Marx’s Critique of Liberalism

By the 17th century new ideas were entering Western discourse in the fields of science and philosophy that massively impacted upon our understanding of human nature and the social formation, pushing religion to the margins it espoused secular and rational arguments. Out of this was born liberalism and individualism.

Eric Hobsbawn said of this “ The great revolution of 1789 to 1848 was the triumph not of industry as such, but of capitalist industry, not of liberty and equality in general but of bourgeois liberal society”

Marx wrote “Zur Judenfrage” in 1843 in this essay his aim was to defend the right of Jews to full political emancipation, equal to all Germans. The essay was written as a response to Bruno Bauer, a young Hegelian, who was much influenced by Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. Marx sets out to make a distinction between political emancipation and real human emancipation. Unfortunately he doesn’t set out in any detail what he means by real human emancipation but Marx’s theory of species being, has an important place in understanding his conception of history, his critique of capitalism and liberal democracy , his theory of alienation and his commitment to communism. Marx believed that history involves a continuous transformation of human nature, that nature is not immutable but subject to social conditioning, and for Marx the social world, is the world in which man produces the necessities of life.

Liberal rights and justice are premised on the idea that each of us needs protection from others, these legal rights are rights of separation, freedom from interference and freedom to acquire property. Marx says “thus the right of man to property is the right to enjoy his possessions and dispose of the same arbitrarily, without regard for other men, independently from society, the right to selfishness” this Marx tells us “leads man to see other men not as the realization, but the limitation of his own freedom”  Insisting on a regime of rights constituted by law encourages us to perceive other humans as a threat to our free will and our integrity that man in his natural state is as Hobbes supposed at war with all. I think it would be wrong to ascribe the concept of species being entirely to Marx.  Engles drew upon the work of the anthropologist Henry Morgan in his book “The origins of the family, private property and the state” Morgan was a contemporary of Marx and Engles, and he very much influenced their ideas about the relationship between human nature, the social formation and the evolution of the productive forces in society.

Capitalism and the liberal democratic state are seen as being indivisible. It would be quite impossible here to give a full account of Marx’s critique on this, but I shall try to give a brief outline.

Capital Volume one starts in the very unlikely place, the commodity, here Marx tells us that “The wealth of those societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails, presents itself as “an immense accumulation of commodities…it matters not whether it satisfies a want or a necessity and that the utility of a thing lies within its use value. Use value is distinguished from exchange value, use value is the value of the commodity only realised upon its consumption and not upon its exchange.  Exchange value is determined by the average or socially necessary labour time in its production.  This is called the Labour theory of value.

The production of absolute surplus value: surplus value is created by employing labour to create commodities which can be exchanged. The capitalist pays the worker only a fraction of the exchange value of the commodity. The capitalist accumulates the surplus value created from the labour of those he employs. This exploitative relationship based upon waged labour , is what characterises capitalism.

Under capitalism the so called free worker is forced to sell their labour. Marx writes ““Hence, the historical movement which changes the producers into wage-workers, appears, on the one hand, as their emancipation  But, on the other hand, these new freedmen became sellers of themselves only after they had been robbed of all their own means of production, and of all the guarantees of existence afforded by the old feudal arrangements”

The means of production are owned by the capitalist or bourgeois, who through their exploitation of the workers, increase their wealth. The mode of production refers to the base structure of society, the economic base, the way in which and under the conditions of which, men produce the necessities of life. Capitalism is based upon the exploitation of the many, for the enrichment of the few.

One of the key theories to understanding Marx’s objection to liberalism and capitalism is to be found in his theory of alienation. Alienation is the transformation of people’s own labour into a power which rules them as if by a kind of natural or supra-human law. The origin of alienation iscommodity fetishism – the belief that inanimate things have human powers (i.e., value) able to govern the activity of human beings. In the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 Marx writes

The worker becomes all the poorer the more wealth he produces, the more his production increases in power and size. The worker becomes an ever cheaper commodity the more commodities he creates. The devaluation of the world of men is in direct proportion to the increasing value of the world of things. Labor produces not only commodities; it produces itself and the worker as a commodity – and this at the same rate at which it produces commodities in general.

