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Revisiting Marx and Liberalism

For Marxist social philosophy, Jon Elster recognizes personal freedom and social solidarity as inseparable. Marxist tradition rejects, for the most part, liberal attempts to rationalize the division of justice and equality into two principles: one, in the area of political liberties; and two, in the area of economics. Social participation in liberal theory is primarily directed at the maximization of political freedoms while economic participation is limited to those with resources and capital. For Locke, the liberal democratic rights theory also prioritizes the individual’s negative immunity from political coercion or interference by any part including government itself. Yet, the implied notion of justice and rights in Marxism nonetheless stresses positive entitlements to participate fully in both political and economic spheres. Here, the rationale is the prevention of alienation and exploitation of the human person and thus forego, for the time being, revolutionary violence. Thus, as R.G. Peffer notes, what is developed in Marxist tradition is a support and defense of human rights and human dignity.

Both social and economic rights, such as the right to work, material security, healthcare, etc., are paramount in Marxist theory. In liberal theory, however, these rights can arbitrarily be sacrificed since liberalism, especially as it manifests itself in market policies, becomes, according to Marx, “an individual separated from community, withdrawn into himself, wholly preoccupied with his private interest and acting in accordance with his private caprice … The only bond between men is natural necessity, need and private interest, the preservation of their property, and their egoistic persons.” For Marx, liberal theory fails precisely because individual and social freedoms can only be realized if they are connected in a meaningful way by making political and economic justice and rights correlative. The result for Marx (and Engels) should thus be “an association in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.”

Steven Lukes recognizes that Marx’s concept of the human person within the context of a common good is critical for understanding his notion of solidarity. In “The Jewish Question”, Marx supports human rights based on the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, 1971.” The goal of this support for human rights and dignity sought to prevent exploitation and oppression in both political and economic terms. This theme also exists in the Communist Manifesto, in which Marx states, “Communism deprives no man of the power to appropriate the products of society; all that it does is to deprive him of the power to subjugate the labor of others by means of such appropriation.” Here, Marx distinguishes between socialism and communism, and socialism for Marx is the “first stage of communism,” which must deal with the reality of moderate scarcity within the context of the socialization of productive property, etc. The “higher stage of communism” for Marx presupposes material abundance in a coercion-less society. Thus Marxist praxis, in its antiauthoritarian and revolutionary dimensions, incorporates a notion of social solidarity which embraces concepts of human dignity and interdependence.

In his early writings, Marx argues for a view of self as essentially social, as an integral part of community, a “species-being.” Marx states, “It follows from the character of this relationship [the human family] how far man has become, and has understood himself as, a species-being, a human being.” Marx continues:

“It is above all necessary to avoid postulating ‘society’ once again as an abstraction confronting the individual. The manifestation of his life – even when it does not appear directly in the form of a communal manifestation, accomplished in association with other men – is, therefore, a manifestation, and affirmation of social life. Individual human life and species-life are not different things, even though the mode of existence of individual life is necessarily either a more specific or a more general mode of species-life, or that of species life a specific or more general mode of life.”

For Marx, a deeper cultural commitment is needed beyond the one that liberalism provides, and, suffice it to say, libertarianism. Not only is the person fundamentally social in relationships with others, but also fundamentally social in thinking and action. Thus, Marx declares, “Activity and mind are social in their content as well as in their origin; they are social activity and social mind.” By stressing this notion of social solidarity, Marx further states, “In his species-consciousness man confirms his real social life, and reproduces his real existence in thought; while conversely, species-life confirms itself in species-consciousness and exists for itself in its university as a thinking being. Though man is a unique individual – and it is just his particularly which makes him an individual, a really individual communal being – he is equally the whole, the ideal whole, the subjective existence of society as thought and experience. He exists in reality as the representation and the real mind of social existence, and as the sum of human manifestations of life.” With this awakening, the material self-interests of people draw themselves into collaboration and solidarity. As Gregory Baum specifies, true humanity for Marx is thus realized in commitment to others through solidarity, or “Gattungswesen,” that is, a being that identifies itself with the entire species.

Now in Marxist thought, complete human liberation demands a transformation of the entire social and economic system which serves the human community. In this sense, society in all its dimensions must become a living expression and realization of human freedom if solidarity is to convey any significance at all. In Marx’s words, “Human emancipation will only be complete when the real, individual man has absorbed into himself the abstract citizen; when as an individual man, in his everyday life, in his work, and in his relationships, he has become a species being; and when he has recognized his own powers (forces propres) as social powers so that he no longer separates this power from himself as a political power. In this sense, for Marx, the bourgeois rights of the individual, over and against society, are reflections of the failure of society to achieve concrete freedom. Equality of political rights, in this sense, denies the relevance of distinctions of birth, social rank, education and occupation. Such liberal equality for Marx is abstract and one-dimensional because it does not abolish the unequal distribution of power in economic and social life; it simply tolerates the exercise of freedom in the political sphere.

