It's been asserted in another answer here that:

Marxism is, of course, part of the spectrum of Liberal ideologies, though it is often maligned as being something 'other.'

Looking at the SEP page on Liberalism it does indeed start with spectrum-like notion:

Liberalism is more than one thing. On any close examination, it seems to fracture into a range of related but sometimes competing visions.

But Marxism is only mentioned once on the page, and not in an inclusive manner:

During and after the Second World War the idea that liberalism was based on inherently individualist analysis of humans-in-society arose again. Karl Popper’s The Open Society and its Enemies (1945) presented a sustained critique of Hegelian and Marxist theory and its collectivist and historicist, and to Popper, inherently illiberal, understanding of society.

So, in what sense is Marxism liberal and who considers it so? (By "who" I mean to ask if there any notable thinkers/theorists/movements etc. that hold such a view, i.e. classify Marxism as part of liberalism spectrum in some fashion.)

Clarification: since liberalism is a contested term, I'm being very liberal here in the sense that answers can pick their your favorite sense of "liberal" that might make the opening statement true. I.e. this isn't a "is Y an X: true or false?" kind of question, but "since by my choice of X I'm flummoxed by this statement that, I let you chose an X for which you think this is true, but please explain your reasoning." Of course, I expect an answer to still choose an X that is not completely idiosyncratic to this question, like say X = Marxism, making the statement trivially true, but some that is verifiable use of the term outside this question. I.e., if the answer is "it's true on Fox News because of the US usage of the terms", then that's a valid answer as far as I'm concerned, although a bit boring.

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    Downvoted because the question is fundamentally unanswerable without a definition of "liberal" that we can all agree on. The word meant different things at different times, and still means different things to different people. For instance, the Wikipedia article starts out by saying "Liberals... generally support free market, free trade, limited government, individual rights... capitalism...", but most US liberals are to greater or lesser degree opposed to all of those things: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liberalism In US discourse, their liberal is much closer to a libertarian.
    – jamesqf
    Feb 27 '20 at 4:15
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    @jamesqf: I'm being very liberal here: you can pick your favorite sense in which Marxism is liberal in answering the question. This isn't a "is X true or false" kind of question, but "since by my choice of X I'm flummoxed by this statement, I let you chose an X for which you think this is true." Of course, I expect an answer to still choose an X that is not completely idiosyncratic to this question, like say X = Marxism, making the statement trivially true, but some X that is verifiable use of the term outside this question.
    – Fizz
    Feb 27 '20 at 7:15
  • @jamesqf: I.e., if the answer is "it's true on Fox News" because of the US usage of the terms, then that's a valid answer as far as I'm concerned, although a bit boring.
    – Fizz
    Feb 27 '20 at 7:20
  • I'm inclined to agree with @jamesqf as political science terms carry different meanings from coloquial usage. Liberalism does need to be defined by the asker as the Academic definition is different than the coloquial usage and places on the Left-Right spectrum differently in different nations too. In the U.S. Liberalism is associated with political left, but in most of Europe, Liberals are center right. Won't down vote however.
    – hszmv
    Feb 27 '20 at 14:51
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    @Eike Pierstorff: "Marxism as planned by Marx" should be discussed on the Fantasy & Science Fiction site. See also the various lyrics to "The Big Rock Candy Mountain".
    – jamesqf
    Aug 14 at 19:20

Marxist humanism is a very liberal (in American way) interpretation of the work of Karl Marx, especially the Paris Manuscript and his early theory of alienation.

Most of the authors whose books inspired liberal 1968 student revolt self-described themselves as Marxist humanists, e.g. Herbert Marcuse or Wilhelm Reich. Their new political movement called New Left shifted Marxists' attention from class struggle towards social issues such as civil and political rights, feminism, gay rights, abortion rights, gender roles and drug policy reforms.

Freudo-Marxism borrowed from Freud the theory of conflict between the individual and civilization. Marxists attempt to liberate people by creating a non-repressive society.

