Front Page Titles (by Subject) 1.: Marxist Social Science as a Form of Social Regeneration - 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.: Marxist Social Science as a Form of Social Regeneration - 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.
Marxist Social Science as a Form of Social Regeneration
It is well known that one of the problems that nineteenth-century thinkers found most disturbing was that as natural science developed it appeared to overthrow religion and morality by demonstrating the subjection of mankind to a natural order of things where strife ruled and the weak were thrust aside. Thus Tennyson asked whether the conclusion to be drawn from geology was that man
About the same time Clough wrote:
Clough remained perpetually in a somewhat distressed unbelief, but Tennyson thought that scientific knowledge could be supplemented by a higher wisdom in which love and faith were comprised. What is mere knowledge, he asked
Comte and his followers thought they could meet the situation by finding both religion and morality, faith and love, in science itself. Humanity replaced God as an object of worship, the earth became the Great Fetish, and honesty, patience, disinterestedness, and justice were held to be virtues inseparable from the pursuit of scientific truth. Comte, indeed, argued that in the last resort all science was absorbed into sociology, the science of society, and that sociology was at the same time a complete code of morals.
I have already shown, in Section 1 of the previous chapter, that in 1844 Marx, too, had played with the idea of a social knowledge which, in becoming scientific like the natural sciences, would “subordinate them to itself.” But the main line of argument used by Marxists is that just as natural science is the progressive mastery of nature by man, so social science is man’s mastery over his social conditions. There is a sort of Promethean pride about this view, and it is worth noting that at the end of the preface to his Doctoral Dissertation Marx had written: “Prometheus is the chief saint and martyr of the philosophical calendar.”1
In presenting this view, Stalin writes: “Hence the science of the history of society, despite all the complexity of the phenomena of social life, can become as precise a science as, let us say, biology, as capable of making use of the laws of development of society for practical purposes. Hence the party of the proletariat should not guide itself in its practical activity by casual motives, but by the laws of development of society, and by practical deductions from these laws. Hence Socialism is converted from a dream of a better future for humanity into a science. Hence the bond between science and practical activity, between theory and practice, their unity, should be the guiding star of the party of the proletariat.”2 Many years before, he had written, in his Anarchism or Communism, “Proletarian Socialism is based not on sentiment, not on abstract ‘justice,’ not on love for the proletariat, but on the scientific grounds quoted above.”3 Engels had written in the Anti-Dühring that the earlier socialism criticized the existing capitalist mode of production and its consequences, but could not explain them, and hence “could not get the mastery over them; it could only simply reject them as evil.”4 And he went on to say that with the “discovery” of the Materialist Conception of History and the Theory of Surplus Value “socialism became a science. . . .” Some such view appears to be expressed, though not very clearly, in the eighth of Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach, where he writes: “All social life is essentially practical. All the mysteries which urge theory into mysticism find their rational solution in human practice and in the comprehension of this practice.” The following passage, however, from Marx’s Preface to the first edition of Capital, volume 1, is somewhat clearer. “When a society has discovered the natural laws which regulate its own movement (and the final purpose of my book is to reveal the economic law of motion of modern society), it can neither overleap the natural phases of evolution, nor shuffle them out of the world by decrees. But this much, at least, it can do; it can shorten and lessen the birth-pangs.”
Tennyson, we have seen, thought that the pursuit of science apart from moral considerations necessarily became a pursuit of power. I am not sure that this is so, since a man of science might desire knowledge itself quite apart from the power it brought him. But on the Marxist view of science as a union of theory and practice, natural science just is power over nature, and social science just is power over society. Engels’ word “mastery” is significant. The science that is theory and practice combined is power over, mastery or control of, nature and society, and as such is held to be good. The obvious objection to this is that control over nature and society may be good or bad according to the use that is made of it. The chemical knowledge that enables disease to be cured may also enable enemies to be poisoned, and knowledge of social mechanisms may be used by some only all too enlightened despot for purposes of enslavement. Why did Marx admire Prometheus? For his defiance of the gods? This could only be good if there were gods and they were bad. For his courage? Courage can be exercised in a bad cause, as the career of Dr. Goebbels shows. For his power of invention? Certainly, knowledge and ingenuity cannot fail to evoke our admiration, as do the gait of a tiger and the marking of a snake, but as these examples show, admiration is no proof of the moral excellence of its object. Perhaps, then, he admired Prometheus as a benefactor of mankind. If so, it would seem that the cause of his admiration was that Prometheus courageously defied the envious gods and suffered for it in the service of mankind. The intelligence and inventiveness that enabled him to bring fire to the earth would, unless they had been used for the benefit of others, have had no more moral significance than the song of a bird. That mastery of nature does not, in itself, connote any desirable moral qualities, is recognized in the modern mythology of demon scientists such as Professor Moriarty and Doctor Moreau. The superiority over physical nature and the animal world that man shows in his intelligence and skill is not, in itself, morally desirable. This I take to be the defensible element in Rousseau’s criticisms of civilization.
