T. H. Wintringham

Who is for Liberty?

Source: Left Review, Vol. 1, No. 12, September 1935, pp. 482-487
Transcription: Phyll Smith
HTML Markup: Brian Reid
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2008). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

Before we can get further ahead in Britain we must come to terms about the idea of freedom.

We? I do not mean only the LEFT REVIEW, the movement towards unity of those who want to defend culture and literature against war and Fascism. Nor do I mean only the revolutionary movement and the “united front” organizations containing many who are not revolutionaries in aim. I mean that all those who want peace, who hate oppression and exploitation, have got to find common ground as to what we mean by freedom. It is not necessary that we agree with each other completely; it is necessary that we understand each other. Then we shall be able to work together—not temporarily, reluctantly, on a single question here and there, but continuously and effectively—and we know now, from the example of our friends in France, that it is possible, when this unity is achieved, at least to check, repel, press back the forces that make for Fascism and a new world war.

In LEFT REVIEW we can tackle part of this question: that of freedom for the artist, the writer. If we get any distance towards agreement and understanding on this sort of freedom, the wider problem will be partly solved. What is this freedom? Does it exist now? How can it be extended? Must it be sacrificed, in the struggle to end a rotten society and build socialism or can it be a positive helpful factor in that struggle? These questions, in one form or another, have been shouting at us out of the pages of the LEFT REVIEW during the whole of this first experimental year. Witness these four among many possible quotations

The art which has “roots in the masses” must be free to tell the truth and to criticize life—STEPHEN SPENDER in LEFT REVIEW NO. 5

We must . . . maintain the integrity of (a) the true function of the artist, and (b) the development of life towards freedom.—RANDALL SWINGLER in LEFT REVIEW, No. 3.

I dream of freedom because I come from the petty-bourgeoisie, the great freedom-loving class, and partly because I come from China where freedom to-day is as common as water in a desert.—SHELLEY WANG, in LEFT REVIEW, No. 5

The truly free artist should be above all limiting mental systems whether of politics philosophy or religion presenting human nature truthfully.—PHYLLIS BENTLEY, in this issue of LEFT REVIEW.

We cannot even try to solve this question in the framework given us by these quotations. Here are four very different writers raising the question of freedom simply and directly it comes up indirectly from arguments stories, poems in other issues of our REVIEW and in other periodicals Yet this “cannot to-day be a simple ideological and literary question” as Andre Chamson said at the Paris Writers Congress it “is bound up with the very life blood of men.” We cannot usefully start on this question from the writer’s study: we have to start from that world arena on which the enemies of Fascism are gathering to hem it in. We can learn first from the French.

“We claim as our own, for the working class, the revolutionary heritage of the Jacobins, of our revolution, and of the Paris Commune. We do not hand over to the enemy the tricolour flag and the Marseillaise.” These words, applauded at the World Congress of the Communist International last month, are those of Marcel Thorez, leader of the Communist Party of France. There are echoes in these words of 1789—“Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” becomes no longer a ridiculous phrase only engraved over the doors of bourgeois police-stations and of Republican prisons—and there are echoes of 1917, when Lenin wrote of the “great, ineradicable, unforgettable things that were achieved by the Jacobins.”1 The “People’s Front” in France, this marching, striking force that has repulsed Fascism, has forced a bankers’ government to seek world peace, has united workers, peasants, writers and professors—this force is capturing from its enemies the flag and the song that are symbols of the fighting “heritage” it is taking as its own. That “heritage” includes the struggle for liberty.

The Paris Congress of Writers, to which we gave more than half of the last issue of the LEFT REVIEW made it clear that the “heritage” won back is not only political, it is social and cultural. Not only the Jacobins, but Balzac and Zola, the realist novelists, even Hugo the romantic poet, with Anatole France, scholar, sceptic, lover of the past—these men and all they represent, all the modern writers who derive from them, march in the “People’s Front,” are strength for the men and women of whom it is made, not “relaxation,” are an essential part of this movement’s force.

