Front Page Titles (by Subject) 6.: The Supersession of the State - The Illusion of the Epoch: Marxism-Leninism as a Philosophical Creed
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6.: The Supersession of the State - 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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The Supersession of the State
It will be remembered that Marx, in his discussion of Sue’s Mysteries of Paris, and in a later newspaper article, criticized the institution of punishment on the ground that it was better to cure social evils than merely to repress their consequences. But another reason why Marx was hostile to punishment was that, in so far as it is a means of upholding rights, it is carried out by a state or government, and states or governments are organizations for protecting the interests of a ruling class. Because he believed that this is what the state essentially is, Marx held that all its activities, even those that might on the face of it appear innocent enough, must in some way express its nature as an instrument of class domination. “Political power,” he wrote in the Communist Manifesto, “properly so called, is merely the organized power of one class for oppressing another.” We have already seen enough of the Marxist theory to realize that law and politics are held to be superstructural by comparison with the basic productive forces. Hence the nature and exercise of state (political) power can only be understood in terms of underlying technological or industrial conditions. The view is that as the various technological epochs succeed one another, different sets of interests proceed to organize their supremacy. In the Ancient World it was slave-owners who saw to it that the laws were formulated and enforced in ways favorable to them; in feudal society it was the landowners, and in capitalist society it is the bourgeoisie, who rule by methods that ensure the supremacy of the social arrangements that their interests require. The proletariat is destined to dispossess the bourgeoisie and to inaugurate a society without classes and without domination.
This is the general view, but we must now elaborate some of the details. Why is it, we may ask, that a government is needed to promote the interests of a ruling class, when the real power of this class consists in its control of the productive forces? The Marxist answer is that where classes exist, opposed interests exist, so that it becomes necessary for those whose position in the scheme of production is unfavorable to be kept from rebelling against those whose position is favorable, whether these dissidents are the adherents of an outmoded or the pioneers of a new system. Threats of force, and also the use of it, are therefore employed to prevent the social order from collapsing in continuous civil war. Now the state just is an organization which, within a given territory, makes and upholds by force and threat of force the rules of conduct that foster the interests of a ruling class. As Lenin put it in his literal way: “It consists of special bodies of armed men who have at their disposal prisons, etc.”40 Police, armies, judges, officials, punishment, prisons—these, according to Marxists, make up the state. Of course, a ruling class maintains itself in power by other means besides coercion. For example, there will be men who frame and advocate the view of the world, the ideology, that expresses the outlook and interests of the ruling class. Such ideologies will spread from the ruling class to the subject classes and bind the latter to the former by bonds of speculation. But on the Marxist view the essence of the state is coercion.
It is also an important Marxist view that in primitive communist society there was no state. The idea that state and society are not the same thing is familiar enough. Locke’s “state of nature,” for example, was a social condition in which there was no “political superior,” and many writers since have pointed out that in many of the simpler societies there is no distinct organization for dealing by force with breaches of custom. No doubt the distinction between society and state came into Marxism from the writings of Saint-Simon (which Marx and Engels both quote) and from the Saint-Simonian ideas that were discussed in Marx’s family and in the University of Berlin when Marx was a student there. Indeed, Saint-Simonianism was a very active movement in Europe at the time when Feuerbach, Marx, and Engels were forming their views, and Comte (who in his early years was Saint-Simon’s secretary) on the one hand, and Marx and Engels on the other, may be regarded as developing in rather different ways certain doctrines laid down by Saint-Simon. Saint-Simon, then, regarded the state as a relic of the military and theological era that was being replaced by the industrial era; hence in the state order was secured by means of authority and force, whereas industrial and scientific society, the spontaneous outcome of labor and inventiveness, needed no theological authority or military caste to foster its development. According to Saint-Simon the priests, kings, soldiers, and lawyers who support the state have no real functions to perform in industrial society and will soon find themselves out of work there.41 The Marxist theory is, then, that the state arises when an exploiting class organizes force in its interests. But if this is so, it will have no raison d’être when classes have been abolished and class conflicts have ceased to rage. The form of organization that primitive communism knew nothing of will, under the communism of the future, be superfluous. Marxists write of the following sequence of future events: (1) the proletarian attack on the bourgeois state; (2) the “smashing” (zerbrechen) of the bourgeois state by the party of the proletarian class (Marx’s letter to Kugelmann of 12 April 1872); (3) the establishment of a proletarian state which will act, as by their very nature all states must act, in the interests of a class, but this time of the proletarian class; (4) the overcoming of all opposition from other classes, and in particular from the bourgeoisie, by vesting all the means of production in the proletarian state—the so-called “dictatorship of the proletariat,” a phrase used by Marx himself more than once, and notably in his Critique of the Gotha Programme; (5) a period of “withering away” of the proletarian state which is completed when there is no more class opposition and when production has reached a point enormously higher than was possible in capitalist society—the “withering away” is indicated in Engels’ Anti-Dühring; (6) the transition from capitalism to communism is to proceed via “socialism,” a system under which private property has been abolished without yet removing all scarcity; under socialism it is not yet possible for each individual to receive all that he wants, and the principle of distribution is that each individual’s reward is proportionate to the amount of work he has done, deductions being made for depreciation of plant, new capital projects, sickness, and old age benefits, etc.; (7) under communism itself the individual, his work no longer “alien” to him, works according to his capacity and receives in accordance with his need. (I do not know of any explanation of the word “need” in this context. It seems to mean just “desire.”) (8) If a proletarian revolution takes place in one state while capitalism continues in others, then the proletarian state must continue in order that the transition to communism may not be interfered with from outside. This is the reason given by Stalin in his Report to the Eighteenth Congress of the Communist Party of the U.S.S.R., 1935, for the fact that the Soviet state has not yet “withered away,” and is showing signs of becoming stronger.
I feel pretty sure that the account of the matter given in Lenin’s State and Revolution is a reasonable interpretation of the views of Marx and Engels and a reasonable application of them to later circumstances. Perhaps there is some doubt about the meaning of “smash” in Marx’s letter to Kugelmann, since the qualification “on the Continent” might leave open the possibility of a revolution in England or the U.S.A. without this dismal act of destruction. However, Marx’s and Engels’ preface to the 1872 German edition of the Communist Manifesto seems to imply that the proletariat could not secure its ends by means of “the ready-made state machinery” anywhere. So far as the authority of dead writers can be used in such circumstances, it appears to tell against “reformist” interpretations of them in this regard. Nor is it unreasonable for Stalin to argue that internal social changes brought about in Soviet Russia need to be protected against possible attacks from without. The dubious element in his argument is that leading Communists such as Trotsky and Bukharin “were in the services of foreign espionage organizations and carried on conspiratorial activities from the very first days of the October Revolution.” The question to consider, therefore, is not whether the Marxist-Leninist theory of the state is a consistent development of the tradition—in the main it obviously is; nor whether Marx and Engels would have approved of present-day Communist Party interpretations of it—this we can never know; but whether, as it stands, it is a tenable account of the state and of what politics is, and whether the prophecies involved in it are credible.
