Workers Vanguard No. 1056

14 November 2014


From the Archives of Marxism

“Freedom of the Individual”

By Peter Fryer

The article excerpted below elegantly refutes the slander that communism stifles individuality. Its author, Peter Fryer, was one of some 200 British Stalinists won to Trotskyism under the impact of the 1956 Hungarian uprising, a defeated proletarian political revolution against Stalinist misrule of that workers state. “Freedom of the Individual” originally appeared in the August-September 1958 issue of Labour Review, the journal of a British group led by one Gerry Healy. Although the Healyites later revealed themselves to be political bandits, at the time they were putting forward a seemingly orthodox Trotskyist program, attracting high-caliber Marxist thinkers, including Fryer for a brief time. (For more, see “Chronicler of Hungarian Revolution: Peter Fryer, 1927-2006,” WV No. 883, 5 January 2007.) The ellipses within quotations in the article are Fryer’s.

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‘We are not communists who want to destroy personal freedom and transform the world into one great barracks or one great sweat-shop. As a matter of fact there are communists who do not care for and want to suppress personal freedom, which in their opinion bars the way to harmony; but we do not want to buy equality at the expense of personal freedom’ (Frederick Engels, Kommunistische Zeitschrift, September 1847).

Capitalism and Human Nature

To liberals no freedom is higher and more precious than the freedom of the individual. Marxists wholeheartedly agree that it is the individual human being who achieves freedom, and not humanity in general. They agree that society as a whole cannot free itself unless every individual is freed. But they take issue with the use of the watchword of individual liberty in opposition to socialism and socialist planning. For they do not think there is any contradiction between the interests of the individual and the interests of a society whose fundamental aim is the satisfaction of people’s material and cultural needs and the enrichment of their lives. They take the view that only under communism will the individual human being be able to develop his potentialities and abilities to the utmost.

Under capitalism the great majority of people have neither leisure, money nor education to develop as all-round human beings. Nor are they encouraged so to foster their individuality. The capitalist system of production, the bourgeois educational system, the barrage of advertising and ready-made ‘culture’ to which the individual is subjected from the cradle to the grave, are not designed to fan into flame the sparks of talent and creative ability that are possessed by all but a tiny proportion of human beings. They are designed to make competent wage-slaves. Capitalist relations of production—the private ownership for private profit of the means of production—cannot bring to the individual wage-worker the freedom that comes through leading a full life, a life packed with many-sided activities and giving the fullest scope to every physical and mental aptitude. They block the way to a full life for the exploited.

Capitalism devastates human nature, dulls and extinguishes the senses, corrupts and brutalizes men as it sucks out profit from their work, rends men into fragments, into half-men, makes labour a burden instead of a joyful and indispensable part of life. It robs men of their heritage of happiness, beauty and knowledge. It takes the warmth and colour out of human relationships and measures every emotion, every delight and every virtue by the yardstick of gold and silver and bits of printed paper and entries in account books.[1]

The individual is not, and cannot be, free under capitalism because he cannot leap out of the world of the market, the world where everything moral and spiritual is bought and sold for cash. It is a world of universal venality, of cynical self-interest. Human labour power; works of art; knowledge; the very conscience and honour of men; truth itself:[2] all become commodities, measured in terms of their market value, accessible to those with money.

To the profiteer the object he is buying or selling, its meaning and importance to human beings, are in themselves of little or no importance compared with the object’s abstract expression in monetary terms. This barren outlook determines and taints every relationship, not only between man and object, but between man and man. Money becomes a fetish: the cash nexus becomes the only significant bond between people. The questions that matter about a fellow human being are not ‘Is he happy?’ or ‘Is he hungry?’ or ‘Is he a good man?’ but ‘Is he rich?’ and ‘Can we do business together?’ and ‘What advantage can I get out of him?’ Those who have this outlook cannot be said to enjoy life: what they enjoy are deals and transactions and money-making. ‘Life’ in bourgeois society means ‘making a living’.

