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Chapter 3: The Real Guarantee of Freedom

One of the unconscious mistakes of Socialists was to imagine that there is a beatific end, or any end at all, to human history. In the Utopians this was excusable, for they were naively setting out to build an earthly paradise for man, and the idea could hardly occur to them that, once it was built, there was anything to do but live in it. When Marx breezed in, however, with his great brag of being realistic and hard-headed, telling us that ideals were unnecessary, the material universe is going “upward” eternally and the next stage after capitalism is bound to be socialism, it does seem odd that nobody asked: What comes after that?

Hegel has been smiled at for bringing the grand march of the Divine Idea in history to a sort of destination in the “practical and political condition existing in Prussia in 1821.” Marx never joined in this smile. Marx scoffed at the Divine Idea, but took the grand march in history with monumental seriousness. The absurdity of stopping a locomotive universe at the precise point where his revolutionary ideals were realized never occurred to him. Wishful thinking is too instinctive, especially among German philosophers, and Marx was too arrogantly adept at it. But if we are going to be seriously realistic, we’ll have to make clear to ourselves that there is no end to the human journey. In our millennium well have to be content if things are “going well,” and not ask them to exist fixedly, as heaven does, in a state of perfection.

Another mistake of the Socialists was to imagine that there might be brotherly peace in a free society—a settlement, that is, of all head-on conflicts of interest, all caste and class struggles. That might happen in heaven, but on earth men will always divide into groups with conflicting interests. As civilization advances they will divide into more groups perhaps, but not less keenly opposed. The task of the social idealist is not to suppress these groupings, or try to reconcile them, but to keep them in a state of equilibrium—never to let any one get out of hand. Our liberties depend upon the success of this effort. Only where every powerful group needs freedom for itself in order to compete with others can society as a whole be free. Freedom is the name of the arena in which various social forces contend.

Libertarians used to tell us that “the love of freedom is the strongest of political motives,” but recent events have taught us the extravagance of this opinion. The “herd-instinct” and the yearning for paternal authority are often as strong. Indeed the tendency of men to gang up under a leader and submit to his will is of all political traits the best attested by history. It has been so shockingly exemplified in modern times that only a somnambulist could ignore it in trying to build, or defend, a free society. His first concern should be to make sure that no one gang or group—neither the proletariat, nor the capitalists, nor the landowners, nor the bankers, nor the army, nor the church, nor the government itself—shall have exclusive power.

This truth was apprehended by Plato and Aristotle, who preferred a “mixed constitution” in which a monarch, an aristocracy, and a popular assembly divide the power. For modern times it was formulated by the Italian, Gaetano Mosca, whose concept of an equilibrium of social forces seems actually to define the sole basis on which freedom can flourish.1 Marx, of course, was untouched by such ideas. Marx was not a scientist thinking out the forms of a new society in which men might be happy, but a prophet announcing a millennium to follow the day of doom for the kingdoms of this world.

In sane good sense we radicals should have been thankful that, when the bourgeoisie displaced the feudal lords, a new class of proletarians was born, capable of sufficient organization to stand permanently against the bourgeoisie. We should count it a great folly in the advocates of proletarian revolution that they had in mind no other group, which, in the post-revolutionary society, might perform this indispensable function. “Permanent Class Struggle” would have been a wiser slogan than “Conquest of Power by the Working Class.” For the idea that the victory of any one social force, whether you call it class, or vanguard of a class, or party, or executive committee, or politburo, or what you call it, could produce a “society of the free and equal,” is the most fatal of Marxism’s political mistakes. “Permanent Class Struggle” has, in fact, been the motto, or tacit assumption, of the American worker. And the American worker is far more sophisticated than the European, if only because he was too lazy to do his homework on Das Kapital. His mind is clear of a whole tangle of antique, animistic, and disproven notions.

