George Walford: Freedom in Freedom

Interest in theory grows with ideological development. The expedient group hardly attempts to justify its behaviour, while towards the eidodynamic end of the range attention becomes focused on theory, even to the point where practical application drops out of sight. Anarchists tend to place high value upon concepts, logically unassailable, which do nothing to help the human condition.

The (Anarcho-)Socialist Party advance, as one of their main contentions, the proposition that an overwhelming majority of people holding socialist ideas will bring socialism. Since, according to them, socialism will be a society made up of people holding socialist ideas (other differences such as common ownership following from this), the proposition is undeniable. One can no more argue with it than with the assertion that if things were different they would not be the same. It tells us, however, nothing whatever about the probability of getting a socialist society; in order to know that, we need to know whether we can reasonably expect the advent of this overwhelming majority accepting socialist ideas, and here the (A-)SPGB offer no help at all. Full of burning faith that it will come, they advance neither reason nor evidence to support the expectation.

The general anarchist movement advances another concept, equally indisputable and equally unhelpful. Anarchists advocate a condition of freedom, subject only to the limitation that none shall interfere with the freedom of others. This answers at a stroke all those awkward questions about who should be free to do what; all shall be free but none shall have their freedom interfered with. As an idea it is invulnerable.

Unfortunately, every social freedom worth thinking about does interfere with the freedom of others. Anarchists have devised an idea which soars above all criticism, but only at the cost of losing all feasibility. This needed bringing to their attention, and when raised in the letter columns of Freedom, the oldest Anarchist journal, it provoked (under the running title UP WITH SOME FREEDOMS) the correspondence which follows.

Dear Editors,
This letter is an appeal for help. For many years I looked forward to a society in which freedom would be limited only by the condition that one should not interfere with the freedom of others. Recently I have been trying to work out what this would mean in practice, and now find myself in trouble.

Apart from the freedom to think or feel without acting (no society can deprive us of that), there doesn’t seem to be any freedom worth thinking about that does not interfere with the freedom of others. By keeping myself out of jail I interfere with the freedom of the police to throw me in, by refusing to do a job I interfere with the freedom of the bosses to exploit me, and by propagating anarchism I deprive the statists of their freedom from opposition. Those examples come from authoritarian society, but in anarchy the principle would still hold. By reading a book, sitting in a railway carriage or riding a bike I deprive others of the freedom to use that book, seat or bike. By speaking to anybody I prevent them enjoying silence, by breathing I prevent others using that parcel of air, and by just being there I prevent others occupying that space.

‘Freedom that does not interfere with the freedom of others’ has come to look like an empty formula not corresponding to any objective reality. Changing the words, talking about range of choice instead of freedom, doesn’t help a bit. I can’t think of any significant choice that can be put into practice without interfering with the freedom of others to practise their choices.

This is distressing; it has brought on something like a Victorian crisis of faith. Can the readers of Freedom help? Can anybody tell me of freedoms worth thinking about that can be exercised without interfering with the freedom of others?

George Walford

Dear Editors,
George Walford’s ‘Appeal for Help’ (Freedom 3 April) should surely have been printed on 1st April as it is a splendid satire. I am confident comrades are aware that we seek freedoms that are basic and fundamental, and we seek them because we are oppressed. There can be no question of giving bosses the ‘freedom’ to exploit workers. It is only ‘interference’ if my freedom prevents you from enjoying an equivalent or more fundamental freedom. Thus, my freedom to buy bananas may subsequently reduce the freedoms of poor banana growers unless I read my Ethical Consuer carefully.

Usufruct is a key anarchist idea; the right to use something if no-one else is making use of it. Thus it is impossible to deprive anyone of the freedom to read a book, as long as you are reading it yourself. When you are not reading it, it should be available (like this copy of Freedom), for others to read. In reality property ownership is an absurd sop to insecure people whose egos need the boost of paper ownership. You can only own food when you eat it; own a painting when creating or admiring it; own a tool when making something with it. At all other times you are simply depriving others of making use of it, reducing their freedom unnecessarily.

George was presumably deploring Mr.Major’s attempt to redefine freedom in terms of ‘choice’; as we all know, that means more choice for those who can afford it. Mr.Stockbroker’s ‘freedom’ is clearly choice at the expense of the basic freedoms of others. But such people already have all the real freedoms as they are not exploited, imprisoned or prevented from setting up co-operatives – if you can imagine a stockbroker setting up a co-op.