Also, some liberal feminist movements are inspired by the unfinished book of Karl Marx published by Engels. The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State

Marxism attempts to liberate people from work, culture, religion, and morality therefore it is a liberal ideology.

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    I upvoting this, but looking at the (first) Wikipedia page you linked "Marxist humanism" seems based on ignoring the latter works of Marx, especially his Capital, which most people would consider his most influential. So I think this answer is a bit misleading.
    – Fizz
    Feb 28 '20 at 7:36
  • Speaking of Wikipedia pages and its take on US liberalism, interestingly neither "Modern liberalism in the United States" nor "social liberalism" (which is presented as wider-world version of US liberalism) mention Marx much... There's one passing mention on each page. Another, more historically oriented page "Liberalism in the United States " doesn't mention Marx at all.
    – Fizz
    Feb 28 '20 at 7:50
  • @Fizz Marxist humanists claim that there is no distinction between young and mature Marx. The critiques point out that there is a major difference. There is a mention of Marxist humanism in these articles, it's called "New Left": "advocacy for social issues such as civil and political rights, feminism, gay rights, abortion rights, gender roles and drug policy reforms." Isn't that the liberalism today?
    – obdi
    Feb 28 '20 at 9:30
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    Marxism attempts to liberate people from work, culture, religion, and morality therefore it is a liberal ideology. That makes no sense, we could say that of every ideology. We can say that authoritarian ideologies attempt to liberate you from choice, anarchism and libertarians liberate you from the government. Every ideology is attempting to liberate you from something but you wouldn't call them liberal
    – Luis Rico
    Mar 2 '20 at 12:56
  • @Luis Rico term ideology was coined by Marx and Engels. Ever since Rousseau freedom is a moral obligation. All new ideologies attempt to fix society by providing more freedom to people. Maxists after the war concluded that eventually automation will be able to provide all goods that people need, so they focused on liberating humans from oppressive society 'be your self'' being their motto. An example is 'sexual revolution', named after the book of Marxist Wilhelm Reich. If that is not liberalism then what is?
    – obdi
    Mar 2 '20 at 15:52

The answer to this question is one of those 'hiding in plain sight' things: obvious to the point that it's almost invisible. But to the point...

The heart of Classical Liberal theory — 16th to 18th century Liberal philosophy, from a variety of well-known thinkers — is that individual human beings have intrinsic rights and liberties that should not be transgressed upon by powerful, politically-dominant groups. First among these rights and liberties was the concept of 'property'. Classical Liberal theorists all held that government — in that era, this meant monarchies and aristocracies — was illegitimate if it unjustly taxed or otherwise expropriated the property and wealth of the then-burgeoning 'commercial' sector (financiers, economic adventurers, colonialists, early industrialists, and other wealthy commoners...). People should be able to reap the rewards of their efforts, not see their profits and property whisked away to serve the interests of nobility.

The often-overlooked point, though, is that property was generally defined (after Locke, in his second treatise on government) by the investment of labor. To Locke's mind there was a great bounty of nature which was owned by no one, and ripe for the taking. Any man who went out and began harvesting, collecting, mining, processing, or otherwise investing labor in the extraction of some portion of nature's bounty was by that very act establishing that as his property, to do with as he would. If I dig a hole in a field and find a potato, that is my potato; if I find gold that is my gold. I own those things by right of my labor.

Shift forward to the mid-19th century. The feudal landscape is well on its way out; colonialism is at its peak, with political, social, and economic power shifting to the very commoners that Classical Liberalism was trying to defend. It seems as though Liberalism has won the day. But then Marx notices something odd and unfortunate. The very people who do the physical labor of growing, manufacturing, mining, or otherwise extracting and processing the bounty of nature — i.e., the ones who by right ought to be able to claim the final product as their property, to do with as they would — are instead sent home with a wholly inadequate wage. The end product is instead claimed by industrialists and capitalists, those who fund and develop the industry, but do no other labor. To Marx's mind this 'Liberal victory' has merely supplanted one expropriator for another. The noble class no longer violates the property rights of wealthy commoners; now the financier/industrialist class violates the property rights of poor laborers. Why should laborers settle for a flat, minimal wage while capitalists take the product of the laborers' efforts and sell it for what the market will bear?

