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New International, September–October 1953


Abe Stein

Lord Acton and Political Power

English Historian’s Concept of Freedom and Power


From New International, Vol. XIX No. 5, September–October 1953, pp. 291–298.
Marked up up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


FOR LORD ACTON, THE LATE 19th CENTURY ENGLISH HISTORIAN, freedom was the sense and purpose, the grand design of history. Accordingly, the great work he proposed for himself was a History of Liberty. Yet some secret paralysis sapped his energies and blocked his will. In the end, the book was never written. All that remained of this ambitious project were some essays and voluminous notes that point to a profound conflict in Acton’s thinking.

The current energetic attempts to rescue Acton from obscurity rest their case on his life-long preoccupation with the problem of political power. For Acton, the unlimited accretion of political power in the hands of the state is the source of all public, and ultimately, private evil. It is, to use the language of Acton’s religion, the original sin of politics. Hence his well-known and much-abused aphorism, “power tends to corrupt, absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely.”

Acton’s whole passion is to limit the state power. And for that reason he early looked upon democracy and socialism as unmitigated twin evils. Democracy, he would write, was the “true government of brute force” because power increases as the number of those who wield it increases, and therefore, the most irresistible authority, the greatest tyranny is that of a majority over a minority. As for Socialism, with its doctrine of equality, it was the “worst enemy of freedom.”

What the young Acton had affirmed, the older Acton was to deny. Another and later Acton would say that democracy means “Liberty given to the mass. Where there is no powerful democracy, freedom does not reign.” And as for socialism, he would refer to that eminent Liberal Victorian politician, Gladstone, as a “socialist of the chair,” and recommend to him the reading of the first volume of Marx’s Das Kapital. Clearly, Acton’s thinking underwent a strange change.

If the absolutism of the state was an unqualified evil, freedom was the ideal good. And while Acton’s notion of freedom remains fixed in form, its substance changes. It is here that any interpretation of Acton begins, if it is to explain his inability to complete his life’s work. In tracing the change we shall be able to weigh his relevance for our time and see if his present-day enthusiasts are justified in crowning him with the mantle of the prophet. For no lesser claim is made than that Acton saw wide and deep, grasping the intimate connection between democracy, socialism, the worship of the state, and that monstrous offspring of our times, totalitarianism.

The early Acton, as passionate in his love for liberty as the later, is an embarrassment to his disciples. He is a Tory of Tories (although he insisted this was true Liberalism), violently opposed to democracy and its appendage of universal suffrage, the centralized state – always tending to merge executive, legislative and judicial powers, and the doctrine of nationalism. At this stage in his thinking, Acton flatly declares:

“Democracy is government of the strongest, just as military despotism is. This is the bond of connection between the two. They are the brutal forms of government and as strength and authority go together, necessarily arbitrary.”

His true master in this period is the Edmund Burke who preached a holy war against the French Revolution. It was Burke who thought he divined the inescapable connection between democracy and despotism. The disorder attending on the rule of the subversive many must give way to the despotism of the one. The revolutionary mob gives way to Napoleon. And where Burke had the Great French Revolution as text, the young Acton, coming to manhood in the 60’s of the 19th century, could point to the revolutions of 1848. Most particularly to the French revolution of that same year, which had begun with democratic and socialist slogans and ended three years later in the plebiscitary dictatorship of Napoleon III.

At this point in his thinking, Acton’s profound hostility and distrust of the masses was not limited to political questions alone. In the early sixties he could write that those in want through no fault of their own have a claim on the state, but at the same time he was suspicious of public works to relieve unemployment as likely to increase the power and possible tyranny of the state! And in his opinion, strikes were illegal and coercive. The issue between capital and labor must be decided by the normal operations of supply and demand.

The deep embarrassment felt by some of his admirers with the young Acton lies not so much in his abstract prescriptions as in their application to the great events of his day. How is one to justify the fact that Acton warmly advocated the cause of the Southern Slavocracy in the American Civil War and hotly chastized the North for its barbarous disruption of the sacred federal union?

