Freedom and socialism

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"There is a great divide between what freedom means to the capitalists and workers. For capitalists it means freedom to exploit, how and whenever they please...For workers it can mean nothing less than liberation from the chains of poverty and oppression."

By Kyle Matzpen

May 27, 2013 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal – By both its detractors and some of its supposed supporters, the name of socialism has been dragged through the mud. The word “socialism” is conjured up as a demon, a great dictatorial beast, bent on destroying all liberties and homogenising all differences. It is understood that under any system called socialism, the individual is reduced to nothing, while the state is risen on high to an omnipotent throne built on gulags, purges and secret police.

Such corporate loudmouths as Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly can speak of “tyranny and socialism” in a single breathe without batting an eye.[1] And if such conservative hacks require any proof to back up their claims, well they can just point to some avowed so-called socialists.

It’s not a hard thing to claim that the Soviet bloc of countries were some of the least free places on Earth, requiring nothing short of a giant wall to keep people in them. The individual was, and continues to be in such countries as North Korea, nothing, with no liberties and no free life of their own. These societies saw the thoroughgoing oppression and atomisation of individuals lacking the means to act as their own agent. Michael Lebowitz in his excellent study of Soviet bloc countries describe this as the relationship between the “conductor” and the “conducted” in a orchestra, where the latter has no choice but to follow the rhythm and vision of the former. As he says, “The lack of power to make decisions within the workplace, the atomisation and inability to organize collectively within the workplace or within society in general”,[2] are all reflections of the ‘conductor’ bureaucrat’s belief in their superiority and dominance over others. This distain for free thought and free action ran so deep in these countries you had that king of disgusting one-liners Joseph Stalin, famously stating, “Ideas are far more powerful than guns. We don't let our people have guns. Why should we let them have ideas?”

No matter what else can be said about these societies -- and there is room for much debate over these matters -- it should appear self-evident that whatever they were, we don’t want any part in it.

Human freedom

The argument I will try to make in this article is that despite what the conservative and Stalinist hacks may say, socialism has at its core the value of human freedom. “Free” American and “Socialist” Russia are undeserving of their titles. Both of these words, freedom and socialism, have been done great disservices by some of their respective supporters, and to reclaim these words will require a fusion of them. The only means to achieving true human freedom is through socialism and the only means of achieving true socialism is through freedom. Only when each individual stands fully liberated among others can the beginning of true human civilisation begin and the pre-history of class society and tyranny end. This is the case I wish to make.

To begin with we must ask, what actually is freedom? As a concept and ideal, it has been so many times interpreted and reinterpreted as to become nearly meaningless. Main characters in blockbuster action movies can shout the word before going into battle, while US politicians and generals talk about spreading the word throughout the word at the point of a gun. In both cases freedom is a battle cry, but a battle cry for what? How can we understand this ideal philosophically, what is its essence, what is it at the bedrock of things.

We think of freedom in terms of liberty, will, autonomy. It’s about our actions and our freedom to act and think without restrictions. But there are restrictions. Our actions are limited by forces all around us. We can’t levitate, or walk through walls, or transform ourselves into a giraffe. Our wills and desires are limited. Despite the ridiculousness of those examples, it gets at important starting point.

In one of the last things he wrote while waiting to be executed by Stalin, the Russian Communist Nikolai Bukharin meditated on this idea in his Philosophical Arabesques. He said, “Freedom in the absence of cause, of indeterminism, ‘pure freedom’, is nothing other then the will taken in isolation, without relation to anything outside itself … [an] absurd, empty abstraction.”[3]

That is we need a notion of freedom that transcends the purely abstract and immaterial, and roots itself in physical reality. “Pure will” needs to be given flesh and blood. We exist within an objective universe, with its own laws, that continues to exist outside of ourselves whether we like it or not. The laws of space, time, gravity, biology, physics, chemistry are absolutes. These are restrictions on our “freedoms” but they also contain the means to us actualising our wills. We cannot hope to fly by willing it into being and levitating, but that doesn’t mean we cannot fly by other means in conformity with the physical laws of the universe.

