Max Beer January 1907

On the Problem of free Will

Source: Social Democrat,Vol. XI, No. 2, January 15, 1908, pp.15-23;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

In essaying to offer a few remarks on the discussion of an old and subtle problem from the point of view of a Marxist, it may be advisable to start with a preliminary definition of its subject-matter. For, though the problem is an old one, at least as old as Christianity, there exists no concurrence of opinion as to the essence of will. The will may be defined as the capacity of human beings to arrive, after some deliberation, at a decision to do or not to do, to allow or to resist something. It is an emphatic message, a resolution, sent to our motor nerves and muscles to perform or to resist a certain action, to allow or to suppress a certain emotion or thought. It is, however, uncertain whether the will is an independent mental capacity like memory, imagination or reasoning, or merely the result of other mental factors. To this moot point we shall return later. Meanwhile, the definition given above may suffice to start the discussion of our problem.

A good many people are of opinion that the will is free, that is, they assume that at the very moment when the will is sending its resolution to the nerves and muscles to perform a certain action or to give unimpeded scope to a certain emotion or thought it is just as well able to send a message to the contrary. The will is not determined by any external or internal causes, not forced to its definite manifestation. It is accordingly a sovereign power. Those who hold such opinions are called indeterminists.

On the other hand, there are people who maintain that the will is not free. They are of opinion that the way the will manifests itself is at the time the only possible one. It cannot resolve otherwise, being determined and compelled by external and internal causes and motives to take a definite resolution. The will is not sovereign, its manifestation being the necessary effect of certain causes operating on the mind. Those who hold such views are called determinists.

The argument for or against the respective views have often been stated. We may briefly re-state them. The Determinists argue: In the whole range of nature we see that every event, every phenomenon must have a cause. Nothing happens without being caused by something. All phenomena are closely linked in an endless and irrefragable chain of causation. The universe is a unity. Man as a natural being can therefore not act without a cause, and seeing that a cause is but an effect of another cause, and thus of an infinite chain of causation, man's will is manifestly determined, and therefore not free.

To that the Indeterminists reply: We admit that in nature nothing happens without a cause. But the laws of nature do not apply to the soul. The soul is a part of that sovereign power which rules nature. Were the will not free, the sense of responsibility, the moral sense that dwells within us, could have no existence. Why should man feel responsible for deeds which he could not prevent? Finally, it is a matter of everyday experience that we change our decisions and that we feel we can decide either way. Our moral and psychological experience proves thus the freedom of will.


The problem is an old one and is rooted in religion ethics. It appeared in the last centuries of the ancient world when society had become differentiated and man sufficiently individualised to produce social contrasts, class conflicts, personal responsibility, and high ideals of conduct which man could not realise in practical life. The seriousness of the problem grew with the higher ethical and religious developments of a people or of a civilisation. It first arose in Judaism and took an acute form in Christianity. While the Greeks were chiefly occupied with intellectual speculations, and looked upon ethical problems as a subordinate department of knowledge, the Jews turned their attention to the elaboration of religious and moral codes, creating ethical monotheism, which was destined to subdue the Roman Empire through the agency of Christianity. The question of good and bad ceased to depend on human knowledge, or to be limited to the short span of earthly life, but involved the chief commandments of an eternal and absolute God, on which eternal salvation or damnation depended.


The first utterance of the question whether man is free to will was made by Jeremiah. “O Lord,” cried this introspective Hebrew, in the anguish of a deep inner struggle, “I know the way of man is not in himself; it is not in man that walketh to direct his steps” (x.23). The Hebrew prophet was a determinist, though rather an inarticulate and inconsistent one; he felt that his will was directed by the Creator, that the creature is completely in the hand of an external agency, yet he held the creature responsible. This problem must have caused a great deal of searching of hearts among the Jews, for we find the rabbis saying, God decreed the fate of man, but left him the will to choose between good and bad: riches and poverty, health and illness, fertility and sterility, life and death are in the power of God; but the choice of good and evil is in the will of man. The cry of Jeremiah was, however, not lost. We hear it again in St. Paul, the true successor of Jewish ethics and religion, then in St. Augustine, Thomas of Aquinas, Calvin and Luther, and led to the doctrine of grace and of predestination. All of them were unable to get rid of determinism. But they were inconsistent and contradictory. Of all those great Christian theologians Luther was the most outspoken determinist, as may be seen from his book “De Servo Arbitrio.” However, Christianity as a whole assumed quite dogmatically the opinion of the freedom of will. God gave to man the choice of good and evil, and man chose evil. Man is therefore responsible. This was the prevalent idea in the Middle Ages, notwithstanding all logical difficulties and contradictions which sprang from it. There is no use repeating the arguments by which the theologians tried to reconcile predestination with liberty, foreknowledge with freedom of will. The real argument was the belief in God, before whom all difficulties and contradictions vanished.

