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Free Will in The Communist Manifesto

A contradiction exists at the very core of Marx and Engels The Communist Manifesto. On the one

hand, chapter one states that the fall of the bourgeoisie and the victory of the proletariat are equally

inevitable.1 On the other hand, the text ends with the imperative working men of all countries,

unite. Both passages are at odds with each other, as the former is an invitation to stand back and

watch social change take care of itself, while the latter is a call to arms, a command to take

immediate action; nevertheless, both positions try to achieve the same end. Is this aporia then,

philosophical in nature, or rather an accident of language?

In this essay, I will explore to what degree The Communist Manifesto conceives free will

as the driving force of social change. However, instead of conducting a purely rhetorical analysis,

I plan to address the issue of free will from a philosophical standpoint. This means that rather than

dissecting individual passages of the text, I intend to comment on the ideological premises it leaves

behind unsaid, but which represent its theoretical foundation. In Marxist terminology, and for the

time being, I am concerned with the base rather than the superstructure. This base, I believe, starts

with Marxs conception of the human.

Whereas classical definitions of man have traditionally presented Reason as the foremost

component of what constitutes mans humanity, Marx espouses a different perspective. His

concept of man is not static, but dynamic, and we could even argue that for him man is a historical

process.

1
Marx, Karl & Engels, Friedrich. The Communist Manifesto. London: Pluto Books, 2008. p. 51

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Let us briefly contrast the classical (here rather Kantian) and Marxist positions. If Reason

is something that we can regard as existing (and being utilised) outside of time, then it must be

able to escape material conditions; these, after all, presuppose both space and time, Kants

fundamental a-prioris. It follows that Reason is ahistorical, and, because it does not move

through time, static.

Marx does not deny mans reason, but he certainly does not place it at the very top of the

hierarchy in his conception of the human. This poses a problem. For Marx, history and mankind

are sometimes hard to tell apart. Reason, in all its ahistoricity therefore cannot be all that there is

to humanity, because, in Marxs thought, man himself is deeply imbedded in history. As he says

himself, The whole of what is called world history is nothing but the creation of man by human

labour, and the emergence of nature for man.2

Let us underscore two aspects of this passage. First of all, it understands human essence as

subjected to time. Man is a creation of a set of material conditions which he then will alter, and in

the future new material conditions will create new men. Secondly, eschewing Reason, this quote

introduces a fundamental concept in Marxs conception of what is human, i.e., labour, whereof

two main aspects concern us here.

First, according to the quote above, it is both cause and effect: it creates man and it is

created by man. It is in flux, and is therefore dynamic. Secondly, because labour is the process

whereby man effects change, it also fundamentally implies agency; this, in turn, makes us consider

2
Cited by Fromm, Erich. Marx's Concept of Man. Bloomsbury Academic, 2013. p 138

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free will. Man is unique in that he can choose how to labour and to what material end; animals

labour too, but their toil is born of instinct. Only man chooses to labour through an act of will.

In short, Reason is ahistorical and static, whereas labour is historical and dynamic, as well

as dependant on free choice. By espousing a definition that focuses on the latter paradigm, Marx

considers free will as an unspoken cornerstone of humanity. Let us consider one final proposition

before moving more formally onto The Manifesto. If free will is what makes labour possible, and

labour is what makes man qua man possible, then we might conclude that free will is the driving

force behind the changes that man can effect in society.

We arrived at this by following some of the fundamental concepts of Marxs thought in the

abstract; now we must apply them to The Communist Manifesto. In this second section, I will focus

principally on the concept of alienation, understood generally as the lack of a sense of meaning.3

I am specifically interested in the workers alienation from human nature.

Owing to the extensive use of machinery, and to the division of labour, Marx and Engels

argue, the work of the proletarians has lost all individual character [] for the workman.4 Let us

consider the reason behind this loss of individuality.

In earlier modes of production, a labourer would have had a craft, one chosen by himself

(with varying degrees of freedom). This craft would have defined that individual to the point in

which if someone worked as a cobbler, his surname was probably Schumacher. Marx believed that

the good life for the individual was one of active self-realization. [] the full and free

actualization and externalization of the powers of the individual.5 In terms of externalisation, a

making public of the private, the example of the man named Schumacher is pertinent, as a private

3 Elster, Jon. An Introduction to Karl Marx. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. p. 41
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42
5
Elster p 43

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man is defined by his public role, but by a role he arrived at as a conscious act of choice. What we

must bear in mind is that, in picking a craft, even if the decision is determined by material

conditions, there is a clear object of choice, which then becomes a creator of identity. Someone

who likes shoes becomes a shoemaker; on the other hand, what is a worker of the proletariat?

Etymologically, a man whose only wealth is his offspring, i.e. future members of his same class;

his identity as a human being cannot be established from his role in society.

In the capitalist mode of production, the possibility for self-realisation is therefore replaced

by monotonous, simple tasks that make a worker in an assembly line building cars no different

than one who builds refrigerators. Identification with the fruits of ones labour is impossible

because there is nothing characteristic to that labour that differentiates it from any other. The craft

of old was subservient to man, now man is become, in Marxs words, an appendage of the

machine.6 It is curious that the imagery here is immediately reminiscent of an automaton, a

creation resembling the human form, but without will. Furthermore, if, as we discussed in the first

pages of this essay, labour cum free will, is at the heart of mans essence, the impossibility to

identify with it means that human human anymore.

With this in mind, let us turn on its head the guiding question of this essay, as I propose to

answer it by addressing its opposite. If we take free will to be the driving force behind social

change, then the driving force behind social stagnancy is its suppression. A corollary is: if free will

makes man, then its suppression makes the inhuman.

What characterises capitalism is its resilience, its way of adapting to new material

conditions, and thereby creating a dialectical gridlock. Feudalism was not able to do this because,

unlike capitalism, I propose, it did not engage in the systematic suppression of free will. A

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homogenous workforce loses its individuality. Under exploitative systems, the proletarian only

sells his time, and not his skill, which, translated into the fruits of his labour, would have defined

him in terms of the human. Therefore, he is inhuman. Marx does not consider the corollary: if

social change can only be wrought by a human with free will, the mechanical proletariat will never

be able to effect it, as he has severely lost exactly this.

In conclusion, Marx conceives free will as the driving force of social change in that free

will finds its physical manifestation in labour. In the abstract, inevitability does not enter into the

question. Free will leads to social change.

The Communist Manifesto uses Marxs conception of man as its base; however, its rhetoric

is problematic. The inevitability I referenced in the introduction to this essay, is, I believe, a

subconscious symptom of the impossibility of overthrowing capitalism by dint of pure free will. It

is at odds with the Manifestos philosophical postulates. Inevitability therefore strikes us a

rhetorical characteristic, rather than a philosophical one in the text. Furthermore, in the world at

large, capitalism lives on 134 years after Marxs death, even if his rhetoric makes the revolution

seem imminent.

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References:

Elster, Jon. An Introduction to Karl Marx. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,


1999. pp 41-100.
Fromm, Erich. Marx's Concept of Man. Bloomsbury Academic, 2013.
pp 138-40.
Marx, Karl & Engels, Friedrich. The Communist Manifesto. London: Pluto Books,
2008.