Let us consider it first, then, as an account of the state and of politics. And let us agree straight away that the distinction between society and state is both valid and important. The word “state,” of course, is ambiguous, and can mean either a society governed through laws, police, judges, etc., or the governmental organization itself as a part of the state in the first sense of the word. But the Marxist theory does not run into any difficulties because of this ambiguity. The main difficulty in the theory, it seems to me, arises from the association in it between politics and the state. As with so many Marxist doctrines there is a good deal of vagueness here, but it seems pretty clear that Marxists, like many others, use the term “politics” in a sense that links it indissolubly with the state and hence with government and force. People are entitled to attach meanings and to develop them so long as they make their intentions clear. But social theorists have suggested, rightly, in my opinion, that there are disadvantages in associating “politics” exclusively with the state, with government, and with force, because the effect of this is to dissociate the term “politics” from other forms of organization where it is normally and usefully employed. This dissociation, of course, is intended by Marxists, but I think that their view of what is possible falls into error because of it, for if force and politics and domination are not merely aspects of the state but spread more widely than the state does, then the abolition of the state may not be the abolition of force and politics and domination. Now suppose we interpret “politics” widely to indicate the means used to influence people, to get them to do what one wants them to do. (This is the idea of Professor Harold Lasswell, but I am not developing it in his way.) Then politics will form a part or aspect of almost all social activity, whether within a family where children try to influence parents and parents children, or a church where differences of policy lead to party maneuvers. But influence is exerted in different ways for different ends. What is called “force” or “coercion” is influence by means of threat with some physical penalty as a pain in the event of non-compliance. Marxists rightly point out that influence is obtained or exerted by what they call economic means—by the threat of dismissal from a job or of lower wages, for example. And their theory is probably intended to mean that economic influence is more fundamental than, and the cause of, influence by means of laws and penalties, that the latter sort of influence is always sought for as a means of consolidating the former. This would amount to saying that state laws are always made and enforced in order to get people to work for purposes they would otherwise reject. (The idea that laws may develop from custom and, in some cases, protect some people from exploitation, is just completely ignored.) If it is objected that, say, the refusal to employ them could bring them to heel through fear of starvation much more readily than legal threats, the answer is that they might then use violence against their employers and the law has been made just to prevent this.
This, I think, is the sort of consideration that the Marxist theory is designed to emphasize. And the objection to it surely is that it is absurdly incomplete. In the first place, coercion, i.e., influencing by violence or the threat of violence, is more widespread than government is. It is a feature of what Locke called “the state of nature,” as in the “Bad Lands” beyond the United States frontier in the nineteenth century, or on the high seas before piracy was suppressed, as well as, sporadically, within organized societies. In the second place, the users of what might be called “naked force” in some circumstances prove more powerful than the wielders of economic power. Engels objected to this “force” theory, which Dühring had sponsored, that if it comes to fighting those win who have the best fighting equipment and therefore the most advanced industrial development. Now of course, other things being equal, a more industrially advanced people will win a war against an industrially inferior nation. But there are other things which may not be equal, particularly the will and energy to struggle valiantly. A notable example of this is the defeat of the highly armed forces of Chiang Kai-shek by the Chinese Communists who obtained many of their arms by capturing them. Indeed, an indifference to industrial advance can, in some circumstances, prove a strong lever to upset the plans of highly industrialized groups, as happened in the conflict between Dr. Moussadek and the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. The weak can often gain an end by blackmail, as when a beggar exposes his sores. This brings me to a third difficulty in the Marxist view. The Marxist theory of the state is based on the assumption that there is one basic type of exploitation, and that this is economic in the sense of being bound up with the productive forces and productive relations. Although it has not, as far as I know, been worked out in detail, the idea is that certain groups of people are in a favorable position in relation to others, in that through their ownership and control of certain means of production—slaves, land, factories, and raw materials—they can gain advantages for themselves at the expense of the rest of the community. Now I have already made the objection, on pages 155–57, that technological, political, and moral factors are all so intimately concatenated that to say that the first determines the other two is to move about abstractions, and it is now easy to see that questions of ownership and control are legal and political functions involved in the very processes of production. But even if (though baselessly) we grant that there are solely economic actions, these are not the only ones by which individuals can gain advantage for themselves at the expense of others. Clever people, for example, have natural advantages which they often use to their own benefit in pursuit of pre-eminence and power. It is true that clever people generally wish to exploit their abilities in the economic sphere, but this is as much because economic predominance is a sign of success as because it brings success. I suggest that Marxists are quite wrong in supposing that there is one fundamental type of favorable position in society, that of owning and controlling the means of production, and that all other types of favorable position are derivative from this and unimportant by comparison with it. In some circumstances, as the cases of the beggar and of Dr. Moussadek show, weakness can be a favorable position from which exploitation may be exercised. Granted that if people are in favorable positions then some of them will utilize them to exploit others, then the only way to abolish exploitation is to prevent there being any favorable positions. This is the point at which the optimism of the Marxist theory is so deceptive, for it is only if economic exploitation is the source of all exploitation that abolition of it can free everyone from all exploitation.
The term “exploitation,” of course, when it is used of the relations of men toward one another, is a moral term that suggests that the exploiters (a) get the exploited to do what the exploiters want them to do, (b) do this to the advantage of the exploiters, and (c) do it to the disadvantage of the exploited. Or we may say that exploitation is taking undue advantage of a favorable social position. It is clear, therefore, that use of the word “exploitation” normally implies a view about what taking undue advantage of a favorable social position is, or implies something about the morality of (a), (b), and (c) above. Is it always wrong to get someone to do what you want him to do? Is it always wrong to do this to your own advantage? Is it always wrong to do this to someone else’s disadvantage? An affirmative answer is more readily given to the third question than to the other two, but we need to consider them all if we want some idea of what constitutes undue influence of one person over others. Marxists leave these questions undiscussed but appear, from their criticisms and proposals, to argue somewhat as follows. Economic exploitation is the source of all exploitation and is essentially the exploitation of class by class. It is therefore of the first importance that this type of exploitation should be got rid of and that steps are taken to do what will lead to this. It is the dictatorship of the proletariat that will lead to this, so that anything that brings that dictatorship nearer is good. The argument loses all its force if economic exploitation is not the source of all exploitation, and it loses most of its force if there is any doubt about ending economic exploitation by means of a proletarian revolution.
Now most people would say that there must be quite a lot of doubt about this. For, they would argue, we cannot tell in advance how honorable or how clever or how energetic the proletarian leaders will be. Furthermore, large social upheavals are apt to raise problems that no one had foreseen, so that their ultimate outcome is something that we cannot reasonably regard as certain when we make our present decisions. Such considerations appear obvious to anyone who has had any contact with public affairs or who has any knowledge of history, but Marxists seem to regard them as unimportant. How has this come about? It is at this point of the argument that we must make brief mention of the notion of surplus value. According to the Marxist theory of surplus value there is nothing that a capitalist, whether an individual or a company, can possibly do that could put an end to his exploitation of his workpeople short of his ceasing to be a capitalist, since the extortion of surplus value is a necessary element in the process of employing men to make goods for sale in a market at a price that keeps the employer in business. Anything, therefore, that puts an end to profits puts an end to surplus value and puts an end to exploitation in this sense. Since the proletarian dictatorship is the dispossession and the suppression of the capitalists, it is also the end of exploitation, in this sense. We might almost say that exploitation is defined out of the social order through the dictatorship of the proletariat. Now in Marx’s Capital the capitalist system is indicted for the way in which workers are kept working long hours in unhealthy conditions that barely enable them to keep alive. Suppose that, as appears to be the case in this country now, workers under what is still predominantly a capitalist system—for that is what Marxists say it is—do not work long hours and are able to live fairly comfortable lives. Is anyone going to say that they are still exploited because, however comfortable they may be, surplus value is being filched from them so long as their labor contributes to the profits of any employer? This would surely be a most metaphysical sort of exploitation that could exist when no one was aware of it. It might be argued that what is wrong is that the employer usually obtains a much larger proportion of the proceeds than the employee does and that this inequality is unjust. According to Engels, however, as we saw on pages 181–82, it is absurd to demand any equality that goes beyond the abolition of classes. So we still seem to be left with the view that what is wrong about capitalist exploitation is neither misery nor inequality but something that can only be discovered by reading Marx’s Capital—or rather those parts of it that do not refer to the miseries of work in early Victorian England. This is so obviously unsatisfactory that Marxists have had to seek for other palpable evils to attribute to capitalism now that the old ones have largely disappeared from the areas in which capitalism prevails. These new evils are imperialism and war, and they are alleged to result from the capitalists’ search for profits. I cannot here discuss the Marxist theories about these phenomena, but it is obvious that they pursue their general plan of “economic” interpretations when they regard the pride, frustration, and miscalculation that seem to play such a large part in causing wars as merely phenomenal by comparison with such factors, which they dignify with the adjective “real,” as industrial expansion and the struggle for markets.
