Liberty Matters

What “Aesthetic'? Part 2 - The Negative


Thanks to David P. for suggesting Martin Jay's Marxism & Totality (1984) is a good example of what has inspired so many 20th century thinkers to fall for the Marxist "total" vision. I however find the "utopian vision" put forward by Robert Nozick in Anarchy, State and Utopia (1974) much more satisfying because of its "multipliciy" of utopian visions, namely his "framework" which allows many individualised utopias to exist side by side.[19]
But let me return to what Marx himself has said, rather than his 20th century interpreters. Compare the passages I quoted in part 1 of my comment with others written by Marx, the would-be "scientific socialist," such as this one from The German Ideology (1845-46) about the "alienation" caused by the division of labor, the "contradiction" between individual and communal interests, and his unrealistic dream that under communism the division of labor would disappear (without apparently any loss of productivity and wealth) and every man could be everything and do everything at his mere whim:[20]
Further, the division of labour implies the contradiction between the interest of the separate individual or the individual family and the communal interest of all individuals who have intercourse with one another. And indeed, this communal interest does not exist merely in the imagination, as the "general interest," but first of all in reality, as the mutual interdependence of the individuals among whom the labour is divided. And finally, the division of labour offers us the first example of how, as long as man remains in natural society, that is, as long as a cleavage exists between the particular and the common interest, as long, therefore, as activity is not voluntarily, but naturally, divided, man's own deed becomes an alien power opposed to him, which enslaves him instead of being controlled by him. For as soon as the distribution of labour comes into being, each man has a particular, exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape. He is a hunter, a fisherman, a herdsman, or a critical critic, and must remain so if he does not want to lose his means of livelihood; while in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic. This fixation of social activity, this consolidation of what we ourselves produce into an objective power above us, growing out of our control, thwarting our expectations, bringing to naught our calculations, is one of the chief factors in historical development up till now.
Now compare this absurd and largely incomprehensible passage (I include the German original in the endnote to show it reads no better or more easily in the original than it does in the English) with that of a contemporary of Marx who sat on the other side of the ideological fence - namely Frédéric Bastiat. In Bastiat's chapter on "Exchange" in his unfinished Economic Harmonies (1850) he argues the exact opposite of Marx, that far from "alienating" individuals, "l'union des forces" (the joining together of men's forces), "la division du travail" or "la séparation des occupations" (the division of labor), and exchange are deeply social activities which not only bring people closer to gather but also increase everybody's standard of living. I include the French original in the endnote to show how clear and beautifully expressed Bastiat's prose is compared to Marx's. In the revised Liberty Fund translation the passage reads:[21]
Exchange is manifested in two ways: the joint use of our strength and the division of labor. …Well, the joining of men's forces involves (an) exchange. In order for men to agree to cooperate, they have to have in mind a share of the satisfaction to be obtained. Each of them uses his efforts for the benefit of someone else and benefits from the efforts of someone else in the proportions agreed, and this constitutes exchange.We can see here how exchange in this form increases our satisfactions. …We will make the same comment about the division of labor. After all, if you look closely, sharing occupations around is for men just another way, one that is more permanent, of combining their various strengths, cooperating, and associating with each other, and it is quite right to say, as will be shown later, that the current organization of society, provided that it acknowledges free exchange, is the finest and most extensive of all associations, one marvelous in a different way from those dreamt of by Socialists, since it operates through a wonderful mechanism that does not conflict with individual independence. Each person enters and leaves it at any time, as it suits him. He contributes what he wishes; and withdraws from it comparatively higher and always progressively greater satisfaction, such satisfaction which is determined, in accordance with the laws of justice, by the very nature of things, and not by the arbitrary will of a leader.
Bastiat's vision of the social, peaceful, and productive nature of markets and exchange is a much more attractive "aesthetic" than anything Marx and Engels presented. I think H.B. Acton was correct when he concluded his book on Marx by saying that "Marxism is a philosophical farrago."[22] It is a confused mixture of the nonsense of Hegelian dialectical jargon, the worst errors of the classical school of political economy, and his own deep hatred and misunderstanding of "bourgeois" society, that is, a society founded upon free and voluntary exchanges.
The fact that Marx could not tell his readers what a "class free" future society might look like, or how "rational planning" would work under communism, or what "non-alienated labour" might look like (other than the pious statement that it would be the "opposite" of what existed under "capitalism") should tell us a lot about the man and his theories. I will look at his brief remarks about "non-alienated labour" in a future post.
