• Email
  • Print

Marxism and Freedom

In response to:

Low Marx from the April 25, 1985 issue

To the Editors:

In the latter portion of his review of Alvin Gouldner’s book, Against Fragmentation [NYR, April 25], Andrzej Walicki extends main points of his article on “Marx and Freedom” [NYR, November 24, 1983] to conclude that Marx, whatever his intention, was responsible for totalitarianism. Walicki quotes with approval Bruce Mazlish’s statement that Marx “gave no regard anywhere in his work to the protection of individual rights.” Now, that statement is simply not true. Though there are important lacunae in Marx’s thought, his view of democracy, the presupposition of his socialism and communism, always included individual rights in freedom of speech and expression, freedom of assembly, unrestricted voting, eligibility of every citizen for public office, equal access to free education, and separation of church and state.

In articles of 1842–44 Marx condemned censorship, secret judicial proceedings without due process, union of church and state, and subversion of popular sovereignty in bureaucracy on the basis of the “inviolability of subjective conviction,” not to be overridden by the “haughty conceit of a police state.” He particularly condemned censorship, holding that without diversity of opinion and parties “there is no development, without division, no progress.” In the United States, he insisted, freedom of the press exists in its purest form. Such views cannot be dismissed as “immature” because Marx wanted them reprinted in the first collection of his writings published in 1851, three years after the Communist Manifesto, so they were presupposed in “the first step” of the Manifesto‘s program, establishing democracy, and were repeated in the “fuller democracy” of the Paris Commune that Marx ardently defended in 1871.

In his article on “Marx and Freedom” Andrzej Walicki heavily utilizes Marx’s essay “On the Jewish Question,” arguing that Marx eliminated safeguards of individual freedom to affirm, by implication, “a kind of democratic totalitarianism.” But here the interpretation is loose to the point of misrepresentation. First, Marx did not sharply separate the “rights of man” from the “rights of the citizen” as Walicki claims. Rather, Marx insisted that the former are “in part” political rights and belong in the category of political freedom, civil rights, that can be exercised only in community with others. The only part of the “rights of man” of which he was contemptuous was the part that made individual freedom, equality, and security functions in their practical application of the right of private property, particularly, of course, private property in means of production. Toward the other part—rights of participation such as voting, holding office, political equality, free expression and assembly—his attitude was not at all “ambiguous” as Walicki claims. Rather, Marx saw full “human emancipation,” his first conception of socialism without the label, as the realization of those rights in everyday life and individual work. To be sure, this displaces autonomy of “civil society,” the economy of private property in the means of production, but actualizes the democratic rights of citizenship listed above.

Like Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and in our own time Walter Lippmann, Marx believed that private property in land and capital was not an unalienable, absolute right but a civil right, i.e., something the community could rightfully regulate and control. In his writing on the Paris Commune and elsewhere Marx saw in federated cooperatives—not simply in nationalization of the means of production as Walicki repeatedly claims—the way to realize the democratic rights of participation, the “rights of the citizen,” in economic life. Much like John Stuart Mill, Marx held that such a cooperative organization of the economy could at once preserve economic functions of the market—there is, after all, such a thing as “market socialism”—and actualize the rights of democratic citizenship in a pluralistic society. Marx’s position along these lines, in contrast to Lenin’s, is pointedly and extensively documented in Richard Hunt’s admirable book on The Political Ideas of Marx and Engels and in my article on “Marx and Individual Freedom” (Philosophical Forum, Vols. 12, 13).

Loyd D. Easton

Ohio Wesleyan University

Delaware, Ohio

Andrzej Walicki replies:

In his article “Progress of Social Reform on the Continent,” Engels wrote:

The French revolution was the rise of democracy in Europe. Democracy is, as I take all forms of government to be, a contradiction in itself, an untruth, nothing but hypocrisy…. Political democracy is sham liberty, the worst possible slavery; the appearance of liberty and therefore the reality of servitude. Political equality is the same; therefore democracy, as well as every other form of government, must ultimately break to pieces.

(K. Marx and F. Engels, Collected Works, Vol. 3, p.393)

Does this mean that Engels radically disagreed with Marx, who, as I have written in my “Marx and Freedom,” “should not be accused of a nihilist attitude toward political freedom”? Not at all. Both thinkers greatly preferred democratic capitalist societies to nondemocratic ones. But, at the same time, both argued that political emancipation, i.e., political freedom under capitalism, has little in common with genuine human emancipation. Both maintained that “merely political” democracy was in fact just another form of enslavement. In sharp contrast to Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and other American theorists of democracy, they saw economic freedom, and the market economy bound up with it, not as a precondition of individual liberty but as the mere appearance of liberty, linked to the greatest alienation of man’s species forces. This was because by true freedom they meant disalienation of man as a species through the maximization of conscious collective control of both natural and social forces. The main thrust of my “Marx and Freedom” was to prove that such a conception of freedom left virtually no place for the “negative freedom” of the individual, i.e., for freedom to pursue one’s plans without being told what to do and controlled by others. Following Friedrich Hayek, I also argued that totalitarianism means precisely unlimited collective control over the lives of the individual members of society, and that such control, although exercised most easily through dictatorial governments, is compatible in principle with democracy in the sense of majority decision making. I may add that it is easy to imagine participatory democracy wielding totalitarian powers, depriving individuals not only of their economic freedom but also of their freedom of thought and right to privacy. Human collectives, as is well-known, are not tolerant by nature.

In his letter Professor Easton does not really discuss these matters. He makes a point which, although valid in itself, does not undermine the logic of my arguments. Those who are interested in my views on the subject are invited to read not only my “Marx and Freedom” but also my contribution, “The Marxian Conception of Freedom,” to Conceptions of Liberty in Political Philosophy (ed. by Z. Pelczynski and I. Gray, The Athlone Press, London, 1984, pp. 217–42).

  • Email
  • Print