But there is a serious question in George’s letter. ‘What do we want freedom for?’ For myself, the most important freedom is the freedom to work. Of course I do not mean employment. I mean physical labour, using skills of hand and eye; that creative combination of art and craft which alone satisfies the human spirit.
You get out of life what you put in; and you get most out when you are actually physically working. Of course Marx was right that there is no fun in it if others own the means of production, as they force us into slavery, drudgery and alienation. We all want to have an impact upon our environment, to use our unique gifts to add to the common good, to express our inner spirit through the medium of material reality. This is our nature. Our government and social organisations suppress this essential need, and must be outgrown if we are to be free.

This freedom does not interfere with anyone else’s freedom, as there is more than enough work for everyone. And if everyone was allowed to work according to their unique gifts, in their own way, at their own speed, co-operatively or alone, there would be more than enough of everything else. For, when the human spirit is expressed through creativity, the need for consumption becomes minimal. The desire to possess objects is a poor substitute sought only by those who are prevented from the free expression of their real selves.

John Myhill

Dear Editors,
My Appeal for Help (3 April) was meant straight-forwardly. Could the readers of Freedom tell me of any freedom of action that does not interfere with the freedom of others? Nobody has done so, and I don’t think there are any; ‘freedom that does not interfere with the freedom of others’ is an empty phrase, a trick of argument. All the freedoms of action that matter do interfere with the freedom of others.

This appears in the one reply printed. John Myhill starts by saying that we seek freedoms because we are oppressed. That is to say, we try to suppress the freedom to oppress in order to enjoy freedom from oppression. Excellent! But let us not then claim to be refusing to interfere with freedom. Let us admit – let us declare – that we mean to do away with the freedom to oppress.

John says: ‘It is only interference if my freedom prevents you from enjoying an equivalent or more fundamental freedom.’

In the ordinary meaning of the words it is still interference if my freedom prevents you enjoying a lesser freedom than mine. It may well be true that claiming ownership of a tool when not using it interferes ‘unnecessarily’ with the freedom of others; it still does interfere. So does using the tool; while I am doing this nobody else has freedom to use it. John says a stockbroker enjoys his freedoms at the expense of the basic freedoms of others. Agreed. And if they assert those basic freedoms they will be interfering with his freedom.

Nothing is absolutely true, not even the statement that freedom is always a good thing. Some freedoms are to be favoured at the expense of others and some are to be opposed, for example the freedoms to oppress, to kill children, to degrade women, to suppress debate. Anarchy would not be a society simply of freedom but one in which some freedoms were promoted while some were restricted and others suppressed. It would include a lot of interference with the freedom of others.

George Walford

Dear Editors,
In reply to George Walford and his ‘some freedoms,’ might I direct him to Bakunin’s The Paris Commune and the Idea of the State. The relevant, if lengthy, passages I quote below: ‘I am not speaking of that freedom which is purely formal, doled out, measured, and regulated by the State, an everlasting lie which in reality never represents anything but the privilege of a few based on the enslavement of everyone else.’ i.e. the ‘freedom’ of the stockbroker which George avidly defends.

Nor do I mean that individualistic, egotistical, malicious and illusory freedom extolled by the school of J-J Rousseau, as by all the other schools of bourgeois liberalism, which considers the so-called rights of everyone, represented by the State, as the limit of the rights of each individual, and which in fact leads of necessity and without exception to the reduction of the rights of the individual to zero. No, I mean only the freedom which is truly worthy of that name, the freedom which consists in the full development of all the material, intellectual, and moral powers which are found in the form of latent capabilities in every individual. I mean that freedom which recognises only those restrictions which are laid down for us by the laws of our own nature; so, properly speaking, there are no restrictions, since these laws are not imposed by some outside legislator situated maybe beside us or maybe above us, they are immanent in us and inherent in us and constitute the very basis of all our these, as much material as intellectual and moral. Thus, instead of trying to find a limit for them, we should consider them as the real conditions of the real reason for our freedom.’ We very soon reach the point where we can say we are unfree because we do not own our own airline company, £3 million mansion and a holiday home in Barbados!

The ‘freedom’ George talks of is achieved on an atomised individual level which ultimately means that total freedom could only be achieved by a world dictator at the expense of everyone else. The alternative view of what freedom exactly is, which Bakunin puts forward, is not exclusive to anarchism and is also to be found in Marxism (his Paris Manuscripts for example) and even in the lighter pages of Lenin’s State and Revolution. However, to the belief in atomistic freedom this communal freedom has few answers – being based on a totally different idea of what human nature is (i.e. a social being rather than a naturally self-seeking being). The trap of being drawn into the discussion of ‘individualistic’ freedoms as distinct from ‘freedom for all individuals’ is, in short, a capitalistic blind alley which can only lead to the conclusion that humankind needs (at least) a minimal state to avoid chaos and the rule of the fittest – and thus disallows anarchy as a possibility before the discussion begins! If, however, we believe that it is possible for men and women to live in society without the need for hierarchies of any kind then we should avoid being limited by the parameters of ‘egoistic freedom’ and instead should redirect debate towards freedom for all equitably and how to achieve it.

