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Marxism, Dictatorship, and the Abolition of Rights

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  13 January 2009

David Gordon
History, Institute for Humane Studies


Is a Marxist society liable to be an oppressive one? To ask this question is immediately to pose two others: what is meant by Marxism; and what counts as an oppressive society? To take these questions in reverse order, by an oppressive society I shall mean one in which, other things being equal, people do not possess basic civil liberties. Examples of basic civil liberties (I intend here to be fairly uncontroversial) include, but are not limited to, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and, if the society has a political system, the freedom to participate in that system. An example of what I mean by basic civil liberties is the system of basic liberties discussed by Rawls; the United States Bill of Rights is another example.

Research Article
Copyright © Social Philosophy and Policy Foundation 1986

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* I should like to thank the editors of Social Philosophy and Policy and Robert Nozick for very helpful suggestions.

1 Friedrich, Carl J. and Brzezinski, Zbigniew K., Totalitarian Dictatorship and Autocracy (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1956), pp.31f.Google Scholar

2 Marx, in On the Jewish Question, states that the rights of men are “nothing but the rights of the member of civil society, i.e., egoisticman, separated from other men and from the community”; Marx, Karl, Selected Writings, ed. David, McLellan(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), p.52.Google Scholar

3 Rejecting the right of individual acquisition of property has more consequences than one might think. G.A.Cohen has argued (see his essay in the present volume) that self-ownership does not necessitate a libertarian position on property ownership. But the alternatives he gives are not socialist systems as Marxism understands socialism. It may be that if one accepts Marxism, one must reject self-ownership.

4 I have not included as one of the conditions of Marxism that the change from capitalism to socialism will be accomplished through a revolution, since it is a much-controverted point whether Marx thought that the need for revolution in the transition to a socialist regime was invariable or only very likely. If he thought the former (as I think he did), then the case presented below that a Marxist regime will suppress civil liberties is strengthened. Revolutions and civil liberties mix poorly. Lenin makes a very good casefor the view that Marxism teaches inevitable revolution in State and Revolution. He argues that seeming exceptions in Marx and Engels's works refer to conditions that no longer apply. See Lenin, V.I., State and Revolution, in Selected Works in One Volume (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1969), p.274f.Google Scholar

5 von Mises, Ludwig, Socialism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1951), pp.128145;Google Scholar and Human Action (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1963), pp.698–715. Hayek, F.A. et al.,Collectivist Economic Planning (London: George Routledge, 1935).Google Scholar See the discussion of this issue in John Gray's essay in the present volume.

6 Karl Marx, Letter of March 5, 1852 to Joseph Wedemeyer in Marx, Karl and Engels, Friedrich, Selected Correspondence (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1956), p.64.Google Scholar

7 Marx, Karl, “Victory of the Counterrevolution in Vienna,” Neue Rheinische Zeitung, November 7, 1848 in Karl Marx, On Revolution ed. Padover, S.K. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1971), p.42.Google Scholar

8 The passage is quoted from Tucker, Robert “Marx as a Political Theorist,” in Marx and the Western World, ed. Lobkowicz, N. (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1967), p.342.Google Scholar

9 The passage is as quoted from Draper, HalMarx and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat,” New Politics, vol. 1 (Summer, 1962), p.99.Google Scholar

10 Engels, Friedrich, as quoted in Tucker, “Marx as a Political Theorist,” p.342.Google Scholar

11 All quotations in this paragraph are from “Manifesto of the CommunistParty” in Marx, Karl and Engels, Friedrich, Basic Writings on Politics and Philosophy, ed. Feuer, Lewis S. (New York: Anchor Books, Doubleday & Company, 1959), pp.2729.Google Scholar

12 See his essay in this volume.

13 If a Marxist claimed that former members of the bourgeoisie, by their mere lack of enthusiasm for the new regime, were acting in a morally bad way, this obviously would beg the question. (I do not think most Marxists would say this.)

14 Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels: Selected Correspondence 1846–1895, ed. Dona, Torr (New York: International Publishers, 1942), p.486.Google Scholar

15 For the use of the term dictatorship in classical political theory, see Cobban, Alfred, Dictatorship: Its History and Theory (New York: C. Scribner, 1939).Google Scholar

16 Someone who accepts moral side-constraints on his behavior is prohibited from doing certain things. He may not violate the constraints to achieve somemoral goal, even if the goal is greater observance of the side-constraints by himself or others. See Nozick, Robert, Anarchy, State, and Utopia (New York: Basic Books, 1974), pp.29ff.Google Scholar

17 Trotsky remarks: “In a country where the sole employer is the State, opposition means death by slow starvation. The old principle, who does not work shall not eat, has been replaced by a new one: who does not obey shallnot eat.” Trotsky, Leon, The Revolution Betrayed (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1937), p.76.Google Scholar I have benefited from reading an unpublished essay by Williamson Evers on freedom on speech under socialism.

18 There is a valuable brief treatment of Marx's view of religion in Cohen, G.A., Karl Marx's Theory of History: A Defence (New York: Oxford University Press,1978), pp.115f.Google Scholar

19 , Marx and , Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party in Basic Writings, ed. , Feuer, p.29.Google Scholar

20 Professor , Avineri views are found in The Social and Political Thought of Karl Marx (London: Cambridge UniversityPress, 1968), pp.217ff.Google Scholar

21 , Lenin, State and Revolution, in Lenin, V.I., Selected Works in OneVolume (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1969), pp.283ff.Google Scholar

22 Cohen, G.A., “The Structure of Proletarian Unfreedom,” Philosophy and Public Affairs, vol.12, No. 1(Winter, 1983), pp.3ndah;33.Google Scholar

23 Cohen, Karl Marx's Theory of History: A Defence, pp.129f. See also Plekhanov, G.V., The Development of the Monist Conceptionof History (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1956)Google Scholar for the classic Marxist statement of the importance of the development of the forces of production.

24 Marx, Karl, The Civil War in France, in Marx, Karl and Engels, Friedrich, Selected Works (New York: International Publishers, 1968), p.289.Google Scholar

25 Marx, Karl, Critique of the Gotha Program, in BasicWritings, ed. , Feuer, p.119.Google Scholar

26 Manifesto of the Communist Party, p.39.

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