top of page

"What is Hegelian Marxism?" and "Socalism and Freedom": Martin Hägglund and Lea Ypi in Conversation


White house on hill

If you enjoy reading this, please consider becoming a subscriber or making a small donation. The Philosopher is unfunded and your support is greatly appreciated.


MARTIN HÄGGLUND is the Birgit Baldwin Professor of Humanities at Yale University. His widely acclaimed 2019 book, This Life: Why Mortality Makes Us Free, was awarded the prestigious René Wellek Prize and selected by New York Magazine as one of the essential books to read during the pandemic. He has lectured at venues around the world and his books have been translated into fifteen languages. A volume devoted to his work, A New Hegelian Marxism: Debating Martin Hägglund’s This Life, ed. Michael Lazarus, is forthcoming from Routledge.


LEA YPI is Professor in Political Theory in the Government Department, London School of Economics. Her 2021 philosophical memoir, Free: Coming of Age at the End of History, won the 2022 Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje Prize and is being translated into thirty languages. Her work has been recognised with the British Academy Prize for Excellence in Political Science and the Leverhulme Prize for Outstanding Research Achievement. Her research interests include normative political theory, Enlightenment political thought, and critical theory.


******************************


WHAT IS HEGELIAN MARXISM? Martin Hägglund in conversation with Lea Ypi

This conversation between Martin Hägglund and Lea Ypi took place at Conway Hall, London in October 2019 to coincide with the publication of Hägglund's This Life: Why Mortality Makes Us Free (Profile, 2019). It was published earlier this year in What Matters Most: Conversations on the Art of Living, edited by Anthony Morgan (Agenda, 2023).


Lea Ypi (LY): I thought I would start by situating Marx, and Martin’s reading of Marx, within a particular tradition and within the standard way of thinking about that tradition. The tradition I have in mind is the Enlightenment with its conception of reason and free agency as something that unfolds in history, through which we re-appropriate the world we inhabit and are able to criticize our form of life. These are all familiar thoughts in the Enlightenment, carried forward in the Hegelian appropriation of several Enlightenment thinkers. The caricature understanding of Marx is that he was someone influenced by Hegel who had read Enlightenment thinkers and was inspired by the German idealist tradition to which Hegel belonged, but that he also rebelled to that tradition, by incorporating elements of a different way of thinking about the world. These elements, while still connected to the Enlightenment, in particular the Scottish variety, emphasized empirical constraints and led to greater concern with day-to-day questions like eating, sleeping, reproduction, how we work to satisfy our needs and how we live in communities that enable us to do that – the kinds of day-to-day questions that the German poet Bertolt Brecht captured nicely in his phrase, “Erst kommt das Fressen, dann kommt die Moral” (“First comes eating food, and then morality follows after”). Marx is often thought of as a representative of this materialist tradition, which stands in opposition to the idealist tradition I’ve just described. He is known for arguing that while it is all well and good for the German idealists to think about Reason with a capital R (as he puts it when he writes about Hegel), we ultimately need to reflect on where these ideas come from historically, what enables them, and under what material circumstances they emerge in different societies.


One of the most productive things that Martin does in his book is to overcome this dualism that is often seen as a tension. On the one hand, we have the idealist reading of the Enlightenment which is often also associated with the triumph of liberalism, reason and free will, emphasising the power to shape the world and to control circumstances. On the other, we have the alternative materialist tradition that emphasises the fact that we are limited, that we live in communities, that we worry about our day-to-day needs and the satisfaction of those needs, that we can only establish the institutions required to meet those needs and that we are constrained by what is socially possible given these material features of human behaviour. On this reading, Marx departs from idealism by emphasising the animality of humans, our proximity to the biological world, the fact that, like other sentient creatures, we are all vulnerable and dependent on nature.


Martin’s book shows us that both of these stories can be true, that both coexist in the socialist tradition, and what is in fact particularly interesting about that tradition is its ability to appropriate the idealist way of thinking about reason and agency but also to place it in a particular historical context. Martin offers us a distinctive way of engaging with this relationship between reason and nature, emphasising that humans are yes natural beings but also beings that engage with nature in a unique way. So I think that the best way of starting the conversation is to ask Martin to unpack this thought a bit, this idea that we’re both dependent on nature but also that we can transform our relation to nature and be subjects of history rather than simply being dependent on history.


Martin Hägglund (MH): Thank you so much, Lea – that’s a very helpful way of framing the issues. One central way in which my book tries to rethink the relation between Hegel and Marx is by showing that “spiritual” questions of freedom are inseparable from questions of material conditions. Economic questions are fundamentally spiritual questions, and vice versa, because they are questions about what we value, what we prioritise: economic questions are the very form of our material and social life. The precise Hegelian meaning of spirit (Geist) is here important, since it has nothing to do with something supernatural. Spiritual life in Hegel’s sense does not refer to anything otherworldly. Our spiritual life is rather our social and historical life, which does not leave animal nature behind but constitutes a distinct form of animal life, since we are able to take responsibility for and transform our own practices.


Economic questions are fundamentally spiritual questions, and vice versa, because they are questions about what we value, what we prioritise: economic questions are the very form of our material and social life.

I bring this issue into focus by starting from why Marx was so interested both in what we have in common with and how we differ from other animals. Like all animals, we create a surplus of time (“free time”) by virtue of our own activity of living self-maintenance. But unlike non-rational animals, we can take up the question of our free time as a normative question—asking what is worth doing with our lifetime, how we ought to cultivate our lifetime, how we should lead our lives and take care of one another. These are traditionally seen as idealist questions, but I provide an account of their conditions of possibility in terms of our distinct form of animality (rational animality) and our social-historical forms of reproducing our lives. It is in and through our material modes of production that we are responsive—for better or for worse—to the normative questions of what is worth doing, what we should do with our lives, and how we should relate to one another.