There is a great deal more that might be said about this view, but I shall confine myself to two points only. The first concerns Engels’ argument—for what he says may be taken as an argument—that since there was no state and no exploitation under primitive communism, there need (and will) be no state and no exploitation under the communism of the future. There is an element of truth here, viz., the claim that the state is not an essential feature of human society. But those societies in which there is no state, in which, that is to say, there is no specific organization for the making and maintenance of law by force if need be, are small and simple ones, and, I should have thought, necessarily so. For people can work and live together without ever clashing only when they share a common and fairly simple outlook and are all, so to say, under one another’s eyes. But industrial societies, as we know them, are large and complex, and offer all sorts of opportunity for idiosyncrasy and evasion. It is unbelievable that the members of such vast and complicated societies should work together with as little need for a law-making and law-enforcing body as the members of a small community. However, this is just what Marxists do believe. What is established first by the proletarian dictatorship, and is then upheld by force spontaneously exerted against lawbreakers by “the armed workers” (who are “men of practical life, not sentimental intellectuals, and they will scarcely allow anyone to trifle with them”), will, according to Lenin, become under communism a matter of habit.42
My second and last point concerns the Marxist objection to Utopianism. Lenin, in State and Revolution, recognized that the Marxist views about the future communist society might be criticized as Utopian. In rebutting this charge he says that “the great Socialists” did not promise that communism would come but foresaw its arrival; and in foreseeing communism, he goes on, they “presupposed both a productivity of labour unlike the present and a person unlike the present man in the street. . . .”43 Marxists, then, according to Lenin, do not say that they will inaugurate a communist society of abundance and freedom, but, like astronomers predicting the planetary movements, say that it will and must come. To promise to do something is Utopian, to foresee that it must come is not. And I think that he is arguing that “the great Socialists” also foresaw a greatly increased productivity and a new type of human being, whereas Utopians merely hoped for these things and called upon people to bring them about. Lenin’s objections are based on the discussion of Utopian socialism in Engels’ Anti-Dühring. According to Engels, Saint-Simon, Fourier, and Owen, the Utopian socialists whose views paved the way for Marx’s scientific socialism, regarded socialism as “the expression of absolute truth, reason, and justice,” thought that it was a mere accident that it had not been discovered earlier, and assumed that it needed only to be discovered “to conquer the world by virtue of its own power.”44 “What was required,” they held, “was to discover a new and more perfect social order and to impose this on society from without, by propaganda and where possible by the example of model experiments.”45 They imagined the outlines of a new society “out of their own heads, because within the old society the elements of the new were not yet generally apparent; for the basic plan of the new edifice they could only appeal to reason, just because they could not as yet appeal to contemporary history.”46 Hence they produced “phantasies of the future, painted in romantic detail.”47 Their inadequacy in this regard was due, according to Engels, to the fact that they lived at a time when capitalism was still immature and did not yet allow the lineaments of the new society to be discerned within it.48
Utopians, then, make promises rather than predictions. (It is not relevant to our present point, but surely promising is a guarantee that the promissee may make a prediction about the future behavior of the promissor.) They appeal to reason and justice, and imagine reasonable and just societies “out of their own heads,” instead of observing the first beginnings of a new society within the existing one. They think it is sufficient to advocate a new society of the sort they have imagined, or to try to bring it into being on a small scale, for the world to be convinced by their scheme.
Now this last point is important. It is a defect of Utopias of most sorts that they leave vague the means of transition from the existing state of affairs to the future ideal. This means that two things are left vague, viz., who are to bring the changes about, and how they are to proceed in doing it. Marxists claim that there is no vagueness in their view on these particulars. It is the proletariat, under suitable leadership, who will bring the changes about, and they will do so by a revolutionary dictatorship under which the bourgeoisie are expropriated and suppressed. But of course this very precision (such as it is) may turn many influential people against Marxist scientific socialism. But according to the Marxists this does not matter in the long run, because the already existing proletariat is the first beginning of the new society. When a party has been formed to lead it, socialism is no longer an aspiration but an actual movement. But although Marxists are right in pointing out that Utopians often fail to show how the transition from the actual to the ideal is to be effected, and although Marxists do have a theory and policy about this, this is not enough to show that their view is at all adequate. The first difficulty in it is this. Marxists claim that their view of the future society is not invented out of their heads, but is based on the first beginnings of the new society already apparent within capitalism. These first beginnings must be the proletarian class beginning to be organized by and in a party. But what is there here that certainly foreshadows a condition in which there is no force and no domination? Nothing, it seems to me, except the fact that Communists, if they get the chance, are going to put an end to private property, unless it be the increase in productivity that capitalism has brought with it—that other forms of organization will increase it still further is mere aspiration. Lenin, in the passage I have just quoted, says that men in communist society will not be like the present man in the street. Let us see what Engels says about this. We may look forward, he says, following Saint-Simon, to “the transformation of political government over men into the administration of things and the direction of productive processes.”49 “The seizure of the means of production by society,” he goes on, “puts an end to commodity production, and therewith to the domination of the product over the producer. Anarchy in social production is replaced by conscious organization on a planned basis. The struggle for individual existence comes to an end. And at this point, in a certain sense, man finally cuts himself off from the animal world, leaves the condition of animal existence behind him and enters conditions which are really human. . . . Men’s own social organization which has hitherto stood in opposition to them as if arbitrarily decreed by Nature and history, will then become the voluntary act of men themselves. . . . It is humanity’s leap from the realm of necessity into the realm of freedom.”50 Anarchy, then, is replaced by plan, politics by “administration” (whatever this may be), the struggle for existence by peace, the animal by something “really human,” divided mankind by unified mankind, specialization by universal adaptability.
I feel sure that anyone who reflects on these contrasts must conclude that, for all that Marxists say about their views being based on observed facts in the capitalist world, in fact their future communism is even more out of touch with human realities than are the speculations of the Utopians whom they criticize. Furthermore, the future they depict is extremely vague, and they refuse to make it more precise on the ground that such precision is Utopian, that detailed specification of not yet developed societies are romantic fantasies. (We may compare this with the exponents of Negative Theology who can only say what God is not, but never what he is.) But if they are right in this last contention, then surely they are wrong in claiming that their view differs from Utopianism in being predictive in any important sense. Very vague predictions are of even less practical value than are detailed wishes. I do not think that the “predictions” about communist society have much more content in them than the more baffling among the utterances of the Delphic Oracle. What is this “administration” that is so different from “government,” and this “planning” and “direction” that are consistent with the full development of each individual and can be made effective without the use of force? They are so different from anything that we have had experience of in developed societies, where administrators (generally) have the law behind them, where planning and direction meet with opposition, and where all must reconcile themselves to some limited and specialized career, that it is hard to attach any definite meaning to them at all. And what scientific prediction can it be that says we shall leave the condition of animal existence behind us? This is something that even Fourier might have repudiated, and that Owen would have taken seriously only during that period of his life when he was in communication with departed spirits. It is difficult to see how any attentive reader of their works could have taken at their face value the Marxists’ profession of being scientific socialists rather than Utopians. They do in some manner fill in the gap between present conditions and the future society they look forward to—they insert between the two a real and active movement, but this has the function, not of making their system a scientific one, but of being a seat of authority which can give unquestioned guidance to any doubter within it. Marxism is Utopianism with the Communist Party as a visible and authoritative interpreter of the doctrine striving to obtain supreme power. The scientific part of Marxist politics concerns the methods by which the Communist Party maintains itself and aims to spread its power, and here Marxism and Realpolitik go hand in hand. But the alleged goal of the Marxist activities is a society in which there is administration without law, planning without miscalculation, direction without domination, high productivity without property or toil, and, it would seem, unrepressed men who nevertheless have left the condition of animal existence behind them.
A Reader. You have joined issue with Marxism on so many different topics that I am in danger of losing sight of the main issues—if, that is to say, there are any. So I should like to ask you whether you think there is any fundamental flaw in the Marxist philosophy that is the source of all the particular errors you claim to have noticed.
The Author. There is, in my view, a pretty fundamental incoherence in it, but I should hesitate to say that it is the source of all the errors. Marxism, it seems to me, is a mixture of two philosophies which cannot consistently go along together, positivism on the one hand and Hegelianism on the other.
Reader. Can you explain this briefly and in less technical terms?
Author. It is not easy to do both of the things you ask, but what I mean is that on the one hand Marxists reject speculative philosophy in favor of the scientific methods, and on the other hand they import into their philosophy features from the philosophy of Hegel, a speculative philosopher who allowed only a limited value to the scientific methods.
Reader. I am not yet convinced, for might it not be argued that the Marxists have transformed what they have borrowed from Hegel so as to make it consistent with the positivistic part of their theory?
Author. Marxists do claim to have transformed what they have borrowed from Hegel, and they don’t like being called positivists. Nevertheless I think the inconsistency is there. Marxists both claim to rest their views on what can be observed and handled, and maintain such theories as that the material world has contradictions in it because nothing can move without being and not being at the same place at the same time. To accept Zeno’s argument at its face value is to argue contradiction into the material world where certainly it is not perceived, and this is the very thing that speculative philosophers are criticized for doing.
Reader. Isn’t this a minor slip rather than a fundamental error?
Author. It is surely a most important thesis of the Marxist philosophy that matter develops into new forms by means of the contradictions in it. This, indeed, is the feature of dialectical materialism that distinguishes it from mechanical materialism, and my argument is that, rightly or wrongly, it is established speculatively and not by the methods of the sciences or by observation.
Reader. I now see that your objection is more than a mere debating point, but I wonder whether you have not made too much of the Marxist opposition to speculative philosophy. The quotations you gave from Marx’s early writings show that in the eighteen-forties he, like Feuerbach, was much occupied in refuting the claims of speculative philosophers and in showing that speculative philosophy was a sort of disguised theology or rationalized religion. But must we suppose that this had any considerable effect on his later views?
Author. The effect can hardly be exaggerated. Feuerbach had thought he could show that religious beliefs were the illusory outcome of human failure, and that speculative philosophy was, so to say, the educated man’s substitute for religious belief. Marx extended this idea so as to maintain that moral and political beliefs are disguises for economic interests. The whole theory of ideologies, therefore, is a development of Feuerbach’s theory of religion, and assumes, like that theory, that the way to know the real world is to look and see and manipulate and move around in it. Speculative philosophy, according to Marx, is an ideology, that is to say, a set of unfounded views of the world manufactured at the prompting of wish or interest.
Reader. When, therefore, at the beginning of our discussion you said that Marxists inconsistently combine positivism and Hegelianism, by “positivism” you meant the rejection of speculative philosophy, or of metaphysics, as it is generally called today, in favor of the methods of the sciences?
Author. Yes, I was using the word to cover just those two things, the rejection of metaphysics and the acceptance of science. But it is commonly used to cover something else as well, a view about what science itself really is. According to this view, it is impossible to obtain any knowledge of what is the cause or source of our experiences, and science, therefore, must consist in ascertaining how our experiences are correlated with one another. Those who hold this view say that when physicists talk about such things as electrons, which, of course, are not entities that are directly seen or touched, what they are really talking about is what they do see or touch when they set up the appropriate apparatus and see, for example, the photograph that results from using it. On this view the electron is the experiments, the photograph, and, for all I know, the clarification that ensues. This view is akin to phenomenalism, the view that physical objects are permanent possibilities of sensation, and, like phenomenalism, is rejected by Marxists because they regard it as a form of Idealism. It is this theory that Marxists have chiefly in mind when they attack positivism. They themselves combine their rejection of metaphysics with a sort of scientific realism much as d’Alembert and other Encyclopedists did, and much as did Comte, their nineteenth-century successor.
Reader. Marxists seem to think that this realism of theirs gives due weight to the importance of practice in human knowledge. Indeed, the notion of practice seems to play a very important part in the Marxist philosophy as a whole. Would you say that Marxism is a sort of pragmatism?
Author. I don’t think it is very profitable to compare such an ambiguously formulated philosophy as Marxism with such a vague one as William James’s pragmatism or with such an obscure one as Dewey’s instrumentalism—three impalpables, we might say, that can never touch. But by considering the various things that are meant by the expression “union of theory and practice” in Marxism, we can make our way toward some of its most characteristic teachings. You may remember that when we considered the Marxist theory of science we came to the conclusion that by “practice” Marxists mean the verification of theories by observation and experiment, experimentation itself, and the making of the things that the theories are about. Bacon was one of the intellectual heroes of the Encyclopedists and he had said a lot about the practical possibilities of science, which he regarded as a sort of rational alchemy. His idea was that if only we could discover the natures that make the different sorts of thing the sorts of thing they are, we should be able to engender them ourselves, and, by adding, removing, and mixing, to transform one sort of thing into another as the alchemists had hoped to do with the Philosopher’s Stone. I dare say that these ideas came to Marx and Engels through Feuerbach, but however that may be, they believed that science and industry were fundamentally the same thing. Like Bacon, they were fascinated by the myth of Prometheus, and felt that the idea of mankind becoming lord and master of nature was an exalting one.
Reader. I cannot see that you have done much in this book to dispel that idea—if indeed you think it ought to be dispelled.
Author. I do think it is a confused sort of idea in which ethics and science are mixed up together. On the face of it, it is one thing to say that knowledge ought to be used for the improvement of man’s lot and quite another thing to say that knowledge just is the practical effort to achieve this. And again, it is one thing to say that men ought to develop their native powers, and quite another to say that they ought to subject the physical world to themselves. No doubt the conception that knowledge is human power mingled in Marx’s mind with Hegel’s idea that men’s consciousness of themselves develops as they put themselves into their scientific and artistic and other achievements—but it was not a purely physical world that Hegel had in mind. Now on page 31 I suggested that thinking activity (what Marx calls contemplation) itself only changes the thinking agent, and is therefore distinct from practice which is an activity that brings about changes beyond the thought of the agent. This distinction is not upset by the fact that theoretical activity is often, perhaps always, aided by the performance of practical acts which help in imagining an hypothesis or in verifying it. Science, one might suggest, is contemplation aided by practice, whereas industry is practice aided by contemplation.
Reader. Perhaps this is just what Marxists mean when they talk about the union of theory and practice in scientific enquiry.
Author. I think they must mean more than that. From what Marx says in the Theses on Feuerbach it would seem that he thought that practical activity was the genus of which theoretical activity was a species.
Reader. But if that is so, there should be other co-ordinate species of practical activity besides theoretical activity or thinking. I mean that if practice is the genus and thought is one species of it, we should expect to find other species, just as there are other species of color besides red and other species of triangle besides the scalene. Do Marxists say what these other species are?
Author. I can’t remember that they do, and I fear that their view has not been properly developed in this regard. It would be rather odd, wouldn’t it, to say that walking and breathing and lifting and thinking are various types of practical activity?
Reader. Yes, the first three of these activities appear to be like one another in a way in which they differ from the fourth. But then, the first two don’t seem to be quite the same type of activity as the third.
Author. There is clearly a lot that needs enquiry here. But a Marxist who had these points brought before him would argue that if we say that activity is the genus and that thinking and practice are the two species or specifications of it, then we have surreptitiously smuggled an incorporeal soul into the human being.
Reader. Can’t we say that a human being can act by way of thought as well as by way of practice without committing ourselves to the view that he has an incorporeal soul? And anyway, why should incorporeal souls be taboo?
