The Ethics of Marxism pt.5 Necessity and Freedom

The bourgeois prejudice sees Marxism as a philosophy of iron necessitarianism; hence as a negation of freedom. The bourgeois prejudice prizes freedom and holds it to be among the rarest blooms of civilization. Asked to define freedom it may feel that such technical matters can be taken care of by the pundits and philosophers. From its own empirical standpoint, freedom is not so much something to be abstractly defined but concretely enjoyed.

Freedom and Society

The bourgeois prejudice, while it may talk of the need of social organisation, sees it nevertheless as a restraint upon the freedom of the individual, i.e., the bourgeois individual. Not being a Marxist the bourgeois individual fails to comprehend that the very social organisation which he regards as a restriction of free activity is the sole source of the freedom he possesses.

“Man is not born free” even though Rousseau has told him so. Freedom is something which men acquire and they only acquire it in and through there human organisation—society. Such freedom may not be absolute freedom—whatever philosophers mean by that—but within the context of human organisation it has inexhaustible possibilities for further development. For man there is no other freedom but through society—but it is enough.

If freedom means—and this is the only valid meaning once can give to freedom—the ability to bring about the ends man desires, what as distinct from the animal world enables them to effect this? The answer lies in their economic production. An economic production, quantitatively and qualitatively different from any animal economy. It is not the case that man is merely a productive animal among other productive animals, but that his production is social production, i.e., his labour has always involved cooperation with others of his kind.

Human labour is the fundamental condition for human existence. As Marx has it, it is: —

    “A process going on between man and nature, a process in which man through his own activities, initiates, regulates and controls the material reaction between himself and nature. He confronts nature as one of her own forces, setting in motion arms and legs, heads and hands, the natural forces of the body, in order to appropriate nature’s production in a form adapted to his own wants. By thus acting on the external world and changing it, he at the same time changes his own nature. He develops the powers that slumber within him, and subjects them to his own control.”

It is not merely that man’s labour is collective labour, but a special co-ordinated labour carried out in cooperation with others of his kind. It is an activity both premeditated and planned. Thus man is able to produce his own conditions of life, and so produce his own history. Man, then, is different from other animals because he produces differently.

It was through this collective and coordinated labour process that speech—the practical form of human consciousness—developed as a means of communication in answer to the growing complexities of economic production. It was through this process of social labour that there came into being the rules of social organisation—ethics. Just as it was the need of greater manipulation of the material environment, in order to achieve greater advances in social organisation and production that science became an essential department of human activity. It is then through his economic production that man has been able to extend his inherited social knowledge, widen his social horizon, and produce the facilities for so doing. Herein lies man’s freedom. The price of freedom has not been “unceasing vigilance” but unceasing economic production.

It is through his economic production that man has come to understand the nature of causality, i.e., in order to bring about certain consequences, he must know the conditions necessary for their successful fulfilment. Hence it is only by his greater understanding of the interconnection of processes and the laws which regulate them that he is able to more freely bring about the ends he desires. Causality is the consciousness of necessity, and the greater his grasp of the nature of necessity the greater is man’s freedom to act in a planned and purposeful way. Had man been a creature passively reacting to his external environment he could never have grasped the nature of causality—necessity—nor freedom. Freedom is not as the bourgeois prejudice see it, the progressive realisation of an abstract idea but the progressive development of the means of life and socialisation of production.

The Bourgeois Prejudice and Freedom

But how does the bourgeois prejudice understand freedom? Through a knowledge of necessity? The answer is no. While the bourgeois prejudice may admit that the operation of the forces of production is subject to law and organisation, it confines it to the mere technological level. The bourgeois prejudice fails to see that the bourgeois economy is subject to laws and a determinative organisation. And that right across its version of freedom, necessity is writ large. Its philosophers and pundits may discuss the nature of freedom till the cows come home, but they never seriously attempt to locate the source from which bourgeois freedom, in fact all freedom stems—society. They may talk about the need of human values, but never see that bourgeois freedom is a class-conditioned freedom which falls far short of a truly human freedom. This is because its own social organisation is rooted in the class ownership of the productive forces and it is this which determines the level of existence both quantitatively and qualitatively for the vast mass of non-owners.

The crux of bourgeois freedom is its power to exploit and secure the unpaid labour by its ownership of the agencies of production. From this freedom all other freedom flow.

Bourgeois freedom exists in a system subject to laws and compulsions. Its own class conditioned character makes it necessary to produce not for the purpose of satisfying human needs but for securing the production and reproduction of surplus value on an over-expanding scale. This is the basic law of present production, the overriding necessity which must be obeyed if bourgeois freedom and privilege is to continue. Thus the class character of freedom means the freedom of the few and the unfreedom of the many.