In case this is not a sufficient reply – regarding George’s practical examples, for instance that of one person’s reading a book inhibiting anybody else’s ‘freedom’ in that they cannot also read it. Here I believe George is confusing two distinct concepts: freedom and possibility. If we take this argument away from capitalist property ownership (if we did not then George’s example holds true), then if there is one book held in common by a community it is more correct to talk of their freedom being increased by the existence of that one book and all are free to read it (although obviously not at the same time – but is this really a likely incursion of freedom?) The only solution in which it would be correct to talk of the community being unfree in any way is that of their being prevented by another person or persons from producing enough books for everyone – which they otherwise had the materials, knowledge and ability to produce. But to talk of someone being unfree to do something which is not humanly possible is nonsense – it is the same as saying we are not free to fly because we don’t have wings, i.e. with Bakunin this is simply a misuse of the world ‘freedom’ where clearly we are talking of ‘ possibility.’ If we were to follow George’s argument and his definition of freedom on an individual level, we very soon reach the point where we can say that we are unfree because we do not own our own airline company, £3 million mansion and a holiday home in Barbados!

To finish, ‘freedom’ in any real sense can only be as Bakunin states: ‘Freedom which, far from stopping as if before a boundary in fact of the freedom of others, on the contrary finds in that freedom its own confirmation and extension to infinity; the unlimited freedom of each in the freedom of all, freedom in solidarity, freedom in equality’.

Piers J. Hale

Dear Editors,
Two letters of mine recently printed in Freedom (3 April and 15 May) raised the question whether the phrase commonly used by anarchists, ‘freedom that does not interfere with the freedom of others,’ is an empty form of words. As far as I can see no such freedom exists or can exist. I asked for help. Could any reader tell me of a freedom of action, worth thinking about, that does not interfere with the freedom of others? Instead of the expected demonstration that there are lots of them, nobody has named even one.

Still more surprising, the two letters printed in response both go to confirm my conclusion. One printed on 17 April gave instances only of freedoms that do interfere with the freedom of others, and now (11 June) Piers J.Hale comes forward with further support. Piers quotes some declarations by Bakunin that exercise of the freedoms he sought would mean interfering with those valued by Rousseauites and bourgeois liberals, and goes on to add further examples himself. My second letter took up the example, given by John Myhill, of the freedom enjoyed by a stockbroker, and Piers condemns such freedom; enjoyed by only a few it limits the freedom of everybody else. A fine confirmation of the point I was making.

Piers goes beyond the usual arguments to describe even the discussion of ‘individualistic’ freedoms as a ‘trap’; we should, he says, ‘avoid being limited by the parameters of individualistic freedom.’ Although the esoteric polysyllable obscures the meaning this is, again, effectively my point. Piers argues that the expression of ‘ individualistic’ freedoms limits those he values. If ‘freedom that doesn’t interfere with the freedom of others’ is an empty form of words then this cannot be what anarchy guarantees.

I ask again: Can anybody name a freedom of action, worth thinking about, that can be exercised without interfering with the freedom of others? If not, I suggest we need to revise our conception of anarchy. To describe it as a society in which only those freedoms are exercised that do not interfere with the freedom of others is to say (since no such freedoms exist) that it would permit no freedom at all. I suggest we would do better to accept that anarchy would entail a great deal of interference with freedom; a major difference between that condition and our present one would be the suppression of many freedoms now widely exercised, freedoms to exploit, oppress and degrade among them.

George Walford

Dear Editors,
Again in reply to George Walford: I agree with him that ‘freedom that does not interfere with the freedom of others’ is an empty form of words, one which in effect allows no freedom at all, and I had hoped to make this clear in my previous letter (Freedom, 12 June). However, I draw from this apparently different conclusions than he does.

George says that if an anarchist society guarantees only those freedoms which don’t interfere with others, then it doesn’t in practice guarantee any freedom at all – from this he concludes that anarchy must entail the suppression of undesirable freedoms (such as the ‘freedom’ to exploit, oppress and degrade others). By extension, he then finds himself of the opinion that true anarchy cannot work without some form of ‘regulation’ of the actions of the population.

Nobody has come up with a significant freedom which can be exercised without interfering with the freedom of others. I submit that we would do well to abandon the empty assertion that anarchism stands for such freedoms.