[19.] Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia (New York: Basic Books, 1974). Chapter 10 "A Framework for Utopia," pp. 297-334.
[20.] Marx, The German Ideology (1845-46). The opening to the section on "Private Property and Communism" <>. The German is:
Ferner ist mit der Teilung der Arbeit zugleich der Widerspruch zwischen dem Interesse des einzelnen Individuums oder der einzelnen Familie und dem <33> gemeinschaftlichen Interesse aller Individuen, die miteinander verkehren, gegeben; und zwar existiert dies gemeinschaftliche Interesse nicht bloß in der Vorstellung, als "Allgemeines", sondern zuerst in der Wirklichkeit als gegenseitige Abhängigkeit der Individuen, unter denen die Arbeit geteilt ist. Und endlich bietet uns die Teilung der Arbeit gleich das erste Beispiel davon dar, daß, solange die Menschen sich in der naturwüchsigen Gesellschaft befinden, solange also die Spaltung zwischen dem besondern und gemeinsamen Interesse existiert, solange die Tätigkeit also nicht freiwillig, sondern naturwüchsig geteilt ist, die eigne Tat des Menschen ihm zu einer fremden, gegenüberstehenden Macht wird, die ihn unterjocht, statt daß er sie beherrscht. Sowie nämlich die Arbeit verteilt zu werden anfängt, hat Jeder einen bestimmten ausschließlichen Kreis der Tätigkeit, der ihm aufgedrängt wird, aus dem er nicht heraus kann; er ist Jäger, Fischer oder Hirt oder kritischer Kritiker und muß es bleiben, wenn er nicht die Mittel zum Leben verlieren will - während in der kommunistischen Gesellschaft, wo Jeder nicht einen ausschließlichen Kreis der Tätigkeit hat, sondern sich in jedem beliebigen Zweige ausbilden kann, die Gesellschaft die allgemeine Produktion regelt und mir eben dadurch möglich macht, heute dies, morgen jenes zu tun, morgens zu jagen, nachmittags zu fischen, abends Viehzucht zu treiben, nach dem Essen zu kritisieren, wie ich gerade Lust habe, ohne je Jäger, Fischer, Hirt oder Kritiker zu werden. Dieses Sichfestsetzen der sozialen Tätigkeit, diese Konsolidation unsres eignen Produkts zu einer sachlichen Gewalt über uns, die unsrer Kontrolle entwächst, unsre Erwartungen durchkreuzt, unsre Berechnungen zunichte macht, ist eines der Hauptmomente in der bisherigen geschichtlichen Entwicklung.
In Karl Marx - Friedrich Engels - Werke, Band 3, S. 5 - 530. Dietz Verlag, Berlin/DDR 1969 <>.
[21.] Or see the FEE edition, p. 67. The French is:
L'échange a deux manifestations: Union des forces, séparation des occupations. …Or union des forces implique Échange. Pour que les hommes consentent à coopérer, il faut bien qu'ils aient en perspective une participation à la satisfaction obtenue. Chacun fait profiter autrui de ses efforts et profite des efforts d'autrui dans des proportions convenues, ce qui est échange.On voit ici comment l'échange, sous cette forme, augmente nos satisfactions. …Nous ferons la même remarque sur la division du travail. Au fait, si l'on y regarde de près, se distribuer les occupations, ce n'est, pour les hommes, qu'une autre manière, plus permanente, d'unir leurs forces, de coopérer, de s'associer; et il est très-exact de dire, ainsi que cela sera démontré plus tard, que l'organisation sociale actuelle, à la condition de reconnaître l'échange libre, est la plus belle, la plus vaste des associations : association bien autrement merveilleuse que celles rêvées par les socialistes, puisque, par un mécanisme admirable, elle se concilie avec l'indépendance individuelle. Chacun y entre et en sort, à chaque instant, d'après sa convenance. Il y apporte le tribut qu'il veut ; il en retire une satisfaction comparativement supérieure et toujours progressive, déterminée, selon les lois de la justice, par la nature même des choses et non par l'arbitraire d'un chef.
In Frédéric Bastiat, Harmonies Économiques (Paris: Guillaumin, 1850), pp. 122-23.
[22.] H. B. Acton, The Illusion of the Epoch: Marxism-Leninism as a Philosophical Creed (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2003). </titles/877#Acton_6844_385>.