Are Marxists pro-liberty?

Submitted by Matthew on 14 September, 2011 - 12:00

Normally I wouldn’t dream of grassing up the publishers of this newspaper to the Labour Party bureaucracy. But after nearly 20 years, even the dimmest witchhunter has probably by now twigged the subterfuge that saw evil clandestine Trot entrists the Socialist Organiser Alliance rebrand themselves as the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty.

The name is that bit at odds from the usual unimaginative titles deployed by far-left outfits. What’s more, it has a subtly different political flavour.

That much was apparent to me the first time I saw a somewhat shy and retiring young AWLer — yeah, I know ... but there have been some in the past, apparently — selling the first edition of the new publication at some labour movement meeting or other.

Instantly the poor sod was set upon by leading members of a hardcore Trotskyist formation. “Liberty? Liberty? What’s that all about, then? Liberty is a bourgeois concept, comrade,” they sneered aggressively, with heavy emphasis on the word “bourgeois”.

The young man was somewhat flustered and didn’t really stand his ground. But perhaps the nasty old sectarians did have a partial point.

I would no longer be a Marxist if I thought that socialism was inimical to, rather than a precondition for, liberty. However, the notion of liberty as a category in political philosophy has, ever since the English, American and French revolutions, usually been associated with explicitly pro-capitalist thinkers.

John Stuart Mill’s pamphlet On Liberty has been central to contemporary liberalism since it was hot off the presses in 1859. Moreover, as thoughtful critics of Thatcherism regularly observed, that creed was itself closer to classical liberalism than proper Burkean Conservatism, and ideologically owed not a little to Hayek’s book The Constitution of Liberty.

The significance of this is that from John Locke to Robert Nozick, many brands of liberalism have been pretty upfront in promoting the liberty to own property as the core liberty around which all else revolves. And it is precisely this liberty socialism unapologetically proposes to eradicate.

It is also beyond dispute that the Bolsheviks were egregious violators of liberty as normally defined. Lenin and Trotsky did restrict the right to vote, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of association, freedom of the person from arbitrary arrest and the right to hold personal property.

The standard leftist justification of these actions boils down to the claim that in the concrete circumstances, they had no other choices. But what happened after 1917 included the imposition of very real inroads into the freedoms of many.

Revolutionary socialists can find themselves facing both ways on such matters, rightly resisting any attempts to erode civil liberty in Britain today while defending the Russian revolution as a point of honour. As a liberal-minded friend of mine likes to joke, Leninists that express unconditional opposition to the death penalty are obviously confused.

So can Marxists be said to stand for liberty in any meaningful sense? The answer here is that aspects of the bourgeois definition of liberty are important, and it is desirable to uphold them wherever possible. But we need to highlight the contradictions bourgeois liberty necessarily entails, and what we offer that transcends it.

In sum, our case is that there is rather more to liberty than mere absence of social and/or legal constraint. Crucially, the liberty of private owners to do what they wish with the property they own withdraws often crucial freedoms from those who do not own it, which by definition is everybody else.

This is most evident with private property in the means of production, distribution and exchange. It is precisely this control that leaves a small minority in society with overwhelming power to shape every aspect of our lives. There can be no real liberty, still less genuine individualism, unless that power is democratised.

Working-class people clearly do need the basic bourgeois political liberties that liberalism, at least in theory, upholds. Those who hold these gains in contempt would not be my first choice of appointment to responsible positions in a future socialist society. But they need something else as well; you might even want to call it workers’ liberty.

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