Nor can the wage-worker remain wholly unaffected by this outlook. The very fact that he is forced to sell his labour power, that he must work for someone else in order to live, drains his labour of its sweetness, makes it a dreary burden instead of an essential and beneficial part of living. The life of the individual worker is chopped and divided: there is the part of his life that is not his own, but the boss’s, spent in the factory, where the boss is the aristocrat; and there are the looked-forward-to oases of leisure, the time that belongs to the worker himself....

‘Taylor, of Bethlehem Steel Works fame, has declared that in order to get pig iron loaded most efficiently it is necessary to get men as near like oxen as possible. But men do not grow so: they have to be made. An important part of scientific management is this scientific degradation of men.’[3] The individual is stunted, warped, chained for life to one particular calling, to one particular function, often to one particular tool. In capitalist society what matters is not man as such but particularized man, restricted and conditioned by his special skills: the division of labour is the division of the individual labourer himself.

And this means that men are subjected to their instruments of production, that instead of the producers using and controlling the means of production, the latter use and control the producers. Nor have men control over the disposal of the products which result from their labours; these products become independent forces which overpower their makers in booms and slumps according to the ‘blind’ laws of the market.

The means of production are utilized in such a way as to enslave men and atrophy their faculties. And the exchange of products for profit leads to the concentration of enormous wealth in the hands of a few and the impoverishment of the majority, to economic anarchy and periodical economic ‘blizzards’.

Thus men are not free to determine their own destiny. It is determined for them by forces over which they have no control. In the process men’s individuality is forfeited, is crushed. They lose their individuality because they are dependent on capital. ‘In bourgeois society capital is independent and has individuality, while the living person is dependent and has no individuality.’[4] ‘An economic individualism of motives and aims,’ echoes [American bourgeois philosopher John] Dewey, ‘underlies our present corporate mechanisms, and undoes the individual.[5]

Defenders of and apologists for the capitalist system of society have as little right to speak of the freedom of the individual as they have to speak of any other freedom. Under capitalism human individuality ‘becomes at once a commercial article and the fabric in which money operates’. Capitalism ‘estranges man from nature, from himself, his own active functioning... It is the alienation of man from man.’[6] Capitalism stifles men’s creative spirit, condemning the majority to a life of monotony, drudgery and ugliness—to life in a cage. It puts out the eyes of the painter and cuts out the tongue from the poet who is within each one of us. It butchers human nature on the altar of the machine and calls that progress....

The Decay of Liberalism

The liberal idea of individual liberty is a good example of an idea which is progressive when first put forward, but which begins to play a reactionary role when the circumstances which gave rise to it have changed.

Preoccupation with the individual and his rights began in the seventeenth century, with the rise of the bourgeoisie, whose existence and development as a class depended on the freedom of the individual capitalist to buy, and of the individual proletarian to sell, labour power. The rebellion of the rising bourgeoisie against the economic shackles of feudalism found its political, social and ideological expression in opposition to arbitrary political power, to arbitrary restraints on personal liberty, to the violation of human dignity and to clerical obscurantism. The fight was seen as a struggle between reason and unreason. The class which fashioned liberalism as its intellectual weapon conceived of individual freedom, not as freedom from all restraint, but as freedom under the law,[7] as freedom limited by certain eternal truths and values which were thought to be embodied in a natural law or natural rights derived from human nature. Both the atoms of which matter was composed and the social atoms of which society was composed were governed by rational laws which human reason could grasp and apply. But, as Marx observed, the natural ‘Rights of Man’, the rights belonging to individuals by virtue of their humanity, did not eliminate man the egoist, an individual withdrawn into his private interests, separated from the community. On the contrary, bourgeois society itself appeared in them as an external frame for individuals, as a limitation of their original independence; the only ties by which individuals were held together were natural necessity, material needs, private interests and the conservation of their property.[8]

