Marx argues that bourgeois freedom, equality, and property only retain their validity within a specific form of activity under capitalism—the exchange of commodities and in particular, the sale and purchase of labor-power. Abstracting away from the rest of social existence under capitalism, it is possible to believe that the worker is truly free, because he is able to make his will effective through contract, truly equal, because he receives in exchange for his labor-power a wage of equivalent value, and truly in possession of the rights of property, because he is able to dispose of his belongings—and of course in his case we are speaking chiefly of his own labor-power—as he wills.
In the first volume of Capital, Marx writes:
[The sphere] within whose boundaries the sale and purchase of labour-power goes on, is in fact a very Eden of the innate rights of man. There alone rule Freedom, Equality, Property and Bentham. Freedom, because both buyer and seller of a commodity, say of labour-power, are constrained only by their own free will. They contract as free agents, and the agreement they come to, is but the form in which they give legal expression to their common will. Equality, because each enters into relation with the other, as with a simple owner of commodities, and they exchange equivalent for equivalent. Property, because each disposes only of what is his own. And Bentham, because each looks only to himself. The only force that brings them together and puts them in relation with each other, is the selfishness, the gain and the private interests of each. Each looks to himself only, and no one troubles himself about the rest, and just because they do so, do they all, in accordance with the pre-established harmony of things, or under the auspices of an all-shrewd providence, work together to their mutual advantage, for the common weal and in the interest of all. (Capital, MECW 35:186)
But as soon as we leave this realm of abstraction and see, for instance, that the worker is denied access to the means of production, it becomes possible to notice that he is not truly free to dispose of his labor-power as he wills, but rather compelled to sell it that he might continue to live. These illusions of bourgeois morality become less and less tenable, the more concretely we understand the real situation of the worker and the real economic relations of capitalist society.
The “Benthamite” notion that out of mere selfishness and private interest, the general commonwealth can be safeguarded, becomes harder to believe and the hypocrisy and contradictions of capitalist society become clearer to see.
In the Grundrisse, Marx discusses the nature of freedom and equality in bourgeois society, and addresses the limitations of the goals of the French Revolution. His comments on those themes in these notebooks provide an early look at arguments about the insufficiency of bourgeois ideals that are later discussed in greater detail in Marx's Critique of the Gotha Program and in Capital.
Marx argues that socialism cannot be conceived of as simply a realization of bourgeois ideals such as freedom, equality, and justice, because bourgeois freedom, bourgeois equality and bourgeois justice are already realized in bourgeois society. The French socialists are foolish, he writes, “who wish to prove socialism to be the realisation of the ideas of bourgeois society enunciated by the French Revolution” (Grundrisse, MECW 28:180). It is “utopian” to suppose that the
inevitable difference between the real and ideal shape of bourgeois society, and the consequent desire to undertake the superfluous task of changing the ideal expression itself back into reality, whereas it is in fact merely the photographic image [Lichtbild] of this reality. (Grundrisse, MECW 28:180)
Once realized, bourgeois equality and freedom are proven to be inequality and unfreedom. Bourgeois freedom is the freedom of the atomistic, individual agent to buy or sell a commodity, and bourgeois equality is the formal equality of individuals who expect to receive remuneration equivalent to the value of the commodities they enter into exchange. The worker and the capitalist already confront one another as formally free and equal in this manner116. It is precisely this formal universal freedom and equality which forms the basis for the capitalist mode of production and which gives rise to the widespread de facto bondage of workers and the de facto social and economic inequality so characteristic of capitalist society.
Although in capitalist society free competition is taken to be individual freedom, “free competition is the free development of the mode of production based upon capital; the free development of its conditions and of its process as constantly reproducing these conditions. In free competition, it is capital that is set free, not the individuals” (A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, MECW 20:38). Although capitalist exchange gives rise to freedom and equality, it obscures the fact that the individual, even the capitalist individual, is not totally free because he must produce in accordance with laws that operate independently of him and which dominate him. Marx writes:
This type of individual freedom is therefore, at the same time, the most sweeping abolition of all individual freedom and the complete subjugation of individuality to social conditions which assume the form of objective powers, indeed of overpowering objects--objects independent of the individuals relating to one another. (Grundrisse, MECW 29:40)
Therefore, what is necessary now in order to promote the further development of a free human individuality is not for bourgeois freedom and equality to be realized, but rather for these to be practically superseded by higher forms of freedom and equality, with substantive freedom and equality created in the place of merely formal freedom and equality
Hence, in the preamble to The Programme of the French Workers' Party, Marx writes that “the producers cannot be free unless they are in possession of the means of production” (Preamble to the Programme of the French Workers' Party, MECW 24:340). This type of freedom, the freedom of the majority of society to appropriate the means of production, is of course not a realization of bourgeois freedom at all, but rather a distinctly socialist freedom in which workers would exercise direct control over the raw materials, tools, machinery, infrastructure, and so on that are required in order for production to be carried out at the level of efficiency to which it has been developed under capitalism. This substantive freedom would be directly at odds with the capitalist mode of production that depends on the forcible separation of the producers from the means of production (cf. Marx's discussion of primitive accumulation in the first volume of Capital).
