Wednesday, October 26, 2005

The Marx of Freedom

In 1789, the French National Assembly, a token democratic body to appease those railing against monarchy, had a clear distinction between the noble, reactionary First Estate and the peasant, revolutionary Third Estate: the former sat on the right and the latter on the left. Since that time, the terms “right” and “left” have come to be catch-phrases for “conservative” or “reactionary” and “liberal” or “revolutionary”. In the more than two hundred years that have followed, the terms have expanded to mean almost diametrically opposed things, but generally those on the far left, while all being revolutionary in at least one or two spheres of activity, split into a few camps. Marx and Rousseau are two philosophers from whom an astute political reader can get a sense of the divergent and convergent opinions of the Left, especially in the way the individual relates to the state and what the state is designed to do.

Marx and Rousseau agree that the State must either be fundamentally altered or replaced. Rousseau says in Chapter 1 of Book I, “Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains. One thinks himself the master of others, and still remains a greater slave than they... If I took into account only force, and the effects derived from it, I should say: '...for, regaining [people's] liberty by the same right as took it away, either it is justified in resuming it, or there was no justification for those who took it away.' But the social order is a sacred right which is the basis of all other rights.” Rousseau explicitly argues that individual rights are sacrosanct, and notes the dangers of a traditional state in Chapter 2: “[In Grotius' argument], the human species is divided into so many herds of cattle, each with its ruler, who keeps guard over them for the purpose of devouring them.” Rousseau explains his government and its relation to the citizens in Chapter 17 of Book III,
...the Sovereign [meaning the 'general will' of the people, a phantasmal concept that government is supposed to emulate as closely as possible] decrees that there shall be a governing body established in this or that form; this act is clearly a law. By the latter, the people nominates the rulers who are to be entrusted with the government that has been established... The difficulty is to understand how there can be a governmental act before government exists.... It is at this point that there is revealed one of the astonishing properties of the body politic, by means of which it reconciles apparently contradictory operations; for this is accomplished by a sudden conversion of Sovereignty into democracy, so that, without sensible change, and merely by virtue of a new relation of all to all, the citizens become magistrates and pass... from legislation to the execution of the law.
Rousseau advocates something similar to Swedish direct democracy and makes clear that the will of the majority is the primary determinant of policy. (A modern anarchist advocate of something similar is Murray Bookchin, who argues for green libertarian municipalism).
To compare, Marx alleges on page 142 of the Dover Thrift Communist Manifesto, “When... class distinctions have disappeared... the public power will lose its political character. Political power, properly speaking, is the organized power of one class for the purpose of oppressing another.” Both Rousseau and Marx, then, clearly view political power as fundamentally oppressive and want to see it replaced by something else.

Marx thought of the State primarily as the bulwark and fulcrum of revolution. This is demonstrated rather aptly in a few key ways. On page 141, Marx argues for some familiar reforms: a progressive income tax, socialized public education, mass transport, etc. In fact, Marx critiqued bitterly on pages 142-149 a whole set of schools of socialism, some of whom would be what is now called “reformist”. Clearly, seizure of the State in the authoritarian fashion Marx describes was not the end goal. He makes this clear before his proposals on page 141: “The proletariat will use its political power to wrest by degrees all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralise all instruments of production in the hands of the State, i.e., of the proletariat organized as the ruling class, and to increase as rapidly as possible the total mass of productive forces. This, naturally, cannot be accomplished at first except by despotic inroads on the rights of property...” For Marx, an authoritarian action on the state's part could not be justified by an appeal to nationalism but only by revolutionary necessity, and even if the existing state did an act the revolution would do in precisely the same form, Marx makes it clear that for him the revolutionary agent must be the proletariat themselves or else one will get at best a decrepit 'socialism' that does not dispense with class conflict. Nonetheless, he does propose an “obligation of all to labor” and “organization of industrial armies”, something a libertarian would balk at even when they to seek a totally new economic and political order. Marx is possibly the penultimate revolutionary: though he does assume a transitional state to create a machinery of abundance, he argues on page 140-141 to those who say that Communism dispenses with all previous historical forms and that this is dangerous, “The history of all past society is the history of class antagonisms, which took different forms in different epochs. But whatever form they may have taken, the exploitation of one section of society by another is a fact common to all previous centuries.” There is clearly a strong libertarian strand running through Marx's work, one Rousseau would applaud, and Marx only tolerates usage of the state as an interim.

