Marxism and the Irrationalists

John Lewis


The Death and Resurrection of Idealism

Absolute Idealism

IDEALISM reached the climax of its influence in England in the early years of the twentieth century. But it was not the subjective idealism which held that we can only know the ideas in our own minds, but the objective idealism which held that the object of knowledge had a real existence independent of the subject or knower, even though it was but a manifestation of the Absolute Idea. It is thus of the nature of “idea”, but is completely objective and is found and apprehended by the knower.

In the older universities the influence of Green, Bradley and Bosanquet was paramount, and elsewhere Muirhead and A. E. Taylor lent support to their doctrines. Fundamentally, this form of idealism derived from the Hegelian notion of the Absolute. The Absolute is a single unified whole, comprehending within itself all distinctions, including the distinction between mind and its objects, and embracing all differences. Our minds being but partial aspects of the Absolute take a partial and, therefore, partially false view of the universe which they contemplate, seeing it as a bundle of isolated things; it is only to the Absolute’s view of itself, an inkling of which we are enabled to reach through philosophy, that the universe is revealed as a single indivisible unity.

It has often been pointed out that there are two sides to Hegel’s philosophy, on the one side is the dialectic, the notion of change and development through the conflict of opposites—a development, moreover, which takes place in reality, in history. It was this aspect which was developed by Marx and Engels. But Hegel’s philosophy can also be interpreted as a system, as the philosophy of a rational and unified whole,


itself unchanging even though its appearances change, in which every part is justified in relation to the totality of which it is a part, so that the American idealist Royce could say, “The very presence of evil in the temporal order is the condition of the perfection of the eternal order.” The British and American idealists accepted the static system of Hegel, and not his dialectics.

Many strange consequences follow from this doctrine. There is no real change. Change is an illusion arising from our finite point of view. “All problems and their solution exist, fully known, in the Absolute. Our procedure when confronted with a problem will accordingly be to discover the solution which already exists, not to formulate any programmes of active change.” [1] Thus with the “right” philosophy, one can gather patience while the world is mad. As Barrows Dunham points out this theory had important political implications. “An eternal order of truth and righteousness is plainly just the ground on which to base existing property relations, if these are what you want to defend ; you can give them in this way a moral, legal justification, no matter how iniquitous they may otherwise appear. . . .” [2]

Absolutism in this form clearly points to the subordination of the individual to the State, and this was argued forcefully by both Bosanquet and Bradley. Later, in Austria, Othmar Spann developed it into one of the several philosophies which provided ideological support for fascism. The world is a fixed system in which all the false categories of subordination and exploitation are not passing phases but permanent forms which must be perpetuated. The individual is wholly  subordinated to a static impersonal system in which he is deprived of his manhood and “self-estranged.” This is Hegel without his dialectic and without his revolutionary dynamic.

Completely different was the other tendency in British

1 Barrows Dunham, Giant in Chains.

2. Ibid.


philosophy, represented by Bentham, Mill and Herbert Spencer. This was individualistic and liberal and reflected the earlier phase of energetic, competitive capitalism, still largely progressive, just as Bosanquet reflects the rise of monopoly capitalism and the rise of the imperialist state with its colonial aggression and state support for capitalism. Absolute Idealism, however, in spite of its reactionary character, believed in the rationality of the universe, in a purpose in existence and in the worth of man. In its way it sought to provide man with a philosophy of life, with belief in the world as a rational order in which men could work together for the common good. Bosanquet was a forward looking man if a timid one, and a reformer of a mildly Fabian type. If this seems very small beer, look at the philosophers of our own time. No longer is their message to the young men and women of our universities that the study of philosophy might make a difference to their whole lives. On the contrary they were told that philosophy was of no relevance for conduct, for an understanding of life, for developing political responsibility and political insight. It had degenerated into a kind of parlour game for over-sophisticated experts in logical finesse.

But the strange thing is that this new philosophy is really the last phase of the development of idealism itself; it is indeed the direct successor of Absolute Idealism.

