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Property and Self-Actualization: A Critique of the Marxist Interpretation of Property

The Marxist argument for the actualization of the self is directly related to the Marxist interpretation of Hegel’s historical approach to epistemology, and the Marxist interpretation of the role of property. It is from this interpretation that Marx concludes that the next logical step in this historical process is the tearing down of the capitalist system, while the means of production come under the ownership of the people. Although Marx believes this will happen naturally, he aims to speed this process up. There is a call to action, specifically a revolt of the proletariat, a belief and a movement based on how the world ought to be. These are the beginnings of Marx’s ethics. This revolt, or socialism, would then be finished by the finality of communism, in which there is no property (at least no property owned by the bourgeoisie, as there would be no bourgeoisie) and all things are held in common by the people, respectively. Marx believed that property in a capitalist system caused the working-class to become alienated from themselves. Only a Marxist revolution would allow them to experience self-actualization, and only then would people be free. This point will be the basis of my argument against the Marxist ethic – that people should fight against the capitalist system and abolish the concept of private property. That said, it is not property (or the lack thereof) that leads to self-actualization, but liberty, which require the existence private property to be recognized. The following arguments are designed to show how liberty allows one to self-actualize, the necessity of the existence private property in recognizing one’s self-actualization, and how one ought to live in a liberty based society, and dealing with any possible objections.

            Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel was a German philosopher who experienced the French revolution first hand and used that experience to formulate his ideas about epistemology. Whereas philosophers before Hegel sought to understand and determine a final criterion for knowledge, Hegel believed that one could not fully understand what all that knowledge was when one lived in only one lifetime. When one dies, knowledge continues. Despite this belief, Hegel wasn’t a complete subjectivist. He did believe that eventually we’d get to a point where knowledge could truly be attained; however, it would not be on an individual basis, but on a societal level. In other words, as society and people evolve, society inches closer and closer towards truth. It is in this historical approach that Marx finds his base of operations.

            Although Marx was Hegelian, there are some aspects of Hegelian philosophy he disagreed with or did not care for. Specifically, according to Marx, Hegel was too abstract. If Hegel’s philosophy had caused mankind to have their heads in the clouds, Marx sought to use it to bring people back down to earth. And it is here that Marx’s ethics begins to come forward. In a famous line, Marx writes, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.” (Marx, 1924) How does Marx see the world change, and how does he seek to play a role in that? Using Hegel’s historical approach to philosophy, Marx utilizes Hegel’s discovery of the role of opposition and antagonism throughout historical periods. History can be categorized, according to Marx, as a struggle of those without power against those with power. And every new epoch in human history is brought about through a revolution (often violent) to change things as they are and enter a stage closer to that of the ideal. With the end of the lawlessness came monarchies. With the end of monarchies came the democratic and capitalist systems. What comes next and how is it brought about? Marx argues the very same way as the previous new epochs before – violent revolution. But, it’s not enough to have a revolution. There needs to be a goal, and for Marx, that is socialism followed by communism. However, if people are content in their current place, there would be no revolution, so Marx would need to bring the injustices of capitalism to light.

            In order to do this, Marx again borrows from Hegel, but also from Locke, the connection between property and self-actualization. Locke taught that in property, we can see ourselves. (Locke, 1690) Hegel believed that when one made something with his own hands, a reflection of himself is imparted into that object and self-actualization is realized.(Hegel, 1837) Marx agrees with both of these philosophers and believes he has found the chink in the armor of capitalism.

            In a capitalist system, there are those who own the means of production – they own the resources to complete a job. And then there are those who work for the owners by actually completing the job. The former are the bourgeoisie and the latter are the proletariat. Marx sees in these two classes the very same historical struggle we’ve seen throughout history. And within that struggle, and what has thus far kept the proletariat from rising up to claim what belongs to it, is the fact that no self-actualization has taken place. In Locke’s philosophy, property is an extension of oneself. (Locke, 1690) In Hegel’s philosophy, property that is created is a mirror reflection of the self, allowing one to recognize his own existence. (Hegel, 1837) Marx sees the proletariat working and building and creating…only to have the bourgeoisie take the product from the worker, and sell it for profit, thereby keeping proletariat subservient and unself-actualized. Marx is determined to change this cycle, not merely interpret it as it comes along. Marx sees this great injustice, and is going to do something about it.

