It is one of the great ironies in the history of ideas that Marxism has come to be so closely associated with totalitarianism, when anyone who has read his work with a modicum of seriousness knows that Karl Marx was first and foremost a philosopher of freedom. Marx diagnosed the oppression of the working class, the alienation of workers from their labor, as well as the alienation of all human beings living within capitalism from their own authentic selves, and proposed that it was objectively possible that emancipation, true liberation, would come one day. As Levy del Águila Marchena puts it, Marxian (as opposed to Marxist) thought is a ‘radical emancipatory’ project that ‘positively assumes the role of political determinations for the cause of freedom’ (1). Marx’s political ‘bet’ was that humanity had the capability and the tools to create ‘an organized society where people can freely deploy their capacities and satisfy their needs’ (2).
In Communism, Political Power and Personal Freedom in Marx, del Águila explores not the struggle for liberation from capitalist hegemony, which was the main interest of Marxist revolutionary thinkers from Rosa Luxemburg to Lenin, Mao and Che Guevara, but freedom as realized in the communist society that arises out of the depredations of the present world. Del Águila is well aware that Marx did not formulate communist society in any systematic or complete way, that ‘the content of phenomena such as the abolition of private property, the disappearance of class divisions’ and so on ‘is not further developed’ in Marx’s work (32). Nevertheless, he believes that an in-depth analysis of the Marxian canon offers sufficient clues to assemble, even if not in full detail, a coherent sense of Marx’s conception of freedom at this stage of human development—‘not only the negations of departure [from capitalism], but also the positive conditions that characterize the communist society that would emerge from the civilization of capital’ (33).
The book is a piece of academic detective work. It dives into well-known texts such as Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts and, especially, Critique of the Gotha Programme to glean insights into what Marx meant by human liberation. Del Águila eschews discussion of these concepts by Marx’s intellectual followers (including, for the most part, Engels) or by scholars both receptive and critical of Marxism. It is thus a lean, tightly focused monograph, which nevertheless offers some surprising conclusions and much fodder for future debate.
Critics of Marxism have long argued that, even if Marx genuinely sought to free humanity from exploitation and alienation, his theoretical approach was bound to lead to Soviet-style dictatorship—that is, to a system that enslaves its subjects in the name of freedom. Andrzej Walicki, for example, argues that, while ‘freedom was the organizing principle of [Marx’s] entire philosophy of history’, its ‘dogmatic’, ‘utopian’, and ‘pseudo-scientific’ qualities essentially made it inevitable that the most horrific political crimes would be committed under the guise of ‘the leap to the kingdom of freedom’ (Walicki 1997: 1-2). Likewise, Leszek Kolakowski contends that Marx was not interested in individual freedom, but only in freedom at the level of ‘the collective, generic character of human life’, and thus allowed himself to gloss over ‘the antagonism between individual and collective life’ (Kolakowski 2005: 104). Del Águila is aware of both of these authors, but does not address their arguments directly, or any others that are explicitly hostile to Marxism. While streamlining the discussion, this also limits the reach of his analysis.
Del Águila presents his view in the three long chapters that form the core of the book (bookended by significantly shorter introductory and concluding sections). First, he outlines his interpretation of Marx’s vision of freedom. Marx, in this reading, does not at all subscribe to a ‘collectivist, anti-individualistic’ communism. Rather, ‘Marxian communism outlines a society of free and (mutually) different individuals committed to the deployment of personality of particular subjects, as associated producers who make possible their joint reproduction’ (50). ‘Communist society’ would, for the first time in human history, allow for ‘the proceeds of social labour [to] be directly appropriated by their producers’, but would also promote ‘a concrete freedom where we would effectively consider the determinations that constitute what these producers are: subjects with different capacities and needs, which can only be duly harvested and satisfied as consider account the particularity that defines them’ (61).
