Saturday, January 09, 2010

The ultimate ends of man

Are liberalism and Marxism diametrically opposed? Or are they related, overlapping forms of modernism?

I think the latter is true, but I have to admit that I need to develop a better understanding of exactly where the similarities and the distinctions lie. So, with this in mind, let me compare two quotes from important thinkers in both traditions.

Here is Friedrich Engels, from his Socialism: Utopian and Scientific (1880):

With the seizing of the means of production by society, production of commodities is done away with, and, simultaneously, the mastery of the product over the producer. Anarchy in social production is replaced by systematic, definite organization. The struggle for individual existence disappears.

Then, for the first time, man, in a certain sense, is finally marked off from the rest of the animal kingdom, and emerges from mere animal conditions of existence into really human ones. The whole sphere of the conditions of life which environ man, and which have hitherto ruled man, now comes under the dominion and control of man, who for the first time becomes the real, conscious lord of nature, because he has now become master of his own social organization.

The laws of his own social action, hitherto standing face-to-face with man as laws of Nature foreign to, and dominating him, will then be used with full understanding, and so mastered by him. Man's own social organization, hitherto confronting him as a necessity imposed by Nature and history, now becomes the result of his own free action.

The extraneous objective forces that have, hitherto, governed history, pass under the control of man himself. Only from that time will man himself, more and more consciously, make his own history — only from that time will the social causes set in movement by him have, in the main and in a constantly growing measure, the results intended by him. It is the ascent of man from the kingdom of necessity to the kingdom of freedom.

There are two key ideas here. The first concerns the historical process (the means) by which the ultimate ends of man are reached. The second is a description of what these ends are.

How does man reach his ultimate state of perfection? For Engels, the growth of productive forces matters a great deal. It creates a large surplus of goods, which then removes the need for a division of labour. So, instead of resources by necessity being concentrated amongst a small ruling class, they can be shared by everyone in society. It becomes possible to have society as a whole, through the state, control the means of production. This then means that production can be deliberately and rationally planned (Engels writes later that "Socialized production upon a predetermined plan becomes henceforth possible.")

But does all this matter? For Engels, it matters a great deal. It is the way that we finally start to live a human rather than an animal existence.

For Engels, an animal existence is heteronomous (the state of being beholden to external forces). When man directs the forces of production for deliberate social ends, he gains a power over nature and history, in fact over "extraneous objective forces" and thereby becomes human.

Man will no longer be dominated by laws of nature, no longer have to organise his social existence to meet what external necessity compels, but will become instead the lord of nature.

Let's compare all this to a brief quote from a highly influential liberal thinker, Isaiah Berlin:

I am free because, and in so far as, I am autonomous ... Heteronomy is dependence on outside factors, liability to be a plaything of the external world that I cannot myself fully control.

Berlin was not a Marxist, so he wouldn't have shared the grand Marxist theory of the historical process by which human autonomy was to be achieved. But there's a recognisable overlap when it comes to ultimate ends. Engels aimed for a "kingdom of freedom" in which man is no longer governed by extraneous objective forces, but now dominates and controls nature and his own destiny. Berlin too aims for a freedom in which we are no longer dependent on outside factors, are no longer "playthings of the external world".

Engels conceived of man collectively pursuing these ends, whereas Berlin most likely focused on the individual pursuit of these ends. But it seems difficult to deny that there is an overlap in the ultimate good being chased, namely man no longer being subject to heteronomy but liberated to a condition of autonomous freedom and control. That is the gist of the project being pursued by both the Marxist Engels and the liberal Berlin.

22 comments:

  1. Engels: "Then, for the first time, man, in a certain sense, is finally marked off from the rest of the animal kingdom, and emerges from mere animal conditions of existence into really human ones."

    I think it's telling that these sorts are forever going on about the Good they mean to do Man (will he, nill he) ... and ignoring the Evil they in fact do to men.

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  2. "Are liberalism and Marxism diametrically opposed? Or are they related, overlapping forms of modernism?