So my response to Brecht’s claim would be to emphasize that questions of feeding and questions of morality are inseparable in the lives of rational animals. How we relate morally to ourselves and one another is inseparable from how we feed ourselves and one another. Inversely, how we feed one another and ourselves is inseparable from how we relate morally to one another and ourselves.


LY: I wonder if you can say a bit more to connect this thought to how Marx’s account is related to a particular understanding of history in the Enlightenment tradition: namely philosophical history. In this framework, history is seen as a progressive march in the realisation of human freedom, and leads Enlightenment thinkers to adopt a particular way of understanding political development and social organisation. A relevant example is the four-stages account, that was very popular amongst Enlightenment thinkers and that Marx appropriated and adapted: it saw history as a trajectory from a nomadic stage of human relation to nature to a hunter-gatherer stage to an agricultural stage, and then finally to a commercial society in which people come together to produce and distribute and exchange in a distinctive way. But what would you say was the distinctive contribution that Marx then gave to these debates? What does the Marxian framework add to these theories that then gives Marxism its distinctive take on the world and generates its distinctive critique of liberalism and capitalism?


MH: The first thing to say is that for Marx, as for Hegel, the commitment to freedom and equality as universal principles is a historical achievement, which can only be realized and sustained by us. As Hegel emphasizes, the idea of freedom cannot be disembodied but must be embodied in our material practices. It must be embodied in how we reproduce our lives materially and how we recognise one another in our forms of social institutions, because the idea of freedom is a practice, it’s not an abstract idea. The decisive thing that Marx shows, however, is that the principles of freedom and equality are contradicted by the social form of wage labour that is the foundation of capitalism.


In the Grundrisse, Marx has an amazing argument about how the very idea of universal freedom and equality presupposes the advent of wage labour. Why? Because wage labour is the first social form which recognises, in principle, that everyone’s time is inherently valuable and that everyone ought to be able to lead a free life. However, capitalism is unable to fulfil this promise of freedom and equality, which is why Marx pursues an immanent critique of the whole modern Enlightenment tradition. It’s important to underline that there is no causal form of necessity that will lead to the overcoming of the contradictions of capitalism (as people often think in relation to Marx). Rather, Marx’s point is that there is a rational necessity to overcome capitalism if we are committed to freedom and equality. Freedom and equality can only become actual – can only be actually embodied in our material and social practices – if we overcome capitalism. I take this to be the normative horizon of Marx’s critique of capitalism.


LY: There are two elements I’m curious about: the first one is how you think about what we might call the institutionalization of freedom and equality. Are you in the more radical Hegelian tradition that emphasizes how we don’t really know what freedom and equality are until we have institutions that articulate them in a particular way, that grant individuals rights and ground reciprocal obligations? Or are you more in the Kantian tradition that says that we always have freedom as a transcendental condition of moral action, and that whether and how it gets institutionalized is somehow socially and historically contingent?


MH: I’m definitely a Hegelian on this issue in the sense that I think we can only learn these things through historical experience – and I take this to be important to Marx too. We could not have sat down in Ancient Greece and just figured out all the things that we’ve learned about ourselves through the capitalist mode of production and through our forms of historical experience – what we have learned about ourselves is inseparable from those modes of production and those forms of historical experience.


However, I think this insight is completely compatible with recognising that we have a distinct kind of freedom from the beginning just by virtue of being the kind of animal we are. We are rational animals and rationality is never an abstract disembodied ideal; it is always a living practice. Unlike for non-rational animals, it never is (and never was) given for us how we should reproduce our lives, who we should be, what we should do, and so on. From the beginning and until the end, there’s for us always a question of what we ought to do and what we ought to believe. At the same time, there are always actual historical conditions that enable or disable our ability to recognize, develop, and take responsibility for our freedom and our mutual dependence on one another.


LY: But isn’t it then the case that we always know what morality requires from us? And wouldn’t this undermine the Hegelian point that we only discover these things because we enter into determined social relations? If the idea is that we always, in some ways, have the freedom to choose between these relations, if we can select which commitments we take up and which ones we reject, then what is the further insight that we gain by saying that we only really know which choice to make once history has unfolded?


MH: I think it’s important to distinguish between what Jensen Suther, in his work on Hegel, has called constitutive freedom and historical freedom. On the one hand, we are constitutively free because we are inherently animated by the question of what to believe and what to do. Those questions cannot go away as long as we are agents – they are the irreducible questions of freedom that are built into the first-person agential standpoint of any rational animal. On the other hand, the question of historical freedom has to do with the conditions for embodying a form of life that can fully own up to and actualise our constitutive freedom. And this is not simply a process of making explicit something that is already there – it is a developmental process and what it requires of us can only be learned through historical experience.


We can only learn what freedom requires of us by trying and failing to lead a free life, trying and failing to sustain a mutually satisfying form of life.