There is a unity between individual will and the material world that creates what we can call freedom. All freedom of individuals, animals, peoples, nations, classes is governed by the material context that surrounds them, both in the physical sense and the social sense. The truest field of activity for will would be imagination, but even that is governed by the biology and anatomy of the human brain.

This is the issue that co-founder of scientific socialism, Frederick Engels, spoke about in his polemical book Anti-Duhring when he said that, “Freedom therefore consists in the control over ourselves and over external nature, a control founded on knowledge of natural necessity; it is therefore necessarily a product of historical development.”[4]

Humanity is a social creature, we exist in the context of a given society and the breadth and depth of our actions are determined by the historical state of that society. A person in the Iberian peninsula in the 14th century couldn’t drive a car; a woman in most historical class societies could not hope to rise beyond her lot in life determined by her sex. A human being in a vacuum is frozen solid and dead. The context of necessity, social, natural and historical, is everything for understanding human freedom.

But there are many who don’t see freedom as a social or collective enterprise. Freedom is something for solely the individual in their fight against the collective, whatever that may be. It’s always about their freedom, their rights, their autonomy, never anyone else’s. There is a deep selfishness to this notion – one that could be argued has its roots in the deep selfishness of our modern society – which we will explore further later. But for now we can point out the observation of the Hungarian Marxist Georg Lukacs when he commented that, “For the ‘freedom’ of the men who are alive now is the freedom of the individual isolated by the fact of property ... It is a freedom vis-á-vis the other (no less isolated) individuals. A freedom of the egoist, of the man who cuts himself off from others, a freedom for which solidarity and community exist at best only as ineffectual ‘regulative ideas’.”[5]

Beyond the truly destructive potential of this self-centred view of freedom – for there is nobody more free under this definition than the tyrannical dictator, who can do as he/she pleases without ever having to mediate his actions relative to other people and the collective – there is also the sheer inaccuracy of it. As we have said, there is no existence for the social animal of humanity outside of one society or another. What we can hope to accomplish with our lives is limited and determined by the history and capacities of the society we live in. There was no point dreaming about being an astronaut in a epoch when the Earth was still viewed as the centre of the universe and chemistry had yet to replace alchemy.

We rise and we fall together, as a social whole. Some sections of a society may be able to rise higher and farther on the backs of other sections of society – thus increasing their own liberty at the expense of ours – but that’s not freedom, that’s tyranny.

The US anarchist Murray Bookchin makes an important contribution to this philosophy when he said that, “While autonomy is associated with the presumably self-sovereign individual, freedom dialectically interweaves the individual with the collective… When applied to the individual, freedom thus preserves a social or collective interpretation of that individual's origins and development as a self. In ‘freedom’, individual selfhood does not stand opposed to or apart from the collective but is significantly formed … by his or her own social existence. Freedom thus does not subsume the individual's liberty but denotes its actualisation.”[6]

The “self-sovereignty” of an individual above and apart from others is in truth the “sovereignty” of the sovereign, a king. True sovereignty over ourselves and our actions can only come when that control is the control exerted by the whole of society. We cannot run from it, we must embrace the collective if we are to successfully mediate our wills and “actualise” freedom.

This is not to say that human will is totally at the mercy of forces around it, social and natural. That all our actions are somehow determined in advance by either nature or nurture, and that we are just mechanisms by which historical and social forces play out their preordained processes. As Karl Marx famously said, “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.”[7]

That is the essence of the dialectical fusion between freedom and necessity. We will, we think, we act, but only through and upon material reality and the historic social context around us, which acts back upon us in turn. Once we base freedom and the striving for freedom in the real natural world of nature and societies, we can finally come face to face with the real problems of that world. Then we can start to change the world. Then freedom and will become, as Bukharin said, “an active factor, and through the will … historical necessity blazes its trails”.[8]


In order to blaze forward through history, the present has to be grappled with. The present society we are born into, the social matrixes that surround us, determine the limits and nature of our freedom. The system of capitalism is social context that has been “transmitted from the past” and “weighs like a nightmare” upon our lives in how it restricts and defines us.