At Paris a representative cross-section of the world’s writers said: we are against Fascism; we are against war; we are for the Soviet Union, for the working-class, for Socialism, for freedom. At Moscow, representatives of the world’s Communist Parties said: our first aim, over riding all others, is unity in action of those who are against Fascism, against war, for the Soviet Union, for the working class, for socialism, for freedom. Paris—Moscow: the equation works out. Put in a third factor: Paris—Moscow—London. Does the equation work out? Is there a result?

Not yet. But there has got to be a result.

Not yet. But in the past eighteen months a lot of progress has been made: against Mosley’s Olympia barbarities we have had Tory M.P., writer, Liberal and revolutionary united. Against the Sedition Bill not only were there Liberals and bishops and the membership of the Labour Party; even some of the leaders of the latter party took part in the campaign alongside Communists. Defeating the “cuts” in unemployed allowances early this year the Welsh churches and Welsh Communists worked together with many local Labour leaders. At the Paris conference, E. M. Forster and Aldous Huxley stood on the same platform as John Strachey.

But these are only beginnings, usually temporary, always incomplete in understanding and action. And the limitation that is basic to all such attempts is this: there is a tradition of freedom and the struggle for freedom that is fundamental in the development of this country, built into lives and minds. It is a difference in attitude towards this tradition that divides us.

This tradition has at times been neglected, avoided, rejected by the revolutionaries of to-day in Britain. But it is our heritage. Roundhead, Whig, Radical—there have been many versions of the idea. Each of their transcriptions of “freedom” into fact and action has been limited. During a period each has been progressive, driving the world forward; then stagnant; then reactionary, a shackle on further advance. For the sake of this many-shaped idea English, Scotch, Welsh and Irish have fought, given money, lives, leisure. It is in their language and their literatures.

Revolutionaries in Britain have necessarily been antagonistic to those who talked freedom in opposition to the ideas of Socialism and of self-disciplined, organized working-class action. All socialists, in fact, have pointed to the traditional Liberal idea of freedom as having become a hypocrisy. Men and women are free to marry in Britain, if of age. See the play, Love on the Dole to find how free they are, in fact; or take the trouble to find out why the London County Council still sends married men to the Belmont “colony”—a workhouse concentration camp. Men and women are free to work: but only on the terms of those few who own the workshops and the land. Men and women are free to write. As to that, ask Kenneth Bradshaw, who writes in this issue of LEFT REVIEW. After he had been roused to take his first chance (by one of these condemned “patronizing” LEFT REVIEW competitions) he got a deserved request from well-known publishers: had he the manuscript of a novel for them to see? He answered describing the life he leads, as a youth unemployed for some time; conditions under which no writer could possibly do work needing time, care, persistence. Then a month or more ago we sent back to him, for shortening, the story we print on page 509 he answered that he had at last got a job. A few words about the job made it clear why he wanted us to “cut” his story: he had not the time, the energy, to do anything after finishing such a day’s work. He had not—in fact—the freedom. That is the liberty of the writer, for more than three-quarters of the population, here and now.

And even for the middle-class writer, what freedom is there? (so our indictment ran, and still runs unchanged). Lenin wrote: “in a society based on the power of the money-bag, in a society where the masses of the toilers are destitute and a handful of the rich are idling, there can be no real, no genuine ‘freedom.’ Are you, sir, being an author, free from your bourgeois publisher? Are you free from your bourgeois public? . . . You cannot live in society and yet be free from society. The freedom of a bourgeois author, artist or actress is only a masked (or hypocritically camouflaged) dependence on the money bag, on the bribe, on being provided for.”2

Perhaps it would be better “to quote Scripture” for my purpose: Bertrand Russell. He writes: “There are certain fundamental needs which may be taken as nearly universal: food, drink, health, clothing, housing, sex, and parenthood. . . . Whatever else may be involved in freedom, certainly no person is free who is deprived of anything in the above list.”3 In the sense of this phrase the writer in bourgeois society is seldom free to write just as he desires without risking the loss of the remainder of his freedoms. And the worker is not free, usually, at all.

