Book Review: ‘The Illusion of An Epoch’ (pt.1)

The Illusion of An Epoch 

H. B. ACTON — Cohen & West

Professor Acton has acquired the reputation of being a redoubtable opponent of Marxism. He certainly comes out of his corner fighting and throws every philosophical punch he’s got—phenomenalism, positivism, realism, naturalism, etc. At the end Professor Acton holds up Professor Acton’s arm and declares Professor Acton the winner.

Although the Professor was billed to fight Marxism he took on a substitute called Leninism. His main philosophical source of reference in his Illusion of an Epoch is Lenin’s book Materialism and Empirio-Criticism which was an excoriating attack on the views of the founders of modern Positivism, Mach and Avenarius.

Briefly, they argued that what is known can only be what is experienced and that itself must depend either directly or indirectly on sense perception. Thus, for example, qualities such as sweetness, hardness, coldness, are congruencies of sensation, as such they are part of what is called sense data and so constitute the indispensable basis for all of our experiences. To say, contended the positivists, that these qualities are independent of our sense-perceived notions and that they have an objective existence in an eternally given matter cannot be proven. Indeed, to say that a substance called matter with all the qualities ascribed to it exists apart from our sense perceptions and our ideas which are directly or indirectly derived from them, is to assert that something exists which itself is inexperienced. Matter, like God, they said is an abstraction not verifiable from sense-experienced data. The, most they would commit themselves to was that there existed “the permanent possibility of sensation.”

It is true that the positivists’ concept of phenomena raised formidable difficulties which on their own admission were never adequately solved. They did, however, seek to overcome the defects of the 18th century materialism which made man the passive instrument of “matter.” Many of them asserted that their views were a negation of any form of idealism and supernaturalism.

Lenin in his book contended that matter did exist independently of ideas and possible sense data and that sense perceptions were copies, photographs, images of objective reality. He also contended that acceptance of positivist ideas would lead to idealism, fetishism and solipsism. What made Lenin angry was that some Bolsheviks accepted Mach’s views, one of whom was Bogdanov—author of A Short Course in Economic Science. Bogdanov held that “the physical world was nothing but socially organised experience” and matter “the resistance to collective labour efforts.” Nature he regarded as the unfolding panorama of work experiences.

Now Marx himself in criticising 18th century Materialism which saw “Nature” as purely a physical entity showed that natural phenomena enter indirectly into history as a process of material production between men and their natural environment and between men and men. Nature has then a social and historical character and matter is mediated and modified by the social activity of men. Marx and Engels called this Historical Materialism.

Marx, in his Theses on Feuerbach, said that “the chief defect of ”3 hitherto existing materialism including Feuerbach’s was that the given world, reality, sensuousness was only conceived in the form of the object or of contemplation but not subjectively as human sensuous activity.” Feuerbach in his criticism of Hegel’s idealism had introduced the notion of sense-perceived awareness but failed to grasp the practical character of sensuous productive activity which changed the world and changed men in turn. Feuerbach saw the world as an eternally given reality and not as a socially mediated continuum as well.

Bogdanov added nothing to Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach. Actually, he detracted from it by seeking to give Marxism a non-materialist philosophy when Marx himself had dispensed with philosophy, materialist or otherwise. Bogdanov in fact did not go forward from Marx but back to Spinoza. That philosopher had sought to make God and Nature one. Bogdanov substituted, Man and Nature. By denying any real validity to the physical world he denied man’s emergence into it at a point of time. His absolute identification of man with Nature also denied the genuine antithetical features of the unity of Man and Nature and thus denied the mainspring for any genuine historic development.

The main weakness of Lenin’s criticism of phenomenalism was his inability to go beyond the limits of 18th century materialism. True he did say that “Marxist Materialism was immeasurably richer in content and incomparably better grounded than all previous forms of materialism” but he never succeeded in explaining what he meant by it. For him Marxist Materialism was the highest development of an unbroken line of revolutionary thought going back to 18th century Materialism. He failed to appreciate that Historical Materialism was a radical break with all other forms of Materialism expressing as it did the changed character of class conflict bound up with the growth of Capitalist society. The standpoint of the old Materialism had been the standpoint of what Hegel had termed “Civic Society.” It assumed each individual was an entity in his own right with private feelings and motivated by self interest. It saw the nature of men as a “natural” fact not a social one. All “rights” as natural rights. All social laws “natural laws.” Thus was stressed the omnipotence of “matter.”

Marxist Materialism on the other hand took the viewpoint of Socialised Humanity. It recognised, however, that a class divided society frustrates its realisation. Only a self-conscious majority comprising the socially productive class could realise it, for this class has no extra social aim to achieve and no other social group to exploit. Marxist Materialism is then the standpoint of the truly human society as opposed to an atomistic one. It is also the highest theoretical expression of a historically matured working class and thus a class Materialism.

Lenin’s views in Materialism and Empirio-Criticism were hardly any more than a rehash of 18th century Materialism plus Feuerbachism. Like Feuerbach he. talked of sensory experience being the criterion of existence but like Feuerbach gave the sensory perceived world the unchanging and immutable character of some eternally imposed pattern of Nature. Marx’s rejection of 18th century and Feuerbachian Materialism was sharp and clear. Sensation, Marx said, was not only a biological mechanism but a social one. This explains why a given physical environment evokes different responses and meanings from subjects derived from different cultures. According to Feuerbach our sense perceptions allowed us to grasp the eternal facts of Nature. What, said Marx, is more likely to meet our eyes were socially linked objects.

Eighteenth Century Materialism saw man as a natural product controlled by natural laws. Marx agreed that Nature was prior to man but showed that the productive activities of men do not come from Nature alone although without Nature his productive activities would be impossible. Men’s environment is then pre-supposed in all human activity and constitutes not only a physical environment but a humanised environment; not a “pure” Nature but social Nature. This constitutes Marx’s starting point into the investigation of the material basis for social life. It starts therefore, not with a dogmatic assertion about some first cause but with a self-evident proposition. From this proposition that men’s social existence consists of the two-fold antithetical character of Nature and material production. Marx formulated the further proposition. “It is not the consciousness of men which determines their social existence but on the contrary their social existence which determines their consciousness.” Marx did not then reduce men’s existence to some “lifeless” matter or an abstract entity called mind. By qualifying the term existence, i.e., social existence it ceased to be a conceptual abstraction and acquired a definite and specific content. Again by qualifying what he meant by existence he qualified what he meant by consciousness and so it ceased to have an indefinable and ineffable philosophic essence but could be shown to be definite historical forms of consciousness consisting of the ideas and specific modes of thinking of social existence itself and the data for this could be drawn from the findings of history.

And if it be asked by the motley crowd of Idealists, Positivists and Neo-Kantians, what do you know of the essence of existence or consciousness we should answer no more than you know about them, but we know where to locate a specific existence and explain determinate forms of consciousness associated with and arising from this existence. And if it again be asked what do Marxists know of Truth? The answer is we are not concerned with Truth, metaphysically posed. We know, however, where to look for the source of particular truths, that is in the actual practices of social life, and if it is posed what criteria are used for judging these particular truths we should reply whether the aims that men have in view bring about consequences which realise the ends they seek to establish. In the second part we shall deal with Lenin’s approach to the problem more fully.

(To be continued)

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