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Labour Review, February–March 1960

Alasdair MacIntyre

Freedom and Revolution

From Labour Review, Volume 5, No. 1, February–March 1960, pages 19-24.
Transcribed & marked up by Ted Crawford & D. Walters for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL) in 2009.

The danger to the non-Marxist left is that lack of theory leaves its discussions blind and formless; the danger to the Marxist left is that it tends to treat theory as something finished and final, and so the inherited formulas can become a substitute for thought. To guard against this we ought every so often to reopen old discussions in new ways. The particular old discussion which I want to take up is that about freedom. No word has been more cheapened by misuse. No word has experienced more of the tortuous re-definitions of politicians. So it may be of use to go back to the bare essentials of the Marxist concept of freedom and in so doing lay one or two ghosts. What ghosts do I particularly hope to exorcise?

First and most immediately the view that socialism and democracy can be separated—if by democracy we mean something more and other than the forms of parliamentary democracy. In Left Labour Party circles one sometimes hears it argued that ‘the West’ has democracy, but not socialism, while ‘the East’ has socialism, but not democracy and what we need is a (blessed word!) synthesis. Secondly I want to expose the view that the problem of freedom can be stated in terms of ‘the individual’ and ‘the collective’. This, so I shall argue, is not a pure mistake, like the first view, but it contains the germ of dangerous confusion. Thirdly, we need to guard against the view that the threat to freedom arises out of certain specific forms of organization and in particular from democratic-centralist forms. These views have haunted the Labour movement for many years now. One reason for their prevalence is the habit of separating the discussion of freedom in relation to the nature of society from the discussions of freedom in relation to the forms or organization appropriate to a Marxist party.


Hegel spoke of freedom as ‘the essence of man’. What did he mean? It is a distinctive feature of human as against merely animal or natural life that men act upon their environment and do not just react to it. Every other species has fared well or ill as the environment allowed; men have transformed the natural and social environment. This specifically human initiative cannot be understood except in terms of the concepts which belong to what Marx called ‘practical consciousness’, such concepts as those of desire, intention and choice. To say that men are free is to say that they are able to make their desires, intentions and choices effective. But this by itself far too abstract.

It is too abstract in two different ways. For on the one hand this initial definition might suggest that the free man is the man who gets what he wants, and this is obviously wrong. For one can be free and dissatisfied; indeed in our society the more the ferment of freedom is at work in a man the more dissatisfied he will be. And one can be satisfied and unfree. At least, one can be satisfied in the short run and be unfree. The drug addict gets what he wants; but he is a slave to his short-term craving. So we have to distinguish between two senses of ‘getting what one wants’. There is the sense in which to get what one wants is to follow and satisfy one’s immediate and short-term impulses; but there is also the sense in which to get what one wants is to attain what will in the long run and at every level in fact satisfy. Often to get what one wants in the first sense can stand in the way of getting what one wants in the second sense. Moreover, to know what will really satisfy one, one has to rely on the decisions that other men have made throughout history. And the discovery of the kind of life that will satisfy is the discovery of the kind of life in which fundamental desires, intentions and choices are made most effective, in which man is most agent and least victim. Hence the relevance of all this to the topic of freedom.

What kind of life would this be? To answer the question properly would be to write from one point of view the history of class society. Every new class that comes to power brings to light new possibilities for human nature; each new form of exploitation that accompanies such a rise to power brings new frustrations of human possibility. Progress, as Marx and Engels always saw, bears two faces: it remains progress. But in our society the development of capitalist economy has brought us to the threshold of something new. The rise of the working class to power will not be the sign of a new class society and consequently a new form of exploitation; it will be the sign of an end to class society and an end to exploitation. Human possibility will no longer be frustrated in the ways in which it has been throughout all previous history.

I have in the last three paragraphs presented an argument that could do with three books. But I have done so in order to draw an outline, parts of which can now be filled in in more detail. Before doing this, however, two central points can be made. The first is that if this argument can be vindicated the achievement of freedom and the achievement of the classless society are inseparably united. The second is that in our era, to free oneself from the pressures and limitations on one’s actions is to move towards that society, and only he who begins to move towards it with some degree of consciousness can begin to feel that his life is his own, what he has made it and not what society has made it. This second point is important because it brings out the relevance to freedom of both the final goal and of the movement towards it. Whether a man himself moves into the classless society is not within the individual’s power to decide; whether a man moves towards it is within his power. Hence the great tragic moments of our history are those in which the individual fails in one way or another, even though indissolubly united to the working-class movement. One can think here of the death of Trotsky at the hand of another, or of the death of Joffe by his own hand.

