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Essay: Locke’s liberal principles and values/Marx’s challenges

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  • Published: 15 October 2019*
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  • Tags: Marxism essays

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Locke’s liberal principles and values can be summarized in how he described natural law. According to him, “reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind… that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions” in his Book II, § 6 (Olivecrona 212) His views, however, can be dismantled or challenged using Burke’s conservatism and Marx’s radical socialism. This paper assesses the challenges provided by Marx.

Before the challenges or critiques by Marx to the liberal principles espoused by Locke will be given, what Locke meant by his statement will first be analyzed. Locke is considered one of the most influential political thinkers in the history of the western world. He is known for being behind what people now know as British empiricism and has considerably contributed to the establishing the theoretical grounds of the American constitution (Olivecrona 212). The most basic liberal principle provided by Locke is that everyone has natural God-given rights because all are God’s creations. As such, even in the abstract sense, Locke believed everyone to be equal. His liberal principles, therefore, have religious underpinnings or undertone, encompassing his theories about individuality, private property, and state responsibility. For him, all have a natural right to property, and this affects the sovereign’s actions (Olivecrona 213).

Locke is described as a micro-based ideologist who believed that apart from being equal to each other, humans are autonomous individuals. Even though they live in a social setting, humans cannot be treated like a herd or a social animal, incapable of making their unique choices and decisions. He believed that people are thinking, intelligent beings capable of reasoning, reflection, and conscious. For him, these abilities are the many gifts that God has bestowed upon all, setting apart people from mere beasts or animals. Therefore, even though even can think or the ability to reason and reflect is a universal trait of humans, this also implies that every person is individually unique. How they reason, think, or reflect will be influenced by their personal experiences and reference (Olivecrona 212). No two persons can have an experience completely similar to each other. By these basic beliefs, Locke provided or theorized that all humans, or all men (since it was a patriarchal system at the time), have a natural right to property. Not knowing exactly what God wants for each of his creation, he believes that men just have to cherish the gifts bestowed upon them – the gift of thought, reflection, and consciousness, among others. Each man has control of his body and is, therefore, the master of what he will do with it.  For Locke, the reasonable thing to do is to develop one’s natural skills and potentials to the best of their abilities, to honor God’s gifts. How states conduct things for their people should consider these. In other words, state law cannot be considered in isolation from the law of nature (Olivecrona 212).

Locke did not claim that the obligations to nurture one’s gifts are deterministic just because these are God’s gifts. A man can still choose not to develop his skills and abilities, especially since they also can reason. If they find it rational not to do anything with their gifts, then they can do so. Still, this means that a person is in control of his being, his access and right to life, health, liberty, and possessions all intact regardless of what they want to do. The development of one’s gifts or lack thereof is always considered the consequence of individual motivation, manifested through labor and not of other people’s command or desire. When it comes to property rights, no one can harm another’s right to property, because this is mainly one’s fruits of labor. The outcomes or fruits from one’s physical labor or mental exercise are therefore the property of a person, which nobody should harm or encroach on. Locke, in keeping with the assertion that one’s body is entirely one’s own, believed that a man should be entitled to rights over his property without even the consent of the state or sovereign. The melding of one’s labor or hard work plus nature that leads to ownership and access to certain properties or fruits. No one should be able to harm others to gain access to what they have. As long as there was plenty of others, then it is irrelevant to obtain consent first or be subjected to the overzealousness of a state or person. He claimed that it was pointless to fight one another for each other’s access to rights – life, health, property if there are more for others and they too can work for the same using their God-given abilities. Infringement of other people’s rights transcends the legal. Instead, it is described as an infringement of another’s natural rights. The sovereign might not even take away their rights. Instead, the sovereign should just govern over, protects, and enforce laws with regard the rights of all. No absolute authority should exist.

Marx’s theory with Locke’s view on rights, especially to property, have much in common. They both started in different places but concluded that in a state of nature, human beings need to appropriate what they consume and they get what they work for. This is natural, for Marx’s views can even be traced back to that of Locke’s. Locke asserted that the sovereign is the only function if it acts according to the will of the people and that there exists a social contract between it and the people. The government cannot encroach on the rights of people to life, liberty, and property, but obliged even to ensure they have these natural rights. Marx too argued on the limited power of the government. He claimed that there should not be an implicit trust that the government is good, especially if it is mainly ruled by a ruling class. The government cannot bring about change; only people can bright about adjustments to the society and end class struggles themselves. However, even if they seemed to jive with each other, there are fundamental differences on how Marx viewed property rights from Locke. Marx did not believe that all citizens had a right to acquire and own property in an extent as Locke did. Instead, he even believed in the abolition of ownership and private property. This is one of the central aspects of Marx’s theory, as expressed in the “Communist Manifesto.”  (Engels & Marx n.p) Marx argued that property rights are equivalent to means of production and that there was a timeless imbalance between classes on what they own, and therefore what they can do. This imbalance can be traced way back to the feudal days, and a revolution is necessary to change this. Without a revolution or an uprising, and without abolishing the notion of property ownership, inequities would go on unchecked. In many ways, Marx seemed to have suggested that private property is at the core of almost all societal problems. Everything that is wrong with the society can be attributed to the unequal distribution of wealth and property rights. Marx of course, did not mean no one should own anything. He believed that everyone has natural rights, much like Locke to own something. Under his ideology, however, ownership should only be common rather than capitalist sense (Engels & Marx n.p).

Also, it can be criticized that although Locke espoused the idea of everyone having equal natural rights, he still made the argument that property ownership was the fruits of labor. This implies therefore that some, before gaining access to the property, can be exploited (Engels & Marx n.p). Marx challenged this contradiction that Locke seemed to have made. For Marx, significant inequities exist between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat regarding labor. They were constantly at odds, especially since most property or most means of production were owned by the former, giving them the ability to abuse the latter. Because of the age-old system of unequal production and labor, the working class would constantly find themselves being exploited (Engels & Marx n.p). Class inequity with regard property ownership and labor can transcend to the government. For Marx, it can be hard to say that the sovereign does not have any right to harm the rights of the people and that all have natural rights to property (and life and liberty) as long as they use their God-given abilities to work and develop themselves as Locke did. Marx saw that labor itself was where the power of the proletariat was. But also believed that b their sheer number, the working classes have the strength to change the system, if only they would rise and understand their position in the larger scheme of the society.

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