However, if ‘freedom that doesn’t interfere with others’ is an empty form of words, then this cannot be what anarchy guarantees – Bakunin’ s attack on the Rousseauites in The Paris Commune and the Idea of the State is not attacking their claimed ‘freedom’ as an activity, but is attacking their calling such activities a ‘freedom’ at all. The freedom that anarchy guarantees (that which I called ‘communal freedom’ in my previous letter), as Bakunin says, is the only state of affairs worthy of being called freedom; the freedom of all men and women living in society together. This is not to say that anarchists whilst upholding this ‘communal freedom’ must suppress the claimed ‘freedom’ of individual capitalists – because these ‘freedoms’ make a nonsense of the word, and in fact guarantee not ‘freedom’ at all but only the right to oppress, exploit and make profit.

There perhaps remains the argument that it would be necessary to coerce individuals from exploiting, degrading or harming others within anarchist society. However, if we agree that the desires to exploit, oppress, etc. are not inherent to human nature, in a truly free society where the structures and hierarchies which facilitate, encourage and reward such actions would no longer exist, the social nature of humankind would be given full and free natural expression communally and without interference. The only sense in which ‘ coercion’ or inhibition of others’ freedom would be self-imposed by those not wishing to offend society and their comrades – perhaps as outlined by DR in the Anarchist Notebook of 26th June.

Piers J.Hale

Dear Editors,
Had to smile at George Walford’s cry for help (3rd April). At the time I read it I was in the same minefield myself, since in writing an incitement to trespass I wanted to include a moral justification. In the event I saw that any argument from natural justice not resting finally on some sort of assertion would be severely technical and too lengthy for my purpose. In fact I found a means of bypass, but as George remains unsatisfied here’s a possibility for him to consider.
I might on occasion trespass demonstratively, either alone or with a thousand friends; but I might prefer sometimes to avoid confrontation in order to enjoy, as someone put it eighty years ago: ‘that philosophical and tranquil demeanour which should always characterise the expert trespasser.’ Surely the unobserved trespass would be an example of a freedom taken without infringement of another’s freedom?

Notice that this is a curious case. I can think of types of action in which the injured party isn’t aware of the injury but in which there has been some material change. And I can think of types of action causing no material change but through which the second party suffers undoubted injury. (I won’t give examples because I’m afraid they’d provoke a messy correspondence.) In contrast to these, the unobserved trespass leaves no material trace and also leaves the landowner with his pride and happiness unimpaired. Understand that I’m not arguing for it as a tactic. But can George work out whether there aren’t classes of actions with low degrees of interference?

It may be that George doesn’t consider this an example of a significant action. At some length I think I might persuade him otherwise. Or perhaps he might consult your new title, Harold Sculthorpe’s Freedom to Roam, which I haven’t yet seen myself.

Harold Drasdo

Dear Editors,
The phrase “freedom that does not interfere with the freedom of others” is an empty form of words; in social affairs there are, and can be, no such freedoms.
That statement could be falsified by just one example of such a freedom, but none have been given. In the issue of 10 July Harold Drasdo asks whether there aren’t classes of action with low degrees of interference. Certainly there are; the smaller the freedom, the less the interference. The big freedoms, the ones that mainly concern anarchists, bring a lot of interference.

Piers J. Hale, after agreeing with the statement, goes on to argue that the capitalistic freedom to exploit should not be reckoned a freedom at all, only a right. But a right is a freedom protected by society. The freedom to exploit interferes with freedom from exploitation, and the freedom of anarchy would interfere with the freedom to exploit.

Donald Rooum, also accepting the statement, goes on to call it nasty names and to suggest that I am using ‘interfere’ in two senses, although my statement (which opens this letter) uses the word only once. And the argument is not ‘against the anarchist case,’ it is against one inadequate formulation of that case.

This discussion has now continued through seven issues of Freedom (it started on April 3rd), and nobody has come up with a significant freedom which can be exercised without interfering with the freedom of others. I submit that we would do well to abandon the empty assertion that anarchism stands for such freedoms. A more responsible account, and a more persuasive one, would say which freedoms the movement does stand for and show why these are better than the contrary freedoms they interfere with. Their superiority may seem self-evident to anarchists, but it is clearly not so to the great majority; of those who have heard anarchism explained, most have turned away.

George Walford

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S.I. ascribes conservatism to the ideology of Domination. Michael Harrington confirms: ‘If there is a genuine continuing theme in Conservative history it is the defence of authority. In the Nineteenth Century, Conservatives stood for truncheons, gunboats, and the Church of England. The contemporary Conservative believes in truncheons and the authority of management in business.’

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ALMOST by definition, simple statements cannot describe complex entities, but some do come pretty close. Consider this pair as expressing, respectively, the eidodynamic and eidostatic sets of social assumptions:

Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite Travaille, Patrie, Famille.

from Ideological Commentary 61, August 1993.