            From here, Marx’s ethics come into play. And there are two parts to this Marxist ethic.

1.         What to do to bring about the revolution

2.         How to live after the revolution

            To bring about the revolution, the proletariat first needs to recognize their horrible existence. This is why Marx spends his days traveling between Germany, England and other places – He’s spreading this knowledge about the capitalist system. It’s designed to wake people up to their awful condition. But it doesn’t stop there. There needs to be revolution. In the Communist Manifesto, Marx writes “The Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims. They openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions. Let the ruling classes tremble at the Communistic revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. WORKING MEN OF ALL COUNTRIES, UNITE!” (Marx, 1847)

            Without violent revolution, there can be no end to the capitalist system. And the ethics of Marx teach that we ought to be currently living in such a way as to overthrow that system. But once overthrown, what then?

            In the Communist based society, private property has been abolished. In this way, man becomes free. When property is done away with, there is no longer a distinction between the two classes. These things fade away and people are left with the ideal that “the free development of each is the condition of free development for all.” (Marx, 1847)

Liberty as the Means of Self-Actualization

            Here, the author disagrees with Marx, Hegel, and to some extent, Locke on the supreme importance of property. Property is important, but it is not what allows self-actualization to happen. What does that is liberty, and one way that liberty manifests itself is in the ownership of property. Liberty, here defined as the unhindered ability to live the life of one’s conscious desires, according to one’s own wants and needs (so long as the liberty of another is not infringed upon), is the fundamental ingredient in self-actualization. When one has liberty, one can make choices and enjoy the fruits of those choices. And it is here (in liberty) that what is applied to property shows itself first and foremost – self-actualization. When one uses their liberty to make a choice and is able to witness the consequence of that choice, our self is reflected in that choice.” The mistake Hegel made is in thinking that the self need be reflected in something tangible, or physical. This isn’t necessarily the case. After all, what does the thing created represent? Power, freedom, choice, consequence – all of these things are represented in that created property which gives us self-actualization. That said, the physical aspect is not central to this fact and is unnecessary.

            The physical property merely acts as a tangible manifestation of that concept. It is not the concept itself. What is fundamental to self-actualization is the liberty to create, not the thing created. It is also here that Marx goes wrong. Marx applies Hegel’s concept of property and elongates the negative effect when he describes the bourgeoisie taking that product and selling it for profit. Although Marx believes the proletariat has not self-actualized because of this, it would be wrong to assume that the physical had any direct connection to it. Even still, in-spite of the physical being taken from the worker, he is compensated for his work through earnings. This becomes an important point in Marx’s oversight – Although the physical product of our labor is taken, something is given to the worker that he has agreed adequately compensates him for his loss. And with this compensation, one is able to use it to give himself additional property – a home, animals, kitchen supplies, food, clothes, etc…or any of the other things that might help solidify his self-actualization. This is the importance of personal property. Marx’s error rests in his not recognizing that workers are compensated for their work with something that they agree is equal to the work (and the product) provided.

            Personal property aids in our recognizing our self, not in self-actualizing. It results from self-actualizations and guarantees to us that it has happened. Property becomes a tangible manifestation that we have already self-actualized. It does this because, as we have the liberty to use our earnings in any way we want, we then purchase things that reinforce the concept. As a self-actualized being, I desire things that recognize this fact. As a self-actualized being, when I am hungry, I eat or choose not to. The same goes for thirst, or shelter, or any other basic or complex desire.

