Communism and Freedom
July 20, 2022
W.E.B. Du Bois, one of the premier thinkers the United States has ever produced and the godfather of modern sociology, joined the Communist Party in 1961, nearing the end of his life.
In a letter written to the CPUSA (Community Party of the United States of America), Du Bois expressed a Marxist concept of freedom, one which necessitated the public ownership of natural resources and of all capital, abolition of poverty, and limitation of personal income.
“Communism—the effort to give all men what they need and to ask of each the best they can contribute—this is the only way of human life...”
In his magisterial Black Reconstruction, which outlines the key lessons of the Reconstruction era (1865 – 1877) that followed the end of the U.S. Civil War, Du Bois would conclude that the expansion of freedom in the U.S. had very much depended on federal troops occupying the south, and laws that effectively attacked the remnants of the former confederacy.
In states like Arkansas, members of the Ku Klux Klan were targeted by the government.
In 1869 an anti-Ku Klux Klan law of great severity was passed which prevented all secret political organizations, and declared their members public enemies. Even the possession of a Ku Klux Klan costume was a criminal offense. The law was sternly enforced, and the Klan disbanded after a season of martial law.
As Du Bois recognized, there was no other way to ensure the newly won freedoms, such as the right to vote, for African Americans. Although African Americans were in the majority, or constituted a significant minority, across several states, they and their white allies in the radical wing of the Republican Party, lacked the weaponry, resources, and networks to win power immediately.
To redress this power imbalance, the federal government formed the Freedmen’s Bureau, which helped provide for the first time universally, free public schooling and some modicum of healthcare. This would vastly improve the living standards of African Americans and poor whites in the region, whose existence up until then, was mainly to enhance the pleasure and power of the planter class.
The Realization of Freedom
What Du Bois realized, as he drifted from liberalism to communism over the course of his life, was how freedom for the masses required that government provide people with their material needs, and not just “protecting” them against so-called government intrusion. More importantly, for freedom to be enjoyed by a broader set of people, and not just a class or race or gender, it cannot be simply the right of individuals to think of themselves as such. Freedom needs limitations, or what one could call, the recognition of our individual “responsibilities” to a broader collective, i.e. society.
Thus, freedom for all necessitates forms of dependency and intervention on behalf of the oppressed and exploited. Freedom cannot be conceived of as the freedom to do as what one will, at the expense of the masses. It cannot be the freedom to simply fend for oneself against an onslaught of white supremacists, as demonstrated in the tail-end of Reconstruction as white mobs led coups across the south, nor as we’re seeing today, can it be the freedom to die without healthcare.
The classical liberal view, the one that sprung up during the European Enlightenment in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, was for its time, revolutionary. Marx himself recognized just how dramatic the shift was for Europe to start believing in such things, as freedom of self, freedom of the press, and the freedom to own land versus what was under feudalism, whereby peasants and society generally lived and died for the whims of a king or feudal lord.
Marx, when he was a young man, considered himself a republican, championing the individual over the feudal bonds he saw eating away at peoples’ relationships to themselves and others in Prussia, the most dominant princely state within the German confederation at the time.
To this day, parts of this liberal worldview remain, where we’re encouraged to think about ourselves as individual consumers, as individuals seeking to be our true selves.
“After all,” Sheldon Wolin remarked in Politics and Vision: Continuity and Innovation in Western Political Thought, “there’s no denying that early liberalism announced itself as a philosophy dedicated to defending the sanctity and independence of the individual…” (310).
Past or present, at the core of liberal thinking is the notion of the individual living their best life, without so-called “intrusion” by the government. For Thomas Jefferson and the so-called “founding fathers”, who were deeply influenced by European Enlightenment thinkers like Locke, freedom is about independence from others, and usually, this dovetails with fitting society for capitalist imperatives.
To put it simply, you should work hard on your plot of land or, in the contemporary, you work hard to own a house, continue to work hard, save, and that makes you are free.
Personal responsibility is key.
“It is time to restore the American precept that each individual is accountable for his actions,” said Ronald Reagan when his administration was gutting social services so that people on welfare could allegedly be “free” from government largesse. To become “responsible individuals” who might one day be able to realize the bourgeois ideal of freedom.
Marx, however, concluded that such classic liberal formations of rights, such as the right to develop oneself as a person, to achieve “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”, cannot exist without a federal government that creates some standard of rights and freedoms across various provinces or states (as in the U.S.) and collective interventions, or as some conservatives may argue, “intrusions”. The classical liberal themselves could not have what they have, like their right to property, which is another touchstone of their value system, without society being actively shaped to fit their wants and needs.
Essentially, the liberal view of freedom as mostly about individuals is a myth. It is a concept of history and politics that is very much divorced from reality.
