The German Ideology was written in 1845-6, when Marx was 27 or 28 yo. I mention this because some argue there are significant differences between the young Marx and the older Marx.
Part of the Feuerbach section of The German Ideology
D. PROLETARIANS AND COMMUNISM
Individuals, Class and Community
Here is my summary:
The context is a discussion of the rise of the trading or mercantile class (burghers) in antagonism to the feudal class. Over time the trading class develops into the bourgeoisie or propertied class. Traders and bourgeois compete intensely with each other but are also compelled to unite with each other in their struggle to overthrow the feudal class.
Marx says clearly that individuals arise historically before classes. In footnote 2 Marx specifically rejects the formulations that "each is all", "that bourgeois is only a specimen of the bourgeois species" and "that the class of bourgeois existed before the individuals constituting it".
Individuals act as individuals, including competing with each other, but as classes develop they discover they are members of a class.
"The separate individuals form a class only insofar as they have to carry on a common battle against another class; otherwise they are on hostile terms with each other as competitors. On the other hand, the class in its turn achieves an independent existence over against the individuals, so that the latter find their conditions of existence predestined, and hence have their position in life and their personal development assigned to them by their class, become subsumed under it."As class society develops individuals become "subsumed" to their class. Subsume means to be incorporated into something more comprehensive. Social classes are more comprehensive than individuals. This process includes being subjected to all sorts of (bad) ideas. Marx's words here are, "We have already indicated several times how this subsuming of individuals under the class brings with it their subjection to all kinds of ideas, etc."
Marx is clear about the sort of society (communism, a society without a ruling class) we would need for this process of individuals being subsumed to classes to come to an end:
"This subsuming of individuals under definite classes cannot be abolished until a class has taken shape, which has no longer any particular class interest to assert against the ruling class"As capitalism develops one of the main things denying individual freedom is the division of labour which develops as part of the capitalist system
To abolish division of labour and to make personal freedom possible requires a true community where an individual has the means of cultivating his gifts in all direction through free association with others in the community.
But community under capitalism is illusory except for the privileged. For the majority it becomes a new fetter because of capitalist social relations, which includes barriers arising from wealth disparity and the above mentioned division of labour.
Consequently, under capitalism within individual life there appears a division between the personal, on the one hand, and that which is determined by the division of labour, arising from the needs of the capitalist system, on the other hand. Persons are still persons but their personality is largely determined by their position in class society.
Under capitalism where individuals end up is largely "accidental" (random). You don't develop as a fully free individual because to survive under capitalism means you have to slot yourself somewhere into the capitalist inspired division of labour.
Individuals might think they are free because where they end up is accidental but in reality they are less free (than under earlier social systems) because they are subject to "the violence of things". Perhaps this anticipates Marx's later analysis of commodity relations, which describes the replacement of human relationships with the relationship between things.
Proletarians have no control over their social destiny, they are sacrificed from youth and their condition of life is forced upon them
Only revolutionary proletarians are free individuals since they understand the need to overthrow capitalism
What is called personal freedom is controlled by the existing productive forces and forms of intercourse at any particular time
My comment on this summary:
Today, in a relatively wealthy society such as Australia, people who fit the Marxist description of "proletarians", eg. teachers who don't own the means of production, have all sorts of freedoms that were not present when this was written, 170 years ago. People can work hard in a profession they choose, pay off the mortage (20+ years), have a family, send their kids to elite Private schools if they can afford it, choose their entertainment, donate to charities or volunteer to help the poor, travel the world and retire at 60 or younger to relax in their declining years. Such a life is lived by many. It is the best that capitalism can offer the proletarians of today.
People usually feel that they choose their profession as free individuals. However, I feel that Marx is right and that this feeling is at best only partly true. People find a niche, a "good job" (engineer, maths professor, social worker) within the capitalist system that meets their needs for money (can't live without it), social status / satisfaction. But this division of labour is largely determined by social and educational background. Not many lawyers come out of government schools. Once they are in a good job then people rationalise their position. "My job is socially useful and of benefit to others". Alternatively, "I have worked hard all my life and will enjoy the benefits of my hard work". In the meantime the capitalists do what they do best, find ways to invest and accumulate more capital (James Packer casinos, Twiggy Forest mining, Bill Gates computing etc.). They live in a totally different world. The class division is very real but over time most of us just come to accept it, that is the way things are, get on with your life. But why should we accept it? A better society can be imagined and was imagined by Marx, even though there have been all sorts of problems when revolutions try to go there.
So, we don't have the true community that Marx envisaged. James Packer isn't going to invite me over to his mansion for a cuppa tea and give me advice about how to earn my next million so I can retire early too. I don't have the same sort of freedom that he has to choose my developmental path. This did come about accidentally. He was Frank Packer's son and I wasn't. There was something more involved here than a free choice to become filthy rich. The ability of people to do their own creative and rewarding thing, whatever it is, is severely constrained by their income.
However, it appears to be exaggerated rhetoric to claim that community under capitalism is illusory. People join various clubs (footy, book, chess, Facebook etc.) and enjoy themselves with friends. This is not an illusion. I think Marx is suggesting we can do better, much better, that we need to open our eyes wider and see the injustice and exploitation in society as a whole and get to the root of that.
In capitalist society, we all have to live parallel lives as Marx suggests, one personal (private family, friendship circle, personal introspection) and one public (our life at work where we earn the money to continue or standing in a queue at Centre Link)
One common criticism of Marx centres around his alleged lack of recognition of the individual, the lack of individual freedom in the Soviet Union during the Stalin years, for example.
What I notice here about the text is that Marx does provide quite a bit of wriggle room for the bourgeoisie to be individuals both through competition (which can't be avoided within capitalism) and choice. He specifically rejects the formulation "that bourgeois is only a specimen of the bourgeois species".
It is true, however, that proletarians, in relatively wealthy Australia, have more wriggle room and some, although limited, freedom of choice, than is suggested in Marx's writing of 170 years ago.