Capitalism, this worldwide, world governing, pervasive system can be defined in a number of ways. Some ways are meant to conceal its nature, others to illuminate. Such phrases as “free market”, “free enterprise”, “liberalised trade” are quite common. What we see here is the language of freedom being used to defend and whitewash a system of inequality, bigotry and exploitation. Under capitalism we see “freedom” for the market and those who rule it, while chains for the rest of us.

Capitalism is first a class system. It is divided and structured in such a way that the differing classes of those who work – workers – and those who own – capitalists – have competing and irreconcilable interests. So any institution or ideal will mean in reality totally different things to individuals in the different classes. As Donny Gluckstein observed while talking about the Paris Commune of 1871, “That people on both sides of the civil war claimed the same principles but fought each other is not as paradoxical as it first appears, nor are references to ‘liberty, equality and fraternity’ necessarily anachronistic. … George Bush and Tony Blair also use the language of freedom and democracy. However, for them this means the freedom for imperialist states and big business to oppress and exploit. It is clear that the meaning a neoliberal gives to ‘liberty, equality, fraternity’ is the very opposite of that given by the anticapitalist and anti-imperialist movements. We stand for liberty, equality and fraternity for human beings, not capital.”[9]

There is a great divide between what freedom means to the capitalists and workers. For capitalists it means freedom to exploit, how and whenever they please. For the people more “middle class” it tends to mean freedom to buy this or that consumerist item. For workers it can mean nothing less then liberation from the chains of poverty and oppression.

Our lives aren’t our own under capitalism, we have no sovereignty. Nominally we are supposed to be, we are all “free” citizens who can come and go as we please. We are not slaves in the literal sense. But, instead of being under the arbitrary authority of an individual property owner, we are now under the arbitrary authority of a system called the market.

There is no control, no oversight, no means of recourse by which we can exert some semblance of reasoned direction on this chaotic maelstrom of the world capitalist market. Like a grand Ouija board it moves hither and thither by the unconscious motions of all and thus the conscious control of no one. Even for the richest of capitalists, or in this example those with the strongest arm, freedom under a regime like this is at best, as John Rees describes, “necessarily the sham freedom expressed in the roulette player – he or she knows the rules of the game will, therefore, have an advantage over someone who knows them less well, but the whole process is not under the control of anyone. Consequently no real freedom, no real control over destiny, is possible, because no single capitalists, let alone worker, can control the system as a whole. Rigid bureaucracy and division of labor rule the parts of the system, but chaos rules the system as a whole.”[10]

But it is to this system that we must sell ourselves to in order to survive. Try as we might to escape this system, it infects everything and everywhere, and sooner or later we have to find a way to “earn” a living. As Karl Marx said, “[the worker] works that he may keep alive. He does not count the labor itself as a part of his life; it is rather a sacrifice of his life. It is a commodity that he has auctioned off to another.”[11]

Think about university. Education should be the opportunity for us to really explore who we want to be and what we want to do with our lives. But instead we are straddled by fear. Will this degree get me a job? Will I be able to pay off my student debt? Such fear undermines our potential, for it is the fear of want. Our ability to realise ourselves, to express ourselves, to develop into the fullness of ourselves, our sovereignty over our own destiny, is laid at the mercy of the job market in this and a thousand of other ways.

Our lives are about working jobs we hate, for companies that exploit us mercilessly, all just to keep on living. The great US socialist and orator Eugene V. Debs was always excellent at summing up this conundrum we all face: “Men do not shrink from work but from slavery. The man who works primarily for the benefit of another does so only under compulsion, and work so done is the very essence of slavery.”[12] We are compelled by the necessity of want. The bills, groceries, the rent, our debt, the whole damn market, these are our modern slave masters.

