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Palinurus: Engaging Political Philosophy

Marshall Berman: Freedom and Fetishism

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In this work Marshall Berman lights up Marx's picture of the individual in history, in particular, his conception of individual freedom.

There is a certain paradoxicality at the heart of Marx’s whole enterprise. Sometimes he understands freedom not as a value but as a fact, not as something men ought to pursue but as something they cannot avoid — a synthetic a priori truth about human action, a liberty to which (in Sartre’s phrase) man is condemned. At other times, however, he regards freedom as an achievement: a difficult feat that is possible only after such “labor of the negative” (Hegel) — a labor of liberating oneself from the illusions of the particular “illusory community” that surrounds one, of getting out (as Wittgenstein put it) of the fly-bottle one finds oneself inside. When he describes capitalist society, Marx is constantly making the point that everything in it is under “illusions of the epoch,” is dominated by “fetishism,” and hence is unfree — except, of course, for the “fully conscious” revolutionary group. “As in religion, man is governed by the products of his own brain, so in capitalist production, he is governed by the products of his own hand” (Capital, 681) [1]. The freedom Marx has given with one hand he seems to be taking back with the other: everywhere he looks, everyone seems to be in chains. Yet if men are “free,” how is it possible for them to have got into such a state of “unfreedom” in the first place? Or, alternately, if men are encased in a fly-bottle, how will it be possible for them to see things in any way but through a glass, darkly? If their whole outlook on life is “fetishistic,” how will it be possible even to recognize that they are enslaved, let alone make the effort to set themselves free? The paradox here is the familiar paradox of self-deception. Who, exactly, is supposed to be doing the “deceiving”? If the subject himself, in what sense is it meaningful to say that he is actually “deceived”? If it is meaningful, how, once having succeeded, can he undo the job, and “undeceive” himself? These are perennial problems for a therapist, not to mention a philosopher; they are also central to Marx’s analysis of capitalism as an “infantile disease,” he might have said, of man, who with its passing was “coming into his own.”


We can find many passages in which the tendency of the capitalist system to enslave everyone is mentioned. In The Holy Family [2], for instance:


The slavery of civil society [bürgerlichen Gesellschaft] is ostensibly the greatest freedom, because it appears to leave the individual perfectly independent. The individual considers as his own freedom the movement (no longer curbed or fettered by a common tie or by man) of his alienated life-elements, like property, industry, religion; in reality, this movement is the perfection of his slavery…(157).


Again, in Capital, the achievement of individual freedom in modern times is seen, dialectically, to have generated its antithesis:


the same division of labour that turns [men] into independent producers, also frees the social process of production, and the relation of individual producers to each other within that process, from all dependence on the will of those producers; and so ... the seeming independence of individuals gives rise to a system of universal and mutual dependence through or by means of the products (121).


The exchange of commodities “develops a whole network of social relations spontaneous in their growth and entirely beyond the control of the actors” (126). Freedom is here only an “appearance” (Erscheinung), and appearances, notoriously, deceive.


A Whig interpreter of history, however, in the Victorian England in which Capital appeared, might take Marx up on this. “Are Englishmen in chains?” he might ask. “Suffrage and education, after all, are virtually universal; religious tests have been abolished; the feudal ties that bound men to the land or town, class or trade, have vanished long ago; protection against arbitrary arrest, detention or hindrance is enshrined in the English Constitution; it is hard to see how the institutions of any country at any time could be less obstructive, or more conducive, to human freedom. True, the lives of the majority may not be economically secure; true again, the distribution of wealth may not be just — we don’t pretend that our social order is perfect (just yet), But in what sense is it meaningful to say that it isn’t free?”


Now according to certain commentators, this sinks Marx. Men are free, he is supposed to have thought, only when they are “rational”; communism alone, he is supposed to have thought, is a rational form of life; hence, it is deduced neatly, all actions and men under non-communistic forms of life are unfree: Q.E.D. (This is a crude caricature of the reading which Isaiah Berlin cleverly and subtly elaborates in his Karl Marx.) [3]. If Marx were indeed saying this, he would be guilty of what we today should call a “persuasive definition”: he would be stealing the prestige and good will that people attach to the word freedom, which has a fairly clear and measurable sense in daily life, and annexing it to a notion of “rationality” that is far more shadowy, ambiguous and hard to cash we might say, appropriating surplus value. Having once discovered his intentions, we would realize that in alleging an absence of “freedom” in bourgeois society Marx was not telling us anything new about it, but merely trying to inflame us against it in a devious way.


