MIA: Encyclopedia of Marxism: Glossary of Terms




Freedom is the right and capacity of people to determine their own actions, in a community which is able to provide for the full development of human potentiality. Freedom may be enjoyed by individuals but only in and through the community.

Only in community [has each] individual the means of cultivating his gifts in all directions; only in the community, therefore, is personal freedom possible. In the previous substitutes for the community, in the State, etc. personal freedom has existed only for the individuals who developed within the relationships of the ruling class, and only insofar as they were individuals of this class.

Karl Marx and Frederick Engels
The German Ideology , Chapter 1d

In capitalism, only those who have money can enjoy real freedom. Those who have no means of living other than selling their labour power may have freedoms, but their opportunities are always restricted. In bourgeois society some freedoms are considered more important than others.

Freedom of trade is precisely freedom of trade and no other freedom because within it the nature of the trade develops unhindered according to the inner rules of its life. Freedom of the courts is freedom of the courts if they follow their own inherent laws of right and not those of some other sphere, such as religion. Every particular sphere of freedom is the freedom of a particular sphere, just as every particular mode of life is the mode of life of a particular nature.

Karl Marx
On Freedom of the Press

Before the development of bourgeois society in seventeenth century Europe, and with that, conceptions of individualism, freedom was posed only in the form of the question of Free Will , i.e., the problem of Freedom and Necessity, which is dealt with below. The emergence of a civil society governed neither by feudal right nor family relations, posed the question of social freedom for the first time. The conception of freedom has since developed along two lines – positive and negative freedom.

Positive Freedom and Negative Freedom:

Negative freedom means the lack of forces which prevent an individual from doing whatever they want; Positive freedom is the capacity of a person to determine the best course of action and the existence of opportunities for them to realise their full potential.

The overwhelmingly dominant tendency in the history of bourgeois society has been to open up negative freedom, by removing feudal and other reactionary constraints on freedom of action. Free trade and wage-labour are the most characteristic bourgeois freedoms which have resulted from this history: free trade being the freedom of a capitalist to make a profit without restriction, and wage-labour being the freedom of a worker from any means of livelihood other than being able to sell their labour power to the highest bidder. Thus this negative bourgeois freedom is a kind of freedom which is real only for those who own the means of production.

Positive freedom has been built up almost exclusively as a result of the struggle of the working class: initially the legislation limiting hours of work, child labour and so on, later the creation of free compulsory education, public health systems, right to form trade unions, and so forth, freedoms which explicitly limit the freedom of the capitalists to exploit workers, but give worker the opportunity to develop as human beings.

The freedom people have is determined by the ethical system of the society they are born into, which is fundamentally based on the economic relations that society is based on: for example in capitalistic society a person is free to exploit wage, but labourers are not free to receive things like an education and health care in accordance to what they need; only in accordance to what they have to pay. In socialist society, a person is not free to exploit labourers (i.e. restrict the freedoms of labourers), but are free to own a more or less equal portion of the means of production in accordance to their own need and ability.

In hitherto existing Socialist states, like the Soviet Union and China, “negative freedoms” were severely restricted, while “positive freedoms” were advanced. All people had universal access to health care, full university education, etc, but people could only use those things they had in a particular way - in support of the government. In the most advanced capitalist governments, this relationship is the other way around: “positive freedoms” are restricted or do not exist all together, while “negative freedoms” are more advanced than ever before. A worker in capitalist society has the freedom to say whatever she believes, but she does not have the freedom to live if crippled by a disease regardless of how much money she has. A socialist society that has been established from a capitalist society will strengthen “negative freedoms”, while ushering in real “positive freedoms” across the board, ensuring equal and free access to social services by all.

The fullest development of positive freedom is impossible however without a further development of negative freedom – people cannot be forced to be free.

Free activity for the Communists is the creative manifestation of life arising from the free development of all abilities of the whole person.

Karl Marx and Frederick Engels
The German Ideology (Ch. 3abs)

Freedom can be attained only in and through the community. The development of real freedom always and everywhere means the restriction of the freedom of others to oppress and do wrong. Freedom for the vast majority necessarily means restriction of the freedom of a small minority to exploit the labour of others, destroy nature, monopolise the social means of production and communication.

Freedom consists in converting the state from an organ superimposed upon society into one completely subordinate to it; and today, too, the forms of state are more free or less free to the extent that they restrict the “freedom of the state”.