The Marxist, no doubt, will attempt to meet this difficulty in the following manner. As science and industry develop, he will argue, man too develops morally, for in developing his technology he necessarily changes his productive relationships, and with them his law, politics, and ideologies; morals, therefore, as ideology, are linked with science and industry. It should be observed, however, in answer to this argument, that according to Marxism the development of technology (i.e., of science and industry) is basic and real, whereas the development of ideologies, including the moral one, is nothing but a shadowy transformation of one illusion into another. The argument provides no means of passing, therefore, from the practice of science and industry to a non-illusory moral outlook. The Marxist is bound to the dogma that morality is parasitical on science and industry, though the non-Marxist will readily admit that science and industry, being human activities, are subject to moral assessment as all human activities are, and cannot themselves provide the standards in terms of which they may all be judged.
Let us now consider somewhat more closely Marx’s contention that a knowledge of Marxist social science enables us to know that certain events—notably, the proletarian revolution—are bound to happen, and that when we know this we can use our knowledge to make their coming less unpleasant than it otherwise would have been (“to shorten and lessen the birth-pangs”). There is clearly a comparison with the way in which science can help us to soften the impact of physical disasters. We must all die, but with the help of medical science we can defer death and lessen its pains. We cannot abolish hurricanes, but meteorologists can forecast them, and we can strengthen our houses accordingly. We foresee death and storm, and make use of science to go through with them as comfortably as may be. This, clearly, is the analogy that Marx is working with. Capitalism will break down, the proletarian revolution will come, and, armed with this foreknowledge, we can make the interim less miserable than it otherwise would have been. The two examples I have given, however, are not of exactly the same type. The meteorologist can predict the hurricane, but we can do nothing to stop it or to slow it down. It needs no scientist to tell us we all must die, but scientists can help us to defer our deaths. It would seem, from the passage I have quoted, that the breakdown of capitalism and the proletarian revolution are thought by Marx to be more like death than like a hurricane—that they cannot be prevented altogether, but can be delayed or hastened. No one wants hurricanes, and most people want their death delayed. But some people will want to delay the breakdown of capitalism, and others to hasten it. Marx, in this passage, appears to suppose that everyone will want to get through with it as quickly as possible. Now since there is a remarkable agreement about what are physical evils—such things as death, disease, cold, hunger, and physical injury—there is also agreement about the proper function of science in foreseeing, mitigating, delaying, and preventing them. With social breakdowns and revolutions, however, it is very different, for some will be opposed to the very things that others look forward to. Mark Pattison, like Marx, though for different reasons, thought that socialism was inevitable, but his comment was “I hate it.” Furthermore, as physical science has developed, some things that at one time were thought to be inevitable have been found to be preventable. Diseases are the best example of this. Marx should not have considered it impossible for other social scientists, to whom the breakdown of capitalism was unwelcome, to discover, perhaps even with the aid of his diagnosis, means of keeping it indefinitely in being. Against this it may be argued that all previous social systems have ultimately broken down and that capitalism can hardly be an exception. This, however, is not a clear-cut argument like the argument that as all previous generations of men have died we shall too. Social systems or historical epochs cannot be instances in an induction in the way that men or ravens can be. We have a very clear notion of what it is for a man to die, but we have no such clear notion of what it is for a social system to break down. Indeed, as I have already argued, the distinctions between one historical epoch and another are unlike those between geological strata, and therefore still less like those between individual men or animals. Blurred notions such as that of a historical epoch do not permit of the definite sort of predictions that can be made when there is a number of clearly distinguishable individuals. We are all agreed as to the tests to ascertain whether a man is dead, but how do we decide that capitalism has broken down? We deceive ourselves with almost empty phrases if we suppose that we can make predictions about such things as societies, civilizations, revolutions, classes, social orders, and constitutions, as we can about men, genes, gases, and stars. If anything even approaching this is to be possible, these terms must be given definitions that will allow precise differences to be recorded.
