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Full Marx What is ‘freedom’?

What is Freedom? Ye can tell / That which Slavery is too well, For its very name has grown / To an echo of your own.

SHELLEY’S poem “The Masque of Anarchy” was written in response to the Peterloo Massacre in St Peter’s Field, Manchester, in August 1819 when cavalry charged a demonstration to demand the reform of parliamentary representation, killing 15 and injuring hundreds. Shelley is clear that slavery is central to capitalism — from wage slavery to physical repression: but he leaves any definition of freedom hanging in the air.

Apologists for capitalism, by contrast are clear what they mean by “freedom.” Freedom, they argue, is the basis of “our” economic system; freedom for those who own property to keep it; of “free” competition, consumer “choice” and the phoney “freedom” of the market.

For capitalism, freedom is not an abstraction — but its underlying reality is the freedom for financial, industrial and landed owners of capital to exploit workers and consumers.

Its apologists justify it, paradoxically and in a curious dialectic, by two contradictory “explanations.” The first is our “freedom” to sell our labour power to any employer who will buy it and to buy the commodities that we desire with the wages we are paid. At the same time they argue also that we are not free — and certainly not free to change the system which (they tell us) is a result of “human nature.”

The status quo is inevitable. How often have you heard an explanation involving the term “it’s human nature” (sometimes bolstered with a reference to sociobiology) used to justify or explain greed, competitiveness, aggression, inequality or any other (usually negative) aspect of the human status quo?

Class struggles in Britain have always had a developing notion of freedom at their heart. During the Peasants Revolt, John Ball travelled the country preaching on the need for “freedom and equality.”  Wat Tyler’s demands of Richard II included the end of all feudal services and the freedom to buy and sell goods.

The Putney debates (a series of discussions during the English Civil War within Cromwell’s New Model Army, including Levellers, concerning a new constitution for Britain) emphasised freedom of conscience, freedom from impressment (conscription) into the armed forces and equality before the law.

“Freedom” has always been at the heart of class struggles ever since — whether the freedom of the developing mercantile and manufacturing classes to make profit within a still predominantly feudal society, or the freedom of the working classes who produce those profits to enjoy the full fruits of their labour.

It’s important always to ask: “Freedom for whom?,”  “Freedom to do what?”  And, most importantly, “Who decides?”  

Capitalism uses “freedom” to exploit and enslave. The “freedom” to sell your labour power — or starve. It still uses physical force — from forced and child labour mining cobalt for the batteries of our “green” electric cars, through its “interventions” to protect its oil interests in what with typically Eurocentric arrogance we still call the “Middle East,” to Orgreave and the continuing refusal to allow justice to the victims of police brutality.

Six billionaires own or control the majority of Britain’s “free press.” The United States has bombed or invaded 35 countries since the end of the second world war and still maintains nearly 800 military bases in more than 70 countries — including Britain. The list is endless.

But in its metropolitan heartlands capitalism prefers to use more subtle techniques –the media, low wages, the gig economy, advertising and debt. As another answer — on hegemony — argues, capitalism also controls by compliance and consent. The “free world” — an anti-communist cold war slogan still current, really means the freedom of monopoly capital and imperialism to control the lives of “the many.”

For Marxists, freedom is not an abstraction. Freedom starts with understanding the present, including its constraints, both at an individual and at a social level. In short, freedom involves the “recognition of necessity.”

Rightwingers in the US protested against the Covid-19 restrictions as an infringement of their “freedom.” Most “normal” people — in Britain as elsewhere — accepted the lockdown as an unfortunate but essential “necessity” and have been equally appalled by Dominic Cummings’s arrogant assertion of his “freedom” to disregard the restrictions of which he was the architect, as by his puppet Boris Johnson’s incompetent, arrogant and cynical “easing” of them which treats the working class — especially key workers — as expendable.

Marxists and socialists see beyond the restrictions to demand that working people who already bear the brunt of these restrictions do not continue to suffer the economic consequences when the pandemic is “over.”

Freedom isn’t any hypothetical independence from “natural laws,” but involves understanding of how the universe works and the possibility of using this knowledge to change things — in personal and in public life.

In particular it involves understanding the class nature of society, its contradictions and dynamics. As the Marxist literary theorist Terry Eagleton declares; “A slave knows she is a slave, but knowing why she is a slave is the first step towards not being one.”  

Freedom, for Marxists, is not an abstract concept. It is a material and dialectical one. It relates to how we live and get our living, how we govern and are governed, how we relate to others, and to ourselves.

Marx and Engels saw freedom as at least in part related to the abolition of capitalism, declaring “in no social order will freedom be assured as in a society based upon communal ownership.” 

In the Communist Manifesto they declared a vision of the future: “In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.”  Freedom, they said, is “the creative manifestation of life arising from the free development of all abilities of the whole person.”  

And it would involve not just our relations to each other but to the planet. Marx declared that communism “is the definitive resolution of the antagonism between humans and nature and between humans and humans […] between existence and essence […] between freedom and necessity, between individual and species.”  Engels likewise said that communism would be “humanity’s leap from the realm of necessity into the realm of freedom.”  

But far from closing down debate, a Marxist analysis of freedom reveals its contradictions and dynamics. Who decides what is “necessary” and how?

Rosa Luxemburg wrote (in 1918) that “Freedom only for the supporters of the government, only for the members of one party — however numerous they may be — is no freedom at all. Freedom is always and exclusively freedom for the one who thinks differently.

Not because of any fanatical concept of “justice” but because all that is instructive, wholesome and purifying in political freedom depends on this essential characteristic, and its effectiveness vanishes when ‘freedom’ becomes a special privilege.”  

“Necessity”  has too often been used as an argument for repression and inequality. As with the Covid-19 pandemic “necessity” will continue, even in a future communist society, to be a significant constraint. The key issue will be how our responses both as individuals and as a society can be “freely” and democratically decided.

Working-class struggle has secured some advances since Peterloo. These — a still limited justice system, “free” education (to the age of 18), a “national” (but crumbling) “free” health service and the vote (once every few years for “representatives” in a parliamentary system which is precluded from securing real change) — are all qualified, limited freedoms.

But those who struggled to achieve them were, arguably, “freer” than those who accepted the status quo as inevitable. And this remains the case today.

So let’s leave the last word to Shelley, addressed to the people of England:

“Rise like Lions after slumber/ In unvanquishable number!

Shake your chains to earth like dew/ Which in sleep had fallen on you Ye are many — they are few.”

This Thursday June 4 at 7pm, John McDonnell MP, vice-president of the Marx Memorial Library will give an online keynote lecture: “Equinomics — placing equality at the centre of our post-virus economy” — details of this and other MML events together with copies of previous Full Marx answers in this series (this is number 64) can be found on the Library’s website:


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