Source: From H.B. Acton, The Illusion of the Epoch: Marxism-Leninism as a Philosophical Creed (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2003).
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.
[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.
Last modified April 10, 2014