It is not without interest, perhaps, in this connection, to mention that in 1857, two years before Marx published his Critique of Political Economy, a body was founded known as the National Association for the Promotion of Social Science. Its Transactions were arranged under the following five heads: Jurisprudence and the Amendment of the Law; Education; Punishment and Reformation; Public Health; and Social Economy. The sort of topics discussed in each section may be seen from the following examples, one from each section, taken from the first volume of the Transactions: Judicial Statistics; An Inquiry on Early Withdrawal from School in Swansea and Its Neighbourhood; Crime and Density of Population; Houses for Working Men—Their Arrangement, Drainage, and Ventilation; the Early Closing Movement. The papers submitted vary greatly in merit, but the prevailing manner of approach is to provide information on the topic chosen, to analyze the information provided, and to make suggestions about remedies for any evils brought to light in this way. The notions employed are seldom so general as “society,” “capitalism,” “revolution,” etc., but are rather of the relative particularity of “convictions,” “sentences,” “bankruptcies,” “adulteration of food,” “drainage,” and “penny banks.” It is true, of course, that at some stage enquiries of this sort need to be linked together, and the policies they suggest have to be co-ordinated. But this would seem to be the sort of approach to social science that is most likely to ensure that its exponents know what they are talking about. Furthermore, since these men made no claims to a godlike detachment from human affairs, they did not easily disguise their prejudices from one another, as can be seen from the reports of their discussions.
To return, however, to our theme—the idea that just as science and history enable men to master nature, so Marxist social science enables us to control society. Mastering nature is discovering its laws of operation and making use of this knowledge to serve human ends, as men do when, discovering that friction causes fire, they are enabled to keep themselves warm and to cook food. One form of controlling society is for some people to discover how others can be threatened and cajoled and to use this knowledge to control these others. This is the sort of control that can be got by skillful use of propaganda, and it presupposes a division into enlightened (i.e., scientific) masters and ignorant followers. Just as mastery over nature is manipulation of physical things for the satisfaction of human desires, so mastery over society would be the control of the many by the few for the prime satisfaction of the few. Clearly this is not the sort of control over social processes that the Marxists consciously advocate. Whatever control over social processes is, it is regarded by them as something opposed to class domination, and something which would readily appeal to unprejudiced people. The view they are endeavoring to put forward is, I think, something to the following effect.
If we did not know some of the causes of disease or cold or storm we should be pretty much at their mercy, as savages still are. When we know some of their causes we can prevent them from happening or protect ourselves against them when they do happen. Similarly there are social disasters, such as unemployment, slumps, and wars, which come to men ignorant of their causes just as if they were physical catastrophes like epidemics. If we could discover what causes them, they too could be prevented, or at least guarded against. Such social occurrences are like purely physical occurrences in one very important respect—no one wills them or decides that they are to happen. They are by-products of what people do decide. Thus someone invents a new machine, and men are put out of work though neither the inventor nor the employer aimed at this; a number of company directors decide to postpone capital developments, and there is a slump which they would have paid a lot to avoid; or two governments make a completely mistaken assessment of one another’s intentions and find themselves involved in a war that neither of them wanted. There are, of course, important differences between these examples, notably the difference between a slump, which is never declared, and a war, which generally is. But in all these cases individuals, and even governments, find themselves, as it is popularly expressed, in the grip of forces they cannot control. The unemployment, slump, and war result from many decisions on other matters by people aiming at other things. (“War-mongers” are characters in Marxist propaganda and do not feature in Marxist social theory.) We may say that such occurrences are unwilled and impersonal, unwilled because no one aims at producing them, impersonal because to their victims they seem like such natural catastrophes as storms and epidemics. Now one thing that Marxists mean by mastery over social processes is the knowledge of what causes such phenomena, and the resulting ability to prevent them from happening. (Incidentally, we can prevent some, but not all diseases, but storms and death we cannot prevent at all, so that Marxists are more optimistic about the possibilities of “social control” than experience of the natural sciences justifies.) The result would be that only those things would happen in human society that men had decided should happen. Fear of slumps is like fear of epidemics, and as no one now fears the Black Death, so no one in a society from which the unwilled and impersonal had been eliminated would have to fear unemployment, slumps, and war.
