‘Reassessing Marx’s Social and Political Philosophy: Freedom, Recognition and Human Flourishing.’ by Jan Kandiyali (ed) reviewed by Tony Smith

Reviewed by Tony Smith

About the reviewer

Tony Smith is the author of Beyond Liberal Egalitarianism: Marx and Normative Social Theory in the …


This important book collects papers presented between 2012 and 2016 at London conferences of the Marx and Philosophy Society. The first section, ‘Marx and his Predecessors’, begins with Douglas Moggach’s ‘Perfectionism, Alienation and Freedom’. Moggach interprets Marx’s position as a ‘specific version of post-Kantian perfectionism’ (19). He sees Marx’s call for the liberation of collective labour from coercion and domination as ultimately resting on a concept of the active, formative, spontaneous subject similar to that found in Fichte, Hegel, and other post-Kantian theorists.

Emmanuel Renault’s ‘The Early Marx and Hegel’ describes in detail how the Young Hegelians developed out of the earlier Left Hegelian movement. Renault documents how Marx remained a committed Young Hegelian through 1844. His final break was not completed until 1846, by which point Marx was steadfast that ‘[w]hat is required is not the extraction of the critical core of [Hegel’s] system but the overcoming of the limits of the system itself’ (54).

David Leopold’s ‘Marx, Engels and Some (Non-Foundational) Arguments against Utopian Socialists’ critically examines three of Marx and Engels’s objections to utopian socialism: it is paternalist (seeing the working class as suffering victims rather than as capable of self-emancipation),  ahistorical (taking socialism to be possible in any context), and anti-political (basing social change on moralistic appeals). Leopold argues that returning to key texts from Saint-Simon, Fourier, and Owen reveals that these criticisms are considerably overstated.

Part two consists of three papers focussing on Marx and recognition. In ‘From the Old Hegel to the Young Marx and Back’ Heikki Ikäheimo asserts that both Hegel and Marx defended “evaluative essentialism”. More specifically, both assessed social interactions and institutions by the degree they instantiate our essential nature, that is, our capacity for mutual freedom (in Hegelian terminology, the freedom to be with oneself in the other).  While Hegel thought this freedom could be instantiated in a market society, Marx insisted that the mediation of social relations by money and the market produces self-interested agents, capable of recognizing others only insofar as they are instrumentally useful. For the respect, concern, and gratitude defining concrete freedom to be adequately instantiated throughout the social world communism is required.

Hans-Christoph Schmidt am Busch’s ‘How Do Rights Affect Our Freedom?’ also considers the Hegel/Marx relation. Schmidt am Busch focuses closely on Marx’s critique of Hegel’s concept of the person as a rights-bearing individual, a topic returned to below. He also notes Hegel’s awareness of how fragile the freedom attained in the modern world is, an insight all too strongly confirmed since the early 1800s.

Andrew Chitty’s ‘Human Solidarity in Hegel and Marx’ carefully reconstructs Hegel’s systematic ordering of the different structures of human awareness, culminating in his account of the inherently universal character of self-consciousness. For Hegel, these structures are all necessary preconditions for solidarity. Chitty is sympathetic with Marx’s insistence that the “civic solidarity” articulated in Hegel’s Philosophy of Right falls short of instituting true human solidarity, that is, concern for the other as such. Chitty also holds, however, that the more comprehensive account of the concept of solidarity is Hegel’s.

Three papers fall under the heading ‘Marx and Liberalism’. The first, ‘Marx and Hegel on the Value of ‘Bourgeois’ Ideals’ by Frederick Neuhouser, argues that Marx’s position would be strengthened by showing that so-called ‘bourgeois ideals’ are ‘part of a positive vision of what makes communism good’ (149). Marx is faulted for failing to recognize this himself.

In ‘Marxian Liberalism’, Jeffrey Reiman argues that agents in a Rawlsian original position would select normative principles ensuring that their natural liberty is subjected to a minimum of coercion. He asserts that two principles would be selected, to be implemented sequentially. The difference principle, assessing the normative legitimacy of social systems by the size of poorest groups’ share, would be initially adopted (177). Maximizing their share requires incentives leading to inequalities and social subjugation. Agents in the original position would consent to them nonetheless, maintaining declining constraints on liberty from material deprivation would more than compensate. Past some point, however, further increases in material goods would no longer minimize overall coercion. The difference principle would then give way to Marx’s principle of communism, justified by appeal to natural liberty.