This is a monstrous system. David McNally speaks of it as a grotesque abomination, whose insidiousness is in how invisible and everyday it is.[13] Everyday, in order to survive, we cut off a piece of our life and life energy and sell it to a great vampire capital machine of profit maximisation. We are drained, cut up, dissected and atomised into alienated husks, “living dead” who continue on only so that more of our knowledge and strength can be turned into things that’ll be used against us.

It is through this social environment imposed on us that freedom has been made to mean consumerism under capitalism. Thus the number of dollars in your wallet is directly correlated to your freedoms and the “richness” of your life. Thus money is both the source of all liberty in a consumerist world and the greatest tyrannical agent, for it defines the contours of what’s possible and who can enjoy those possibilities. Choice under capitalism becomes the choice between Coke and Pepsi and freedom becomes the “freedom” to buy a Ferrari. As Martin Luther King Jr. rightly observed, “What good is having the right to sit at a lunch counter if you can’t afford to buy a hamburger?”[14]

So for those who can enjoy the bountiful fruits of this world, all the finer things in life, what they are really experiencing is not “freedom’ but privilege. As Georg Lukacs observed, “in contemporary bourgeois society individual freedom can only be corrupt and corrupting because it is a case of unilateral privilege based on the unfreedom of others”.[15] This is to say that when “freedom” only exists for some, for an elite, it denotes anything but a free society. The elites of capitalism enjoy a privilege over others due to their wealth and class position. “Freedom” here in truth means power and there is no easier way to increase your own power than by limiting that of others. And what makes it worse is that class position,  that wealth, that privilege comes about only through the exploitation and oppression of those who work. The rich only exist because they parasitically leach off the poor. This is what we call tyranny.

Such a hierarchy of privilege – with all the opportunities of life at the top, and drudgery and misery of want at the bottom – requires brute power to keep it place. While there are still classes, while society is still irreconcilably divided between rich and poor, while our lives are governed by inhuman and chaotic market forces, while our ability to realise our true potential is hampered at every step by myriad injustices, there is the need for there be a state to defend this status quo. The logic of this is illustrated, on the international level, by an internal document of the US State Department from the beginning of the Cold War, “[The United States has] about 50 percent of the world’s wealth, but only 6.3 percent of it population … Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity without positive detriment to our national security.”[16] Behind the invisible hand of the free market is the mailed fist of a police state to protect property and privilege from the justified anger of the downtrodden, nationally and globally.

As Frederick Engels said, “states arose from the need to hold class antagonisms in check”.[17] One of the defining features of class-stratified societies is the existence of this state of the police and military, these “special bodies of armed men” to maintain the order by force. The purpose of the police is not to protect the security of individuals, but rather to uphold the law, which means property. The police are there to protect the privileges of the rich against the rights of the poor.

We can see this role of the law in all sorts of places. We see it in the role of patent laws in protecting pharmaceutical companies at the expense of those needing medicine. We see it in the role of intellectual property laws and the ruthless prosecution of file-sharing “pirates”. We see it in the massive contrast between the extent of the “war on drugs” locking up millions of poor and people of colour for minor drug offenses versus the lack of any prosecution at all for the bankers who caused the financial crisis in 2008. And we see it the absurdly egregious examples of corporations given “personhood” and rights. We live in a society where capital – cold hard cash – has independence, liberties, rights and individuality, and actual living individuals have little to none.

In all of these ways the state imposes itself into our lives, reinforcing injustices with a degraded sense of priorities and distorting the very meaning of rights and freedoms. There has been no greater example of this than the post-9/11 “war on terror”. With the passage of such notorious pieces of legislation in the US as the Patriot Act and the National Defense Authorisation Act we have seen everything from warrantless wiretapping, to the indefinite detention of citizens, to the declaring of effective martial law in Boston, to the outright execution without trial or jury by predator drones of citizens, become normal part of the US state’s daily business.