Moore and Philosophical Analysis

Moore began by appearing to refute idealism. Of course ordinary objects of perception exist; the common-sense view of the world is accepted; my body exists; it is either in contact with the earth or not far from it; other things having shape and size in three dimensions also exist, and so on. In making these statements Moore purported to be contradicting certain idealist philosophers who had denied them. He has therefore been regarded as a realist, in the materialist sense of believing that there exists a world with minds in it, whereas idealism believes that there exists a mind with a world in it.


Moore then goes on to say that the interesting question for philosophy is not whether his realistic statements are true. They are not only true but truisms and unquestionable. But the problems of philosophy concern what exactly one means when one makes one of these “true” statements such as “my body is a solid object existing on the surface of the earth.” This seems unobjectionable enough; but as we follow Moore’s argument we discover that what we mean is that we perceive sense data or something like that, and so we are back to idealism. In fact Moore is not a realist philosopher attacking idealism. He is an anti-philosopher attacking philosophy in the interests of idealism; for by shifting the argument from the case for or against idealism to the analysis of what one means by a materialist statement he pretends to escape from the vexed question of idealism versus materialism. But this escape from an important philosophical question—Moore’s anti-philosophy—turns out to be a subtle way of getting back to idealism while pretending to abandon it. He has “refuted” idealism only to rehabilitate it, in a much more objectionable form.

Now this is not how the new philosophy appeared to those who first read G. E. Moore’s Refutation of Idealism or his Defence of Common Sense (1925). These essays reflected the sudden collapse of the optimistic, one might even say the romanticist, phase of idealism, the motto of which was “All’s right with the world.” The cheerful confidence which regarded reality as necessarily ideal, which held that things must be good or beautiful or spiritual in order to be at all, collapsed. There emerged to refute it and supplant it the curious philosophy known as “realism”—essentially a philosophy of disillusionment.

It begins by seeking to detach the existence of things known from the act of knowing them, and in doing so it scores a number of useful points over the ordinary idealist case. It exposes the fallacy that what is experienced must have the properties of the experiencing of it. On the contrary, Moore argued, knowing makes not the slightest difference to the


object. “The object, when we are aware of it, is precisely what it would be, if we were not aware.” Therefore there are tables and chairs, sticks and stones, which are in no way affected by our knowing them. This looks fine and makes an immediate appeal to common sense, but what looks like common sense is often uncommon nonsense, and that happens to be so in this case. For there are a number of snags in Moore’s position.

Philosophy or Anti-Philosophy?

1. We notice first of all that these objects are what they are independently of their relations with one another, or to the world of which they are a part, or to man the knower and doer. The world therefore becomes an atomistic hotchpotch, a mere chaos in which man merely goes about observing various objects.

Now this itself is a hopelessly unscientific and, indeed, unphilosophical conception. All things are connected and affect one another; a thing is what it is under certain conditions, and it cannot possibly be anything under no conditions at all. Moreover, while no bare mental act of awareness can affect what is known (if there could possibly be such an act), actual knowledge, which is part of our interaction with the world, our grappling with it and altering it, always does alter what it knows in a thoroughly practical way.

The trouble is that philosophers today have got into a habit of sitting about in arm-chairs contemplating patches of brown on the wall-paper, their tables and chairs (favourite objects of study), or even the ceiling. These rather passive and pointless mental activities are quite different to the kind of knowing and experiencing that goes on in a laboratory or a workshop or even when digging potatoes in the garden, and are far less likely to produce philosophical results.

2. The apparent simplicity and directness of Moore’s knowledge of objects is completely bogus, for he and his disciples proceed at once, as we have pointed out, to ask a number of questions about what you mean when you say you


perceive a hand or a chair. Of course, says Moore, no one questions the fact that you perceive a chair and it is not the business of philosophy to say anything about your direct knowledge of that object. The real task of philosophy is to elucidate precisely what you mean by such a statement, and that raises a number of problems with which philosophy has largely occupied itself for the past thirty years to the exclusion of much else of greater importance.