Karl Marx
Critique of the Gotha Program, Chapter 4

Freedom is so much the essence of man that even its opponents implement it while combating its reality; they want to appropriate for themselves as a most precious ornament what they have rejected as an ornament of human nature.

No man combats freedom; at most he combats the freedom of others. Hence every kind of freedom has always existed, only at one time as a special privilege, at another as a universal right.

Karl Marx
On Freedom of the Press

See also: Censorship

Freedom & Necessity:

Hegel was the first to state correctly the relation between freedom and necessity. To him, freedom is the insight into necessity. “Necessity is blind only in so far as it is not understood.” Freedom does not consist in any dreamt-of independence from natural laws, but in the knowledge of these laws, and in the possibility this gives of systematically making them work towards definite ends. This holds good in relation both to the laws of external nature and to those which govern the bodily and mental existence of men themselves – two classes of laws which we can separate from each other at most only in thought but not in reality. Freedom of the will therefore means nothing but the capacity to make decisions with knowledge of the subject.

Therefore the freer a man’s judgment is in relation to a definite question, the greater is the necessity with which the content of this judgment will be determined; while the uncertainty, founded on ignorance, which seems to make an arbitrary choice among many different and conflicting possible decisions, shows precisely by this that it is not free, that it is controlled by the very object it should itself control. Freedom therefore consists in the control over ourselves and over external nature, a control founded on knowledge of natural necessity; it is therefore necessarily a product of historical development.

The first men who separated themselves from the animal kingdom were in all essentials as unfree as the animals themselves, but each step forward in the field of culture was a step towards freedom. On the threshold of human history stands the discovery that mechanical motion can be transformed into heat: the production of fire by friction; at the close of the development so far gone through stands the discovery that heat can be transformed into mechanical motion: the steam-engine.

And, in spite of the gigantic liberating revolution in the social world which the steam-engine is carrying through, and which is not yet half completed, it is beyond all doubt that the generation of fire by friction has had an even greater effect on the liberation of mankind. For the generation of fire by friction gave man for the first time control over one of the forces of nature, and thereby separated him for ever from the animal kingdom. The steam-engine will never bring about such a mighty leap forward in human development, however important it may seem in our eyes as representing all those immense productive forces dependent on it -- forces which alone make possible a state of society in which there are no longer class distinctions or anxiety over the means of subsistence for the individual, and in which for the first time there can be talk of real human freedom, of an existence in harmony with the laws of nature that have become known. But how young the whole of human history still is, and how ridiculous it would be to attempt to ascribe any absolute validity to our present views, is evident from the simple fact that all past history can be characterised as the history of the epoch from the practical discovery of the transformation of mechanical motion into heat up to that of the transformation of heat into mechanical motion.

Frederick Engels Anti-Dühring, part 1, Hegel, Possibility and Contingency.

Free Love

A concept originated in the mid-nineteenth century, Free Love meant an absence of legal ties rather than promiscuity, as frequently misunderstood and more frequently charged in the anti-socialist press. A mark of bohemianism until the 1960s, Free Love had become by the 1970s-80s a historical predecessor of the radical critique of sexuality notably carried on by feminist and homosexual liberation movements.

A number of the utopian movements, religious and nonreligious, had endorsed such sexual practices as celibacy, polygamy, and complex marriage which were at odds with Christian norms. Abolitionism reinforced incipient Free Loveism through a critique of southern sexual slavery. Free Love entered the socialist movement via spiritualism, a veritable hotbed of Free Love doctrine, when Victoria Woodhull endorsed Free Love in Woodhull & Claflin’s. The open statement of such policies justified – in the eyes of Marx’s American allies – the expulsion of the Woodhull group and its supporters from the First International. To the respectable public, Woodhull herself became “Mrs. Satan,” mirror of socialism’s infidel status, when she not only justified philosophically her own practices but also made known the affair of noted minister Henry Ward Beecher with the wife of prominent reform editor Theodore Tilton, an ally of Beecher. Meanwhile, among German freethinkers and socialists, Free Love continued to be practiced, especially among intellectuals, but only rarely was it articulated in theory.