In fact, however, Marx uses the word freedom in a way that is both more conventional and more illuminating. In a highly compressed passage on the fetishism of commodities, Marx suggests what a non-fetishistic society would be like:


The life-process of society, which is based on the process of production,… does not strip off its mystical veil until it is treated as production by freely associated men, and is consciously regulated by them in accordance with a settled plan (Capital, 92; emphases are mine).


To act freely here is to “consciously regulate” one’s life “in accordance with a settled plan.” Marx does not claim that the plan must have any particular content — that it must be communistic — for the planner to be free. The concept of liberty he presupposes is basically similar to the “negative” one used in ordinary language: an absence of restraint. He insists, however, that being free necessarily entails the consciousness that one is free. We can cash this behaviorally as a “disposition” to assess possibilities, investigate alternatives, weigh considerations, choose what one will do. For an “average individual,” someone whose thought is “fetishistic,” however, no such “consciousness” exists, no such disposition will be found. Now the hypothetical Whig whom I introduced (he could be any liberal democrat of the nineteenth century, perhaps of the twentieth as well) has described all sorts of possibilities for life that supposedly exist in the England of his day, and brought these forward as evidence of an almost total freedom. Yet if Marx could show that a significant portion of people, perhaps even a majority, are simply not aware of such prospects for choice, then the paradox he has advanced that men who are born free, and whose freedom has been so stridently proclaimed since 1789, are as firmly in chains as ever, would acquire striking plausibility and power.


There is one especially striking observation Marx makes, which runs like a red thread through Capital, about the radical difference between capitalists and all previous accumulators of wealth. The ordinary “simple circulation of commodities,” he writes, the act of “selling in order to buy,” is “a means of carrying out a purpose unconnected with circulation, namely the appropriation of use-values, the satisfaction of wants. The circulation of money as capital, on the contrary, is an end in itself (Capital, 169). This endless pursuit is the very touchstone of capitalist activity:


It is only insofar as the appropriation of ever more and more wealth in the abstract becomes the sole motive of [a man’s] operations, that he functions as a capitalist, that is, as capital personified and endowed with consciousness and a will. Use-values must never be looked on as the real aim of the capitalist; neither must profit on any single transaction. The restless, never-ending pursuit of profit-making alone is what he aims at (Capital, 170).


Similar formulations abound. “Use-values are produced by capitalists only because, and insofar as, they are… depositaries of exchange-values” (207). “As capitalist,” a man comes to have “one single life-impulse, the tendency to create value and surplus-value, to make… the means of production absorb the greatest possible amount of surplus-value” (257). Marx compares the capital to “a conqueror who sees in every country annexed only a new boundary,” and the activity of accumulation itself to the labor of Sisyphus (150). In his monomania to accumulate, the capitalist is like “an automaton… endowed with intelligence and will, animated by the longing to reduce to a minimum the resistance offered by that repellent yet elastic natural barrier, man.” The social system he runs is “an industrial perpetuum mobile, which would go on producing forever, did it not meet with certain natural obstructions in the weak bodies and the strong minds of its attendants” (440). His course, like that of the lawyer Tulkinghorn in Dickens’s Bleak House — another spirit of the bourgeois age — is “straight on — over everything, neither to the right nor to the left, regardless of all considerations, treading everything underfoot” along the single track of his life.


These vivid metaphors bring out the single-minded, relentless character of capitalist accumulation: yet for all that, the activity is not necessarily unfree. Its fanaticism might well be “moral fanaticism,” freely chosen and carried out; after all, the great “world-historical figures” of the past have been fanatics themselves. Indeed, in a sense every morality is “fanatic,” in that it rests on an arbitrary, ultimately unjustifiable choice of something as an end in itself. The sceptical questioner who always asked “But why is it good? What is it good for?” could never get an answer that would satisfy him. There is thus no reason why capitalist accumulation should be any less suitable “as an end in itself” than anything else.


