Might Marx's argument in Das Kapital be less about justice and exploitation than it is about disenfranchisment? I specifically mean his analysis of work, the falling rate of profit, and movement of 'capital' with commodity fetishism.

I think this is usually claimed to fall under the word "exploitation", and that Marx or Marxists are looking for better "justice".

But I was looking again at some Rosa Luxemborg quotes, and her opposition to Trotsky.

when it comes to a suffrage law which provides for the general disfranchisement of broad sections of society, whom it places politically outside the framework of society and, at the same time, is not in a position to make any place for them even economically within that framework, when it involves a deprivation of rights not as concrete measures for a concrete purpose but as a general rule of long-standing effect, then, it is not a necessity of dictatorship but a makeshift, incapable of being carried out in life. This applies alike to the soviets as the foundation, and to the Constituent Assembly and the general suffrage law.

She seems to be arguing against "disfranchisement", and that, even in a socialist transition phase, exclusion from both the economy and society amounts to a "general rule of long-standing effect" that does not respond adequately to the demands of the state.

There is also this very famous quote (in the same chapter) about 'justice':

Freedom only for the supporters of the government, only for the members of one party – however numerous they may be – is no freedom at all. Freedom is always and exclusively freedom for the one who thinks differently. Not because of any fanatical concept of ‘justice’ but because all that is instructive, wholesome and purifying in political freedom depends on this essential characteristic, and its effectiveness vanishes when ‘freedom’ becomes a special privilege.

Was this just due to an argument with Trotsky, one that should not be abstracted from opposition to the Bolsheviks, or can socialists think about disenfranchisement without recourse to 'justice'? Especially given the recent populisms.

  • How would Luxemburg's opinion help us with what Marx's argument "might" be? Or is this about Luxemburg revising Marx's views? Her concerns vs Trotsky come from a very different political environment. It is unclear why disenfranchisement would not be a condition for exploitation though, which is also itself a form of disenfranchisement. Alienation and commodity fetishism are usually associated with young Marx's 1844 manuscripts rather than Das Kapital, and they were made prominent again by Lukac in 1920-s.
    – Conifold
    Commented Apr 15, 2019 at 5:54
  • i don't really care for a hard division between late and early marx, i find it unhelpful and dismissive (and CF seems integral to the basis of DK anyway @Conifold). i won't answer the (seemingly) rhetorical questions unless you want me to? agreed that disenfranchisement could fall under 'exploitation', or vice versa, thanks!
    – user38026
    Commented Apr 15, 2019 at 5:57

2 Answers 2


Marx's views on enfranchisement, hence on disenfranchisement, fall within his attitude towards political emancipation - the achievement of such rights as the right to vote, to hold property, to express one's opinions, the right to follow one's own religion, the right to personal security, &c. In On the Jewish Question (1844) he dismissed such rights, generally denominated 'natural rights', as not valueless but irrelevant to the deepest and most genuine form of emanicipation, namely human emancipation. There is no evidence that he had changed his mind about this when he wrote Capital.

Such rights in his view are 'simply the rights of a member of civil society, that is, of egoistic man, man separated from other men and from the community' (Tucker: 42). This is what he really has against them: they are rights which people have and exercise as individuals, not 'in community with other men'. Without regard to others, I vote in line with my personal opinions; I practise my religion, while others practise different religions or none at all; I own my property, which no-one else has the right to use without my agreement; I express my opinions, which clash with the opinions of others. My right of security protects me in my chosen courses of action and way of life from the violence or coercion of others. The background picture is one in which 'The only bond between men is natural necessity, need, and private interest, the preservation of their property and their egotistic persons' (Tucker: 43; cf. Claeys: 47-49).

Political emanicipation, including the ending of disenfanchisement, is inherently superficial in Marx's view relative to our 'species-being' or human nature. The real prize is not political but 'human emanicipation'. Human emancipation is achieved only when a community is formed which has replaced the exploitative, alienated, class-riven societies of the time - his time and (Marx would add) ours. Key to human emancipation is the abolition of private property, i.e. private ownership of the forces of production, the evil (so Marx would have it) that leads to class divisions, exploitation (the capitalist's appropriation of surplus value - the unpaid labour time produced by workers who have to sell their labour) and alienation (alienation from the object of one's labour, from the activity of labouring, from one's fellow workers, and from oneself as a free, creative being). So we know what features Marx's ideal community will not have.

