HB Acton’s version of Marxism

H. B. Acton gained celebrity with the publication of Illusion of the Epoch in 1955, supposedly as a serious philosopher’s even-handed exposition of the philosophy expressed in Marx’s writings. Acton was not an especially influential philosopher, and he certainly does not stand in the first ranks of post-war British philosophy. He taught philosophy at the London School of Economics, Bedford College (London), the University of Edinburgh, and the University of Chicago. (It is difficult to find biographical information about Acton; for example, where did he complete his doctoral studies, and who were his primary influences?) And the book misses much that is of interest in Marx in the interest of tying Marx to Hegel at one end and to Lenin and Stalin at the other.

It seems likely that much of the celebrity of the book derived from its title, “Illusion of the Epoch”, which seemed to imply that Acton would unveil Marxism as the illusion of the epoch of the 1930s through 50s. But he never explains the title, and in fact it is borrowed from the German Ideology in an entirely different context. The conservative foundation and publisher Liberty Fund republished the book in 1962, and it is easy to speculate that “the Marxist illusion” was a major selling point of the book to the New Liberty editorial board. Certainly Acton’s book falls far short in two crucial ways: it is not a credible interpretation of Marx’s philosophical ideas, and it does not expressly say why Marxism is an illusion. We can guess, but the book doesn’t provide an argument or explanation.

Most fundamentally, Acton’s premise in Illusion was … illusory. He began with the assumption that the philosophy expressed in Marx’s writings is fully and adequately expressed in the writings of Lenin and Stalin; in fact, he treats “Marxism” as “Marxist-Leninism”. As a result, he vastly overestimates the importance of “dialectical method” in Marx’s writings — let alone the coherence or importance of “dialectical materialism” for Marx, since this is not a phrase that Marx used anywhere in his corpus. (The phrase was coined by a follower of Marx four years after his death, in 1887.) This takes us off on a wild-goose chase in the book, since the reader came with an interest in Marx’s thinking as a philosopher, and what the reader got instead was a rowboat piloted by Engels, Lenin, and Stalin. But if — as I believe — Marx put aside the philosophical claptrap of Hegelian dialectics when he turned to thinking seriously about history and political economy, then the elaborate exposition that Acton provides interpreting Hegel on the one hand and Lenin on the other hand is entirely useless when it comes to interpreting Marx’s philosophical and theoretical thinking.

The superficiality of Acton’s treatment of Marx is evident throughout the book. Here are a few broad, sweeping, and silly statements:

We have now seen that, on the Marxist view, everything is changing, and that periods of gradual change are interspersed with sudden changes in which new types of being come to birth. Marxists regard it as a merit of their theory that it is also capable of explaining why nature changes at all. (85)

We have not so far discussed the proposition that all things are ‘‘organically connected with, dependent on, and determined by each other.’’ That things are not so connected is the thesis of ‘‘metaphysics,’’ in Engels’ sense of the word. What sort of unity of the world, then, do Marxist philosophers assert? It is easy to see that, on their view, nature is one, inasmuch as it is fundamentally material—there is nothing in nature that is not based in matter. (91)

These are certainly not Marx’s views. Whether it is a credible interpretation of Engels’ view or Lenin’s view, I’m not sure. But Engels and Lenin are not Marx. And it is hard to see how a person who has read Capital could seriously suggest that these views underlie Marx’s effort to understand capitalism.

Part I of Illusion is therefore fundamentally irrelevant to Marx’s approach to understanding the contemporary world (capitalism). What about Part II, where Acton turns to “historical materialism”? Here Acton adopts another red herring — the idea that historical materialism is meant as a serious effort to explain religion and religious consciousness and ideology (100). These are highly subordinate concerns for Marx, and he gives little specific attention to how material social institutions influence or “determine” ideological frameworks. Rather, Marx is interested in explaining the large systemic changes in history.

Finally, after dozens of pages, Acton arrives at a sensible statement of Marx’s theory of historical materialism:

The main point, then, of the Materialist Conception of History is as follows. The basis of any human society is the tools, skills, and technical experience prevalent in it, i.e., the productive forces. For any given set of productive forces there is a mode of social organization necessary to utilize them, i.e., the productive relationships. The sum total of productive relationships in any society is called by Marx its ‘‘economic structure.’’ This, he holds, is the real basis on which a juridical and political superstructure arises, and to which definite forms of social consciousness correspond. Radical changes in the basis sooner or later bring about changes in the superstructure, so that the prime cause of any radical political or moral transformation must be changes in the productive forces. In effect, the idea is that human society has a ‘‘material basis’’ consisting of the productive forces and associated productive relationships. This is also called the ‘‘economic structure.’’ This, in its turn, determines the form that must in the long run be taken by the legal and political institutions of the society in question. Less directly but no less really dependent on the economic structure of society are its moral and aesthetic ideas, its religion, and its philosophy. The key to the understanding of law, politics, morals, religion, and philosophy is the nature and organization of the productive forces. (128-129)

This is a reasonable statement of Marx’s general theory of historical materialism; but it is no more than a close paraphrase of the summary offered by Marx in the preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859) (link). No subtle reinterpretation of Marx’s meaning is required; Acton’s paragraph simply paraphrases the parallel text in the preface to the Contribution. And, once again, Acton defeats his own goal (to interpret Marx’s philosophical ideas) by turning immediately to Stalin’s and Lenin’s counterpart ideas.

In Part III Acton turns to what he calls “Marxist Ethics”. Here again, much of the discussion has to do with what Lenin and Stalin had to say about ethics. But, as above, this is a different subject. Here is an example:

It will be remembered that in Chapter I of Part One of this book I called attention to the fact that one of Lenin’s arguments against phenomenalism was that phenomenalism is a form of idealism, that idealism is a disguised form of religion, that religion is dangerous to communism, and that therefore phenomenalism should be rejected. Basic to this argument is the assumption that it is legitimate to reject a philosophical theory on the ground that it appears to be a hindrance to the victory of the proletariat under Communist Party leadership. In still more general terms, Lenin’s argument assumes that it is legitimate to reject a philosophical theory on the ground that it appears to conflict with a political movement supposed to be working for the long-term interests of mankind. (191)

As a treatment of Marx’s thought, there is almost nothing to recommend in Acton’s book. So why dwell on a book that has so little philosophical insight into its subject matter? Because this book is one of the texts from the 1940s and 1950s that set the terms for philosophers’ understanding of Marx; and because the book is a bumbling trivialization of Marx’s ideas. A much better introduction and overview of Marx’s thought was provided by Isaiah Berlin in 1939 in Karl Marx: His Life and Environment. And Berlin was a much more penetrating philosopher than Acton. (Using Google NGram tool, it emerges that book mentions of Isaiah Berlin are more than 1000 times more frequent than for Harry Acton since 1950.) Even Sherwood Eddy’s introduction to Marx in the 1934 volume The Meaning of Marx, short though it is, does a much better job of introducing the reader to Marx’s central ideas (link). On the other hand, if we want to understand why Stalinism was a moral catastrophe, we would do better to read The God That Failed, including autobiographical essays by Arthur Koestler, Ignazio Silone, Richard Wright, Andre Gide, Louis Fischer, and Stephen Spender. (Richard Wright’s essay is particularly powerful.) These personal statements make much more vivid the appeal of Marxism for intellectuals concerned about social justice in the 1930s, and shed much more light on the totalitarian disaster that doctrinaire Marxism-Leninism-Stalinism led to at every level — from Moscow and Kiev to Berlin to Milan to Chicago.

Acton’s book reflects the very low level of interest or knowledge that analytic philosophers of the 1950s had in Marx as an original thinker, as opposed to a talisman and predecessor for totalitarian communist regimes in the USSR and its satellites. A return to serious, critical study of Marx would have to wait for another generations of philosophers in the 1980s.