The free man, then, in every age is the man who to the extent that it is possible makes his life his own. What happens to him, whether good or evil, wisdom or stupidity, happens to him as far as possible by his own choice and is not the outcome of the blind workings of nature or of the will of others. And this use of the term ‘free’ appears in some measure in all the various versions of the concept which different phases of class society have bred. In all of them, too, there remains something of the notion which Hegel makes so prominent, that unless you are free you are not an authentic specimen of humanity, not really a man. This emerges clearly in slave society; in the early Greek society pictured by Homer, to be a slave is for one’s life to be wholly another’s and not at all one’s own. Consequently one is not really a person, but a thing and a chattel at that.


The paradox of bourgeois society is that it at one and the same time contains both the promise of greatly enlarged freedom and the denial of that freedom. In two directions capitalism enlarges freedom by destroying bonds and limitations. In transforms nature and ensures an effective human domination of nature. More than that, it makes men assume that they are not bound down by nature. In pre-capitalist societies one finds a sense of inevitability and fatality about natural catastrophes such as floods and famine. In capitalist societies men learn that there is no inevitability here. Where they come to feel inevitability and fatality is not in nature, but in society,. Yet even here there is a first promise of freedom. The ‘Marseillaise’ and ‘John Brown’s Body’ are bourgeois hymns. The feudal ties of the serf and the ownership of the slave are destroyed by capitalism and in their place there stands the free labourer, free to sell his labour, if there is a buyer, or starve.

It is important to pick out the different ways in which freedom is specifically denied by capitalism. All class society involves the rule of some class at the expense of others; that is to say, the making of the desires, intentions and choices of a minority effective at the expense of those of the majority. But the ways in which this happens differs from society to society. Under capitalism we can distinguish three different ways in which freedom is denied. The most obvious of these is perhaps the direct oppression of the worker in time of unemployment, the coercion by poverty or by force of colonial workers all the time, of all some of the time. But this coercion and oppression, it will be said, is surely absent in times of prosperity.

Those who believe that welfare capitalism has brought permanent prosperity will argue that economic oppression has been abolished, because they identify it with this first form of unfreedom. But even if we were to concede (which I do not) their claims about prosperity, there remains even for the prosperous worker a second form of unfreedom. For even the prosperous worker is prosperous by reason of the decisions of others; his life is as much made for him and imposed on him as is that of the unemployed worker. The capitalist decides upon investment; the capitalist sites his factory here or there; the capitalist looks for markets in this or that direction. In this sense the capitalist determines what jobs are open to the worker, what wages can be offered to him and so on. The capitalist disposes of his own life and of the life of others in a way in which the worker never can. By accumulating surplus value he wields the power of capital, the power of what Marx called ‘dead labour’, over living labour. He does this equally whether the worker prospers or suffers.

Surely, someone might argue (the ghost of Arthur Deakin perhaps), this ignores the role of trade unions. Surely through them the worker can negotiate (some have even said dictate) his own terms with the employer and so make his life his own, something he has helped to determine for himself. The short answer to this is of course that the official trade union structure in our society very often presents itself to the individual worker as part of the alien power that dominates and shapes his life. The officials are as much ‘they’ as the employers: They move within the limits of capitalism as the employers do. And over many of them (for whatever reason) the rank and file exercise no effective control at all.

The limits set by capitalism mark the third type of unfreedom. For there is an important sense in which both capitalists and workers are victims of capitalism. The laws of the system bind both; both are carried along by semi-automatic processes, at best half understood and half controlled. Economic laws appear as laws of nature, the power of the market appears as an inscrutable chance, and every feature of life assumes the aspect of a commodity. Here money reigns and triumphs over capitalist and worker alike. The capitalist is both better and worse off than the worker. Better in the obvious and crucial sense that he escapes poverty and insecurity. Worse in the sense that he has no reason to become dissatisfied and frame the questions which might reveal to him the less-than-human quality of his life.

INDIVIDUAL versus THE COLLECTIVE? It is typical of class society that social life appears as something given outside our control, in which we can only play a pre-arranged part. This makes conformity to the established order appear as, not just a virtue, but almost a necessity. Life in a period of relative stability becomes therefore heavily coloured by conformism and many who do not feel the weight of economic tyranny directly as proletarians feel it indirectly through the pressure of social convention. The revolt against this under capitalism takes a variety of forms. We ought to remember that the contemptuous ring which the word ‘bourgeois’ has in our mouths was given to it by Flaubert as well as by Marx. It is significant that we have to mention a novelist here. For a number of reasons the type of the free individual in a bourgeois culture, who is free just because he rejects the social conventions, is the artist. In a bourgeois society the artist has the choice of being either a solid fellow who sells poems by the line or canvas by the yard as a grocer sells tea by the pound, or else an eccentric in a garret for whom art exists solely for its own sake.

