Liberal Freedoms Were Won Despite, Not Because of, Capitalism

Leftists have often dismissed liberal freedoms as a justification for capitalist domination. This is wrong. Exploited and oppressed people across the globe fought for these rights against an illiberal elite.

The leader of the German Social Democratic Party, August Bebel, speaking at the party conference in Mainz, Germany. The SPD fought for liberal freedoms in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. (Ullstein Bild via Getty Images)

What will communism be like? Anti- or at least nonliberal seems to be the consensus among sections of the Right and Left. The former fear that socialists are after their hard-won freedoms; the latter, harboring early-twentieth-century-inspired fantasies of revolutionary violence, see in liberalism nothing but an obstacle to political change. This construal of what is at stake in struggles for socialism has served to discredit the Left in the eyes of ordinary people, who hear in talk of breaking with liberalism a crypto-authoritarianism.

Are they right? In Revisiting Marx’s Critique of Liberalism: Rethinking Justice, Legality and Rights, Igor Shoikhebrod seeks to move past the simplistic question of whether the author of Capital was “for or against” liberalism. Worse than misleading, this framing has had deleterious effects on our political imaginations.

Marx: For or Against Liberalism?

The dominant approach, according to Shoikhebrod, is to understand Karl Marx as rejecting liberal notions of rights because they presuppose “the estranged and egoistic individual of bourgeois society.” The liberal idea of justice should then be dispensed with because it is “a barrier to a richer conception of human freedom.” Properly understood, communism is beyond justice and rights, which anti-liberal Marxists see as an ideological justification of bourgeois oppression in the interest of the ruling class. Whatever communism turns out to be, it does away with the partisan and individualistic nature of the law under liberalism in favor of a radically distinct alternative. Having rid itself of scarcity, communist society would make private property rights and their pervasive influence on the legal system unnecessary.

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

Marx was quite a bit smarter than his critics seem to imagine. He recognized the value of rights in protecting people from domination, but he didn’t think that they could eliminate the dependency of labor on capital that is the material basis of domination under capitalism. A transformation of the mode of production, rather than the abolition of rights, would be required to put an end to domination.

Marx was a materialist: he thought that we are constrained by the prevailing ways of organizing the relations of production. The law can therefore only sediment the result of historical conflicts over these relations. Market dependency, and the constraints imposed on capitalist by competition, set hard limits on what can be achieved in struggles over rights. For these reasons, the Marxist historian Ellen Meiksins-Wood argued that capitalist social property relations make political rights more attainable while significantly constraining them.

Marx’s position on rights stems from his view that the freedoms available to us are limited by the forms of domination necessitated by a class society. This should not, however, be confused with a disavowal of rights as such. Communist legality, then, would simply reflect a different material basis for our freedoms, not the tout court abandoning of the rule of law.

The dominant interpretation of Marx has, unfortunately, precluded a properly materialist understanding of rights. John Rawls, the doyen of Anglophone political theory, famously declared that whatever Marx has in mind is “beyond justice.” In Germany, Jürgen Habermas made the normative horizon of the law constraining capital as much as possible, while conceding to liberals that markets are functionally necessary for the purpose of coordination in any modern society.

More recently, Frankfurt School figures like Axel Honneth and Nancy Fraser have likewise stopped short of conceptualizing freedom beyond capitalism. They have instead argued that its markets hold a promise of a yet-to-be unfolded historical freedom (perhaps an evolution toward market socialism) or that the progressive wings of contemporary social movements should unite to expand the scope of democracy to the economy.

None of these approaches acknowledge the fact that a transformation of the relations of production is required in order to overcome domination. Shoikhebrod reminds us that renegotiating the terms of capitalism’s constraints is simply not enough.

Capitalism Didn’t Create Liberalism

Shoikhebrod’s project has stakes at both abstract philosophical and practical political levels. If we accept the dominant 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 thinking about the transition to capitalism as instigated by “bourgeois revolutions” in Europe and the United States. In this story, capitalists are a revolutionary class, overturning feudal property relations and premodern forms of domination on the basis of race, gender, and other ascriptive hierarchies. Their struggle to instantiate private property rights over and against the landholding aristocracy played an essentially progressive role in overthrowing the ancien régime.

Capitalism itself is therefore morally progressive, a view supported by Marx’s own comments to this effect. Marx thought that capitalism and the bourgeoisie created unprecedented political opportunities for emancipation of the poor, women, and workers. Bourgeois right, he argued, is a tool that must be used to the end of its own supersession.

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

Ironically, critics of Marx who point to the coexistence of capitalism and nonliberalism are committed to the view that the system was actually progressive in Europe but not outside of it. 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 working-class agency and ignores subaltern struggles for liberal reforms.

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

Many early capitalists were actually the old landowners who had made a transition to market-dependent agricultural production. They viciously fought to repress democratic reforms and were often the most active forces who did so. There is no warrant to impute any 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 the world over is the fact that it is extricable from liberal freedoms.

Marx and his critics are too generous to capitalism. They credit the system with social improvements for which labor is responsible. The idea that bourgeois rights belong to the capitalist class is what gives warrant to the left-wing view that rights only exist to justify economic domination.

This view is mistaken. It ignores those for whom liberal rights are truly valuable: workers who waged the political battles for their expansion and whose commitment to these rights moved capitalism in the direction of democracy. Their victories were not inevitable, nor is a retrenchment of their gains impossible.

Beyond Liberalism

What distinguishes socialist politics from bourgeois politics, i.e., liberalism, is not a difference in kind but in perspective. Liberal politics manages domination; socialist politics seeks to abolish it. As a result, the socialist perspective is not intrinsically extralegal or beyond justice. Rather, its strategies and priorities derive their moral legitimacy from an ideal of human freedom beyond domination.

During the last century, socialists spilled a great deal of ink criticizing the Soviet experiment and arguing that its problem was its neglect of civil liberties and constitutional rights. This critique is justified, as far as it goes. It has rightly pointed out the problems with state communism’s economism or productivism. This has, however, led many to argue that there is too much socialist theorizing about economics and not enough about politics.

What Shoikhebrod’s argument suggests, however, is that socialists do too little thinking about both. The socialist future will have a material basis for rights, just as capitalism does now, but these rights will be grounded in freedom. Socialists should be in the business of figuring out what this would look like.

The strength of Shoikhebrod’s book is that he recognizes the relationship between economic and legal freedoms by showing that the former imposes constraints on the latter. This shift in perspective allows us to question the defenders of Western capitalism’s insistence on granting the system credit for liberal freedoms. In the West, anti-communism has actually succeeded in provincializing freedom by portraying its telos as capitalist rather than socialist, a prejudice with which the Left has too often agreed. This is a concession that needn’t be made since the promise of freedom under capitalism is one that capital itself did not make. For that promise, liberals can thank socialists, for freedom has been at the center of our project all along.