Marx, Tocqueville, and the Problem of Emancipation

By Scott Beck


Throughout countless revolutions which have overthrown oppressive regimes we have repeatedly seen that such efforts have often lead to only temporarily enhanced conditions, often only for a few. We must conclude that the problem of emancipation has yet to be solved.  Even so, thinkers such as Karl Marx and Alexis de Tocqueville had advanced concepts that offer promise and inspiration to those still struggling for emancipation.  It is the aim of this paper to the analyze the problems inherent in such struggles using the thought of these authors, particularly in “On The Jewish Problem” and “A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right” for Marx, and Democracy in America and The Old Regime the and French Revolution for the Tocqueville.  My general premise is that although these two thinkers diverge significantly, particularly with regards to religion, their thinking is congruent on one key issue — that of the negative effects of egoism, selfishness, and excessive individualism on society.  As will be illustrated, both authors make significant advances towards a science of emancipation.

Emancipation eludes definition, and its very meaning will differ significantly from individual to individual and from culture to culture.  Out of this ambiguity we might posit two alternate visions of emancipation:  emancipation as inclusion, where the oppressed individual or group acquires equal rights of participation in the existing social or political structure, and emancipation as revolution, or the wholesale eradication of the existing social structure, with the assumption that that very social structure itself is both the cause of oppression and beyond reform.

The contention between these visions is elucidated very clearly in Marx and Tocqueville.  Tocqueville saw how emancipation as revolution might not only leave previous structures of oppression intact, but also might sow the seeds of despotism, and result in even greater oppression. Therefore, according to Tocqueville one must be cautious how one approaches emancipation; ultimately a gradual approach which takes into consideration the full complexity of human nature is preferred. Furthermore, those disparate elements which pose problems must be, rather than completely eradicated, brought into a balance which will make emancipation possible.

For Marx, emancipation is one thing and one thing only:  the complete eradication of the inherent contradictions between social structures and man’s true nature, species being.  Elements such as the State and religion, very often the targets of reform, are to be done away with entirely.  Furthermore, any political emancipation aiming at greater participation for previously disenfranchised sectors of society amounts only to partial emancipation at best.  We will now consider each author’s argument in much greater detail, beginning with Marx.

The Problem According to Marx

Marx presents some of the most problematic aspects of emancipation, an example of which is the contention between specific and general (universal) emancipation.  Marx illustrates this quite clearly in “A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right”:

It is not radical revolution, universal human emancipation which is a Utopian dream for Germany, but rather a partial, merely political revolution which leaves the pillars of the building standing. What is the basis of a partial, a merely political revolution? Simply this:  a section of civil society emancipates itself and attains universal domination; a determinate class undertakes, from its particular situation, a general emancipation of society. This class emancipates society as a whole, but only on condition that the whole of society is in the same situation as this class.[1]

This passage foreshadows Marx’s inevitable solution, and the actual practice of it, where an oppressed class, the proletariat, as a result of their universal condition of oppression, is prepared to conduct the universal emancipation of society.

In “On the Jewish Question,” Marx gives us an example of specific emancipation — that of the Jewish people; in this example Marx also illustrates the problem that religion poses to emancipation.  According to Marx, a form of specific emancipation, the religious emancipation of the “Jew,” is contradictory to the general emancipation of society:  “Why should the German be interested in the liberation of the Jew, if the Jew is not interested in the liberation of the German?”[2] Thus, specific emancipation of the Jew does not imply a more general emancipation, that of the German, which is for Marx the ultimate aim.  Competing interests, here that of the religious interests of the Christian and the Jew, also pose an obstacle to general emancipation.

Marx posits a solution to this dilemma: religion itself is something which humanity must be emancipated from. According to Marx:

The most stubborn form of the opposition between Jew and Christian is the religious opposition.  How is an opposition resolved?  By making it impossible.  How is religious opposition made impossible?  By abolishing religion.  As soon as Jew and Christian come to see in their respective religions nothing more than different stages in the development of the human mind… they will no longer find themselves in religious opposition, but in a purely critical, scientific and human relationship.[3]

In the previous passage, Marx illustrates the manner in which religion can restrict human relations, and relegate them into the form of the particular; as a precondition of general emancipation, they must be transformed into the most general form, that of real, general, human relations. His next step is to examine further what human emancipation, or “true emancipation,” really is, and how it might be achieved.

