Notes on Political and Human Emancipation:
A Simplified Reconstruction of Marx’s Reasoning
in “On the Jewish Question”
I. “Political Emancipation” entails equal status of individual citizens in relation to the state, equality before the law, regardless of religion, property, or other “private” characteristics of individual persons
a. Political Emancipation represents real, historical progress (Marx, p. 54) compared to pre-modern societies where a person’s social position determined how they lived their economic and political lives (p. 64)
i. For example, under Feudalism serfs as subordinate to Lords in both economic and political senses:
ii. serfs owe Lords “rent” and political allegiance by virtue of their social position as serfs
iii. “serf” as simultaneously a political and an economic identity, both determined by social position
b. In civil society (modern social realm of individual self-interest, economic competition, etc.), individuals are liberated from determination of their lives and identities by social position
i. Social mobility becomes possible; rags-to-riches through pursuit individual self-interest
ii. Modern Individuals choose for themselves occupation, consumption, and lifestyle
iii. These choices are understood to be “private” matters, separate from public or political life
c. In modern society the political identities of persons are no longer determined by fixed social positions as in feudal social hierarchy
i. With political emancipation in a modern democratic republic, a person’s property, religion, etc., are understood as “private” matters which do not determine their public lives as citizens
1. Rich and poor, catholic, protestant, jew and muslim, all are equal as citizens
ii. Citizenship and political life abstract from all the individual differences apparent in private life of civil society in order to politically emancipate persons from determination by those characteristics
d. In modern society, social life and identity of persons are bifurcated:
i. private life of individuals as lived in civil society;
public life of citizens as lived in state.
II. Modern separation of individual, private life from public, political life may be an improvement over the unified political-economic domination of feudalism, but it too prevents full realization of human freedom (species being; social self-determination)
a. Material productive life, where people live their daily lives and focus most of their energy and attention, is lived as a collection of self-interested individuals who generally do not consider the ways in which their productive activity shapes society, human nature, future possible worlds, etc.
b. Since it is socially-organized productive activity which shapes who we are as human beings, the fact that modern society has “privatized” this activity may have freed us from feudal domination, but it does not enable us to make collective decisions about what kinds of social lives we might want to produce and what sorts of persons we might want to become (in fact, it disables us from doing so).
c. Correspondingly, our public, political lives are separated from our private, productive lives so the scope of the social self-determination which we are actually able to achieve is severely limited in a democratic republic
i. We are unable to make communal decisions about the social organization of production (and therefore about the kinds of social beings we want to become) because productive life has been privatized
ii. Crucial parts of our social lives are placed outside the scope of public political discussion, and “democracy” becomes a hollow form of political self-determination, detached from the daily lives through which we (re-)produce our social existence. This separation gives political life a kind of unreal existence.
iii. “Man in the reality that is nearest to him, civil society, is a profane being [a self-interested individual]. …In the state, on the other hand, where man counts as a species-being [i.e., a member of a self-regarding community], he is an imaginary participant in an imaginary sovereignty, he is robbed of his real life and filled with an unreal universality. …For man as a [member of civil society], life in the state is only an apparent and momentary exception to the essential rule [i.e., pursuit of individual self-interest]” (Marx, p. 53).
iv. So we live most of our lives in civil society, where we (re-)produce our material existence by acting as self-interested individuals. We occasionally put on our hat as citizens in order to make collective decisions about “public” matters, but these cannot include our productive lives, which have been “privatized” in civil society.
v. When we do put on our citizen hats, we do so (implicitly) as persons whose identities have been shaped by life in civil society, that is, as self-interested individuals.
vi. Citizenship is understood to be based upon rights which each of us has, not by virtue of membership in a community, but by virtue of being individuals (the kind of beings who inhabit civil society).
vii. “None of the so-called rights of man goes beyond egoistic man, man as he is in civil society, namely an individual withdrawn behind his private interests and whims and separated from the community. Far from the rights of man conceiving of man as a species-being, species-life itself, society, appears as a framework exterior to individuals, a limitation on their original self-sufficiency” (Marx, p. 61).
viii. Citizenship and public life – in which we might find self-realization as species beings if public life encompassed our productive lives – is instead reduced to the dog being wagged by the tail of civil society and the life of self-interested individuals.
ix. “Citizenship, the political community, is degraded by the political emancipators to a mere means for the preservation of these so-called rights of man, … the citizen is declared to be the servant of egoistic man, the sphere in which man behaves as a communal being is degraded below the sphere in which man behaves as a partial being, …it is not man as a citizen but man as a bourgeois [individual in civil society] who is called the real and true man” (Marx, p. 61).
x. Instead of realizing our species-being through full social self-determination, our public lives are reduced to a means for the pursuit of individual self-interest.
d. Summary: Political Emancipation represents both freedom (in relation to feudalism) & unfreedom (in relation to species being and striving for social self-determination)
III. Human Emancipation can lead toward freedom in fullest sense of social self-determination
a. Human Emancipation entails integration of productive lives of individuals with their communal lives as citizens -- realization of species being.
b. Through democratization of productive lives (currently lived in civil society) and productivization of democratic lives (currently lived in truncated public state) creation of unified life of social self-determination for individuals who are also at the same time members of a community.
c. “The actual individual man must take the abstract citizen back into himself and, as an individual man in his empirical life, in his individual work and individual relationships become a species-being; man must recognize his own forces as social forces, organize them, and thus no longer separate social forces from himself in the form of political forces. Only when this has been achieved will human emancipation be completed” (Marx, p. 64).