Monticello, the mansion that Thomas Jefferson designed in the hills of Virginia near the State University that he founded, has three portraits that are to be found on the wall of President Jefferson's study that have remained there for 200 years. These portraits are of three writers Francis Bacon, Isaac Newton and John Locke. Jefferson, who wrote the Declaration of Independence and acquired the Louisiana Purchase form the French, refers to these three as "the greatest men who ever lived." We see Lockean reasoning reflected in the Declaration where Jefferson says that we hold life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to be self-evident truths. A similar reverence was afforded Karl Marx in the Soviet Union, where many streets and several smaller cities were named after Marx and his fellow communist Frederick Engels. One could argue that the primary ideologies of the 20th-century were those of Locke and Marx, as they were the muses that prescribed guiding principles for that century's two most powerful nations. The purpose of this essay is to review the premise that "The conceptions of freedom put forward by John Locke and Karl Marx are utterly incompatible." I will maintain that the null hypothesis is that they are not compatible, and then review arguments for their compatibility.
In popular rhetoric, the United States of the cold war era was referred to as the free world. However, this idea is predicated on the definition of freedom most popular among Locke-inspired classical liberals, who believed in the maintenance of what Isaiah Berlin calls 'negative freedom;' the right to be left alone by others exercising political power. This idea is grounded in Locke's concept of freedom. It is the preservation of this freedom that is the chief end of a government established in a Hobbesian state of nature. Locke's idea is that government is the will of society rather than the political aparatus within a society that exerts power and influence as an organization. In this naivete he is not dissimilar from Marx. Locke saw this 'negative freedom' as among the original and natural rights of man that he was endowed with by his creator. Rather than granting men these freedoms, Locke believed that government exists in order to secure them. From this he derives the notion that laws are limited by design: the power ceded to the government only existed in that it retained utility in providing natural rights, the basis of which were property rights.
Locke begins the chapter of the Second Treatise on Self-Government by saying "I shall endeavour to show how men might come to have a property in several parts of that which God gave to mankind in common, and that without any express compact of all the commoners." Locke maintains that God (who we can assume to be all-powerful and the original 'owner' of all property) (Locke, Chapter 5) gave the world to mankind, but implies that this gift, although given to man in common, necessitates division. This necessity is mandated by the nature of consumption, which extinguishes common property as its benefits are transferred to the individual. Locke puts this more eloquently: "The fruit or venison which nourishes the wild Indian, who knows no enclosure, and is still a tenant in common, must be his, and so his- i.e., a part of him, that another can no longer have any right to it before it can do him any good for the support of his life."(Locke, Chapter 5)
Much of what Locke goes on to say about property is predicated on the existence of a frontier or a commons. In this, he lays himself open to the informed criticisms of Marxist opponents, and it falls to classical liberals and neo-classical liberals to explain why the individual ownership of property is a more fitting liberty than its collective maintenance by a state apparatus entrusted with its stewardship. For instance, Locke claims that "For this "labour" being the unquestionable property of the labourer, no man but he can have a right to what that is once joined to, at least where there is enough, and as good left in common for others."(Locke, Chapter 5) A Marxist critical theorist would claim that in a world defined by scarcity, that men are born empty-handed and that labourers are effectively robbed of the things they create, even in the context of a free-market capitalist society. Such theorists distinguish between personal property (such as an apple or a sweater) and capital capable of generating income (such as a lake or a factory.)
However, Locke deals with these questions when speaking of the property of servants. Locke claims, "By making an explicit consent of every commoner necessary to any one's appropriating to himself any part of what is given in common. Children or servants could not cut the meat which their father or master had provided for them in common without assigning to every one his peculiar part." (Locke, Chapter 5) Here we see that Lockean freedom is not only individualistic, but that it is contractarian as well. Locke's philosophy is predicated on the abundance of the frontier, and Marx's invokes the limitations of a finite number of wealth-producing enterprises held by the bourgeois. Locke claims that, "As much land as a man tills, plants, improves, cultivates, and can use the product of, so much is his property." Although it could be said that in the Marxist world no such frontier exists, we cannot claim that Marx and Locke had comparable views of such an entity.
If Locke's society implied a system whereby opportunities were rendered limitless by the limitless availability of raw materials, Marx's philosophy was one where individuals were constrained by scarcity. Societal constraints, according to Marx, resulted from the inequitable appropriation of scarce resources and social parity could only be restored by their collectivization. This collectivization, which Marx believed would result in the best outcome for the greatest number of people, would be achieved by a period of class struggle culminating in a revolution.
At times, Marxist doctrine sounds deceptively like that of the liberalism that is his stated opponent, the same liberalism inspired by Locke and clarified by other philosophers such as Hume and Smith. According to Marx, "Liberty is, therefore, the right to do everything which does not harm others... It is a question of the liberty of man regarded as an isolated monad, withdrawn into himself." This sounds suspiciously like Herbert Spencer's law of equal freedoms: "Each man should be free to act as he chooses, provided he trenches not on the equal freedom of each other man to act has he chooses."(Herbert Spencer, Social Statics) However, Marx goes on to condemn property, saying: "The right of property, is, therefore, the right to enjoy one's fortunes and dispose of it as he will; without regard for other men and independently of society... It leads every man to see in other men, not the realization, but rather the limitation of his own liberty." (Marx, On the Jewish Question)
Marx's perspective of freedom was characteristic of that which prevails among leftists; rather than seeing freedom as the ability to engage in acts of will within the context of contractarian or mutualistic arrangements whereby individuals are precluded from violating one another's freedoms as they saw fit to define them, Marx saw freedom as a mixture of social entitlements. This presumption assumed that society, despite the existence of scarcity, maintained the ability to provide a basic standard of living to the people living within it. In the Marxist tradition, the greatest restraints placed upon freedom were those, which were designed by a limited number of elites to maintain an uneven distribution of wealth that favored one class at the expense of another. Accordingly, he saw the history of mankind as one characterized by class struggle. Subsequent class struggles were seen as ones that brought greater and greater plurality of wealth to a larger and larger number of people. This economic plurality Marx equated with freedom. However, the maintenance of this freedom required strict regulation from an absolute authority. Marx wrote of the stage of communist society before the total disappearance of scarcity that:
freedom in this field can consist only in socialized man, the associated producers, rationally regulating their interchange with Nature, bringing it under their common control, instead of being ruled by it as by the blind forces of Nature. (Marx, Das Kapital, Vol. 3)
This system, which presaged the creation of the Soviet Union, was the antithesis of the Lockean society, where the government existed to preserve life, liberty, and property through the administration of basic criminal justice and the protection of contracts. The latter Marx condemned as attending only to what he deemed political emancipation, he claimed that "political emancipation itself is not human emancipation." Accordingly, the use of force advocated by Locke only in the preservation of liberty, could be used to expunge this same liberty by a jealous majority. Marx defends this by saying:
the positive transcendence of private property, or human…