Some would deem this as the “erosion of our constitutional values” or the “perversion of our American liberties” or in some way or another a break with the normal state of things under capitalism. But I would say that the “war on terror” didn’t lead the United States “destroying everything it stands for”. It merely revealed what the US state really stands for – torture, revenge, suspension of liberties, empire building – and merely destroyed what it was only pretending to stand for. To again paraphrase a blockbuster movie for a second time, terrorists may be able to take your lives, but only the US government can take your freedom.


So if that is the situation under capitalism, what can be said about socialism?

The name of socialism has been distorted and slandered this past century through the experience of a number of governments who claimed the title of “socialist”. If one thing can be surely said about those countries is that the people living in them were not free. Lack of personal liberties, oppressive surveillance by secret police, gulags, rigid uniformity, a hyper undemocratic hierarchy of bureaucrats, lack of any representation of the people in their government or even control over their daily lives. Was this really such a great alternative to capitalism?

We must think back to the relationship between necessity and freedom. Countries like the Soviet Union, that started out on the path of socialism and the liberation of humanity, were met first with the deplorable material conditions. The state of generalised poverty and destruction that faced Russia in 1917 and beyond necessity asserted itself with a vengeance upon the early attempts to build socialism and thus strangled those hopes. As Marx and Engels predicted, you need a certain amount of material wealth and technological advancement to begin building socialism, that “this development of productive forces … is an absolutely necessary practical premise because without it want is merely made general, and with destitution the struggle for necessities and all the old filthy business would necessarily be reproduced.”[18] And in Stalin’s Soviet Union, Mao’s China and the absurd regime of North Korea, want had been “made general” and the whole “old filthy business” of class structures, exploitation, oppressive and state apparatuses, were started all over again.

This was not what the founders of socialism such as Marx, Engels, Rosa Luxembourg, Leon Trotsky and Lenin had in mind. This was not what countless millions of workers worldwide had fought and even died for. These are not the sort of societies anyone would want to fight for in the present.

The task now is to reclaim the real meaning of the socialism and what it is to be a socialist.

At their best, socialists always fight for freedom, personal liberty rights wherever and whenever they can. For they know that whatever rights can be won, and whatever defeats on tyranny and state repression can be achieved, in the here and now, are absolutely necessary for the self-agitation, education and organisation of working people. As Engels said, “even then the worker party would have no choice … to continue its agitation for bourgeois freedom, freedom of the press and rights of assembly and association … Without these freedoms it will be unable to move freely itself … to obtain the air it needs to breath.”[19] Such “bourgeois” freedoms are the “air” the workers’ movement needs in order to “breathe”, and can never be under valued.

Only through the free discussion of ideas can people fully educate themselves and develop their own consciousness. It is only with total political freedom can people then turn their political consciousness into radical action and self-organisation. It is the duty of all socialists, all fighters for a better life, to resist the police state as well as all other forms of capitalistic alienation and un-freedom, in all ways that they can.

But what is this thing they are fighting for, what is socialism? Many on the left and the right are convinced that it merely means state intervention into the economy. So everything from Sweden’s welfare system to ‘Obamacare” to Stalin’s five-year plans are suddenly given the title of “socialist”. But Marx and Engels would have mocked such ideas. Engels jokingly commented that in one case, “of late, since Bismarck went in for state-ownership of industrial establishments, a kind of spurious socialism has arisen, degenerating, now and again, into something of flunkeyism, that without more ado declares all state ownership, even of the Bismarckian sort, to be socialistic. Certainly, if the taking over by the state of the tobacco industry is socialistic, then Napoleon … must be numbered among the founders of socialism.”[20]

The state as a body suspended above and ruling over society doesn’t equal socialism in any case, no matter how it describes itself. Those self-declared communists who said otherwise forget Marx’s words that, “freedom consists in converting the state from an organ superimposed upon society into one completely subordinate to it.”[21]

If there can be any doubt that there exists an uncrossable gulf between the goals of socialism set forth by Marx, Engels and all the early communists, versus the realm of state-directed poverty and tyranny of the Soviet bloc, then look at the words written by Marx for a pamphlet of his group the Communist League in 1847, “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 … 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.”[22]

So if these are the principles by which socialism is meant to fight for, of the enhancement of personal freedom and liberation, what then is socialism?

