The Marxian concept of Liberty

Marx and Engel argues that in a capitalist bourgeois society Liberty comes to have no real meaning ultimately for the vast majority. And this majority eventually gets alienated from society. Since this vast working class gets dehumanised and loses the objective of living for self-development because of poverty and exploitation and social injustice, there is no question of the development of moral and social personality using legal and constitutional guarantees of liberty. Marx argued in a constitutional capitalist democracy there might be all the liberties available legally but in such a society neither the rich man is free nor the poor man. The rich man is the slave, rather than the master, of the wealth that he owns and the poor man is the slave of his unmet material needs. Man is not an isolated being but is defined in relation to the society he lives in for man is a social animal. Marx defined liberty to mean freedom he did not regard mere absence of restraint as freedom. Nor did he agree that personal and political freedoms are the highest ideals and other freedoms are based on these. He linked freedom to the essence and purpose of man. Marxist thinkers Huberman and Paul Sweezy explain this as follows:
‘Freedom means living life to the fullest – the economic ability to satisfy the needs of the body in regard to adequate food, clothing and shelter, plus effective opportunity to cultivate the mind, develop one’s personality, and assert one’s individuality’. Rejecting the liberal individualist position, that says man seeks maximised happiness and pleasure (in the absolute sense), and that therefore is the priority, Marxism rejects ‘all attempts to seek man’s purpose outside of social relations in the realm of abstract ideals, the sphere of the instincts, or that of individual psychology, in activity directed to the satisfaction of selfish interests, not to mention attempts to find it outside the world of real things… Man’s purpose in the Marxian view is creative activity directed towards improved wellbeing and the achievement of free all round development for society and all its members’ . Or in other words, man’s purpose is not merely his own well-being or selfinterest than it will be contrary to his essence. Man cannot separate his happiness and development from social happiness and development. Marx advocated a ‘revolutionary’ and conscious effort at overthrowing oppressive systems and creating new systems which will be in tune with the socialist concept of humanism. According to the Marxist view ‘a life devoted to the joy of others, their happiness, freedom, equality and welfare, for the triumph of genuinely human relations, conscious struggle for a new social order, for socialism and communism’ – that is what constitutes the meaning of life and real happiness.

The best thinkers in the liberal tradition have taken the position as Rousseau took that ‘man is born free’. Marx argued man is not independent from natural and social laws as immediately after his birth, he becomes the slave of natural forces like hunger, weather, illness, etc.

One of the most important facets of the Marxian approach to liberty and freedom is its analysis from the class point of view. If the Liberal view of freedom is accepted, Marxists would argue, what it means or comes to mean eventually is that freedom for the owners of property will mean freedom to own private property without restrictions (without urban land ceiling laws for instance to illustrate with the help of an example we urban Indians are familiar with), of earning profit from employing property without restrictions (like taxes for instance), of employing someone or removing him (with the least labour laws or none at all) etc etc. On the other hand, Marxists argued, for the property-less it can only mean in effect or in reality the freedom to starve, to be laid off from one’s job when the employer doesn’t need him anymore or if he doesn’t like him for any reason, working conditions and salary terms that are bad and exploitative but which must be accepted because that is what the contract with the employer stipulates (full freedom of contract is of the essence of liberal constitutional democracy) and there are no other jobs available to earn one’s living and avoid starvation etc etc. So Marxists argue, in a classdivided society freedom will be meaningless for working people. For them freedom means emancipation from exploitation, starvation, poverty, excessive hours of work, social insecurity, etc and hence for him freedom can only mean the struggle for the establishment of a class less society which is only attainable via a socialist revolution.

1 thought on “The Marxian concept of Liberty”

  1. Thanks for the sensible critique. Me and my neighbor were just preparing to do a little research about this. We got a grab a book from our area library but I think I learned more from this post. I’m very glad to see such wonderful info being shared freely out there.

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