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Freedom and the class struggle (1932)

The question of political freedom is raised in an acute form at the present time, when Fascist bands attack working-class meetings and when the Federal Government attacks the working-class press and working-class organisations. It may be asked, then, whether representatives of the proletariat, in agitating for freedom of speech, of the press, and of organisation, are not taking a liberal line. The answer is that proletarian theory differs fundamentally from liberal theory in recognising the existence of a ruling class and an oppressed class, and in asserting that any movement for freedom can only be a movement of and on behalf of the oppressed. Hence any demand for freedom which does not take account of the class struggle is misleading, and the fight for freedom has to be conducted on class lines. Proletarian agitation, then, is for freedom of speech for the workers, for circulation of the workers' press, the right of workers to go voluntarily from one country to another, the independent organisation of workers for economic and political purposes, the formation of policies and organs of struggle. Nevertheless, while these are practical issues, proletarian theory regards existing society as characterised by oppression or by the exploitation of the governed class by the governing class, and it describes the struggle of the oppressed class as a struggle for emancipation. According to proletarian theory, moreover, the proletariat is the last class to be emancipated, and its emancipation involves the liberation of society from class struggles, the final disappearance of the exploitation of man by man. Thus the proletarian movement is definitely considered as working towards social freedom. Freedom is recognised, in opposition to exploitation and oppression, as a possible social condition. And, though a general consideration of the nature of freedom cannot provide a policy for fighting exploitation and oppression now, or a means of estimating existing forces of liberation (so that a merely liberal outlook is defeatist), such a consideration is obviously implied in the given description of the struggle. To make it more definite is, therefore, to advance the theory of the struggle, and may be of organisational value—in helping to rally all possible opposition to the Fascist activities of the ruling class.

The first step in the clarification of the term “freedom” is the recognition of the confusion involved in its use in political propaganda. It is one of the commonest of political catchwords, and is used to justify any policy whatever; thus “British freedom” and “freedom from Red dictation” are part of the regular demagogy of capitalist electioneering. The confusion arises from the fact that freedom is thought of negatively as absence of restriction, and hence as the unimpeded exercise of some activity, whatever that activity may be. The position has then to be qualified by saying that there are limits to freedom, that freedom must not degenerate into “license”, that people cannot be left free to rob, murder, and so on. From this point of view the demand for freedom is simply the demand to go on doing (“freely”) what has been done before, or what one wants to do; and “license” is simply that kind of activity that one wants to stop. Thus freedom, as a capitalist catchword, means the status quo, “British freedom” means the maintenance of British Imperialism, and any anti-Imperialist or independent working-class activity is “license”. Bond holders want to be free to receive interest on their investments; employers want to be free to reduce wages, to pay what they determine for the work that they provide, to manage their own businesses in their own way. Working-class organisations and agitation interfere with this freedom; strikes interfere with the free working of capitalist industry. This equating of freedom with the protection of capitalist property is as old as the original “liberal” theory of society—the theory of “free contract” between man and man, of the right of the individual to determine with whom he will associate and on what terms; e.g., in the seeking or in the giving of employment. The function of the State, on this view, is merely to see that no individual infringes the right of other individuals; apart from this its policy is “laissez faire”; it stands aside and lets individuals make their own contracts. It is, of course, a commonplace of Socialist theory that there is no free contract in the case; that there can be no freedom without equality; and that, while capitalist property remains, the option for the workers is a forced one. The workers “freedom” to do without a master, if he cannot gain satisfactory terms, is freedom to starve. It is only by organising that the workers can struggle against and reduce their economic disadvantage. In the same way, they have to struggle against political disenfranchisement. The State, in recognising “the rights of the individual”, in upholding freedom of contract between master and man, grants the worker only the right to be exploited and the right to “scab” on those who resist exploitation. It attempts to break up organisations by treating the workers as individual subjects, as in the calling up of French reservists on strike by the “Socialist” minister, Briand, or as in the present disenfranchisement and deportation laws of the Commonwealth government. Such acts are an inevitable consequence of the recognition of capitalist property as a basis for “free contract”.