Author. I don’t think there ought to be any taboos in philosophy, but incorporeal souls are taboo to Marxists, and not only to them. The reason why Marxists suppose that the existence of incorporeal souls would be entailed by the existence of acts of thought or contemplation is that the manifestly practical acts of walking or breathing or lifting are performed by means of bodily members such as legs, lungs, and arms, whereas there seem to be no parts of the body with which we think. Assuming, therefore, that all activities are carried out with or by means of something, thinking, if it is not done by means of any bodily organ, must be done by means of something incorporeal, a soul or spirit. This, I think, is the line of argument that Marxists try to avoid by their rather vague talk about there being no mere contemplation.
Reader. But do we not see with our bodily eyes and hear with our bodily ears, and are not seeing and hearing activities which do not change or even affect their objects in the way that touching and manipulating necessarily do theirs?
Author. I am not sure that we see with our eyes in the same sense of “with” as that in which we walk with our legs and lift with our arms. For whereas legs (natural or artificial) are part of what is meant by walking, and whereas limbs and holding are part of what is meant by lifting, some people have denied that eyes and ears are part of what is meant by seeing and hearing. They deny this because, they say, we can conceive of people having the experiences called “seeing” and “hearing” even if they had no eyes and no ears, as blind and deaf men might see and hear in their dreams—and they need no artificial eyes or artificial ears to do this with.
Reader. Need we go into all this? Is it not sufficient to say that thinking is a human activity that is analogous to seeing and hearing rather than to touching and manipulating?
Author. If we do go further into it we shall be starting another book instead of concluding this one. Let us merely suggest, then, that thinking may be better understood in terms of seeing and hearing than in terms of manipulating, and that the Marxist notion of practice is based on manipulating. When one comes to think of it, Engels, in the Dialectics of Nature, argued that it is the hand that distinguishes the human being from his non-human ancestors. “No simian hand,” he says, “has ever fashioned even the crudest stone knife.” Perhaps it is that materialists are unusually impressed with the importance of touching and grasping, and that Marxists have exaggerated this tendency with their view that men first manipulate things with their hands, then improve their manipulations by means of instruments, and thus change the world by their labor—labor being fundamentally manual.
Reader. I seem to remember that Veblen said that modern science results from combining the practical matter-of-factness of our everyday tasks and skills with idle, disinterested curiosity. On his view, the practical matter-of-factness, if left to itself, results in a limited, uncurious technology, and curiosity, if left to itself, leads to nothing but amusing myths, but when the two are combined modern science arises and speculative daring is used to explain what is. Do you think that Marxists mean anything like this?
Author. Perhaps they do, though I think that all the time they hanker to belittle speculation and to exalt practical matter-of-factness. An example of this is their scorn for Utopianism—which, as Max Weber pointed out, plays an important part in science in so far as ideal or isolated cases help us to make sense of what is very complicated. Engels, you may remember, considered that Utopians got the scheme of an ideal society out of their own heads, whereas scientific socialists saw the future society in the beginnings of it actually to be found in the present. He criticizes Utopians as a sort of speculator, but himself regards scientific socialists as a sort of copyist. Yet predictions do more than copy, and science, he holds, is essentially predictive.
Reader. But Marxist social science is only a sort of copying, for the first beginnings of the future society are not the same thing as the future society itself. On Engels’ view, as you reported it, surely a scientific socialist may be compared with a man who can reconstruct the skeleton of some prehistoric animal from some of its bones.
Author. Your example brings even more confusion into the Marxist theory. What Marxists claim principally to be able to do is not to reconstruct a particular prehistoric social form but to predict a universal future one. And they claim that their view is scientific because it is firmly based on what is. They would seem to be suggesting that their predictions of what will be are really nothing but descriptions of what is, or at any rate only a little more than descriptions of it.
Reader. Isn’t this the sort of thing that scientists call extrapolation? And don’t they mean by this the process of discovering a trend, or direction of change, in some contemporary sequence of events, so that we may have at any rate a reasonable expectation about its immediate future course?
Author. Your last few questions have raised so many problems that I hardly know which one to start with. You are quite right in saying that Marxists regard prediction as a fundamental feature of science. This is shown rather amusingly in Lenin’s assertion that Marxists are scientific because they foresee a society free from want and strife, and that Utopians are not scientific because they merely promise such a society. This, it seems to me, is to add clairvoyance to alchemy. The emphasis on prediction can easily foster the notion of the scientist as a sort of magician whose formulae are of interest only because of the material transformations and predictions that they enable him to make. But what differentiates a scientist from a magician is that the scientist is interested in the transformations and predictions because of their bearing on his formulae rather than in his formulae because of the transformations and predictions they may in fact lead up to. Ability to predict does not always go with theoretical understanding. Now you asked whether Marxist social predictions could be regarded as extrapolations from the present state of society. A society with no classes, no social conflicts, no state, and no domination does not seem to be a development of any trend that is at all apparent in the society we now inhabit where conflicts are acute and governments are extending their influence over the lives of their subjects. The only Marxist extrapolations that appear to have any basis are those that indicate coming revolutions, and after all these are events that Marxists are trying their utmost to bring about and may, therefore, succeed in making true. The only predictions that are of scientific interest are those that arise from a correct analysis of the subject-matter.
Reader. But isn’t that the very thing that Marxists claim—that by means of the Materialist Conception of History they have provided a scientific analysis of social institutions and development which explains both the sequence of past epochs and the necessity of the future communist society?
Author. That is, indeed, the Marxist claim, but I hope I have shown that it is pitched much too high. I hope, too, that you don’t want me to go through my criticisms of the Materialist Conception of History again. But in case you do, let me forestall you by saying that in my opinion, for which I have given reasons, the basis-superstructure distinction is untenable, and that, if we provisionally allow the distinction to be made, the Marxist thesis, if it is to amount to anything at all, is that the only way in which important changes can occur in the superstructure is as a result of changes in the basis. Marxists confuse this, I believe, with such truisms as that there can be no superstructure without a basis (politicians and priests must eat if they are to do their jobs), and that changes in the basis lead to changes in the superstructure (inventions set legal and political problems). If I am right in this, then the Materialist Conception of History has received more credit than it deserves, and this from non-Marxists as well as Marxists. If every historian who looks for the influence of industrial and commercial changes on government policy is to be called a Marxist, or even held to be under Marxist influence, then the term “Marxism” has lost all precision. The modern growth of economic and industrial history is not a tribute to Marxist theory but a testimony to the extension of historical curiosity.
Reader. You need have no fear that I shall try to drag you through the whole miserable business again, but you did say that your technological interpretation of the Materialist Conception of History was not the only possible interpretation of it, and I am wondering whether the confusions you have criticized might be avoided in some other version of the theory.
Author. Although my chapter on the Materialist Conception of History is a long one, it is only one chapter in a book that goes into many other topics, and I did not spend time in it discussing the other possible interpretations of Marx’s and Engels’ vague and sometimes contradictory utterances. If I had, it would have been time wasted, since Professor Bober has done this job in the second edition of his Karl Marx’s Interpretation of History. His careful treatment of them makes it quite clear that nothing very coherent can be derived from them.
Reader. In your account of the Materialist Conception of History you didn’t mention Stalin’s discussion Concerning Marxism in Linguistics,1 and I have heard that this modifies in important ways the theory as hitherto accepted. Are there any signs in Stalin’s answers to the questions put to him about the linguistic theories of J. Y. Marr of any radical change in the Materialist Conception of History?
Author. Marr, the philologist whose views Stalin criticized, had held that language was a part of the superstructure of society, and was therefore determined by the economic basis and must vary with it. Stalin objected that the Russian language remains substantially the same as it was at the time of Pushkin although the economic basis of Russian society had changed from feudalism to capitalism and from capitalism to socialism since then. A language, he argued, must be the same for a whole society, for proletarians as well as for bourgeoisie, if communication is to be possible and the society is to hold together. Whereas the changes from feudalism to capitalism and from capitalism to socialism involved sudden breaks or leaps, language develops gradually and in independence of such changes in the economic basis, although, of course, the vocabulary is affected by them. Incidentally, Stalin said: “It should be said in general for the benefit of comrades who have an infatuation for explosions that the law of transition from an old quality to a new by means of an explosion is inapplicable not only to the history of the development of languages: it is not always applicable to the other social phenomena of a basis or superstructural character. It applies of necessity to a society divided into hostile classes. But it does not necessarily apply to a society which has no hostile classes.”
