Marx and Libertarianism

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Marx and Libertarianism


The Marx-Engels Reader is hardly the hallowed tome of choice for most students on the political right, yet after one gets past its Soviet color scheme, there is a surprising amount of material that relates to libertarian democratic principles. Specifically, in Marx’s “Contributions to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right,” he argues that democracy is not merely a form of government, but the human basis from which all particular forms of government sprout. This challenges the libertarian thinker to consider whether libertarian society is itself the rightful end of government, or whether democratic libertarianism is the optimal method of government creation, even unto democratically-chosen totalitarianism.

Marx criticizes Hegel’s view that the constitution creates the people as the state, and argues instead that the people, through democracy, create the constitution and thus the state. Loosely quoting Jesus, Marx writes: “Man does not exist for the law but the law for man—[democracy] is a human manifestation; whereas in the other forms of state man is a legal manifestation. That is the fundamental distinction of democracy.” Marx goes on to argue that democracy is not properly compared to other forms of government—such as monarchy—but is instead the human basis of every form of government. That is, democracy is the necessary precondition of government’s particular manifestation, no matter how free or tyrannical that manifestation may be. Society may choose to have limited government, or it may choose to have totalitarianism—but it first chooses.

Marx’s argument is an important one for libertarians to consider—assuming they are democratic libertarians, as opposed to anarchistic. Does libertarianism mandate that government be forever limited so as to keep society free, even if the majority of society were to demand larger government? Would limited government then be its own form of oppression of the majority and repression of majority opinion, and thus be ironic tyranny? Or perhaps democratic libertarianism is better considered as society’s means to optimal government—the politically-free milieu from which society may slowly experiment with government’s ideal limits.

In no way do I argue that libertarianism itself is a sub-optimal end for society—I am far from a proponent of prodigal, intrusive bureaucracy, into which large government often devolves. But Marx has a point when he says that the state of democratic freedom—libertarianism—is the necessary starting point of every type of government, big and small. Libertarians, in their assumption of general human rationality, must allow society to democratically choose how it will expand government, if it will expand government, and must support any such expansion, provided it sprouts from a well-informed, free population.

Undoubtedly, this is a hand-wringing process for the libertarian, who may value libertarianism as the ideal end of government, and may worry that society will demand more bureaucracy than is healthy. But the libertarian can take comfort in his or her role as a type of guardian— a vigilante who opposes any government expansion and exhorts society to do the same. The libertarian may often be overwhelmed by majority opinion, and must concede when this is the case, but must never quit his or her job as a gadfly to bloated government. And when government becomes tumorous in its size, as may very well be the case today, the libertarian’s voice is invaluable in convincing society to remove the cancerous cells in order to preserve that which is valuable.

By Ian Yanusko, Young Americans for Freedom (YAF) Reagan Writer

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