Very obviously, Marx put emphasis on changes to, and the value of, society. But in his writing is he doing away with the value of the individual? Or does it simply go without saying, that individuals retain a value?
Certainly the individual was important to Marx. He wrote an essay at the age of 16, I believe, taking a position against human degradation, so I think this was a life motif for Marx, and a guiding light for him.
But I think what is of utmost importance in the study of Marx, and for the study of any philosopher for that matter, is to consider the question of when did we actually get the writings that the thinker produced? Do we have them all? Have they been worked over properly? A lot of stuff was written about Marx before we even had a grip on his body of work, and much of what was written about him was either incomplete, or flat wrong.
Maximilien Rubel began to undertake this process, at least for French speakers, in the 1950s I think. There is a collection of essays, Rubel on Karl Marx: 5 Essays (it is available in English, Cambridge 1981), and this collection recounts the adventures of Marx's papers, and I think one of the essays may serve to help answer your questions.
We are still relatively early in the study of Marx.
I don't interpret Marx as reducing the importance of the individual. His focus is certainly on the collection of individuals, but as such it is formed by individuals uniting. In his understanding, many (or likely a majority of) individuals are being exploited. This results from historical precedence in how societies have formed, the heritage of power, and the inequitable access to both capital and the "means of production". He argues that these factors create an exclusivity that enables the exploitive class, "the Bourgeoisie", to utilize their position to accrue and concentrate wealth for themselves, and within their own class *1. However, Marx points out that the process of production that generates wealth could not be accomplished without the labor power of the excluded class, "the Proletariat".
Since the Bourgeoisie require the labor power of the Proletariat, it seems uneven that the Bourgeoisie should reap a significantly inequitable amount of the rewards of the production. This concept of equity is derived from a mathematical approach of quantifying labor and value, pointing to less labor being done by the Bourgeoisie and, conversely, less value being rewarded to the Proletariat. This inequity is felt by each individual of the Proletariat class, when they are struggling to survive due to a lack of wealth and access to basic needs (food, shelter, clothing - arguable health, satisfaction, recreation, etc.). Without power, capital, or the means to produce without the Bourgeoisie (initial capital - money - needed to purchase tools, materials, etc.), the Proletariat is beholden to the Capitalist system and has little leverage to change the system. This is exacerbated by the fact that the access to capital is not historically a result of effort, but instead has been received through entitlement and heritage *2.
However, the leverage is gained through the collective unity of the Proletariats. By banning together, they control an integral part of the Capitalist equation for free, i.e. the Labor Power. This labor power is created from the efforts of each individual, and has no external cost that would require initial wealth for any individual to acquire it for themselves. Each individual controls their own labor power, but it is only as valuable as the marketplace determines. If you withhold your labor power in negotiation of a higher value, but someone else is willing to offer it for a lower value, your negotiation will be weakened. For Marx, the only way to "raise all ships" in the labor power marketplace is to unite the laborers to prevent undercutting in this way. That is why when he refers to the collective, it is not in the general sense of everyone as a single entity, but is actually the shared needs of many individuals and raising the value of each individual to a more equitable exchange of labor for value.
*1 I find that this position is antagonistic to both classes, and I would challenge that "being in the Bourgeoisie" does not necessitate an interest in exploitative practices. Though, the proof is in the pudding and it is only if the Bourgeoisie takes it upon themselves to fairly allocate the profits to both themselves and the Proletariat workers in a more reasonable distribution that they would set a different precedent and possibly dissuade someone with Marxist leanings.
*2 Bare in mind that the concepts of society and wealth Marx was exposed to predates the modern social setting. Changes in society have enabled new results - for example, concepts like the "American Dream" of self attained success through hard work demonstrate a pathway to break this exclusivity. However, a Marxist (or Conflict Theory sociologist) would argue the ability to achieve social and economic ascension is still impeded by many of the same (and new) institutionalized hurdles; i.e. access to education, the access to financial opportunities (loans, etc.), social connections (business connections resulting opportunities).
What is the value of the individual in Marx's writing?
Very obviously, Marx put emphasis on changes to, and the value of, society. But, in his writing, is he doing away with the value of the individual? Or does it simply go without saying, that individuals retain a value?
This is a complex topic. A useful first step is to distinguish two angles on the individual in Marx’s writings : the ethical and the historical.