In other words, we cannot simply derive the rational content of historical freedom from our constitutive freedom. Rather, constitutive freedom is the form of the fundamental questions of who we ought to be, what we ought to do, and so on. The form and the content are inseparable but distinguishable, in a dynamic interdependence that renders intelligible how our notion of freedom can change historically – for better and for worse. Any contentful conception of freedom can only emerge and develop through historical experience, through our ways of recognising and misrecognizing one another. We can only learn what freedom requires of us by trying and failing to lead a free life, trying and failing to sustain a mutually satisfying form of life. This is the dynamic of Hegelian historical experience, which opens the possibility of an emancipated form of life: the possibility of learning what actual freedom is, what actual mutual recognition is. But the achievement of an emancipated form of life is never guaranteed and never given once and for all. Even if we achieve it, an emancipated form of life will never have the form of a given fact; it will always require an embodied form of practice and practical judgment. To be our form of life, it will always have to be sustained by us: by our modes of production and our forms of social relations.


LY: I would like to turn now to the paradoxical nature of wage labour which is both liberating in one way and constraining in another. It’s liberating, as Marx says, because it represents the first time that humans can decide what to do with their labour, to sell it rather than just being driven to work the land and to engage with it in a particular way, or to be slaves at the mercy of other people’s will, who decide how unfree people are to use their labour. So, modernity and the advent of capitalism are liberating, on the one hand, because they mark a departure from these other ways of organising social relations. But then on the other hand they are also constraining because the social relations, the market institutions that they establish, also undermine the promise of freedom that they open up. Can you explain how this works? Why is it that wage labour is not formally slavery, but is still like slavery in a way? Formally, it signals a departure from slavery, but substantively it’s actually in continuity with slave-like forms of domination.


MH: This is an important question and it allows me to say a bit more about something I mentioned earlier. Marx argues that capitalist societies, at least in principle, mark a form of progress relative to previous forms of social life – for example, societies that keep slaves who are systematically denied ownership of their time, or serfs who are bound to a given master for their livelihood. Specifically, the social form of wage labour paves the way for a generalizable idea of the freedom and equality of all individuals. While many forms of slavery and subjection have, of course, persisted under capitalism, wage labor is historically the first social form which in principle recognizes that each one of us “owns” the time of our lives. Moreover, our lifetime is socially recognized as inherently “valuable,” insofar as we are compensated with a wage for the “cost” of our labor time. Wage labour is thus supposed to ensure that no caste, no race, and so on, establishes one person as superior to another, or as having the right to dominate another. But the forms of domination instead come to be defined by economic relations. So forms of domination are justified differently – and that matters – but they still persist.


LY: The other thing we should get into is the notion of value, which is connected to the issue of wage labour and the way in which the capitalist system is able to sustain itself. Perhaps you could start outlining how you think about value under capitalism, where you see the main problems with regard to value, and why it is that because of the particular nature that value creation takes in a capitalist system, you consider only some options of liberation to be promising and plausible and sustainable in the long-term?


MH: Yes, the issue of wage labour is directly connected to the measure of value under capitalism. The wage relation formally recognizes that labour which is merely done as a means to an end is a negative cost. If you count your labour time as a negative cost – and therefore as something for which you should be compensated – it is because you are committed to having time to lead your life, to engage with the question of what is worth doing, to do what you take to be worth doing as an end in itself. So the positive measure of value really should be how much time we have to pursue the projects and fulfil the obligations that we can recognize as inherently valuable. This is what I call “socially available free time”, which requires a form of society that in its principles is devoted to our lives as ends in themselves. But under capitalism the commitment to socially available free time is contradicted, since the expansion and cultivation of socially available free time does not generate any wealth according to how wealth is measured under capitalism.


Let me take a simple example that I elaborate at length in the book. Let’s say that in a village we develop more and more efficient technologies for acquiring water, and we end up with a well in the middle of our village. As a result we are wealthier in an existential sense, since we have freed up time to do other things besides go and get water out of necessity. But if the water is not produced through wage labour and it doesn’t cost anything to buy the water – in short, if the water is not commodified – then the production of water is not generating any wealth in the capitalist sense. In terms of the capitalist measure of wealth, the liberating function of the well is worthless, since it is not generating any profit.


This priority given to profit is not reducible to an ideological worldview; it is a matter of how we materially sustain our lives in any capitalist society. The very functioning of the economy requires the production and consumption of commodities that are sold for profit, which is only possible if there are workers who earn a wage that they can use to buy the commodities. Under capitalism, everyone has to prioritize the generation of profit, because that’s the only way that any wealth is produced in the first place.


LY: One of the really interesting issues that you raise in relation to the difference between socialism and capitalism relates to this question of the meaningfulness of what we do. Under capitalism, our engagement with our lives is always mediated by value creation, by the particular capitalist social relations that we enter into, and a Marxist response to that would be that once you overcome wage labour, once you overcome this particular way of thinking and creating value, then you enter in the true realm of freedom.


But why do you think that people are not pursuing meaningful lives under capitalism if they are convinced that the lives they are pursuing are in fact meaningful? Imagine an investment banker who draws a lot of satisfaction out of his activity and who finds that activity very meaningful – they’ve chosen it, they’ve studied to become it, they’ve put a lot of effort into it, it responds to a particular way of planning their lives and thinking about their desires and what they want to achieve. Surely they would be entitled to say something like: “Who do you think you are? Why do you think that my life is not meaningful? Why are you telling me that unless I overcome the particular way that I enter into these social relations, anything I’m doing is not really meaningful and I’m thinking I’m free but I’m actually as much as a slave as anyone else, including the workers I’m exploiting?”