This then is our first answer to the question: what is this “freedom of the artist”? It is a freedom, like many others, that can only be real to the extent that socialism is made real: when there’s a guaranteed minimum for all who work, and a reading public set free from class prejudices and from the need for print as a crude drug that will make them forget life—when this has been achieved the writer as such can be free.

All this is too general; we have heard it all before? Very well; then here is the specific thing, and in it the dialectical “other side” to what we have said so far. The reason why non-revolutionaries work with us only on some issues, and guardedly and with reservations, is that they feel our talk of liberty is a ruse, a manoeuvre—since, they believe, we aim at a rigid restrictive dictatorship. The reason why Stephen Spender writing for the LEFT REVIEW and Phyllis Bentley preparing a speech for the Paris Writers’ Congress write as they do on the need for freedom is that they have, consciously or unconsciously, some feeling that while opposing Fascism they must also be ready to oppose a Communist censorship.

Here is the trouble: the “threat” of proletarian dictatorship. But those who are troubled by this dictatorship derive their knowledge of it mainly from the bourgeois world. “In Russia,” writes Bertrand Russell, “comfort and power are achieved by professing atheism, Communism, and free love, and no opportunity exists for propaganda against these opinions.”4 Those who have a little more knowledge of the Soviet Union know that Lenin was in a sense a “propagandist against free love” (Klara Zetkin’s Reminiscences of Lenin). Churches are open; religious services held. If this is not “propaganda against atheism,” what is? But propaganda against Communism is not allowed. That’s true. The dictatorship is not quite what Bertrand Russell believes (or believed) it to be; but there is a dictatorship. Of what sort?

It is a pity to form opinions on inadequate and one-sided knowledge. Let us take the declared general policy of the Soviet Government on one of the main questions here: the position of middle-class intellectuals in the Soviet State. Stalin, referring to the technical intelligentsia, “who do not think in a Soviet way,” said: “we by no means demand that they should here and now abandon their views or modify them. We demand only one thing, namely, that since they have voluntarily agreed to co-operate with the Soviet state they should do so honestly.”5

This applies, it will be seen, to the technical experts who have entered the service of the State. As I tried to show in the fifth number of LEFT REVIEW, it has applied also to the writers who are not Communists. But our interest in this question turns not so much on what was done as on the causes behind what was done. Therefore it is necessary to define this feared dictatorship.

More than half of the main argument in Stalin’s first volume on “Leninism” can be very roughly summarized as follows: the proletarian dictatorship is not (and for good practical reasons cannot be) in any sense the dictatorship of a single man, group of leaders, or Communist party. Nor is it the dictatorship of the working class as a whole using its power without regard for the interests and ideas of other classes. Stalin quotes Lenin:

“The dictatorship of the proletariat is a peculiar form of class alliance (italicized by Stalin) between the proletariat (the vanguard of all those who labour) and the various strata of the non-proletarian labouring masses (the petty-bourgeoisie, independent artisans, peasants, members of the intelligentsia, etc) or with a majority of these. . . . It is an alliance between classes which differ economically, politically, socially, and ideologically” (italicized by Stalin).6

This definition of the dictatorship was available for Mr. Bertrand Russell to read eight years before he wrote of a military despotism in Russia.7 Lenin’s is an interesting definition, containing many points. Consider for instance the view of the intelligentsia given here that they are amongst those who, by a majority, must be within the dictatorship, among the dictators. And contrast this view with the sectarian outlook of D. S. Mirsky in his book on the Intelligentsia where he denies that the working class has any influence on this section of humanity.8