The implementation of such a genuine, substantive freedom of course would require “despotic inroads117 on the rights of property, and on the conditions of bourgeois production,” something Marx already wrote earlier, in The Communist Manifesto (Manifesto of the Communist Party, MECW 6:504). It would neither be a realization of bourgeois freedom nor would it even be commensurate with, or justifiable on the basis of, bourgeois freedom and equality, even as it is bourgeois production which makes this substantive freedom first possible.
In the reformist struggles of workers under capitalism, we see a first inkling of how this genuine, substantive freedom comes into conflict with formal, bourgeois freedom. In the first volume of Capital, Marx writes:
It must be acknowledged that our labourer comes out of the process of production other than he entered. In the market he stood as owner of the commodity “labour-power” face to face with other owners of commodities, dealer against dealer. The contract by which he sold to the capitalist his labour-power proved, so to say, in black and white that he disposed of himself freely. The bargain concluded, it is discovered that he was no “free agent,” that the time for which he is free to sell his labour-power is the time for which he is forced to sell it, that in fact the vampire will not lose its hold on him “so long as there is a muscle, a nerve, a drop of blood to be exploited.” For “protection” against “the serpent of their agonies,” the labourers must put their heads together, and, as a class, compel the passing of a law, an all-powerful social barrier that shall prevent the very workers from selling. by voluntary contract with capital, themselves and their families into slavery and death. In place of the pompous catalogue of the “inalienable rights of man” comes the modest Magna Charta of a legally limited working day, which shall make clear “when the time which the worker sells is ended, and when his own begins.” Quantum mutatus ab illo! [What a great change from that time! – Virgil]. (Capital, MECW 35:306)In Capital, as in the Grundrisse, we see that the worker's freedom to enter into a contract and to dispose of his labor-power as he wills is only an illusory freedom, and that he was never in this transaction a totally “free agent” at all because he is not simply free to sell his labor-power or not, but rather is compelled to sell it if he wishes to live. That compulsion makes the worker susceptible to the most brutal working conditions. Thus, the first step in bringing about substantive freedom from oppressive working conditions and exploitative relations of production is for workers to combine together and push for laws that actually curtail the abstract freedom granted to them in bourgeois society. These measures on the part of workers are vehemently opposed by the bourgeoisie:
The same bourgeois mind which praises division of labour in the workshop, life-long annexation of the labourer to a partial operation, and his complete subjection to capital, as being an organisation of labour that increases its productiveness, that same bourgeois mind denounces with equal vigour every conscious attempt to socially control and regulate the process of production, as an inroad upon such sacred things as the rights of property, freedom and unrestricted play for the bent of the individual capitalist. (Capital, MECW 35:361)
As an illustration, Marx describes how in the French Revolution, the rights which could aid workers, such as the right of association, were subordinated in practice to the right of bourgeois property:
During the very first storms of the revolution, the French bourgeoisie dared to take away from the workers the right of association but just acquired. By a decree of June 14, 1791, they declared all coalition of the workers as “an attempt against liberty and the declaration of the rights of man,” punishable by a fine of 500 livres, together with deprivation of the rights of an active citizen for one year. This law which, by means of State compulsion, confined the struggle between capital and labour within limits comfortable for capital, has outlived revolutions and changes of dynasties. Even the Reign of Terror left it untouched. It was but quite recently struck out of the Penal Code. Nothing is more characteristic than the pretext for this bourgeois coup d’état. “Granting,” says Chapelier, the reporter of the Select Committee on this law, “that wages ought to be a little higher than they are, ... that they ought to be high enough for him that receives them, to be free from that state of absolute dependence due to the want of the necessaries of life, and which is almost that of slavery,” yet the workers must not be allowed to come to any understanding about their own interests, nor to act in common and thereby lessen their “absolute dependence, which is almost that of slavery;” because, forsooth, in doing this they injure “the freedom of their cidevant masters, the present entrepreneurs,” and because a coalition against the despotism of the quondam masters of the corporations is – guess what! – is a restoration of the corporations abolished by the French constitution. (Capital, MECW 35:730-731)
Bourgeois opposition to the attempts of workers to exert social control on production further reveals the practical contradiction between formal bourgeois freedom and the real freedom workers struggle for within capitalism, in struggles that necessarily point beyond capitalism for just this reason. While the capitalist defends “sacred” bourgeois freedom, he is at the same time also perfectly willing to defend the real unfreedom of the worker, the “complete subjection” of the laborer to capital.