Reader. I don’t see what is meant by qualifying “apply” with “necessarily” and “classes” with “hostile” in the last sentence, for these qualifications might suggest that “explosions” are possible in the society in question, and that not all classes need be hostile. But in spite of such obscurities, the passage is surely very important in so far as it limits the extension of the leap-across-nodal-lines type of change even in non-socialist societies. After all, language is a most important and pervasive social institution. I suppose, then, that since language is not now regarded as a part of the superstructure it must belong to the basis.
Author. I don’t think we can draw that conclusion with any confidence. Stalin has distinguished, in the pamphlet we are discussing, between what he calls “production, man’s productive activity,” which he seems to equate with “the productive forces”; “the economy,” which he labels “the basis,” and which, I suppose, is what Marx called “productive relationships”; and the superstructure. The productive forces are, so to say, a sub-basis below the economic basis. He goes on to say that “production, man’s productive activity” does not have direct access to the superstructure, but can only influence it via the basis, that is, via the economy. He argues that a reason for holding that language is not superstructural is that it is directly affected by “man’s productive activity” and does not have to wait upon changes in the economy. I suppose he means that language is necessary to and changes its vocabulary in our working relationships. He certainly compares language with “the implements of production,” saying it is like them in that it may “equally serve a capitalist system and a socialist system.” We might suppose, then, that he intended to place it in what I have called the sub-basis as one of “the productive forces.” But he also says that language “is connected with man’s productive activity directly, and not only with man’s productive activity, but with all his other activity in all his spheres of work, from production to the basis, and from the basis to the superstructure.” Some people have therefore suggested that Stalin intended his readers to conclude that language is a third social category additional to the categories of basis and superstructure.2 However this may be, it seems pretty clear that the basis-superstructure classification has proved inadequate. I hope I may regard this as an indirect confirmation of my thesis that it is impossible to isolate them in fact or even in thought.
Reader. If we do talk about language as a third category, are we not making it into a sort of thing with gas-like properties, distinct from the more solid things that make up the basis and superstructure?
Author. It is very difficult to talk about institutions without creating this sort of impression. Stalin actually says in the pamphlet we are discussing that the superstructure “becomes an exceedingly active force, actively assisting its basis to take shape and consolidate itself. . . .”
Reader. Most considerate of it, I’m sure. But may we now return to the topic of the union of theory and practice? We have so far considered this alleged union as a feature of science in general, but it is obviously most important in the sphere of social science, or, as Marxists call it, “scientific socialism.” Would it be correct to say that the Marxist argument, in outline, is that social science is the activity of controlling and regenerating society just as natural science is the activity of controlling nature and putting it at the service of man?
Author. That is how I have interpreted the matter.
Reader. I suppose it might be said that someone who rejected Marx’s Baconian theory that natural science is control over nature might nevertheless argue that social science is necessarily a practical affair. Don’t you think that although there may be people whose interest in the physical world is idle and detached, no one could possibly take a merely detached interest in human society?
Author. Of course a passion to reform society brings more people to the study of the social sciences than a passion to change the surface of the earth brings to the study of physics and chemistry. But this does not mean that social science is social reform—or “scientific socialism”—any more than physics is factory-building.
Reader. I can’t have made my point clear. I meant that what social scientists say in their capacity of social scientists affects the social world in a way in which what physicists say in their capacity of physicists does not affect the physical world.
Author. I suppose that all the atoms in the universe are unconscious of what is said about them, whereas it is only most of the people in the world who are unconscious of what social scientists say about them.
Reader. But what social scientists say does influence some people sometimes.
Author. What physicists say influences some atoms sometimes. Perhaps the point is that physical theories are of practical importance only when they are utilized in some human project—they influence the physical world through the aims of people. But it seems to me that this is just what social theories do—people who are aware of them, or, more often, of some simplified version of them, use them in the course of furthering some aim of theirs or to influence other people’s aims.
Reader. Perhaps you are right. But at any rate I think that Marxists must have a more radical view of the practical bearing of social science.
Author. I am sure they have. When they talk of “scientific socialism” they mean that social predictions can be made true by human action. Predictions that were not based on good grounds when they were first made may nevertheless help to bring about their own fulfillment by becoming the aims of a well-organized and determined group of men. Not all predictions that have been transformed into aims can realize themselves in this way, but predictions about the destruction of an institution may well do so when the institution in question is in any case difficult to maintain or demands a great deal of self-restraint or intelligence from the men who uphold it.
Reader. Are you not yourself now putting forward the sort of useless truism that you have criticized in Marxism? A fragile institution is one that is unlikely to withstand attacks, and therefore the prediction that it would break down was correct even when it was made, although attacks on it inspired by the prediction may hasten its end.
Author. What you have said might have been true if you had been speaking of a weak institution, although when we say that someone is weak we don’t always mean that he hasn’t long for this world. But the word “fragile” was properly chosen, and it is one thing to say that something is fragile, another thing to predict that it will break, and still another thing to set about breaking it. But if someone says it will be broken and tries to break it, it is more likely to be broken than before, although how much more likely will depend upon what efforts are made to protect it. Imagine a very fragile vase in a room where everyone is anxious that it should be preserved. It may be that it is impervious to destructive agents in the atmosphere, so that the only occasion on which it is in any danger of being broken is when someone cleans it. If it nevertheless breaks it will be through an accident. Now suppose that one man in the room changes his mind and wants to break it. Even if all the rest still want to preserve it they now have to be very wary to see that he doesn’t get near enough to carry out his design. If he uses force to try to get near it, it may get broken in the ensuing confusion. In such circumstances, and especially if the iconoclast, as we may call him, persuades others to join with him, it is the easiest thing in the world for the vase to be broken, and very difficult for it to be preserved. Now whether any human institutions are immune to violence I do not know, but I think that the introduction of violence into a society which has institutions which need peace if they are to flourish will almost certainly destroy these institutions. And the benefits of exchanging goods produced for sale can only be secured in a fairly peaceful and settled society.
Reader. This is a most depressing aspect of the thesis about the union of theory and practice. Have we now dealt with all of its repercussions in the Marxist philosophy?
Author. No. It has some quite interesting moral aspects. I don’t think it is fanciful to suppose that when Marxists deplore the separation of mental from physical labor they are not only concerned with the class antagonisms involved in it but also with the narrowing of the individual’s life which they think it entails. There is a very long tradition in European thought which makes the cultivation of the mind the chief aim of human endeavor. This tradition has even affected moralists who might have been expected to oppose it, such as the materialist Epicurus, who talked of the powers of the mind to increase pleasures by means of memory and anticipation. Fourier broke with this tradition to the extent of arguing that in the highest good both sorts of pleasure must co-operate, since neither is at its best without the other. I should guess that this idea impressed Marx and Engels at a very early stage of their careers.
Reader. But surely the distinction between mind and body isn’t the same as the distinction between theory and practice?
Author. They are not precisely the same, but there can be no practice, that is to say, no action in or on the material world, without the body. Marx considered that it was not consistent with materialism to admit a purely mental activity in which the body was not committed.
Reader. Now we seem to be in danger of muddling two quite different things—the factual distinction between mind and body and the ethical distinction between the value of mental activity and the value of bodily activity. If Marxist materialism is true, and if there can’t be any purely mental activity, then there is no point in talking about purely mental pleasures or purely mental values.
Author. I agree. You may remember that this issue of the mingling (or muddling) of fact and value arose when, on pages 179–80, I discussed a passage from Mr. Berlin’s Karl Marx. I there said that on the Marxist view moral valuations are a sort of “false consciousness,” so that it is when we are thinking “in the manner of the natural sciences” that we are free from illusions. But questions of fact and value so often mingle in Marx’s writings that he may well have wished to deny the distinction, as Mr. Berlin says he did. Sometimes we have to forget the theory of ideologies if we are to make anything of Marxist ethics.