Human emancipation necessitates abolishing the contradictions that political and religious emancipation pose.  Political emancipation is seen as being merely particular, the emancipation not of the human, but of the “citizen.”  For Marx, this fact is illustrated most clearly in the country which for him has attained both political and religious emancipation — the United States.  Within the American context what is of concern is the “free-state” which has been emancipated from religion:

If we find in the country which has attained full political emancipation that religion not only continues to exist, but is fresh and vigorous, this is proof that the existence of religion is not at all opposed to the perfection of the state.  But since the existence of religion is the existence of a defect, the source of this defect must be sought in the nature of the state itself.  Religion no longer appears as the basis, but as the manifestation of secular narrowness… We claim [free citizens] will transcend their religious narrowness once they have overcome their secular restrictions.[4]

Religion is then secondary to a more crucial problem for emancipation, that of secular restriction.  Even though the state has been “emancipated,” the state still imposes restrictions on human beings; they are contained within the particular context of the nation-state as “citizens,” this being a contradiction between the human being and an artificial label imposed from without.  For Marx, again, true emancipation can only exist in the absence of contradiction.  More specifically, the contradiction is between the citizen, a private egotistical entity, and the human being whose real nature is species being, or a human whose relations to other humans is not mediated via the state or religion.   This contradiction underscores the problem of political emancipation: “The limits of political emancipation appear at once in the fact that the state can free itself from a restriction without man really being free from this restriction, that the state can liberate itself from a constraint without man himself really being liberated.”[5] That is, human emancipation is the removal of restrictive conditions, whether that of a particular religion or that of the restrictive title of “citizen”; real human emancipation is total emancipation from all restrictions.

Let us backtrack now and look at what the implications of this incomplete emancipation are on freedom and equality, as these two concepts will be critical for our later discussion of Tocqueville.  Marx’s critique of the concept of liberty is directed specifically at the notions of liberty as presented in the French Constitution of 1793, entitled “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.”  Here he quotes directly:  “Article 6: Liberty is the power which man has to do everything that does not harm the rights of another.”[6] Marx however takes this conception to task as it contains within it the notion of man as an “isolated monad, withdrawn into himself.”[7] And furthermore: “But liberty as a right of man is not founded on the relations of man with man, but on the separation of man from man. It is the right of such separation.  The right of the circumscribed individual, withdrawn into himself.”[8]

Marx also critiques another “right of man” as outlined in the “Declarations of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen,” that of equality:  “The term ‘equality’… is only the equal right to liberty as defined above; namely that every man is equally regarded as a self-sufficient monad.”[9] According to Marx then, the “rights of man” are not human rights as such, but, paradoxically, barriers to real human emancipation. From this analysis Marx draws the conclusion that: “Every emancipation is a restoration of the human world and of human relationships to man himself.[10] That is, the traditional rights of man fail to emancipate humanity because they do not consider man a ‘species being.’  The only true rights are human rights, that is, the rights of a ‘species being’ — man returned to himself, which is the final end of emancipation.

The Problem According to Tocqueville

To conceptualize Tocqueville’s notion of emancipation is a much more difficult matter for it requires inferring how Tocqueville might have conceptualized emancipation had he done so explicitly.  Let us take as our starting point the function of religion in society, his view being in stark contrast with Marx’s.  Where Marx views the balkanization, or Tocqueville might say pluralization, of religion as resulting in the further estrangement of individuals from each other, Tocqueville sees this same religious plurality as a remedy for the individualism inherent in what he calls “equality of conditions,” or a preoccupation with equality which comes at the expense of both freedom and association with the broader society.  But Tocqueville also ascribes to religion a much more fundamental function.

In Democracy in America, Tocqueville makes the general claim that “men cannot do without dogmatic belief,” adding that among such beliefs, dogmatic religious beliefs are the most “desirable.”[11] Elaborating on this assertion, he states that: “There is hardly any human action… that does not originate in some very general idea men have conceived of the Deity, of his relation to mankind, of the nature of their own souls, and of their duties to their fellow creature.”[12] Tocqueville gives good reason why certainty is a fundamental human need: “…doubt on these first principles would abandon all their action to chance and would condemn them in some way to disorder and impotence.”[13] One might ask here whether Tocqueville’s assessment of religion is too optimistic.  However, as will be discussed, such optimism must be weighed against some potentially negative aspects of liberty and equality.