The workers might see that they’re oppressed and they’re unfree because sometimes they need to get to the end of the month and they don’t have the money or they have to pay rent and feel constrained, but the Marxian critique wants to go further than that because it questions the whole way of life, the whole system of value creation. It’s not just about the domination of the workers, and the workers realising that they’re exploited and their lives not being meaningful. Marx would say that in this form of life, in this system, the capitalists are also unfree because they are also part of this generation of value and are also not doing things in a meaningful way.


Most fundamentally, our unfreedom under capitalism stems from how the purpose of our economy – the purpose of our life-sustaining activities – is already decided.

MH: Yes, absolutely, and it is very important not to reduce this to an individual psychological point about whether people take themselves to be free. Rather, the point is to recognize the forms of social domination and unfreedom that are intrinsic to capitalism as a form of life. Most fundamentally, our unfreedom under capitalism stems from how the purpose of our economy – the purpose of our life-sustaining activities – is already decided. The purpose is to generate profit because the question of what’s profitable takes precedence over all questions of what is meaningful or useful. As a capitalist producer, I must try to make a profit, regardless of what I believe would be valuable to produce for the sake of the social good. Likewise, as a worker, I must subject myself to a job that allows me to earn a living wage, regardless of which forms of labor I believe would contribute to the social good. Whether we are capitalists or workers, the cultivation of our abilities and the satisfaction of our needs have no inherent value; what matters is whether our abilities and needs can be exploited for the sake of profit.


LY: I wonder if we should now turn to the question of political strategies, to the ways in which we think about capitalism, ways of overcoming it and a world beyond capitalism. You have some thoughts in the book along those lines, about the political strategies and the ways through which we can engage with the political institutions and political agents and societies that we have.


MH: In very broad strokes, This Life is trying to do two things with regard to these questions. On the one hand, the book tries to give the most rigorous account possible of what the structural contradictions of capitalism are and why they are irreducible regardless of which reforms are undertaken. On the other hand, the book also aims to give a rigorous account of the general and concrete principles of an emancipated form of life, which would overcome capitalism in favor of what Marx called communism and I call democratic socialism.


LY: One thing that I was thinking when I finished reading your book is that you don’t really say much about the working class, but one of the aspects that is most central to Marx’s theory of history is the class dimension of how history moves forward. Do you consider there to be a special role for the working classes in your conception of transformative change, or is the idea that in a democracy we overcome class distinctions, and all become equal agents to participate in political debate, so there isn’t a particular role that the working classes have to play in this transformation? This is not really a question about reform versus revolution, but rather about who are the agents in charge of this transformation. Is it citizens at large? Is it vulnerable people? Or is it everybody who has a conscience and who realises that there’s something wrong with capitalism and who has the ability and will to think about these contradictions? Or is it a class of agents who are particularly affected by these relations of oppression?


MH: I think that Marx was right in arguing that the overcoming of capitalism requires an international alliance of the proletariat, self-consciously organized with the resolute aim of achieving a revolutionary transformation of our global form of life. It is crucial to remember, however, that for Marx the revolution in question must be different in its very form than all previous revolutions in history. Unlike revolutions where one class seeks to take power over another, the proletarian revolution is ultimately about universal emancipation and the self-abolition of the proletariat. Even though our historical conditions have changed so dramatically and so devastatingly since the time of Marx – and even though the political horizon that informs his writings barely seems conceivable anymore – there is no actual hope for the future without the historical memory of that possibility. To keep that memory and that horizon alive, I seek to demonstrate, as rigorously as I can, why only the overcoming of capitalism can achieve actual freedom and equality. Given the power relations of capitalism under which we live, the achievement of democratic socialism can only be the result of a sustained and difficult political struggle. An indispensable part of the struggle, however, is to clarify to ourselves what is wrong with our current form of life and where we are committed to going. I am under no illusion that my account of democratic socialism is sufficient to secure that it will be achieved, but I hold the account to be necessary to orient our struggle for freedom and grasp the meaning of a truly emancipatory social revolution.


***************


SOCIALISM AND FREEDOM Lea Ypi in conversation with Martin Hägglund


This conversation between Lea Ypi and Martin Hägglund took place via Zoom in November 2021 to coincide with the publication of Ypi's Free: Coming of Age at the End of History (Allen Lane, 2021).


Martin Hägglund (MH): Much of your academic work in political theory and philosophy attempts to answer the following key questions: what does it mean to be free? Which social, historical, and institutional conditions are conducive to freedom? Which conditions are obstacles? In your recent book, Free: Coming of Age at the End of History, you have approached these questions by writing a concrete historical account of your experience growing up in Albania. How did writing this book enable you to explore the question of freedom from a different angle?


Lea Ypi (LY): Initially, I wanted to write a book that explored the similarities between liberal and socialist traditions, and their idea of freedom. One of my long-standing concerns has been to show, through engagement with Marxism, critical theory, and socialist theory, that socialism is best thought of as a theory of freedom in history. Many people tend to think that socialism is characterised by a concern with equality or solidarity, and with the conditions for promoting an equal and solidaristic society. In fact, I always thought that its core concern was a radicalisation of the liberal idea of freedom. The starting point for Marxist and socialist critiques of capitalism is to show how a liberal capitalist system cannot uphold the commitment to freedom that it contains – either because of the way in which the political representative system is connected to the economic structure, or because of internal contradictions within this sort of capitalistic economic system, or because of the way in which power is distributed, or because of how wealth and value is generated and circulates, and so on. Due to these features of liberal capitalist society, it is very difficult for people to relate to each other as ends in themselves. I was inspired by Kant’s idea of the “kingdom of ends” and the notion that we are not just means to each other; in a society that is shaped by commodification, we can never fully realise this level of freedom. That is why a capitalist system can never radicalise, so this is where the socialist ideal must begin.


