1950s >> 1956 >> no-618-february-1956

Book Review: ‘The Illusion of An Epoch’ (pt.2)

The Illusion of An Epoch 

H. B. Acton – Cohen and West

Lenin instead of taking a consistent Marxist view in his disputes with Mach and his errant Bolsheviks got himself involved in metaphysical definitions of “matter,” “energy,’ “space,” “time” etc., and his “naive realism” and “common sense” defence of Materialism was largely a recapitulation of the ideas of a bygone age. His dogmatic assertions as to the eternal nature of matter and his equally dogmatic assertions of the priority of matter over mind are no part of Marxism but belong to traditional philosophical thought. What Marxists have to do is to explain philosophical notions as themselves being historical products.

Lenin instead of keeping to the Marxist viewpoint of the sciences being explained from the standpoint of an historically conditioned activity seemed to think that the systemised truth finding character of the sciences supplied data for Marxist Materialism. In actual fact the special disciplines of the sciences cannot be deduced from Marxism nor Marxism from them. One cannot of course transfer willy nilly the truths of a particular field of knowledge to all other fields without these particular truths losing their relevance and identity. Thus the physicists’ concept of matter is not bound up with the assumptions of Marxism. The behaviour of matter in the sub-atomic universe is a local and microscopic affair and irrelevant in any significant sense to the microscopic levels of social development. Reality for Marxists is not bound up with attempts to discover or explain the ultimate character of the physical world. Reality for them consists of the historical development of men’s own social life.

Lenin believed, however, that Marxism had a right to dispense authority to everything under the sun. That is why he substituted for Historical Materialism the term Dialectical Materialism. He was thus instrumental in changing a revolutionary and empirical theory of social life into an authoritarian doctrine which formed the conceptual framework of a state philosophy different in degree but not in kind to other state philosophies, i.e., German and Italian Fascism and U.S.A. “Democracy.” Such was the tragic fulfilment of this Russian “Marxism.”

To Lenin’s 18th Century Materialism and Feuerbachism there was embroidered the Hegelian categories of “negation of the negation,” “thesis and antithesis,” “quality and quantity,” etc. This gave Leninism a novel and revolutionary appearance and it still continues to successfully masquerade as Marxism. It has deceived countless University dons and ideologues including Professor Acton, himself a Professor of Philosophy. In the 30’s the Marx, Engels, Lenin Institute published attractively got up editions of Dialectical Materialism which won over a few of the literary intelligentsia to a philosophy which would prove wrong to be right, foul to be fair, night to be day. Most of them have left with burning indignation at the gross deception carried out on them. Against the strongholds of Capitalist learning Leninism made little or no impression. Academic Philosophy which has smarted under the slings and arrows of outrageous “Communism”, have launched an ideological counter attack against Leninism (called by them, Marxism). Nevertheless, Lenin has been faithfully supported by his minor followers and one has only to observe the shifts of Cornforth, John Lewis, Emile Burns and others in that cultured periodical The Modern Quarterly in their defence of Leninist metaphysics.

It might be asked at this stage, where does Professor Acton come in? Really he doesn’t. What his book The Illusion of an Epoch does illustrate is the Communist genius for deceiving friend and foe alike. His own treatment of Leninism which he calls “the philosophical creed of Marxism” is banefully formal, lacking any real social approach in historical perspective. Even in his analysis of the 18th century Materialism of Lenin he is uncertain. On one hand he seems to think Lenin’s attack on Machism was wrong, on the other hand he seems to think in some respects he was right. Nevertheless in his attempt to prove that he’s got something the Professor brings in the whole choir of heaven and earth believing perhaps that with so many things some of them or one of them must be right. The Professor mixes up Marxism with everything else, Berkleyism, Humism, Kantism, even Freudism. Small wonder he himself becomes a little mixed.

Among other things he mentions is that according to Marxism, technology is the essence of man (P. 149). According to the Professor Marxists believe that present day class society is the outcome of technical development. Marxists hold the opposite view and say that technical development is generated by the Capitalist relations of production. Marxists are careful to explain that it is the social productive relations, i.e., the way men stand to each other in the production and distribution of wealth which initiate and regulate technical processes. Indeed, as against Professor Acton the Marxists say it is not the Capitalists who are instruments of the mode of production but the mode of production which serves Capitalists’ interests.

The Professor also confuses the sub-division of labour with the social relations of production (P. 161). For him a factory would constitute productive relations. Thus if a new invention were introduced the character of industrial co-operation in the factory might be modified. This, according to Professor Acton would not bring about new productive relations. The Professor fails to understand that it has only modified the mode of production peculiar to a given set of social productive relations, and has nothing to do with changes in the productive relations themselves.

He talks of the Marxist confusion of the material foundations of society. This, he says, includes techniques, skills, tools, inventions, etc., thus he argues the material life of society consists of mental components as well. But as Marx went to great pains to point out, the material bases of society are physical resources, i.e., nature-given materials and men’s physical energies. Skills and techniques are the means, the productive forces, which maintain this material existence. What one can say in conclusion is that Professor Acton knows less about the real world than is excusable even for a Professor of Philosophy.


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