Reader. Is there anything more to be said about the union of mental and physical labor?
Author. It is of some interest to know that Stalin has said that there is no longer any antagonism between mental and physical labor in the U.S.S.R. “Today,” he says, “the physical workers and the managerial personnel are not enemies but comrades and friends, members of a single collective body of producers who are vitally interested in the progress and improvement of production. Not a trace remains of the former enmity between them.”3 He goes on to distinguish between the antagonism between mental and physical labor, the distinction between them, and the essential distinction between them. The essential distinction between mental and physical labor, he says, “will certainly disappear,” but some distinction, though inessential, must always remain, “if only because the conditions of labour of the managerial staffs and those of the workers are not identical.” Stalin explains that by “essential distinction” he means “the difference in their cultural and technical levels.” You will notice that when Stalin talks of “mental labour” he has industrial managers in mind, not mathematicians or literary critics. He appears to accept a pretty fundamental division of labor, as, of course, any reasonable person must.
Reader. Are there any other moral aspects of the union of theory and practice?
Author. Perhaps there is a trace of it in the scorn that Marx and his followers have for moral intentions, for what Marx called “the good will,” by comparison with deeds and consequences. But we saw that his view is very confused here because no one would ever say that a mere intention was good apart from any efforts to realize it. Marx, as a materialist, is very touchy about anything that is supposed to be locked up in an incorporeal mind. I also wonder whether his attack on moralism was not associated with some such idea—that guilt and repression are not practical, though what he really meant was that they pervert practice.
Reader. The “union of theory and practice” formula does seem to cover quite a lot—the verifying of hypotheses, the making of experiments, using scientific knowledge and testing it in the processes of manufacture, social science as inseparable from social revolution, Fourier’s morality of Composite passions, and, if you are right, Marx’s morality of deeds.
Author. Before we finish I should like to emphasize once more the way in which the aim of achieving self-consciousness appears to dominate the Marxist philosophy. The philosophers of the Enlightenment had attacked traditional ways of living as fit only for children who unquestioningly accept their parents’ guidance. Hegel’s Absolute was full self-consciousness where nothing was vague, where, as he put it, there was no “immediacy.” Feuerbach transformed this speculative view into the psychological one that a heightened knowledge of ourselves would dispel religious illusions. Marx thought that Hegel’s “self-consciousness” and Feuerbach’s “self-disillusionment” were too theoretical and abstract, and therefore sought to make them practical and concrete in terms of the self-conscious revolutionary deed that will hasten society’s passage to communism. Or let us look at the sequence of ideas in relation to freedom. Philosophers of the Enlightenment had said that men would be free when, abandoning traditions that they were not responsible for, they themselves chose the rules they would live by, but they assumed that all men would choose the same fundamental rules though within these they would pursue different policies. Marx thought that as long as there was private property, as long as individuals entered into a social order that had developed unplanned from the clash of individual policies, individuals were not free because their society was not under their control. Liberals attacked tradition in order that individuals might choose their own ends, but they believed in an economic harmony that was as uncontrived as tradition—the individual was to be self-conscious, but the social harmony was maintained by a hidden hand. For the Marxists no hands were to be hidden, no faces were to be masked, no mysteries to be unrevealed. As Marx put it in Capital, the relations between man and man and man and nature were to be “perfectly intelligible and reasonable,” and society was to be “under their conscious and purposive control.”
Reader. You said that the philosophers of the Enlightenment assumed that if people consciously and rationally chose their principles of conduct they would all choose the same fundamental ones. I take it that you mean that they still assumed the existence of a natural moral law revealed by candid and intelligent reflection.
Author. Or if not natural law, then rules for the attainment of happiness that were equally though differently authoritative.
Reader. The liberal view was, then, that people should be free to make “experiments in living” within these fundamental rules. But this is bound to lead to a lot of variety and to set people at odds with one another. Marxists, it seems to me, want to calm the liberal turbulence, but I’m not at all clear what sort of calm it is that they look forward to.
Author. I have not been able to find much about the “purposive control” and “perfectly intelligible and reasonable” relationships that I just mentioned. The liberal idea was that each individual should have “purposive control,” while the whole, in the main, was left to adjust itself. But the Marxist wants there to be “purposive control” of the whole society, and thinks that once economic exploitation—which so far as we are concerned means privately owned industry—is abolished, this will be compatible with individual freedom from coercive control. If a conscious plan is to be pursued by the whole society and no one is to oppose it, there must be unanimity of aim among the members of the society. Either there is a natural unanimity of aim which was only kept from expressing itself earlier by private industry, or else an artificial unanimity of aim will be somehow secured during the interim period of proletarian dictatorship. Lenin’s reference to habit, which I called attention to on page 232, suggests the latter, and seems therefore to adumbrate the restoration of a traditional form of society, for habitual behavior, though it may result from past choices, is not itself chosen or self-conscious.
Reader. I think you are exaggerating, for surely individuals can acquire habits in a society that is not predominantly traditional. Lenin was not talking about traditions at all, he was talking about habits.
Author. I believe I have a point here, although I may have exaggerated it. If Lenin means that self-seeking or recalcitrant individuals are to be forced into conformity during the period of proletarian dictatorship when there is still a coercive state, then in the subsequent social order where there is no state there must be non-coercive means of securing universal co-operation. What could these be? I don’t suppose that Lenin thought that nonconformity would be bred out of men. If he had thought that the social order would have become so attractive that everyone would immediately see that to co-operate in it was the rational thing to do, then he need not have talked of habit since it would have become unnecessary even though it in fact arose. Surely he must have meant that new generations would be inducted into a non-coercive social order which they would not dream of questioning, and this, I suggest, is a traditional order. We should not be surprised at this. Saint-Simon, with his “New Christianity,” and Comte, with his “Religion of Humanity,” had looked forward to a future in which the volatile liberal anarchy was replaced by something more akin to the Catholic society that had preceded it. Marx despised the Saint-Simonians and positivists for engaging in ritual performances when they might have been destroying capitalism, but I think he shared with them the ideal of a smoothly running, organized society.
Reader. Your reference to Saint-Simon and Comte reminds me that Marxism has sometimes been called a secular religion. Do you think there is any advantage in talking about it in such terms?
Author. I don’t think that much is to be gained by it. There is some similarity between the Communist Party and the Roman Catholic Church in the way in which authority is organized, since both are continuously existing societies which accept the decisions of a supreme body on matters of doctrine and policy. But after all, Protestant churches are quite differently constituted and are none the less religious. If we take “religion” in the sense in which it involves belief in a supernatural world and a mysterium tremendum, Marxism, with its stress on material nature and its opposition to mysteries, is profoundly anti-religious. Indeed, Marx’s philosophy took its rise from Feuerbach’s attempt to dissolve religion by exposing its psychological basis. In this connection I should like to call your attention to an ad hominem criticism that can be brought against Marx and Marxism. Marx agreed with Feuerbach that belief in God and Heaven divided the believer’s mind and prevented him from dealing adequately with the realities of this world here below. But, we may ask, does not the constant striving for a vaguely conceived communist society of the future divert the Communist’s energies from the realities of the world here now? There are more ways than one in which the shadow can be sought instead of the substance.
Reader. I rather think that some Marxists, if ever they read this book, will say that your analysis of Marxism leaves out the dialectical features of it altogether.
Author. It is easy to make that sort of accusation because the term “dialectical,” on Marxist lips and pens, is not only very vague, but also a term of esteem.
Reader. Still, I don’t think you should run away from the charge by suggesting that “undialectical” is just a term of abuse.
