Todd Seavey, ahead of the curve back in 2009 in noticing that Will Wilkinson wasn’t really a libertarian, put it like this: "you have to admit that [Wilkinson’s] shtick is arguing that libertarians ought to accept elements of the welfare state."
A socialist could say something similar about Freddie DeBoer I think. His shtick is arguing that socialists should accept elements of the liberal concept of rights. Or is it rather that they should just pretend to do that to lower liberal defenses? It’s hard to tell. In his latest column – The Iron Law of Institutions and the Left – it seems to be trying really hard to be neither, as though careful phrasing would obviate the conflict. But it won’t. Socialism isn’t compatible with liberal concepts of rights and freedom, and so you’re either a reformer, or a deceiver.
So take the discourse of freedom, liberty, and rights. This discourse is very, very important to ordinary people, particularly Americans. You can lament that fact, but it is a fact. A radical left movement that wants to win would be careful in how it talks about freedom. To me, the message is obvious: socialism is desirable in part because it’s only socialism that guarantees true freedom, the freedom to live and behave free of want. We’re the movement that can make people really free because once in power we can let them pursue their own interests free of hunger, homelessness, and so on.
It’s a ploy as transparent as it is unconvincing. All one has to do is start listing things that would be in "[his] own interests" and asking socialists whether he’ll be free to do that. Like, if I invent something, am I free to manufacture it and profit from it? Can I start a firm and employ people? If I produce something, is it mine to keep, or is the government going to take it away and give it to someone else? Am I free to sell things at whatever prices I want? To not sell things I want to keep? Can I homeschool my children? Can I move away from people I don’t like? How many guns can I buy?
As for homelessness and hunger, I’m completely free of those things now, and so is pretty much everyone else. I have a house and more food than I can eat without really even trying. I’m not even a little bit worried about not having a place to live or not being able to find food, and if the statistics are to be believed that’s true of anywhere between 99.5% and 99.98% of the rest of the population as well1. And in fact, if you look around, the only industrial nations that have ever had systemic housing and food shortages have been socialist.
This whole line of argument is not only backward, but obviously so. You can say that socialists should start pushing this "freedom" narrative, but you’re only setting them up to face questions they can’t answer.
In fact if I talk about freedom in many radical left spaces, both real and virtual, I will often be told that “freedom is a bourgeois concept” or something similarly fatuous.
They’re only quoting Lenin, though. From his letter to Emma Goldman:
Freedom is a bourgeois prejudice. We repudiate all morality which proceeds from supernatural ideas or ideas which are outside the class conception.
And Lenin’s in good standing with Marx on that one. From the Communist Manifesto:
But don’t wrangle with us so long as you apply, to our intended abolition of bourgeois property, the standard of your bourgeois notions of freedom, culture, law, etc. Your very ideas are but the outgrowth of the conditions of your bourgeois production and bourgeois property, just as your jurisprudence is but the will of your class made into a law for all…
In On the Jewish Question, Marx goes on to lament:
The right of property, is, therefore, the right to enjoy one’s fortunes and dispose of it as he will; without regard for other men and independently of society… It leads every man to see in other men, not the realization, but rather the limitation of his own liberty.
To the extent Marx talks about "freedom," then, he means something completely different from how most of us use the term. He certainly doesn’t mean the individual freedoms that liberals mean, and it’s really not clear what he does mean. Thinkning of "other men" as "the realization of … [my] own liberty" is murky at best, but it sounds a lot like slavery.
Right now, the left is in the process of rejecting freedom of speech as a reactionary concept. Freedom of speech has been a cherished left-wing virtue for decades, advanced by people like Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Rosa Luxemburg, and many other radical luminaries.
And decried by as many others. And really, of the three mentioned here, only Rosa Luxemburg offered anything approaching unqualified support for free speech – because she’s the only one of the three to have made it absolutely clear that freedom of speech means freedom to dissent (Freiheit der Andersdenkenden – lit. "freedom of differnt-thinkers"). For Marx and Engels, it’s more an exercise of cherry-picking. One can find quotes that support it without too much trouble, but taken in context they always seem to mean that free speech is a useful tool against bourgeois interests. Whether it will continue to exist after the Revolution is not as clear. Marxists like to say things like that so-called "freedom of the press" in bourgeois society is an illusion because the press is owned by private interests. But they never manage to commit themselves to the position that once the press is owned by the state it will guarantee that people can use that press to criticize the state, or the revolution, or generally say anything that marxism would find politically inconvenient. Can I, after the Revolution, run my own press and print what I like? They never say explicitly – but the answer seems to be "no," since there won’t be any individual ownership of means of production.
And indeed, it’s sort of telling that in his recent essays that touch on free speech, DeBoer never quite says that the student mob that shut down Charles Murray was wrong.
