Re: Marx on civil liberties and justice

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Date Mon, 18 Oct 2004 12:52:00 -0500
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brian turner wrote:

>> > In what way is the US, Europe, or Japan not "free"?
>> Are you referring to the states themselves, some abstract concept of 
>> the 'population', or particular classes within those nation-states? 
>> The answer depends on how you define the question.
> The states or the societies. They allow (or are forced to allow by 
> legal or cultural traditions or whatever) dissent and free political 
> association. They also don't force people to hold any particular 
> political views or adore the leader of the moment. Circumstances where 
> they do attempt such acts are considered scandalous and usually are 
> rectified in time. In the absence of a libertarian environment, that's 
> normalacy.

I note that your discussion focuses only on political freedoms. 'Dull 
economic compulsion' is for you not force? If you happen to believe that 
the entire edifice of bourgious society is constructed upon an edifice 
of inequality (exchange of non-equivalents) but wrapped in the packaging 
of equal exchange (the wage form), then it follows that people are 
forced on a daily basis to 'hold particular political views and adore 
the leader of the moment. [the boss, money, etc.]' Of course this is 
viewed as the height of normalcy in societies where the bourgious form 
has taken hold.

>> But in general, there are various levels at which groups and classes 
>> are unfree even in bourgeois democracies. Oppression and exploitation 
>> based on race, gender, sexuality, etc.
> The remarkable advances in modern times in those three areas indicates 
> the awesome power of bourgeois freedoms as tool to move in the 
> direction of justice.

You may think that 'the awesome power of bourgeois freedoms' has 
significantly improved the position of various oppressed/subordinated 
groups, but I happen to think that it was the struggles of those groups 
and individuals, rather than the power of an abstraction, that accounts 
for the gains. That many groups appropriated the discourse of bourgeois 
freedoms and rights seems unsurprising given the location of those 
groups. Movements appropriate ideas and slogans, but cannot be 
understood solely through the categories they choose to live our their 
struggles. Moreover, the elimination of oppression and exploitation 
based on race, gender and class proceeded much much further IMO in 
societies where the conscious goal was 'socialism' and not a bourgeois 

And how do you deal with the most central of the core bourgeois 
freedoms: private property? Is this most holy of bourgeois freedoms 
consistent with your understanding of freedom?

Lest we think these discussions abstract, I highly recommend Naomi 
Klein's more recent film 'The Take' on the attempts of workers in 
Argentina to take over abandoned factories and run them as cooperatives. 
The state, the defender of bourgeois freedoms, doesn't take kindly to 
groups attempting to expand their realm of freedom by violating private 

> Oh, and the kicker: the continued exploitation of labor under capital.
> In parts of Europe, labor is quite powerful and has seized quite a bit 
> of policy making power (nationally and in the company), more income 
> and other benefits (the fruits of their production), and quality of 
> life generally. The distribution of wealth in parts of Europe is quite 
> equal, which necessitates qualifying the exploitation of labor under 
> capital.
> Of course there is much more that could be done, especially in the US 
> and Japan, but it's incomprehensible that further gains can be made 
> without freedom of organization, etc.

Yes, much more can be done, you're absolutely right. That's why unions 
in the US fight against Taft-Hartley, so that the nominal freedom of 
association can be realized in practice. If this is a bourgeois freedom, 
why isn't the bourgeois supporting it?

Also, gains are made daily by groups without any formal freedom of 
organization, which is not incomprehensible. People can create their own 
freedoms without having them sanctioned by the bourgeois and the state.

> Did you read that hilarious bit from the PRC press in the last news 
> email about unions? The PRC is all for labor union international 
> cooperation as long as it's acknowledged that different countries have 
> different models of unions. In other words, we are happy to let our 
> rightist party appointees mingle with real union officials overseas. 
> Great.

Do you really expect differently? By your own admission: "the PRC is a 
pro-big business center-right powerful state now."

>> Marx was writing when capital was in its youth and still engaged in 
>> struggle against non-/pre-capitalist (choose your telelogy) modes of 
>> production. We're in a bit of a different situation.
> I can't imagine that he would regard bourgeois liberties as only 
> meaningful in that one circumstance.
>> And in the situation of China the spectrum of bourgeois freedoms were 
>> (formally) adopted and actually (formally) superceeded during its 
>> revolution....
> I don't understand your meaning. Superceded nominally or in practice?

Nominally. Human rights (the pinnacle of the discourse on bourgeois 
freedoms) exist only in nominal form as an ideal. There is no society 
that has 'achieved' them, so we're left with at best a spectrum of 
proximity to this 'ideal type.'

> In practice they were obliterated, contrary to pre-1949 promises, and 
> doubtlessly part of the reason for the many shortcomings of Chinese 
> socialism. I do regard, however, the radical part of the Cultural 
> Revolution as a step back towards the original idea, only distorted by 
> lawlessness and then betrayed during and after 1968.
>> They've *already* spread to China. There's still lots of 
>> revolutionary traction to be gained (I think) from exploited and 
>> oppressed classes using the rhetoric of bourgeois freedoms to advance 
>> their own aims. But you'll hear nothing but sneer and sarcasm when I 
>> hear 'freedom' ring from the lips of Ann Coulter or Bush. To conflate 
>> the two is to make a devastating error, IMHO.
> Bush is (maybe) for freedom and social injustice. There is no reason 
> to reject his position on the former because of the latter.

If Bush is (maybe) for freedom, and if you claim that even Marx 
"enthusiastically welcomed [the expansion of bourgeois freedoms] as a 
triumph for the working class, even when NOT accompanied by social 
justice reforms," then we all should be rallying behind the US president 
as he spreads freedom to Iraq, no?

> Contrary, he argued tirelessly against ‘a whole gang of half-mature 
> students and super-wise diplomaed doctors who want to give socialism a 
> “higher, idealistic” orientation, that is to say, to replace its 
> materialistic basis (which demands serious objective study from anyone 
> who tries to use it) by modern mythology with its goddesses of 
> justice, Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity’. (Marx, letter of 1877)
> I don't see how that contradicts his many statements supporting 
> bourgeois freedoms.

The contradiction rests within 'bourgeois freedoms' freedoms themselves. 
How could anyone 'support' a contradictory ideal? Marx was very 
supportive of the call for rights/freedoms that the bourgeois issued as 
they fought with feudalism and pre-/non-capitalist formations, but 
there's a tendency for the 'freedoms' allowed to be limited when the 
bourgeois (private property) come under threat. You're trying to rip 
Marx's historically determined, critical and limited support for a 
subset of 'bourgeois freedoms' out of its context in order to justify 
your more general (and as yet unjustified IMO) support for bourgeois 
freedoms. That's my beef.

>> ‘Right can never be higher than the economic structure of society and 
>> its cultural development conditioned thereby’ (‘Critique of the Gotha 
>> Programme')
> Or:
> I see how you could read this this way, but it flies in the face of 
> other things he said. This quote has unfortunately been used by 
> 'Marxist' despots, starting with Stalin and going all the way to Jiang 
> Zemin to justify their personal rule. I can't imagine Marx intended that.

Weak argument. Of course Marx didn't intend that. The appropriation of 
Marxism by particular groups has to be grasped through an understanding 
of the groups doing the appropriation. Bourgeois freedoms have been used 
to justify lots of nasty shit too, should we thus abandon them?