Del Águila highlights the continuity between the liberal tradition of Enlightenment thought, from John Locke through Immanuel Kant and John Stuart Mill, and Marx who ‘takes a step forward from liberalism through his conception of freedom from and for concrete individuals’ (17), while offering ‘a radical commitment to individual freedom that leads him to go beyond the liberal horizon and its understanding of political power’ (5). In this narrative, Marx’s dream was the coming of a human life that would appropriate the positive achievement of capitalism and to realize liberal aspirations, though of course unhampered by capitalism. Interestingly enough, Del Águila identifies the connections between Marx and Mill’s On Liberty, with its unstinting defense of freedom of speech and action. But not enough is said about the complicated transitions from ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat’, where the culture of the bourgeoise is presumably expunged to open the door for the reeducation necessary to refashion human nature, and the subjectivities that are specific to communism.
Del Águila’s approach is to take Marx’s cryptic pronouncements as a sharply drawn theoretical construct. Doing so allows him to take the next step and ask whether Marx’s blueprint would result in a truly and sustainably free human community. Del Águila answers in the negative, surprisingly given his obvious attachment to Marxian thought. This is the book’s most interesting section, provided one takes Marx’s utopianism at face value. His main complaint is that Marx envisioned a world in which individual and collective needs would come to be completely in synch, obviating the need for the state, or for politics of any sort. Marx’s ‘reduction’, he claims, ‘instrumentalizes the political’ and is thus ‘short of tools for thinking the management of the common in a context where the revolutionary activity against capital would have been successful’ (134). Marx’s notion of communism ‘shows a fundamental void and exposes an unmet theoretical need’ (142).
There’s something paradoxical about a scholar who eagerly embraces Marx’s utopianism, but then chastises it for being too utopian. Although the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts and the Critique of the Gotha Program belongs to two different stages of Marx’s thinking, nonetheless, they both share the idea that human nature is endlessly malleable, always a function of historical context and societal structure. Why then would it be unthinkable to reach a point where individual and collective needs would be in such harmony so as to signify the end of the state or the end of politics as the site of antagonism over major social interests? Del Águila simply will not go this far. Marx’s thought, he concludes, exhibits ‘a fundamental limitation’, which ‘compromises the very project of a humanly emancipated society’. The limitation is that Marx ultimately does not offer a realistic blueprint: ‘the pretension that the individual and collective antagonisms affecting the management of the life in common will disappear in a communist society is a utopian pretension and it cannot but fail’ (257).
The book, in short, will be of interest primarily to scholars of Marx and Marxism, and less so to activists seeking advice on how to advance the cause of freedom in the current world. Still, as a work of scholarly analysis, it has much to recommend it. Del Águila’s is open-eyed and critical of original Marxian texts, and his arguments are presented clearly. There is a moment very early in the book where it seems like the reader will be forced to endure abstruse prose of the sort favored by post-Marxist critical theorists—‘the determination that makes politics an inescapable dimension of the communist bet lies in the progressive development of social relations and the relationship between the human species and Nature within the framework of the ontological finitude inherent to any technical resource that can be used to viabilize them’ (1-2). But fortunately, this is merely an unwelcome blip, and the bulk of the manuscript is written in accessible and straightforward language (ably translated from the Spanish by Luis Felipe Bartolo Alegre).
Del Águila is far from sanguine about the prospects for capitalism’s defeat: ‘an alternative simply does not exist in the global scene of our time’. Yet, as he rightly maintains, this should not preclude us from considering alternatives, from challenging the existing ‘monolithic ideological trust’ and replacing it with ‘the guidelines that should define our social organization […] under a growing sense of belonging to a single humanity and a common destiny’ (6). Despite the flaws in his thinking, and despite the tragic misuses of his critique, Marx remains the crucial signpost that marks the beginning of this work.
- 2005 Main Currents of Marxism (W.W. Norton & Co.)
- 1997 Marxism and the Leap to the Kingdom of Freedom (Stanford University Press)