Author. I tried to explain in Part One, Chapter II, that when Marxists talk about the dialectics of nature they conceive of the physical world as in constant change, of the coming of emergent qualities, and of contradictions in the nature of things. When they talk about dialectics in social affairs they think of social oppositions, of revolutionary “leaps,” of progress through destruction—of mors immortalis, immortal death, as Marx put it. In spite of all these doctrines, Marxists, in my opinion, have argued undialectically in one important sense of the word. A dialectical change, it will be remembered, is one in which the process is not by repetition, not “in a circle,” as Stalin put it, but “onward and upward,” “from the lower to the higher.” Stalin was obviously trying to contrast something he believed was genuine progress with repetition and re-arrangement of what already is, and I think he was right. But progress of this sort cannot be predicted except in a most general and uninformative way. No doubt it is a submerged awareness of this that makes Marxists so emphatic in their refusal to predict the details of communist society. Yet the assertion that social science is prediction and control is an essential feature of Marxism. (The attempt to do without prediction led to syndicalism.) Progress can be reported but not predicted.
Reader. This is an unexpected reversal of roles. Are there any other aspects of Marxism that are open to this strange accusation?
Author. Another sense of “dialectical” is that in which it is opposed to the “metaphysical” procedure of considering things in isolation from one another instead of in their real and intimate connections. Now it seems to me that the basis-superstructure distinction suffers from this very defect, for all that Marxists say about the superstructure influencing the basis. The Marxist error is to regard as parts what are really aspects. There is no behavior that is just political behavior, no behavior that is just economic behavior, and so on. The political man, the economic man, the poet, indeed, and the priest, are abstractions, not interacting forces.
Reader. The objection might be made that you misrepresented the case when at the beginning of our discussion you said that Marxists inconsistently combine a belief in the adequacy of scientific method with Hegelianism. For, it might be said, Marxists hold that science is itself dialectical so that there is not the opposition that you have claimed.
Author. When Marxists say that science is dialectical they are using Hegelian terminology but are not thinking Hegelian thoughts. When they are not meditating on nodal lines, they are asserting that no scientific theory should be regarded as beyond criticism, that the various sciences should not be isolated from one another, and that laws of change should be sought for as well as laws of equilibrium. These are things that non-Marxists say in other words.
Reader. Marxists often speak approvingly of the dialectical method in politics. Lenin, I believe, is praised as a leading practitioner of it.
Author. When the word is used in such contexts it connotes approval of the ability to deal effectively with the singularities of events. The dialectical political strategist never allows his ultimate principles of action to divert his eyes from concrete details or to prevent him from adapting himself rapidly to changes in the situation. There is no philosophical profundity here, but rather a peculiar, though not altogether unsuitable, choice of a word. The dialectical statesman also knows how to deal with unexpected changes in the situation—though their unexpectedness must be due to his lack of social science. It is curious that these political uses of the term “dialectical” are not unlike the eulogistic use of the word “empirical” now common in this country, the use, namely, in which the adaptable, flexible approach to political events is contrasted with the rationalistic, rigid approach.
Reader. Before we part I should like to ask whether you could sum up your criticisms of Marxism in a phrase or two.
Author. Let me be briefer still and say that Marxism is a philosophical farrago.
The following has no claim to be a bibliography, but is an annotated list of books and articles that I have found of particular value for the understanding of the philosophy of Marxism.
Adams, H. P., Karl Marx in His Earlier Writings (London, 1940).
Contains summaries of all the early writings (including the Doctoral Dissertation) and is therefore particularly useful for those who do not read German.
Barth, Hans, Wahrheit und Ideologie (Zurich, 1945).
This learned and skillfully constructed book deals especially with the origins of the idea of an “ideology,” and stresses the importance of this notion in Marx’s thought. It is a notable contribution to the history of ideas.
Berlin, Isaiah, Karl Marx (London, 2nd edition, 1948).
Especially chapters 3, 4, and 6 for a clear and perceptive introductory treatment.
Bober, M. M., Karl Marx’s Interpretation of History (2nd edition, revised, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1950).
It is essential to read the greatly revised second edition, which is a masterly exposition and criticism of Marxism by an economist. The most detailed and important criticism of the Materialist Conception of History that I know of.
Bochenski, I. M., Der Sowjetrussische Dialektische Materialismus (Diamat) (Berne, 1950, 2nd revised edition, 1956).
A short and clear exposition of current philosophical views in the Soviet Union, with a useful bibliography of about five hundred items.
Hook, Sidney, From Hegel to Marx. Studies in the Intellectual Development of Karl Marx (London, 1936).
Contains expositions of the views of those who chiefly influenced Marx’s early thought (Hegel, Feuerbach, Stirner, etc.). There is an Appendix with translations of important philosophical passages from Marx’s early writings.
Hyppolite, Jean, “La Structure du ‘Capital’ et de quelques présuppositions philosophiques dans l’oeuvre de Marx.” Bulletin de la Société Française de Philosophie, 42e année, No. 6, Oct.–Dec. 1948 (Paris).
The leading French Hegelian scholar uses his knowledge of Hegel to illuminate Marx’s thought. This valuable article is discussed by Aron, Bréhier, Madame Prenant, Rubel, and others. It is reprinted, without the discussion, in Hyppolite’s Etudes sur Marx et Hegel, pp. 142–68.
Popitz, Heinrich, Der Entfremdete Mensch: Zeitkritik und Geschichts-philosophie des jungen Marx (Basel, 1953).
A detailed exposition of Marx’s earliest writings showing their connections with the philosophy of Hegel.
Popper, Karl, The Open Society and Its Enemies. Vol. 2, The High Tide of Prophecy: Hegel and Marx (London, 1945).
This book is too well known to need comment from me, except to say that the detailed discussion of Marx’s social theories contained in it relates especially to methodological matters that I have not myself dealt with. The criticism is all the more telling by virtue of the sympathy shown toward some of Marx’s aspirations.
Rotenstreich, Nathan, Marx’ Thesen über Feuerbach. Archiv für Rechts- und Sozialphilosophie, XXXIX/3 and XXXIX/4 (Berne, 1951).
A commentary on the much-quoted “theses” in which the preeminence of “practice” in the Marxist outlook is demonstrated.
Rubel, Maximilien, Pages choisies pour une éthique socialiste. Textes réunis, traduits, et annotés, précédés d’une introduction à l’éthique Marxienne (Paris, 1948).
The form taken by this anthology makes it an important contribution to the interpretation of Marx. See the same author’s Karl Marx: Essai de biographie intellectuelle (Paris, 1957).
Venable, Vernon, Human Nature, The Marxian View (London, 1946).
A painstaking analysis and rather uncritical defense of the social theory of Marx and Engels.
Wetter, Gustav A., S.J., Der Dialektische Materialismus: Seine Geschichte und sein System in der Sowjetunion (Freiburg, 1952). Translated into English from the 4th revised German edition by Peter Heath with the title Dialectical Materialism (London, 1958).
A comprehensive (647 pp.) account of philosophy in the Soviet Union, containing detailed summaries and criticisms of leading books and articles published there. Indispensable for the student of Marxist-Leninist philosophy. There is a bibliography of 266 items, most of them in Russian or by Russians. The same author has a work in Italian, Il materialismo dialettico sovietico (Giulio Einaudi Editore, 1948), in which more space is given to “the classics” such as Lenin.
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[40. ]State and Revolution, p. 10.
[41. ]See G. D. Gurvich, Vocation actuelle de la sociologie (Paris, 1950), pp. 572–80.
[42. ]State and Revolution, p. 79.
[43. ]P. 75.
[44. ]Anti-Dühring, p. 25.
[45. ]Ibid., p. 285.
[46. ]Ibid., p. 292.
[47. ]Ibid., p. 291.
[48. ]Ibid., p. 285.
[49. ]Ibid., p. 285 and p. 309.
[50. ]Ibid., pp. 311–12.
[1. ]Supplement to New Times, No. 26, June 28, 1950.
[2. ]“Marx, Stalin and the Theory of Language,” by M. Miller, Soviet Studies, vol. 2, no. 4, April 1951.
[3. ]Economic Problems of Socialism in the U.S.S.R. (Foreign Languages Publishing House, Moscow, 1952), p. 31. The other quotations are from p. 34.