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Could Marx Answer Acton?

In response to:

Inescapable Marx from the June 29, 1978 issue

To the Editors:

Let me respond to Robert Heilbroner’s challenge on Acton’s Axiom (power corrupts, etc.), apparently directed jointly to Marx and me (NYR, June 29). A reviewer who writes such nice things about my Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution is obviously a man of discernment, as well as a gentleman and a scholar, but I must harden my heart and disagree with his belief that “the question has no ‘Marxist’ answer.” Since Marx is in no condition to reply, I have to fill in, especially since H. says he was “surprised” that I did not take up the problem of Human Nature and Political Power. I cannot speak for “Marxists” and not even for Marxists, and certainly not for such alleged “Marxists” as Stalinists, neo-Stalinists, and other champions of bureaucratic-collectivist dictatorships. Just Marx. (As Harold Laski is supposed to have told a skeptical audience: “Let us agree to interpret Marx in our different ways, you in your way and I in his.”)

About the surprise: I could answer that (1) my work has two more volumes to go; but as a matter of fact I’m not going to take up Actonism; or that (2) I told the reader I was eschewing “philosophy” and social-historical theory as well as political economy in order to concentrate on the neglected field of Marx’s political thought—this under the pretext that said reader knew all about the other three fields; and I would predict that any earnest discussion of Human Nature and [Anything—fill in] would be likely to turn philosophical. However, these would be despicable evasions.

Unlike H. my own difficulty is not with the answer, but with the question. H. thinks the question is about the “validity” of the All-Purpose Axiom. I doubt it, partly because I have never met anyone who (a) really thinks it “invalid” that power corrupts, or (b)knows what difference it makes. Of course power corrupts. So do a host of other things: money, sex, the press, the school system, books, movies, junk food, psychiatry, the A.M.A., hamburger stands, and literacy—to name a few. The only thing that corrupts more quickly than power is—lack of power, and absolute lack of power, i.e., impotence, corrupts absolutely.

The following dialogue inevitably ensues. (“You” represents a fictitious character invented for literary purposes.)

You: Let’s be serious. These things you list half-jocularly—they don’t have only and exclusively a corrupting effect, do they?

I: Of course not. But you have just changed the question. You now make the Acton Axiom read this way: “Power has no consequence except corruption, only corruption.” Do you think it is still “valid,” restated this way?

You: Well, may be it’s an overstatement. But it helps to make a point.

I: So does a pencil sharpener, but that doesn’t make it a repository of political wisdom, only of graphite shavings. When you admit it’s an overstatement, you mean it’s under-valid. The question then becomes not whether the Axiom is valid/invalid (check one), but, rather, what smidgin of usefulness it possesses to make its point. I take it the point, if not overstated, is to remind us of the dangers of power.

You: That’s it—the dangers of power! You Marxists have no answer for it.

I: Stuff and nonsense. The answer is socialist democracy—that is, unconditional control of all power from below, through genuinely democratic institutions of the masses of people, not only over the state but also over the commanding heights of economic power.

You: Aha, you want to concentrate power in the People, who everyone knows are stupid, thereby corrupting them…

No, that’s not You. I’m joking. Tell me I’m joking—please?

Anyway, that’s my “Marxist” answer. To be sure, this answer is the beginning of another question, viz. how to organize socialist democracy. But this is true of all real answers, which show they have a real content by leading onward to more questions. The same cannot be said for the Axiom, which shows it is no answer to anything by leading to nothing but navel-gazing.

The strange thing about the Acton Axiom is that it is commonly treated as a problem only or mainly for Marx. I can’t think why. You (the fictitious character) will say: Obviously because Marx wanted to add so enormously to the powers of the state!

Well, in the first place, this is a myth, as I am in the course of demonstrating in four fat volumes, which ought to be enough for anybody. Marx was more hostile to the intrusion of the state into social life than Lord Acton ever was, either in his early years when he apologized for the slaveocracy or in his later years of enthusiasm for his friend Gladstone. More important, Marx had a program on how to cut the state down to size, both before and after the revolution. A genuinely Marxist movement—if it existed—would today be more insistent on dismantling the presently monstrously swollen state bureaucratic machine than the GOP conservatives even pretend to be.

