[OPE-L] Marxist conception of the person?

Date: Fri Jul 01 2005 - 03:49:37 EDT

Away from my home computer for a few more weeks, but thougt that I would pass along this very
interesting passage. The very concept of the person has been at the center of anthropological
study ever since Mauss' famous essay, discused in a volume edited by Lukes among others. Among
philosophers the work of Amelie Rorty seems to be oft cited.
Bhikhu Parekh suggests brilliantly in my opinion the outlines of a Marxist approach to our
understanding of the notion of person and elaborates on what Pashukanis was getting at.

Bhikhu Parekh, Marx’s Theory of Ideology, pp. 38-39
Again in order to argue that an individual could sell his labour to others, his physical and
mental capacities and activities, of which his labour ultimately consists, must be considered
alienable, and therefore not an integral and inseparable part of him. The classical Athenian
believed that to render any form of service, especially the physical, to another man in return for
money, even if only for a short time, was a form of slavery, and unacceptable to a free man. Since
the bourgeois mode of production required that men should be free to sell their labour, that is
their skills, capacities and activities to others, it had to define the individual so that were
not considered an integral and inseparable part of him. He had to be seen as somehow separate from
and only contingently related to them, so that he is not believed to be sold when they are, and is
doomed to remain free even when his activities and skills are no longer under his control. In
order to say that his freedom is not compromised when his abilities, skills and activities are
placed at another man’s disposal, he had to be defined in the barest possible manner.

Since almost everything about an individual was considered alienable—his skills, capacities, and
activities—the crucial question arose as to what as to be considered essential to him, such that
its alienation was his alienation and his loss of control over it amounted to his loss of freedom.
The bourgeois society by and large located his essential humanity in the interrelated capacities
of choice and will. For it they represented man’s differentia specifica, and were the bases of
human dignity. The individual was, above all, an agent. As long as he was not physically
overpowered, hypnotized or otherwise deprived of his powers of choice and will, his actions were
uniquely his, and therefore sole responsibility. It did not matter how painful his alternatives
were, how much his character had been distorted by his background and upbringing and how much his
capacities of choice and will were debilitated by his circumstances. As long as he was able to
choose, his choices were his responsibility. The individual was abstracted from his social
background and circumstances which could not be considered co-agents of and co-responsible for his
actions. He stood alone, all by himself, striped of his social relations, circumstances and
background, in a word, his social being as Marx called it, facing the world in his sovereign
isolation and, like God, exercising his conditioned freedom of choice and will. In short their
conditions of existence required the bourgeoisie to equate the individual with an abstract mental
capacity, namely the capacity to choose and will, and to define him in asocial and idealist

When the individual is so austerely conceived, the question arises as to how he is related to his
alienable bodily and mental activities and powers. They cannot be conceived as his modes of being,
the ways in which ‘he’ expresses himself and exists for himself and others; they can only be
understood as something he has rather than he is. The bourgeois writers appropriately them as his
properties, which in the legal language become his possessions. If ‘he’ referred to the totality
of his being and not merely to the will or choice, his power and activities would be seen as an
integral part of him, as constitutive of him, and therefore not as his possessions which he could
dispose of ‘at will’. He would not be able to alienate them, any more than he could alienated his
will or choice. And his so-called ‘freedom’ to sell his capacities and activities would appear not
as freedom, but slavery.

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