Russell on Perception

One can still recall the days at Cambridge when we used to fix our eyes upon the ceiling trying to discover whether or not we were directly acquainted with “whiteness” itself or only a white expanse of plaster; whether we perceived the physical object or the sense datum (i.e. whatever is given in sensation); whether the sensation of white is literally part of the surface of a physical object and if so how it is related to the unsensed parts ; or whether it is not as a sensation a part of a physical object at all, in which case how do we reach the physical object by means of it? Finally, whether an object is really after all a collection of sensations, of feels, whiffs, glimpses from all points of view. I remember Bertrand Russell lecturing sometime in 1915 or 1916 about what we perceive when we perceive a penny. He pulled a penny out of his pocket and held it up for us to see. We gazed at it hypnotically. He turned it over and whirled it around. We followed his every move. He explained that the penny was really a series of little elliptical flat discs, each two-dimensional which ran out towards us like buttons on a wire. In fact, there were rows of discs running out in all directions. The collection of these was the penny. He told us the penny we saw was much smaller than the penny he saw. I confess it did not look smaller to me than pennies usually are. Then he began to say something about six dimensional space which I am afraid I did not in the least understand. Anyhow, we had somehow to get together and correlate these disc-like pennies. The collection of them was the only really-real


penny. Though just how we were to correlate so many things we did not possess, he did not explain. Instead of that, he gave the penny a final twirl in the air and put it in his pocket, at which we all gasped. For just what it was he was putting in his pocket had by this time become an ineffable mystery. I recall that Russell said on one occasion that Leibniz would have been surprised to discover that “the end of his nose was a colony of spiritual beings.” [1] But surely it is just as startling to discover that the end of one’s nose is a six-dimensional manifold of Russell perspectives!

Moore and Common Sense

Now is this plain, transparent common sense? These questions have been debated by the “realists” for more than thirty years now and with no conclusion emerging. Surely what has happened is that so far from philosophy abandoning a profitless task, accepting common sense without question, and finding at last its real job, it has abandoned its real task and bogged itself down in futility and verbiage.

When Moore says that he has no quarrel with common sense, he says exactly what Berkeley said when he explained away the universe as consisting entirely of perceptions—“All the choir of heaven and furniture of the earth, in a word all those bodies which compose the mighty frame of the world, have not any subsistence without a mind”—but hastened to assure us that “whatever we see, feel, hear, or anywise conceive or understand, remains as secure as ever, and is as real as ever. . . . I do not argue against the existence of any one thing that we can apprehend, either by sense or reflection. That the things I see with mine eyes and touch with my hands do exist, really exist, I make not the least question.”[2] In fact all he is doing is to vindicate common sense which is content with this kind of knowledge, in the face of materialist philosophers who assert the actual existence of a material world.

1 A view which follows from Leibniz’s theory of the world as constituted by spiritual atoms or monads.

2 Berkeley, Principles of Human Knowledge.


Back to Idealism

Moore is eventually driven to three possible conclusions when he seeks to tell us what we mean when we rightly say we perceive a chair.

1. We perceive sensations and there are only sensations. This is Berkeley.

2. Or these sensations represent a physical object which we never see directly.

3. Or the physical object is only an integrated sum of sensible apprehensions.

Now this appears to be a mere return by a roundabout route to Berkeley and Hume, after putting up a smoke screen of “common-sense realism” to disguise what he is really after. If that is the case, he has clearly started off on the wrong foot like all the others, in spite of what he has to say about really perceiving something unaffected by our knowing. For what it is that has this objectivity turns out to be only sensations after all. The subjective idealist knew, rightly, that sensations are in the mind. Moore calls them sense data and puts them outside the mind, where they float about until sensed, like the grin of the Cheshire Cat which persisted when the cat disappeared. How clearly mental, how very much an abstraction Moore’s object is, we see still more clearly when we realise that conceptions as well as perceptions hold this status, that is to say we may perceive whiteness, justice, civilisation, oneness, two-ness and a host of other ideas which have a kind of existence which, since it is not material, is called subsistence. Such objects appear to be essences very much of the nature of Plato’s Ideas or Forms; they are immutable, intrinsic, and essential; they subsist eternally in the timeless universe waiting to be lit up by our roving thoughts.

