Locke and Marx: The Authors of the Baleful History of Modernity

its most tragic intellectual errors

Photo by PH romao on Unsplash

[Note: Fascism is not included because without the errors of Locke and Marx it would not have arisen; it represents a grotesque cry for help. Though I cite no references, I acknowledge that none of what follows has come to me ex nihilo.]

John Locke’s ideas about justice were the source of Liberalism, which allowed for capitalism. Karl Marx was the originator of, well, Marxism: the antithesis, if you will, of capitalism. Both were tragically wrong.

Liberalism (capitalized) is the meta-ideology that has spawned the narrower political ideologies of libertarianism, conservatism, political liberalism, and democratic socialism (as opposed to Marxism). The core of Liberalism is the assertion that liberty and equality are the universal values upon which a just society must be based. A political ideology can emphasize one or the other of those values, but to be within Liberalism it must recognize both.

For Locke, equality (which he got from his Christianity) is the precondition for a just society. He was a minimalist regarding the implications of equality: it is the basis of equal entitlement to the “Natural Rights” of life, liberty, and property — and nothing else.

Locke had liberty as the predicate of justice for society. Given that all people are entitled to only those three Rights, what else could the basis of a just society be? According to Locke, the goal of a just society, must be to achieve the maximum of liberty consistent with the protection of life and property.

A person can believe in the existence of Natural Rights or not. It is a belief, like believing in a religion. The existence of such Rights cannot be ‘proven’ any more than any religious beliefs can be. (That’s why it’s called ‘faith’, after all.) One either accepts their existence or not, but it is in either case a matter of personal conviction. That makes making those Rights the organizing principle of society no different from organizing society on the basis of a religion.

Besides believing in the existence of Natural Rights, however, Locke also had another argument for liberty as the basis of a just society. He started by defining injustice as being ”subject to the arbitrary will” of one or more other people. The opposite of being subject to the arbitrary will of one or more other people is liberty. The opposite of injustice is justice. So, for Locke, justice is liberty: liberty is the predicate of justice.

Since beliefs are matters of personal conviction, and only that, Locke’s second argument for liberty as the foundation of a just society is the one that really carries the weight. That argument is utterly erroneous.

First of all, his solution is contained in the way he structured the problem. Locke used the condition of being unfree (“being subject to…”) to define injustice, then ‘deduced’ that — voila! — justice is liberty.

Besides that, Locke reached the wrong conclusion from his own premise. If injustice is being subject to the arbitrary will of one or more other people, then to act justly is to refrain from subjecting anyone else to one’s own arbitrary will. That makes respecting the wills of others the predicate of justice; the foundation of a just society is for everyone to be respecting the wills of one another: mutual respect.

That does still maximize liberty, but in a completely different way. Instead of people jealously guarding their own personal liberty, everyone is minimizing his or her arbitrary acts of domination in the lives of other people.

Instead of society being based on people’s being self-centered, society would be based on people being considerate of others. Respecting the lives and property of others would be an impulsion, coming ‘from within’, not a matter of compulsion: subordinating one’s own will to others’ purported “Rights.” Psychologically, society would be all about doing good by taking others into account, not endless, ever-present contests of power among vying “wills.”

Is respecting others because they are fellow human beings not more ‘natural’ than saying the only reason anyone must respect the lives and property of others is because they have “Rights?” Is the only reason we can’t kill whoever we want and take whatever we want that other people have “Rights?” Really? How much better would this word be if, rather than liberty as a self-centered end in itself, mutual respect had been the goal of Liberalism?

Marx came along almost two full centuries after Locke. By then, Liberalism had produced societies in the world based on liberty as the predicate of justice. Capitalism, with the tremendous economic power in the form of money/wealth that it generates, was becoming well-established. Where it existed, that power was already bending all of society to its central purpose: the ever greater propagation of that power. For society, justice is always all about placing constraints on power.

Marx had no use for ‘justice’. He thought it was nothing more than a concept people have used to justify their exalted positions of political power in society. He claimed to have discovered the scientific explanation for the whole history of human society and its future of humanity: the ‘law’ of “class conflict.”