It should be noticed in the first place that the contrast between what is willed and what is unwilled is not necessarily a contrast between what is good and what is bad, for some people deliberately aim at harming others. The removal from human society, therefore, of what is unwilled may not mean the removal of all that is evil, for intended evil would still remain. This being so, the improvement of human society depends on the aims of those who direct the improvements as well as upon the knowledge they may have of social forces. We may ask, in the second place, whether everything in society that is unwilled is bad like storms and epidemics. Marxists appear to assume that it must be, probably as a result of some trace, in Marx’s thought, of the Hegelian view that “self-consciousness” was the perfect condition of spirit. But surely employment (supposing it to be good, in contrast to unemployment), booms, and peace are often as little the result of deliberate effort as are their less welcome contraries. The New York skyline is no less to be admired because no one designed it, and not all the effects on society of educational systems that were left to take their own way, or of haphazardly competing outlooks and theories, have been regrettable. Control over nature, we may observe, is a small area of control in an immense desert of uncontrol. The background of human effort is still an untamed accumulation of seas, mountains, and planets. Nor, unless we are in a particularly “Promethean” mood, do we regret this. Is there any reason why we should want something radically different in society? That we should wish to see nothing there but what has been deliberately put there? Before answering “Yes” to this question, we should consider what it implies. Its chief implication is that there should be no conflicting aims at all, for as soon as aims conflict, circumstances grow up which neither of the conflicting parties had aimed at, that is to say, unwilled circumstances. If A wants policy X, and B, who wants policy Y, opposes him in this, then perhaps X, perhaps Y, or perhaps neither X nor Y, will result. This, in its turn, implies that if there are to be no unwilled circumstances, everything that anybody does must be willed in accordance with some universally accepted or imposed set of co-ordinating principles. It is only by successful total planning that unwilled social by-products can be completely eliminated. The qualification “successful” is, of course, very important, since if in any respect the plan breaks down, things will happen that no one has intended. For if the single authority aims at X and fails to achieve it, then whatever results is something that was not planned. When we consider how little of intention there is in an individual personality or the spirit of a people, how the structure of scientific truth and the evolution of artistic styles have provided mankind with a succession of not altogether unwelcome surprises, and how most languages proliferate from uncontrolled sources, the idea of achieving a self-conscious mastery over all social processes is seen to be as impracticable as it is depressing. It may be argued that it is only necessary to plan to prevent bad unwilled events, such as unemployment and slumps, and that therefore I have exaggerated when I said that the Marxist’s aim requires total planning of society. But it is characteristic of Marxism to stigmatize as “reformism” the removal of particular evils one after another. It is true that there is every reason to suppose that mistakes will be made by those who carry out particular, limited reforms, so that as the reforming process continues, new, unwilled difficulties will present themselves. This, I suggest, is a good reason for not expecting any human arrangements to be perfect. But the Marxist’s response is to conclude that “reformism” is necessarily bad and that its evils can be avoided by “revolution,” that is, by a complete overthrow of the old system of things and its replacement by a new one decreed by the revolutionaries. This is to substitute total re-modeling for piecemeal improvement, and requires those who do the re-modeling to be very clever indeed if they are not to be confronted by a much more formidable array of unintended evils than face the reformers. For if so very much is risked on one venture, the penalty of failure is correspondingly great.
