source: The Weapon of Criticism
(From Human Rights in the Soviet Union by Al Szymanski, p. 313-14.)
The Class Basis of Civil Liberties
In the words of Leon Whipple: ‘Whoever has power has civil liberties.’ Lenin expressed the same principle: ‘In the final analysis, force settles all the great problems of political liberty.’ To pose the question in terms of ‘Freedom’ versus ‘repression’ is, in the last analysis incorrect, for in the real world, the freedom of one group to realize their interests implies the suppression of another’s.
Liberty is class based. Christopher Caudwell has argued:
What, to the proletarian is liberty–the extermination of those bourgeois institutions and relations which hold them in captivity–is necessarily compulsion and restraint to the bourgeois, just as old bourgeois liberty generated non-liberty for the worker. The two notions of liberty are irreconcilable. Once the proletariat is in power, all attempts to re-establish bourgeois social relations will be attacks on proletarian liberty, and will be repulsed as fiercely as men repulse all attacks on their liberty. This is the meaning of the dictatorship of the proletariat, and why, with it, there is censorship, ideological acerbity, and all the other devices developed by the bourgeois in the evolution of the coercive state which secures its freedom.
How does one judge the superiority of right? Is the right to live in whatever country one wants superior to the right to adequate health care? Is the right of a doctor to emigrate from a less developed socialist country in order to earn $75,000 a year in a highly developed capitalist country superior to the right of a peasant child to be cured of a potentially fatal disease? Right, then, is a class question. A poor country which makes a socialist revolution must, of necessity, bring its intellectuals and professionals to serve the needs of the people by restricting their relative privileges and reorienting them towards meeting the needs of the poor. From an upper-middle class doctor’s viewpoint, it is entirely proper that he/she should have the right to emigrate to any country he chooses at any time. But from the point of view of the peasantry (whose labour has provided the means for him or her to receive medical training) it is right to demand that their needs be served rather than, for example, those of middle-class Americans…It is a question of right versus right: a class question.
The claim by one group of the superiority of its right in relation to that of another group cannot be based on abstract or absolute criteria, but rather only on which claim to right is more progressive at a given time. That is, upon which best realizes the substantive freedom of the most people, which generates the best standard of living for all, the highest level of human dignity, the most advanced social services and social security, the greatest participation in the decisions that affect one’s life…The liberty of the capitalist class to say whatever it likes, go wherever it likes, etc., conflicts with the right of the working people to say whatever they like, go wherever they like, etc., as becomes vividly clear in times of instability, war, and decline of capitalist ideological hegemony, when, typically, formal freedoms are suspended. One class’s ‘freedom’ of expression and action necessarily conflicts with another’s, as does the freedom of white racists to make anti-Black propaganda necessarily conflict with the freedom of Blacks to civil rights and liberties.
…Not until a truly classless society, a society without a state, without the means to suppress anyone’s liberties, comes into being will the tolerance of all opinions become, in itself, a progressive and reasonable goal. Only then, when ideas are no longer class based, when basic racist, sexist, individualist, elitist prejudices have been virtually eliminated, when all people have been fully socialized into co-operative social relationships, can there be a truly free ‘marketplace of ideas’ where ideas can be judged on their own merits and not on the basis of class interests and implanted prejudices, and thus the situation in which no one should or can decide for others the limits of freedom truly viable.