Until the end of the century, anarchists of varying backgrounds carried on the Free Love agitation without notable socialist support. Moses Harman, Lois Waisbrooker and Ezra Heywood among other late nineteenth century individualist anarchists, conducted a vigorous protest of the 1873 Comstock Act, which prohibited broadly-interpreted “obscenity” from the mails. They meanwhile published periodicals such as Lucifer, the Light Bearer, pamphlets addressing questions of birth control, and a lively correspondence with the liberal press (such as the more open-minded of woman suffrage journals). Among the Germans, Robert Reitzel and his weekly Arme Teufel perhaps best captured the poetic possibilities of the entire subject, and placed it in the heroic traditions of German literature.

In the early years of the twentieth century, anarchist Emma Goldman became the celebrated spokesperson of the Free Love cause, the most popular speaker and the darling of the surviving anarchist groups. Antisocialist journals and lecturers meanwhile charged, despite the frequent denials of the Socialist Party, that socialism meant the end of the family. Casually at first, and then with some momentum, a movement of cosmopolitan intellectuals within or around the Socialist Party began to revive the subject in another light, attaining their major influence in Greenwich Village and the Masses magazine. With their philosopher the English homosexual writer, Edward Carpenter, their international sexologist Havelock Ellis, and such noted writers as Upton Sinclair providing literary credence, they marshalled a powerful case for Free Love as the soul of modernity.

The splintering of the Socialist movement and the rise of a Communist movement with little concern for personal (especially women’s) issues once more thrust Free Love issues back into private life-except for anti-communists, who predictably charged that young revolutionary Russia had “nationalized” its women. During the 1920s, American bohemianism meanwhile gained a mass following of sorts, mostly hedonistic but connected in part with the Harlem Renaissance and the wish to escape the stifling American commercial culture. A small group of Left intellectuals around the Modern Quarterly, seeking to integrate sexology into a heavily anthropological “science of society,” had little short-run impact upon the Left political movement. They did, however, help to keep alive a sexual element in the radical attack upon American racism. While Leninist workerism forbade the open return of the Free Love subject, a subterranean connection had already been made between interracialism and the principles of Free Love. Further connections, with jazz, poetry and anti-war sentiments, flourished in the bohemian and Beat movements of the late 1940s to early 1960s, with Free Love (including homosexuality) a measure of cultural bravado and a practical arrangement for transient lifestyles.

During the later 1960s, revolt against the Vietnam War, the overall Youth Culture sensibility and the commercial sexualization of culture together conspired to return Free Love toward the center of the radical picture. “Make Love Not War,” a slogan of Antiquity renewed by John Lennon and Yoko Ono among others, seemingly embodied the ultimate rejection of capitalist culture. An evocative photo of a young couple kissing at the barricades of May, 1969, Paris, became overnight an icon of popular New Left sentiment.

The women’s liberation movement, following upon the efflorescence and decline of youth culture, made a strident critique of Free Love as practiced by the New Left. These objections, mounted in polemical essays and pamphlets, themselves become important new statements of Free Love principles. A proposed permanent revolution of sex radicalism to overthrow patriarchal practices wherever they occurred, the Feminist view of sexuality led directly to the commentaries by gay and lesbian spokespersons on the authoritarianism of heterosexual domination, and to widespread movements to decriminalize homosexual activity.

By the 1980s, gay liberation had become inseparable from other issues on the Left, substantially because gay activists had become a presence in virtually every field of struggle. At times and places (such as San Francisco), major gay political figures served doubly as socialist influentials. Meanwhile, Free Love (in the sense of an absence of legal bonds) had become paradoxically impeccable in Left (and liberal) attitudes toward private life, and somewhat more scarce in the practice of generations seeking economic and emotional security.

Mari Jo Buhle


Free Trade and Protectionism

Free Trade vs. Protectionism has been the principal axis of political struggle within the capitalism class since it achieved political power. The Free-traders favour removal of tariffs and other barriers to the flow of commodities and capital, whilst the Protectionists favour restriction of trade in order to protect themselves from the impact of cheaper commodities imported from elsewhere.

The Free-traders have always been based in that section of the bourgeoisie whose capital is well-placed to profit from export and stands to benefit by a reduction of the cost of living, and consequently wages, as a result of the importation of cheap foreign goods. The Protectionists have always been based in that section of the bourgeoisie who cannot hope to compete with cheap foreign imports.

In 18th and 19th century Britain, the Free-traders were industrialists, while the Protectionists were farmers, but in 20th century Australia, for example, the manufacturers were the Protectionists while the Free-traders were based in agribusiness.

Free-trade versus protectionism is fundamentally a struggle within the bourgeoisie, but the workers are always the first casualties of battle either way.