            How does liberty give us an ethical code that we should live by? If one lives according to his own desires, what’s to stop him from desiring, and then carrying out, the theft of another’s property, and thus, his self-actualization? This comes from a natural understanding of liberty. If liberty is defined as the unhindered ability to live the life one desires, according to one’s own wants and needs, then it is understood that if I should try to limit that in any way, then I am seeking to undermine this liberty. If this is the case, then the attacked will use any means at his disposal to protect himself and his property from this external threat. The argument is very similar to John Stuart Mill’s in his defense of Utilitarianism against the charge that it is not just. When one has liberty, he has a “valid claim” to protection in regards to his own liberty. But not only does liberty give us self-actualization, it is also the source of our security. (Mill, 1863)

            Liberty acts as a deterrent in that, just as you are free to attempt to rob me of that which is mine, liberty gives me the right to protect it, using any means necessary. Be that banding together with others to fight off the would-be attacker, compensate another for my security etc…Liberty allows for this. But more so than that, in a society that understands liberty and how property relates to it, there would be no attacks in the first place, due to the very fact that if we were to “acquiesce in the violation” of one’s liberty, this would “imperil” the liberty of us all. This is something that a liberty based society would not allow. (Mill, 1863) From this, we can determine that a liberty based society lives in such a way as to not violate the liberty of another. If an act violates the liberty of another, then we can know that the act is wrong.


            The objection may be raised however, if liberty means that I can live, unhindered, according to my conscious wants and desires, “why should the liberty ethical code be based in sustaining the liberty of others”? How could the act of, say, theft, or murder, or rape, be wrong in such a society? Firstly, to suggest that it’s possible that a liberty based society would tolerate such acts proves a lack of understanding on this principle. However, I can explain.

            If I have lived my life in such a way as to have achieved my own self-actualization, have provided my own property, either through creating it or providing the funds necessary for its creation, and some burglar were to break into my home with the intent to steal, I could say that he was wrong to do so. How so? Because he has now hindered my ability to live my life in such a way (in this particular case) as to enjoy the fruits of my choices, or my consequences. If he steals from me an object that I worked for, can I still enjoy unhindered access to that object? It can rightly be said that I cannot. In this, the burglar has acted immorally.

            What of a murderer? After all, a murderer doesn’t take my property that I have worked for. How would murder be considered wrong in such a society? In a liberty based society, where its people have become self-actualized, they recognize the importance of their physical person, and live according to the needs and desires of that physical person. They seek to make it comfortable, content, healthy, and so on. If a murderer were to take from me my life that I have worked hard to self-actualize, the murderer is depriving me of my liberty to use that life as I choose, unhindered by any outside influence. Because of this, we could say that the murderer acted immorally, or outside of the ethics of liberty.

            What of rape or molestation? No property is stolen. The body yet lives, for it has not been murdered. How does a liberty based society call such an act immoral or against the ethics of liberty? For the very same reason that theft and murder are immoral – namely, they take from the person the ability to choose for themselves how their body will be utilized. My body does not belong to another. On top of that, I have gone through a great deal to self-actualize with this specific body, and it is mine to utilize as I see fit – not to be used as a means to an end by some other person. It can be readily said then that such an act would indeed violate the ethics of liberty.

            In the end, the Marxist ideas of property and self-actualization are directly related to Hegel’s and Locke’s concept of property. Marx takes these concepts and uses them to make known that the taking of property or a product by the capitalist stifles growth in other classes. Because of this, according to Marx, the working class is to rise up, seize the means of production and abolish the concept of property altogether. This philosophy errs in that it believes, like Locke and Hegel, that property, the physical thing, is what allows for self-actualization. Liberty is what does this, and property is what helps solidify and cement our self-actualization. From here, a liberty based society, and similarly to the ideas presented by Mill, in addition to being the source of our self-actualization, actually defends against most all of the heinous crimes and provides for us an ethical life, a life in which one ought to live – a life lived in such a way as to not disturb the liberty of another. 





















Hegel, G.W.F. "Reason Governs the World." In Reason In History. 1st ed. Institute of Marxism-Leninism, 1837.

Locke, John. "On Property." In Second Treatise of Government, 18-30. 3rd ed. Hackett Publishing Company, 1690.

Marx, Karl. Theses On Feuerbach. 1st ed. Moscow: Institute of Marxism-Leninism, 1924.

Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. The Communist Manifesto. 1st ed. London: Communist League, 1847.

Mill, John Stuart. The Basic Writings of John Stuart Mill. New York City: Random House, 2002.

Written By Chris Baker, Winter 2013


Note to SquareSpace Reader:

A "Liberty-based society" = An ancap society. I couldn't just say that during my undergrad, though. Especially at my University. ;-) 

Philosophy of Liberty: A Response