But Marx sees evidence that would disqualify capitalism from the status of a morality, and hence free action. Whatever else free action may mean, it certainly entails that the actor must be aware of alternative possibilities; and we should not consider an action legitimately moral if the actor could not even conceive what it might be like to be immoral, where his act involved no element of choice. If we examine the ordinary language o f the capitalists, however, it is precisely this element of choice we find lacking. For example, when the Children’s Employment Commission suggests that twelve hours during the daytime are about long enough for children to spend in a factory, one E. E Sanderson, a steel manufacturer, indignantly protests: “But then there would be the loss from so much expensive machinery lying idle half the time….” What is most intriguing about the Sandersons is their naiveté. It isn’t as if they shrugged off the suffering of children as something morally unimportant; rather, this suffering seems to be something they simply don’t notice. Every minute idle is a minute “lost”; it does not occur to them that other points of view are possible, from which twelve hours’ rest per day for growing boys and girls might be a “gain.” Marx explains this insensitivity by explicating the peculiar game the capitalists are playing:


Messrs. Sanderson have something to make besides steel. Steel-making is simply a pretext for surplus-value-making. The smelting-furnaces, the rolling-mills, the buildings, machinery, iron, coal, etc., have something more to do than transform themselves into steel. They are there to absorb surplus-labour, and naturally absorb more in twenty-four hours than in twelve (289).


Given these aims, it is only natural that when a capitalist looks at a worker he should see only one thing:


“What is a working-day?” ... Capital replies: the working-day includes the full twenty-four hours, with the deduction for the few hours of repose without which labour-power absolutely refuses its services again. Hence it is evident that the labourer is nothing else, his whole life through, than labor-power, that therefore all his disposable time is ... labor-time, to be devoted to the self-expansion of capital (291; emphases mine).


“The world,” says Wittgenstein, “is all that is the case.” Labor-power, capital, commodities, surplus-value: these Tatsachen encase the world of the bourgeoisie. But there is something odd about this world: its “atomic facts” serve as its basic values as well. All possible descriptions have prescriptions built in; words themselves define the “proper” attitude to be adopted toward all the things they describe — and thus save men the trouble of morally making up their minds. But if, as we said above, freedom is logically bound up with choice; and if the capitalist outlook on the world tends to evade choice; and if, as Marx wrote in 1842, “Morality rests on the autonomy, religion on the heteronomy of the spirit” — then it is clear that it is as a religion, and not as a morality, that capitalist fanaticism must be understood.


This is precisely the sort of explanation Marx is attempting in his discussion of the “fetishism of commodities”:


we must have recourse to the mist-enveloped regions of the religious world. In that world the productions of the human brain appear as independent beings endowed with life, and entering into relation both with one another and with the human race. So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands… (Capital, 83).


The function of fetishism, and of religion in general, is to relieve the believer of responsibility for his actions. It is not he who is acting, it is the God (or daemon) who is acting in and through him; he cannot criticize, modify or change the world; he, like the world itself, is merely the vehicle of an alien Will. Similarly, the capitalist denies that it is in his power even to try to alter the ruinous processes of the market: it operates according to “eternal laws” to which he and all men are helplessly subjected. The fiction of Natural Law — which plays on all the ambiguities of both “nature” and “law,” and through which descriptive and normative discourse are fused — is immensely powerful in keeping men riveted to their roles. “The laws of commerce,” Marx quotes Burke as saying, “are the Laws of Nature, and therefore the laws of God.” A profitable confusion indeed: “No wonder,” Marx comments caustically, “that, true to the laws of God and Nature, he always sold himself in the best market” (834). But it is vital for the stability of the system that the workers too should be enthralled by this sort of myth, lest they get inflamed by rebellious discontent. “It’s not enough that conditions of labor are concentrated in a mass, in the shape of capital, while at the other are grouped masses of men who have nothing to sell but their labor-power. Nor is it enough that they are compelled to sell it voluntarily.” If the locomotive of capitalist production is to advance at full steam, the workers must be reconciled to consuming themselves as its fuel: it must develop “a working-class which, by education, tradition, habit, looks upon the conditions of this mode of production as self-evident laws of nature” (809). The fetishism of commodities is a deterministic myth, designed to conserve the existing order by convincing the people in it that they can do no other. By picturing themselves as unfree, men make themselves unfree: their prophecy of powerlessness is self-fulfilling.


How can this paralyzing picture be shattered, this confusion dispelled? Sometimes Marx places his hope in a sort of therapy-by-history. He tries to show that the relationships which the bourgeois “laws of the market” describe are far from being eternal and necessary, that in fact they are only recent innovations, the outcome of specific historical events. Now it is true that any system of definitions can be stretched to cover all possible situations. Still, it is empirically possible to point out counterexamples which would necessitate stretching the definitions so far that even their adherents will see the absurdity and give them up. In contrasting bourgeois with ancient and feudal economic relationships, this is what Marx is seeking to do. To sum up:


One thing is clear — Nature does not produce on the one hand owners of money or commodities, and on the other hand men producing nothing but their labor-power. This relationship has no natural basis, neither is its social basis one common to all historical periods. It is clearly the result of a past historical development, the product of many economic revolutions, of the extinction of a whole series of older forms of social production (188).


