The Similarities Between Marxism and Libertarianism
Marxism and libertarianism are usually held up as polar opposites and eternal enemies. For the purposes of this post I am using libertarianism its current day understanding where it is broadly speaking associated with those who wish to uphold the values and ideals of classical liberalism: defending the market economy and rights of the individual against the state and so on. The sorts of people who read Reason.com and admire the works of Robert Nozick, Ayn Rand, Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman and Ludwig Von Mises. Libertarians have a tendency to use Marxism as a generalised boo word for anything they see as bad and dangerous, which to me seems odd because I think there parts of Marxism which libertarians should be sympathetic too. While Marxism and contemporary libertarianism are very different ideologies and are ultimately irreconcilable there are a few things they do have in common:
- Both are inheritors of the legacy of the Enlightenment and modernity which in effect makes them ideological cousins. Both ideas are modernist and universalist and believe that human beings have the ability to use reason and science to rationally understand and master the natural and social world, and that the human is central and is able to make his own history.
- Marx was the first writer on society and political economy to get capitalism’s point. He himself held an admiration for the productive dynamism of capitalism which made it progressive and revolutionary against feudalism and laid the material basis for the possibility of communist abundance in the future. He wrote in concert with Engels in The Communist Manifesto that capitalism “has given an immense development to commerce…has accomplished wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts, and Gothic cathedrals…draws all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilisation…[and has] rescued a considerable part of the population from the idiocy of rural life.” Marxists don’t deny that capitalism has been a progressive and liberating force. In fact Marx and Engels understood this far more profoundly then Friedman, Hayek and Von Mises ever did. We simply say that progress under capitalism is never guaranteed to last long and is always vulnerable to regression and that we can do better because we do not believe capitalism is history’s last word.
- Marxism shares with libertarianism an opposition to the state. Marxists view the state, to use Marx’s words, as the “committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie” which necessarily means that the ruling class will use the state and all of its coercive technologies as a tool to socially control the working class. Marxism, contrary to what some may think, does not believe in using the state to police people’s lifestyles, limit their mobility, regulate their sex lives and dictate to them what they should eat or what they should spend their money on. In the end Marxism seeks to realise the “withering away of the state” and replace it with the “administration of things”. The nanny state that libertarians like Christopher Snowdon frequently critique is most definitely not a Marxist notion. In fact, I would go as far as to say that any serious Marxist should oppose ‘nanny state’ like policies whether overt, or covert.
- Both believe in creating societies of plentitude and material abundance that will bring wealth and freedom to the masses but have different approaches to achieving this. For libertarians it is the market, property rights and the ‘creative destruction’ of capital that will make the poor rich. While for Marxists it is precisely this that is preventing the abolition of scarcity for all and it is only by transcending capitalism and moving towards a new mode of production that would be even more dynamic than capitalism and move humanity into a state of material superabundance that would abolish the conditions that enable class society, conflict and strife. As Sylvia Pankhurst once wrote, socialism does not “call for limitation of births, for penurious thrift, and self-denial. We call for a great production that will supply all, and more than all the people can consume.”
- Marxism has a strong libertarian streak within it and like libertarianism is concerned with individual freedom, which seems odd given the history of the 20th century. Marx thought that the ideal society is where “the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.” It may seem paradoxical, perhaps even dialectical to suggest that individualism can only be truly realised in a socialist/communist formation, but I assure you it is not. As Oscar Wilde argued in The Soul of Man Under Socialism that with the dawn of socialism man will truly become independent and no longer will live for others and would be free to develop his own multifaceted individuality.
Above all Marxism shares with libertarianism a concern for human freedom and creating a society which maximise human freedom and human potential to its fullest and most profound effect. Both ideas as I have demonstrated have some things in common in terms of basic values, but are ultimately irreconcilable simply because libertarians believe capitalism and the free market economy is what required to free humans and ensure their autonomy and prosperity. While Marxists view capitalism as an exploitative system that is a stumbling block to further human progress and ought to be abolished for that reason.
Nevertheless, I do have respect for some libertarians and can even agree with them on some issues albeit from different perspectives and reasoning such as defending free speech and civil liberties, artistic and sexual freedom, freedom of movement and immigration, individual autonomy and the gains of science and modernity. I am even able to read an article on Reason.com and say to myself “you know what I actually broadly agree with this”. However, I always feel libertarians are blind to the authoritarian tendencies within capitalism and don’t realise that there is a tension between supporting liberty and capitalism. For example, the alienating and oppressive employment relations of capitalism because of the authoritarian structures of many firms and corporations, the fact that most people don’t have inherited wealth and are forced by circumstance to endure exploitative and alienating work within capitalist relations just to earn a living to meet their most basic animal needs, thus curtailing their freedom to enjoy other lifestyles such as a love of music and the arts for instance. Furthermore, libertarians often don’t pay enough attention to how the increasing marketisation and commodification of society creates an crude instrumental ethic that sterilises culture, deadens social life and dulls individual desires, thus stagnating human flourishing.
I am in a slightly awkward position because if I could distill my political position then I would be somewhat of a libertarian Marxist (though I use libertarian in this context in a very basic sense) , which hopefully as I have implied throughout this post is not a contradiction in terms. I am a socialist because I am a libertarian and I am a libertarian because I am a socialist. Socialism is about bringing freedom to all individuals while actually existing libertarianism at best can only provide freedom for some individuals. I would stipulate that in order to be truly libertarian you have to recognise that capitalism and freedom are not wholly compatible and then we can ask the question of whether humanity can move into a new formation that can maximise human freedom.