When Middlebury College students protested Charles Murray violently, many leftists nominated them as the vanguard of today’s left movement. But this is a curious attitude, given that more students at Middlebury come from families in the top 1% by income than from the bottom 60%. That’s not a reason to dismiss them entirely, of course.
Of course. The reason to dismiss them entirely is that they’re violent enemies of freedom, whatever class they happen to be from. The fact that prominent leftists were defending a mob attack on a scientist isn’t a mere PR problem, it’s ironclad proof that the far left wants nothing to do with freedom as most people understand the term. That’s not something you can fix with framing. If you want people to believe you’re bringing them freedom, then the absolute minimum – the absolute minimum – you need to commit yourself to is that you’re actively opposed to people physically attacking them for trying to hold a speech. If you can’t even do that much, then no amount of sophistry is going to convince anyone you support free speech, because you don’t.
Again: it is more to your social advantage to be the Ultimate Lefty than it is to set your statements up in such a way that they advance left-wing causes, which will often entail, whether we like it or not, playing to people who do not already believe what we believe.
At some point the shell game has to stop, though. At some point we get to see which cup the pea is under. At some point, if you want to persuade people, you have to do more than "play to people who do not already believe what we believe" and actually say what you believe. So what is it? What is free speech to a socialist? Does Charles Murray get to talk in safety or not? Should students respond to him with reasoned arguments or not? Does socialist free speech include the right to say that intelligence is genetically determined and correlated with race or not? Does it include the right to say anything angry groups of students don’t want to hear or not? And just in general, do socialists in good standing – even those who are from the right social class – respond to opinions they disagree with with mob violence or not? What is it you actually believe?
Because if you can’t convincingly make the case that in a socialist society Charles Murray and people like him can take the stage at an institute of learning, defend an unpopular theory, and expect the response to be informed and civil, then you can’t persuade me you’re anything like the good guys.
And history’s really not on your side here – because whatever Marx or Engels or Luxemborg may have written or said, there’s a long history of left-wing agitators – especially student agitators – beating people up for disagreeing with them. The Red Guards weren’t some random aberration confined to Cultural Revolution-era China. They’ve existed in some form in every far-left country we’ve seen. Yes, even Allende’s Chile. You don’t even have to have a socialist country to notice that socialist students just really like exercising mob power. If a professor is under police protection for simply criticizing a racial awareness event, to pick a current example, odds are way better than even it’s the left behind the threat.
Now, there’s nothing specific to the left that creates this tendency. Running people out of the village for being a little different is as old as, well, villages. The problem with the left is that it does nothing to mitigate it. Because seen properly, Socialism is merely an attempt to run an industrial society like a village. The trouble with that is, you can’t. Industrial societies aren’t villages, and the kinds of cultural norms that work in villages don’t scale. Liberalism2 remains the only system that scales to populations of millions. And it does that precisely by giving up on control. It sets clear boundaries between the public and private spheres and leaves people largely to their own devices. The reason why people associate "freedom" with liberalism isn’t some random accident of recent history, and it’s not down to "the vagaries of political culture." It’s because liberalism, unlike socialism, is actually founded on it. Freedom for liberals isn’t just a way of "framing what we believe" as a means to "appealing to the enlightened self-interests of the persuadable." It’s the endgoal, the entire point of the political project. All the marketing power on Madison Avenue isn’t going to make up that difference. The reason liberal students don’t go around beating up their opponents is because doing stuff like that is incompatible with their philosophy. It’s not incompatible with socialism. Socialism is expressly coercive. You, as a Socialist, can say the word "freedom" out loud all you want – but you’re never going to mean it.
DeBoer ultimately can’t take his essay to its logical conclusion, because he can’t address the question that’s so very obvious to the rest of us: how did advocating violence come to gain leftist insiders social cachet in the first place? The answer is as clear as it is embarassing for his marketing project: it couldn’t have if mob violence, coercion, and control were actually at odds with socialist principles, and they’re not.
The "Iron Law of Institutions" that is the main subject of the essay says that members of an institution will often prefer to promote their standing within the institution to promoting the institution’s goals. It’s about as clear a statement of the superiority of liberalism as one could ask for, when you think about it. But if you’re committed to trying to make Socialism work anyway, you have to start by admitting that writing essays about this isn’t going to be enough. The "iron" bit in "iron law" means "can’t get around it." The upshot is that in jockeying for position in an organization, people still have to at least pretend to be serving the organization’s goals. But that’s where it gets awkward for DeBoer. If it’s just that he wants attending meetings, volunteering, and generally doing the grunt work of building a socialist movement to be the go-to strategy for insiders proving their dedication, I’d say he has a chance. Because you actually can call out someone’s (lack of) dedication by calling them lazy.
It won’t be enough if he wants people to stop viciously attacking professors and cynically passing it off as "freedom," though. For that, he’s going to need a new Socialism.