There are those among Acton’s admirers [1] who argue that his error in judgment is due to an insufficiency of fact and acquaintance with conditions in the United States. But of all defenses, this is most feeble, since no other writer in England, with the exception of Marx, had a better grasp of the facts and social conditions underlying the conflict. At all stages of Acton’s career one of his most attractive sides is his insistence on knowing all the facts relevant to a problem. The truth is, of course, that Acton was sternly applying his criteria of the conditions necessary to freedom. Not the facts but the criteria are wrong.

In the first instance, Acton was not then opposed to Slavery. (Later he would change his mind.) He argued that “slavery is not hostile to Christianity in abstract” and therefore is not immoral. However, his defense rested on other grounds since he was willing to concede the desirability of eliminating slavery. But this he argued, should be done slowly, without disrupting the social fabric, by a process of accommodation.

What he is arguing against is the appeal of the Abolitionists to an abstract principle. He says of them:

“Their democratic system poisons everything it touches. All constitutional questions are referred to the one fundamental principal of popular sovereignty, without consideration of policy or expediency. The influence of these habits of abstract reasoning to which we owe the revolution in Europe, is to make all things questions of principle and of abstract law.”

Just as damaging as the appeal to abstract principle and popular sovereignty, in Acton’s opinion, was the destruction of federalism and the subjection of the Southern States to the authority of the national government. Acton considered America’s immortal contribution to political science to be the principal of “states rights”, which “limits the central government by the powers reserved, and the state governments by the powers they have ceded.” This acts as “the true natural check on absolute democracy.”

Acton therefore believed the South was defending liberalism, the principal of freedom which involves a division of power; the North, on the other hand, was attempting to impose a popular despotism, the tyrannical centralized authority of the national government. Be it noted that all his life Acton held to his belief in the principle of federalism as an effective curb on political absolutism.

THE READER MAY WELL ASK WHY one should revive writings of so shallow and reactionary a nature. To defend slavery, to emphasize a political form at the expense of the social substance, to show complete incomprehension of the irrepressible conflict between two antagonistic social systems is not exactly the mark of a profound thinker. But the point is that Acton’s thinking did change. The conflict between reality and his ideal norm drove him toward a point of view that did connect political form and social content to a degree, which did investigate the social conditions that nourish the tender plant of freedom.

Men do not change their thinking in the abstract. In Acton’s case the revolution was to be a product of multiple causes. In the first place stood his clash with the Catholic Church; in the second, the success of English Liberalism as a political alliance between the industrial middle-class and working-class which had renounced the revolutionary agitations of Chartism. The products of this alliance were a series of important political and social reforms; and, in the third place stood Acton’s austere notion of history as an independent science. For Acton history was a form of revelation and not an apologia for vested interests who had offended against the idea of Freedom. And for this he deserves much honor.

Acton’s definition of Liberty begins with religious toleration. This was no accident. As a member of England’s Catholic Minority he had personally suffered from the disabilities which deprived Catholics of their full rights as English citizens. Though Acton came from an aristocratic family, he had been forced to go abroad for his degree after being rejected by three English colleges. Their doors were still officially closed to Catholics.

Freedom, says Acton, truly begins when political and religious obligations are severed and the latter become a private concern, a matter of conscience. The essence of despotism, whether in the form of absolute monarchy or the secular tyranny of the democratic state, is to exempt nothing from its rule, including religious belief. The truly Christian State, the “free” state is the exact opposite since it obeys the precept “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, to God the things that are God’s.”

Having established his premise, the young Catholic Acton proceeds to a paradox. England, with all its imperfections and despite its apostasy, is a free and Catholic state. State power is not absolute and religious belief is a matter of conscience. On the other hand, the Catholic Monarchies of the Continent are least Catholic in spirit since the Church has subordinated itself to absolutism.

