Marx and Freedom

The hundredth anniversary of Marx’s death is a good occasion to reflect on one of the central themes in his work: the problem of freedom. Strangely enough, this aspect of Marx’s thought is relatively neglected by Marxologists. And yet its relevance cannot be disputed. It is no exaggeration to say that Marx’s conception of freedom has proved to be extremely effective in “changing the world.” As an instrument of the most severe and powerful criticism of the classical liberal view of freedom, Marx’s concept exposed some important weaknesses of the early nineteenth-century version of liberalism. At the same time Marx’s concept produced dangerous consequences by radically questioning the central value of the liberal conception—individual freedom. This was so because, as I shall try to show, Marx replaced the idea of individual freedom safeguarded by law with an idea of the emancipation of humanity, conceived as collective salvation in history.

The term “freedom” has become notorious for the multiplicity of its meanings. It might be argued, however, that its basic and most generally used meaning coincides with the classical liberal view defining freedom “negatively”—as “independence of the arbitrary will of another.” According to this definition only man-made obstacles to individual effort can be described as a limitation of freedom. We can be free from constraint, from compulsion, but we cannot be free from natural necessity. Objective obstacles, independent of anybody’s will, put definite limits on our ability to do things; ability, however, should not be confused with freedom.

In contrast with this view, Marx saw freedom as man’s ability to exercise conscious rational control over his natural environment and over his own social forces. Thus he criticized liberalism from a position wholly outside the liberal tradition. Nevertheless, his criticism served, and still serves, as a mighty catalyst, making liberal theorists more alive to the social dimensions of freedom. How has this been possible?

First, Marx made liberals increasingly aware that in social life the distinction between objective impossibility and man-made obstacles is not clear enough. If poor people cannot afford to buy a great many things (although nobody forbids them to buy anything) this can be treated as a lack of capacity, and not as a limitation on their freedom; if, however, social relations and, by the same token, the distribution of national income are seen as man-made, the very fact that poor people are poor can be treated as the result of a man-made social order and, thus, as an enforced limitation of freedom. True, it would be straining matters somewhat to apply this interpretation to nineteenth-century capitalist societies, in which uncontrolled economic forces functioned, as Marx so often stressed, like natural forces. On the other hand, such an application grew less and less strained as the conscious regulation of the economy and the predictability of its social consequences increased. This explains, I think, the growing complication of the liberal conception of freedom and the increasing readiness of some left-wing liberals …

This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $94.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.

Letters

Marx and Freedom March 15, 1984