This sense of ‘free’ in which to be free is to reject the conventions has left its mark upon phrases as various as ‘free love’ and ‘free verse’. But this freedom is too negative and destructive to be much worth prizing. It is the freedom of the bohemian and the beatnik. As such it is too much like a mere inversion of bourgeois values. Instead of the cog playing its part in the machine, the cog runs free or grinds destructively against other cogs. Instead of contracting in, contracting out. Instead of the public world of the stock exchange and the labour exchange, the private world of fantasy. In this world, too, one is a victim and a product of a system not understood.

It is this conception of freedom in a somewhat more sophisticated version which underlies the posing of the problem in terms of a tension between ‘the individual’ and ‘the collective’. This type of thinking is often found in Liberal Party publications. We can use these terms without danger in some contexts; but in general they suggest the antithesis of two false abstractions. For we have to remember both that the individual has no effective human existence outside the sum total of his social relations and that the collective has no existence apart from the concrete individuals which compose it. Moreover the terms ‘individual’ and ‘collective’ are so general and abstract and can be used to cover such a wide variety of historical situations, that their use in this connection makes the problem of freedom appear as a timeless problem needing to be solved in all sorts of organizations, rather than as a problem whose resolution depends on the emergence in history in the future of certain specific social forms. Used by a careful writer in a careful way (as Trotsky for example uses them in discussing the nature of tragedy) these terms can aid thought. As they are normally used they are the kind of rhetoric which only clouds our thinking. Because the individual exists in his social relations and because the collective is a society of individuals, the problem of freedom is not the problem of the individual against society but the problem of what sort of society we want and what sort of individuals we want to be. Then unfreedom consists in everything which stands in the way of this.

To see the mistake here, to see that ‘the individual’ and ‘the collective’ are false abstractions, is not something that will keep us from this error once and for all. All of us will pass through phases in which both rightly and wrongly we sharpen the line between ourselves and others. This self-imposed isolation is a feature of every normal adolescence. It is also a normal experience in political organizations in which the first experience of membership and friendship may give way dialectically to a consciousness of distance between oneself and others. Some conclude at this point that there is something wrong with them (and of some individuals this is in fact the truth). Others conclude that there is something wrong with the organization (and of some political organizations this is in fact the truth). But to objectify this as a struggle between ‘the individual’ and ‘the collective’ is to treat an experience which is a part of normal political growth in a highly misleading way. To assert oneself at the expense of the organization in order to be free is to miss the fact that only within some organizational form can human freedom be embodied.


The individual then cannot win his freedom by asserting himself against society; and he cannot win it through capitalist society. To be free is only possible in some new form of society which makes a radical break with the various oppressions of capitalism. Thus the topic of freedom is also the topic of revolution. But we still need to be clearer than we are as to what we have to revolt against if we are to be free. I have already described some features of capitalist society in general. It is perhaps worthwhile to fasten on some features of Britain in 1960 which exemplify capitalist unfreedom. I can bring out what I mean here by describing our society as one of grooves, ladders and espresso bars.

Grooves—because so much of life is preordained. To be born in a particular family in a particular place means foremost people a particular type of home, schooling and job. Choice is hideously limited, often in fact non-existent. Where there ought to be choice, there can only be more or less grudging acceptance. To marry, to build a home takes place under the same constricting conditions. Hence the dream of a win on the pools is not just the dream of material advantage, it is, in very inadequate form no doubt, also a dream of escape from limitation, a dream of freedom. But where there is money, high wages or good luck, there is still the groove. Capitalist production pushes you along the groove of work; capitalist consumption holds you in the advertisers’ groove. The stick of work and the carrot of television, these mark out how so-called consumer capitalism has additional techniques for limiting and holding the worker down. Old age puts you back in the final groove of pensioned need.

So much for grooves. Ladders—because the only escapes from the grooves that are offered are competitive ones. The prizes are all financial and there are a few—very few—large ones. You compete at eleven plus for the grammar stream. On that ladder you compete for higher rewards. In the commercial world you compete in offering your skill or your savings in the service of capitalist enterprise. At least in the grooves you were with your fellows, on the ladders you are against them. So we go from working-class grooves on to middle-class ladders, from middle-class grooves on to still other ladders and so on.

Grooves, ladders and espresso bars. There are those not yet captured for grooves and ladders, adolescents clutching Modern Jazz Quartet L.P.’s, coffee bar bohemians who sense the phoney everywhere (and rightly) except in themselves (wrongly).

These three represent the types of capitalist unfreedom which I described earlier. The grooves along which working-class people are hurried by bourgeois decision-makers, the ladders up which the system hurries and harries the decision-makers themselves, the suffocatingly negative response of those who merely contract out. And over them all the shadow of the Bomb, symbol of man’s power over nature more than a symbol of how that power has become the instrument of a status quo that will destroy us if we do not destroy it.

