Thursday, April 29, 2010

Real Freedom: Marxism, Anarchism, Liberation

By Sebastian Lamb
An editor of New Socialist, the publication of the New Socialist Group  in Canada.

"So this is freedom — they must be joking." - The Housemartins

We live in a free society. Or at least that's what we're constantly told.

But it doesn't take much effort to see what's wrong with this claim. How freeare people who live without adequate food and shelter? How free are we in theplaces where we work for pay? Lesbians and gays can marry, but heterosexismstill scars the lives of queer people. Equal rights in law don't translate into real equality for women, people of colour, immigrants, indigenous people andpeople with disabilities.

All this points to an important truth: even in the wealthiest capitalistcountries, such as the Canadian state, we are far from free.

It's not that there's no freedom. In some ways, capitalist societies are freerthan the other class-divided societies they replaced in much of the world. The French Revolution of the 1790s and other revolutions eroded or dismantled some forms of domination that were an obstacle to capitalist development, such as the
rights of nobles and monarchs that restricted the powers of rich "commoners."

These revolutions opened the door to radical people's struggles for freedom. Butsuch struggles were repressed so that capitalists could reap the benefits ofchange without risking the loss of their own property and power.

But while it dismantled some forms of domination and oppression, capitalismreproduced and intensified others. Capitalist colonialism gave rise to a newform of oppression, racism. So it is highly misleading to paint a picture offreedom as the essence of capitalism.


Clearly there are elements of freedom in Canadian society today. It would befoolish to deny that gains have been made: Laws prohibiting abortion andsame-gender sex have been struck down. New laws have been established, recognizing union rights and protecting people from discrimination. These gainshad to be fought for, often at great human cost, against state and corporate power.

Sadly, these advances don't come close to making this a free society. Theworkplaces where society's goods and services are produced are managerial dictatorships. Decisions that affect our lives are made by capitalists who are never elected, governments that aren't accountable between elections, and top state officials for whom no one ever casts a ballot. Immigrants excluded from citizenship have even less influence over who governs us.

Sexism, racism, heterosexism and other forms of oppression are still part of thefabric of society. The Canadian state is a colonial settler-state that denies indigenous peoples and the Québecois the right to determine their own destinies without interference from the dominant Canadian nation. The young demonstrators who chanted "The Communist World is not communist, the Free World is not free!" in the late 1960s were right. Almost all of the Stalinist dictatorships that passed themselves off as "Communist" have collapsed. However, the end of the Cold War did not bring about freedom — just ask the people of occupied Iraq, Palestine and Afghanistan.

A Radical View

Freedom struggles are an important part of humanity's history, going back thousands of years. They have included revolts by peasants and slaves, working-class upsurges, rebellions against colonialism, women's mobilizations, anti-racist struggles, queer protests and more. We see aspirations for real freedom in these struggles.

But what would a free society look like? Socialists of different stripes have long argued that capitalism cannot deliver on its promise of freedom, and that it will take a radical transformation of society to realize that possibility.

Unfortunately, most socialists have seen socialism as something that can be achieved by a committed minority (such as a party or army) on behalf of the majority. For such supporters of socialism from above, freedom is at best a secondary concern and at worst merely rhetoric.

A minority of socialists have always disagreed with this. For supporters of socialism from below, a free society — a society without class divisions, state power or oppression — cannot be handed down by a minority, no matter how sincere. It will be achieved as a result of the self-organized struggles of the exploited and oppressed themselves or not at all.

Today, anarchist supporters of socialism from below are more well-known for their commitment to a free society than Marxist socialists. For example, anarcho-communist Alexander Berkman wrote in 1929 that "we can live in a society where there is no compulsion of any kind… freedom from being forced or coerced,
a chance to live the life that suits you best." 

Yet certain Marxist traditions have long articulated a strong revolutionary vision of a free society. The following lines appeared in 1847 in a publication of the political group to which Karl Marx then belonged: "We are not among those communists who are out to destroy personal liberty, who wish to turn the world
into one huge barrack or into a gigantic workhouse. There certainly are some communists who, with an easy conscience, refuse to countenance personal liberty and would like to shuffle it out of the world because they consider that it is a hindrance to complete harmony. But we have no desire to exchange freedom for
equality. We are convinced… that in no social order will personal freedom be so assured as in a society based upon communal ownership."

Not all supporters of socialism from below have been as clear as this. But it is in this tradition that we find a truly radical view of freedom.

Real Freedom

Freedom is not just the absence of constraints. Freedom lies in our ability to choose among options and to create new options for ourselves and for others.

This includes the freedom to change and for individuals to become what they wish to become (for example, to live our gender however we wish). It's not a state of mind, but requires real material conditions. It cannot be achieved through the actions of individuals, but only in community.