If we believe with Marx that religion is just a stage in the evolution of humanity, then it is a stage that has lasted thousands of years and shows no signs of abating.  If we might dispense with religion, there will need to be concomitant psychological adjustments that must be made that could render emancipation from religion beneficial:

Prodigious revolutions then take place in the human mind, without the apparent co-operation of the passions of man, and almost without his knowledge.  Men lose the objects of their fondest hopes as if through forgetfulness. They are carried away by an imperceptible current, which they have not the courage to stem, but which they follow with regret, since it bears them away from a faith they love to a skepticism that plunges them into despair.[14]

Marx did not fully consider the psychological effects of the stages of emancipation, religious or otherwise, and as a result his concept of emancipation is often naïve, and presupposes that once the chains of oppression fall away, the injuries, or comforts, those chains had bore will instantly disappear; he thought humanity would know right off of what actions must then be taken when, ultimately, nothing in their lives had prepared them for emancipation.

It is not the case however that Tocqueville goes completely without problematizing religion:  “For my own part, I doubt whether man can ever support at the same time complete religious independence and entire political freedom.  And I am inclined to think that if faith be wanting in him, he must be subject; and if he is free, he must believe.”[15] This problem is inherent in the important psychological function that Tocqueville ascribes to religion in that religion helps to order human action and render it more meaningful; without religion, this order might be left for despots to impose.  The preceding passage also exhibits Tocqueville’s tendency to point out that societal elements such as religion, depending on the social conditions, can contain both positive and negative aspects simultaneously.

Our discussion of Tocqueville is not complete without a discussion of his concepts of equality and freedom, and what bearing they may have for emancipation:  “It must be acknowledged that equality, which brings great benefits into the world, nevertheless suggests to men… some very dangerous propensities.  It tends to isolate them from one another, to concentrate everyman’s attention upon himself; and it lays open the soul to an inordinate love of material gratification.”[16] Tocqueville ascribes an important role for religion in ameliorating this excessive materialism, claiming that it places “the object of man’s desires above and beyond the treasures of earth.”[17] The facts however do not support this particular theory of Tocqueville’s, and I believe that Marx’s assessment here is the more sober one: “…Christian preaching, has become an article of commerce, and the bankrupt trader in the church behaves like the prosperous clergyman in business.”[18]

Equality is in many ways a necessary outcome of political emancipation. Yet Tocqueville perhaps problematizes this single aspect more than anything else, even more so than Marx.  For although Marx criticizes it on the grounds that it is simply a right of an abstract entity, the citizen, and not a truly human right, Tocqueville goes to greater lengths to show the vices that a pre-occupation with equality result in:

As social conditions become more equal, the number of persons increases who, although they are neither rich nor powerful enough to exercise any great influence over their fellows, have nevertheless acquired or retained sufficient education and fortune to satisfy their own wants.  They owe nothing to any man, they expect nothing from any man; they acquire the habit of always considering themselves as standing alone, and they are apt to imagine that their whole destiny is in their own hands.[19]

Is this not Marx’s “self-sufficient monad?”  Marx however does not state that an excessive individualism is the natural outcome of excessive equality, and he does not necessarily dismiss individuality outright, for even in species being the liberated human being still retains his or her individuality; and of course Tocqueville would never have denied that individuality is not at times beneficial.  It is simply a question of what becomes of emancipation after the spirit of solidarity which drove the quest in the first place fades into the solitude of the heart. The danger is not only the moral decay of society, but also a reversion back to the very conditions that society was to be liberated from in the first place.

For Tocqueville, such circumstances are ripe for despotism:  “Despotism, which by its nature is suspicious, sees in the separation among men the surest guarantee of its continuance, and it usually makes every effort to keep them separate.”[20] These conditions then give rise to further conditions detrimental to emancipation:  “Love of gain, a fondness for business careers, the desire to get rich at all costs, a craving for material comfort and easy living quickly become ruling passions under a despotic government.”[21]

Marx may comment here that these conditions would follow because the form of emancipation that preceded them was merely specific and not a general emancipation.  Tocqueville would have done well to point out that the “desire to get rich at all costs” was not simply the outcome of a rampant individualism which stemmed from a preoccupation with “equality of conditions.”  When the interests that lead the drive for emancipation are ‘monied interests,’ and not ‘humanity’s’ emancipation as such, the desire to get rich, their specific values, might then be the values that came to dominate society.  That is, the broader concern for society which may have been initially professed was in fact not entirely sincere.  A sincere concern for humanity in toto might indeed be a precondition for any true, lasting emancipation.