Plainly, if it is this dictatorship at which we aim, we who are revolutionaries must desire that this “peculiar force of class alliance” should be forming now. Our aim, then, in working for unity against Fascism and war, is not in contradiction with the further aim of a Soviet Britain. And working for these aims we cannot take only the negative view of liberty that I have given above as necessarily our first answer to the question: what is liberty? We need a wider and more positive answer. We must follow the French example, make our own, win from the enemies of peace and the working class those symbols and that “heritage” that are the British equivalents of “Liberty Equality Fraternity” and the Marseillaise. Then we shall be able to understand the position taken by E M Forster or by Phyllis Bentley even if we disagree with it

And we shall also gain other things by this change in our own outlook. We may begin to understand better another sort of contributor to the LEFT REVIEW; Hugh McDiarmid from Scotland, T. E. Nicholas from Wales. Here are national cultures, national movements. These also raise in their own terms questions of freedom that we must answer. We can gain also in this way the period before Fascism is one in which liberties are continually being restricted. Men fought for these liberties in the past. The phrases they used, the arguments and the actions are valuable to us now not dead historical lumber. To give an example: the Whigs fought for many years to prevent the government separating the armed forces from the mass of the people. We could improve our propaganda against the Sedition Act by a study of that struggle.

This implies a change and growth among revolutionaries: let us admit it. But among those who are not revolutionaries, among the “great freedom-loving class” surely there must also be an effort to understand and alter. It is open to them to become allies of the working class forces, to be free within the dictatorship when that has been achieved—and it will be. The alternative is Fascism. But they will find it hard to get round to our side of the barricade, or indeed to do anything useful to check the ruin of our civilization, if they persist in carrying this ideological lumber about being free from “limiting mental systems.” There is a chaos of events, people, things. This “mental system,” that Miss Bentley warns us against, this series of beliefs, limits the observer if it is untrue, does not correspond to the network of cause and effect, quality and quantity, trend, counter-trend and resultant that does in fact exist in the apparent chaos. But system in thinking—the discovery of truth, and of propositions sufficiently true to act upon—is a liberating force. “Freedom of the will means nothing but the capacity to make decisions with real knowledge of the subject,” wrote Engels.9 And the artist without beliefs is not free to represent truth: he is ignorant of any truth. He has to confine his work to snatching an occasional appearance of meaning from the flux of events and ideas. If this is all he puts into his “cauldron” to boil up, he might as well put it in his pipe and smoke it, instead.

This is important. Any writer sometimes gets stale, gets tired. Any writer may, at the moment when he is feeling particularly receptive, meet kind and charming banker, a most idealistic fellow who really regrets that he has to look after the armament firms; may meet at the same time some sour-tempered, overworked workers and some very depressing young Communists. If this writer then carefully washes his brains out, so that no conscious beliefs are left in them to obtrude into his work of art, he can simmer out a juicy story, novel or what-you-will, guaranteed to “tell the truth and to criticize life” most objectively. And the banker will read it with pleasure; it may even become the “book of the month.” But will he be telling the truth?

Our beliefs are generalizations from the past and from the present; we use them as weapons to create the future. Every day the bourgeois world presents new appearances, lies, shams that seem to disprove our beliefs. Are we to chase after each of these “uttering the facts that tell against our personal creeds”? No; children learn from experience to sort events, things and people into categories; the burnt child dreads the fire. The more clearly the writer sees reality in its complex dialectic forms, the more beliefs he will gather, and the better writer he will be.

And the better writer he is, the more he will be able to help those who, as his ally, want to make that commonwealth in which men will at last be able to know, to utter and to argue freely.



1. “Can Jacobinism Frighten the Working Class?”, English edition of Lenin’s Collected Works vol. 2, p. 277.

2. Novaia Zhisn, no. 12; 26.11.1905.

3. Sceptical Essays, 1928, p. 175.

4. Sceptical Essays, p. 151.

5. Leninism, vol. II, p. 136.

6. Leninism, vol. I, p. 25.

7. Sceptical Essays, p. 117.

8. This book was dealt with thoroughly by Alick West in LEFT REVIEW, No. 8.

9. Anti-Duhring, p. 130.