At the break-up of mediaevalism a new world arose. Theology gave way to science, God's intervention to natural causation, arbitrariness to law. And in this new world determinism was the only possible way of interpreting man's actions. This idea pervades the best scientific minds of modern England from Hobbes to Huxley. Hobbes argues:

"Nothing takes a beginning from itself; but from the actions of some other immediate agent, without itself. Therefore, when first man has an appetite or will to something, to which immediately before he had no appetite or will; the cause of his will is not the will itself, but something else not in his own disposing. So that …. it follows that voluntary actions have all of them necessary causes, and therefore are necessitated     That ordinary definition of a free agent (namely that a free agent is that, which, when all things are present which are needful to produce an effect, can nevertheless not produce it) implies a contradiction and is nonsense …. Every accident, how contingent soever it seem, or how voluntary soever it be, is produced necessarily."

Of the same opinion is David Hume, who declares: “There is no absurdity more glaring, to my understanding, than the notion of philosophical liberty …. Saying that the will is self-determined, gives no idea at all, or rather implies an absurdity, viz., that a determination, which is an effect, takes place without any cause at all …. The ultimate author of all our volitions is the Creator of the world, who first bestowed motion on the immense machine, and placed all being in that particular position, whence every subsequent event, by an inevitable necessity, must result. Human actions, therefore, either can have no turpitude at all, as proceeding from so good a cause, or, if they have any turpitude, they must involve our Creator in the same guilt. For a man, who fired a mine, is answerable for all the consequences, whether the train employed be long or short; so wherever a continued chain of necessary causes is fixed, that being either finite or infinite, who produces the first is likewise the author of all the rest."And Huxley says: “Half the controversies about the freedom of the will …. rest upon the absurd assumption that the proposition 'I can do as I like' is contradictory to the doctrine of necessity. The answer is: nobody doubts that, at any rate, within certain limits, you can do as you like. But what determines your likings and dislikings?  The passionate assertion of the consciousness of their freedom, which is the favourite refuge of the opponents of the doctrine of necessity, is mere futility, for nobody denies it. What they really have to do if they would upset the necessarian argument is to prove that they are free to associate any emotion whatever with any idea however, to like pain as much as pleasure; vice as much as virtue; in short, to prove that whatever may be the fixity of order of the universe of things, that of thought is given over to chance."The indeterminists of to-day do not deny the unity of nature, but they do deny that the human mind is subject to the same laws as nature. It really comes to this: in defending the freedom of will they raise the mind above nature. However, if this were true, there would be no science of history, of economics, of sociology, of moral and vital statistics; in short, the whole domain of social life would be a tangle of chance happenings, a jumble of fortuitous events. Which is by no means true. The rise and fall of the number of crimes; of the number of marriages; of prices; of human fertility; the cycle of crises; the movements in politics; the rise and decay of nations - all exhibit a certain regularity which does not admit of any doubt that the human mind is subject to material laws, to a sequence of cause and effect.

We have thus seen, that some of the greatest minds of Christianity were inconsistent determinists, that Christianity as a whole is indeterminist, and that natural science is necessarily determinist.


Marxism as a system of social science and social practice is determinist. There is no other liberty for it than that which the knowledge of necessity yields. In attempting to apply the determinist findings of natural science to life, Marxism is confronted with two questions:‑

1. Although the Christian believer and the natural scientist differ in their views on liberty and necessity, their attitude towards life is identical. The determinists, based on natural science, assume or acquiesce in the assumption of the responsibility of man. Aye, many a scientific determinist regards man as the motor power of history. Whence this strange contradiction?

