This talk about free selling and buying, and all the other
"brave words" of our bourgeoisie about freedom in general,
have a meaning, if any, only in contrast with restricted selling
and buying, with the fettered traders of the Middle Ages, but
have no meaning when opposed to the Communistic abolition of buying
and selling, of the bourgeois conditions of production, and of
the bourgeoisie itself.
Even the most cursory student of Communism is familiar with the seminal role of Karl Marx in the development of Communist ideology. The practical results of Communist revolutions have been so dreadful that Marx scholars have been at pains to point out the numerous doctrinal points on which Communist revolutionaries came to deviate from the teachings of Marx. Yet on an important collection of fundamental issues, the profound influence of Marx on Communist theory and practice is easy to detect.
Marx was a German of Jewish origin who lived much of his life in exile in France and Great Britain. He found much to object to in the prevalent political philosophy of his host countries - a philosophy then known generally as liberalism, as elaborated by such thinkers as John Locke, Adam Smith, Voltaire, and Jean-Baptiste Say. Liberals saw themselves as advocates of liberty, and by liberty they meant the right of individuals to do as they pleased with their own lives and their own property. (Today, these "liberals" would probably be called "libertarians.")
While liberalism in the modern sense of the term tends to see the freedom to live as one pleases as quite distinct from the freedom to dispose of property as one pleases, the liberals of Marx's time usually saw these freedoms as closely connected. Personal freedom, as Locke for example saw it, was nothing else than self-ownership:
[E]very Man has a Property in his own Person. This No Body has any Right to but himself. The Labour of his Body, and the Work of his Hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever then he removes out of the State that Nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his Labour with, and joyned to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his Property...
Second Treatise of Government
Or as Robert Overton, one of Locke's predecessors explained it:
To every individual in nature is given an individual property by nature, not be to invaded or usurped by any: for everyone as he is himself, so he hath a self-propriety... No man hath power over my rights and liberties, and I over no man's; I may be but an individual, enjoy myself and my self-propriety, and may write myself no more than myself, or presume any further; if I do, I am an encroacher and an invader upon another man's right.
An Arrow Against All Tyrants
Marx did not deny the close connection between personal freedom and property rights. Rather, he accepted their connection, and denounced both as manifestations of what he called "bourgeois freedom." The doctrine of the rights of man was faulty, according to Marx, because:
None of the supposed rights of man, therefore, go beyond the egoistic man, man as he is, as a member of civil society; that is, an individual separated from the community, withdrawn into himself, wholly preoccupied with his private interest and acting in accordance with his private caprice... Thus man was not liberated from religion; he received religious liberty. He was not liberated from property; he received the liberty to own property. He was not liberated from the egoism of business; he received the liberty to engage in business.
On the Jewish Question
To succeed in chaining the multitude, you must seem to wear
the same fetters.
For Marx, freedom of religion or the freedom to own property are hollow freedoms, or at least grossly inadequate stepping stones to something better: "political emancipation itself is not human emancipation." "[B]ourgeois 'freedom of conscience' is nothing but the toleration of all possible kinds of religious freedom of conscience, and that for its part [socialism] endeavors rather to liberate the conscience from the witchery of religion." (Critique of the Gotha Program). Rather than advocating freedom for all people, liberals really value only the freedom of the ruling class of capitalist society, viz., the bourgeoisie:
But don't wrangle with us so long as you apply, to our intended abolition of bourgeois property, the standard of your bourgeois notions of freedom, culture, law, etc. Your very ideas are but the outgrowth of the conditions of your bourgeois production and bourgeois property, just as your jurisprudence is but the will of your class made into a law for all, a will, whose essential character and direction are determined by the economical conditions of existence of your class.
Manifesto of the Communist Party
Marx accuses the liberal tradition of slighting the social nature of man. "Liberty is, therefore, the right to do everything which does not harm others... It is a question of the liberty of man regarded as an isolated monad, withdrawn into himself." Marx elaborates: "The right of property, is, therefore, the right to enjoy one's fortunes and dispose of it as he will; without regard for other men and independently of society... It leads every man to see in other men, not the realization, but rather the limitation of his own liberty." (On the Jewish Question)
Innumerable social thinkers disagree with much of Marx's thought, but praise his reflections upon human freedom, the depth of his insight in contrast to the shallowness of liberalism. Yet it is difficult to understand how Marx's concept of freedom is anything more than a defense of tyranny and oppression. No dissident or non-conformist can see society as the "realization of his own liberty." And what can the attack on "the right to do everything which does not harm others" amount to in practice, except a justification for coercing people who are not harming others? The problem with "broad" notions of freedom is that they necessarily wind up condoning the violation of "narrow" notions of freedom. Under "bourgeois" notions of religious liberty, people may practice any religion they wish ("a private whim or caprice" as Marx calls it); how could this liberty be broadened, without sanctioning the persecution of some religious views?
Earlier anti-liberals directly attacked liberty as an evil. Marx adopted a different stance - to attack liberty under the guise of expanding it. In so doing, he re-packaged despotism to please modern sensibilities - a feat of intellectual marketing which would have profound consequences for hundreds of millions of people in the next century.