But I didn’t want to write about this subject in a way that was detached from abstract concrete historical reality. It’s always useful to think about ideas from a historical perspective; to reflect on how these ideas materialise in institutions, and in what ways (and to what extent) the institutions themselves uphold the commitments these ideas contain. When I began to think of examples from socialist and liberal societies, they all somehow ended up coming from Albania. I come from Albania, and for half of the first 18 years of my life it was a so-called socialist society, and for the latter half (following the fall of Communism) it was a so-called liberal capitalist society. Whenever I thought about the flaws in each system, the ways in which institutions were realised, the kinds of commitments that they wanted to uphold, and the different ways they both promised to realise freedom, I kept thinking back to the stories of my childhood in Albania.


A lot of people reacted in a puzzled, passive-aggressive way when I said that when I think about socialism, I think about Albania. People would say, “That’s not really socialism, that doesn’t really count”, and so on. Yet, in talking about a real socialist system, I wanted to talk about both the commitments that shaped that system and the limits that it encountered. These limits are, in part, limits of the Albanian historical experience, but also just the limits of actually realising socialism within a nation-state, of constructing a critique of capitalism that is supposed to be global and transnational, but which ends up being reflected in the life of a particular nation. So, my examples became more and more concrete, the way of telling these stories or writing about freedom became more personal, and the techniques I used became more literary.


The book then became a kind of coming-of-age story in which there is a parallel between the history of an individual and the history of a country. The individual is on the cusp of making the transition from childhood to adulthood, and confronts questions around freedom at a personal level, but these questions are entrenched in questions around the freedom of the institutions under which that person lives. In a similar fashion, the transition from socialism to liberalism was presented to us as a transition to maturity; we had these institutions that were “backward” and flawed in many ways, and then there was this promise of mature freedom, of “real” freedom. Albania is an interesting limit case as, in many ways, the process of having socialist institutions, followed by the crisis and the subsequent transition to liberal institutions, was more extreme than in other socialist countries. As a case study, it illustrates what happens when ideas of freedom become enmeshed in real lives and, in a way, become history.


In Albania, thinking through what socialism was and the nuances of living in a socialist society is extremely difficult to broach as a theoretical subject because people have very strong preconceived views.

Taking this approach enabled me to connect with readers at a different level than how we usually connect through academic writing. The conversation is more open, and the reader is drawn into the dialogue by connecting with particular stories and the particular lives that are on display. This seemed especially important given that many of the ideas in the book are contested. In Albania, thinking through what socialism was and the nuances of living in a socialist society is extremely difficult to broach as a theoretical subject because people have very strong preconceived views. I wanted to challenge how we think about socialism in Albania, what went wrong, and what we can learn from it, but I couldn’t challenge it directly. I could only challenge it by telling stories and having characters and dialogues rather than having a dominant voice in the book that would do this authorial work for me. This enables the reader to engage with the nuances of these historical realities without becoming intimidated.


MH: Such storytelling is a great way of exemplifying how philosophy can be accountable to lived, embodied, historical experience. That’s the task of a writer: to convey the intimate link between the seemingly most abstract philosophical questions and the most pressing living realities. It is also a way of embodying the Hegelian idea of a concrete universal. On the one hand, we can’t do or think anything without some kind of guiding norm that lays claim to universality. But on the other hand, any guiding norm can only exist in and through its historical embodiment, in the form of historical practice. One of the many virtues of Lea’s book is precisely that she is so attuned to the historical particularity of all the actors in the book, such that no one ends up being one-sided, and we get to inhabit real historical complexity from within, where the point is not to deliver the final verdict about all these contradictions but to give them form, give them life, allow us to inhabit them. That’s an incredibly powerful aspect of Free.


Throughout the book, you are careful to maintain a dialectical relation to the phenomena that you discuss and to provide a dialectical critique. By inhabiting the lived social reality of Albania at the time, we get a vivid account of how the self-understanding of that nation-state was formed with real aspirations and ideals of freedom that were contradicted by historical realities. This dialectical critique was actually immanent to Albania at the time. There is also a critique of Western leftists who argue that the Albanian case is not an example of “real” socialism, so there is nothing to learn from it. What do you think we can learn from engaging with the socialist lived experience in Albania and from understanding these contradictions, aspirations, and failures?


LY: One of the things that I wanted to challenge with this book was the individualisation of failure. There are lots of stories that you can tell about what went wrong in Albania: for example, some will say that the people who were in charge were really flawed individuals – brutal, bloodthirsty, and cruel. This criticism is often voiced when I present my work to the Albanian public because there remains so much resentment and hostility to the whole experience. It seems to me, though, that however oppressive a system, however tyrannical the leaders, they guarantee compliance not just by being brutally oppressive but also because of the way in which different motives come together. Think of Hegel’s remarks on the “cunning of reason”. Historical outcomes cannot just be ascribed to the motives of key individuals. This is not to say, of course, that it makes no difference who happens to be in charge at any key moment, but I did not want to explain the experience of Albanian socialism as a kind of dictatorial accumulation of power. There were attempts to claim legitimacy and there was some kind of commitment to an ideal that might have been plausible and valuable to begin with. I wanted to see how this process unfolded in a way that led to a concentration of power, a lack of democracy, censorship and so forth.


