- Capitalism and Alternatives -

Freedom to or freedom from?

Posted by: Barry Stoller on October 15, 1999 at 13:27:30:

Freedom is one of the most venerated words in our society. If anyone wants to promote a policy, associating it with the cause of freedom often subsumes all researched and itemized arguments on its behalf. The admonition, 'It's a threat to your freedom,' whether invoked by the ACLU or Pat Buchanan, often quells any new proposal concerning the public weal. This happens because our society routinely presents freedom as an automatic virtue. If something promotes freedom, so the reasoning goes, then it is undoubtably desirable.

But once we ask Freedom to or Freedom from? we are thrown into an infinitely more complex set of considerations regarding what was formerly an unassailable virtue.

Everyone is in favor of freedom. So much so, I believe, that freedom is the most promiscuous word in our society.

One person wants the freedom to live in a society where they can obtain assault weapons easily and another person wants to live in a society where they are free from the effects of easily-obtainable assault weapons. One person wants the freedom to bring the 'free market' into children's classrooms in order to prepare a new generation of acquiescent consumers and another person wants the freedom to send their children off to school without the fear that their kids are being indoctrinated by 'free market' forces in the guise of trusted educators. And, finally, one person wants the freedom to have people surrender their labor-power unto him or her in order to create surplus value that will not belong to the people who created it---while yet another person wants the freedom to put their labor-power to work without creating a surplus that will be appropriated by someone else simply because that someone else 'just happens to' control all the means of production.

Freedoms, reasonable people will concede, are often incompatible. My freedom to shout 'fire' in a crowded theatre will certainly interfere with your freedom to sit in a safe theatre! In a society where the action of one person invariably affects another, freedom can never be unilateral. Thus, to promote freedom without specifying Freedom to or freedom from?, to suggest that there is only one freedom, a model of uniformity, is to engage in crude demagoguery.

Honest Marxists have always been very up-front when making distinctions between positive and negative freedoms:

And the abolition of [wage labor] is called by the bourgeois, abolition of individuality and freedom! And rightly so. The abolition of bourgeois individuality, bourgeois independence, and bourgeois freedom is undoubtably aimed at.(1)

And, later:

For the bourgeoisie, communism signifies the loss of its former power, the loss of its 'freedom' to extort blood and sweat from the workers; the loss of its right to rent, interest, and profit. Consequently the communist revolution of the proletariat, the communist transformation of society, is fiercely resisted by the exploiters... It is obvious that in such a state of affairs there can be no talk of 'freedom' for everyone.(1)

Talk like that, of course, has been sharply repudiated by the Western left for many a year. One reason such a sharp distinction between freedoms has been abandoned, I believe, is due to the influence of libertarianism upon the Western left. Like utopians and anarchists of bygone days, the new advocates of freedom urge a sort of nebulous freedom where, in fine principle, all people possess equal amounts of it. Concurrently, postmodernists suggest that freedom is something one can pick and choose as if freedom is a commodity at a market.

Libertarianism and postmoderism, I believe, has given the modern left little to brag about. They criticize capital like the professionals they often are, but they have offered few practical solutions. Because of this, today's left is more fragmented, indecisive, academic, and downright untenable than it has been since the early 1960s when Marxism enjoyed its widest (American) consideration.

The reason, I believe, is that the left has relinquished its superior moral ground, the simple confidence to proclaim one set of values as being more valid than another. 'That's a value judgement' has become a pejorative statement. It has been a long time since any credible figure of the left has asserted, as Lenin did, that 'There is no such thing as abstract truth. Truth is always concrete.'(3) Yet the ability to assert a value simply and strongly, I believe, is exactly what this new era of monopoly imperialism demands!

Freedom to or freedom from? Libertarianism, I believe, is best left to the right wingers who cannot make any distinctions between positive and negative freedoms. To posit only one freedom is to imply---erroneously---that all (class) interests in society are the same. Postmodernism, I believe, is best suited to the arcane and academic world of career philosophy. To suggest that freedom is a 'personal affair,' as the postmodernists often do, is to concede morality to the 'free market,' a definite retreat and a signal for inaction.

Both libertarianism and postmodernism serve the ideology of the capitalist ruling class.

As long as there will be values, there will be value judgments!

As long as there are classes, there will be conflicting views of freedom.

1. Marx & Engels, The Communist Manifesto [1848], International 1948, p. 24.
2. Bukharin & Preobrazhensky, The ABC of Communism [1919], University of Michigan Press 1966, pp. 79-80.
3. Lenin, 'Two Tactics of Social-Democracy in the Democratic Revolution' [1905], Selected Works, vol. 1, Progress Publishers 1970, p. 519.

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