Why Social Context Is Crucial

Against the Current, No. 33, July/August 1991

Milton Fisk

MY VIEW OF socialist democracy [see ATC 29] was attacked for promoting censorship and undercutting human rights [in two articles in ATC 32]. I hasten to point out that I did no such things, Still, it was convenient to denounce me for what I didn’t do, so these authors could avoid coming to grips with the implications of my central claim: While it is necessary for socialists to retrieve liberal values, those values can’t be taken over in precisely their liberal form.

Instead, socialists will actually have to think out what the new contours of the retrieved values must be in order for those values to be appropriate within a socialist economic framework. The work of beginning to define these new contours is more challenging than repeating vacuous statements about freedom and respect. One needs rather to ask: In a society with a socialist economy, what do freedom and respect mean concretely?

Freedom and Despotism

The socialist future Mandel paints in his “Socialism and Individual Rights” [ATC32] is full of sweetness and light. He speaks about “unlimited” freedom of the press and “unlimited” political democracy in socialism. Any taint of bias and unresponsiveness would not come from socialism itself. The very hint that such limits might persist beyond capitalism into socialism is, for Mandel, part of a sinister effort top the toilers in chains.

He opens with the charge that in my article, “Is Democracy Enough?” I mechanically counterposed socialism and individual rights. Yet I say that “One cannot implement the socialist conception of the good society without protection for individuals…To implement a society with these characteristics requires individual rights, and indeed requires a retrieval of many of the rights of liberalism.” So the issue between us cannot be, as he alleges, that I say individual rights and socialism are incompatible. What then is the issue?

The issue is that for him individual rights under socialism are unlimited, whereas for me they are not. For me, rights take on the coloration of the groups or the societies associated with them. Thus a liberal right, such as the liberal freedom of the press, is colored by the fact that the press is privately owned and depends on corporate advertising.

When we get to socialism, rights also take on a coloration; freedom of the press, I would hold, is then to be understood in terms of production being run by democratic councils. Resources will be allocated and reporting and editorializing will be done in a way that reflects this context. We are accustomed to the capitalist bias in the U.S. press, and we shouldn’t be surprised by a socialist bias in a society where socialism is entrenched. This coloration of the freedom of the press is but an application of the Marxist truism that right is never higher than the economic stage. It creates unrealistic expectations of socialism to claim that rights become unlimited within it.

Mandel, surprisingly, read my point as a call for censorship! He seems to think I’m calling for legislated standards of objectivity in reporting. Yet when critics point to the biases compatible with liberal press freedom, they are not complaining about censorship.

Censorship did become an issue in the recent Gulf War, but critics then attacked it purely on the basis of liberal press freedom, despite the biases this freedom tolerates. Clearly then, I am not talking about censorship when I point out that socialist press freedom will not be unlimited but will instead reflect the way the socialist context handles competing interests.

To speak, as Mandel does, of unlimited freedom of the press is to suppose that there is some notion of freedom that can be detached from a capitalist context, from a socialist context, from any context whatsoever. I challenged that possibility and Mandel didn’t pick the challenge up. Instead he confused the issue with the groundless charge of censorship.

A parallel point holds in regard to democracy. The reason socialists don’t think liberal democracy is enough is that it is colored in endless ways by the fact that it is trying to function within capitalism. Socialism extends and modifies liberal democracy in important areas.

But socialist democracy will also not be an abstraction brought to earth from a heaven in which there are no conflicts. It will come into being alongside production, national, gender and racial conflicts. It will have special features because of the special character these conflicts will have in a socialist context.

Democratic institutions built around these conflicts will not be able to be equally responsive to all interests. Yet Mandel suggests that to say there are limits is to be soft on despotism. Again, the challenge he ignores is to try to make sense of democracy without a context of conflicts, that is, to try to make sense of unlimited democracy. The danger inherent in Mandel’s position is that, after promising unlimited democracy, the inevitable disappointment from realizing that it will not—and cannot—come might encourage despots.

Change or Identity?

Tom Smith, in his “The Ethics of Socialist Praxis” [ATC 32] accuses me of “tossing out liberal ideals.” For Smith, my claim—“From liberalism to socialism there will be a change in democracy and human rights, and hence not an identity. But there will be sufficient resemblances to establish a continuity”—must amount to tossing out liberal ideals.

For Smith the values of liberalism must be preserved without change or they are irresponsibly tossed out. But then the freedom that responsible socialists take over from liberalism must, among other things, imply non-interference with the rights of property holders. After all, freedom as a liberal value has just this implication.

Smith would reply that he did not mean to leave capitalist aspects of liberal ideals unchanged. In particular, he would want freedom not to be restricted by capitalist property rights. But it needs to be pointed out that these aspects are thrown out just to satisfy our socialist vision. And in the process of throwing them out one ends up with values that aren’t the same as those of liberalism—although they are in continuity with them. So I don’t toss out liberal values any more, or less, than Smith does.

According to Smith, I hold that freedom of the press is an illusion. But I say that “in both the liberal and the socialist period the media will not be interfered with by something—the state in the former case and owners in the later.” I seem to be saying there is a non-illusory freedom of the press within both liberalism and socialism. Why would Smith ignore this? For me the freedom is different in the two cases, making it relative to the different situations. But Smith is unsatisfied with anything that smacks of relativism, and takes rights to be illusions unless they are absolutes.

Condemning my position for making rights illusory is based on nothing more than Smith’s disagreement with my relativism. But he must do more than say relativism is wrong; he needs some reason why. That is missing, despite the fact that much of my article was devoted to showing that the kinds of values defended by absolutists are either empty of content or the values of one side puffed up into values imposed on all sides.

Ironically, when the fog of name-calling is dispelled, Smith ends up adopting a position on the justification of values that is indistinguishable from my own. He approves of the Marxist idea of grounding values “within the practical possibilities of their realization offered by the dialectics of economic history.” The practicalities of the socialist economy do indeed make sense of values that are in continuity with—not identical to—liberal values grounded in capitalism.

This is all that’s needed in order to claim that in place of absolutes there are variations in values. New values are never unlimited but always embody the limitations of the practical possibilities. Freedom of the media under socialism does not differ from the limited freedom of the media under capitalism by being unlimited; it is limited by being a freedom appropriate to a different organization of the economy. Such a limitation has nothing to do with censorship.

Smith’s “ethics of socialist praxis” with its emphasis on radical democracy, including respect for individual and minority rights, needs to be recognized by him as an ethics whose values are conditioned by the socialist context they support. To implement the socialist economy, there has to be protection for rights. For example, the councils that run the institutions of socialism are nothing without the right of all to equal respect.

Liberalism too talks about equal respect, but it also means something else. There is no mechanism for workers to have a voice in the running of most bourgeois institutions. Thus there is no need for the kind of equal respect for everyone’s point of view that would have to exist in socialist institutions. This is why democracy is not enough and that we must insist on socialist democracy.

July-August 1991, ATC 33