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What would political freedoms consist of, according to Karl Marx?

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Karl Marx speaks about freedom is several of his texts, stating that freedom is only truly possible through community. The German Ideology, written in collaboration with Friedrich Engels in 1846, speaks to his theory of the political history of Germany, specifically the materialistic mindset that was developing at that time period. In essence, the natural human desire to be productive can satisfy humans’ material needs. As the economy rises and falls, workers become aware of their “plight” and seek alternative means for balance in a society driven by material needs and desires. The solution—he proposed—is communism. In this model, freedom is something that an individual can enjoy, but the means to this freedom is strictly in and through community:

“Only in community [has each] individual the means of cultivating his gifts in all directions; only in the community, therefore, is personal freedom possible. In the previous substitutes for the community, in the State, etc. personal freedom has existed only for the individuals who developed within the relationships of the ruling class, and only insofar as they were individuals of this class.” (The German Ideology, Chapter 1d)

While Marx speaks about freedom frequently, and often in nearly identical ways, he does make sure to differentiate types of freedoms from one another: “Every particular sphere of freedom is the freedom of a particular sphere, just as every particular mode of life is the mode of life of a particular nature” (On Freedom of the Press). That is to say, having freedom of speech, for example, does not extend to a larger overarching freedom for said person. Since “political freedom” encapsulates many separate “spheres” of freedom, Marx’s standpoint must be heavily summarized to answer the question of what his idea of political freedom was. His standpoint in On the Jewish Question sheds light on what seems to be a larger overarching philosophy of political freedom.

In On the Jewish Question, Marx argues that political emancipation can coexist with religion, that religion need not be demolished to achieve political emancipation. He continues to say, however, that political emancipation is not enough to achieve human emancipation. The Standard Encyclopedia of Philosophy states:

“…Marx argues that not only is political emancipation insufficient to bring about human emancipation, it is in some sense also a barrier. Liberal rights and ideas of justice are premised on the idea that each of us needs protection from other human beings who are a threat to our liberty and security. Therefore liberal rights are rights of separation, designed to protect us from such perceived threats. Freedom on such a view, is freedom from interference. What this view overlooks is the possibility—for Marx, the fact—that real freedom is to be found positively in our relations with other people. It is to be found in human community, not in isolation.”

His idea of political freedom hinges on the standpoint that freedom can only be found in community, and that laws operate largely on the inference that humans will be pitted against one another—thus ensuring humans require protection. This is the inherent Marxist “bone to pick” with most political structures. As Marx stated in Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right, “Man does not exist for the law but the law for man—it is a human manifestation.”

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Marx viewed political freedom and economic freedom as essentially the same thing. So political freedom would only come with the destruction of the economic structure established by the onset of the rise of capitalism. Under a capitalist system, working people were becoming increasingly alienated from the wealth generated by their labor. Political systems, Marx argued, only reflected and reinforced this reality. Political freedom could not be achieved through normal politics, nor even a political revolution devoted to establishing liberties, because Marx regarded the ideology of liberalism current in his day as little more than an offshoot of capitalism, geared toward protecting the wealth of the bourgeoisie. Only through control of the means of production could workers achieve meaningful freedom. This could only happen through a social revolution in which workers overthrow the bourgeoisie and establish a classless society. Without private property, the apparatus of the state, which liberals saw as the guardian of liberties, would be unnecessary. Subsequent generations of Marxist-influenced political leaders had adapted his theories to promote what Marxists call "positive freedoms" that include such things as access to healthcare and education at no cost. Marx believed, in short, that individual freedoms could only be enjoyed in the context of a community, and only when one had been liberated from class oppression.

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For Karl Marx, the concept of political freedom is rooted in an essentially collectivist notion of economic freedom. Most importantly, he considered all freedom to be based on freedom from economic necessity. In other words, if you are living in poverty in Sudan, you cannot enjoy any form of political freedom, whatever the putative nature of your society's political system, because all your energies must be devoted to simple survival. Thus for Marx, the start of freedom is too make sure people have adequate food and shelter. Next, he thinks of freedom as much on a class level as an individual one, i.e. that the freedom of workers to control the conditions of their work is not just about Ahmed or Jill or Jose getting a better deal from a boss, but about all people in an oppressed economic class being able to rectify oppressive systems.

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