Unfortunately, Acton had reckoned without the Papacy in this as in other questions. Under the blows of 19th century democracy, nationalism and science, the Papacy was in full and dogmatic retreat on all fronts, temporal and spiritual. And the greater the defeats, the greater the submission it demanded from its subjects. Acton was brought into head-on collision with the Catholic Church by the promulgation of a series of Dogmas, the most important being: the Immaculate Birth of Mary; the Syllabus of Errors, which in 80 propositions condemned everything modern including the notion of religious tolerance, the secular state, progress, Liberalism, science and everything else remotely connected with modern civilization; And the greatest blow of all, the Dogma of the Infallibility of the Pope.

Since he was opposed to arbitrary and unwarranted power in the state, consistency drove Acton to oppose it in his Church. And Acton’s quarrel with the Papacy was not merely that the doctrine of Infallibility, for example, had no warrant in the traditions of the Church, but that the Council which confirmed Pope Pius IX in his new powers was handpicked, coerced and bribed into submitting in a manner of which an American political boss could have been proud.

Acton never formally broke with the Catholic Church on the issue of Infallibility, as some of his friends did. And one may wonder at this inflexible moralist and enemy of the absolute. But his quarrel with her left an indelible and deep stamp on his thinking. In his youth he had written an extraordinary and thoroughly false defense of the Catholic Inquisition on the ground, that unlike the Protestant Inquisitions, the former had never molested those of other faiths for mere belief. In his mature years he was to denounce the Catholic Inquisitions and the Church in the most bitter and violent terms. He was to write that the Papacy contrived murder and massacred on the largest and also the most cruel and inhuman scale. They were not only assassins, but they made the principle of assassination a law of the Christian Church and a condition of salvation.

The Papacy was the “fiend skulking behind the Crucifix.” The enemies of Liberty had begun to appear in the most unexpected of places.

In his revolt against Papal abuse of authority, Acton was to finally write that a “Liberal is ... essentially secular. He grounds himself, not indeed against the lower types of clergy, but against the priesthood of the great Churches.” The formulation had its uses in illuminating the history of religious liberty and its connection with political freedom.

In his Lectures on Modern History, Acton would declare of the Puritans, the Independents who had made the Revolution of 1640-1660, that their “Church was governed not by the State or by bishops or by the presbytery, but by the multitude of which it was composed. It was the ideal of local self-government and of democracy.” Acton then draws the political [self-government and of democ] [A] -clusions reached far. The supremacy of the people, being accepted in Church government, could not be repudiated in the State ... They inclined not only to liberty, but to equality, and rejected the authority of the past and the control of the living by the dead.”

The separation of church and state was the triumph of conscience. But historically it had gone hand in hand with the struggle for political democracy. The young Acton had accepted the first proposition, and his experiences with the Catholic Church reinforced it. He still rejected the second. In 1867 he argued that liberty depended on inequality, and inequality implied a propertied aristocracy.

An aristocracy could be trusted to check a monarch and limit his power; a condition that allowed for religious tolerance. And at the same time this division of power left room for the assimilation of social change in orderly fashion. English history was Acton’s text here too. “The Glorious Revolution” of 1688 had brought about just such a peaceful settlement. It also installed in power an aristocratic party based on the principle of liberty and the practice of compromise. This party, to whose philosophy the young Acton so fiercely subscribed, the party of Edmund Burke, had entered English history under the name of the Whigs.

Acton discovered, however, that he was living not in the 18th, but the 19th century. The Whigs of the 19th Century had forgotten the principle of liberty and remembered only the practice of rotten compromise. Acton looked at industrialized England and was shocked. The gulf between rich and poor grew with every increase in the country’s wealth. Just as spiritual authority had offended against the spirit of liberty, so now did the aristocratic wielders of political authority, the representatives of property.

A Christian impulse to relieve the sufferings of the poor turned Acton’s mind to this problem. But Liberty, he saw, demanded it as well. Where poverty and ignorance existed, liberty was jeopardized. To correct the abuses of property, it was necessary that capital share – not abdicate – its political supremacy with labor. Democracy had become indispensable for liberty.

