Liberal freedoms were won despite, not thanks to capitalism

What will communism look like? Anti- or at least non-liberal seems to be the consensus between right and left sections. The former fear that socialists will seek their hard-won freedoms; the latter, nourishing fantasies of revolutionary violence inspired by the beginning of the 20th century, see in liberalism only an obstacle to political change. This reading of the stakes of the struggles for socialism has served to discredit the left in the eyes of ordinary people, who hear of the break with liberalism as crypto-authoritarianism.

Are they right? In Revisiting the Marxist Critique of Liberalism: Rethinking Justice, Legality and RightsIgor Shoikhebrod seeks to go beyond the simplistic question of whether the author of Capital city was “for or against” liberalism. Worse than misleading, this framing has had deleterious effects on our political imaginations.

The dominant approach, according to Shoikhebrod, is to understand Karl Marx as rejecting liberal notions of rights because they presuppose “the alien, selfish individual of bourgeois society”. The liberal idea of ​​justice should then be abandoned because it is “a barrier to a richer conception of human freedom”. Properly understood, communism is beyond justice and rights, which illiberal Marxists see as an ideological justification of bourgeois oppression in the interests of the ruling class. Whatever communism is, it removes the partisan and individualistic nature of the law under liberalism in favor of a radically distinct alternative. Having got rid of scarcity, communist society would render private property rights and their pervasive influence on the legal system useless.

Shoikhebrod points out that in fact, Marx himself cared a lot about rights. He actively supported the expansion of civil liberties such as freedom of the press and speech, political rights and the rights of ethnic and religious minorities, and the use of law to constrain capital and empower labor. All of these positions are clear throughout his journalism and political-economic analysis. The German word for rights, Right, which Marx uses has both the legal and moral connotations of its English equivalent, but in addition evokes our common standards of justice. These, according to Marx, “can never be superior to the economic structure of society and its cultural development conditioned by it”.

Marx was a little smarter than his detractors seem to imagine. He recognized the value of rights to protect people from domination, but he did not think they could eliminate the dependence of labor on capital which is the material basis of domination under capitalism. A transformation of the mode of production, rather than the abolition of rights, would be necessary to end domination.

Marx was a materialist: he thought that we were constrained by the dominant modes of organization of the relations of production. The law can therefore only sediment the result of historical conflicts over these relations. Market dependence and the constraints imposed on capitalists by competition set strict limits to what can be achieved in struggles for rights. For these reasons, Marxist historian Ellen Meiksins-Wood has argued that capitalist social property relations make political rights more accessible while significantly constraining them.

Marx’s position on rights stems from his view that the freedoms we have are limited by the forms of domination necessitated by a class society. This should not, however, be confused with a denial of rights as such. Communist legality, then, would simply reflect a different material basis for our freedoms, not the abandonment of the rule of law altogether.

The dominant interpretation of Marx unfortunately excluded a properly materialist understanding of rights. John Rawls, the dean of English-language political theory, said that all Marx had in mind was “beyond justice”. In Germany, Jürgen Habermas made the normative horizon of law a maximum constraint on capital, while conceding to liberals that markets are functionally necessary for coordination purposes in any modern society.

More recently, Frankfurt School figures like Axel Honneth and Nancy Fraser have also stopped short of conceptualizing freedom beyond capitalism. Rather, they have argued that its markets hold the promise of historic freedom yet to be unfolded (perhaps a move towards market socialism) or that the progressive wings of contemporary social movements should unite to expand the reach of democracy to the economy.

None of these approaches recognizes the fact that a transformation of the relations of production is necessary to overcome domination. Shoikhebrod reminds us that renegotiating the terms of the constraints of capitalism is simply not enough.

Shoikhebrod’s project has both abstract philosophical and practical political stakes. If we accept the prevailing view that socialism is diametrically opposed to liberalism, then we are forced to credit capitalism for the liberal freedoms that have made capitalist society livable, rather than workers and the socialist movement.