Relationships and values which seemed as inexorable as space and time are shown by historical analysis to be contingent, determinate: their “sacred” character, as pillars of a world-order, is profaned:


The categories of bourgeois economics… are forms of thought expressing… the conditions of a definite, historically determinate [bestimmten] mode of production — the production of commodities. The whole mystery of commodities, all the magic and necromancy that surround the products of labour as long as they take this form, vanish as soon as we come to other modes of production (87).


In examining these different modes of production, we discover the one thing that persists amidst them all: “living labor,” human will and energy, “the force that creates value” (340). Thus,


the existence of things qua commodities, and the value relation between the products of things that stamps them as commodities, have absolutely no connection with their physical properties and the material relationships arising there from. It is a specific social relation, between men, which takes on for them the fantastic form of a relation between things… (83; emphases mine).


Standards of value have “absolutely no connection” — no necessary connection, Marx means to say — with the structure of the world, but are “social relations between men” and can be changed if men so desire. In pointing this out, Marx is continuing a program he outlined twenty years before, in his Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right:


The basis of irreligious criticism is this: man makes religion, religion does not make man…it is the task of history, once the world beyond the truth has disappeared, to establish the truth of this world. The immediate task of philosophy, which is in the service of history, is to unmask human self-alienation in its profane form now that it has been unmasked in its holy form. Thus the criticism of heaven is transformed into a criticism of earth, the criticism of religion into a criticism of law and right, the criticism of theology into a criticism of politics (MER, 53).


In Capital, Marx is pointing out simply that man makes economics too, that modes of production are by no means beyond the reach of human direction and control. This may seem obvious today. But if we consider how much thought and action were frozen into rigid forms by the many fatalistic myths of the nineteenth century, we might wish that Marx had expended even more labor-power in the attempt to jar men loose — and indeed, that he had not occasionally damaged the cause himself by falling into just the sort of “fetishism” he knew how to expose so well.


Conceptual analysis, Marx believed, might play an important part in shattering false, fetishistic pictures of human experience, and restoring to men the freedom they seem to want to escape. But while this sort of strategy may be quite effective in shaking an exploited class out of apathy and showing it that it really can change the world, it is not likely to go over very well with a class on top. A ruling class is “comfortable in its self-alienation”; it “finds in this self-alienation its confirmation and its good” (Holy Family, 151); it has a very powerful interest in remaining deceived by the myths it propagates. Humankind cannot bear very much reality, even in the best of times; when the reality is embarrassing or grim, it is all the more difficult to face. A social group under stress is just as apt as is an individual in therapy to construct mechanisms of defense: to exhibit the most elaborate strategies of “resistance” (Freud), to put on the thickest, most impermeable “character armor”- one can find (Reich), to avoid coming to grips with disconcerting facts. The patient may “not listen” when the most telling arguments are advanced, or may repeatedly, conveniently “forget,” or may just shout out abuse very loud in an effort to drown out any upsetting thoughts that happen to bob up. In such a case, rational argument is unlikely to be of much avail.


But Marx felt that he had a more formidable ally in his campaign: time. The capitalist social system itself, he saw, was evolving toward a situation in which the drives and illusions that sustained it in its youth would somehow wither away, and the men in it would once again come to regard themselves as free — without, however, necessarily changing its capitalist base. In Chapter 24 of the first volume of Capital, Marx very suggestively sketches out a typology of stages in the life of capitalism: a “classical” phase, whose features Capital vividly (and luridly) describes, and a “modernized” phase, which Marx felt was just beginning to appear on the scene. These stages are embodied in two ideal personality types archetypal men, “average individuals,” who crystallize the changing aspirations of the bourgeois “illusory community,” represent everything its members want to be. Without going into the very difficult problem — in part psychological, in part sociological, in part conceptual — of precisely what leads men to stop playing one role, and start playing another, to discard one stereotyped “average individuality” in favor of another, I want briefly to examine the two types Marx develops and make clear the contrasting forms of life which they are intended to bring out.