Other members of the left even at Marx's time disagreed with the notion of hijacking the state. To choose a response Rousseau would undoubtedly resonate with, let us consult Rudolf Rocker: “Anarcho-syndicalists are convinced that a Socialist economic order cannot be created by the decrees and statutes of a government, but only by the solidaric collaboration of the workers with hand and brain in each special branch of production; that is, through the taking over of... [economic] management... by the producers themselves under such form that the separate groups... of industry are independent members of the general economic organism and systematically carry on production and the distribution of the products in the interest of the community on the basis of free mutual agreements.” This is the notion that the facts on the ground must be created during the pre-revolutionary, revolutionary and post-revolutionary period by the workers and that any State action is highly risky in that it could be used to create a new authoritarian elite, as anarchists would argue occurred in the Soviet Union. To contrast, Engels' response to this argument was, “But to destroy [the state] at such a [revolutionary] moment would be to destroy the only organism by means of which the victorious proletariat can assert its newly-conquered power...” Rousseau similarly argues in Part 10 of Book III, “Government undergoes contraction when it passes from the many to the few, that is, from democracy to aristocracy, and from aristocracy to royalty. To do so is its natural propensity.” In other words, the state is fundamentally directed towards expanding its tyranny.

Rousseau and Marx also seem to agree that the State is not legitimate in any form unless it conforms to a higher end. Rousseau in Chapter 16 argues in the very title that “The Institutions of Government is Not a Contract”. Rousseau cannot imagine transcending the state, but he makes clear that the most radical democracy is optimal; thus, in Chapter 3 of Book IV, he posits, “In every real democracy, magistracy is not an advantage, but a burdensome charge which cannot justly be imposed on one individual rather than another. The law alone can lay the charge on him on whom the lot falls.” Thus, the general will is something that can only be imperfectly reached, and the measure of the polity is the extent to which it reaches it. Marx's position is even more radical: As we have seen, he believes all political power to be an attempt to prolong and stabilize class conflict, and thus he imagines a post-statist world, where (as he argues on 142), “an association appears in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.” Like Rousseau, however, there are totalitarian overtones; Rousseau makes clear in Chapter 2 of Book IV that liberty is derived from the general will, and Marx makes clear that he believes a very authoritarian state will be needed to transition into the next era. It is difficult to balance the rights of the community and the rights of the individual, to answer the question of whether a decision one disagrees with is legitimate if it is obligatory, to fight injustice without inflicting it, and it is disturbing that two thinkers about freedom made such mistakes.

Marx and Rousseau are also both concerned with inequity, alienated labor and private property, but in rather different ways. Rousseau says in Chapter 11 of Book II, “...[B]y equality, we should understand, not that the degrees of power and riches are to be absolutely identical for everybody; but that power shall never be great enough for violence... no citizen shall ever be wealthy enough to buy another, and none poor enough to be forced to sell himself ”. What is capitalism but the imposition of poverty such that someone has to sell themselves? Marx's critique is substantially more thoroughgoing; on page 130 and 131, he says, “These workers... are a commodity like every other article of commerce... [The worker] becomes a mere appendage of the machine...” Rousseau does believe in private property, but with caveats he explains in Chapter 9 of Book I: “Each member of the community gives himself to it, at the moment of its foundation, just as he is, with all... the goods he possesses. This act does not make possession, in changing hands, change its nature, and become property in the hands of the Sovereign; but, as the forces of the city are incomparably greater than those of an individual, public possession is also, in fact, stronger and more irrevocable... For the State, in relation to its members, is master of all their goods by the social contract, which, within the State, is the basis of all rights... Having his share, he ought to keep to it, and can have no further right against the community.” This indicates that Rousseau believes that property is contingent and is not axiomatically granted, that each individual can only ask for a certain amount (and surely cannot aggrandize themselves at the cost of the community amassing profit), and that social goods are necessary. His anti-capitalism is drastically different from Marx's, but anti-capitalism it would be nonetheless. As we have seen earlier, Marx seeks to abolish private property; he cops to it in characteristic terms on 137 by saying, “... you reproach us because we would abolish your property. Precisely so; that is our intention.”

