By Estanislao Zuleta

One of the most common critiques against Marx is that he viewed individualism negatively and therefore the suppression of the independence of a free will was necessary to achieve a new social order of collectivism, equality and non differentiation. Against that accusation, this is -for the first time in English- the response by one of the most idiosyncratic thinkers of Latin America


The main trait and characteristic of Marx’s thought, manifested from his first writings until his late works and maintained throughout his complex intellectual evolution, is his radical individualism. This radical individualism is not a hidden concept or something implicit in his theory which is only discovered through laborious hermeneutics: it is instead explicit and continuously reiterated. It is also not an evident element, but something relatively secondary to his thoughts, and even less so, a remnant of his formation in German Idealism and Political Liberalism. If we consider, for example, his early articles regarding freedom and the censorship of the press (1842-1843), one may think this is about a particularly acute expression of Liberalism: “The Government hears only its own voice…It knows it hears only its own voice and yet it deceives itself that it hears the people’s voice.” However, there is a rapid concern for concrete individuals: What does the freedom of journalists and their readers consist of? If one develops this question, it is evident that freedom of the press being granted is not sufficient (yet still preferable over State censorship), and even less, the freedom of the advertisers of whom the owners of the press depend. The same issue occurs with Human Rights. They are an extraordinary advancement: canceling dependent personal relationships, religious and ideological impositions…now all citizens are equal before the law and may well do what they will as long as it does not hinder the freedom of others. This applies only to abstract individuals. Regarding concrete individuals, they are terribly unequal and are unable to do what the law permits them to, because they are vetoed by misery, their fear of unemployment and, in other words, their effective reality. A society must not be judged by what is dictated in its constitutional charter, but by the type of relationship men have amongst each other within that society and by the possibilities of personal development it offers to its citizens. What is dictated in its constitutional charter is adequate only if it leads to this. It is deficient if it serves to justify an ideology that perpetuates relationships of exploitation and dominance.

«The orbit of circulation or the exchange of goods are, in fact, the true paradise of the rights of man. Within these boundaries we may find concepts such as freedom, equality, property, and Bentham.»

Denunciation of abstract Individualism

In general, Marx reproaches philosophers who replace the concrete individual with some form of abstract individual: “the I” (Fichte, Stirner), “the consciousness of self”, “the subjective movement”, “free-will”, etc. For example, in a text from 1843, he sternly criticizes all philosophical justification of the death penalty and all punishment in general. In this, Marx cites Hegel, who states that the criminal performs a negation of his rights, his punishment is a negation of such negation and therefore a confirmation of what is right.

Marx then comments: “In this case, as in many others, German Idealism does nothing more than sanction the laws of an existing society by enveloping them in a supernatural mantle. Is one not deceiving oneself when instead of speaking of an individual with real motives and innumerable struggles that enclose him, one refers to him as an abstraction of “free will”? Punishment is nothing more than society’s defense against all conditions that violate its existence. How miserable is a society which has no better defense than executing…!”

Therefore, Marx has very well seen when society does not attempt (because it truly does not) to explain human conduct or even create appropriate conditions to transform those conducts. Society merely judges and represses these behaviours. This is why the abstract idea of “free-will” stands, instead of centering on the concrete individual. Something that may justify the executioner and sustain the established order.

In every aspect, Marx imposes the demand of thinking about real individuals in the context of their multiple determinations and within the structure of their effective possibilities. This is precisely why he condemns abstract individualism. There are no guilds, fraternities or idealized collective groups that can oppose it.

The ideas and values of Liberalism itself were sharply attacked in Das Kapital, not because it defended inalienable human rights, but because it portrayed the individual as a mere subject of contracts (this is because they constitute the metaphysical reality of the market). By effect, if humans are seen as nothing more than a subject of exchange, and if it is decided to ignore the conditions and interactions that determine them, it is then possible for liberal ideals to be logically deduced.

«Marx has very well seen when society does not attempt to explain human conduct or even create appropriate conditions to transform those conducts. Society merely judges and represses these behaviours. This is why the abstract idea of “free-will” stands, «

The orbit of circulation or the exchange of goods are, in fact, the true paradise of the rights of man. Within these boundaries we may find concepts such as freedom, equality, property, and Bentham. The buyer and the seller of a specific good (for example, hard labour) do not obey any power other than free-will. They hire and are hired as men, free and equal before the law. The “contract” is the final result of each individual’s will expressed in a judicial manner. We can see equality expressed as buyers and sellers of goods exchange one good for another equivalent good. Regarding property, each individual can provide, and only provide, what is theirs. And Bentham implies that everyone who participates in these acts, is moved solely by self interest. The only force of union in the relationship is each individual’s egoism, their personal benefit, and their private interest. Precisely due to this, because each man takes care of himself and no other, they all contribute to carry out a work of mutual benefit and collective coexistence of their social interest.

Self-Realization of the Individual

In his detailed and visionary analysis of technical capitalist tendencies, Marx is able to foresee a continual development of the application of science for productive processes. This development will persist until there is a point where “the labour of man as such will cease to exist since “things” will be able to work in his place.” But for this to become a grandiose realisation, it is necessary for man to be the objective of production itself and invert the terrible point of view of “the modern world where production appears to be the objective of man”. It is necessary that the free time which permits super specializations becomes enriching for the individual, in other words, an increment of his necessities, possibilities and creativities. In his free time, Marx would not partake in the conquest of the “right to laziness”, but instead use this time for “self-realization” which in some manner could be mere enjoyment, or as Fourier conceived it to be: with a seamstress’s candor. The works, which are particularly open and unrestricted – for example musical composition – are at the same time gravely condemned and demand the most intense of efforts. From the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, until Marx’s last works, we always encounter the same question: what occurs with concrete individuals, each with their determinations and possibilities?

«The ideas and values of Liberalism itself were sharply attacked in Das Kapital, not because it defended inalienable human rights, but because it portrayed the individual as a mere subject of contracts (this is because they constitute the metaphysical reality of the market).»

One hundred years after the death of Marx, whatever evaluation we make of his errors and assertions, it is necessary to highlight this fundamental aspect of his thought, because it has been almost as forgotten by his supporters and as ignored by his adversaries. 

Translated by Isabel Bussy


Ensayos sobre Marx, Editorial Percepción, Medellín, Colombia 1897. Estanislao Zuleta (1935 – 1990) was a Latin American philosopher, writer and professor from Colombia. His work includes important analysis of Colombia’s violent history as well as insightful philosophical and literary essays. He is currently being reevaluated, reprinted by Grupo Planeta and now, albeit slowly, starting to be translated into other languages.