    I think the latter is true, but I have to admit that I need to develop a better understanding of exactly where the similarities and the distinctions lie.
    "

    I think you present a good argument in this article in showing the overlap between liberalism and Marxism -- though, I have to admit that I'm not entirely sure just how you're using 'liberalism' at this time: "classical liberalism" or (modern and/or post-modern) "socialistic liberalism?"

    In any event, using the two examples you give, it seems to me that the chief distinction between the two lies in the fact that Engels wishes to liberate Man, whereas Berlin wishes to liberate men.

    Now, of course, 'Man' is an abstraction; and Engels' dream of Man's liberation necessarily equals the enslavement of men, ultimately of all men.

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  3. One of the questions I didn't raise in the post was why Engels believed so strongly in "freedom as man's autonomy" (or "freedom as escape from heteronomy").

    He does indicate an answer in the quote. If you are a post-Christian materialist, then the problem of determinism is a significant one. If we are a product in who we are and what we do of material causes, then aren't we like automatons? Aren't we just living a kind of "animal" existence?

    Engels answer is that, yes, that's how human life has been up to now. Just as there are laws of nature, so too have there been laws of action governing man. But, claims Engels, once man consciously grasps and directs these laws of action, then he is no longer an automaton, but is free in a distinctly human way.

    It's similar to those people who say that people have not lived a human life because they are a product of genetics. However, we are about to embark on a truly human life because science will be able to take control of the genome and change it according to our own purposes.

    None of this was such an issue for those following a Christian theology. If man has been gifted a free will, he is not subject to a strict determinism in which he lives a merely conditioned "animal" life. The distinctly human nature of our lives is also invested with us since we have been made in God's image. It's not something we have to self-create through an individual, or species level, escape from heteronomy.

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  4. I should also add that Engels's view is hardly a satisfying or persuasive one.

    He effectively rejects the humanity of humanity. The men and women who for millennia have loved and laboured, created families and communities, art and poetry, who have worshipped, who have perceived beauty and felt awe - were not living a human existence according to Engels.

    Little wonder that Engels does not identify sympathetically with his own cultural tradition - that he is willing to abolish it. For Engels, it is part of the pre-human past to be transcended.

    Little wonder too that Marxists would prove to be so ruthless in trying to achieve their revolutionary aims. If the bourgeoisie represented the "animal" past and were standing in the way of an historic shift to a "human" future, then perhaps a ruthless treatment of them (as a kind of "cosmic enemy" of humanity) could be morally justified.

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  5. Illion, thanks for the comments. Americans seem to use the term "liberal" to refer to what we in Australia would call "left-liberals". So in America most Democrat supporters would be "liberals".

    When I use the term liberal I'm referring to the broader movement within modern politics, one that embraces both left-liberals and right (or classical) liberals.

    In other words, I'd include someone like John McCain as a liberal, even though he was a Republican and not a Democrat.

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  6. Mark, you wrote

    "It's similar to those people who say that people have not lived a human life because they are a product of genetics. However, we are about to embark on a truly human life because science will be able to take control of the genome and change it according to our own purposes."

    This seems a very apt analogy. Uncanny, too, since it may be the case that we will move exactly in that direction. This and snippets from the likes of Engels remind me of this capitulation of the trap that is the (left-) liberal mindset:

    "Always just one revolution away from happiness. Always."

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  7. "... If you are a post-Christian materialist, then the problem of determinism is a significant one. If we are a product in who we are and what we do of material causes, then aren't we like automatons? Aren't we just living a kind of "animal" existence?

    Engels answer is that, yes, that's how human life has been up to now. Just as there are laws of nature, so too have there been laws of action governing man. But, claims Engels, once man consciously grasps and directs these laws of action, then he is no longer an automaton, but is free in a distinctly human way.
    "

    Like all the other "too clever by half" God-haters, Engels appears not to have (and likely would have refused, were it brought to his attention) thought through the issue. If our lives and existences are deterministic, then they are deterinistic, and there is nothing we can do to alter the fact. We cannot "slip the leash."