The socialist tradition with which I am engaged has been insufficiently concerned with political freedom. Many critics of the dissidents of 1989 argued that there had not been an adequately sophisticated effort to think about democracy, and what democratisation requires at the political level. The failures of this experience historically can all be attributed to a lack of concern with political liberties and with promoting liberal freedoms, e.g., freedom of association and freedom of thought – both at the level of theory and practice. These were always thought of as “bourgeois freedoms” that came with the system in which they were entrenched and from which socialists had nothing to learn. The combination of a lack of attention to political democracy and a certain way of running the economy and thinking about economic power produced mistakes – not just mistakes, but moral tragedies when you consider how real people were affected. This is an important lesson to learn from the experience of state socialist societies.


In the book, I wanted to tell the story of what happened in Albania while also showing what the discourse was around freedom, what Albania thought it was doing, what they were committing to, and how the country ended up being completely isolated – in part through this commitment to the purity of the ideals. The second part of the story is connected to the Western socialist tradition and concerns the lack of attention paid to how political and economic democracy work together. In the West, the experiences of the Eastern Bloc, the Eastern socialist societies, were always dismissed in this quasi-liberal paternalistic way; they almost believed that if the Eastern societies were to try socialism again, things would work out much better: you wouldn’t have this concentration of power, this oppression of the individual, a need for censorship, and so on. In fact, as these problems seem to all arise from structural factors, if there is no real engagement with the failures of the past, there is no guarantee that things could be better in the future.


This is where I felt the leftists and the liberals overlapped, precisely in having this almost arrogant presumption that a liberal society, with a liberal tradition and liberal institutions, knows better than the “locals” who are still somehow catching up with the course of history. The second part of my book discusses the failures resulting from the application of abstract recipes to the process of liberalising a country. The failure is not merely due to the fundamental problems in capitalism and free market societies, and whether they can ever deliver for individuals; in a more particular way, such attempts fail because they are imposed in a top-down manner which lacks concern for the nuances of the context.


The book is full of moral tragedies that occurred in both socialist and liberal capitalist Albania. One of the examples that I refer to in the second part of the book is the story of my father. He came from a dissident family and did not have any meaningful freedoms: he could not do what he wanted, he could not pursue the occupation that he would have liked to pursue, and so on. Eventually, under liberal capitalism, he became the CEO of the Port of Durrës. This was the dream of his life, to realise this liberal freedom. He thought he had been made free by the new liberal society that he aspired to create and enter. Then, under the instruction of the World Bank, he was told to deliver structural reforms which involved sacking hundreds of Roma workers and leaving them unemployed.


Rationality is something that emerges through history, and by entering these historical processes, your rationality, in some ways, comes out more and more.

This is a paradigmatic example of a moral tragedy because there is someone who wants to be good, knows what oppression is, and has all his life wanted to be a free agent, but what it means for that person to be free is to be responsible for making other agents unfree. It is a moral tragedy because it is not about someone wanting to exploit or be evil; rather, it is a product of the contradiction inherent to the system in which he lives. It is both foreseeable and avoidable, but not necessarily to the particular individuals who are in that system – only to those who have a sufficiently developed reflection of what that system entails. There are other cases where you have, for example, a state official who is committed to certain ideals and then ends up doing horrible things to other individuals, causing this harm that he does not want to create just because of the structural incentives under which he is operating.


MH: Could you say something about the relationship between politics and economics in your experience of Albania? Do you see one or the other as posing a greater challenge for aspirational socialist countries, either from the standpoint of liberalism or from the standpoint of Eastern Bloc communism?


LY: I think that is a question that generalises to other contexts as well. Albania was an extreme case because it was an autarchic society, very isolated with no significant flow of trade with other countries. More generally, if you’re thinking about a democratically organised economy, the only way to make people care about that economy is if they also have political power. If they don’t have political power, then there is a disconnection between citizens and production. In the capitalist system, you are producing for the capitalists, and you are alienated because of the way in which money circulates and value is produced. In a socialist system without political freedom, you are basically producing for the party elite, and this divorce between the political and the economic is what triggers not just the crisis of censorship, political representation, and the questions of freedom of thought and association, but also, ultimately, bankrupts the economy. I think the two are very deeply connected; you can’t have democratic freedom at an economic level without political freedom.


MH: In thinking about these issues, which sorts of assumptions about human nature and virtues are being made? Do socialism and liberal capitalism make different assumptions about human nature and virtues?


LY: I think there is a fundamental difference in how each system thinks about human nature. Humans are famously “rational animals”; the question, though is: are we more animal or more rational? If you are like me, and you are a socialist and a kind of Kantian Marxist, you think that rationality is something that emerges through history, and by entering these historical processes, your rationality, in some ways, comes out more and more. Human beings can always improve, and there can be a moral system that is also politically realised. I think this is the ultimate utopia of socialism. People who are much more sceptical about this conception say “homo homini lupus” [“man is a wolf to man”]. In other words, humans will always be aggressive, selfish, and have these instincts to outdo or outperform the other person, even to kill them. In this vision, there is a kind of intrinsic evil in the human being. This is the difference between a socialist and a liberal: the liberal thinks that this evil is fundamental to human nature and can’t be changed. The socialist thinks this evil is historical rather than fundamental and hopes that things can change – that with historical circumstances modifying themselves in a more and more rational direction, we will channel the best of human nature.


