The encounter of traditional liberal political economy with the so-called radical school gave birth in the 18th and 19th centuries to some of the most powerful social critiques and social movements in history. From the French to the Russian Revolution, the influence of a radical tradition represented by Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Karl Marx respectively can be taken to have produced events that literally changed the shape of the word and the way in which people were able to understand social organization. In order to understand the importance of the work of these two thinkers and the way in which they influenced their own intellectual environments, it is necessary to locate the precise point in conventional liberal doctrine at which they launched their critique. This paper will do this by first of all considering the key tenants of this doctrine and then demonstrating how first Rousseau and then Marx subjected them to a rigorous critique.
Arguably the most important aspect of the doctrine liberal political economy is its emphasis the inevitability of private-property, and on a belief in individual freedom which is understood negatively in relation to this property. In essence, a free individual according to convention liberal thinking is an individual who possesses private property, and who is free from the influence of either the state of other people in terms of how she chooses to use property. As such, in traditional liberal thinking the sate is presented as an entity whose main function is to mediate property relations and to ensure that those who possess a legal right to the goods that they hold in their own name have this right respected.
This conception of the state as mediator can be taken to lead directly to a conception of both a so-called “state of nature” and also to an idea of the social contract. The former describes a situation in which individuals exist without a system of formal rights through which their property may be ensured and protected. This state is depicted in certain thinkers as being an inherently chaotic environment in which, without the mediation of state institutions, no one individual is able to maintain a hold over any object and therefore a state of permanent is argued to prevail. The idea of the social contract provides a way of thinking about the nature of society that understands the essence of social relations as being a way of leaving the state of nature and forming a secure set way of living. The social contract can therefore be understood to be essentially a thought experiment which claims that the when individuals enter into society they undergo a process whereby they abandon the right to act according to their own will and receive protection from the state’s institutions. Such institutions can then be taken secure individual rights and mediate property relations. It is on these three key ideas of the state of nature, the a-historical nature of private property and the social contract, or the state as mediator of property relations that the liberal theory of political economy is based.
It is against these three ideas that Rousseau and Marx directed their critique. The former began with the observation that far from being a state of continuous war and fear, the hypothetical state of nature should be seen to be a state of innocence and freedom, in which people are able to co-exist without a serious need to defer to a state. Instead of seeing social institutions as being inherently benign, Rousseau argued that they should be seen as a symptom of the corrupted nature of society and that they must be reformed in order to bring them into line with what he termed the general will. This term refers to a conception of a universal desire which may be expressed through particular social institutions but to which such institutions must also remain continuously responsive. According to this argument, it is not enough to simply claim that social institutions can be seen to provide protection for a transcendental historical subject who possesses property. Rather, social institutions must be malleable and ensure the freedom of an individual as it may be conceived prior to the entrance into a social contract this contract’s reliance on a negative conception of freedom.
Rousseau’s argument that liberalism’s conception of the state and of the nature of private property are false is something that is taken up and intensified by Karl Marx. According to Marx, the idea of the state of nature is simply a myth that is used by bourgeois political economy to make its own arguments appear to be inevitably and irrefutable. This is especially true with relation to the idea of the necessity of private-property. Rather than expressing a transcendental historical truth, this idea of private property expresses a specific form of social organization and a specific way of interacting with nature. In another, more advanced form of social organization it would equally possible to argue that private property relations may disappear in favour of a communal sharing of a surplus. Likewise, according to Marx, the idea of the social contract should be taken to express the attempts of a particular class to make social relations that benefit it take on the appearance of historical inevitability. In fact, Marx argues, there is nothing inevitable about the structures of liberal political economy, and they should not be taken to be any more historically necessary than a system of social organization built around feudal social relations.
Finally, Marx argues that liberal political economists do not understand the way in which their own thinking relates to a capitalist organization of society. Indeed, Marx argues that it is these capitalist social relations that should be taken to be the dominant paradigm through which one attempts to understand society, and that any attempt to understand society without reference to them will inevitably fail. Marx argues that capitalism is system of social organization which is organized entirely around the production of commodities and in the generalization of a state of dispossession amongst those who must produce. It is the maintenance of this system, in which the primary social drive is the production of as much value as possible that it is the primary interest of the the state. Any attempt to understand the state outside of this system of capitalist social relations, or to claim that liberal political economy can overcome the contradictions within such relations is, according to Marx, completely naïve and, indeed, almost nonsensical.
In conclusion, the radical tradition can be seen to have fundamentally challenged to key doctrines of the state of nature, the necessity of private property and the idea of the social contract. By claiming that the state of nature may in fact be thought of as a state of freedom Rousseau insisted that it was possible to view social institutions as something that must be able to respond, rather than act in opposition to, the general will. Taking this argument further, Marx argued that the primary concerns of liberalism were the generation of an image of permanence for something that remains historically contingent, and that the private relations espoused in the liberalism cannot be considered without understanding them as expressing a fundamentally capitalist form of social organization. It is by making this form of organization appear as historically determined rather than eternal and necessary that the radical tradition of political economy has exercised a tangible influence on the history of political economy.