Christine Sypnowich is not as accommodating to liberalism in ‘Liberalism, Marxism, Equality and Living Well’. In her view, Marx’s ‘egalitarian perfectionism’, the view that in a good society all live equally well to the greatest feasible extent, is a far better form of egalitarianism than that defended by left liberals. By rejecting their emphasis on equality of opportunity, individual responsibility, and “neutrality” regarding the good life, she insists that if people fail to take up normatively significant opportunities and live unflourishing lives as a result, egalitarians should not shrug their shoulders. The factors leading to fatalism, low expectations, self-abnegation, and limited horizons must be discovered and removed, as Marx too would insist.

The fourth and final section of the book, ‘Marx and Communism’, begins with Daniel Brudney’s ‘Two Marxian Themes: The Alienation of Labour and the Linkage Theme’. Brudney first argues that a more comprehensive and better-grounded theory of alienation in capitalism can be constructed with workers’ alienation from their own activity as the starting point, rather than alienation from their own products. He insists that all activities contributing to social reproduction fall within the scope of this theory, not just those found in formal workplaces. Brudney then considers Marx’s call for a society where the free development of each is essentially linked to the free development of all, denying that it is a plausible empirical or conceptual claim. It is instead best understood as the normative assertion that in a good society no citizen would be willing to take advantages of opportunities for free development unless all citizens had parallel opportunities (225). With this mover Brudney brings the disabled within the scope of Marxian theory.

In ‘Schiller and Marx on Specialization and Self-Realization’, Jan Kandiyali notes how both thinkers believed modern life stunts individuals while increasing the productive power of society. He shows that Marx aimed at social transformations similar to  those Schiller thought an aesthetic education would produce: a redesign of work to make it more creative; workplaces where workers were not trapped in specializations; enriched leisure activities outside the workplace. Kandiyali rightly points out that there are forms of work that simply do not require creativity, while simply moving from job to job hardly ensures all round individual development, and enriching leisure leaves stifling work conditions unaddressed. Nonetheless, Kandiyali concludes, we still have much to learn from Schiller and Marx’s conception of self-realization as all-round development, not least the normative imperative to abolish specialization in the worst jobs.

The collection concludes with Sean Sayers’ ‘The Idea of Communism’. Sayers targets Badiou’s notion that communism can only be inaugurated by an “event”, a sudden unforeseeable conjunction of contingent actions. Even if the revolutionary event bringing about communism is sudden and unexpected, Sayers contends, it will still be based on historical capabilities that have developed over time in interaction with a growth in material powers. The struggle for a society beyond the horrors of capitalism cannot rest on a quasi-religious hope for miracles; it must be rooted instead in capitalism’s actual tendencies.

These brief summaries give only the roughest sense of the many important insights and arguments found in this impressive collection. A few comments cutting across a number of contributions follow.

The Hegel/Marx connection is discussed in depth by Moggach, Ikäheimo, Schmidt am Busch, Chitty, and Neuhouser, and is a peripheral concern in other chapters as well. It is noteworthy that none of the essays here endorse Marx’s hostile remarks on Hegel. Marx took Hegel’s ‘Spirit’ to be an imaginary metaphysical monstrosity, an alien super-subject, lording over flesh and blood human beings. As Chitty’s essay documents with exemplary thoroughness, however, Hegel’s notion of Spirit is better understood in terms of a “universal self-consciousness”, quite close to Marx’s own notion of “solidarity”. Hegel’s very definition of Spirit as the I that is We and the We that is I expresses a social ontology quite different from the caricature that we find in Marx and so many of his adherents. That caricature is avoided throughout this collection.

A second comment has to do with what a number of authors regard as a profound weakness in Marx’s position. In different yet complementary ways Moggach, Ikäheimo, Schmidt am Busch, and Neuhouser suggest that Marx failed to provide adequate protections to individuals of the sort we find in Hegel’s account of “Abstract Right”, and in the liberal tradition. I believe Moggach, Reiman, Sypnowich and Kandiyali are completely correct when they insist that Marx was deeply committed to a strong form of ethical individualism. He certainly did not want to overcome capitalist alienation at the cost of our individuality. The question here, however, is not about his intentions, but about what his theoretical framework does and does not contain.

The point is perhaps put most sharply by Neuhouser, who maintains Marx failed to take seriously the normative importance of rights. For individuality to flourish, individuals must be guaranteed a space of action, protected from external interference, as Hegel emphasized in The Philosophy of Right. Schmidt am Busch adds that Marx’s belief that everyone in communism would automatically act in a way furthering each other’s needs was too naïve and implausible to justify his neglect of such protections.

