Doesn't Socialism Conflict with Freedom?

The obvious question -- the inevitable question and inevitably the "most frequently asked" question for any anti-government socialist -- is "Doesn't Socialism Conflict with Freedom? Isn't socialism pro-government? How can you reconcile socialism and freedom?"

As we have seen, socialism is not the same thing as government control of the economy, but can be absolutely against it -- if we define socialism as W. Arthur Lewis and many other democratic socialists have defined it: democracy and a society without distinctions of class. Indeed, many Anarchists have considered themselves socialists!

Of course, there is a historical connection between the two usages. The idea of the classless society is the original meaning. Socialists understood "classes" in the context of Marx' analysis of capitalism. Capitalism was (and is) divided between two classes: owners and workers. Workers are those who have to work to get a living and perhaps a pension; owners are those who have the option of living all their lives off profits or dividends or interest or rent. A class of owners could not exist without workers, but workers could exist without owners. The only thing the employers contributed was investment and organization; but these services could be arranged in other ways. For example (some socialists pointed out), work could be organized and financed by government, through the ministries of a democratic government. Everyone employed would then be a civil servant. Civil servants are workers -- they have no option of living off their property -- so a society of civil-servant-citizen-employers would be an instance of a society without class distinctions. The triumph of Bolshevism in 1917 seemed, for a while, to make it the only relevant instance. But the events of the 1980's and since made it clear that the Communist countries were never really socialist at all, in the sense we have in mind here. They were never classless societies, but rather societies dominated by a bureaucratic class.

We have seen the practical criticisms of government control made real by the abuses of the Communist countries. But I want to focus on another, more frankly idealistic criticism. If the state-controlled economy were democratic -- an experiment that still has not been tried -- it might even work. It might even realize the ideal of equality as it is embodied in democracy and the class-less society. But it would not realize the ideal of reciprocity. Reciprocity demands the greatest equal freedom. Government is founded on relations of domination, and even if there were a democratic government and no class distinctions, it would all be a sham if the system were based on domination, as even the most efficient government is. Perhaps we cannot altogether dispense with government; but to make it the basis of the system is impossible. There is no equality where there is overlordship.