Leaving Marx aside: why isn’t the Acton Axiom brandished against the corporations, who exercise colossal levers of power over everything we do and think? I don’t see political philosophers insisting that the Axiom, if it is valid, means the instant destruction of the whole corporate structure, which not only has semi-absolute power over our economic life and demi-semi-absolute power over government, but notoriously is nearly absolutely corrupted by the same money power that it uses to corrupt everything else. I don’t see the political pundits proclaiming the invalidation of the whole American political system, which is notoriously a thing about Power rather than ideas or ethics or anything else unrespectable. If the Axiom has any point, its point must be sticking into the vitals of the status quo, which, economically and politically, is gasping under the weight of crushing institutions of bureaucratized Power. Yet, somehow, people get reminded of Acton’s Axiom only when it’s a question of sticking something into poor Marx, who fought the institutions of power all his life. It ain’t fair.

Lastly, I have to respond to H.’s surprise that I didn’t spot “Marx’s failure to ground the central element of political life, power, in the elemental soil of human nature or, if you wish, of the human personality as it develops in different historical epochs.” I missed the fact that Marx’s “treatment of political man, the zoon politikon itself” was simplistic.

Maybe; but before I know what question H. is raising, he’ll have to change his terms to correspond with Marx’s theory of society, which after all is the framework within which H. expects an answer. How could Marx ground political power in Human Nature when he seeks to show that political institutions (the state) did not come into being until a certain stage of societal development? I take it that by Human Nature H. refers to aspects of the human animal that are common to the “different historical epochs” and predate any societal change, hence also predate the rise of the state. Or is it merely a question of institutions of authority (“power”) in early tribal associations—what I tagged “protopolitical” in my first volume? In any case, are we worrying about the corruption involved in (say) tribal shamanship—is that the great problem? Or is this the point: that the human animal needs some institution of authority because it is a social being (zoon politikon in the Greek sense, not political)—is that where Human Nature comes in?

All of these questions indubitably need discussion—no question about that—but what I don’t get is how the Acton Axiom helps us one inch. H. is naturally aware that Marx thought of Human Nature itself as being a changing and society-conditioned aspect of humanity, not eternally frozen in its Actonian Categories, hence discussable not in terms of a static Human Nature but only in terms of its dynamic relationship to actual evolving social beings, real-life men and women and children. If we think within this framework, which is Marx’s, I don’t know what H.’s question means. If we want to question the framework itself, that’s fine, but then (1) it’s not the question H. is raising, and (2) it sure isn’t simplistic, not by a long shot. In short, I think the question as posed is confused—but that’s human nature for you, isn’t it?

Hal Draper

Albany, California.

Robert Heilbroner replies:

I find it difficult to disentangle the thread of Mr. Draper’s argument. At the risk of revealing my stubbornness or slow-wittedness, let me therefore simply restate my point.

I believe that history reveals an unmistakable propensity for the degeneration of authority, which is indispensable to organized social life, into structures of harsh domination. These are often, but by no means always, structures of economic domination. The hegemony of males over females, priests over laities, military elites over society at large, is not always accompanied by acts of material exploitation. The exercise of, enjoyment of, and acquiescence in power for its own pleasures seems to be a widely diffused element in history.

That is what I meant by invoking what Draper calls Acton’s Axiom. Of course the Axiom applies to America as well as to Russia, to corporate hierarchs as well as to communist ones. What is crucial, and missing from Marx’s investigations into political life, is an interest in the etiology of this phenomenon. I think its roots must be sought in aspects of the human psyche of which Marx was unaware, as well as in the social aspects of existence of which he was very much aware. At any rate, the question is one that has not yet elicited much interest or understanding on the part of most (not all) scholars interested in Marx’s viewpoint. I regret that Mr. Draper seems to be one of this majority.

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