In the early 19th century, the battle between free-traders and protectionists in England played an important role in the development of industry and the industrial proletariat. The central issue in the dispute were the Corn Laws, which protected the farmers from cheap foreign corn, but since the price of corn was the single biggest contributor to the cost of living for workers, the Corn Laws were responsible for high wage costs and therefore lower profits for manufacturing.

The Chartists joined the industrialists to pressure successfully for the Repeal of the Corn Laws, and then subsequently, assisted the protectionist Tories in forcing the Ten Hours Bill onto the industrialists as an act of revenge!

In his Speech on Free Trade, Marx identified free trade as the current which would open up the world market, break down parochialism and in the long term would hasten the growth and solidarity of the working class:

“The English workers have made the English free-traders realise that they are not the dupes of their illusions or of their lies; and if, in spite of this, the workers made common cause with them against the landlords, it was for the purpose of destroying the last remnants of feudalism and in order to have only one enemy left to deal with. The workers have not miscalculated, for the landlords, in order to revenge themselves upon the manufacturers, made common cause with the workers to carry the Ten Hours’ Bill, which the latter had been vainly demanding for 30 years, and which was passed immediately after the repeal of the Corn Laws.” [On the Question of Free Trade]

Marx concluded his speech on free trade as follows:

“To sum up, what is free trade, what is free trade under the present condition of society? It is freedom of capital. When you have overthrown the few national barriers which still restrict the progress of capital, you will merely have given it complete freedom of action. So long as you let the relation of wage labour to capital exist, it does not matter how favourable the conditions under which the exchange of commodities takes place, there will always be a class which will exploit and a class which will be exploited. ...

“Do not imagine, gentlemen, that in criticising freedom of trade we have the least intention of defending the system of protection. One may declare oneself an enemy of the constitutional regime without declaring oneself a friend of the ancient regime.

“Moreover, the protectionist system is nothing but a means of establishing large-scale industry in any given country, that is to say, of making it dependent upon the world market, and from the moment that dependence upon the world market is established, there is already more or less dependence upon free trade. .... They serve the bourgeoisie as weapons against feudalism and absolute government, as a means for the concentration of its own powers and for the realisation of free trade within the same country.

“But, in general, the protective system of our day is conservative, while the free trade system is destructive. It breaks up old nationalities and pushes the antagonism of the proletariat and the bourgeoisie to the extreme point. In a word, the free trade system hastens the social revolution. It is in this revolutionary sense alone, gentlemen, that I vote in favour of free trade.” [On the Question of Free Trade]

Free trade assisted in a double way in establishing capitalism in Western Europe – by facilitating the importation of cheap agricultural produce to benefit the expansion of industry, and wiping out the more conservative sections of the feudal classes, and by smashing up the handicrafts and indigenous industries in the countries which were to be subjugated and exploited for raw materials and cheap labour.

The late-developers in world capitalism, such as Germany and Japan, because of free trade, had to compete with the cheap mass-produced products of British industry, and this forced the development of more efficient methods of production.

The Great Powers kept their own colonies as exclusive domains for their own exploitation and “free trade” never extended to these colonies. With the exhaustion of new sources of cheap labour and raw materials at the end of the 19th century, the epoch of Imperialism opened, and Europe descended into World War for a redistribution of possessions. Neo-colonialism is the method of imperialist domination favoured by the U.S.A., in which these colonial possessions of the old colonial powers are opened up to free trade.

The inter-war years were a time of all-out trade war, competitive devaluation of currencies, rampant protectionism coupled with bi-lateral trade agreements in which countries offered preferential terms of trade to each other while excluding others. World trade became more and more restricted and the Wall Street Crash of 1929 brought the whole system of world trade to a halt.

After a decade of Depression, a new War was fought for a new redistribution of markets and colonies. The IMF, GATT and World Bank set up at the Bretton Woods Conference in 1944 were aimed, not only at rebuilding after the devastation of the War, but of overcoming the protectionism and monetary chaos of the inter-war years, and opening up the European colonies for exploitation by U.S. capitalism.

The post World War Two decades saw the gradual extension of “free trade”, but the world market always producers winners and losers, and by the mid-1960s the consensus on which the Bretton Woods agreements were based began to break down.

As ever, those sections of the bourgeoisie who stand to gain from Free Trade advocate “Freedom”, and those sections of the bourgeoisie who stand to lose out advocate “protection”.