Nonetheless, Tocqueville goes on to prescribe a remedy for the set of conditions which he laments: “Freedom alone is capable of lifting men’s minds above mere mammon worship and the petty personal worries which crop up in the course of everyday life and make them aware at every moment that they belong each and all to a vaster entity… ”[22] He is referring here primarily to freedom of association, or political freedom, which would encourage the members of a community to act in concert for a greater cause and would ultimately result in habits sustaining such associations, be they civil or political.

We might also note that Tocqueville would not believe that political freedom in and of itself would result in emancipation.  Again, remember that Marx believed that political emancipation occurred merely through the medium of the state, and hence the individual was not truly emancipated.  Tocqueville also made a similar observation:  “The more [government] stands in the place of associations, the more will individuals, losing the notion of combining together, require its assistance: these are causes and effects that unceasingly create each other.”[23] Again, Tocqueville implies that conditions must be in balance for the state of freedom to exist; that is, there must be a balance of equality and freedom; individuality and associations; rights and personal responsibility.  Furthermore, these elements do not stand in separation from each other, but affect each other as in a complex, interdependent system.

Conclusions:  The Problem of Emancipation Re-Evaluated

What is true emancipation and how might it be realized? We can say now that emancipation is not simply a matter of eradicating state institutions or religious institutions, for even then we still must deal with those elements of human nature that gave rise to these forms in the first place, for if they are not first and foremost human constructions, then what are they?  Marx might agree, and might acknowledge the importance such institutions might have played in the evolution of society, and might take it in good faith that, once rid of the institutions and their concurrent limitations and corruptions, humanity might proceed to its next phase of evolution.  Yet we are still waiting for this miracle to happen and are left with the sobering observation that such evolution occurs very slowly, if at all.

So what then of emancipation as inclusion?  Inclusion may have the appearance of emancipation, for as more people are included in the existing system they might have the opportunity to reform the institutions in which they are now allowed to participate.  Or, now that they have a greater stake in them and have grown a taste for the power that they offer, these institutions may change them, and they might ultimately contribute to the preservation of even the more corrupting elements of these institutions.  We have seen that in any event, the concern for public life that empowerment brings has both its vices and its virtues, and the specific interests of any given society will problematize such participation.

We are left at the point where the problem of emancipation is still not easy to pin down.  Is the problem of emancipation ultimately the problem of freedom?  The problem of equality?  The problem of individualism?  We cannot be entirely sure.  Yet by problematizing freedom, equality, individualism, and even rights, state based or otherwise, we learn that these words should not be used loosely.  However, we are at least closer to a definition that is free of romantic prescriptions that might, to paraphrase Tocqueville, estrange us from the here and now.

True emancipation is the result of a balance between community and personal freedom, between political and civil life, between solidarity and self-interest, and perhaps above all, the balance between the specific and the general interests of the various groups within society.  Thus, the problem of emancipation is ultimately the problem of balance.  More specifically it is the problem of sustaining such a balance long enough for norms of emancipation to thoroughly saturate the everyday lives of society’s denizens.  How we are to arrive at this point is a question for the science of emancipation, a field which is still awaiting consideration.

A science of emancipation must explore more deeply how the delicate balance which may sustain emancipation can be achieved, and define specifically what the appropriate norms of emancipation shall be.  If it is not utopia that we seek, then it must at least be such a balance; for if even life on this planet owes its existence to such a balance, why would we not assume that something perhaps just as miraculous, emancipation, may owe its existence to a similarly delicate balance.

[1] Robert C. Tucker, The Marx-Engels Reader (New York: W. W. Norton Company, 1978), 62.

[2] Ibid., 27.

[3] Ibid., 28.

[4] Ibid., 31.

[5] Ibid., 32.

[6] Ibid., 42.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., 46.

[11] Alexis DeTocqueville, Democracy in America, (London: Wordsworth Editions, 1996), 182.

[12] Ibid., 182.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid., 122-23.

[15] Ibid., 182.

[16] Ibid., 182-83.

[17] Ibid., 183.

[18] Tucker, 49.

[19] DeTocqueville, Democracy in America, 207.

[20] Ibid., 210.

[21] Alexis DeTocqueville, The Old Regime and the French Revolution, (New York: Anchor Books, 1983), xiii.

[22] Ibid., xiv.

[23] DeTocqueville, Democracy in America, 217.