Written nearly fifty years ago, at a time when the world was still wrestling with the concepts of Marx and Lenin, The Illusion of the Epoch is the perfect resource for understanding the roots of Marxism-Leninism and its implications for philosophy, modern political thought, economics, and history. As Professor Tim Fuller has written, this “is not an intemperate book, but rather an effort at a sustained, scholarly argument against Marxian views.
Far from demonizing his subject, Acton scrupulously notes where Marx’s account of historical and economic events and processes is essentially accurate. However, Acton also points out that Marx is generally right about things that were already widely known and accepted in his own time and indeed had been long understood in the nineteenth century. On the other hand, Acton shows that in many cases Marx either is simply wrong or has stated his views so as to render his theories immune to disproof. Acton also explains why the embodiment of Marxist-Leninist theory in an actual social order would require coercive support if it were not, sooner or later, to collapse of its own contradictions.
Science, Philosophy, and Practice
Marx’s opposition to speculative philosophy is particularly apparent in his early writings, such as the Holy Family and the German Ideology. In the former of these writings (chap. 5, sect. 2, “The Mystery of Speculative Construction”) there is a vigorous passage, quite in the vein of Feuerbach, in which the speculative philosopher is depicted as arguing that the substance or reality of apples, pears, strawberries, and almonds is fruit itself, an organic identity in difference which develops itself in the forms of the different species of fruit. “While the Christian religion recognizes only one unique incarnation of God, for speculative philosophy there are as many incarnations as there are things; in this way it sees in each sort of fruit an incarnation of the substance, of the absolute fruit. The main interest of the speculative philosopher consists, therefore, in producing the existence of real fruit, and in saying, in a mysterious manner, that there are apples, pears, etc. But the apples, the pears, etc., that we discover in the world of speculation, are only the appearances of apples, of pears, etc., for they are the manifestations of fruit, of the rational abstract entity, and are thus themselves rational, abstract entities. Thus the pleasing thing in speculation is finding in it all the real fruits, but as fruits with a higher mystic value, as fruits sprung from the aether of your brain and not from the natural world, incarnations of fruit, of the absolute subject.
Harry Burrows Acton (1908 – 1974) was a British academic in the field of political philosophy, known for books defending the morality of capitalism, and attacking Marxism-Leninism. He in particular produced arguments on the incoherence of Marxism, which he described as a 'farrago' (in philosophical terms). His book The Illusion of the Epoch, in which this appears, is a standard point of reference. Other interests were the Marquis de Condorcet, Hegel, John Stuart Mill, Herbert Spencer, F. H. Bradley, Bernard Bosanquet and Sidney Webb.
He had teaching positions at the London School of Economics, Bedford College, the University of Edinburgh where he was Professor of Moral Philosophy, and the University of Chicago. He was editor of Philosophy, the journal of the Royal Institute of Philosophy, of which he was for a time Director. He was president of the Aristotelian Society from 1952 to 1953.
Works: The Illusion of the Epoch:Marxism-Leninism as a Philosophical Creed (1955); The Philosophy of Language in Revolutionary France (1959) Dawes Hicks Lecture of the British Academy; What Marx Really Said (1967); Philosophy of Punishment (1969) editor; Kant's moral philosophy (1970); The Morals of Markets: an Ethical Exploration (1971) essays edited by David Gordon and Jeremy Shearmur; The Right to Work and the Right to Strike (1972); The ethics of capitalism (The Company and its Responsibilities) (1972); The idea of a spiritual power: 1973 Auguste Comte memorial trust lecture (1974).