To say that freedom is inherently social doesn't mean that individual liberty is unimportant. It doesn't mean that individuals need to subordinate themselves to other individuals or to social institutions acting in the name of the common good. There is a big difference between individualism (acting and thinking in one's own narrow self-interest), and individual liberty.

The flowering of true individuality requires a society in which everyone is free. There must be free time — time in which people are free to do whatever they choose, so long as this doesn't involve harming others. This requires a reduction in the time people spend producing the services and goods that society needs.

For this to happen, the world of work would have to be transformed. Workplaces would have to be democratized, so that workers manage themselves. Production would be for need, not for profit. The goals and products of labour would be determined through democratic planning, guided by ecological concerns. The overall organization of workplaces and the content of jobs would need to be reorganized in order to undermine divisions among workers such as those between manual and mental labour, and between unpleasant and more enjoyable tasks.

All across society, authoritarian hierarchies would have to be replaced by democratic structures for making and implementing decisions. As the anarchist socialist Murray Bookchin argued, "A free society will either be democratic, or it will not be achieved at all."

An inconsistent commitment to socialist democracy in theory and practice has weakened the struggle for a free society. Such inconsistency can be seen in the functioning of many Marxist and anarchist groups. It is also evident in the writings of influential Marxist socialists Frederick Engels, Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky and major anarchist socialists such as Emma Goldman.

An Impossibility?

Today, the tradition of socialist democracy is largely unknown. In the 20th century, it suffered greatly at the hands of fascism and Stalinism, and was reduced to a marginal current. Today, many people in search of genuinely radical politics of freedom identify with anarchism. After all, anarchism is not stained by association with Stalinism, social democracy or bureaucratic union leaders.

Yet what is striking about much of contemporary anarchism is that it is not dedicated to the struggle for a free, democratic, socialist society.

Take, for example, writer Derrick Jensen. He argues that "civilization" (by which he means societies with cities) "is not and can never be sustainable. This is especially true for industrial civilization… Civilization is not redeemable… civilization turns the entire world into a labour camp, then a death camp… the endpoint of civilization is assembly-line mass murder." So much for the possibility of freedom.

As Bookchin argued against earlier anti-civilization anarchists, to denounce civilization as inherently oppressive of humanity in fact serves to veil the specific social relations that privilege exploiters over the exploited and hierarchs over their subordinates." It is not civilization but capitalism that has caused a global ecological crisis, thanks to its cancerous profit-driven expansion. Capitalism, not urban society, made the Nazi killing machine possible.

The politics of Canadian anarchist Richard Day are not reactionary like Jensen's, but he too rejects the struggle for a free society. His book Gramsci is Dead dismisses all politics of revolutionary social transformation (which he caricatures) and the possibility of a society without exploitation and oppression. In this, he openly follows two French thinkers: Michel Foucault, who saw revolutions as leading inevitably to new forms of domination and Jean Baudrillard, with whom Day agrees that "the masses" in the advanced capitalist countries have no "political potential."

Day reaches this conclusion without anything resembling a careful study of the actual history of the past century of social struggles. Since he sees a free society as impossible, he argues that the best that can be hoped for is small-scale moments of freedom in the here and now, from battles against oppression to the creation of "alternative economies" like worker-run small businesses.

It should come as no surprise that ideas like Day's are appealing to some people in societies like Canada. In this time and place, ecological crisis, exploitation and oppression are all too visible. However, the low level of
popular resistance and the weakness of the radical left make mass movements and revolutionary change seem impossible.

Another World Is Possible 

We should not resign ourselves to this politics of despair. In order to fight for real freedom one does not need to believe that it is likely to be achieved.

So long as we believe that it is not impossible, there is good reason to do whatever we can to make this possibility more likely.

Fortunately, there are still people who refuse to abandon the slogan "Another World is Possible!" made famous by the global justice movement before the events of September 11, 2001. There are still voices insisting that this possible world must be a society of real freedom, beyond capitalism and the forms of oppression intertwined with it.

Hope in the possibility of real freedom has been extinguished even among many of those who clearly see the horrors that capitalism has unleashed, and dread the greater horrors it promises to deliver in the future. The few who maintain a revolutionary vision of freedom differ among ourselves on many issues. But small in number as we are, we would be wise to get clear about what we agree on and what we can do together.

By all means, we should discuss and debate our disagreements, but let's keep these in perspective. The most fundamental political division among radicals today is not between "anarchists" and "Marxists." People who accept these labels disagree among themselves more than they agree. The real division is between anti-capitalists who believe that liberation is possible and worth fighting for and those who, influenced by the despair and political confusion of our times, are resigned to the present reality of unfreedom.

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