    These folk, Engels, Dawkins, etc, assert -- as a Truth of the universe -- two contradictory claims:
    1) we do not possess (*) free wills;
    2) we may give to, or invent for, (*) ourselves free wills.

    In practice, what that claim 2) works out to is: "I will become "free" by enslaving you."


    (*) Of course, to speak of possessing or acquiring a free will is to speak, and frequently to think, in a sloppy or even misleading manner. It isn't that we have a free will but that we are a free will.

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  8. "In other words, I'd include someone like John McCain as a liberal, even though he was a Republican and not a Democrat."

    I think I can assure you that there are few, if any, in America who think of John McCain as anything other than a "liberal." He has proven that he honors neither the Constitution (the McCain-Feingold "campaign finance reform" law) nor the nation (his support for unrestricted immigration, which is to say, for population-replacement).

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  9. "I should also add that Engels's view is hardly a satisfying or persuasive one.

    He effectively rejects the humanity of humanity. ...

    Little wonder that Engels does not identify sympathetically with his own cultural tradition - that he is willing to abolish it. For Engels, it is part of the pre-human past to be transcended.

    Little wonder too that Marxists would prove to be so ruthless in trying to achieve their revolutionary aims. ...
    "

    Exactly.

    There have been no human beings before themselves; these presently scurring animals which look like human beings are not, and are more vermin than anything else.


    In similar wise with those scientistes (*) who "explain," by way of denegration that anyone before themselves was even able to reason, all intellectual activity and concepts which have come before as being "memes," and products of the (physical and/or social) environment, rather than as thoughts to which people have reasoned (whether or not the reasoning was logically valid). But suddenly -- TaDa! -- they themselves can see the truth about reality, and can reason correctly, and can learn further truths.


    (*) 'Scientiste' is my term for the "science" worshippers and groupies, poseurs all. It's a play on Miss Piggy, the Muppet, calling herself an artiste.

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  10. "I think I can assure you that there are few, if any, in America who think of John McCain as anything other than a "liberal." He has proven that he honours neither the Constitution (the McCain-Feingold "campaign finance reform" law) nor the nation (his support for unrestricted immigration, which is to say, for population-replacement)."

    Without causing a needless argument I would ask how is regulating campaign donations dishonouring the constitution? If the point is that it is a violation of "speech" since when are financial donations speech?

    On your point about dishonouring the nation I would admit that Mccain stuffed up in supporting the "Amnesty" bill. Bush supported it too did he dishonour the nation? I would say that Mccain's support while foolish was not ideological and he quickly backtracked. It also helped highlight the importance of the issue. Clearly you'll have to do something. Its one thing to have a weak political consensus that large scale immigration is good its another to have so little control over your borders and internal processes that it happens anyway and isn't even a political decision.

    I would think that the fact that Mccain dedicated his life to the military and sweated it out in a cell in Vietnam indicates that he values his nation pretty highly.

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  11. Other than hardcore conservatives, for whom everything is an amalgam of Marxism and liberalism I don't think anybody else could buy your claim here, that liberalism is intrinsically linked to Marxism, for several reasons:

    1. Calling the two overlapping forms of 'modernism' is sleight of hand. Strictly speaking, even traditional conservatism is a form of 'modernism', insofar as it would be inconceivable in pre-Enlightenment times.

    2. Whilst it's reasonable to draw upon Engels, it would have been more to the point to base your analysis on the key Marxian texts, which are unarguably Das Kapital, and the Communist Manifesto. The former is long and rather complicated, and contains no statement of aims - only critique. The latter is brief and easy to read, and you'll find there a very straightforward outline of Marxist goals that do not accord with your claims here.

    3. Engels is wrong to dismiss his predecessors as lacking humanity. I think, however, that you are conflating Marxist notions of control of the means of production, and 'planning', with liberal-bourgeois notions of 'freedom'. The two are unrelated, and non-overlapping. You might as well accuse Christians of being 'autonomists', given that there can be no Christian morality in the absence of freedom.