The real point of distinction between the two can be summed as followed: Marx is anti-nationalist and futurist, Rousseau primitivist and nationalist. On page 135, Marx talks about how the Communists hold common interest of workers above nationality, even implying that nationalism is a delusion (page 139: “The workers have no country. What they have not got cannot be taken from them.”). Rousseau, on the other hand, argues in the Second Treatise, “...when I see multitudes of entirely naked savages scorn European voluptuousness and endure hunger, fire, the sword, and death to preserve only their independence, I feel it does not behoove slaves to reason about freedom." Rousseau has a romanticism about tribal structures and non-Western cultures. The question is a difficult one, for the left wishes to be anti-statist, and many liberation movements wish to create a state, but the left also strives to be anti-imperialist in values and proposals. Marx's position would be that the left should not support such movements because they simply reincarnate class conflict, while Rousseau would say that this is reasoning about freedom from a European enslaved intellectual and that it is not Marx's place to pass judgment. A compromise is to support a national liberation movement but to propose that the liberation not take place in the traditional form of the state. Marx inexorably looks towards the future for salvation, and Rousseau believes that we do our best by looking towards the past and the 'noble savage'.

Regarding political loyalty: Rousseau believes that the general will is the source of loyalty and that it justifies creating laws that are binding upon all. Marx believes that political loyalty is a phantom to make an illusion of unity over a reality of division, but that social unity is needed; thus, on 137, he says, “When... capital is converted into common property, belonging to all members of society, personal property is not thereby converted into social property... It loses its class character.” Marx also clearly states on 127, “The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every profession previously venerated and regarded as honourable. It has turned doctor, priest, poet, and philosopher into its paid wage-workers.” Many would say that Marx and Rousseau are both collectivist, and this is true, but it is not true that collectivism is authoritarian. Yes, it can have authoritarian overtones, but so can complete individual freedom. The question is the conflict of rights. Where the individual affects others' rights, there must be collective action; where the collective oversteps such boundaries, there must be individual act. Putting aside capitalism's usage of totalitarian states, so evident at Marx's time, and putting aside the totalitarian nature of corporations, the abrasive nature of wage slavery and the rights conflicts generated by capitalist institutions mean it must be transcended, either politically (as Rousseau would put it) or economically (as Marx would argue); and, of course, the state must similarly be transcended, as Rousseau would advocate if he believed it to be possible and Marx advocates (but with the caveat that the state must be a transitionary force for the economy, a fact that anarchists disagree with).

Rousseau wants complex direct democracy, a 'general will' that creates rights, a original position of humankind that humans should try to emulate, and believes that the society is suspended by the agreement of all to make the society. Marx believes that society is historical, that it goes through inevitable cycles, that the feeling of political loyalty is a historical illusion created to allow the continued existence of class conflict, that political forms are largely irrelevant and that a utopian economy is key, that the individual is defined by his labor, and that looking romantically to the past will enslave the movements of the present. There are disagreements and agreements, but aside from a shared resistance to oppression, a willingness to have communalist values and a desire for equity, the two share almost nothing.

Citations Taken From:

Engels, Frederick. Personal correspondence. Cited by Robert C. Tucker, The Marxian Revolutionary Idea, in Tucker's comparison of Marxism and anarchism.

Marx, Karl and Frederick Engels. The Communist Manifesto. Available from The Communist Manifesto and Other Revolutionary Writings, Dover Thrift Edition

Rocker, Rudolf. Anarcho-Syndicalism, p. 94.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. The Social Contract; Or Principles of Political Right. Originally
published 1762. Translation by G.D.H. Cole. Also the Second Treatise on Inequality, translated by Roger D. and Judith R. Masters.


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