There is a good reason, however, to refrain from drawing a fixed and immutable line between public matters and a private realm left to individual discretion; the line was drawn in the past in a manner protecting practices we now recognize as oppressive. As soon as we go beyond a general rhetoric of rights and begin to determine their specific content, we must remain open to the possibility that matters now thought to be appropriately left to private discretion might later prove to be oppressive in ways we do not appreciate today.

From this point of view Marx’s refusal to accept that there are fixed force fields protecting individuals from social interference may not be simply based on the mistaken assumption that the form taken by liberal rights in capitalism is the only form individual rights can take, as Neuhouser maintains. It might follow instead from the insight that any attempt to define the appropriate sphere of individual digression should in principle be recognized as fallible and revisable in light of on-going social learning processes. This shows that there is a good reason to emphasize social forms, as Marx did, rather than individual rights. Social forms can either foster or undermine the social learning processes best suited for judging which actions and practices are best left to the discretion of individuals, and which are not.

There are places in Marx’s early unpublished writings where he suggests the very disputable claim that normative issues inherent in the complex dialectic of society and individual raised by Schmidt am Busch and others can be put to the side since in communism.  In the essay he published most relevant to that issue, however, we get a different picture. In ‘The Civil War in France’, Marx endorsed a model of a post-capitalist society that was not based on the assumption that all individual actions would spontaneously further the good of the community and each of its members. It is supposed instead that there will be recurrent and significant disagreements about proper actions and policies, requiring institutionalized sites of democratic discussion and decision-making to resolve. All mature individuals clearly have a right to participate in decisions affecting them directly or indirectly, in both workplaces and local communities. The right to freely present one’s own view and the reasons behind it, and to examine critically the views of others, are also acknowledged.

Since decisions made by communes in workplaces and local communities have repercussions on those elsewhere, Marx also endorses higher-order discussion and decision-making forums, with representatives from local communities and workplaces elected, subject to recall, and paid only average workers’ wages. We may, if we wish, speak of the right of members of communities and workplaces to not have alien forms of public power imposed on them. Higher-order public power comes into play only when the good of higher-order communities essential to the identities of these individuals comes into play. This essay also shows that Marx fully realized the importance of providing education, nutrition, free time, and personal security, even if he did not use the vocabulary of rights.   

Marx’s very compressed sketch of radical deliberative democracy is undoubtedly inadequate as it stands. Nonetheless, if it had been taken into account the criticisms of Marx’s supposed insufficient concern for individuals would have to be qualified, in my view.

Finally, Marx did not simply affirm that capitalism was an exploitative class society. He also insisted that for the first time in human history, personal domination has become secondary to the impersonal domination of things. When the social relations of generalized commodity production and exchange are in place the dominant form of human sociability becomes a ghostly (‘supersensuous’) property of things, the value of commodities expressed in money.  Even more bizarrely, a new dominant subject emerges, capital, a self-moving substance that reproduces itself by taking on in turn the form of money and commodities. Capital’s process of self-reproduction certainly involves human activities (buying, selling, labouring, transporting, and so on). But these actions are subordinated under the higher-order dynamic Marx termed ‘the self-valorisation of value’, that is, the transformation of the initial aggregate of money capital (M) invested on the level of total social capital into a greater aggregate (M’). This is something like the metaphysical fantasy Marx (mistakenly) thought Hegel believed has become a reality.  Hegel supposedly believed that Spirit, an abstraction, operates as an alien power over human life. Today, capital, an abstraction, really does operate as an alien power, subordinating human ends to its end, the accumulation of surplus value (the difference between M’ and M).  Those pursuing ends that do not contribute to, or are at least not compatible with, the valorisation imperative (M must become M’!) are systematically pushed to the margins of social life, if not destroyed. Because the papers in this collection concentrate so much on his earlier writings, before Marx’s concept of capital was fully developed, this crucial concept is not given its full due.

It is unreasonable to expect a single collection of essays to cover everything. This collection makes an absolutely compelling case that Marx holds a central place in the great tradition of normative social philosophy from Kant and Rousseau to Rawls and Honneth, and that is more than sufficient for one book. The sophistication with which Marx’s arguments are examined surely makes this one of the most important books in Marxian philosophy published in recent decades.

23 November 2018

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