He goes on to say “Let us suppose that we had carried out production as human beings. Each of us would have, in two ways, affirmed himself, and the other person. (1) In my production I would have objectified my individuality, its specific character, and, therefore, enjoyed not only an individual manifestation of my life during the activity, but also, when looking at the object, I would have the individual pleasure of knowing my personality to be objective, visible to the senses, and, hence, a power beyond all doubt.  In your enjoyment, or use, of my product I would have the direct enjoyment both of being conscious of having satisfied a human need by my work, that is, of having objectified man’s essential nature, and of having thus created an object corresponding to the need of another man’s essential nature. . . . Our products would be so many mirrors in which we saw reflected our essential nature.

For Marx, the alternative is communism. The state in which man is not estranged from his labour, or alienated by the distinction between his social being and the sphere of politics. Liberal democracy divides us between civil society and politics, with the state in the last resort being an instrument that re-enforces the class relations of capitalism. The state, exists to reproduce the conditions of production.

Lenin wrote “The State is a tool for class oppression…if a dictatorship or a democracy, the State remains the social-control means of the ruling class. Even in a democratic capitalist republic, the ruling class never relinquish political power, maintaining it via the “behind-the-scenes” control of universal suffrage — an excellent deception that maintains the idealistic concepts of “freedom and democracy”; hence, communist revolution is the sole remedy for such demagogy

Rosa Luxemberg asserted, that bourgeois society required liberal democracy to enforce the relations of production, through both laws and state violence.

What is actually the whole function of bourgeois legality? If one “free citizen” is taken by another against his will and confined in close and uncomfortable quarters for a while, everyone realises immediately that an act of violence has been committed. However, as soon as the process takes place in accordance with the book known as the penal code, and the quarters in question are in prison, then the whole affair immediately becomes peaceable and legal. If one man is compelled by another to kill his fellow men, then that is obviously an act of violence. However, as soon as the process is called “military service”, the good citizen is consoled with the idea that everything is perfectly legal and in order. If one citizen is deprived against his will by another of some part of his property or earnings it is obvious that an act of violence has been committed, but immediately the process is called “indirect taxation”, then everything is quite all right.

In other words, what presents itself to us in the cloak of bourgeois legality is nothing but the expression of class violence raised to an obligatory norm by the ruling class. Once the individual act of violence has been raised in this way to an obligatory norm the process is reflected in the mind of the bourgeois lawyer (and no less in the mind of the socialist opportunist) not as it really is, but upside down: the legal process appears as an independent creation of abstract “Justice”, and State compulsion appears as a consequence, as a mere “sanctioning” of the law. In reality the truth is exactly the opposite: bourgeois legality (and parliamentarism as the legislature in process of development) is nothing but the particular social form in which the political violence of the bourgeoisie, developing its given economic basis, expresses itself.

Marxists differ from left wing anarchists on one very important point, the belief that in order to transition to communism it is necessary for the working class to seize control of the state. There is no absolute agreement between Marxists on how this seizure should come about. Karl Kautsky and others believed that universal suffrage under liberal democracy could bring about state socialism simply by virtue of capitalist crisis, the continued contradictions, and the fact that the working class outnumbered their exploiters. More recently Tony Benn asserted the same when he said “left to their own devices, allowed to vote on single issue, people vote for what benefits them, without making the connection that what they are voting for is socialism” and indeed, Marx himself believed that liberal democracy was an advance upon feudalism and monarchy. Many of the most important discussions within Marxism since 1917 take lenin’s State and revolution as their starting point, his theory states

  • Bourgeois democracy is democracy for the bourgeois and a denial of democracy to the working class
  • The assessment of the theory of revolutionary transition

It is clear, that under advanced global capitalism,  that the old argument about workers parties and trade unions being important in the fight no longer holds true.

The Left-Right paradigm theorizes that the two opposing political parties representing the class interests of the opposing workers and their exploiters, utilize their tremendous domination over mainstream culture, dramatizing their political differences in grand performances of bureaucratic rivalry. By drawing attention to the illusionary differences between the two embedded political ideologies the ruling class  are able to increase and consolidate their power. It seems clear that the ideological state apparatus is intent upon perpetuating the idea that we have a mainstream left party representing the interests of the working class. But I would suggest that the idea that socialism can be realized through the liberal state is a dead duck. Socialism cannot be realised through the liberal democratic state, the two are incompatible.









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