The Limits of Bourgeois Freedom

But is the bourgeois himself really free? The answer is that he cannot be, because he himself lives in an unfree world. He cannot escape the consequences of the social set up which gives him his freedom. What is more, as the present order moves on, his own freedom becomes more restricted. More and more he is controlled by the world market, more and more does the need of ever-greater capital accumulation become more urgent. And across his world ever lies the shadow of future slumps, future war, and universal slaughter. Thus in a world of class antagonism, national and racial hatreds, “freedom” is forced to seek strange bed fellows. No doubt the bourgeois individual would like freedom from these things. But because he is unaware of the nature of the necessity from which his freedom stems he does not know where such freedom may be found. He thus, remains imprisoned in his narrow cell of class liberty.

The very necessity of the social system which produces the class freedom for the few produces at the same time the class unfreedom of the many. But the iron compulsion of capitalism which give freedom of a sort to the bourgeois deny access to a fuller life for the proletariat. Men, because they are men and not automatons, will chafe against the restrictions which prevent a fuller and freer life. And it is in their struggle and desire for a free and fuller life that the vast majority discover bourgeois freedom and a truly human freedom to be irreconcilable. But this will mean the abolition of private property institutions and free access by all to the productive forces. A social state of affairs in which man is no longer a mere unit carrying out the orders of others, but where each one has an equal role in furthering the common aim which he himself takes part in forming. But it is not enough for the many to desire freedom. They will have to grasp the nature of necessity wherein their unfreedom lies. Not to know this means that their desire for freedom will remain unfulfilled.

Marxism a Denial of Fatalism

Contrary to the bourgeois notion of freedom which sees it as personal liberty inhibited by social structures, the Marxist sees freedom as a choice based upon an objective appraisal of the data of a given situation. Only when events and processes are not known are we subject to iron determinism. Where knowledge of these matters is available then and only then are we free to follow a course of action dependent on the relevant information. To successfully carry out what one can do one must also know what one cannot do. It is when we know what is necessary that our purpose becomes effective and that is freedom. Not to know what is necessary in a given situation is unfreedom. When we think correctly we act correctly and only to that extent is man free. Thus in a scientific experiment or a surgical operation one cannot choose willy-nilly what to do. There are things that must be done and must not be done. In fact, if both are to be successful they must be governed by the objective facts of the situation. It is only by strictly conforming to what is necessary to be done can the aim and purpose in either case become effective. The more ignorant one is of the nature of causality, i.e., the necessity, the more important and determined one is. Effective action means then that we must have knowledge of the laws which operate in a given plane of reference. This does not mean we are independent of the determining circumstances out of which ideas and action arise, but it does mean that unless we understand the objective pattern of what is determined our thought and action will be non-effective.

The bourgeois prejudice does at times liken freedom to the jungle. Everybody does what is best for himself, although the bourgeois economy has government, bureaucracy and the armed forces to see that the jungle does not get out of hand. But the inhabitants of the jungle are not free. They know nothing of causality—necessity—and hence nothing of freedom. They cannot mutually cooperate and reap the advantages of a division of labour. They can only instinctively conform to the law of the jungle if they are to survive.

Only men can be free, And only the class which is now unfree can establish a freedom which is truly human — even though bourgeois individuals may come to associate themselves with the aims of the working class. But this unfree class must free itself from the ideology of bourgeois freedom and see the necessity of establishing a classless society and with it a classless freedom.

Man the measure of all things

Marxism does not believe in absolute free will or absolute determinism. Free will versus determinism is a bourgeois metaphysic it can dispense with. Neither does it hold to some simple, cause-effect relation. It sees nature—men’s needs—society as a process of causal interaction. Along with Marx and Engels they hold the view that man is the responsible agent in all social change. It is man that wills even though he is born into a situation which is unwilled by him. But he must be informed of the objective milieu in which he finds himself. Only then can he act effectively on events and by changing them, change himself.

Men are not mere creatures of determinism, economic or otherwise. Because the only permanent thing about morality is man’s demand for the better which itself is redetermined according to time and place. Man—and here we refer to unfree “class man” in the given social context—will always make fresh demands in the world and upon himself and thus produce the conditions necessary for his human needs. Men and ideas as we have said are the sole instrument for initiating social change. For any change to be effective, however, relevant knowledge of events is indispensable. The “must” and the “ought”—necessity and freedom—do not exist in a polarised anatagonism, but are indissoluble aspects of social reality. The charge against Marxism, posed by its critics, of fatalism and termed by them the “inevitability dilemma” thus falls to the ground.

Both in belief and action Marxism is a humanism. And it is the Marxist who seeks a world where truly human values prevail. Marxism sees man as a product of a social complex and at the same time as the producer of a more conscious society. This is the heart and essence of the Marxist ethic. In religious fantasy God made man the centre of the universe. In material fact capitalism has alienated him from it. Marxism shows how in a truly human sense man can yet become that.

We would remind Mr. Taylor, the author of the pamphlet Is Marxism a Humanism? that Marxism is not merely a method of expounding humanism. but a way of achieving it. As such it challenges more than favourable comparison with any other set of contemporary values.

Ted Wilmott

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