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Fundamental Work “Of Civil Government: The Second Treatise” by John Locke Essay (Critical Writing)

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Updated: Mar 9th, 2022

Striving to organize social life in the best way, people have always striven towards an ideal state structure that would satisfy the needs and requirements of every social stratum. Various theories have been put forward, highlighting and emphasizing an own vision of social order, with the classical fundamentals laid out, inter alia, by two of mostly recognized political philosophers, John Locke and Karl Marx. The former is traditionally viewed as a representative of the liberalism ideas, many of which have apparently contributed to the development of democracy in its modern state. The latter coins and voices the theory of Marxism, many ideas of which, however different they may seem, would have hardly appeared but for Marx’s acquaintance with Locke’s views. In the focus of the present paper are the notions of parliamentarianism, limited government, and popular sovereignty the way they are presented in John Locke’s fundamental work Of Civil Government: The Second Treatise and the way they are reflected upon in Karl Marx’s early essay “On the Jewish Question”.

Envisaging the society as such originating from nature, Locke considers individuals to be initially not obliged to obey anyone else but themselves, as they are the only possible judges of the law of nature requirements: “creatures of the same species and rank […] should also be equal one amongst another without subordination or subjection, unless the lord and master of them all should, by any manifest declaration of his will, set one above another” (Locke 3). However, in the situation when the law of nature is not observed, man naturally seeks refuge in the society which aims at establishing an order with a view to preserve its property (Locke 76). Such society should be guided by a government the power of which “can never be supposed to extend farther, than the common good” (Locke 78). Thus emerges the idea of limited government: the power which is given to the legislative assembly cannot exceed that which people possessed in the state of nature, as it is impossible to bestow on another more power than one possesses oneself; regulated by a generally accepted law, the limited government is restricted by separation of powers (a notion characteristic of parliamentarism), and one of the principal aims of it is defense of private property (Locke 80, 88 et seq.). In case the government does not realize its functions, the society has the right to retain power from it and replace it with a more suitable one, therein fulfilling the principle of popular sovereignty (Locke 91).

As opposed to Locke’s ideas of separating society from the state, Marx emphasizes that in course of political revolution “public affairs as such […] became the general affair of each individual, and the political function became the individual’s general function” (239). The way to achieve popular sovereignty is seen by Marx in denying one of the key concepts of Locke’s theory, private property; only that abolition would allow equal participation of every citizen in the state affairs (225). At the same time, Marx considers political emancipation, which included the freedom of parliamentarianism, to be an important achievement on the way to political freedom. However, he warns against the danger of turning equality into a purely formal and abstract notion: acquisition of mere political rights by the population could blur its vision and aspiration for the no less important equality in the spheres of society and economy (Marx 228).

Although bearing a connection to Locke’s ideas of political system, Marx’s views are marked by an inclination to the necessity of a revolution not only in the political, but also in the social and economic spheres. Marx does not possess Locke’s confidence in the initial goodness of government and warns against excessive trust in political changes and loud political propaganda that might shut the society’s eye to the necessity for more deep-rooted reform.

Works Cited

Locke, John. Of Civil Government: The Second Treatise. Rockville, MD: Wildside Press, 2008.

Marx, Karl. “On the Jewish Question.” Writings Of The Young Marx On Philosophy And Society. Trans. and eds. Loyd D. Easton and Kurt H. Guddat. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1997. 216–248.

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IvyPanda. "Fundamental Work "Of Civil Government: The Second Treatise" by John Locke." March 9, 2022. https://ivypanda.com/essays/fundamental-work-of-civil-government-the-second-treatise-by-john-locke/.

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IvyPanda. 2022. "Fundamental Work "Of Civil Government: The Second Treatise" by John Locke." March 9, 2022. https://ivypanda.com/essays/fundamental-work-of-civil-government-the-second-treatise-by-john-locke/.

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