The State, then, which, according to liberal theory, is opposed to class rights and to anything else of the nature of privilege or monopoly, is in constitutional practice opposed to working-class rights. Its function is to uphold capitalist property; and the function of liberalism is to deny the clash of interests which this involves, and to consider the State as upholding “natural rights”, or rights independent of class. But the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” is as incompatible with the maintenance of capitalist property as is any general right to think, read, speak, organise, or agitate freely. Nevertheless, it is incorrect to say that the workers have no rights under capitalism, for that would be to say that they have no power. Rights are simply claims backed by force—demands that can be made good. And the workers have made good their right to be politically active; they have carried on organisation and agitation; they have formed unions and parties; conducted industrial struggles and political campaigns. This is the measure of their enfranchisement; their economic and political achievements, and not the “right” to individual employment or to an individual vote, constitute the existing rights, the actual power, of the working class. It is this that both has to be fought for, and enables the workers to fight, against capitalist oppression; it is this that is now attacked by emergency legislation, by Fascist bodies and Social Fascists, who attempt to use the workers' own organisations for the disorganisation of the movement, i.e., as emergency organs of capitalism, and, indeed, have anticipated and given a lead to the government in the disfranchisement of militants. The attempt at violent disfranchisement is, however, only a new form of capitalist attack, consonant with capitalism's desperate position. Working class rights have always been attacked, because they themselves are an attack on capitalism; and their legal recognition, as far as it has gone, has been partly achieved by force and partly conceded for the sake of deception. The organisation and political activity of the working class is, as has been said, a limitation on capitalist inequality and oppression; it is that amount of freedom that has been achieved. But it is still more—it is the beginning of a free society, the preparation of the future society within the present. Hence there is no question of “pure” capitalism, of complete oppression; but the working class possesses a fragment of political power, which is its weapon in the struggle, and the ruling class strives to wrest that weapon from the workers' grasp. This, then, according to proletarian theory, is the character of the actual fight for freedom; this, as against the liberal conception, is the reality behind capitalist “democracy”.

The impossibility of effective agitation on liberal lines, the absurdity of demanding rights for individuals instead of organisations and movements, is shown by a very slight consideration of the mechanism of “democracy”. Clearly, the individual elector cannot make his claims good within the limits of the parliamentary system. He is confronted with two or more general policies which he has no hand in framing, and of which, unless he is otherwise active in political affairs, he can have only a vague understanding. Merely as an elector he has no political education; censorship and the press keep him, by general consent of the parties of capitalist government, ignorant of foreign affairs and confused about home affairs. Hence the successful party is supported by different individuals for entirely different reasons, and the contention that a popular mandate has been given for the carrying out of any definite policy is quite unfounded. Indeed, the hollowness of the theory of parliamentary representation of the wills of a majority of individuals gives colour to certain demagogic criticisms of the party system; but, of course, non-party government, consistent with the preservation of capitalist property, can only mean the suppression of all parties which might oppose or embarrass the ruling class—in a word, Fascism. It appears, then, that only the representative of an interest, of an active organisation, can have a determining influence on party policy. The moneyed interest clearly has such an influence, and it can, incidentally, greatly influence the conduct of elections through being able to meet the expenses of a campaign, and, above all, through the press and, in these days, the radio. The effect of the poverty of workers' organisations is that their case never reaches a large proportion of the electors. The “choice” of individuals, then, is thoroughly circumscribed; and the same applies in the case of a plebiscite or referendum. To call this procedure in itself “democratic” is to leave out of account the influences determining what question is put and how it is presented, what agitation, in particular, takes place around it—in which respect, as before, the capitalist press has enormous advantages. There is nothing in these devices to justify the application of the term “democratic” to the form of government. Democracy can only mean general participation in the framing and carrying out of policies, and this does not exist in capitalist communities.

The undemocratic character of the parliamentary system—the fact that it is a field not of individual choice, but of the clash of interests—does not, of course, imply that it is not a field for proletarian activity. The fact that, however they may be settled, important political issues are raised there, and the fact that it permits of an approach to the broad masses of the population, make it a field for agitation, and make the parliamentary franchise a right for the proletariat to fight for. But, even so, it is only one sphere of the political struggle—the struggle between organised interests. What makes possible real political activity in this sphere is participation in the struggle in other spheres. Only such extended activity can provide an understanding of the issues raised in electoral campaigns, and only alignment with an organised interest can give any force to that activity. Hence it is that the freedom of the working class is measured by its active and intelligent participation in the struggle, by the force it can exert, the pressure it can bring to bear on capitalist forces and the Capitalist State—a pressure which is no more confined to elections than the pressure of moneyed interests on home and foreign policy is confined to elections. Hence, also, the theory of freedom through parliament and of the rights of the individual under “representative” government is a falsification of the facts, and one which, as directed against the direct pressure of the working class, is in the interests of the ruling class. This raises the question: is it simply a matter of a clash of interests—of freedom for capitalists versus freedom for workers? If that were so, there would be no point in the description of the latter as the oppressed and exploited class, and there would be point in the contention of capitalist apologists that the proletarian movement simply aims at counter-oppression. It is essential, then, to proletarian theory to reject the negative conception of freedom and to emphasise its positive character, in order to show how it is restricted by capitalism and extended by Socialism—and, in the meantime, upheld by the working-class movement against capitalism.

To put the matter briefly, freedom is not mere unhampered activity, but is a particular kind of activity—one which is marked by initiative and responsibility, and is of a productive character. Now, under capitalism, freedom in this sense has been exercised to some extent by the capitalist class; they have, as Marxist theory allows, played a definite part in the development of industry. But their productiveness has been limited by individualistic consumption, and in consequence of this we have the “anarchy of capitalist production”—the absence of any general plan, the rejection by the capitalist class of social responsibility. With this is connected the oppression of the working class, the withholding from them of initiative and responsibility, their reduction to the level of machines. It follows also that capitalism can never be a thoroughly organised system, that its existence on a world scale results in a growing anarchy and disorganisation, and in increasingly severe oppression. The capitalist “solution” of the extending crisis is to attack the lower strata of society economically and politically, and thus further to increase inequality and disorganisation. The proletarian solution, on the other hand, is, through increased political and economic activity on the part of the oppressed class, to abolish capitalist property and put an end to social inequality and productive anarchy. The struggle, then, is between revolutionary organisation, which strives to extend the political activity and intelligence of the masses, and capitalist organisation, which becomes increasingly irresponsible and unproductive. The consequent economic disfranchisement is expressed in the tremendous growth of unemployment; the corresponding political disfranchisement is seen in Fascist attacks, such as the Crimes Act, on working-class organisation, including, be it noted, organisation of the unemployed. But this situation, critical as it is, is only an extension of the normal procedure of capitalism, which denies to the workers any control, save such as they can achieve through organised struggle, over the conditions under which they work and live. Alienation from the means of production is itself a barrier not only to organised activity in defence of common interests, but to any pursuit of private interests—any “personal” freedom. The poverty of the masses is, in particular, a serious handicap to their obtaining and communicating either political or general information. And to this must be added the operation of the most varied forms of censorship. Capitalist control of the press is one of the most important forms of censorship of information. Seizure of literature by the Customs (including information bulletins of the Russian Co-operatives and of the Society for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries) and deregistration of newspapers are forms with which recent experience has made us familiar. Judicial decisions are guarded from critical comment by the threat of proceedings for contempt of court. The military forces are deprived of ordinary political rights, and members of the working class are debarred from political communication with them. But the most deadly form of the distortion of intelligence is that embodied in the educational system.

Liberal protests have time and again been made against the rigidity of the school curriculum, but such protests are pointless unless it is recognised that this rigidity is a form of capitalist censorship. It operates—with the assistance of official pressure on any deviation, of speeding up to meet examination requirements, of the inadequate training of the teachers themselves—to prevent the development of initiative on the part of teachers or taught. Teachers, who might be expected to know something of their subjects and of educational methods, have to keep within the guidelines laid down by departments. It is demanded, also, that they should not introduce political and other controversial matter into their teaching, and this means, since it is impossible to avoid introducing politics into the teaching of history especially, that political teaching is limited to instruction in accordance with the outlook of the ruling class. It means also for the pupils, since it is impossible to avoid introducing controversial matter into the teaching of any subject, since education is training in controversy, that their intellectual initiative, their interest in the subjects of study, is largely destroyed. The upshot is that not merely are working-class children trained in a way that is inimical to their intellectual development and their participation in working class politics, but the whole class of students who enjoy “higher education” are, to a large extent, unfitted for free inquiry and the prosecution of science. Science and general culture cannot develop in subordination to bourgeois requirements. What is said in Shaw's Heartbreak House, in answer to the assertion that the financiers and bureaucrats are too stupid to use their power—“Do not deceive yourself; they do use it. We kill the better half of ourselves every day to propriate them. The knowledge that these people are there to render all our aspirations barren prevents us from having the aspirations”—gives a substantially correct picture of the predicament of the “cultured” class. Where it is not simply subservient, it lacks any force to get its grievances redressed. But, in so far as it retains a certain initiative or has a certain productive character, it can acquire force by allying itself with the working-class movement, which has the task of achieving cultural by way of economic emancipation. Apart from this alliance, members of the professional classes who feel themselves exploited can only become cranks, airing their grievances in the pious hope that abstract justice will be done them, or become part of that careerist element which infests Labour parties—and this makes them, in either case, servants of capitalism and misleaders of labour.

But while working-class organisations are the main force in the movement towards a producers' society, it is the fact that the same oppressive forces operate against all groups struggling for freedom, that makes possible the alliance of other groups with the working class. Indeed, as Lenin has pointed out (What is to be done?), the Socialist movement already implies an alliance between a purely proletarian and a cultural element. Lenin quotes Kautsky as saying that “Socialism and the class struggle arise side by side and not out of one another: they arise out of different premises. Modern Socialist consciousness can arise only on the basis of profound scientific knowledge. Indeed, modern economic science is as much a condition for Socialist production as, say, modern technology, and the proletariat can create neither the one nor the other, no matter how much it may desire to do so; both arise out of the modern social process. The vehicles of science are not the proletariat, but the bourgeois intelligensia; it was out of the heads of the members of this stratum that modern Socialism originated, and it was they who communicated it to the more intellectually developed proletarians, who, in their turn, introduce it into the proletarian class struggle where conditions allow that to be done.” “Since”, Lenin adds, “there can be no talk of an independent ideology being developed by the masses of the workers in the process of their movement, then the only course is: Either bourgeois or Socialist ideology.” This does not mean, of course, that the bourgeois intelligensia are not vehicles of bourgeois ideology or, as Lenin puts it, that the members of the working class cannot become Socialist theoreticians. But it means that, as far as science does develop, it assists the struggle of the producers, and that the Socialist form of the class struggle is a general producers' movement against oppression. According to this conception, also, the political backwardness of Labour parties is due to their lack of a scientific basis. “Sentimental Socialism” neglects the technical character of the development of society; it assumes that the function of classes and the State can be altered at will, instead of being rooted in the conditions of production; in short, it is even more deeply imbued with capitalist individualism and disorganisation than is capitalism itself. Now it is precisely “sentimental Socialism” that makes the readiest appeal to aggrieved members of the professional classes, as it does to the less instructed members of the working class, who have, however, the corrective of a keener struggle. It is here that the nation-wide “exposures” of which Lenin speaks, are important. Only proletarian theory can show how the political censorship exercised on teachers and public servants, for example, is connected with the economic miseries of the workers and the oppression of colonial peoples. This demonstration has an organising effect in showing that the working-class movement is the only effective liberating force; that the only political liberty now attainable by any exploited group lies in participation in organisations opposed to capitalism. And this conception of the Socialist movement is connected with the conception of Socialism as extending political activity throughout all social fields, and thus as advancing "personal" freedom in the only way in which this can be done, viz., through planned social work.

The planned economy of the U.S.S.R., the participation of the general body of workers in the task of “building Socialism”, is a matter not simply of industrial organisation, but of cultural, national and social emancipation. The Soviet system is truly democratic in that policies determined by the higher elected organs are returned to the lower organs for carrying out, and not handed over to a class of bureaucratic officials. To say that this democratic theory is not applied in practice is to neglect the fact that the extra-ordinary industrial progress, now admitted even by bourgeois observers, could not have been made without the co-operation of the great mass of the population. Admittedly the government is a dictatorship of the proletariat; but this means that, while non-socialised forms of production and property persist, and while they retain their natural alliance with such forms in other countries, the holders of these economic privileges are excluded from the Soviet system. The liquidation of all classes and hence of dictatorship is promised as the culmination of the second Five-Year Plan—though this will not mean the liquidation of foreign hostility. In the meantime, the position is one of class struggle and of preparation to resist intervention. It is noteworthy that workers' delegations have not found oppression in Russia: though they have found difficulties and struggles, they have been enthusiastic about the progress made, and have not observed the “stunting of personality” referred to by Professor Allan G. B. Fisher, of the University of Otago, (“Moscow Impressions”). “No one”, says Professor Fisher, “who has thoroughly imbibed the liberal doctrine of freedom of thought and freedom of expression, which, though not very fashionable in some quarters to-day, is still at the root of much that we value most in our civilisation, cannot (sic) but believe that the Bolshevik policy of regarding any criticism of what for the time being is declared to be the official policy as being almost equivalent to treason, not only means a dangerous stunting of the personality, but also involves grave waste of human ability in circumstances which make it more urgent that every scrap of human capacity should be used to the utmost”.

If the class struggle had ceased to exist, a general consideration of human capacity might be in order. Meanwhile, it is a question of capacity in the building of Socialism, and what Professor Fisher says of industry, education and art in Soviet Russia testifies, in accordance with the contentions of working-class observers and of the Bolsheviks themselves, to the growth of human capacity under these conditions. It is clear that proletarians do not miss what Professor Fisher values in “our” civilisation. And they will have little doubt as to what doctrine is “fashionable” in New Zealand to-day when they consider (a) the proposal of the government instantly to dismiss public servants “who by public statements intended for publication in New Zealand or elsewhere have sought to bring the Government into disrepute, or whose conduct in any other matter has been gravely inimical to peace, order, or good government”; (b) the statement made by the president of Auckland University College, and endorsed by the Professorial Board, that any public statement by a member of the college staff “should be made only after a full and thorough examination of all known information”, that it “should be a reasoned statement giving both sides of the question” and that recognition by members of the staff of their responsibilities in this matter is “intimately related to the question of fitness for tenure of a university post”; (c) the banning of such publications as “What is the Pan-Pacific Trade Union Secretariat?” and arrests of members of the Communist Party for selling their paper, The Red Worker (Three of these workers have since been sentenced to three years' “reformative detention”); (d) the riots in Auckland and Wellington, and street struggles in Christchurch and Dunedin. These features of capitalist disorganisation and oppression hang together; censorship, unemployment, and wage-cutting exist in all capitalist countries; and the disfranchisement and imprisonment of politically active workers and the outlawing of workers' organisation are in force, are ready to be enforced (as in Australia), or are contemplated. Anti-Soviet propaganda is a feature of the same general scheme. The forces of capitalist disorder recognise Socialist order in the U.S.S.R. and militant workers' organisations throughout the world as their greatest enemies. The struggle for freedom consists in following the lead of these organisations, in opposing disfranchisement and intervention, and thus in advancing the cause of world Socialism.

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