Socialism and Individual Rights

Against the Current, No. 32, May/June 1991

Ernest Mandel

THE INTERESTING EXCHANGE between Harry Brighouse and Milton Fisk on socialism and individual rights in ATC 29 (November-December 1990) suffers from a mechanical counterpoising of socialism—better, workers’ power—and individual rights.

We shall argue here that far from being contradictory (at least partially), collective social power and the fullest possible realization of individual rights are complementary for the whole transition period between capitalism and communism.

They are absolutely complementary for a communist society in which, to quote the Communist Manifesto, the free development of all depends upon the free development of each [individual].”

The only exception is that of violent civil war in which groups are murdering workers, peasants, particularly women and children. These groups obviously are not allowed to organize, demonstrate, speak or write freely in all those territories where they have lost control: No anarchist or social-democrat was willing to grant political rights to the (fascist movement) Falange in Barcelona, Madrid, Valencia or Malaga in August 1936.

We can illustrate our thesis by raising first the problem of freedom of the press. We believe that Milton Fisk is wrong when he states that unlimited press freedom is impossible, given considerations about “objective reporting” and “workers councils’ control.”

We are in favor of a system in which each group of civilians is guaranteed access to the printing presses (and the media in general) strictly proportional to the support it can mobilize, first in the form of signatures, then checked by actual sales, or actual viewing audience in the case of TV.

For example: Twenty thousand people might get the right to publish a daily paper, five thousand a weekly, two thousand a biweekly, one thousand a monthly, a lesser number a page, then half a page in an “interdenominational” monthly.

The only constraint is the material one. While a nationwide body (a congress of workers’ and popular councils, or a “producers’ chamber” in a multi-chambered representative structure) would allocate a given percentage of total resources to the media, the producers of the media sector, printing workers, TV technicians and the like, cannot be forced to have a workload that exceeds the maximum which they have themselves democratically decided.

This implies their right to adapt the figures cited above as examples to this freedom of theirs, as long as society has not assured additional investments (equipment and employment) to eliminate the contradiction.

No Restriction of Expression

But this material limitation in no way restricts the freedom of all individuals to freely express or voice their ideas. The fact that certain individuals will have to do this in a bi-weekly instead of a weekly paper does not restrict the freedom of expression as such Any restriction of that freedom by considerations of “objectivity” or “fairness” or “responsibility’ in reporting potentially undermines the freedom of the press for all.

As given bodies would have to decide on the criteria of “objectivity;” as these criteria are by definition at least partially subjective and no absolute consensus can be established for them, as therefore there would be divided votes on them, and as majorities can and will change, anybody can suddenly find hint herself in a situation where some of his/her opinions would be judged “irresponsible.”

Furthermore, any restriction of the freedom of the press by considerations about “objective reporting,” i.e. control over contents, implies an instrument of control, which means an instrument of censorship. One should reread Marx’s brilliant polemics against any forms of censorship to understand their disastrous implications. “Irresponsible,” “subjective” reporting, “disinformation” are evils. But they are lesser evils than any form of censorship.

Truth Through Debate

Yet there is a more fundamental reason why any limitation to the freedom of the press is detrimental to the interests of the toilers and makes the building of socialism more difficult.

There are no definitely established final “rules” or “laws” about the nature of socialism and the ways or means of achieving a good society (more correctly: a qualitatively better society). Society during the building of socialism is a huge laboratory of successive, often contradictory experiments.

Many mistakes will inevitably be committed during that period. The key question is not whether errors can be avoided. That is strictly impossible. The key question is whether the mistakes and their consequences can be limited, and how quickly they can be corrected.

But that requires precisely the fullest possible expression of minority counterproposals while wrong majority proposals are being developed. This in turn requires unlimited political democracy (multiparty, multiplatform democracy), which cannot be implemented without unlimited freedom of the press.

Any alternative position presupposes infallibility on behalf of somebody (“The party is always right”), leading to the conclusion shared by the Catholic Church, Islam or the Orthodox Jewish clergy on the one hand, the Stalinists and Maoists on the other hand: “You cannot grant the same rights to Truth and Falsehood, to those who defend the proletariat and to capitalist-readers,” etc.

The answer of Marxists to these sophisms is: You cannot struggle for truth, discover truth, which is never final, without the fullest possible debate, i.e. the fullest freedom of opinion, freedom of the press. As Friedrich Engels wrote to the leadership of the German social democracy: The Party needs socialist science, and that cannot develop without the fullest freedom of movement.

There is no way in which freedom of the press could be disconnected from the flowering of socialist democracy, multiparty/multiplatform democracy. Rosa Luxemburg prophesied in 1918 that if basic political freedoms were restricted in a single-party sense, all political life could disappear from the Soviets, and only the bureaucracy would remain an active, guiding factor.