The keynote of the first, “classical” phase of capitalism is production and accumulation (here Marx conflates the two) as an end in itself: “Accumulation for accumulation’s sake, production for production’s sake! By this formula, political economy expressed the historic mission of the bourgeoisie.” The bourgeoisie pursue it with a missionary zeal: “Accumulate! Accumulate! That is Moses and the prophets…” (Capital, 652). Marx’s images and allusions should always be taken seriously: the typical capitalist in this phase is as fervid and relentless in producing and accumulating as the religious fanatic is in fulfilling God’s Will on earth — and his mind is just as much of a closed circle, just as impervious to doubt and debate. Marx is suggesting here a deeper connection between religion and capitalism than even Weber conceived: the religious and the capitalistic zealot share the same “fetishistic” frame of mind, in which the distinction between fact and value is blurred, and in which they “can do no other” because their system of descriptions blinds them to even the possibility of choice. And it is no accident that both these types of fetishist should be ascetic. “So far as [a man’s] actions are a mere function of capital,” so long as he plays the capitalist role, “his own private consumption is a robbery… a sin against his function” (649-50). The fetishist feels that he exists only to fulfill a function; the slightest deviation from his role brings his very “being” into question, evokes a guilt that shakes him to his quick.


After a time, however, a new ideal type comes to grip men’s minds. “But Original Sin is at work everywhere. As capitalist production, accumulation and wealth become developed, the capitalist ceases to be the mere incarnation of capital. He gets a fellow-feeling for his own Adam….” Once again Marx’s use of Christian imagery is crucial here. The classical capitalist lives on only to fulfill a function, to incarnate an ideal type; all his intentions follow logically from a principle — “Accumulate!” — and can be rigorously deduced in advance; his role, we might say, plays him. This systematic, Methodist perfection typifies a recurrent Christian ideal: to be free of the burden of spontaneity, of unpredictable impulse and uncontrollable desire. To be all principle and no passion: this is the status which Christian theology reserves for angels (and indeed for devils of the more dangerous sort), but from which men, immersed in weakness and imperfection, are inexorably debarred. In this sense, it is illuminating to speak of the post-classical capitalist as getting infected with “Original Sin” and developing “a feeling for his own Adam”: his spontaneous impulses and the “irrational” play of his desires come to matter to him, he no longer sees his accumulating function as the only thing in life. After his prodigies of production, he begins to see the pursuit of pleasure, the consumer’s life, as equally appealing. This new outlook, plus a certain degree of education (gained through “practical-critical activity,” perhaps), “gradually enables him to” smile at this rage for asceticism, as a mere prejudice of the old-fashioned miser. While the capitalist of the classical type brands individual consumption as a sin against his function, as a distraction from accumulating, the modernized capitalist is capable of looking on accumulation as a distraction from pleasure. The anguish and anomie which the modern capitalist must undergo are well expressed in Faust’s lines, which Marx quotes: “Two souls are living in my breast.”


Marx goes on to say, “At the historical dawn of capitalist accumulation and every capitalist upstart must go through this historical phase avarice, and the desire to get rich, are the ruling passions.” (Here Marx makes the curious nineteenth-century assumption, found in every great thinker from Hegel through Freud, that each individual must re-enact in his own life the entire previous life of the species.) These passions never pass away. But later on, “when a certain stage of development has been reached, ... there is at the same time developed in his breast a Faustian conflict between the passion for accumulation and the desire for enjoyment” (650-51). In this “consumer” period the capitalist becomes like other men: he regards himself as a free agent, able to step back from his role as producer and accumulator, even to give it up entirely for the sake of pleasure or happiness; for the first time he sees his life as an open book, as something to be shaped according to his choice. Fetishism, then, infuses the youthful exuberance of capitalism with a religious zeal — and a religious naiveté; disenchantment comes with a fullness of years, and may slacken the pace, but leaves a new freedom in its wake. Men no longer feel compelled to fulfill the infinite demands of an alien Will; they are free at last to think of themselves.