    If you want a simple illustration of these things, consider a scenario involving the 'work' of a prostitute, or a worker in a sweatshop. At the liberal level of analysis (and the conservative level, for that matter), the respective transactions are formally 'free' and autonomous. A Marxist would not necessarily deny that this abstract 'freedom' exists, but would deny that it constitutes anything like control or autonomy for workers, since the transactions occur in conditions of exploitation and material necessity for the exploited. The radically different understandings of 'freedom' for liberals and radicals would, I'd have thought, been a fairly clear point of difference between these schools of thought.

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  12. AC wrote:

    "If you want a simple illustration of these things, consider a scenario involving the 'work' of a prostitute, or a worker in a sweatshop ... A Marxist would not necessarily deny that this abstract 'freedom' exists, but would deny that it constitutes anything like control or autonomy for workers, since the transactions occur in conditions of exploitation and material necessity for the exploited."

    I would say Marxist and liberal thought are not as far apart as you might think

    According to marxist theory prostitutes are exploited because they aren't paid very much. According to this theory the exploitation can be corrected by increasing the prostitutes' pay.

    Alternatively a Marxist would say its also exploitation because the prostitute is using their body for the gratification of another. This involves the "commercialisation" of sex and is a cheapening of human life. A conservative would probably not disagree with a Marxist on this point.

    Finally its exploitation because it puts women in a subordinate position to men. Possibly.

    An economic liberal would say that what is involved is economic transactions. The prostitute gets money, perhaps a lot, then they can move onto other work if they choose. Supply and demand, overall society benefits.

    The first Marxist argument and the liberal argument are similar in that they both have an economic utilitarian approach. What is economically good for the prostitute is good for society. The Marxist says ensure she's paid more, the economic liberal says let the market do it. Either way its the same focus.

    The second Marxist argument is a direct lifting from conservative thought. Instead of the sin being in the activity the sin is in one party being in a weaker position. Which is not that great a distinction and consequently not original.

    The third Marxist argument is a "group's rights" argument for women/prostitutes. Liberalism has been smooth in stating its not about groups rights but everyone's rights. Clearly when originated though liberalism was designed as an advancement to the interests of the middle/upper middle class. Consequently Marxism and Liberalism are not that different in practise. One to advance the bourgeoisie, the other to advance the proletariat (or other similar seemingly disenfranchised group).

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  13. At the risk of diverting from the main topic a little, its interesting to see how socially conservative liberals, especially right liberals lives are. According to the liberal theory you can do anything, actualise yourself etc. But what in practise they do is chase money and status. The actualising stuff is a flurry around the edges.

    Its the proletariat, lower proletariat who take this liberal thing seriously and think that life should be about doing whatever you want. Consequently they go nuts and at the same time can't quite understand what they're doing wrong.

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  14. Anon contrarian,

    Your distinction is really between Marxism and economic liberalism. But what about egalitarian liberalism?

    You wrote:

    If you want a simple illustration of these things, consider a scenario involving the 'work' of a prostitute, or a worker in a sweatshop. At the liberal level of analysis (and the conservative level, for that matter), the respective transactions are formally 'free' and autonomous. A Marxist would not necessarily deny that this abstract 'freedom' exists, but would deny that it constitutes anything like control or autonomy for workers, since the transactions occur in conditions of exploitation and material necessity for the exploited.

    So your argument would seem to be this: that unlike liberals, Marxists would not claim that an abstract freedom represents a true autonomy because the conditions of life are such that many individuals cannot act as they otherwise would.

    But this is the same argument made by an influential wing of liberals, namely egalitarian liberals. The following was written by Professor John Kekes:

    Classical liberalism has been criticised on various grounds, but the criticism that is most important to understanding different versions of liberalism focuses on the reluctance of classical liberals to go beyond freedom rights.

    It is argued against this reluctance that the meaningful exercise of freedom requires adequate economic resources, health care, education, security, and so forth. Equality, rights and distributive justice must therefore be extended to protect not just freedom but also the conditions required for its exercise ...