Marx called his scientific explanation “dialectical materialism.” It is dialectical because it proceeds dialectically: one set of circumstances produces an opposing (not necessarily ‘opposite’) set of circumstances, which creates tension (conflict) that gets resolved in some form that is an amalgam of the two sets of circumstances, creating a new set of circumstances that eventually produces an opposing set of circumstance, etc. etc. It is “materialism” because, according to Marx, the circumstances that drive the dialectical development of human society are material — only: economic: specifically, the formation of economic “classes,” people with similar economic circumstances. As one class replaces another, it becomes politically dominant, creating institutional structures that benefit it above all other classes (if not to the exclusion of all others). So for Marx, class conflict, and it alone, drives the development of all human societies in their economic and political forms. It would end only with the “negation of the negation:” a society without economic classes.

My opinion doesn’t meant that Marx was wrong, but in my opinion dialectical materialism leaves out too much that has contributed to the development of human society over time. Both beliefs and significant individuals not driven by “class interests” have been drivers of that process. Marx would say — did say — that anyone who disagrees with him is a dupe of the ruling class (or a nascent ruling class) — but that’s just his opinion. In other words, whether dialectical materialism fully explains all of the development of the institutional structures of society can only be a matter of opinion, not a matter of scientific fact.

It is not merely my opinion, though, that Marx, similar to Locke’s approach to defining justice, asserted that private property is the source of class conflict. Given that assertion, ending private property is the only viable solution for that form of conflict.

Embedded in Marx’s dialectical materialism is the assertion that the existence of different socioeconomic classes is inherently a source of enmity, that any differences in economic circumstances will necessarily generate conflict. That certainly is an argument a person can make, but it also is not a scientific fact.

Moreover, Marx directly contradicted himself with his use of “exploitation.” Exploitation (i.e., people using others to further the users’ own interests) is a moral concept. It implies a belief in the moral equality of all people: unless people are equal in some basic moral sense there can’t be anything wrong with exploitation. To be sure, it can be present in economic relationships, but exploitation is explicitly an issue of morality(/justice).

So Marx was actually driven in his intellectual project by considerations of morality/justice, after all. That moral component was in fact used to, well, justify taking any actions necessary to speed up the dialectical process, to use violence and even terror to hasten the advent of Marx’s Utopian end state: a classless society, devoid of private property, encompassing all of humanity.

Marx, then, was not strictly a materialist. He was a failed materialist who was a radical equalitarian.

As an equalitarian, Marx could also have arrived at mutual respect as the ethic of justice. A belief in equality does of itself generate a requirement of mutual respect among people (another realization Locke also failed to recognize). In addition to all that we have seen that mutual respect would do for society, it is intrinsically an antidote for exploitation.

Locke’s ideas about a just society, with his emphasis on self-centered liberty, allowed for too much pursuit of economic power with too little regard for effects, both direct and indirect, on other people. Marx’s response to Liberalism pointedly rejected the very idea of ‘justice’, and in the process denigrated the value of human beings to the point of making people’s existences inconsequential to the goal of bringing forth Communist society. The two of them created the opposing poles of the Modern approach to the political and economic realms of society. Between them, they brought forth the most massive suffering this world has ever experienced — suffering that continues to this day.

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Fortunately, the narrative does not have to end there. We can still recognize mutual respect as the ethic of justice. As well as following from Locke’s definition of injustice and a belief in equality (whether sacral or secular in origin), it also follows from observation within material existence (making it, fans of Marx should note, materialist and strictly rational). I’ve been working out the implications of mutual respect as the ethic of justice for years. A society governed by mutual respect would have the maximum liberty that co-existing people can share simultaneously and a democratic political process, with transformational outcomes for society from the existing economic system.

further reading (all here in Medium):

an overview of mutual respect as the ethic of justice: “Mutual Respect: The Only Ethic for Justly Governing Society

mutual respect following from equality: “Equality Is All We Need

the existing economy, but with more justice: “Same Economy, Way Better Outcomes for Society” (for, primarily, economists: “Paradigm Shift”)

the existing economy, but with full justice (no economic exploitation): “A Fully Just Economy

sustainability: “Overcoming Sustainability’s Single Biggest Obstacle” (i.e., the political imperative to maximize total output)