So what we are dealing with is not the difference between bourgeois democracy and proletarian, soviet democracy. We are dealing with the conditions for implementing socialist democracy, and for insuring that the workers’ power is real and not fake.

Against All Despotism

Nor is it true that the need for producers’/consumers’ democracy, i.e. the need to extend human rights and freedom to the economic sphere, in any way could come into conflict with unlimited freedom of the press.

The economic freedom of the producers to conquer control over their lives, their working and living conditions, hinges not only upon the suppression of the private ownership of (big) means of production and exchange. It implies not only their emancipation from the rule of market laws and the profit motive, from the needs of capital accumulation, from any set of “laws” imposed upon them against their will.

It also hinges upon their right and real power to escape the alternative “either state despotism or market despotism.” It hinges upon their capacity to freely, collectively and consciously decide upon what to produces how to produce and how to distribute at least a significant part of the current output.

But the mass of producer/consumers is not completely homogeneous in its interests, nor in its consciousness, the ways that it understands these interests. Hence differences of opinion about priorities and thus about key decisions are unavoidable.

If multiparty, multiplatform democracy and freedom of the press are in any way restricted, sectors of the working class not of the residual capitalist class—are restricted in their economic freedom as producers/consumers.

Economic freedom at the macroeconomic and macro-social levels implies the possibility for the toilers to choose among alternative proposals of economic development and alternative, internally coherent models of development plans. This cannot be realized without the fullest freedom of discussion and press.

The Right to Be Wrong

Furthermore, it is by no means guaranteed that the toilers will always I make the correct choices, those that lead to the best possible medium and long-term results. The idea that “the majority is always right” is as unrealistic as the idea that “the party (or the experts, or philosophers, or scientists) are always right.”

Democracy does not presuppose such superstition. It presupposes the right of error for majorities. The rationale behind that right is the need and capacity of self-education of the toilers, their capacity to correct their mistakes by a trial-and-error process, to discover the best possible road of economic development by a process of successive approximation.

The idea of self-education of the producers/consumers through their self-activity is the decisive defining characteristic of Marxian socialism as against any other concept of socialism of a paternalistic/elitist nature. But self-education of the toilers cannot be implemented without the fullest possible freedom of discussion, debate, confrontation of opposing ideas.

Thus freedom of expression of ‘wrong ideas” paradoxically becomes a precondition for adequately discovering and defending more correct ideas (“totally correct” ideas do not exist). There is no other way of self-education of the toilers than their growing involvement in debates about their fundamental choices.

If “wrong ideas” didn’t exist, we would have to invent them in order to arrive at the most efficient economic policy. (Don’t worry: We won’t have to go to that length; “wrong ideas” will survive in the foreseeable future.)

Conflict in Classless Society

At this point we can generalize the reasoning. We cannot accept the “egalitarian liberals” assumption, at least partially coopted by Harry Brighouse, that there is some unavoidable opposition between the “private sphere” and the collective sphere. Using the word “government” instead of “collective” just confuses the issue. It assumes, without proof, that the state, i.e. the bureaucracy, is the only possible mediator between conflicting individual interests.

Precisely because Marxists agree with Brighouse that a classless society, not to mention the society in the transition period, will not be “conflictless,” democratic mechanisms of mediation between conflicting interests of individuals are the only way in which both the interests of the individual and the interests of the collective can be gradually discovered and guaranteed.

Democratically (as against bureaucratically) centralized self-management and self-administration takes the form of decentralized and increasingly fragmented exercise of power.

The idea that the social division of labor between “bosses” and “bossed over” people can be overcome does not imply that “everybody (co-)decides everything.” It implies that dozens if not hundreds of democratically elected and functioning bodies of self- administration function side by side. (Nearly) everybody participates in several of them.

It is rather unlikely that a large minority of individuals would always and in all these bodies stay permanently in a minority and therefore feel frustrated, as Brighouse argues. If small minorities do, this problem, inasmuch as it is not problem of psychopathology, can wither away through practices of looking for consensus.

There exists a wealth of literature on techniques of reducing conflict. The key distinction is that between “consensus politics” so long as social differences and antagonisms survive on the one hand, and “consensus polities” where only marginal individual differences are dealt with on the other hand. The former application of consensus must be rejected out of hand; as it is always at the expense of the underdog the latter application of consensus has to be consciously promoted.

In both cases the interest of the collective is best served by the unconditional defense of individual rights, provided there are rights for all (the individual right for unlimited private accumulation of wealth can never be implemented in practice for all individuals).

There is a material precondition for generalized structured self-management and self-administration: a radical reduction of the work day and the work week for all. But that is another story.

May-June 1991, ATC 32