    The core of egalitarian liberalism continues to be autonomy. The autonomous life, however, is seen as requiring both freedom and welfare rights ... (John Kekes, Against Liberalism, p.13)


    So here again Marxism appears to be a kind of variant of/progenitor of/overlapper with an egalitarian or left liberalism.

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  15. Jesse, a couple of really interesting comments. Thanks.

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  16. According to marxist theory prostitutes are exploited because they aren't paid very much. According to this theory the exploitation can be corrected by increasing the prostitutes' pay.

    Which bit of 'marxist theory'? What you're describing is much more like trade unionism than Marxism. A subordinate who gets well paid is a subordinate all the same, and the factory owner/investor/pimp or whatever is still the one who gets a free ride on the back of the exploited class (in this instance, the prostitute). Consequently, being paid relatively well in exchange for exploitation is not at all Marxist, and is completely different to liberalism.

    The second Marxist argument is a direct lifting from conservative thought

    Conservative prudery was never a kind of proto-feminism. Prostitution flourished in relatively conservative societies in a manner that never happened in the (failed) workers' states.


    The third Marxist argument is a "group's rights" argument for women/prostitutes. Liberalism has been smooth in stating its not about groups rights but everyone's rights. Clearly when originated though liberalism was designed as an advancement to the interests of the middle/upper middle class. Consequently Marxism and Liberalism are not that different in practise. One to advance the bourgeoisie, the other to advance the proletariat (or other similar seemingly disenfranchised group)

    You've avoided the other half of my example, that of the exploited worker.

    Nonetheless, I think liberals should actually be taken at their word on 'rights'. The centrality of 'rights' in political discourse has coincided with the pre-eminence of liberalism (particularly in the Clinton era and beyond). I think liberals are quite happy to entertain the idea of greater individual rights, and are terrified of collective ones. For instance, I can't think of the last time when a government in Australia (or elsewhere) attempted to tip the industrial balance in favour of workers, as a bloc. It just doesn't happen. They're reasonably willing to grant individualised rights, like OHS or unlawful dismissal.

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  17. At the risk of diverting from the main topic a little, its interesting to see how socially conservative liberals, especially right liberals lives are. According to the liberal theory you can do anything, actualise yourself etc. But what in practise they do is chase money and status. The actualising stuff is a flurry around the edges.

    Quite correct, and precisely why liberals and conservatives have so much in common - they basically agree about 95% of politics, economics, and the social order, and have furious debates that tinker about the margins.

    So your argument would seem to be this: that unlike liberals, Marxists would not claim that an abstract freedom represents a true autonomy because the conditions of life are such that many individuals cannot act as they otherwise would.

    Yes, that is my argument. I think your monomania for 'autonomism' is levelling things off a bit much here. You've identified (quite correctly) that a Marxian/radical perspective wants worker control (specifically, over the means of production) and transformed this into some kind of liberal desire for freedom. The Marxist notion of planning is taken as evidence of some underlying liberalism, yet everybody, irrespective or political stripe, advocates some planning, in one form or another (obviously, liberals and conservatives like to pretend it does not apply to the economy).

    But this is the same argument made by an influential wing of liberals, namely egalitarian liberals. The following was written by Professor John Kekes

    But this is a familiar argument. Hitler, Marx and a liberal like Locke all liked eating vegetables, therefore there is some underlying liberalism amongst all three. This Kekes fellow appears to support the welfare state - so do many conservatives. Indeed, where conservatives oppose the welfare state, it's often on the grounds that it allegedly breeds dependence (and, by implication, impedes autonomy). This is hardly a necessary or sufficient condition for political radicalism. The latter was not intended to be some kind of push for mere concessions, like women to smoking unaccompanied at the opera.

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  18. I like Ilion's point about the contradictory notion of free will vs determinism.

    Striking parallels to the very illiberal Islam here:
    "He effectively rejects the humanity of humanity. The men and women who for millennia have loved and laboured, created families and communities, art and poetry, who have worshipped, who have perceived beauty and felt awe - were not living a human existence according to Engels."