The individual – ethical value
The ultimate self-realisation of the individual was a primary goal of Marx’s socialism and communism.
The Marxian stress was not on "ideal rights" but on "material means." When man is free "in the materialist sense," according to Marx, he is "free not through the negative power to avoid this or that, but through the positive power to assert his true individuality." Thus "each man must be given social scope for the vital manifestation of his being."' Marx saw this sort of freedom as requiring society at large to consciously reorganize its social and economic life, not primarily with a view to greater economic "efficiency," but in order to promote the personal development of each individual. This did not mean society's attempting to mold the individual to some preconceived pattern of virtues but rather society's providing the circumstantial preconditions for the individual to realize himself. Here as elsewhere Marx depicted his society of the future in a few bold strokes without details, and without analysis of the obstacles in the nature of man which stood in the way of its realization.
The self-realization of the individual was the highest goal of Marxian socialism. The ''masses" or the working class were to be the instrumentality of the envisioned revolutionary change, but it was the individual as such who was to be liberated in the post- revolutionary scheme of things. The abolition of classes was not to be for the purpose of making all men uniform atoms in society, not to destroy variation, but to make the individual rather than the class the unit of variation. (Thomas Sowell, ‘Karl Marx and the Freedom of the Individual’, Ethics, Vol. 73, No. 2 (Jan., 1963), pp. 119-125 : 120.)
Marx sharply opposed any idea of the state as "a children's home" or of society as "a crowd of adults whose des- tiny is to be educated from above." (Sowell : 119.)
This did not mean that Marx saw socialism or, its successor, communism as atomistic, with individuals pursuing self-centred, unco-operative ends. Even under the dictatorship of the proletariat, which was the initial stage of transition away from capitalism, there would be – and here Marx took his model from the Paris Commune of 1871 - universal suffrage and criticism of the government by the people. Marx’s individuals are to enjoy a communitarian lifestyle of civic participation even when the state has ‘withered away’ – out of work because there are no classes to manage and control the relations between.
This needs saying because it is so often neglected or denied.
The individual – historical value (or role)
And this needs investigating because often at least in its finer points it is so misunderstood. Marx held, so it is widely supposed, that the individual is a passive factor in the inexorable unfolding of history from capitalism to socialism and then communism.
According to this view, Marx's theory of history is one of economic determinism, in which each individual is only the tool of economic forces, with the individual's own motivation being mainly economic. This image of man is said to explain the manipulative totalitarianism of contemporary Marxism.
Actually, Marx's theory of history never pretended to determine-economically or otherwise-what individuals would do. The greatest latitude was allowed for the variety of personal motivation. Marx's theory denies precisely the claim that individuals -great men-shape history; hence it does not find it necessary to go into their motives. "For what each individual wills is obstructed by everyone else, and what emerges is something that no one willed." The Marxian theory of history attempted to analyze the logic of the situation rather than determine the intentions of individuals. This has been obscured in part by the title, "materialist theory of history," which has sometimes been taken to mean that Marx assumes people to be "materialistic" in the popular sense of being avaricious. But Marxian materialism was philosophic materialism, largely of the eighteenth-century variety represented by Helvetius and Holbach, and has no connection with avariciousness.
The "economic" element in the Marxian theory is somewhat peculiarly defined. What Marx called "the economic structure" of society does not refer to the interrelations among things, such as manufacturing, mining, transportation, etc., but to the interrelations among men - the hypothetical table of organization of society at large. It is the nature of these human relationships in production which forms "the real foundation, on which rise legal and political superstructures and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness." The human relations are reorganized with technological change, creating new problems and the possibility of new solutions.
In Marx's theory, there is no question of the "weight" of the economic factor vis-ai- vis the weight of psychological, biological, etc., factors. It is only a question of the element making for change. For example, it might be argued that the existence of family units is better explained by biological or psychological factors than by economic factors. But that is not the question to which the Marxian theory addresses itself. It seeks to explain the changes which the family unit has undergone in different epochs, and it finds the answer in the impact of changing economic circumstances and the changed social structure. The materialist theory of history attempts to explain how the existing totality of institutions, ideas, social arrangements, etc., developed from the previously existing totality; it does not attempt to explain the complete question of their existence (why there are families at all) by assigning weights to economic, psychological, biological, etc., factors.
