MARX’S CONCEPT OF FREEDOM

The first time that Marx uses the word “freedom” in the Communist Manifesto, he is not writing about freedom in general. Nor is he writing about particular political freedoms, such as the freedom of the press. He is instead writing about a kind of freedom specially connected with capitalism, free trade. To Marx, capitalism has “in place of the numberless, indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom — Free Trade” (p. 11). Marx capitalizes the words, because he is hinting here that free trade is not only an idea, it is also a slogan, a symbol of what capitalism believes about itself.

What Marx is actually comparing free trade to, “numberless … chartered freedoms,” seems to be a reference to the Middle Ages. Freedom in those days existed in bits and pieces, granted by kings, or claimed by particular groups. People in one town might have the freedom to make beer, while people in the next town had the freedom to make cheese. These old freedoms were part of a whole web of traditional relationships, in which people lived their lives.

Capitalism, however, has swept away all of these old connections. Instead, “into their place stepped free competition, accompanied by a social and political constitution adapted to it, and by the economic and political sway of the bourgeois class” (p. 14). Under free trade and free competition, people in any town can legally make beer or cheese. However, this kind of freedom really only applies as a practical matter to the small minority of people who have enough capital to set up a brewery or cheesemaking factory.

However, Marx suggests that the capitalist model of freedom, as embodied in expressions like Free Trade, ends up leaving most people with less actual freedom rather than more. Industrial capitalism is based on standardizing goods, and one of the goods that is standardized is workers:

Masses of laborers, crowded into the factory, ar…

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