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It has recently occurred to me that in “bending the stick” away from the dominant, maximalist view of intellectual freedom in various posts on this site, I may be giving the impression that I don’t subscribe to the library’s role in upholding intellectual freedom. I do, but not in a way that is perhaps recognizable to those who approach intellectual freedom from the tradition of liberal political and ethical thought. I don’t deny that something which we currently call “intellectual freedom” is important and something that libraries should uphold, but I think that “intellectual freedom” is not the right name for it, and that this mis-naming is not trivial, but is in fact the source of mystification and the unconscious and obscured reproduction of liberal political theory and values. The problem is with the word “freedom”, a word which carries an enormous amount of weight in liberal theory and in liberal (i.e. bourgeois) societies. The problem is that “freedom” in any kind of unqualified sense does not exist. So whatever this thing is that we call intellectual freedom appears to bourgeois society to be sacrosanct because it makes a claim to the holy value of “freedom”. This renders any attempt to discuss the concept from a position other than complete acquiescence automatically suspect, if not always-already the product of a totalitarian agenda of the left or of the right.

But “freedom” doesn’t exist, therefore it should not be held as any kind of sacred object. Friedrich Engels remarked in the Anti-Duhring that “freedom is the recognition of necessity”, that is “freedom” can only be understood within the context of necessity, can only be understood through its dialectical opposite, can only ever be relative freedom. The British Marxist Christopher Caudwell, who died fighting in the Spanish Civil War, used Engels’ remark as the epigraph to his first book, Illusion and Reality: A Study of the Sources of Poetry (1937), in which he discusses at length the bourgeois concept of freedom. Freedom for the bourgeoisie is the absence of coercive feudal relationships raised to a mythical, metaphysical primacy. “The bourgeois sees himself as an heroic figure fighting a lone fight for freedom - as the individualist battling against all the social relations which fetter the natural man, who is born free and is for some strange reason everywhere in chains.” Here Caudwell refers to Rousseau, but the idea of natural, self-determining free individuals coming together more or less unwillingly to form society is the founding myth of all the Social Contract theorists, including Locke and Hobbes. But freedom in this sense is not really freedom, since “freedom without social relations would be no freedom at all” but only anarchy. In a very real sense, as Caudwell writes, “to the bourgeois, freedom is not consciousness of necessity, but the ignorance of it”, the ignorance of the necessity of social relations, of social bonds. “To [the bourgeois] the instincts are ‘free,’ and society everywhere puts them in chains”.

Marx criticizes this view in the 1857 Introduction, calling them “Robinsonades” (i.e. tales akin to Robinson Crusoe), and exposing the ignorance of the primacy of social relationships. He argues that social relations, like language, pre-exist any and all individuals, and shape the individual necessarily. Freedom can only ever be relative to this structuration. The methodological individualism of liberal thought represses this primacy of the social, the conditioning aspects of social relationships, in favour of a mythical, illusory, non-existent individualized freedom. The dominant expression of “intellectual freedom” falls precisely within this perspective, and it is for this reason that - while I think there is something we currently call “intellectual freedom” that should be protected - using that term automatically binds us to the terms and limits of the bourgeois, liberal worldview.

It is sometimes said that “intellectual freedom” and “social responsibility” are unfairly polarized. This is probably true (one only has to look at the division between the ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom and the Social Responsibility Round Table to see it). However, such polarization is based on the predicate logic that is dominant in bourgeois society. Predicate logic allows, indeed requires, a sharp division between the concepts of intellectual freedom and social responsibility, when no such sharp division really applies. In reality, “intellectual freedom” (for want of a better expression) is dialectically (internally) related to social responsibility. The shortcomings of the intellectual freedom position are contradicted by the positive aspects of social responsibility and vice versa. It is the instinct of bourgeois logical categories to keep these two things separate, to rely on the polarization of the categories to reproduce the isolation and fragmentation of society. What is needed, however, is a true synthesis of the two positions. Such a synthesis would recognize the social necessity involved in any conception of intellectual freedom, the necessity of non-individualistic social relations. It is precisely the hyper-individualized notion of freedom and the ignorance of the necessity of social relations that allowed someone like Richard Stallman to thrive so long in the Free Software Community and MIT. As I’ve said before, any conception of “intellectual freedom” that does not recognize the necessity of social bonds and social responsibility is disingenous, it does not in fact believe in the importance of ideas and words, their causal power, and their social consequences. Such disingenuousness, if not hypocrisy, is manifest in the pedantic hair-splitting exhibited by Stallman and others of that ilk.

Similarly, any attempt to prioritize concrete “production” over abstract, theoretical “ideation” not only falls prey to what David James Hudson has called “the whiteness of practicality” but also - as pointed out by Marx, Engels, and many others - simply serves to obscure and repress very real theoretical, social, and ethical commitments. “Value-free” production is always based on particular social standpoints - a lesson drawn from feminist theory, but no less applicable to a Marxist approach. Returning to Engels, he wrote in Dialectics of Nature that

natural scientists beleive that they free themselves from philosophy by ignoring it or abusing it. They cannot, however, make any headway without thought… Hence they are no less in bondage to philosophy, but unfortunately in most cases to the worst philosophy…

The unavoidability of philosophy, of theorizing, is not a problem to be solved, but a reality - a necessity - to be recognized. It is in the nature of our social being for each individual to be constructed and constrained by the society into which they are born. Agency, like freedom, is always relative. As Marx memorably put it in the 18th Brumaire, “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.”

For too long, he traditional, liberal, maximalist intellectual freedom position has held sway, relying on a sharp distinction between it and Social Responsibility. If nothing else, the current conjuncture - ecological crisis and the resurgence of fascism - should force adherents of this position to defend their point of view more strongly, rather than dismissing any challenge as naive or condemning it as totalitarian. It needs to rise to the challenge of the current moment. Only in this way, only by overcoming the division between intellectual freedom and social responsibility, can a more nuanced, more robust, better-named concept of “intellectual freedom” survive the challenges of the current moment. Recognizing that we are not “free”, self-created individuals, but that we are subject to the necessity of our social relationships - and all the better for it - recognizing that we are all in this world together: only in this way can any notion of intellectual life and social justice be salvaged amid the barbarism to come.


Sam Popowich

Discovery and Web Services Librarian, University of Alberta

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