On the positive features of a humanly emancipated community Marx is deliberately unspecific. He claims no special insight into the activities and organisations that will spontaneously emerge under the conditions of human emancipation.

Expropriation is a form of injustice; and it will have no place in the humanly emancipated community that Marx envisages since the pattern of property ownership of the forces of production, that of private property, which enables exploitation will have been abolished. Whether this would eliminate the possibility of all injustice is less clear - say, abuses (intentional or not) that require the application of Aristotle's corrective or rectificatory justice and justice in exchange. I think these could still occur. After all, Marx does not depict the humanly emancipated community as a utopia or as something of perfection such as Plato's ideal state (the kallipolis). It is only, and is only claimed to be, a community from which certain social defects - class division, exploitation and alienation - and their consequences, barriers to human emancipation, have been removed.

Capital is completely in line with this and does not vindicate disinfranchisement as a major evil, a focal concept. It explains, according to its lights, how capitalism 'generates exploitation and inequality, injustice and poverty, misery and chronic crises' and, crucially, sets out to explain exactly how this occurs (Claeys: 153). Disenfranchisement remains at the superficial level of 'political emancipation', where Marx had set it in 1844.


Claeys, G. Marx and Marxism, London: Penguin, 2018: 47-49 (summary of On the Jewish Question).

Tucker, R.C. The Marx-Engels Reader, 2nd ed., NY & London: W.W. Norton, 1978.


Geoffrey Thomas's answer is very complete and, as far as I know, completely accurate. Marx regarded human beings as Homo Faber, the animal that creates and produces. That is our essence, in a somewhat Aristotelean manner. We create our world and find meaning in what we create.

Yet we do not do so in the manner of Robinson Crusoe, a stock character in Marx's narrative. We do so socially, escaping the bonds of nature in our collective, socially organized labor. Through the social arrangement of capitalism we have developed our energies and surplus production to a level greater than any before.

Yet this surplus is alienated from those who produce it but those who own the material means of production, an alienation that manifests itself in myriad forms of suffering. This maldistribution cannot simply be fixed be political schemes like the New Deal or Scandinavian socialism. Such political measures are epiphenomenal and will ultimately collapse. So Marxism parts company with socialism based on political plans for retribution.

And, as noted above, Marx himself refrained from specifying the political means to achieving this end. By way of political models, he pointed with approval to the Paris Commune, but that was hardly a stable example. He did operate within party committees and institutions, not as cult leader. He foresaw a high probability of violent revolution, since property owners are not likely to hand over the keys on the basis of a mere vote. And he did use the ominous phrase "dictatorship of the proletariate," which left the door open for a ruthless transition, which the Bolsheviks rationalized.

Marx had before him only failed revolutions. Luxembourg wrote and acted in a world of established socialist parties and Bolshevik power in Russia. So she, like Lenin, Trotsky, Kautsky, Bernstein, and the rest, were forced to grapple with the specific mens to this end, and the extent to which the end justifies the means. If the measures of "war communism" were necessary, she argues, rightly it seems, that ruthless means would become first rationalized, then institutionalized.

Marxism remains highly skeptical of bourgeois systems of "rights," which are ultimately either meaningless negative liberties or the "right" to expropriate and own property. It is largely skeptical of "parliamentary" means, as favored by the Bernstein faction. But Marxism is open to, indeed requires, reinterpretation and adjustment, particularly under new technological conditions and with more historical examples, including the computerized transitions in China, a truly globalized capitalism, and the historical record of Bolshevism.

  • 1
    The gap between theoretical idealism, like all of Marx writings, along with his disavowal of any idea what his theory would look like if placed into action, and the subsequent failures in most revolutionary transitions from uprising to establishing any effective form of government is outlined and explained in detail in Albert Camus', "The Rebel'.
    – user37981
    Commented Oct 24, 2020 at 17:33
  • Don't think I ever read that, but it's on the shelf somewhere. There is an immense Marxist literature on the gap between theory and practice, in general. Certainly a diagnosis is not a cure. While I am a reader and admirer of Marx, I agree that he is open to the charge that he left this gap wide open to ruthless expediency. I wonder if he was leery in part due to the example of Hegel's political prescriptions, Prussia, and the Right Hegelians. He was right on many policy issues, such as the nationalist character of trade unionism, but generally in the negative. Commented Oct 24, 2020 at 18:38

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