The formation of individual freedoms, as conceived by Jefferson and Locke and later, Reagan, was very reliant on enslaved Africans, women generally cooking and cleaning, and the theft of indigenous land. Overall, such rights and freedoms were made possible through the exploitation of people who had become the world’s working class, people who have no choice but to work for someone else’s private gains in order to live.
This world system of property rights and individual European American yeoman farmers, as Marx would note in Capital, Vol. 1, emerged on the world stage, “dripping from head to toe, from every pore, with blood and dirt.”
The “free market” overall, the building block of classic liberalism, would not exist without law enforcement, government agencies propping up business, and an army of working people who must work for a paycheck to buy what they need to live.
Claudia Jones, also a Marxist who urged the CPUSA to organize black women workers before she was deported to England in the early 1950s, explained in one of her essays collected by Carole Boyce Davies in Beyond Containment,
Look here, fellows and girls, this system called capitalism, with all of its talk of free enterprise is free, all right but for the bankers and Wall Street, for the German bankers, for the Bank of England, for the French bankers. Can you dream what it would mean to have the worry of a job eliminated? What if it was law that your security, your job, was guaranteed? Then you could finish high school, college. Then you could marry, raise a family, get that coat, that radio, that library you always wanted.
Freedom for the majority, according to Jones, necessitates a shifting of government intervention. The freedom of most people to live in dignity, to not feel burdened, to truly express more of their individuality, and lead the “good life”, requires a communist society.
Freedom in the Age of Covid-19
If the past few years have taught us anything, defined as they have been by the Covid-19 crisis, it should be the fact that a more expansive concept of freedom than that espoused by classical liberals - one that has been echoed by Marxists such as Du Bois - is desperately needed in our policymaking. Such a view of freedom and liberty is championed by the left, and by organizations like the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA).
The beginning of this crisis was extremely disorientating. my parents, my friends, and I felt extremely alienated from each other and at a loss on what to do. We didn’t even know where we could get masks from or, indeed, what types were suitable. However, our DSA chapter, like many, developed mutual aid networks across central New Jersey. Some of my comrades began making masks, per CDC guidelines, with bits and pieces they ordered online and sharing them with all those who needed them. To this day, I do not know how I could’ve survived the pandemics' first few months without this broader network of people. I panicked. For a brief period, given the lack of government help and the fact that businesses still wanted people to pay for necessities, I nearly gave up lethargy and depression.
Some of that feeling has returned, as the Biden administration has continued to strip away government resources, following in the footsteps of “moderate” Democrats, who seem to fear the Left more so than the GOP and its diehard supporters. Defeat is in the air and, unlike during the initial wave of the lockdowns in 2020, many of our members have retreated to focusing on their most immediate needs. This is understandable as government protections have been lifted on rent and government paychecks are no longer on their way. People are now busier than ever working to survive.
At some of the political education meetings I have run, it has only been a handful of us, those of us who’ve been with the chapter for several years. Some of us, like me, have managed somewhat better, despite my own low pay, I have a family that can support me. However, not everyone has that kind of support.
Lessons from the USSR
In the early days of the Soviet Union, government policies were put in place that sought to shift society in a direction that benefited most residents, especially those who had been dominated and oppressed under the Tsarist regime.
Women, for instance, gained access to government-funded daycares and cafeterias, along with government-supported programs that expanded access to abortions and reproductive care.
As Kristen Ghodsee highlighted in Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism and Other Arguments for Economic Independence, 1919 “saw the creation of an organization called the Zhenotdel, the Women’s Section, which would oversee the work of implementing the radical program of social reform that would lead to women’s full emancipation,”
With government workers recruited and trained to help care for others, women and men had the freedom to do what they would with their extra time, and the routine of domestic drudgery was somewhat alleviated.
Moreover, women were also no longer tethered to relationships where they felt trapped because the alternative was destitution. Universal housing and social services provided opportunities for women to create relationships that offered them fulfillment and happiness, not misery, boredom, and, at times, violence.
Despite the greater resources available today in the United States, most housework is done by women than by men. Occupations held by women are paid less than occupations filled mostly with men. Even when capitalism is reformed, as it was under the New Deal, such dynamics will never simply go away. A higher wage and better labor contracts will not abolish this illogical and ahistorical conceptualization of freedom that lies at the heart of our society. Until freedom is seen as everyone having a right to housing, healthcare, a job, which is not possible unless government institutions are created to organize such rights and needs. In short, as Jones would often declare, “Complete emancipation of women is possible only under Socialism”.
Freedom for all will also not be possible with existing class divisions in society. When the New Deal solidified, it did mark an improvement in many people’s lives. Nonetheless, the power imbalance between the worker and the employer was sustained. The employer still ultimately had the right to determine the workers’ life for their own private ends, however, curtailed. Society, overall, still lacked a universal right to housing and other needs, which were kept in private hands and companies.