In this sense, Marx was merely developing Locke's Liberal argument to a more universal understanding of property rights. It's not as though Locke wasn't aware of or concerned by this issue — he does worry about the nature of money and the problems of collective labor — but Locke doesn't resolve that issue or offer a comprehensive solution.

Marx is clearly developing Liberal theory in the proper sense of the word. The confusion develops because the term 'Liberal' (at that time and beyond) had come to be associated with capitalism, and capitalism had developed some extremely anti-liberal, exploitive features. Further, Marx's idealized philosophy of universal rights degraded over time (and through the typical paranoia of revolutionaries) into a number of oppressive authoritarian regimes. It's difficult to see the liberal thrust of Marx's philosophy through the problematic lens of Stalinism or Maoism.


Marxism in the sense of its creator is incompatible with liberalism for the simple reason that it is founded on historical materialism, the belief, that political events are predetermined by the context of production. In the words of Engels: "Therefore, the final causes of societal changes and political revolutions are not to seek inside the heads of men [...], but in the ways of production and exchange, [...]" (my translation).

In other words, what we do is not free but it is an inevitable consequence of economy, and, if any dictator (like Stalin or Mao) changes the "ways of production and exchange", we have to obey because we can't help it.

Marxism is about as liberal as a prison liberates the prisoners from difficult decisions about money, life or death, choice of residence, respectful communication, and so on. Hence, Marxism is the exact opposite of Liberalism because it tells us that our minds are not capable of reaching responsible "liberal" decisions, we need dictatorship for that (either dictatorship of the proletariat, or a literal dictator like Stalin or Mao).

Thinking of Marxism as "accidentally ending up in totalitarianism" is wrong. It is the political theory of dictatorship, and as such it has also been the foundation of national socialism.

  • I'm not the one who cast the DVs, but this answer, while it looks somewhat plausible on its face, seems to equate free will with liberalism, which may or may not be entirely reasonable. A quick google search finds papers that discuss the matter of free will in Marxism and don't seem to rule it out (except in caricature interpretation). In other words, this answer needs better sourcing before I can upvote it.
    – Fizz
    Aug 14 at 16:39
  • Furthermore (and as an aside) it seems that not all liberal or libertarian philosophies hold the same view on free will ; see esp. section 3 in journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0048393118814952
    – Fizz
    Aug 14 at 16:51
  • Not even the linked Wikipedia article supports the idea that according to Marxism events are predetermined (instead the article literally, if unsourced, says the opposite). History brings the opportunities, but people still have to take them. After all, "history is a history of class struggle", and if things happened anyway, the classes would need to bother with struggling. Aug 14 at 16:58
  • @EikePierstorff: Like with anything there are possibly also some interpretations of Marxism that deem themselves to be liberal, mainly because people usually think liberal is cool, while totalitarian is uncool. But I think, Engels' quote speaks for itself. If opportunities are not in the heads of men, how can people take them? Also if we simply look at reality, I don't know of any example where an implementation of Marxism has led to freedom. If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, there is hardly any sane reason not to call it a duck.
    – oliver
    Aug 14 at 18:35
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    @oliver, Marx's writings runneth over with fits of rhetorical bombast, (perhaps after reading too much Hegel, and worsened by translation to English?), such prose is no more an attempt at serious philosophy than the books of Norman Vincent Peale. Selecting a minimum, optimum, or best or (least worst) rational strategy is not "determinism" -- particularly when there are always reasons outside of pet economic systems that actual people use to make real decisions; sometimes people prefer things that make moral or personal sense to them, rather than solely economic criteria.
    – agc
    Aug 15 at 18:21

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