Acton became a convert to the party of middle-class reform, the party of Liberalism, and a close friend of its supreme representative, Gladstone. To be sure, Acton’s doubts about democracy never vanished completely, but he saw the circle of political rights widen to include the masses and produce no revolutionary upheavals, no movement subversive of society and religion. The masses were capable of participating in politics in a responsible way.

HAVING DRAWN THE CONNECTION BETWEEN RELIGION and politics, Acton now drew the connection between politics and economics. He read everything the century had to offer. He read Marx, he read Engels, in fact, all the schools of socialism. And he wrote of the German “Socialists of the Chair,” that they “are proceeding to construe history, making property and the social conditions the determining factor, above the acts of government or the changes of opinion; and this is by many degrees the most important addition made of late years to historical science.”

Acton knew the Socialist ideas we connect with the names of Marx and Engels and rejected them. Obsessed with the fear of a too-powerful state, of a violent rupture in the social fabric, he could note the powerful logic of the Socialist argument and conclude “Socialism can only be realized by a tremendous despotism.”

Acton’s vision was never to go beyond the limit of middle-class reform, of which his politically supple friend, Gladstone, was the exponent. The early Acton who had feared the despotism of the masses in power, had retreated. In his place stood the Liberal, who no longer stood resolutely opposed to democracy and in essence accepted the dream of steady progress. The Idea of Liberty was in the dominant. On the world’s agenda, he noted, stood three principal items: Peace, Socialism and Education.

The Acton who is truly of interest is the historian, with his face turned to the past. For this Acton, the problems of social crisis and revolution lie not in the future but the past. Liberty abhorred violence and yet it seemed its cause had been advanced by revolution. A judgment had to be passed on the American and French Revolutions.

Acton had earlier denounced the French Revolution as the most harmful event of modern times. He had taken the English settlement of 1688 as his model of social change, since it conformed to the principle of history and continuity. But the history of his own time revealed to Acton that the method of compromise was apt to turn rotten. The Party of Burke, the Whigs who had effected the “peaceful revolution” of 1688 had betrayed the principle of Liberty. It had compromised on slavery, the extension of suffrage and religious toleration.

With time Acton began to turn more and more to the American Revolution as the incarnation of Liberty. Yet this new society, which had solved the problem of religious and civil liberty in radical form, had been the product of a subversive movement.

In the end Acton made a decisive judgment. He said, “We have to make up our minds to a breach of continuity.” Acton’s high opinion of the American Revolution is worth quoting:

“On this principle of subversion (unconditional devotion to the idea of Liberty – A.S.) they erected their commonwealth, and by its virtue lifted the world out of its orbit and assigned a new course to history. Here or nowhere we have the broken chain, the rejected past, precedent and statute superseded by unwritten law, sons wiser than their fathers, ideas rooted in the future, reason cutting as clean as Atropos.”

Yet the virtues Acton granted the American, he never gave the French Revolution. Even though in basic content and aim, as he well understood, they were alike, branches from the same tree.

The reason is not far to seek. In America, the revolutionary wave of 1776 gave way to the conservative ebbtide of 1789. In France the conservative revolution of 1789 was inundated by the terror of 1793. Moreover, in France a new and terrible dramatis persona had for the first time stepped forth on the stage of history – the revolutionary masses. Acton is unerring in tracing the historical line of descent and notes:

“Socialism is not a product of our age, though only now terrible ... Only the French Revolution made it formidable ... Development of the proletariat by the French Revolution. Labor is the whole of society ... The established order overturned – questioned – exposed. In nothing so absurd as in the promotion of poverty.”

In her biography of Lord Acton, Gertrude Himmelfarb devotes a considerable section to Acton’s irresolution and ambiguity in judging the French Revolution. As she makes abundantly clear, Acton saw all the reasons which compelled the revolution to apply the stern expedient of terror. Still, Acton shrinks back from the Terror, the worship of abstract reason, unlimited democracy and the doctrine of equality.

