That Blessed Word “Freedom.”
“But any man that walks the mead,
In bud or bloom or flower may find,
According as his humours I ad,
A meaning suited to his mind “
Thus sung Tennyson; but the sage, in his more dogmatic and definite way, said bluntly that “all things are relative.” And this profound truth is also illustrated in the various meanings given by different people to some of the commonest words.
Examine that blessed word “freedom,” for instance, and it is at once plain that its meaning depends solely upon the point of view. Dismissing for the moment the philosophical content of the word —which itself is an everlasting bone of contention — and noticing only the commonest meanings, what an infinite variety there is! To no two men does that word call up the same mental picture. To nearly every individual it means no more nor less in reality than some different interference with the freedom of others to his advantage.
Throughout historical times, indeed, the freedom of the few has been the concomitant of the slavery of the many, while the idea of freedom is itself merely the inevitable reflex of the existence of slavery in some form. The very idea of freedom, therefore, is surely doomed to fade into nothingness with the disappearance of slavery from the face of the earth.
That day, however, is not yet; and at the present time, though we wonder at the reckless use of the word in situations where the content of freedom is lamentably lacking, it is perhaps just possible that the whole matter would look right to us if we could only attain to a suitable angle of vision. Therein nevertheless, one common application of the word freedom which has been tried from many view-points and studied at many different angles of vision short of deliberate squint, without being made to come right. Since the reader may think that perhaps he will be more successful, the trouble may be briefly explained.
In the ‘Daily Chronicle” of June 1st a “special correspondent,” seeking the cause of the deadlock on the western front in the European war, makes the following remarks :
“Are we, therefore, ourselves inferior ? From a moral point of view we may at once state that we are superior. Tho Frenchman is still full of ardour, and the Englishman has on his side the superiority of the man who goes voluntarily to fight—the man who has not to he forced.”
There is, of course, nothing surprising to us in the above statement. After many months of war literature it would surprise us much more not to find that sort of thing in our daily paper. We have, in fact, been innured to such sentiments from our orange box days. Even the poet Dryden told us that “Freedom, which in no other laud will thrive,
Freedom, an English subject’s sole prerogative.”
And we have, moreover, been exorted so frequently of late to “fight for freedom with the strength of free men” that we no longer stop to wonder what freedom is meant, or whose it is that is to he fought for.
No. The trouble is simply that in another column of the same issue o( the paper that tells of the moral superiority of the Briton who “has not to be forced,” there occurs the declaration of Mr. Aubrey Llewellyn Coventry Fell, chief officer of the L. C. C. tramways, refusing a livelihood to those men of military ago and fitness employed by him up to the time of the late strike. This is followed by a Tramway Department official’s statement that
“It is no use saying that this is a form of conscription : it is merely the application of the decision of the highway committee of last September barring the appointment of all fit men of military age.”
It is quite obvious that this is not a form of conscription. It is simply an application of the decision of the master class to persuade their wage slaves into joining the fight with the moral superiority of men who have not been forced. This is quite clear. But it only makes it all the more difficult, to say the least about it, to locate this freedom that is so much in the air of late. It has not as yet become visible to tho anxious eyes of the workers, and many pairs of spectacles are likely to be worn out in the quest for it. Perhaps some ex-tramwaymen who have evaded the necessity to voluntarily go to the fight may be able to assist.
That the action of the L.C.C. is by no means isolated is common knowledge On many sides similar action is openly boasted about. In “Country Life” of June 5th the writer of the motor notes says regarding those two big organisations known as the Royal Automobile Club and the Automobile Association, that
“In view of the correspondence which has reached us, we have communicated both with the Club and the Association, and in each case we are glad to nay that we have received a categorical statement to the effect that no road guides or scouts are now employed who are eligible for enlistment. The steps taken by the two organisations are practically identical. Iu each case every man employed upon the road was in the early days of the war required to produce evidence of his unfitness for military service, either through age or physical defect, and was warned that, failing the production of this evidence he would not be retained in his employment. . . .
“In the case of the R.A.C. the result is that over 60 per cent. are now serving their country in one form or another.”
So much for the evidence.
Now, the only clue in the above which appears to help us to got this elusive brand of freedom into the right angle of vision, or even into sight at all, is the fact that this forced voluntary service applies only to the working class. The members of the capitalist class, since their livelihood is not in the control of an employer; escape all such pressure. But even that does not help much in our search, because those drawn from this class, although it is entirely their fight, form only a very small proportion of the armies of the Empire.
Conscription, indeed, might take no greater number of the workers, but it should certainly take a much larger toll of the shirkers in the capitalist class ; therefore tho freedom of the latter, who have, nevertheless, everything to gain by the struggle, is manifest. Yet must our quest be abandoned, for to get from this small proportion of the fighting forces, because it has gone voluntarily, an angle of vision from which to see the whole of these forces covered with a mantle of superiority on that account alone, must surely require a squint of such violence as to out-squint the most introspective fakir that ever tortured himself in that way.