There is a long history of reflection on the transition to capitalism brought about by the “bourgeois revolutions” in Europe and the United States. In this story, the capitalists are a revolutionary class, overthrowing feudal property relations and premodern forms of domination based on race, gender, and other allotment hierarchies. Their struggle to instantiate private property rights over and against the landed aristocracy played an essentially progressive role in the overthrow of the old regime.

Capitalism itself is therefore morally progressive, a view supported by Marx’s own comments to that effect. Marx believed that capitalism and the bourgeoisie created unprecedented political opportunities for the emancipation of the poor, women and workers. The bourgeois right, according to him, is a tool that must be used to the end of its own overcoming.

Marx has been widely criticized for assuming that capitalism is progressive, a view that critics say is evidence of his Eurocentrism. These critics argue that capitalism has not led to liberalism everywhere. They argue that the communist theorist falsely projected the European experience around the world, neglecting to think about the compatibility of capitalism and slavery or colonial rule.

Ironically, critics of Marx who stress the coexistence of capitalism and non-liberalism are convinced that the system has been truly progressive in Europe but not outside. Implicit in this view is the idea that rights are not only essentially bourgeois, but a product of the European bourgeoisie in particular. The irony is that this belief is itself Eurocentric: it denies the free will of the working class and ignores subaltern struggles for liberal reforms.

If Marx was wrong, it was on his more fundamental assumption that the capitalist class was always progressive, even in Europe. On the contrary, the working class, the poor and the peasantry fought their way onto the political scene for the most basic political rights, using a combination of political and economic tactics, forcing the capitalists to concede at every turn. Indeed, capital and the bourgeoisie were not one and the same thing.

Many early capitalists were in fact the former landowners who had made the transition to market-dependent agricultural production. They fought fiercely to suppress democratic reforms and were often the most active forces that did so. There is no guarantee of imputing a particular desire for bourgeois rights and justice as constitutive of their class interests or moral worldview. What makes capitalism compatible with varying degrees of liberalism and authoritarianism around the world is the fact that it is inseparable from liberal freedoms.

marx and its detractors are too generous towards capitalism. They attribute to the system social improvements for which work is responsible. The idea that bourgeois rights belong to the capitalist class is what justifies the leftist view that rights only exist to justify economic domination.

This view is wrong. It ignores those for whom liberal rights are truly precious: the workers who fought the political battles for their expansion and whose commitment to those rights pushed capitalism toward democracy. Their victories were not inevitable, any more than a reduction in their gains is impossible.

What distinguishes socialist politics from bourgeois politics, that is to say liberalism, is not a difference of nature but of perspective. Liberal politics manages domination; socialist policy seeks to abolish it. Accordingly, the socialist perspective is not inherently extralegal or beyond justice. On the contrary, its strategies and priorities draw their moral legitimacy from an ideal of human freedom beyond domination.

Over the past century, socialists have been widely written about criticizing the Soviet experience and arguing that its problem was its neglect of civil liberties and constitutional rights. This criticism is justified, as far as it goes. He rightly pointed out the problems of the economism or productivism of state communism. This, however, has led many to argue that there are too many socialist theories about economics and not enough about politics.

What Shoikhebrod’s argument suggests, however, is that socialists think too little of both. The socialist future will have a material basis for rights, just as capitalism has today, but those rights will be based on freedom. Socialists should be busy figuring out what that would look like.

The strength of Shoikhebrod’s book is that it recognizes the relationship between economic and legal freedoms by showing that the former impose constraints on the latter. This change of perspective makes it possible to question the defenders of Western capitalism on the insistence on giving the system the merit of liberal freedoms. In the West, anti-communism has actually succeeded in provincializing freedom by portraying its telos as capitalist rather than socialist, a prejudice that the left has too often subscribed to. This is a concession that need not be made since the promise of freedom under capitalism is a promise that capital itself has not made. For this promise, liberals can thank socialists, because freedom has always been at the center of our project.