As developed by the bourgeois intellectuals of the early nineteenth century, the liberal idea of individual freedom remained progressive in an age when the workers were totally deprived of their leisure, when women and children worked in the pits, when there was no legal limit to the working day. These intellectuals supported the struggle for leisure for the industrial workers, as a struggle for time in which people might be free to do, think and say what they liked—provided they were not thereby endangering capitalist society.[9] The liberal ideal could not, and did not, transcend (but rather reflected) the splitting of a man’s life into two parts: his working time, in which he was unfree, a wage-slave, and his leisure, in which he was for a few hours a day an individual shorn of responsibilities, answerable only to himself—an individual temporarily outside of society, and whose ‘freedom’ was enjoyed outside of society. [The 19th century British political economist] Mill, for example, wanted every worker ultimately to have the same leisure as his employer and therefore the same partial freedom from the necessities of social organization as he.

What happened to liberal ideology when capitalism approached its monopoly phase has been well summarized by Hallowell and Laski:

So long as the bourgeoisie remained economically, socially, and politically unsatiated they championed the substantial rights of man. As…monopoly capitalism replaced free enterprise…and as the bourgeoisie acquired a dominant social and political position, they tended to espouse formal equality and formal rights of citizens rather than substantial equality and substantial rights of man.[10]

The earlier liberals released the individual from a type of social organization which restricted his capacity for growth. But the assumption which underlay that release made it in fact valid only for men who were in a position to surmount the conditions of a fiercely competitive industrial society, that is, broadly, the owners of property. The liberty predominantly secured was their liberty; the others came in as residuary legatees of their triumph. And when the men of property had won, they conceived that the campaign was over.... What they did not see was that the new social order their liberalism had built brought with it new problems as intense as any they had solved.... Liberalism…had established a freedom in which, formally and legally, the workers were entitled to share. Actually, they could not, for the most part, share in it because its attainment was predominantly conditioned to the possession of property; and they had no property save in their labour power. When the victors were asked to extend the privileges their new freedom had brought them they were dismayed.[11]

In the period of monopoly capitalism it is precisely the separation of the interests of the individual from those of society, the counterposing of individual freedom to external social necessity and social responsibility, that becomes an ideological weapon for the defence of capitalism and for arousing opposition and hostility to socialism. The social discipline of social planning is held to destroy human personality, to take away the individual’s liberty to ‘live his own life’ and to think and choose for himself. This discipline is represented as being imposed on people against their will.

The liberal who today attacks socialism on these grounds is in fact surrendering all the values that liberalism once championed. He is turning his back on the warping of human individuality and human personality by monopoly capitalism. Whether he is aware of it or not, his claim to ‘freedom of the individual’ is at bottom the claim of the privileged, leisured and rich section of the population to the maintenance of their privileges, leisure and riches, based on ‘the liberty of private property as such, to be uncontrolled in its operations by aught else than the will of the individual possessing it’.[12] Since these privileges, leisure and riches are obtained and maintained for the bourgeoisie and for the intellectuals who serve them only by the exploitation of millions of their fellow human beings, what the modern liberal is really demanding is freedom for an élite....

The Individual and Socialism

The task of socialism is to lay the indispensable basis for the teeming abundance of necessities and what are today called luxuries that must be achieved before men may receive according to their needs. The social discipline of socialist planning alone can free men from the jungle of capitalism. Even with bureaucratic distortions [as in the Stalinist-ruled Soviet Union], socialist planning is able to achieve a great deal. With these distortions eliminated socialism will harness the creative energies of millions. Real socialism does not impose economic plans on people ‘from above’. The individual helps to draw up, administer and fulfil the plan; by so doing he not only helps to make everybody else’s life better, but also improves his own life. The individual cannot free himself from the capitalist swamp by his own unaided efforts, but only in active co-operation with millions of others. Together they are fired with the vision of a new life and a new society. Together they work to achieve them. To accomplish the socialist reconstruction of the world is not to mould the individual to the requirements of an abstract ‘society’. It is to reshape the social system to the requirements of the individuals who make it up. This implies planning. It implies discipline, endeavour, sacrifice, voluntarily undertaken. But this alone is the way to make men free from class exploitation and class oppression. ‘The outcome of socialism is...a human individualism as opposed to class individualism.’[13]...