Socialism is the novel idea that all people are created equal. That we are social creatures, and all should have the same voice in controlling our society’s destiny. That to share is better than to control, and democracy is better than orders. Socialism is about the direct democratic control of the workplaces, the economy and the whole of society by the people who work it and live in it. Socialism is about the collective ownership of all the material wealth of humanity so no person – whether capitalist or state bureaucrat – can use the privilege of ownership to control the lives of others. It means the end to both the rule of the tiny elite and the rule of impersonal market chaos. Socialism is about freedom for all from want. Or as Eugene Debs succinctly put it, “socialism means social ownership, cooperation, freedom and abundance for all”.[23]

This comes about through the assertion of the people’s will over all of society in a conscious and collective way; that is democracy. Socialism is the final victory of democracy for it is the fulfillment of people’s sovereignty over their lives, their society, their economy, their planet, through the extension of democratic control into all fields. As Lenin said, socialism is the product of this radical democracy, for “here ‘quantity turns into quality’: such a degree of democracy implies overstepping the boundaries of bourgeois society and beginning its socialist reorganisation. If really all take part in the administration of the state, capitalism cannot retain its hold. The development of capitalism, in turn, creates the preconditions that enable really ‘all’ to take part in the administration of the state.”[24]

For the starting point of this bold idea is that we have reached a point in civilisation where material scarcity is a fiction. Previous civilisations were still too “poor” to be able to free all from the most base forms of hard labour.  The necessity of the historical context restricted the potential in such a way that, as Marx and Engels said, “people won freedom for themselves each time to the extent that was dictated and permitted not by their ideal of men but by the existing productive forces. All emancipation carried through hitherto has been based, however, on restricted productive forces.”[25] The achievements of the ancient Egyptians were monumental, but it is hard to imagine such a civilisation with such levels of technology not being based on slave labour at the bottom and an elite pharaoh at the top.

But this is no longer the case. Sure, the means by which we produce things has to be totally changed to become environmentally sustainable, but the scientific know how exists to do so. Civilisation has come such a long way in terms of technology and productive power that these advanced productive forces, “which alone make possible a state of society in which there are no longer class distinctions or anxiety over the means of subsistence for the individual, and in which for the first time there can be talk of real human freedom, of an existence in harmony with the laws of nature that have become known”.[26] We produce enough food, enough medicine, enough homes, enough clothes, in order to meet the basic needs of all of humanity. People’s time can be freed up so as not to be under the total dictates of boss and market. Abject poverty, the alienating drudgery of work can now be abolished, but we need a totally new social system in order to do so.

The current barrier to meeting all of humanity’s needs is not the world’s material wealth or lack of technology, but how those things are distributed and controlled under capitalism. The only thing socialists are interested in forcing anyone to do against their will is to give back their ill-gotten privileges, wealth and power to the people they stole it from. It is only when this current system of capitalism is burst asunder – that private ownership is replaced with collective sharing, hierarchy is replaced with democracy, market chaos is replaced with reasoned planning – that real human history can begin.

An important part of the goal of socialism is the idea of planning. Human knowledge and reason are capable of consciously deciding what society needs and what to produce without having to rely on the supply and demand forces of the market. As Bukharin says, “with the transition to socialism, the subjectless society becomes a subject, blind necessity ceases to be blind, the uncognised becomes cognised, the absences of a goal is transformed into its opposite, and the absurd in society is replaced with reason.”[27] If freedom in part means sovereignty, that you have control over your destiny, then a free society must be able to consciously be its own subject, to plan, to decide, to act, instead of being the victim of random happenstance.

