Monday, April 09, 2007


Plekhanov, Marx and Engels on Freedom and Necessity

by Thomas Riggins

For many revolutionary organizations to act on their desire to further the socialist cause, it is necessary to focus not on revolutionary posturing but on a "reform" initiative, namely the defeat of the Republicans in the 2008 election.

The concept of necessity with respect to the fight for socialism has to do with a widespread view within the socialist movement of the "inevitability" of socialism and the consequent end of capitalism. At one time this led to the view that it really didn't matter what people did or did not do since socialism was "fated" to eventually come about regardless of what anyone thought or did.

The problems associated with this view are often discussed within the context "Freedom vs. Necessity," or more generally as the problem of determinism.

Determinists generally hold that everything that happens happens because of a necessitating cause – itself also the result of a previous cause (all the way back to the "Big Bang") so nothing could have happened differently than it did happen.

Restricting ourselves to social development and what Marx called "the natural laws of capitalist production" we can ask if Marxism is determinist in the above sense.

In one of the prefaces to Das Kapital we find these laws described as "tendencies working with iron necessity towards inevitable results." But the use of the word "tendencies" seems to belie a strict determinist outlook on Marx's part.

We also have Engels' formulation from Anti-Duhring: "Freedom does not consist in the dream of independence from natural laws, but in the knowledge of these laws, and in the possibility this gives of making them work towards definite ends."

This implies that Marx and Engels believe that human agency is not strictly determined since humans have the ability to "make" natural laws work in their interests. This view is fully consistent with Plekhanov's observation from "The Role of the Individual in History" that "owing to the specific qualities of their minds and characters, influential individuals can change the individual features of events and some of their particular consequences, but they cannot change their general trend, which is determined by other forces."

It appears that there is a dialectical relation between freedom (a characteristic of human "minds") and necessity (general trends "determined by other forces.")

This Marxist view – deriving from Spinoza and Hegel – is a synthesis of the contradictory principles of absolute voluntarism (freedom) and absolute determinism (necessity).

In the “Fundamental Problems of Marxism”, Plekhanov attempts to delineate how this dialectic unfolds. Necessity is seen as the
opposite of freedom. Freedom is when we can fulfill our desires, and necessity is when we are forced to act in ways we do not choose. To update Plekhanov, we can say that for the present day predatory capitalists who control the pharmaceutical markets of the world to have to slash their prices on AIDS medications and other drugs for the underdeveloped world is a sad but necessary requirement that is being forced upon them by attendant circumstances. They are the victims of a social necessity that they cannot control.

However, what is necessity to the capitalists is freedom to the people of the underdeveloped world. The new availability of cheaper drugs (as limited and inadequate as it may be) means better health and longer lives for millions of people – surely the same social forces that compel the capitalists empower and free their victims. This is an example of the synthesis of dialectical opposites.

In “Socialism, Utopian and Scientific,” Engels maintains that in order to bring about positive social change for the betterment of the people it is necessary to understand the laws of social development and to utilize the actually existing historical conditions. To simply dream up ideal solutions to problems and try to bring them about regardless of the real situation "on the ground" is a fruitless exercise in utopianism.

The current quagmire in which the US imperialists find themselves in Iraq is a good example. Deluded by their own desires and wishful thinking they exercised their "freedom" to take over another people. But being ignorant of the actual social realities, the cultural conditions, and the anthropological and historical structures and how they have developed over time in the regions they have invaded they are now "forced" to deal with the situation in ways they had not anticipated or planned for.

It is only by understanding necessity and learning how to work along with it that freedom can be exercised. Freedom is therefore a synthesis – the fusion of a knowledge of necessity and the harnessing of untrammeled desire.

How we understand this dialectic in the context of the current political struggle in our own country will greatly influence the effectiveness of our actions in the coming months and years.

Many radical groups desire to see the establishment of socialism. The establishment of socialism requires a mass revolutionary consciousness ready to make a leap into a wholly new mode of social production and ownership – a leap even the barest glimmerings of which are not currently detectable.

What role would Marx and Engels suggest a revolutionary organization play in these circumstances? The answer Plekhanov gives is that it should "contribute to the 'gradual changes'... try to bring about reforms. In this way both the 'ultimate aim' and reforms find their place, and the very contraposition of reform and 'ultimate aim' loses all meaning, is relegated to the sphere of utopian legends."

Concretely, this means for many revolutionary organizations to act on their desire to further the socialist cause, (indeed, to be a bit melodramatic) to further the cause of the world revolutionary movement of which they are small components, it is necessary for them to focus not on revolutionary posturing but on a "reform" initiative, namely the defeat of the Republicans and their allies in the 2008 election. Paradoxically, as dialectical opposites often are in their synthetic unity, the road to socialism leads, at this historical juncture, through the "left" wing of the bourgeois Democrats.

In “ The Holy Family,” Marx and Engels wrote "With the thoroughness of the historical action, the size of the mass whose action it is will therefore increase."

Plekhanov ends his work with this quote and it is an appropriate note to conclude a commentary on necessity vs. freedom by remarking on its significance. Progressive organizations will grow only if they engage in significant actions that are thoroughly necessitated by the concrete struggles of the working class and its allies against the oppressions the capitalists, in exercising their freedoms, force upon them. In fighting back they exercise their freedom and are, as Rousseau in another context observed, forced to be free.

Thomas Riggins is the book review editor of Political Affairs, and can be reached at


FSJL said...

I think that there's another meaning to 'necessity' as well: those compulsions we must live under in order to survive. For Marx, on one reading, freedom begins when we have overcome necessity -- the necessity to work in order to live, for example. At that point we can begin to find out just what we can do.

FSJL said...

BTW you might be interested in looking at my academic blog: