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Freedom of Thought (1932)

The Freethought Society, as its basis shows, is not concerned solely with the advocacy of freedom of thought, though that is an important part of its activities. It is concerned primarily to maintain the doctrine of freethought—that is, a certain scientific theory, the truth of which can be discussed and its implications developed. But besides having a scientific theory, the Freethought Society has a certain attitude to society; it has the policy of promoting certain objects, namely, the extension of knowledge and the abolition of censorship. The promotion of these objects, affecting, as they do, broad social conditions, may thus be described as the Society's political position—its view of what is to be done as contrasted with what is to be believed. The discussion and propagation of the doctrine of freethought, which it regards as true, is, of course, also a part of the Society's policy. But the distinction between freethought and freedom of thought indicates sufficiently well the distinction between its scientific and its political position. Now each of these is a positive position. There is nothing either in freethought or in freedom of thought to imply a welcoming of all views or the setting up of an open platform. Upholders of freethought, of the naturalistic outlook on events, must regard all supernatural and mystical explanations of things as false, and will do everything possible to prevent their being accepted. They will also observe that the forces of censorship protect such views and interfere with the presentation of the freethought position. They will thus see that freedom of thought is something to be fought for, that it demands the overcoming of censorious forces as well as the demonstration of the falsity of certain views. In fact to take up a position of tolerating all views is simply to be untheoretical. Even if our only method of overcoming error is discussion, we must, if we are to become theorists, overcome error in some way. The supposition of the emergence of truth from the pooling of all views is one which would occur only to those who do not sharply distinguish the true from the false, and who therefore cannot expect us to take their theory seriously. The assertion that truth is found to lie between extremes of opinion depends on mere vagueness as to the meaning of an “extreme” view. To say that a certain view is held only by a minority, even a fanatical minority, of persons is to say nothing against its truth. And if there is a definite clash of opinion on a specific issue (if, for example, we have the views that freedom of thought is good and that freedom of thought is not good), then there is nothing whatever between the “extremes”. We may, of course, suspend our judgement on this particular issue, but there is nothing scientific about suspension of judgement; it is merely a confession of ignorance. And if it is said that we ought to suspend our judgement until we have evidence which will settle the issue in one way or the other, the answer is that in that case we ought to suspend our judgement of the evidence until we have evidence for it, and so on.

The plain fact is that there is nothing a view can be except true or false, and that certain views are irreconcilable with certain others. This applies, of course, to social theory; there are irreconcilable views of society, and the consideration of any social policy, like that of the promotion of investigation, will partly depend on what view of society is taken. It appears also, not least from the existence of censorship, that there are irreconcilable social activities, that there are social struggles. These struggles, that irreconcilability, have to be taken account of by all who have a social policy, and the advocacy of general freedom, of freedom for all social forces, is simply unscientific. Indeed, the social reconcilers are very largely those who see “some truth” in all views, that is, who lack a scientific outlook. They are people who cry “Peace!” when there is no peace, and who, by decrying the “preaching” of class war, evade the question—Is there a class war or not? The nature of a policy even for achieving the cessation of struggle, if that is possible, depends on the answer to this question. What happens, however, is that it is assumed that differences can be smoothed out, that, as there is no “truth” underlying all “partial views”, so there is a social solidarity underlying all partial demands. The object of social assistance, for example, is to get everybody partially satisfied, and the possibility of this is assumed without an analysis of the structure of society. But if there is a class struggle, a struggle between irreconcilable demands, we are bound to consider social assistance in terms of that struggle; and then we find that it is an attempt to stifle certain demands, as the view that truth lies between extremes is an attempt to stifle certain theories. The same sort of concealment of the issues is practiced by supporters of the League of Nations and by that body itself. There is an assumption of an underlying unanimity which is somehow distorted by the facts; there is a pretence that reconciliation is possible among conflicting interests. Actually the League of nations is only an extension of the diplomatic manoeuvring that has always gone on among the Powers. The most powerful nations are able to get their policies carried out, and, when necessary, to stop conflicts among minor Powers, as was done by the old “Concert of Europe”. When armed conflict does break out, the League, by appearing as mediator, maintains the pretence that an equitable solution is possible, that satisfactions can be given to all parties, and conceals the fact that the solution depends on the force that the various interested Powers can exert. The mere existence of a Committee of the League to report on the Manchurian situation is sufficient to deceive many into thinking that there is no war and that the members of the League have no warlike aims. Yet the suggestion that a League of militaristic nations is a force for peace is on the face of it absurd. The vague supposition that goodwill will emerge from somewhere is not a substitute for a theory of historical forces. Goodwill is not a national or international force; it is merely part of the propaganda of existing forces. And the same applies to the advocacy of social peace, of the conciliation by Round Table Conferences and the like. Getting round a table, getting into a court, is not going to alter existing forces; it will not reduce their opposition in the slightest degree, but will merely exhibit it under fresh conditions. Bargaining between conflicting interests has always existed. But the setting up of a mechanism for striking a “fair” bargain is a denial of conflict, and is also, like the League of Nations, a device for advancing certain of the interests involved.

Now it may be said that, while certain facts supporting the theory of conflict have been brought out, the existence of a fundamental opposition between national interests or between class interests has in the main been assumed. But at least it should be clear that to take the existence of a reconciling organ or of a will to reconciliation as proof of the possibility of reconciliation is a failure in social analysis; and the fact that this is done, itself indicates that the reconcilers have something to conceal. The question of a clash of interests, unless anyone should have the hardihood to dismiss it as an idle fantasy, must be admitted to be prior to any other social question. And, in particular, it is prior to the question of freedom of thought. If an irreconcilable class struggle exists, then freedom of thought must be considered as it affects and is affected by that struggle. On the one hand, investigation by either class will play a part in its campaign, and each class will endeavour to hamper the investigations of the other, unless it can take them over for its own purposes. There will thus be no question of the advocacy of freedom of thought as a general social expedient. On the other hand, the policy of one class, the activities which it seeks to foster, may do more to advance investigation than those of the other, and this may enable investigators and supporters of investigation to determine on which side their interests lie. The contention of proletarian theorists that the working class can establish a society in which there is no class division, and in which investigation will flourish, is one which requires the closest attention in this connection. But, short of that, there is the question whether, if we can distinguish social classes, we can describe one as exploiting and oppressing and the other as exploited and oppressed. If we can, if there is an oppressing class, then upholders of freedom must be prepared to hamper its activities in every possible way, since its whole position is opposed to freedom. And here it should be noted that we cannot separate freedom of thought from freedom in general, so as to contend that a man may think what he likes so long as he refrains from expressing his views and from behaving in forbidden ways. Investigation cannot proceed without discussion, and we cannot solve our problems by passive reception of information but only through active struggles. We are therefore faced, in the advocacy of freedom of thought, with the question of social freedom and the structure of society. That is the scale on which the problem has to be treated, that it is the context within which any problem has to be worked out. And it requires a recognition of the class struggle, or a proof of its non-existence.

It is not implied that this is the only way in which freedom of inquiry can be discussed. In order to say that it is upheld or hampered by any social interest or form of organisation, we have to know what freedom of inquiry is. And that implies that we have some acquaintance with it as an activity of persons, that we can consider how it appears, how it develops and what characters it exhibits. We can raise the ethical question whether investigation is good, without considering the alignment of social forces, and how, if at all, investigation can be promoted now. But ethical theory is only confused if we make the anarchist mistake of supposing that it is political inquiry. And we fail to promote investigation if we imagine that we can step in at any point in society and promote it there. It is here that all schemes of popular education fail, or, it might better be said, that they confuse the social issues—by not taking account of the social forces operating for and against investigation. The connection of these with class forces is made sufficiently plain by the existence of censorship, of restrictions on the importation and circulation of political literature. It is contended that the reading of this literature might do harm to those not sufficiently educated to estimate it properly; and it might lead them to commit anti-social acts. Here, then, we have a division between a protecting class and a protected class. Yet this protected class, while it is supposed to have sufficient political education to avoid being perverted by dangerous literature, is at the same time supposed to have sufficient political education to elect its protectors. It could not be more clearly demonstrated that the accepted political theory is fraudulent, that the protected class is not part of the governing body but is merely governed, and that censorship operates on behalf of a ruling interest. it appears also that the supposedly competent censors, the educated persons who can judge this literature without being perverted by it, are merely educated in that interest.

There is, in fact, no basis for the assumption that the “educated” class is especially competent to solve political problems. Political education consists not in receiving instruction in subjects connected with government, but in grappling with political problems, taking part in political activities. And in this respect the working class, in its struggle over working conditions, obtains a more thorough training than the “educated” class, which has not till recently been faced with the acute pressure of economic and political realities. Certainly there can be no education without study; struggle can be sporadic and undirected. But it is precisely in its study that the working class is hampered by censorship. Thus the protection afforded by the ruling class is protection against education and protection of its own interests. It is, of course, “natural” that the ruling class should oppose the political training of those who struggle against it. But it shows that the advocacy of education in general or of freedom in general is unsound, that the policy of freedom of thought is intelligible only as part of a policy of social struggle, and that it implies opposition to the propaganda of social peace or of strong government. Such propaganda may, indeed, be opposed in many ways—by ridicule, for example, or by solid criticism—but to prevent its taking effect is essential to the promotion of freedom of thought and to the struggle of social freedom. There is, then no question of general toleration or of persuasion as a universal method. Persuasion is possible only between persons with joint activities, participants in a common organisation. It does not work in the case of opposed forms of organisation; and there has been struggle between opposed ways of living throughout the history of society. That this opposition is due to the ill-will of individuals is the regular assumption of ruling classes, an assumption which is supported by those who regard goodwill as the social solvent. The rejection of this assumption is the first step in the establishment of a freethinking view of society and in the recognition of the social implications of the advocacy of freedom of thought.

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