The liberal thinks that this evil is fundamental to human nature and can’t be changed. The socialist thinks this evil is historical rather than fundamental and hopes that things can change

There is no guarantee either way. None of us really knows what human beings ultimately are in the course of history. It is more of a leap of faith, a decision regarding what you fundamentally think about human nature. Seen in this way, why be essentialistic and assume that humans are always evil? Maybe they are not!? If you start from this position, then your political philosophy and your political commitments take a completely different shape than they do if you are on the side that says people will always screw each other.


MH: A common objection to both my work and your work, even from sympathetic readers, proceeds from precisely this assumption about the inherent evil of so-called human nature. Contesting this assumption does not mean denying that we are a distinct kind of animal, namely, rational animals. Our form of animality, however, is not in itself an obstacle to the actualisation of our freedom. As our rationality develops, we do not transcend our animality. Our rational animality does not have the form of a layer cake where our rationality is added on top of our animality. Rather, to be a rational animal is to be a distinct kind of animal with a distinct kind of potential.


We are the only kind of animal that doesn’t know how it is supposed to live. That’s why it is so difficult to be a rational animal and why it entails painful forms of historical experience. Our history entails the possibility of achieving an actually rational form of social freedom, but there is nothing that guarantees that the actualisation of freedom will come about. Even if it does come about, it will always have to be sustained and cultivated by us. The risk of failing is not just a negative constraint; it is a constitutive aspect of what makes it our freedom, our responsibility, our society, our lives. We can actualise our freedom in ways that do not exhibit the pathological traits we have naturalised under capitalism, but it is still going to be inherently demanding and difficult to live. Yet it is not going to be this historically determined tragedy of contradicting ourselves for reasons that ultimately can be overcome.


You have referred to yourself as a Kantian Marxist, which involves a commitment both to Kant’s account of how we are constitutively free agents who have an inner freedom - the freedom to do what is right – and to Marx’s analysis of the structural obstacles under capitalism, which contradict the possibility of actualising our freedom. I would call myself a Hegelian Marxist instead: are these two names for the same thing or is there a significant difference? It is possible to read your book in a profoundly Hegelian way, which emphasizes that we can only learn what freedom demands of us and our institutions through historical failures, in a process of recovering and transforming the implications of historical experience. I want to ask whether this is compatible with your Kantian emphasis on inner freedom. Is Kant’s notion of inner freedom on your account the freedom to do what is right no matter the circumstances, or is it the freedom to learn through historical experience what actual freedom requires of us?


LY: What is fundamentally Kantian about this stance is the notion that there can be no doubt that reason is the source of moral authority. The Kantian question, therefore, is less, “What is the right thing to do?”, and more, “What is the fundamental source of authority when it comes to asking the question, ‘What is the right thing to do?’”. Once you can identify the source of authority from a moral point of view, then you need to see how that authority unfolds itself historically – what kind of institutions and systems of law are created, what kind of societies emerge, and how these societies engage with one another. Where I depart from Hegel (and contemporary authors like Rawls, who I think of in some ways as quite Hegelian), is that their process of understanding how this works historically very quickly becomes focused on states, laws, policies, and legal institutions. There is little space for outside agents that are not captured in these formal processes of law-making or history-making. I think, however, that we need to take into account the entire Geist: art, culture, and the mobilisation of counter-movements when reflecting on possible criticisms of the system or alternative ways of conceiving society. What Kantian theory provides is the idea of a kind of normativity that isn’t completely dissolved in history, which gives us the foundation for further criticism of society and for articulating alternatives.


Once you can identify the source of authority from a moral point of view, then you need to see how that authority unfolds itself historically – what kind of institutions and systems of law are created, what kind of societies emerge, and how these societies engage with one another.

MH: I take your point vis-à-vis the mainstream Hegelian and Rawlsian tendency to think about institutional rationality exclusively in terms of the state. In contrast, I would emphasize that, for a true Hegelian Marxism, the rationality or irrationality of our form of life is at work and at stake in everything we do. The question of reason is embodied in all our practices – in how we eat, how we make a living through our forms of material production, and in how we recognise one another on all levels of our living activities - not just at the explicitly institutional level.


Relatedly, you mention near the end of your book your mother’s concern that you are writing articles about the “dictatorship of the proletariat”. In a recent paper, you discuss Marx’s notorious notion of the dictatorship of the proletariat in terms of “democratic dictatorship”. You argue that we can, in principle, achieve a kind of freedom where we don’t experience laws as an imposition, but rather as expressions of our own rational will. The full socio-historical actualisation of Kantian freedom, or Hegelian freedom, requires a transitional stage. Could you share your response to your mother’s worry about why you’re taking up the dictatorship of the proletariat, and explain how you see that endeavour as being in the service of the radicalisation of liberal ideas rather than being an anti-liberal notion?


LY: I guess my mother’s worry was about the institutions that shaped her life and which, in some ways, defined the kind of oppression that people lived under in Albania. When I was reading Marx on the dictatorship of the proletariat, I interpreted it as a kind of radical democratic institution that radicalised the liberal tradition of thinking about transitional government. The philosophical point was about articulating institutions for revolutionary legitimacy, which in some ways is a very difficult question because, in every historical revolution, there are always the oppressors and the oppressed (as it were). Even if revolution happens in the name of justice, and it delivers freedom for an oppressed majority, in every triumphant regime there will be “losers” whose personal interests – for ideological reasons or reasons to do with bias, with manipulation, and so on – will not be aligned with the interests of humanity.