“Permanent Class Struggle” was also the program Trotsky proposed to his followers in case the proletariat should not rise in victorious revolution at the end of World War Two. In a startling pronouncement, which his followers have been careful not to remember, Trotsky said:

If [at the conclusion of this war] the world proletariat should actually prove incapable of fulfilling the mission placed upon it by the course of development, nothing would remain except openly to recognize that the socialist program based on the internal contradictions of capitalist society ended as a utopia. It is self-evident that a new minimum program would be required—for the defense of the slaves of the totalitarian bureaucratic society.2

For me there is a sorrowful irony in the fact that Trotsky, with whom I fought daylong over this question of Marxism versus experimental science, should have to confess from the grave that his beloved doctrine has been proven false by an experiment, and one that he himself had decided was crucial. The date he set for a showdown is ten years past, and the proletariat has dismally failed to fulfill its “mission.” He believed, to be sure, that political democracy as well as socialism was doomed by this failure, but he could hardly postpone his “minimum program” until its doom was accomplished. His must needs have launched before now that struggle of permanent loyalty to the underprivileged, which was all he had left.

He would have to humble his mind still more than that, however, if he wished to pursue in a world undistorted by Marxian superstition the ideal of a free society. He would have to recognize that other basic conflicts of interest, not just that between capital and labor, must be regarded as permanent. He would have to abandon that identification of self with the working class—a sentimental pretense not hard for an honest mind to abandon—and recognize that the champion of freedom stands somewhat apart from all social conflicts. His duty to plunge in on one side or the other is conditioned by time and circumstance. The sole fixed aim is to maintain an equilibrium—never to let any one force gain overwhelming power.

This will apply as much to the trade-union bureaucracy—and conceivably even to the trade-unions themselves—as to the bosses of industry and money. No man with his eyes open can fail to see that in the United States the power of the captains of organized labor is growing to a point where it should be regarded as a potential threat to freedom. Even the once-individualistic farmers have organized a pressure group that may have to be leashed, or balanced off, in the cause of a free republic.

It is an old question how much the course of history can be influenced by thoughts in the minds of men. Certainly it can be influenced in behalf of freedom only if thinking men learn to shift their attack from one threatening concentration of power to another. They will have to learn to change their aims—and what is more difficult, their allies—as the conditions change.

Though this will be hard for Marxists to learn, it is only a complete growing to maturity of that “flexibility” which was so prized by Lenin, and so brilliantly exemplified by him. Lenin called his rare gift “dialectic thinking,” and imagined that it flowed from a belief that the material world is evolving toward his ideals in a zigzag fashion. Each thing turns someday into its opposite, the two are reconciled someday in a “higher unity,” which again someday turns into its opposite, and so on forever—or at least until the believer gets where he wants to go. This supra-logical contraption is needful only to a man who has read his purpose into the evolution of the external world. He is tied by that act to the objective process unless he conceives the world as going forward by a series of intrinsically unpredictable sideways jumps. In short, the notion of dialectic enables the believer to escape in practical action from the rigidity that his theoretical faith imposes. That is its sole value to Marxists. Lenin was more accurate than he knew when he cried: “Flexibility of conception, flexibility to the point of the identity of opposites—that is the essence of the dialectic.”3

To a mind aware that history is not an escalator, and that no one knows where the objective facts are leading, flexibility is inculcated by the mere fact of change. It requires no metaphysical hocus-pocus to justify it. And it is attainable to a degree that Lenin, with his fixed faith in a millennium to be reached by “resolving the contradictions in capitalism,” never imagined. I can see no course open to the disillusioned Marxist who remains loyal to his original ideals but to attain that genuinely scientific flexibility.

He will have to make one further reduction in his Marxian pride, however. He will have to recognize that in the dream world in which they conducted their famous sparring match, the anarchists had as important a piece of wisdom in their keeping as the Marxists had. For one of the social forces which must be held in leash if the libertarian equilibrium is to be maintained is the political government. The anarchist idea that the state is the sole enemy, and that once the state is overthrown men will live instinctively in cooperative freedom, was childish indeed. It was a good deal more simply and lucidly childish than the imposing intellectual structure with which Marx tried to read his youthful passions into history. But when the balance is struck it will be found that Bakunin’s criticism of the Marxists, and that of the less famous Russian Machaisky, were as valid as Marxism.