Still less is the Marxian theory one of economic motivation predominating to the exclusion of any sincere idealism. On the contrary, it pictures the socioeconomic changes as creating new problems and possibilities, to which different groups react differently according to whether their objective positions in the economic complex cause them to perceive more the positive or the negative aspects of new economic forces, and therefore cause them to take different views of the abstract rightness or wrongness of various alternatives. According to Marx, "each class attempts - from its own special point of view – to emancipate society." Clearly this is not a denial of idealism but an attempt to represent the particular form this idealism will take as a function of social variables. Marx said that "one must not form the narrow-minded notion that the petty bourgeoisie, on principle, wishes to enforce an egoistic class interest. (Sowell : 121.)
’Great men’ in history
It is usually men who are the focus here, so I keep this otherwise anachronistic language. What is the significance of individuals in history? Can they perform a pivotal role ? Michael Mitias summarises an interpretation pf Marx with which he appears not to disagree on this point :
man is a history-making being. He is not a blank sheet on which nature writes its script. He is a self-creative being; and in creating himself, he creates history. Man creates himself, he creates his image or nature, in the process of production. In short, he is the author and actor of history. The term 'history' refers to the record of what active men in actual life do or create. In the Holy Family Marx writes: "History does nothing*, it 'does not possess immense riches', it 'does not fight battles'. It is men, real, living men, who do all this, who possess things and fight battles. It is not 'history' which uses men as means of achieving - as if it were an individual person - its own ends. History is nothing but the activity of men in the pursuits of their ends". (Michael H. Mitias, ‘Marx and the Human Individual’, Studies in Soviet Thought, Vol. 12, No. 3 (Sep., 1972), pp. 245-254 : 246-7.)
Can particular individuals play a magnified role, however ? Can history be rewritten without any loss of causal explanation if we omit figures such as Julius Caesar and Napoleon Bonaparte – to say nothing of Napoleon III, to whom Marx devoted a political pamphlet ?
The following commentary is useful here :
Marx's second type of theory focused on specific situations: what strategy should German communists adopt in the democratic revolution in 1848? How might one explain the victory of the Second Napoleon in France in 1851? In analyzing these situations, Marx never concluded that general economic causes "necessarily" determined one political outcome rather than another. Instead he appealed to a specific combination of economic and political factors to define the alternatives in each upcoming case or to explain a unique result. Over time, alternate political strategies of the contending forces might potentially lead to dramatically different outcomes. While this second type of theorizing made use of arguments drawn from the first (criteria for beginning to analyze classes, for example), it examined a different, more complex object: the actual political setting of a revolutionary movement as opposed to the internal dynamics of capitalism (or earlier social systems). In applying the general theory to formulating explanations or strategies, Marx always modified it in certain characteristic, mainly political ways. (Alan Gilbert, ‘Social Theory and Revolutionary Activity in Marx’, The American Political Science Review, Vol. 73, No. 2 (Jun., 1979), pp. 521-538 : 523.)
On this reading of Marx there is a degree of political autonomy – a place for politics not wholly determined by economic conditions – in history. The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, 1852, signals firmly Marx’s recognition of this. In this space ‘great men’ can operate even if they cannot alter fundamental economic developments.
Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, 1852, Karl Marx & Frederick Engels, Selected Works, London : Lawrence & Wishart, 1968 : 96-179.
Karl Marx, The Civil War in France, 1871, Karl Marx & Frederick Engels, Selected Works, London : Lawrence & Wishart, 1968 : 248-309.
Karl Marx, "Critique of the Gotha Programme," 1875, Karl Marx & Frederick Engels, Selected Works, London : Lawrence & Wishart, 1968 : 311-331.
Karl Marx & Frederick Engels, The Holy Family, 1845, Moscow : Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1956.
G. A. Cohen, (2000) . Karl Marx's Theory of History: A Defence (expanded ed.). Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Roy Enfield, ‘Marx and Historical Laws’, History and Theory, Vol. 15, No. 3 (Oct., 1976), pp. 267-277.
Michael H. Mitias, ‘Marx and the Human Individual’, Studies in Soviet Thought, Vol. 12, No. 3 (Sep., 1972), pp. 245-254.
Thomas Sowell, ‘Karl Marx and the Freedom of the Individual’, Ethics, Vol. 73, No. 2 (Jan., 1963), pp. 119-125.