    You may know, Muslims believe everything in human history before Mohammed is considered a dark age. not worthy of study, preservation or consideration. This extends to the history of societies after Mohammed that were not Islamic at the time for example the current West. Not all Mulsims adhere to this strictly or the Pyramids would have been blown to bits with the Buddahs in Afghanistan and modern hospitals and Universities would not be built in Saudi Arabia. But the similarity is striking in the absolutist nature with regards to how things out to be. Maybe the left's romance with Islam is about commonality after all and not just a rebellion against tradition.


    You may also be somewhat familiar with the trans-humanist and H+ movement, a not unrelated phenomenon but I don't want to go off on another tangent.


    Here is Trotsky agreeing with idea of a new human as opposed to the (in his view bad) existing one:
    http://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1932/xx/family.htm
    "The dictatorship will have to become softer and milder as the economic welfare of the country is raised. The present method of commanding human beings will give way to one of disposing over things. The road leads not to the robot but to man of a higher order."


    Trotsky on autonomy (going well beyond economic arguments) sounds like modern liberalism. I would argue he believed that abstract freedom equates to absolute autonomy:
    "If one understands by “family” the unbounded domination of parents over children, and absence of legal rights for the wife, then Bolshevism has, unfortunately, not yet completely destroyed this carry over of society’s old barbarism."


    AC

    I'm sure you'd agree Trotsky was a Marxist and did hold such beliefs.
    Would you think Trotsky held this as an ideal independent from his Marxism or due to it?

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  19. I took a look at your link, Leisel. It appears to be a fairly minor publication of Trotsky's, responding to specific queries/criticism re: Soviet social and family organisation. There's absolutely nothing there about 'autonomy' or anything else that he is making a platform of his programme. It's true that some Marxists attempted to invent the 'New' Soviet man or whatever, but this was a secondary or tertiary aim, the primary being redistribution of land and wealth, worker control of production, etc.

    Trotsky on autonomy (going well beyond economic arguments) sounds like modern liberalism

    I strongly disagree here. It's clear from the context that Trotsky is referring to an economic argument (namely, that under capitalism, according to him, workers are 'automatons' in industry, whereas under communism, they are not). Whether Trotsky is correct or not is a separate question here - the sort of 'autonomy' he is arguing for is a 'freedom from' (exploitation, domination, colonial oppression, etc) rather than a 'freedom for' (identity games, consumerism, etc).

    As an addendum, I think it's also worth remembering the broader context, particularly when looking at Russia of 100 years ago. Even to this day, wife-beating and alcoholism is a national pastime among some of the country's less upstanding citizens. What might be merely patriarchal (in terms of family structure elsewhere can look very much like drunken tyranny in Russia, which is why I think some of the familiar conservative critiques of the modern family do not in any way apply.

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  20. AC
    It's true that some Marxists attempted to invent the 'New' Soviet man or whatever, but this was a secondary or tertiary aim, the primary being redistribution of land and wealth, worker control of production, etc.
    I agree it was not their primary aim. But was it rooted in Marxism or unrelated to Marxism?

    I'm not saying that belief stems form anything Marx wrote, rather that perhaps a worldview inspired by Marx lends itself to this view of social and personal interaction. I also think it is a rather liberal view even though Marxist economic an political theories may not be. Perhaps it is just that most people who like Marx also happen to like John Stuart Mill.

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  21. Actually, producing "The New Soviet Man" *was* the primary aim of the Marxists/communists. Confiscating and redistributing wealth ... and murdering those who dared to object, or just looked like they might object in the future ... was the means to the end, not the end itself.

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  22. I agree it was not their primary aim. But was it rooted in Marxism or unrelated to Marxism?

    I believe the project of the 'New Man' was a peculiarly Soviet initiative. It has no precedent in the writings of Marx, and later Marxists (like the Frankfurters) were actually sceptical of bureaucratic government intervention.

    As for Mill - Marx criticised him (often on economic grounds) but wasn't necessarily scathing. Later Marxists were scathing, and I can recall a book released last year by a Marxist that stridently attacked liberalism, including adherents such as Mill. It's called "The Liberal Defence of Murder", and it's by a guy called Richard Seymour.

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