, since the “needs” on which moral ideals are allegedly based are already charged with moral meaning.
A second sense of the word “need” is that in which a man’s needs are what he must have in order to keep alive (his “necessities”), as distinct from the luxuries and superfluities of his life. On this interpretation, to satisfy men’s needs is to secure their necessities. Now the line of demarcation between a necessity and a luxury is a shifting one that varies, as Marx well knew, with the state of civilization. The cigarette that was a luxury in 1900 becomes, it is said, a necessity in 1950. Man’s basic physical structure, however, has not changed during that period, so that the food and warmth and shelter that would have sufficed to keep a man alive in 1900 would also do the same in 1950. If by “being alive” we just mean “not dying,” then the means that would just succeed in keeping men alive are fairly constant. But, of course, when we talk of “keeping alive,” we often assume that living is living at the standard of life customary to the individuals in question. Thus this notion of “needs” generally relates to a standard of life regarded as customary or decent. Indeed, many people feel that it is wrong for anyone to fall below a certain level of life, so that a man’s needs are the means to a standard of life in the determination of which moral considerations have played an essential part. Here again, therefore, the notion of a “need” is far from being the purely “scientific” or morally neutral conception that it was held out to be.
It might be argued that these difficulties which are, of course, commonplaces to students of economics,9 can be avoided by assuming that the function of social science is to ascertain the means of satisfying most wants, or of satisfying the maximum of want in society as a whole. Now in the first place such a programme requires a means of counting and measuring wants. Methods would have to be devised, for example, to show whether, or the extent to which, freedom to act on the desire to hurt someone else in fact leads to a diminution of the satisfactions of other people as a whole. In general, some instrument would have to be constructed for measuring the rise and fall of satisfaction in a society. This is not the direction that Marxist thought on social science has taken. In any case, there is a second difficulty in the view we are considering. “Why,” the critic may ask, “should social scientists aim at increasing the number or amount of satisfied needs?” If the answer given to this is that it is right that they should do so, then social scientists are not mere scientists after all, but moralists as well, and so morality has not been reduced to science. If the answer given is that everyone in fact does aim at the maximum amount of satisfied need, then the answer is probably false. I say “probably false,” because it is not at all clear what could be meant by “maximum amount of satisfied need.” I say “probably false,” because many people appear to prefer their own satisfactions to anything even remotely resembling the satisfaction of society as a whole.
We may conclude from this discussion that much of what we say about human beings, even when, on the face of it, it appears to be purely factual, contains implicit evaluations of them and their conduct. This should not surprise us, for human beings are normally regarded as capable of choice, as free, responsible agents whose conduct may be good or bad. Thus, when we talk about ourselves and our kind we usually assume that we are concerned with such free moral agents. This assumption is so ingrained in us that words that were originally coined for scientific use, such as “fixation” or “sublimation,” rapidly acquire a moral flavor when they are constantly employed. We can, of course, set before us the ideal of extruding all moral assessment from some of our discussions of human beings. We should then find that we were discussing them as if they were animals unable to act freely or morally. We could, for example, discuss them in biological terms, as organisms or as a species that maintains itself. In this way many true things may be said about men, things of a character common to them and other living creatures. But such a manner of speech is singularly ill adapted to describe and explain what is specifically human. When, for example, the same word “response” is used for a moth’s movement toward the light and a man’s answer to a question, very little indeed is being said about the man’s behavior.
If what I have just said is correct, then, whatever may be the case with the extrusion of metaphysics from it, the extrusion of ethical considerations from social science is seen to be fraught with difficulties.
We must now pass on to consider how the Marxist rejection of religion, theology, and metaphysics, and the Marxist account of what they are, arose from Feuerbach’s treatment of the same theme. In doing this we shall, I hope, prepare the way for a more specific grasp of the Materialist Conception of History. The view that we are to discuss is the view that men’s religious, theological, and metaphysical views are not true in the way that their adherents suppose them to be, but are fantasies and illusions based on their circumstances and experienced needs. According to the Marxists, the dogmas of religion and theology and the theories of metaphysics should not be discussed as if they were genuine views with evidence to support them, but should be traced back to the human wishes and desires from which they spring. Marxists do not normally argue against the religious and metaphysical theories of their opponents, but claim to “unmask” them as the expressions of class interests or socially determined wishes. Marxists do not, for example, give detailed “refutations” of the arguments put forward by theologians and philosophers to prove that God exists, or that the world is fundamentally spiritual, or that there are two main types of essentially different being, the physical and the mental. Instead of doing this sort of thing, they argue that this or that theological or metaphysical theory was developed in order to support this or that class interest. This is a feature of Lenin’s discussion of phenomenalism that non-Marxist philosophers find both puzzling and disquieting. As we have seen, this method of discussion can only be accepted as a result of first accepting the positivist view that the sort of reasoning used both by theologians and their anti-theological but metaphysical opponents is beside the point and cannot possibly lead anywhere. It is a method that is obviously most unsettling for those against whom it is used. To be told not merely that your point of view is unacceptable, but that it is not even worth discussing in the way that you have been used to discuss it, is to be treated as a somewhat comic figure. The character in the comedy thinks, let us suppose, that he is doing his duty with dignity and authority, but he is laughed at by an audience that sees the real point that, in being hidden from him, makes him ridiculous. Religious persons, theologians, and metaphysicians cannot but feel that they are being made to appear absurd when they are told that all their arguments count for nothing in themselves, but are a sort of squeaky noise given out by the grinding of their own axes.
Let us then see how the Marxist theory of “ideologies” arose out of Feuerbach’s theory of the nature of religion, theology, and metaphysics expounded chiefly in The Essence of Christianity (1841), Preliminary Theses towards the Reform of Philosophy (1842), and Foundations of the Philosophy of the Future (1843).
[1. ]The Times, 18 June, 1862.
[2. ]The History of Civilization in England (3rd edition, 1861), vol. 1, pp. 150–51.
[3. ]See p. 47.
[4. ]Knox’s translation (London, 1942), p. 162.
[5. ]Kritik des Hegelschen Staatsrechts, 1843, M.E.G.A., I, 1, i, pp. 405–8.
[6. ]Ibid., p. 418.
[7. ]Ibid., I, 3, p. 123.
[8. ]Knox’s translation, p. 11.
[9. ]“By necessaries I understand, not only the commodities which are indispensably necessary for the support of life, but whatever the custom of the country renders it indecent for creditable people, even of the lowest order, to be without.” Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations, V, chap. 2.