Marx and the New Individual, by Ian Forbes

Karl Marx is one of the most influential political theorists in history. His criticism of capitalism was foundational to much of 20th century socialism, and is likely to remain central also in the foreseeable future. But, is there a place for the individual—the ideological core of liberalism—in Marxism? In his book, Ian Forbes argues that there is.

Marx rejected methodological individualism. He also rejected classical moral individualism, i.e., the view that the individual is the basic element of political analysis, arguing that it is an element of the capitalist superstructure. ”The impact of capitalism,” Forbes explains, ”is to individuate its members” (p. 230). According to Marx, individualism is a manifestation of the distinction between the self and others that follows from an exchange economy (p. 135).

Instead, Marx supported individuality. In Marx’s theory, individuality ”relates to the extent to which the potential inherent in a person’s human nature is realized in becoming a free creative individual in society” (pp. 32–3). Individuality is unique to human beings as a species; ”we have the capacity consciously to become individual humans rather than just another herd animal” (p. 51).

According to Forbes, Marx’s historical materialism includes the view that history is a process of individualization. It is the process by which society gives rise to, and forms, the individual. Human beings become individuals as they gain an increasing control of their social existence (p. 125).

So far in history, all modes of production have denied ”true” individuality (p. 119). The pre-capitalist mode of production called for the exercise of only a limited portion of human beings’ full capacities (p. 91). It obstructed human power and potential, and was thus inadequate for individuality to flourish.

The capitalist mode of production ”develops the individual as never before, beyond the narrowness, insularity and superstition that characterized feudal society” (p. 98). Under capitalism humans seem independent, but this is an illusion. They are ”independent” only if the conditions for their existence are abstracted away—human ”independence” in the capitalist mode of production is rather an indifference (p. 189).

It is first at the final stage of historical development, namely communism, that true individuality unfolds completely.

Forbes writes: ”This is the society in which individuality loses all abstractness and conditionality. There is, for the first time, ‘free individuality’” (p. 166). ”Under communism, all individuals are free to pursue their own development, to differentiate themselves in the context of a truly social existence” (p. 179). ”That is, communism returns to the individual his or her human existence, unlocking all the bonds of structure, ideology and insti­tution” (p. 185). ”This involves the transition from individuals as particular beings, isolated from all others, into individuals who increasingly act in terms of a wider humanity on the way to a fully developed commun­ist individuality” (p. 197).

Some criticism is warranted.

For instance, Forbes seems to apply different standards when assessing communism and capitalism; the shortcomings of the former weigh less than those of the latter.

He writes that ”[t]he communist individual does not expect or demand fulfilment and self-realization in terms of his or her own needs, capacities and enjoyments,” as she ”experiences needs as a human, not as a ‘private’ individual” (p. 204). This means that the fallible human of today must undergo a dramatic psychological change before true communism can be realized. But, Forbes also claims that communism, unlike capitalism, sets ”no unrealistic demands on the individuals within it” (p. 191). I’d say that Forbes’s yardstick is a bit too flexible.

Furthermore, just as Marx never described the details of communism, he never described the details of the individual under communism either. Again, Forbes forgives Marx too easily, writing that Marx created ”the strongest sense that a great deal could be expected in such a society” (p. 208). That ”sense,” however strong a theorist might feel, is not enough.

Forbes argues that only in a society in which humans have ”control and responsibility for their circumstances,” namely in communism, can ”free individuality express itself and flourish” (p. 222). But without a detailed explanation of communism and the individuals under it, Forbes is not justified in believing that communism would entail true individuality—especially considering the facts about political oppression and mass deaths under real-world communism in the 20th century.

As the political philosopher Jason Brennan writes in his 2005 article ”Choice and Excellence: A Defense of Millian Individualism” (Social Theory and Practice 31:4, p. 490):

The solution generally proffered by communitarians is to devise a social system in which we have overarching common ends and feel empowered over the world. A good criticism of this solution is that realistically the first and second parts of it are mutually exclusive.

Nonetheless, Forbes’s book is enlightening. It is evident that Marx had a substantial theory of individuals (his idea of individuality is familiar from John Stuart Mill’s political philosophy, although their notions are distinct). In conclusion, Marx and the New Individual is a must-read for researchers with a professional interest in moral individualism. To others, it is not.

Forbes, I. (2015 [1990]). Marx and the New Individual. Routledge.