The Indefinability of Goodness

Moore’s most important philosophical work was his Principia Ethica (1903), and here we have a very clear expression of what we are talking about. Goodness, he argues, is an indefinable quality which attaches to things independently


of consciousness. It is a quality like green and is discovered by simple inspection, just as a colour is. “By saying that a thing is intrinsically good it means that it would be a good thing that the thing in question should exist, even if it existed quite alone, without any further accompaniments or effects whatever.” [1]

From this it follows that all actions which in the last resort lead to consequences which are intrinsically good are themselves good. In other words the value of consequences can only be established by intuitions as to what is good. Thus we arrive ultimately at goods which are not themselves justified by their consequences but which are simply good in themselves.

To certify as “good”" what inspection assures me to be good may seem, as did the perception of a chair, to be a satisfactory kind of common-sense judgment with no nonsense about it. But nothing could be more misleading. Just as our perception turned out to be something far more subjective than at first appeared, so this recognition of an objective good is quickly seen to be dependent upon my perception of it. We all know that every prejudiced judgment is felt to be the recognition of an obvious, external objective fact. The intensity of the feeling of objectivity is no measure of its actual, objectivity, any more than in an hallucination. The fact that Moore is careful not to place the authority for the recognition of the good on his feeling, but places it on the objective good which he simply recognises, must not blind us to the fact that it is exactly the same thing, except for a higher degree of dogmatism.

When Dr. Malan says that the inherent superiority of white over black is not his opinion but an objective fact, which he recognises, we are on Moore’s ground; and it will be noticed that while it is possible to argue about opinions or to be brought to see that an opinion or even a conviction is not necessarily infallible or even final, one can no more argue about good as a fact, than about green as an ultimate fact of

1 Moore, Ethics.


experience. Moore has simply lifted ethics completely out of the sphere of genuine ethical discussion—the consideration of the worth of an act in its total setting and so on, and in doing so he has not, as many have supposed, at last put ethics on a firm foundation, on the contrary he has put an end to ethics. In much the same way when he took for granted and refused to discuss that whole series of common-sense judgments beginning with “This is a chair”, he withdrew the knowledge of the material world from the field of inquiry, leaving it therefore to uncritical dogmatism.

Richard Weaver in his book Ideas Have Consequences, has shown us what kind of right can be regarded as objective, unquestionable and beyond argument. He says that the right of private property is today widely felt to be a metaphysical right, to be recognised as absolute without reason, without justification on ground of consequences. “It does not depend on any test of social usefulness.” “Private property is substance, in fact it is something very like the philosophic concept of substance.” It thus constitutes an inviolable right. But having established one such right we have broken down the objection to others. “Therefore one inviolable right there must be to validate all other rights.” [1]

Of course Moore is talking about the “good” and not “rights”, but the attitude is fundamentally the same, and highly significant it is politically.

Moore and J. M. Keynes

How clearly the objectivism of Moore passes over into subjectivism and how powerful and pervasive an influence that subjectivism can be, with implications running directly out to economics and politics, we can see when we consider the influence of Moore on John Maynard Keynes (the first philosopher to become a Governor of the Bank of England) and his group of Cambridge friends, which included E. M. Forster, Leonard Woolf, Hawtrey the economist, Clive Bell the art critic and other influential figures. In his Two Memoirs

1 Richard Weaver, Ideas Have Consequences.


Keynes has a vivid autobiographical study entitled My Early Beliefs. Here he recounts the exhilaration and excitement caused in this circle by the teachings of Moore. The conclusion they drew, and it is significant that there was no disavowal of this conclusion by Moore who was closely associated with them, was that “nothing matters except states of mind”, chiefly their own of course, as Keynes admits—“timeless, passionate, states of contemplation and communion.” It was by acknowledging the authority and ultimate nature of these states of consciousness that they achieved the salvation of their souls. “How did we know” asks Keynes, “what states of mind were good? This was a matter of direct inspection, of direct unanalysable intuition about which it was useless and impossible to argue. . . . Victory was with those who could speak with the greatest appearance of clear, undoubting conviction, and could best use the accents of infallibility. . . . Our apprehension of good was exactly the same as our apprehension of green and we purported to handle it with the same logical and analytical technique which was appropriate to the latter.”

There was of course a trick here. About the good one was merely dogmatic and authoritative putting over a gigantic bluff; one then gave the whole position an air of meticulous and scrupulous rationality and logical certainty by switching the whole inquiry over to the exact meaning of the propositions and statements that were used. But Keynes admits that this was really camouflage; the real point was to carry off without question your own subjective version of the good, and here “strength of character was really much more valuable than subtlety of mind.”