But the key trick, and this was the mistake of Bukharin along with many others, is that such a plan can’t be the decision of an elite “planner” standing above society. It has to be the conscious effort and decision of all those within that society working together for it to be socialism. This was the point made by Marxist humanist and secretary to Trotsky Raya Dunayevskaya when she said, “either you have the self-activity of the workers, the plan of freely associated labor, or you have the hierarchic structure of relations in the factory and the despotic plan. There is no in-between.”[28]

This “self-activity”, this “free association” is the crux of the entire project. Socialism can only be the creation of the workers themselves, no one can do it for them or on their behalf. But once fought for, built and achieved, the returns for the individual is what’s important. Socialism is about maximising freedom for the individual, in the social context in which their needs are being met as a right.

This idea of the fusion between the collective and individual freedom is encapsulated in the slogan of Marx’s, “the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all”. This beautiful dream runs throughout all Marx, Engels and other socialists’ writings.

Despite all that Marx and Engels wrote about the labour process and labouring, their true goal was to maximise society’s free time. In a socialist society, “the meaning of wealth will then no longer be labor time, but leisure time”.[29] The working day would be shortened, as we would no longer have to support a class of capitalistic parasites on our backs, and people would have the freedom and leisure to explore their interests and abilities; to paint, to write, to experiment, to study, to be creative and to develop as human beings. Socialists want all people to enjoy in the fruits of humanity’s labour over countless generations and to be given the opportunities to freely add to those achievements as best they can.

In the endered words of Engels, socialism is about, “creat[ing] for all people such a condition that everyone can freely develop his human nature and live in a human relationship with his neighbors”.[30] Under such conditions, the development of every human being – no matter their race, age, gender, sexuality or previous class origins – to their full potential is the obligation of the whole of society. As Lukacs said, “the fully developed communist society … will be the first society in the history of mankind that really takes this [individual] freedom seriously and actually makes it a reality”.[31]

Freedom for socialism is not something abstract, but something concrete and real that is ensured by providing for human need as the core motivator of society, not corporate greed as under capitalism. So no more homeless teenagers, no more hungry children in slums, no more young graduates desperate for work, no more people trapped in dead-end jobs, no more elderly people choosing between affording food or medication. The right to a life of human dignity, for all.

Instead of some rigidly defined unanimity of experiences that all are demanded to conform to, or the false diversity that corporations offer in shallow consumerism with 150 different types of toothpaste, real individualism and individual expression would be allowed to flourish. At the turn of the last century, socialist ideas where popularised in the United States in part through utopian novels like Looking Backwards and News From Nowhere, in which characters were transported to a future communal society that they then observed. In News From Nowhere, this idea is expressed as in this way: “variety of life is as much of an aim of true communism as equality of condition, and … nothing but a union of these two will bring about real freedom.”[32] Socialism aims to maximise the choices of lifestyle, occupation, ways of being, ways of artistic expression for all, but all this only can be accomplished once we move beyond the confines and restraints put on us by the profit system.

We cannot say for certain what socialism will be like, or determine its exact minutia ahead of time. That is something for those who live in it to freely build for themselves. But we can say that people will be able to live their lives to their fullest only when they are not constricted by the worry and fear of paying the bills; students will be able to expand their intellectual horizons to their full potential when they are freed from a future of debt bondage; artists and scientists will be able to explore all their creativity and skill when their fields are no longer dictated by the demands of corporations; and workers of all occupations will have their labour truly freed only when they have seized control over their own destinies and the products of their labour.

You cannot achieve true freedom for yourself and only yourself, all on you own. That type of individualistic “freedom from people” so easily becomes an elitist doctrine of freedom over people, in spite of people. The achievement of true freedom has to be part of a mass movement, a great, collective process of liberation. We live together, we work together, we fight together, we win together. We are all going to be free or none of us will. True freedom in the here and now under capitalism is largely an illusion, but we can gain glimpses of a free life when we struggle together and collectively resist oppression, exploitation and tyranny.