The state occupies a special position in society because it has a monopoly of armed force, but that only makes it more vital that it should not be sacrosanct. Not only must the power of the government be limited by law if the citizens are to be free—that too was known to Plato and Aristotle—but it must be limited by other powers. It must be regarded as but one of those social forces upon whose equilibrium a free society depends. When the state overgrows itself, the attitude of the anarchists becomes, within sensible limits, relevant and right; just as when the bankers swell up and presume to run a country, the attitude of the Marxists, barring their claim to universal truth, is right.

The last forty years of American history provide an excellent example of the manner in which developing facts demand flexibility in the fighter for freedom. During twenty of those years the fight was against something which may, for purposes of convenience, be called “Wall Street” or “Big Business.” Nobody who engaged in the struggle to unionize the steel workers, or in the strike against the Rockefeller interests centering in Trinidad, Colorado, or who backed the Industrial Relations Commission of 1913–15, or the congressional investigation that called old J. P. Morgan on the carpet, need feel that his efforts were wasted. They were directed against the main enemy of freedom. But that enemy has been defeated and the battle won. Around 1930 the United States government began telling the financiers and captains of industry, instead of asking them, what to do.

I was informed by one of the biggest of these captains that the change occurred in the presidency of Herbert Hoover. He related to me how, at the beginning of the crisis of 1929, Hoover summoned to the White House the heads of fifteen or sixteen dominant industrial and financial institutions, and while they sat listening respectfully, told them that in spite of the break in the stock market, which would indicate a contrary policy, he wanted them to continue their expenditures for expansion and increased business. To use my informant’s words as well as I can remember them: “We filed out obediently and went home and did what he told us to. And that night I made a note among my private papers, ‘This day marked a turning point in the history of the United States.’”

The changing power-relations indicated in that meeting were carried to completion in the ensuing twenty years. The labor unions, or their officialdom at least, rose to the position of a major social force. In alliance with, them the government took over the power from “Wall Street” or “Big Business” or the “Economic Royalists.”

Stuart Chase, a pretty sharp-eyed referee in these battles, announced the victory in 1942. “Big Business,” he said, which “dominated the official government, both federal and local, in the 1920’s,” has, since the depression “retired to the sidelines, and in some cases to the doghouse.” The talk about “voracious bankers, outrageous profits, Sixty Families, greedy imperialists, wicked tycoons [is] on the futile side, if not approaching pure nonsense.” The class struggle doctrine has been twisted by “the march of history” into “a hopeless wreckage.”4

These lines, besides describing the facts with not too much exaggeration, expressed a general conviction among what Chase calls “socialist liberals.” But neither he nor they realized what this meant, or should mean, to those interested in a free society. Instead of seeing and defining the new menace of overgrown power, ensconced now in Washington, not Wall Street, they went right on fighting the defeated enemy and boosting the victorious power.

“The American community must submit to government and discipline if it is going to survive,” Chase said. “There is no path to the nineteenth century and the old frontier.” In war and peace we must have a “strong government,” “a strong executive arm.” “As a people we had better start tomorrow morning identifying the federal government at Washington with ourselves . . .”

This disaster need never have happened, had there been a general understanding of the conditions of freedom. The best of the “socialist liberals” are leading us in the direction of the slave state only because they have the idea of a fixed destination, and don’t know where else to find it. Nothing is fixed; there is no destination. The task is to keep pace with history. The ideal is not peace but balanced conflict. Detached idealists of freedom should regard themselves as a mobile force in defense of the social equilibrium. Their aim at all times should be to prevent the domination of society by any one organized idea or power.

  • 1. His book in the English translation is entitled, unfortunately, I think, The Ruling Class. It should be the Political or Governing Class.
  • 2. The New International, November 1939.
  • 3. “Thoughts on the Dialectic While Reading Hegel,” Leninsky Sbornik V, IX, p. 71.
  • 4. My quotations from Chase are from an article in The Progressive for October 12, 1952, “The Hour Gets Later and Later,” and from “The War of Words,” published almost simultaneously in Common Sense.
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