Keynes goes on to point out that this led to two results: individualism and a separation of experience from the external world. Goodness, he says, was now regarded as an attribute of states of mind, the life of action was of no importance here. “The life of passionate contemplation and communion was supposed to oust all other purposes whatever.” This clearly indicates what Keynes called “the unsurpassable individualism


of our philosophy.” This attitude to life not only delivered them from the life of action (which went on all the same, but uncriticised by ethical insight and unrelated to any philosophy of life and society—went on in fact in a highly successful way, for Keynes speculated successfully in the world of finance and made a fortune), but rendered them “immune from the virus of Marxism—as safe as in the citadel of our ultimate faith as the Pope of Rome in his”—the parallel is instructive. They “repudiated a personal liability . . . to obey general rules.” They “claimed the right to judge every individual case on its merits, and the wisdom, experience and self-control to do so successfully. . . . I can see us as water-spiders, gracefully skimming, as light and reasonable as air, the surface of the stream without any contact at all with the eddies and currents underneath.”

Philosophy and Labour Party Economics

Keynes’ attitude to material reality, therefore, became a mere traffic with surface observations and the reduction of science to probability without basic knowledge of structure or the acceptance of underlying laws as realities. As Laird says, the effect of this “was to shut nature quite out” and to deal with nothing more than a haze of probabilities. The emphasis is laid wholly on logical method and not at all on what nature is, as though medical science were to concern itself with treatment and not with disease. Here as in other varieties of positivism all notion of connecting with reality is abandoned. We turn away from the real environment to the mind of man who thinks about it. Such a course can only end in scepticism and irresponsibility. The linkage of data is not rooted in the rational order of the physical world but is only a logical ordering of abstract symbols. The logic has become extraneous to the factual knowledge of things, whereas it is really integral with theoretical description and part of factual knowledge. Here Keynes joins forces with all the positivists from Mach to the present day. Closely related to this was the secondary place he gave to economic theory,


capitalist or Marxist. If basic understanding is impossible, nothing is left but a calculus of probability and sharp practice on the stock exchange. His famous General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, which has provided the Labour Party with its current substitute for socialist economic theory, is thus merely an ad hoc device for dodging the worst consequences of capitalism without attempting either to understand or analyse the system. This is an elusive philosophy [1] but it is probably not so new as Keynes and his friends thought. It finds a substitute for the toilsome process of acquiring real knowledge in a form of direct perception which is intuitive as to its mode and innate as to its origin. It has but one function—vision. It therefore rejects the slow, cautious and experimental advance of scientific reason, which never claims finality and completeness, proceeding as it does not by immediate vision but by the gradual mastery of the environment. Such knowledge is always imperfect, its findings are approximations, containing some real truth, but always open to revision.

Subjectivism and Lunacy

Moore’s perceived objects and perceived good—atoms of obviousness, ready made, irreducible, each clear by itself and out of all relation to other things—‑are really ideas, which come to take the place of material reality. This is the extreme of madness and leads to that subjectivism which is the source of a torrent of illusions and superstitions. Socially and politically it strongly reinforces an atomistic individualism blinding those who succumb to it to the positive responsibilities of the individual as the member of a social community for the lives of others than himself, and therefore cutting the nerve of democracy.

1 It is almost identical with an obscure but influential form of idealism elaborated by Brentano, Meinong and Husserl which developed into the intensely pessimistic subjectivism of the Nazi philosopher Heidegger and the existentialism of Jean Paul Sartre. See The Development of Idealist Philosophy from Mach to Heidegger by Albert Fuchs in Modern Quarterly, Vol. 5,  No. 3.


The dogmatic phase of this form of idealism is not the end; after the period of presumption it is reduced to abdication and defencelessness, because it has no real criterion and no real content, and collapses into the opposite, the complete scepticism of logical positivism.

SOURCE: Lewis, John. Marxism and the Irrationalists. London: Lawrence & Wishart Ltd., 1955. Chapter 9: The Death and Resurrection of Idealism, pp. 84-97.

Note: A few obvious typographical gaffes have been corrected.

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