What all this makes clear is that the liberation of ourselves from this society can only be by a revolution of a certain kind. We cannot hope for a liberation by means of the formal democracy of representative institutions. For first of all in fact all representative institutions are biased in favour of the status quo. No decision of importance is even discussed before the electors: where and when were our electors asked about the ‘mixed’ economy or N.A.T.O. or oppression in Africa? They were offered Tweedledum who was for them and Tweedledee who was for them, too. No choice was here, so no question of a free choice, let alone of a choice leading to freedom, could arise. But this has been often said. What has been less often discussed is that in a society ridden with grooves and ladders what representative institutions will represent will be the world of grooves and ladders. The road to freedom is the road out of what we are; so to represent what we are will not help us. The rise to parliamentary fame is made up one particular social ladder; the controllers of the parties who monopolise electoral discussion move along the same grooves. To break with this society, and to realise their potentialities men will have to break with parliament, too.


But how? We cannot achieve freedom by merely wishing it. And to see what is wrong with capitalism and what is right with socialism is still not to see how to pass from one to the other. About this I want to make simply two last points. The first is that because our society is unfree in specific ways, the working-class will not and cannot find the road to freedom spontaneously. And since the participation of every worker in the decision-making which governs his life is a condition of freedom as I have discussed it, it follows that until the working class find this way no one else can find it for them. So the free society cannot be a goal for the politically conscious individual, except by way of moving with the working class into conscious political action. Thus the path to freedom must be by means of some organization which is dedicated not to building freedom but to moving the working class to build it. The necessity for this is the necessity for a vanguard party.

Moreover such a party will have to find some form of existence which will enable its members to withstand all the pressures of other classes and to act effectively against the ruling class. To escape these pressures two things will be necessary. It will have to keep alive in its members a continual awareness of the kind of society in which they live and of the need to change it and of the way to change it. It will have to be a party of continuous education. And in being this it will have to vindicate freedom in yet another way. Bourgeois democrats and Stalinists have often argued as to whether art and science ought to be controlled by State authority or not. The point which this discussion misses is that such control is impossible, logically impossible. You can stop people creating works of art, or elaborating and testing scientific theories; you can force them instead to do propaganda for the State. But you cannot make them do art as you bid them or science as you bid them; for art and science move by their own laws of development. They cannot be themselves and be unfree. To rescue and maintain genuinely free enquiry is in a class society itself a partisan activity. But a revolutionary party has nothing to lose by the truth, everything to gain from intellectual freedom.

Secondly, one can only preserve oneself from alien class pressures in a vanguard party by maintaining discipline. Those who do not act closely together, who have no overall strategy for changing society, will have neither need for nor understanding of discipline. Party discipline is essentially not something negative, but something positive. It frees party members for activity by ensuring that they have specific tasks, duties and rights. This is why all the constitutional apparatus is necessary. Nonetheless there are many socialists who feel that any form of party discipline is an alien and constraining force which they ought to resist in the name of freedom. The error here arises from the illusion that one can as an isolated individual escape from the moulding and the subtle enslavements of the status quo. Behind this there lies the illusion that one can be an isolated individual. Whether we like it or not every one of us inescapably plays a social role, and a social role which is determined for us by the workings of bourgeois society. Or rather this is inescapable so long as we remain unaware of what is happening to us. As our awareness and understanding increase we become able to change the part we play. But here yet another trap awaits us. The saying that freedom is the knowledge of necessity does not mean that a merely passive and theoretical knowledge can liberate us. The knowledge which liberates is that which enables us to change our social relations. And this knowledge, knowledge which Marxism puts at our disposal, is not a private possession, something which the individual can get out of books and then keep for himself; it is rather a continually growing consciousness, which can only be the work of a group bound together by a common political and educational discipline. So the individual who tries most to live as an individual, to have a mind entirely of his own, will in fact make himself more and more likely to become in his thinking a passive reflection of the socially dominant ideas; while the individual who recognizes his dependence on others has taken a path which can lead to an authentic independence of mind. (In neither direction is there anything automatic or inevitable about the process.)

Someone will object here that what I have posed as the two necessities for a party of revolutionary freedom are incompatible. How can intellectual freedom and party discipline be combined? The answer to this is not just the obvious one that a certain stock of shared intellectual conviction is necessary for a man to be in a Marxist party at all. But more than this that where there is sharp disagreement it is necessary that discipline provides for this by allowing minority views to have their say inside the party on all appropriate occasions. If this is provided for then disagreements can remain on the level of intellectual principle without on the one hand hindering action or on the other hand degenerating into mock battles between ‘the individual’ and ‘the collective’.

After all this I hope that some ghosts no longer walk. The thread of the arguments leads on to the conclusion that not only are socialism and substantial democracy inseparable, but that the road to socialism and democratic centralism are equally inseparable. Those among socialists who have written most about freedom have tended most often to reject democratic centralism. But if I am right on the main points of this argument, this rejection must necessarily injure our understanding of freedom itself.

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