I used to think that freedom was freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of conscience. But freedom needs to include all of the lives of all of the people. Freedom is the right to sow what you want. It’s the right to make boots of shoes, it’s the right to bake bread from the grain you’ve sown and to sell it or not to sell it as you choose. The same goes for a locksmith or steelworker or an artist – freedom is the right to live and work as you wish and not as you’re ordered to. But these days there’s no freedom for anyone – whether you write books, whether you sow grain or whether you make boots.
From Everything Flows by Vasily Grossman
Grossman reflects on the way in which the Soviet regime extinguished every aspect of human freedom and his thoughts are still relevant today.
Political theorists divide freedom between the liberal freedoms – press, speech, conscience and socio-economic freedoms – living, work, craft. And much of the Left-Right conflict during the twentieth-century has focused on the supposed conflict or tension between these two kinds of freedoms and, in particular, the disputed status of ‘the right to property’ (or ‘property as theft’).
Of course our freedoms may compete; one good thing may always be in some tension with another good thing. But, as Grossman observes, our freedoms should hang together. The poet may value his freedom of speech, but the craftsman also needs his freedom to work – and to do the work that suits his talents. What made the Soviet regime so dreadful was that – in the name of freedom – all freedoms were destroyed. Economic freedoms were not salvaged by the state – they too were undermined.
But I think we have drawn the wrong lesson from these facts. In the West we may think that – to some degree – all our liberal freedoms are in tact and that even, thanks to the welfare state, we have now mastered and distributed socio-economic freedoms. But, really, we have made the same compromise as the Soviet state.
You can certainly eat – but only by giving up your freedom. We are impelled to work and to work on the terms set by our master. Either – you are employed and so must do as you are told – or – you are unemployed and must ‘not do’, you must stay inactive in order to get the crumbs that pass as ‘income security’.
And are our political freedoms any better? We can write what we want – but who will read us? We can protest – but who will hear us? The organisation of politics, the press and society is now so rigidly centralised that Stalin himself would be impressed. Our freedom is dwarfed by a society that lacks the spaces that would make our freedom meaningful.
True freedom, freedom for the whole person is a very rare and precious thing.
We might return to Grossman’s observation:
“freedom is the right to live and work as you wish and not as you’re ordered to”
So, we might ask ourselves, why – when we are rich beyond the dreams of any earlier generation – are we not free? What stops us having a reasonable degree of economic security and freedom?