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Political freedom (1932)

The centenary of the death of Hegel (14th November, 1831), may be fittingly associated with a discussion of political freedom, for no writer has had a greater influence in determining modern views on the subject. It may be that he merely gave expression to prevailing tendencies. But certainly it is from a Hegelian angle that the old liberal theory of political association, the theory of free contract, has been mainly criticised. And though not many may be found to say that “the State is the Divine Idea as it exists on earth”, the doctrine that the State expresses the real will of the individual, and that his personal freedom is of no account if it conflicts with that real will, is amply supported in present-day theory and practice.

The history of the world, according to the Hegelian philosophy, is the development of spirit towards freedom, and the freedom of the human spirit in its highest development is inherent in the State. It is not altogether surprising that some of Hegel's contemporaries regarded this doctrine as grounded not in freedom but in servility, as supporting the suppression, the expression, of the real will of individuals. No one will deny that the forbidding of certain personal actions is a condition of political association; but the fact remains that we are free only in so far as we determine our own course of action. This freedom, also is upheld and extended by various forms of social organisation; but it must emphatically be denied that there is any single organisation, the State or any other, which can embody all the free activities of the human spirit.

Political freedom, in fact, is conditional on the independent and responsible operation of organisations and groups, and on the independent and responsible participation of individuals in these bodies. Unless, for example, there are individuals who care supremely for investigation, and unless there are organisations devoted to investigation, investigation will not go on in the community and it will thereby be spiritually impoverished and lacking in freedom. And to say that a central organisation, the State, is responsible for this work because it makes certain material provisions which permit of its continuance, is to confuse utterly between spirit or driving force and equipment. Even as regards the provision of material requirements, it is only by making demands, by exerting pressure of various sorts, on the State and other organisations that an educational organisation can maintain its position. And the less it does so i.e. the less independence it has and the more it merely takes what it gets, the more does investigation give place to a servile pedantry.

The independence of organisations, then, is the condition of political freedom, and to say that the State has the right to enforce its will on them (as being their “real will”) is to deny freedom altogether. Exactly the same applies to those organisations which make up what is called “the working-class movement”. The various political and industrial organisations which workingmen have formed are what alone give these men a real share in public life and distinguish them from slaves. The mere act of voting gives them no political power; if all political work is carried out by bureaucratic functionaries, and if vested interests are alone permitted to exercise social and political pressure. The fullest extension of political freedom implies the multiplication of political powers, and, in order to achieve this, the workers require to be organised and to make demands in relation to their daily lives and in accordance with their active interests.

This condition of affairs is realised most fully for the workers in the Soviet Union, whose daily work, conceived as part of a general plan for “building up Socialism”, is specially organised for the development of collective farming or the improvement of factory efficiency, and is directly related to various schemes of cultural and social activity. But in other countries also workers organisations are part of the social structure, and to require the cessation of their activities and demands, on the ground that they are “foreign or disruptive elements”, is to neglect the conditions of a stable social life.

The theory of the Communist Party, in this connection, is that existing social conditions are unstable, and that this instability must be met by the development of new forms of working-class organisation and the presentation of new demands. This theory is borne out, not falsified, by the attacks that are made on the Communist Party's activities, attacks which have recently taken a most flagrant form in Mildura and Bourke in the breaking up of meetings, “beating up” of speakers and driving of “agitators” out of town. Those responsible for these acts of violence claim that they have the right to determine what is “constitutional”, i.e. what forms of organisation and what types of demand are compatible with the existence of social organisation in general; but they do not and cannot produce any political theory to support this claim. The particular contention that anything whatever may be done by “law abiding citizens” against agitators is, apart from its absurd conception of legality, a denial of the right of workingmen to form or advocate the forming of organisations, to get the demands accepted—this being the whole meaning of agitation.

The fundamental point is that unless there are rights of organisation, agitation and demonstration for any body of workers, these workers are excluded from political life. And to call such an act as a strike “disruptive” is to assume that industrial organisation is the prerogative of a certain class, which is the “organising” class par excellence. As against this, it is surely not utterly unreasonable to suggest that a system of organisation which cannot find employment for a large and growing section of the population requires to be supplemented and even displaced, that it is, indeed, a system of disorganisation; just as the name of “disorderly elements” might not unreasonably be applied to those bodies of a Fascist character which seek to prevent the independent functioning of working-class organisation and even the promulgation of the theory of the instability and disorderliness of “capitalist economy”.

It must be admitted that the mere fact of opposition between different forms of organisation is not sufficient to establish social instability. On the contrary, as has been indicated, a variety of organisations is a condition of social life, and among these, as well as within each, there will always be conflicting policies and competing demands—as there is, for example, within the “working class movement” between the policies of the Labour and the Communist parties. But there is instability when certain forms of organisation can maintain themselves only by a continual and violent suppression of other forms, only by the exclusion of certain sections of the population from independent political activity, only by the prevention of that consideration of alternative policies which is essential to the interplay of social forces.

Whatever, then, be the degree of stability of existing social forms, the “anti-Red” campaigners are certainly demonstrating that they are an anti-social and disruptive force. Their very pretensions give them away—they make themselves out to be expressing the “real will” of the community and even the real will of the average worker who is only “led away” or intimidated by agitators; but they make sure that he is not allowed to express his will for himself, and their own methods are methods of intimidation. They thus show that they believe in independent political activity for themselves alone, that they are prepared to use their own freedom, secured by their economic resources, to suppress the freedom of those who have no economic backing and whose only political strength lies in their power to organise. In short, these self-appointed defenders of the constitution mean by the constitution no more than the maintaining of their own privileges.

All, therefore, who would uphold real freedom against sham freedom should oppose these manifestations by every means in their power. The danger may not seem great; many may feel themselves unaffected by the attack on the “Reds”. But it should be recognised that the very foundations of social life are shaken, if the task of maintaining “order” is allowed to fall into the hands of intimidators who can work only by misrepresentation. The theory that only the working class can bring about social stability is one that requires attention; but those who prevent, or foment the preventing of, its dissemination, misrepresent it as an advocacy of bloodshed. And the mischief goes further when the “Reds” are said to be “servants of the Soviet”, since the confusion between the Soviet government and the Communist International permits of the encouragement of international conflict. Actually, the types of working class organisation and action advocated by the “Reds” can be shown to have their origins in events common to all industrial communities long before the Bolshevik revolution.

It is impossible, then, to regard “Citizens Defence Leagues” and like bodies as upholders of political freedom or as worthy interpreters of what is socially permissible. They can be regarded only as enemies of civil liberty and upholders of tyranny, and their campaign can only have the effect of promoting national and international disorganisation. It is in the interests of freedom against savagery that the rights of demonstration and propaganda, hitherto widely recognised even for organisations of property-less men, should be vigorously upheld.

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