This form of economic alienation and exploitation (false consciousness) is, for Marx, built into the system of capitalism, but is also legitimized by the political structure which supported it. This is due to the fact that profit was the underlying truth upon which economic relationships were based. Since this was the case for Marx, the “immanent laws of capitalist production itself” pitted capital against labor, and thus capital’s own destruction by “the revolt of the working class … trained, united and organized by the very mechanism of the capitalist process of production.” Marxist solidarity – which seeks to mitigate rigid class stratifications through universal class consciousness – is thus brought about through the initiatives of the proletariat, working class, exploited and suffering. Moreover, capitalism does not defend human rights or human dignity. In fact, it has historically worked against them both. Instead, capitalism defends the “right” to extract the surplus value created by workers.

Class conflict, resulting from alienation and exploitation, can also be understood within the context of imperialism and dependency. International aspects of capitalist development demonstrate that less developed countries are strategically important to capitalists not only as sources of raw materials and manufacturing, but also investment outlets for surplus capital. The exploitation of these markets becomes so significant as a means of staving off the inevitable destruction of capitalism that capitalists and neo-imperialists will resort, according to Lenin, to repressive measures in order to maintain acceptable profit margins. Lenin argued that this struggle left nothing for the exploited and oppressed. Although outright acquisition of colonies is largely a thing of the past, the major capitalist powers still attempt to economically control and often politically manipulate less developed countries as a means of sustaining economic growth. This so-called “new imperialism” differs from that which Lenin describes mainly in form rather than substance. Even in a post-communist world, the objectives of this control are still the same. Specifically for Marx, Lenin and Harry Magdoff, it is securing a marginally profitable supply of raw materials, providing markets for exports of manufactures, and establishing profitable outlets for the investment of capital. Thus, market measures and foreign aid have failed under neoliberal strategies to benefit those most in need. In fact, Susan George argues the foreign debt of the Third World has become increasingly problematic for these countries in terms of prepayment and increased aid to these countries has become counterproductive and therefore threatens international solidarity.

If human rights and human dignity are to have real significance, then equality of political liberties must coexist with the equality of social classes on a global scale. The fact remains, however, that liberal democracy continues to reflect class distinctions. Consequently, inequalities, especially inordinate distributions of wealth that exist between the rich and poor, continue to be the concrete reality in social life imposed by the dominant class or power-elite. For Marx, this will only lead to further class antagonisms, violence, and inevitable revolutions. Thus all rights, and specifically most urgent rights in Marx’s view, are rooted in claims to social and economic equality and only secondarily in claims to political equality. This is why Marx declares, “Right can never be higher than the economic structure of society and the cultural development conditioned by it.” The primary goal of Marxism, Jon Elster affirms, is the abolition of class distinctions and the establishment of a communist society in which full and concrete freedom is realized in order to promote the dignity of the human person and social solidarity.

Marx also distinguishes between political liberation and human liberation. Political liberation, in general, aims to guard against and free persons in society from the coercion of others or political repression by the state. Consequently, this form of emancipation guarantees the recognition of political and civil rights. Nonetheless, political freedom does not free or emancipate members of society from the “separated, isolated, individualistic, and egoistic condition of civil society itself,” according to Marx’s interpreters like R.G. Peffer. In order to overcome this problem, Peffer continues, “Marx thus prescribes human emancipation, that is, ‘the emancipation of civil society.’ But a necessary condition for human emancipation is the incorporation of the abstract, moral citizen into the individual as a member of civil society.” This form of solidarity – human emancipation within society – is of the highest importance to Marx and his concept of human community. Moreover, if community is to have meaning and value, it must then combat all forms of alienation and exploitation which are rooted primarily in capitalist designs. In this sense, solidarity, which is a core concept in Marxist theory, promotes the interdependence of people and respect for human rights and dignity.

Human liberation and human dignity also assume religious dimensions. Pope John Paul II recognizes that, even if the idea that “debts must be paid” is relevant/just, it is not right to demand or expect payment when the effect would be the imposition of political choices leading to hunger and despair for entire peoples. It cannot be expected that the debts which have been contracted should be paid at the price of unbearable sacrifices. In such cases, it is necessary to find – as in fact is partly happening – ways to lighten, defer, or even cancel the debt, compatible with the fundamental right of peoples to subsistence and progress. In fact, Catholic theologians, such as Gustavo Gutiérrez and Gerhard Ludwig Müller (currently Cardinal and Prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, formerly the Office of the Inquisition), have argued that Liberation Theology has encompassed this notion of Marxist solidarity and human dignity. Once viewed with suspicion and even hostility by Rome, Müller states, “In my judgment, the ecclesial and theological movement that began after the Second Vatican Council in Latin America under the name ‘liberation theology,’ … is one of the most significant currents of Catholic theology in the 20th century.” Both Gutierrez and Muller argue that the contributions of Liberation Theology to Church teaching, in particular its articulation of the “preferential option for the poor,” provides an ecclesial foundation which is similar to Marx’s notion of solidarity and human dignity.

Edward Martin is Professor of Public Policy and Administration, Graduate Center for Public Policy and Administration at California State University, Long Beach, and co-author of Savage State: Welfare Capitalism and Inequality.

Mateo Pimentel lives on the Mexican-US border. You can follow him on Twitter @mateo_pimentel, or read more at

Edward Martin is Professor of Public Policy and Administration, Graduate Center for Public Policy and Administration at California State University, Long Beach, and co-author of Savage State: Welfare Capitalism and Inequality.. Mateo Pimentel lives on the Mexican-US border. You can follow him on Twitter @mateo_pimentel, or read more at

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