The dream of socialism that I have tried to express here is one that frees the individual and the collective of the working class as one. Its essence is in the final victory of humanity over the forces of reaction, a struggle  from the slave revolts of Spartacus and earlier, through the resistance to feudal despots by serfs and peasants, to the overthrowing of monarchs and dictators and includes every strike for humane working conditions in the world today.

Oppression, tyranny and exploitation can only breed resistance. As McNally points out, “Just as there is no accumulated wealth without accumulated labor of the poor, so there can be no vampires without the blood of the living. And in the sheer, stubborn survival of the poor, their persistent struggle for a better life, hope resides. As much as capital possesses them, invading their bodies and spirits, the world’s laboring poor, ‘the endless toilers of the earth’, can never be fully colonised.”[33] We are capable of resisting and even winning against the vampires of capital not only because we are many and they are few, but also because it is they who live off of us, not the other way around.  As W.E.B. Du Bois said, “the emancipation of man is the emancipation of labor”.[34]

Socialism, as Eugene V. Debs said, “will completely revolutionize the community life. For the first time in history the people will be truly free and rule themselves, and when this comes to pass poverty will vanish like mist before the sunrise.”[35]

That is the dawn of freedom and socialism.

[Kyle Matzpen is a socialist and environmental activist in the United States. He has written for Socialist Worker, Climate and Capitalism and Red Wedge magazine. He blogs at The Red Plebeian.]


[1] “’I’m Not Saying Your Mother’s a Whore’: How Fox News Censored Jon Stewart vs. Bill O’Reilly”, by John Cook. 2/5/2010.

[2] The Contradictions of ‘Real Socialism’, by Michael Lebowitz. Monthly Review Press, 2012, p. 75.

[3] Philosophical Arabesques, by Nikolai Bukharin. Monthly Review Press, 2005, p. 186.

[4] Anti-Duhring, by Frederick Engels. International Publishers, 1939, p. 125.

[5] History and Class Consciousness, by Georg Lukacs. MIT Press, 1968, p. 315.

[6] Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism, by Murray Brookchin. AK Press, 1995, pp. 12-13.

[7] The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, by Karl Marx.

[8] Bukharin, p. 192

[9] The Paris Commune: A Revolution in Democracy, by Donny Gluckstein. Haymarket Books, 2006, p. 180.

[10] The Algebra of Revolution, by John Rees. Routledge, 1998, p. 213.

[12] Eugene V. Debs Speaks, by Eugene V. Debs. Pathfinder Press, 1994, p. 309.

[13] Monsters of the Market, by David McNally. Haymarket Books, 2011.

[14]Martin Luther King Jr.: Leader of Millions in Nonviolent Drive for Racial Justice”, by Murray Schumach. The New York Times. 4/5/1968.

[15] Lukas, p. 315.

[16] State Department Policy Planning Study, February 23, 1948. Cited in Noam Chomsky, in On Power and Ideology: The Managua Lectures. Boston South End Press, 1987, pp.15-16.

[17] Origins of Private Property, the Family and the State, by Frederick Engels.

[18] The German Ideology, by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels.

[19] Quoted in Lenin Rediscovered, by Lars T. Lih. Haymarket Books, 2006, p.89.

[20] Anti-Duhring.

[21]Critique of the Gotha Programme, by Karl Marx.

[22] Quoted in Socialism from Below, by Hal Draper. Center for Socialist History, 2001, p. 17.

[23] Debs, p. 311.

[25] The German Ideology, p. 431

[26] Anti-Duhring, p. 126.

[27]Philosophical Arabesques, pp. 190-191.

[28] Marxism and Freedom, by Raya Dunayevskaya. Humanity Books, 2000, p. 136.

[29] Grundrisse, by Karl Marx, p. 596.

[30] Speeches in Elberfeld, by Frederick Engels.

[31] Lukas, p. 315.

[32] Quoted in Socialism from Below, p. 27.

[33] McNally, p. 250.

[34] Black Reconstruction in America, by W.E.B. Du Bois. Free Press, 1998, p. 16.

[35] Debs, p. 311.