Labor, for freedom to thrive, cannot be done for private ends. It must be, as determined under communist society, done for social good instead. It must be done for the benefit of most people for all of us to finally have the goods, services, and time we desire to be free.
Freedom and true individuality, Marx and Engels, wrote in The German Ideology, are rooted in the “necessary solidarity of the free development of all”.
When people labor for what others need, we all benefit from a healthier society, a society less prone to exploitation, division, and confusion. A society where basic needs are met.
Consequently, for this freedom to exist, there must be what Marx and Engels called a “true movement” of socialists taking the helm of the government as it is and changing it to a government willing to take away the private property of major companies. It must be a government willing to use law and coercive means, to shape society in a far more egalitarian direction.
This would mean, for instance, laws that punish people for not abiding by vaccine policies. After all, for the masses to thrive, and for the most vulnerable to be able to move through society without fear of illness and premature death, it is critical that everyone is vaccinated. If only a few are vaccinated or taking the proper precautions, everyone’s freedom to do what they want is in jeopardy. For most people to proceed with their lives, to not feel trapped in their homes, it is incumbent upon everyone to take the proper public health measures.
When that does not happen, when there are no laws in place as well as policies that provide free and universal services to people so they can get the proper vaccines and take care of themselves when feeling ill, the rest of society suffers, as wave after wave hits.
Similarly, coercive methods would be necessary in preventing discrimination against historically oppressed groups, so the broader society doesn’t rot from within, and laws put in place that make certain religious institutions are not spreading bigoted speech and practices that can fester and infect more and more people. The public-private divide still exists but laws/coercion exists as a means of extending a standard set of rights and freedoms to all people. To make sure that society-at-large doesn’t have pockets of unfreedom, pockets of exploitation as already is the case under capitalism, with private fiefdoms called the "workplace", or the “home”, where usually a man dominates over women and non-men
We would need a government seeking to organize more working people into unions as well as repress the ability of the right-wing to gather more momentum, such as arresting major leaders and shutting down spaces where conspiracy is funneled.
Finally, as has been noted, we need the government to transition society to where housing, healthcare, and food are no longer dependent on how much money someone has. A society where landlords and other extractive and exploitative private interests have been stamped out and replaced with universal access and social programs.
But will there be a time when communism can flourish without government intervention? As Lenin once argued, the freedom that communism desires to create will someday see the state apparatus dissolve. Instead, we will have civil society running the show, meaning in practice working people collectively rather than government institutions being in charge.
Force and Freedom
One of the few useful points in classic liberal thought is the fact that human beings can be prone to conflict. Hobbes, one of the more cynical thinkers, believed that human life, without any third-party mediating, would devolve into violence and barbarism. All societies have had institutions that governed society, from those of the indigenous nations of the Americas to the peoples of Asia and Africa. This would be true under socialism too. When we think about ensuring the freedom we have explored, there is always the danger of some people wanting more for themselves that society must be prepared for such an eventuality. Strong institutions are a requirement.
To return to Reconstruction and its failure, one of the key factors was the weakness of government institutions. Yes, the Freedmen’s Bureau had been created, but it oftentimes was deprived of the money it needed to enforce the law or to hire enough federal agents to cover the terrain. In the words of Du Bois, “The conditions facing the Bureau were chaotic”.
It was inconceivable that African Americans could have simply organized themselves or depended on each other for food and resources. As the Freedmen’s Bureau collapsed, so did abolition-democracy and freedom for African Americans.
It is not freedom to have to form mutual aid networks, to have an extra stock of food and medicine for others.
This last couple of years has only strengthened my belief in the need for this communist conception of freedom. We cannot endure another decade of a society that believes freedom is the freedom to accumulate and possess as the country (and the planet) spiral towards social and environmental collapse.
A part of me, having endured the pandemic, believes in freedom as possible, but is not always trustful of people being able to always sustain it without some guidance and control. I do believe ideas of nation, religion, gender, race, and of course, social position (another name for class even as lines are abolished) are wound too deeply in some peoples’ psyche and belief systems. There will always be a group willing to overturn utopia, viewing taxation and certain gender identities as satanic.
However, all though this might be sad, time is running out for the majority whose freedom is dependent on the victory of socialism – a victory that seems ever more unlikely as time passes.
This feels to be our last gasp in the coming years, but even if chances are we shall see the sun set completely, let us try for something more, however cynical we may feel deep inside.
As Du Bois once said about the collapse of Reconstruction, let it be a “splendid failure” at the very least. If it is a brief moment of true freedom, before the waters wipe us away, so be it.