From Marx’s earliest writings there has been, in the Communist movement, an emphasis on basic human wants or needs. The idea seems to be that Marxist social science has become morality, or rather has become a more desirable substitute for morality, in that it teaches how the basic wants and needs of men can and will be satisfied. This will come about as the power of the proletariat is extended until it becomes a ruling class and finally brings classes to an end. In a classless society all basic wants will be satisfied because there will be no exploiters. But an account of social policy in terms of wants or desires must suppose both that satisfaction is better than frustration and that some wants or desires are more worthy of satisfaction than others. If this were not so, there could be no reason why most men should not be slaughtered to allow the rest to live in luxury in the ruins of civilization, nor why widespread happiness should not be induced by universal indulgence in opium. In any case, the words “needs,” “basic,” and “exploitation” introduce moral conceptions. I have already discussed the ambiguities of the word “needs,” and the word “basic” introduces similar difficulties. Clearly, by basic needs Marxists mean amounts and kinds of food and shelter which every person in a highly developed society like our own is entitled to, or has a right to. Again, by “exploitation” they do not mean merely the making use of some social opportunity, but the wrongful use of it to the detriment of others. This moral use of the word is particularly likely to predominate in the German language, since the German word—Ausbeutung—is formed from Beute, which means loot, prey, spoil, plunder, much as the English word “booty” does. The Marxist can derive moral precepts from his social science only to the extent that they already form, because of the vocabulary used, a concealed and unacknowledged part of it.
In the course of his account of Historical Materialism in his Karl Marx, Mr. Isaiah Berlin says that the theory cannot be rightly objected to on the ground that in it moral recommendations are illicitly derived from mere matters of fact, since “Marx, like Hegel, flatly rejected this distinction. Judgments of fact cannot be sharply distinguished from those of value: all one’s judgments are conditioned by practical activity in a given social milieu: one’s views as to what one believes to exist and what one wishes to do with it, modify each other. . . . The only sense in which it is possible to show that something is good or bad, right or wrong, is by demonstrating that it accords or discords with the historical process, assists it or thwarts it, will survive or will inevitably perish.”5 Now it is true that Hegel objected to the procedure (characteristic of the Understanding, and, on his view, needing correction by the Reason) of making clear-cut oppositions such as that between what is matter of fact and that which only ought to be but is not. It is true also that he maintained that social institutions were moral creations as well as matters of fact, and that he concluded his Philosophy of History with the following words: “That the history of the world, with all the changing scenes which its annals present, is this process of development, and the realization of Spirit—this is the true Theodicaea, the justification of God in History. Only this insight can reconcile spirit with the History of the World—viz., that what has happened, and is happening every day, is not ‘without God,’ but is essentially His Work.”6 It cannot be denied that Marx was influenced by such views. They do not, however, form part of, and are, indeed, inconsistent with, the Materialist Conception of History. If I am right in my interpretation, that theory is established “in the manner of the natural sciences.” It is held by its exponents to be a science of morals, aesthetics, and religion, but moral, aesthetic, and religious judgments are shown, by means of this “science,” to be ideological distortions of social realities. Therefore for Marx to say that judgments of fact and value are necessarily mixed up with one another would be for him to say that no science of society is possible. Indeed, it would involve him in a skepticism about the truth of natural science too, which, as I judge, he would have found most shocking. It seems to me that an important feature of the Materialist Conception of History is the attempt to show that valuations are superstructural forms of “false consciousness” which Marxist social science enables us to “see through.” Mr. Berlin, I suggest, implicitly acknowledges this when he interprets Marx as holding that “The only sense in which it is possible to show that something is good or bad, right or wrong, is by demonstrating that it accords or discords with the historical process, assists it or thwarts it, will survive or will ultimately perish.” Hegel’s view was that the course of history, taken as a whole, is divinely good; historical events, he held, were at the same time divine events, so that whatever happened was, in its degree, good; facts were more than mere facts, they were elements in the goodness of things. But the view that Mr. Berlin is attributing to Marx in the sentence beginning “The only sense . . .” is the view, not that facts are also valuable, but that value is reducible to fact, that to say that Communism is right is merely to say that it will prevail, and that to say that liberalism is wrong is merely to say that it will disappear from the world. The contrast may be seen if we compare the broad outlines of the two theories. Hegel’s Philosophy of Right is, in effect, a comprehensive system of political philosophy in which no attempt is made to avoid moral assessments, and in which even titles of divine honor are openly bestowed on the state. Marx, on the other hand, set out to explain, in terms of what he considered to be natural facts, how the institutions of society come to be decorated with pretentiously misleading moral and theological coloring.
[1. ]M.E.G.A., I, 1, i, p. 10.
[2. ]History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Moscow, 1939), pp. 114–15.
[3. ]Foreign Languages Publishing House, Moscow, 1951, p. 66.
[4. ]Pp. 32–33.
[5. ]Karl Marx (2nd edition, London, 1948), p. 140.
[6. ]Translated by Sibree (New York, 1944), p. 457.