As capitalists in an age of consumption become free, one would think, and pursue their own happiness instead of the aims of a relentless alien Power, they must inevitably become less fervid and blindly compulsive, more mellow, pliable and humane — more “humane” if only because more human, less like angels or machines. Now of course, Marx felt, this might well happen in some cases; but there were very good reasons not to be too optimistic. Fetishism, he saw, might prove so powerful as to make a fetish of the very desire that would dissolve it. The capitalist system then would simply devour and assimilate this nascent desire for happiness, and turn it to its own advantage. Thus “a conventional degree of prodigality, which is also an exhibition of wealth, and consequently a source of credit, becomes a business necessity…. Luxury becomes part of capital’s overhead.” Marx is anticipating Veblen’s analysis of “conspicuous consumption”; but he sees that conspicuous consumption need not retard accumulation, and indeed might even drive it more furiously on. “Therefore, the prodigality of the capitalist never possesses the bona fide character of the open-handed feudal lord’s prodigality, but, on the contrary, has always lurking behind it the most sordid avarice and the most anxious calculation…” (651). Where pleasure becomes a business, it must acquire up-to-date business methods — that is, must duplicate all the compulsive calculation, all the cutthroat competition, all the frenzied self-alienation it was meant to allay. David Riesman, William H. Whyte and others have shown (without acknowledgment — though probably without knowledge either) how far Marx’s prediction has come true: how much leisure today has become a business affair, a realm of “antagonistic co-operation” (Riesman) in which all the obsessions of the bourgeois working-day rage on and get re-enacted beneath a facade of idyllic calm. Still, Marx said, despite all this, “the desire for enjoyment” in its pure form, once ignited, could never be stamped out; hence men would never let their freedom entirely go again, and the “Faustian conflict” would persist and modify capitalism as long as it lasted.


Marx does not say how he thinks the transformation of capitalists into free men will affect the class struggle. But based on the interpretations I have made up to now, we might try an educated guess. Men who are animated by “fetishism,” be it religious, political or economic, will charge blindly ahead like locomotives at full speed on a single track; if they collide and destroy each other they can’t help it, there is nothing to be done. For free men, however, there is at least a possibility of averting disaster. To understand what freedom means — that I am not compelled to live according to any a priori rules, but may prescribe my own rules and shape my life as I choose — is to recognize that other men are free agents themselves. To affirm myself and recognize others as free, in this sense, is to realize that orientations other than my own, and no less “true,” are possible, that many different moral points of view may be sincerely held. This does not mean hedging on my own ultimate values if I am a capitalist, it does not entail that I should stop accumulating; but it psychologically may (not logically must) mean that when ultimate values collide I will be willing to compromise, to step slightly back, to give a bit of ground without destroying the ground of my self-respect.


I have tried to throw into clear relief Marx’s picture of the individual in history: in particular, his conception of individual freedom. Now no one saw more vividly than Marx the powerful pull which “illusory communities” of class interest could exert on men: stereotyping their thought into clichés; freezing the flow of their emotions into rigid, inflexible human forms; transforming human action into “acting out,” into stale replayings of prefabricated roles; in short, reducing men to “average individuals,” reproductions of ideal types which embody all the traits and qualities the “illusory community, needs. But such a reduction, Marx felt, could never be complete: no matter how hard men tried to dissolve themselves in roles, there would always be something left-over; human freedom might constrict, but would never disappear. It would always be open to every individual to “assert himself as an individual” over against the “illusory community” that constricts and constrains him. Marx’s formula for free action is “practical-critical activity”: the activity of forming projects and plans for one’s life, modifying them in the light of experience, and striving to put them into effect. In a society that would dissolve all individual identity and press all men into moulds — such as the bourgeois society of Marx’s day — “practical-critical activity” must take the form of “revolutionary activity,” for only through conscious resistance to such a society can individuality survive. But it was vital for the community of revolutionaries to avoid degenerating into just another “illusory community” themselves; and Marx felt that personal independence could be protected only in a moral community, in which individuals act not primarily for their own benefit, or for that of the group as such, but for the sake of all mankind. Only a “world-historical class,” one whose interests and ideals are fused, is capable of decisively enlarging the scope of freedom for all. Marx saw the proletariat as the only group in his society that had any chance of becoming “world-historical,” and he did all he could to guide it in that direction. In his historical works, he made it his own vocation to keep the revolutionary vision sharp and clear: to stress the distinction between ideal and real, to protect the proletariat from deterministic myths, and to emphasize that the revolutionary project was voluntary and free. With the advent of communist society, however, men will no longer have to revolt in order to be free: they will be able to work out their projects and designs, to develop themselves, in the everyday round of life, during their working-day, through the medium of labor. In a society of abundance and planned production, work can be made interesting and related to individual inclinations, so that the presently accepted dualism of “material” necessity and “spiritual” freedom, of maintaining one’s life and enjoying it, will wither away. Such, then, is Marx’s vision of individual freedom and his program for extending its scope — one quite different from that which is usually ascribed to him.




1. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, trans. Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling (New York: Modern Library, n.d.).


2. The Holy Family: Critique of Critical Critique, trans. B. Dixon (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishers, 1956).


3. Isaiah Berlin, Karl Marx: His Life and Environment, 3d edn. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1963).



Excerpt from Adventures in Marxism (London: Verso, 1999), pp. 37-55.