2. If man is not free why do we agitate, why do we try to convert people? Does not our Party activity imply the assumption of freedom of choice?

As to the first question:‑

Suppose A has burgled the house of B. The police succeeded in collaring A, who is brought before the judge. Both the defendant and the judge are determinists. On the question whether he pleads guilty, the defendant replies: “I confess I have burgled and stolen B's property. But my hereditary dispositions, my bringing-up, my social environments determined my will to steal. I am, therefore, not responsible for my actions and must not be made to suffer for them.” Whereupon the judge replies: “So you are a determinist? I, too, am a determinist. My education and my social environments determine my mind and my legal conscience to find you guilty, and determine my will to send you to penal servitude.” The effect could not have been different if the judge were a Christian indeterminist. Scientists like Professor Haeckel or Lord Kelvin deal with practical everyday questions in the same manner as the Bishop of Cologne or the Archbishop of Canterbury.

There can be no other reply to this than that which Marx has given: Not abstract commandments, not abstract reasoning, fill our mental capacities with concrete social ideas and ideals, but material conditions and class positions of Society. The contradiction in which the determinists are involved is at once removed when we remember that a society, based on private property, is a class society with class notions, class ideals, class conflicts which must necessarily manifest themselves regardless of religion and natural science. This means further that the propagation of the theory of determinism can have no practical effect, not because the rich are too selfish or too stupid, but because the theory of determinism is naturally interpreted in their interest, and they have the power to carry out its conclusions, just as the judge has the power to make his interpretation of determinism prevail over that of the burglar. In conflicts of class conceptions and class interests power is the final arbiter, and not reason. And power is, of course, conditioned on the material developments of a given society. Of all determinists the Marxist is the most consistent, for he applies the principle to natural as well as to social phenomena, while the pure and simple freethinker is in social questions as reactionary as any indeterminist. Indeed, the determinism of the natural scientists intends no more than to free the individual man from the fear of Hell. With them determinism is a weapon against theology, and not against capitalism. In social science they defend all the superstitions and fallacies which they had banished from nature.

But the second question remains: If man has no freedom of choice why do we try to convert people? A reply to this question requires a somewhat closer analysis of will. The will manifests itself as a decision arrived at after some deliberation. What is the process which leads us to a decision? A concrete example will best illustrate it. Suppose we have received an invitation to a meeting. We know the subject-matter to be dealt with at the meeting, and we know the speaker who will deal with it. We find the subject-matter interesting and the speaker a pleasant and learned man. Our feelings, our memory, our imagination, and our reasoning furnish us several motives to follow the invitation from which we expect an enjoyable evening. We want to go to the meeting. On the other hand we find the weather bad, the room cosy, the pipe pleasant and a good book near-by to read. This set of circumstances furnishes us several motives not to go to the meeting. We want to stay at home. Then we begin to deliberate, that is, the two sets of motives are of themselves pitted against each other. The weightier set of motives inclines the beam - the decision is arrived at, the will manifested, the nerves and muscles are set in motion. In most cases the process is much more intricate, and is accomplished in so short a time, that we believe we have, with the help of our “will-power,” quite freely made up our minds what to do, while in reality the weightier set of motives decided, just as the heavier weight inclines the balance. The will appears to me to be nothing else but the entering of the fact into consciousness that one set of motives outweighed the other. There are, of course, impulses, instincts and desires, but they furnish motives, some of the most powerful motives, and form thus some of the factors which go to influence that mental process which is called will.

Now it will be easier to settle our second question. As Marxists, we want to convert the workingmen to Socialism, knowing that their class interests incline them that way. Those interests ought to favour emotions and ideas leading to Socialism. Emotions and ideas can be turned into motives when acting in that mental process which is called will. When we carry on our propaganda we only want to fill the minds of the workingmen with motives, weighty enough to outweigh all the other motives which make them arrive at decisions to oppose our views and vote against us. They are opposing us to-day, because their feelings, their memory, their imagination, are filled with emotions and ideas taken from the capitalist world. In our view those motives must be outweighed by those which Socialism furnishes. And such a propaganda is thoroughly in harmony with the theory of determinism.