Acton wanted too much: revolution and reform; the “breach of continuity” and respect for history; stern adherence to the principle of liberty as well as the practice of compromise. He was to observe wryly, “The triumph of the Revolutionist annuls the historian.”

The contradiction appears in another form. As absolute moralist, Acton passed a severe judgment on that school of history which forgives the crimes of the past by recording them in “neutral and objective” manner; that explains and thereby condones the foul deeds of those who have governed.

Acton deserves the highest praise for his exposure of immoral “objectivity.” But his standard caused him the greatest confusion. The sanctity of human life was the minimum standard by which to judge history. Yet in the next breath Acton could assert that this principle could be violated for the sake of freedom. The confusion was complete and paralysis of judgment its product. The History of Liberty would never be written.

All of this is subject matter for the student of history and psychology. But in what sense is Acton’s confusion relevant to our time? The early Acton is not to be taken seriously as a political philosopher except by reactionaries. The later Acton has overcome his total dread of democracy, enough to say “democracy is that which divides us least.” History has not borne Acton out.

Certainly he stands no higher on the plane of political prescription than John Stuart Mills, let us say, who progressed from the dreary doctrines of Manchester and Bentham to a generous concept of social reform and an ethical acceptance of Socialism. Mills, too, had a tender regard for the rights of minorities against the tyranny of the majority and proposed safeguards that are formally no whit inferior and quite similar to those Acton devised: proportional representation, a bi-cameral system, and a free press. And he is morally superior to Acton in one respect – his support of woman suffrage. One half of humanity was excluded from the circle of liberty by its historian.

Acton is poverty stricken as a political realist. Witness his lifelong devotion to the principle of federalism, which seduced him into supporting the American Slavocracy and hymning the praise of the rotting Austro-Hungary empire. If we apply Acton’s sacred principle to our time we get some curious results. For the banner which reaction has raised in the United States bears the inscription of “state’s rights!”

Acton’s visions of the future are no more impressive than his trivial contributions to the art of politics. The work of his later years is benign in its anticipations of things to come. He says:

“... we have no thread through the enormous intricacy and complexity of modern politics except the idea of progress toward more perfect and assured freedom and the divine rights of free men.”

To link Acton’s name with Hegel’s seems strange, since their attitudes toward the state clash head-on. Yet, both view God working through history toward the goal of liberty. Certainly, Acton rejected, if he ever entertained the notion that the entire system of capitalism would grow rotten and begin to choke society. If there is a sense of foreboding it is in his religious notion of man’s corruptible nature which is dialectically counter-posed to man’s upward struggle to freedom.

Acton did not sense the direction and shape society was to take and the problems it would present. He did not see that the state was to grow tremendously, simply to maintain a balance between classes in a rapidly expanding society; he did not envision the even more important fact that the power of the state would grow by leaps and bounds at the expense of society because the social equilibrium would tend toward permanent disruption as the general rule.

What would Acton have said to the real alternatives of our time? That either the workers, at the head of the other exploited classes, would reconstitute society on a democratic and socialist basis, by taking political power, ousting an outlived ruling class, reorganizing the state and abolishing private property; or, as in Germany, Italy and Spain, the bourgeoisie would seize the state, overthrow democracy and subject society to total and barbarous slavery; or, if neither of these two classes proved capable of solving the crisis, a decaying society would take a third road – that shown by bureaucratic totalitarianism in Russia. A new social class would rise and rule, bred by the domination of the state over a paralyzed society.

The alternative solutions point in diametrically opposite directions – either Barbarism or Socialism. But they share one trait in common: The crisis can only be solved through the state. This alone invests the latter with enormous powers for good as well as evil. Yet Acton preaches the inherent evil of state power. Could anything be more irrelevant to our time? Both his politics and history end in paralysis of the will.

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1. Will Herberg in the New Leader of June 29, 1953.

* * *

Footnote by ETOL

A. A line of text has been repeated here and a section of text has been omitted.

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