RE to Marije de Vries; Marx: collectivist or individualist

Julian Mueller JulianPorto at
Sun Sep 1 06:51:35 MDT 2002

Marije wrote:
>Okay, for now, let's start with a question for you. Mainly because of
the experiences in USSR, Cuba and China, a lot of people think Marx is
a collectivist. That means: the collective is more important than the
individu. But: the final sentence of the second chapter of the
Communist Manifesto demands that "in place of the old bourgeois
society... we shall have an association in which the free development
of each is the condition for the free development of all".

Please tell me: is Marx a collectist or a individualist? Can these two
be one and the same, you think?

Thanks a lot!

Marije de Vries
University of Utrecht<

I think that none of those labels neatly fits Marx's political ideas.
However, it is clear that throughout his intellectual development he stuck
to the notion that the consciously collective organization of the economy
would tremendously further individual freedom. Or rather: that furthering
indivual freedom is the end and the collective economy the means to achieve
this end. (I'm emphasizing here the "consciously" collective organization
of the economy, because already in capitalism the economy is, in a sense, a
collective effort, albeit not consciously so. Due to the high degree of the
division of labour and the eradication of subsistence economy - in the
technologically most advanced capitalist countries - already we're all
"universally dependent" (Marx) on one another. Socialism, then, is about
consciously dealing with that fact of life.)
This thought is forcefully expressed in at times pretty romantic terms in
the famous first chapter of the "German Ideology" but also in Marx's more
mature work. There is for example a less famous paragraph in "Capital" vol.
3 where he states that the "realm of necessity" ("Reich der Notwendigkeit"
in the German original), i.e. the rationally and consciously organized
economy is but the basis for the "realm of freedom" ("Reich der Freiheit")
which is an end in itself. Admittedly, this paragraph does not explicitly
say that the "realm of freedom" is the realm of individual freedom as
opposed to some kind of "freedom of the collective", the latter being a
conception put forward by the likes of Rousseau and Hegel. But given the
things Marx said in other places, e.g. in the "Critique of the Gotha
Programme" written in 1875, I think it would be hard to defend a view that
imputes to Marx this "collective freedom" crap. (I know that an amazingly
high number of Dutch people speak and understand German. If you happen to
be one of them you might want to check out the above mentioned paragraph in
the Marx-Engels-Werke (MEW), vol. 25, p. 828. This is the most accesible
and most commonly used German edition of Marx and Engels and the University
of Utrecht might have it.)

Alright, now we have established that, politically speaking, Marx regarded
individual freedom as the end of socialist society. If that makes him an
individualist, so be it.... Just keep in mind that for him, contrary to the
views of liberalism, that freedom can only flourish on the basis of a
consciously collective organization of the economy. Now, scientifically
speaking, he was a staunch anti-individualist. I believe that this is what
Louis pointed out in his reply. Marx strongly rejected social ontologies
and methodologies that take the isolated individual as a starting point for
theoretical and empirical analysis, like for example so-called
"methodological individualism". For him social structures are logically
prior to individuals and therefore the proper starting point of analysis.
But there is no contradiction to his political views.

To conclude, let me return to the political aspect. Often the more savvy
bourgeois (and maybe also anarchist) philosophers, economists, and so on
admit that Marx was committed to individual freedom but contend that his
political ideas, if actually applied, would inevitably lead to tyranny of
the collective over the individual. And, unfortunately, China, the Soviet
Union, and the other examples seem  to confirm that. So they can still hold
him responsible for these dictatorships. I think this is a more challenging
line of argument and one that is not as easy to refute as the
Marx-hated-individual-freedom-argument because we cannot simply point to
what Marx actually said. So it might be interesting for you to deal with
that kind of argument in your paper too.


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