What is Freedom?

In exchange for the Socialist Standard we receive from a library in East Berlin the GDR Review. This glossy, well produced journal covers a wide range of subjects, from politics, current affairs and economics to art, sport and various aspects of life in the German Democratic Republic—East Germany.


The December 1988 editorial was headed “What we mean by Freedom”. We quote:


Everyone would like to be able to say they are free. Without freedom, life itself loses its value and meaning . . . Freedom cannot be won by an individual living in a vacuum . . . Being free does not mean doing only what you want to do, but rather wanting to do what has to be done. As Friedrich Engels put it: “Freedom is also the ability to make a knowledgeable decision.” This requires that people be active, that they make use of the educational opportunities presented to them and that they work conscientiously for the wellbeing of society as a whole.


So far we could agree, but we soon come to a parting the ways:


Of course, freedom is always connected with what I can afford, both in intellectual and material terms. Some people tend to compare the “material” aspects with developed capitalist countries, and then use this as the sole measure of individual freedom. But when there are 16 million unemployed people in the leading EEC countries alone, we just have to ask: freedom for whom? What sort of freedom is it when you are not even guaranteed the right to provide for yourself and your family? The conclusion is obvious, namely that it is freedom at the expense of others. This however, is not the freedom we mean.


The kernel of our disagreement is in the statement “freedom . . . and material terms”. It is an admission that, even if they call it socialism, East Germany operates state capitalism and there can be no freedom for workers under capitalism. The “freedom” enjoyed in East Germany is to go to work for wages, rather than the 16 million in the EEC who are “free” to apply to their governing bodies for “free” payments, often not sufficient to satisfy even the most basic needs of food, clothing and shelter. On the other hand, in Western Europe that worker (with or without work) is, more often than not, free to complain about his lot and criticise capitalists, politicians and the system, a freedom denied to his opposite number of the GDR.


When Engels wrote, he referred to freedom in co-operative socialist society where the wage labour/capital relationship between employee and employer has disappeared, and not attempted equation between (relative) freedom from want versus (relative) freedom of expression under state or private enterprise capitalism.


Eva Goodman