The view that men who are hungry, or poor, or insecure, or exploited, or unemployed, or homeless, or oppressed, are not free, that freedom from these social evils is the foundation of human liberty, is to be found well before the advent of Marxism. It was held by Shelley:

What art thou, Freedom? Oh! could slaves
Answer from their living graves
This demand, tyrants would flee
Like a dream’s dim imagery:

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For the labourer thou art bread
And a comely table spread
From his daily labour come
In a neat and happy home.

Thou art clothes, and fire, and food
For the trampled multitude:
No—in countries that are free
Such starvation cannot be
As in England now we see.[14]

If by ‘England’ we mean also the British colonies in Africa and Asia, the argument summed up in these lines is wholly true today, when for hundreds of millions of Asians and Africans the problem of individual liberty is before everything else the problem of finding enough food to keep the individual alive another day. Moreover it is recognized by many of those concerned about the growth of revolutionary movements in what are called the ‘under-developed’ regions as by far the most difficult argument for imperialism to answer. An editorial in the Manchester Guardian, for example, came to the conclusion that the advocates of ‘Western freedom’ must address themselves, not to the masses of the people of Asia, but to the intellectual élite there, for only this enlightened minority could understand the meaning of the ‘freedom in ideas and freedom of debate’ that the West had to offer.

Offer a starving man liberty or a packet of sandwiches, it is said, and he will naturally choose sandwiches. But the classes to whom our appeal is addressed are not actually starving, though they may be commendably disturbed about how many of their countrymen are in this plight. The middle classes and intelligentsia of Free Asia can still be attracted by the ideals of liberty...[15]

But socialism does not make real liberty, liberty without quotation marks, stop at freedom from hunger. What it does do is expose the hypocrisy of capitalist ‘freedom’, which denies the fundamental freedoms to the colonial peoples, and hypocritically prates about ‘freedom in ideas and freedom of debate’ though it can no more permit free discussion and exchange of ideas in the colonies, when those ideas challenge imperialism, than it can adequately feed the millions it oppresses. Real socialism offers not merely material prosperity, but is also a powerful stimulus to intellectual ferment. Even with major bureaucratic distortions and defects, a workers’ State has taught tens of millions in the central Asian republics to read and write, so opening for them the gates to the world of ideas and culture. And, as even [British pseudo-socialist William Angus] Sinclair admits, ‘one reason for the appeal of communism to the Asiatic and the that it promises an industrialized culture with a higher standard of living to groups that have remained intact and continue to feel as groups; whereas at present the Western powers can only provide an industrialized culture which admittedly offers a higher standard of living, but in which a man feels an isolated and lost individual. Whatever else they give him it does not include what is essential for his happiness.’[16]

Cherishing and fostering individual ability, socialism will elevate the individual to a position of far greater real importance and give him far greater social responsibility than capitalism can ever do. To run society in a conscious, planned way cannot but call forth the utmost personal initiative, imagination, enterprise, zeal and creative ability from each individual. Liberty to choose where and how one can best take part in the general social activity, to discuss that activity both in its general aspects and its local details, to have one’s own suggestions and criticisms discussed, means that the individual is no longer an insignificant cog in a vast, impersonal, exploiting machine, but a vital and conscious part of a great collective endeavour whose central aim is the improvement, elevation and ennoblement of human life.

Now while this is already a tremendous advance on the stifling of personal initiative and creativeness by capitalism, it does not yet solve the problem of the splitting and stunting of the individual. This problem is solved only in the course of a long transition to communist society.