Rawls says something similar when he talks about the “sense of justice”. He says that, even in a society that realises a sense of justice, there may be some individuals for whom this will not be enough to motivate them, so they will remain selfish. To me, as a Kantian, that was always a historically contingent thing. It’s not possible to conceive a society that is fundamentally just, that has truly realised justice, and that always has this difference between those to whom justice appeals and motivates, and those for whom you need a system of law and punishment. What I found most attractive about the Marxist tradition is that it had identified a mechanism for understanding this transitional legitimacy, which was called in Marx the “dictatorship of the proletariat”. On this view, in every society in which you still need the state, and in which you still make these distinctions between those who rule and those who are unable to see justice, the system is not fully delivering. When the system really delivers, you no longer need the dictatorship – in fact, you don’t even need the state anymore. The state withers away and what is left is a kind of society in which people do the right thing simply because it’s the right thing to do.


In this utopia, the Kantian ideal of the “kingdom of ends” becomes the rule of institutions. At that point, you no longer need coercive institutions. So, for me, the connection between the Kantian kingdom of ends and this post-communist utopia was very clear, at least in theory. In terms of democratic theory and theories of legitimacy, it was very interesting to think about this. A lot of things went wrong in these communist or socialist societies that called themselves “the dictatorship of the proletariat”. The first thing that goes wrong is a detachment between the party and the people; there is a disconnect between the institutions of the party and the institutions of the people on the ground. So, it becomes not the dictatorship of the proletariat but, in fact, the dictatorship for the proletariat; in other words, the proletariat is a passive recipient of party rule. The proletariat is never a representative, never represented, and never a decision-maker in its own right, with its own agency. These societies use the concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat, but produce a mechanism of oppression that ends up being particularly brutal in certain contexts.


If laws were to render us fully free, they would also emancipate us from the need for a coercive authority that enforces the laws. That’s the proper political horizon of Marxian aspiration.

MH: I want to highlight one aspect of what you said: part of the reason why the dictatorship of the proletariat is supposed to be a transitional period in which we learn to be free, is because freedom on this account is actually possible – it’s not just a regulative idea, but something that, in principle, can be historically achieved as a form of life. If laws were to render us fully free, they would also emancipate us from the need for a coercive authority that enforces the laws. That’s the proper political horizon of Marxian aspiration. It also takes into account, in a Hegelian way, that even though we don’t know a priori what it means to be free, the question of freedom is at issue for us a priori. We must learn through painful historical experience what it means to be free and the outcome of that process is never guaranteed but, in principle, we are not stuck with the unhappy consciousness of never getting to a form of life in which there is no opposition between law and willing. I think this is a really important entry point into the debate; the radicality and philosophical cogency of that vision is much needed.


LY: This relationship between law and willing – or the way I put it, between the kingdom of ends and the ethical community – is something that, as a political ideal, is most clearly articulated in Kant’s writings on religion. He talks about this concept of ethical community, where people relate to each other as ends in themselves, and the idea of reciprocity of ends is fundamental. The reason I find the dictatorship of the proletariat powerful (and I stuck to the term “dictatorship of the proletariat” in part to be willingly provocative) is because it represents, for me, a fundamentally radical egalitarian democratic republic. But it’s still a republic, and it still needs the law and the state to work in a certain way. There is something in me that believes that the real horizon of freedom is where you transcend the need for coercive institutions to mediate democracy. I think it is also what sets apart the Marxist or socialist tradition from the liberal tradition.


MH: This point is very important since, for Marx, the goal is the self-abolition of the proletariat for the sake of universal emancipation. One of the real mistakes we can learn from in the Albanian context is that there was a fixed conception of Albania as a workers’ state. At one point in the book, your father says, “They call me an intellectual but we’re all workers in this worker state”. Instead of conceiving the workers’ state and the proletariat as something that should overcome itself, it was assumed that the proletariat had properly become what it ought to be – that everyone ought to be proletarians and workers. Even though you rightly caution against one-sidedly throwing out all the aspirations and self-conceptions of the Eastern Bloc, there was a conflation of the proletariat with the end of history, which failed to grasp the proletariat as a historical movement that ought to overcome itself.


LY: Historically, I think this tendency led to the reification of states and, as you can see from the Albanian experience, a rhetoric of the nation-state as the vehicle of emancipation. The nation-state was never supposed to be the agent of transformation, but this is what happens. The state is then thought of as the agent of world history, which brings me back to my earlier concerns about theories that fail to make space for outside agents that are not included in the formal processes of the state.


In every oppressive circumstance, there is something in you which is profoundly moral, which channels the free agent who says, “I’m not standing for this”.

MH: If we have to learn how to be free in the transitional period of the dictatorship of the proletariat, where does the prior drive to freedom – our emancipatory desire – come from?


LY: If we ask, “Where does freedom come from? When do we see it? How do we know when we see it?” I believe it comes in the resistance that each and every one of us channels when we are confronted with an oppressive system; it appears in acts of criticism by the subject to the institutions or to the circumstances in which they live. This is why I don’t think it is purely reducible to institutions or to the law. That is, in part, the story that I try to tell in the book through the character of my grandmother. She lived through these different systems: she had her life under the Ottoman Empire, with a very privileged, aristocratic background and lots of power and wealth, and then her life under Communism, where she ended up being deported. Throughout her life, she has always insisted that she was a free agent which seems hard to make sense of: how could you possibly think of yourself as a free agent when you are in these oppressive circumstances? I think what she really meant was that in every oppressive circumstance, there is something in you which is profoundly moral, which channels the free agent who says, “I’m not standing for this”.

 

If you enjoyed reading this, please consider becoming a subscriber or making a small donation. The Philosopher is unfunded and your support is greatly appreciated.

bottom of page