Liberal “Political Emancipation” and Marxian “Human Emancipation”

Cover of the book named “Alienation and Emancipation in the Work of Karl Marx (Marx, Engels, and Marxisms) “, written by George C. Comninel. Source:

Karl Marx, who was a philosopher lived in the 19th century, has influenced the whole political, economic and sociological theories with his ideas stemmed from his historical materialism approach on relations of production. According to Marx, men labour to survive in the life. As we are labouring creatures, we can change the world. In his works, Marx answers how do we produce and what are certain relationships we establish during labouring. His dialectical approach focuses exactly on that point: the material dynamics/relationships that produce relationships and ideas, which are produced by us. In the essay, On the Jewish Question, Marx’s rejections of Bauer’s ideas are on three points. My answer to the question is related with the relationship between points articulated by Marx. These critical focus points are can be listed like that:

  • Rejection of solely focusing of political emancipation, by favouring extension of it by human emancipation,
  • Rejection of contractarian state understanding.
  • Rejection of private property.

Marx (1978) criticizes the liberal understanding of secularism by stating that this kind of understanding only liberates state form religion and creates ‘a free state without man himself being a free man’ (p. 32). The political emancipation of religious person is only the emancipation of state from religion, by recognizing no religion and accepting itself as solely state. State ‘may emancipate itself from religion, even though the immense majority of people continue to be religious’ by ’ being religious in private’ (p. 32). The liberal understanding of secularism makes the division between public and private spheres and frees state from any religion. This kind of secularism aims to make man free to perform or practice his/her religion only in private sphere. However, this kind of political emancipation is not a final form of human emancipation because, it is only an maximum attainment of emancipation ‘within the framework of the prevailing social order’ (p. 35). Prevailing social order, so state’s existence, is determined by the capitalistic relations of production and private property. This point leads us to explain what Marx suggests as the actual way to human emancipation.

To be human as emancipated, Karl Marx suggests that the unification of civil society and citizenry, by demolishing the liberal distinction of private and public sphere and by demolishing the ‘state as such’ (p. 30), the capitalist state. Political emancipation, as Marx sees, is ‘a reduction of man, on the one hand to a member of civil society, an independent and egoistic individual, and on the other hand, to a citizen, to a moral person’ (1978, p. 46). This kind of distinction preserves capitalistic relationships of production and private property from which the human alienated from, and the capitalist state which is the custodian of the interests of bourgeoisie. If we demolish the private property and this exploitative kind of state, we can demolish the separation of social power (civil society) and political power (citizenry), thus human can be emancipated.

In my opinion, Marx sees the valid relationships very well by looking from positive understanding of freedom and made a strong criticism which is about the weaknesses of the negative understanding of freedom. His criticism of private and public sphere distinction of liberal understanding unveils the inability of negative understanding of freedom to demonstrate structural consequences effects freedom. Negative freedom looks the case from the eye of the agency, however it falls to analyse structural part of it. Positive freedom enables us to answer the structural relationships which effects human freedom. In that point, Marx made a strong criticism from the sphere/standpoint of structural standpoint, namely the positive understanding of freedom.


Tucker, R. C., Marx, K., & Engels, F. (1978). The Marx-Engels reader.