The individual becomes free in the full sense of the word only when he is able to take out of society’s store exactly what he needs to develop all his capacities to the full; when dull and arduous work is abolished and a new attitude to work as a joyful and indispensable part of life has grown up; when the distinctions between intellectual and manual labour no longer exist and all workers are raised to the level of engineers, technicians, scientists and artists; when the hours of socially necessary labour have been shortened to something like four hours a day or less, enabling the individual to ‘work’, play, study and take a full part in running society. Of all these requisites, none is more important than the shortening of the hours of labour, the ‘fundamental premise’, as Marx observed, for the flourishing of ‘the true realm of freedom’.[17] The individual becomes really free, in fact, only when men have achieved complete conscious social control over their entire economic development—complete control over the utilization of their means of production and the disposal of their social product. This establishes truly human conditions of existence, in which ‘the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all’.[18]

1. In his Adult Interests (New York, 1935) Dr Edward L. Thorndike gave the cash payments which men and women would take to do certain normally repugnant things. He claimed to find that the average woman would practise cannibalism for 750,000 dollars, but the average man would do so for 50,000. The women tested would renounce hope of life after death for 10 dollars, but the men wanted 1,000. The men would become intoxicated for 25 dollars, but the women demanded 98. Other ‘money equivalents’ were given for blindness, temporary insanity, eating beetles and earthworms, choking a stray cat to death, cutting a pig’s throat and spitting on a crucifix and on pictures of Charles Darwin, George Washington and one’s mother. Dr Thorndike has been described as ‘the Nestor of American psychologists’. Back

2. ‘The best test of truth,’ according to Mr Justice Holmes’s epigram, ‘is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market’ (Dissenting opinion in Abrams v. U.S., 250 U.S. 616 (1919)). Back

3. [R. M.] Fox, [The Triumphant Machine: A Study of Machine Civilization (1928),] p. 5. Back

4. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Selected Works, vol. i (1950), p. 46. Back

5. [John] Dewey, [Individualism Old and New (1931),] p. 57. Back

6. Marx, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, quoted Modern Quarterly, vol. v, no. 1, p. 14, Winter 1949-50. Back

7. ‘Freedom,’ wrote Voltaire, ‘exists in being independent of everything but law’ (Pensées sur l’administration publique). Back

8. See D. Rjazanov, ed., Marx-Engels Gesamtausgabe, part i, vol. i, I (Frankfurt, 1927), p. 595. Back

9. ‘No one pretends,’ wrote John Stuart Mill, ‘that actions should be as free as opinions. On the contrary, even opinions lose their immunity when the circumstances in which they are expressed are such as to constitute their expression a positive instigation to some mischievous act. An opinion that corn-dealers are starvers of the poor, or that private property is robbery, ought to be unmolested when simply circulated through the Press, but may justly incur punishment when delivered orally to an excited mob assembled before the house of a corn-dealer, or when handed about among the same mob in the form of a placard’ (On Liberty (Everyman edition, Utilitarianism; Liberty; Representative Government, 1954), p. 114). Back

10. John H. Hallowell, The Decline of Liberalism as an Ideology With Particular Reference to German Politico-Legal Thought (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1943), p. 14. Back

11. J. Laski, The Decline of Liberalism (1940), pp. 13-14. Back

12. E. Belfort Bax and J. Hiam Levy, Socialism and Individualism (n.d. [1904]), p. 10. Back

13. Bax and Levy, op. cit. p. 28. Back

14. The Masque of Anarchy. Back

15. Manchester Guardian, January 10, 1956. Back

16. Sinclair, [Socialism and the Individual: Notes on Joining the Labour Party (1955)], pp. 146-7. Back

17. Capital, vol. iii (Calcutta, 1946), p. 652. Back

18. Marx and Engels, Selected Works, vol. i, p. 51. Back