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Revaluing Marx's Critical Dialogue with Liberalism in the Twenty-First Century

Igor Shoikhedbrod received his PhD in Political Science from the University of Toronto, Canada. He is currently adjunct professor in the Ethics, Society & Law Program at Trinity College in the University of Toronto.

For a taste of his recent book, Revisiting Marx’s Critique of Liberalism: Rethinking Justice, Legality and Rights, read Chapter 1, “Introduction” for free until 12th November 2020.

Revisiting Marx’s Critique of Liberalism grew out of a doctoral thesis that I wrote at the University of Toronto. Not surprisingly, the book still carries the birthmarks of the old dissertation whose child it remains. The central motivating force of the book is to offer a critical reconstruction of Karl Marx’s reflections on justice, legality and rights against the grain of established interpretations while also demonstrating its contemporary relevance. In addition to challenging political theorists and activists to reconsider commonplace assumptions about Marx’s critique of liberalism, I invite readers to reflect on those features of Marx’s approach to justice and right that remain relevant to contemporary politics. Since the latter was mostly intended as an invitation, its purpose was not to be elaborate and exhaustive, but to lay the groundwork for a critical dialogue that previously seemed foreclosed, whether because of the Cold War or due to the abrupt collapse of the Soviet Union. 

My book intentionally seeks to provoke liberals, Marxists, and critical theorists of all stripes to revisit established orthodoxies and assumptions. There has been a peculiar convergence of interpretations concerning Marx’s supposed ‘anti-law’ and ‘anti-rights’ views across interpretive and political divides. Even seemingly sympathetic commentators, like Jürgen Habermas, take for granted that Marx rejected the legal sphere as a whole. Are such one-sided interpretations of Marx necessarily confined to self-serving liberal and conservative critiques that evoke the spectre of totalitarianism at every turn? For better or worse, they are not. There are of course many Marxist-inspired theorists and activists, particularly outside the English-speaking world, who do not see an incompatibility between radical political mobilization and legal struggles. However, this does not detract from the prevailing reception of Marx on those topics among many Anglo-American academics, as well as would-be revolutionaries, who willfully denounce the discourse of rights and the medium of law as merely so many police traps.

Rather than confronting these established orthodoxies solely on the basis of textual evidence, the book takes a problem-oriented approach and considers what Marx’s broader theoretical views commit him to with respect to justice, legality and rights. More specifically, I critically examine Marx’s stance on these topics precisely when their respective fates were critically at stake—the Rhenish Jewish community’s petition for equal rights in 1843, the reactionary aftermath that ensued following the defeat of the 1848 revolutions in Europe, and the struggles of the working class to legally limit the length of the working day. The virtue of this approach is that it presents Marx as a political actor in his own right—a philosopher-activist—who is responding to political events on the ground. Fast forward to 2020, it is especially instructive to compare Marx’s reflections on constitutional backsliding and assaults on civil liberties in the years 1848-1851 with the resurgence of authoritarianism in our own era of global financial capitalism. 

It also pays to consider Marx’s treatment of rights under capitalism and prospective rights under post-capitalist conditions. Marx gives glimpses of what such rights could look like in his critical dissection of the ‘Constitution of the French Republic Adopted November 4, 1848,’ in the Grundrisse, in Capital, in The Civil War in France, and of course in the Critique of the Gotha Program. I would hasten to add that any discussion of rights beyond capitalism must start with the premise that communism was conceived by Marx and Engels as a movement in the making, drawing on premises already in existence, rather than an ideal or utopia that is to be willed into reality. For this reason, one must look to contemporary political movements and struggles against capitalism for a sense of what rights should look like beyond capitalism. Neither Marx nor Engels should be taken as offering definitive guides about the content of rights under communism. The ‘poetry of the future’ remains to be written as the working classes and their allies pass through long struggles, transforming circumstances and themselves. In Marx’s view, human beings cannot overleap their own age and its juridical standards without first transforming the material conditions that give rise to these standards. Marx reminds us that we are free to make history within constraints that are inherited from the past. However, we cannot change the world and make the free development of each a reality unless we confront the past and struggle collectively to change the present. A part of this ongoing struggle involves revisiting Marx’s critique of liberalism and rethinking the future of justice, legality and rights. That struggle continues, now more than ever.