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Marxism and Liberty

In response to:

Dictator Marx? from the September 25, 1980 issue

To the Editors:

I am grateful for Peter Singer’s appraisal of my book [NYR, September 25], but I feel he has not quite caught the thrust of my reflections on the crucial question of the relation of Marxism to liberty. The hinge of my argument is that a Marxian interpretation of socialism rules out “bourgeois socialism” of the Scandinavian kind. The Marxian commitment is to socialism as a new socioeconomic formation, a new civilization. Such a new society will require new institutions, and there is no way of knowing whether these will reflect Marx’s own ethical values. It seems much more “Marxian” to assume that its values will embody the structure of the new society, which I imagine to be collectivist in economic form and communitarian in ideology. It is because of these expectations that I do not think that our conception of liberty is likely to be regarded as possessing much importance. To quote from my last pages:

As a new social order, socialism must discover its own conceptions of the proper relation between each individual and society. And whereas some socialists may remain as staunchly “libertarian” as some bourgeois have remained pious, it seems to me as unlikely that a socialist civilization will be fundamentally interested in what we call liberty as that a bourgeois civilization will be fundamentally interested in what its predecessors called piety.

I need hardly add that this is a very conflict-laden position to hold. I do not think, however, that that attests to its implausibility or illogic; rather, the contrary.

Robert L. Heilbroner

New York City

Peter Singer replies:

I shall leave it to the reader to decide whether my comments on Heilbroner’s views about Marxism and liberty did miss his thrust; I cannot myself see that his letter contradicts, or even adds significantly to, what I reported to be his views. He reiterates the opposition I had noted to forms of Marxism—Scandinavian socialism is one kind, Eurocommunism another—which insist on the compatibility of socialism and liberal political ideals.

My objection to Heilbroner’s idea of socialism still stands. It is not, and was not, that his idea is implausible or illogical. It is simply that Heilbroner owes us an account of the ethical basis on which we should accept socialism. If we currently believe liberty is important, and a socialist society is unlikely to be fundamentally interested in liberty, that is a reason for opposing socialism, or rather for opposing the form of socialism Heilbroner thinks Marxism is committed to. In principle, we could still be persuaded to support socialism on the basis of other values; but by endorsing the idea that values are relative to the form society takes, Heilbroner effectively debars himself from arguing for socialism on the basis of universal values.

It may be that Heilbroner is not seeking our support for socialism, but merely describing the form it is likely to take. If so, we need not object to what Heilbroner says, although we may still want to do everything in our power to ensure that socialism, in this form, never becomes a reality.

It is of course theoretically possible that within the framework of a new, more communitarian civilization, a decline in interest in some aspects of liberty would be acceptable, because no individuals would feel it as a restriction on their ability to live their own lives as they see fit. But Heilbroner’s “Marxian” attitude to values does not take us very far in resolving the question, which he and I agree to be crucial, of the relation of Marxism to liberty—not, that is, if we conceive this as a practical question on which our attitude to Marxism partially depends.

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