For the sake of argument

Communism, too, bears seeds of freedom

ANEURIN BEVAN June 8 1957
For the sake of argument

Communism, too, bears seeds of freedom

ANEURIN BEVAN June 8 1957

Communism, too, bears seeds of freedom

For the sake of argument

ANEURIN BEVAN

A very high proportion of the human race lives under political systems that, to Western eyes, appear quite indefensible. Certainly for those, like myself, who regard democratic liberties as among the greatest achievements of mankind, the contemporary world looks gloomy in the extreme. Recent events in Hungary have served to underline the most objectionable features of modern communism. Men and women have been done to death. Many more have been deprived of their liberty, and large numbers have been compelled to flee their country for the mere assertion of rights that most of the Western world had come to regard as inseparable from a civilized way of life.

What’s new about tyranny?

Six hundred millions in China, between three and four hundred millions living in other countries dedicated to communism, exist under political institutions that are the very opposite of those enshrined in the principles of liberal toleration, liberty and justice.

Stated like that, it sounds extremely depressing; the more so because communism had been associated with a revolt against tyranny, poverty and imperialist domination. What hope is there, we may well ask, if social and political movements that were inspired at their onset by noble aspirations, nevertheless serve to bind upon mankind an enslavement more objectionable than the one they set out to overthrow?

This viewpoint is the common coinage of publicists, political commentators and newspaper editors in the Western world. But is it all quite so gloomy as it sounds? Is there anything unique in the fact that a high proportion of the human race has not yet succeeded in winning through to a life lived under the spacious principles asso-

ciated with the names of John Stuart Mill, Rousseau, Thomas Jefferson, and the other architects and pioneers of the concept of the uniqueness of individual human life? Is it not rather the case that tyranny, oppressive political institutions, bigotry, intolerance, cruelty, and indifference to the claims of the individual have been characteristic features of human society until recent times? You would think from reading the daily outpourings of condemnation of modern communism that something unprecedented was happening; that we are all in danger of being plunged into a new dark age.

Is it not much nearer the truth that each one of us, no matter where we may be living, is now made aware of the conditions under which all mankind is living? What is unique in the world is not the existence of tyranny, but the universal awareness of its existence. At first, this fact so novel, so terrifying, so omnipresent, is in danger of overwhelming the human spirit. Modern communications, in an infinite variety of ways, bring home to our minds the spectacle of human tragedy, of struggle and often defeat. It is easy for our spirit to surrender before the pitiful and appalling total.

Happiness is not news. Gossip itself commands our attention only if it is sufficiently tinged with malice. But if we stand back for a moment and try to survey the human scene from a more detached standpoint, the outlook is more hopeful. I know it is difficult to maintain an attitude of philosophical detachment in face of the crimes that are being committed day by day, often in the name of progress, democracy and peace. But how are we to keep hope alive, in the face of our universal awareness, unless we try to appraise the danger on a level analogous to its own scale?

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FIERY AND CONTROVERSIAL ANEURIN BEVAN IS TREASURER -AND

OFTEN A SHARP-TONGUED RENEGADE -OF BRITAIN’S LABOR PARTY.

'The many pressures and fissures that exist in Russia show that Communism is now in retreat”

gleam of hope—T put it no higher than that—is to be found in the fact that modern tyrants no longer justify themselves on the basis of the superiority of tyranny as a political institution. Repulsive though it may be when contrasted with what they do, I find even the double talk of the dictators somewhat encouraging. They do what they do in the name of democracy, of liberty, and of revolt against imperialism. Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue. Vice does not commend itself openly. The modern tyrant is compelled to justify himself by pretending to champion much that he seeks to destroy.

I do not suggest that we should take much comfort from this reflection alone. If the prospects of human liberty had no more solid foundation than this, I agree the outlook would be dark. But those of us in Europe who believe in socialism base our faith on arguments more potent than the hypocritical vocabularies of Communist apologists. We could, of course, solace our souls by the example of the heroic assertion of the human spirit in Hungary and Poland. Like Byron, we might cry:

Yet, Freedom! yet thy banner, torn, but flying.

Streams like the thunder-storm against the wind;

Thy trumpet voice, though broken now, and dying,

The loudest still the tempest leaves behind .. .

But these heroic sentiments, inspiring though they may be, are not all we can summon to our aid. I do not believe that the flag of freedom in the modern world unfurls against the wind. The main currents of modern society, when viewed in their entirety, are moving toward the enlargement, and not the contraction, of human liberty.

Contrary to conventional opinion, this truth manifests itself more in the Communist world than in Western society. The strains, the pressures, the fissures that obviously exist in Communist Russia and in her dependencies, all show that communism, or perhaps I should say Stalinist communism, is in retreat before the developing facts of Communist society itself.

Is this true, and, if so, why? The truth of it can be seen in Poland, for example, where the Russian leaders have been compelled to make momentous surrenders to the spirit of Polish independence. In Russia, we observe a succession of changes in the central leadership. Political assassination has given way to the principle of collective leadership. This may seem a small advance to people who think in short terms, but comparison should not be between Russia and the rest of the world today, but between the democratic world of today and the world of Tudor England—that is to say. the world of the divine right of kings, of aristocratic privilege, of the acceptance of the permanent inferiority of large classes of the community: in short, the attitudes

that were accepted as fixed, absolute and eternal, before the Reformation, with its proud assertion of the rights of the individual conscience.

Russia has not yet had her Reformation. But there are signs that it is beginning. Only the most superficial mind can fail to be ignited by the spectacle unfolding before our eyes. Its significance is profound and pervasive. The most distinctive feature of modern societies is the increasing application of the technical sciences to the arts of living. This has to be accompanied by universal education, not only education for this or that specialized class, as in the Middle Ages. It becomes necessary to mobilize the intelligence and capacity of every member of the community, no matter what class, what creed, what color, what race, what disposition. The inescapable necessity for universal education enfranchises the whole of the people in one great co-operative, if involuntary, activity.

New industry breeds democracy

The basis of tyranny in the past was the comparative unimportance of the disenfranchised masses. Slaves could be killed. If you did so, you lost a pair of laborer’s hands, and that was all. They could usually be replaced. But an educated slave, a sophisticated slave, a slave trained to make and read blueprints, a slave entrusted with the creation and manipulation of complicated machinery, a slave with administrative responsibilities and with the cultivated aptitudes that go with it—such a slave cannot permanently be denied full participation in the making of the policies that govern his community. Thus the industrialization of which the Communists boast makes political democracy inevitable. Political helotry cannot possibly live for long side by side with industrial, technical and cultural sophistication.

Political democracy and the cherishing of individual human rights constitute the political framework within which modern science flourishes. This is the answer to those who believe that any form of public ownership, whether it be Communist or socialist, is bound to impose limits upon the exercise of human rights. The contrary is the truth. Human enslavement is practicable only in a static society.

It is a curious but illuminating fact that there appears to be less fermentation in Spain and in Portugal than in the Soviet Union, and this for the very good reason that Franco and Salazar are largely indifferent to improving the material conditions of their peoples. In their spirit they belong to a medieval clerical society. They suppress the individual and they

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make the suppression appear to be stable by holding back material advance. They have created what 1 call “frozen societies.” They are caught in a kind of historical suspense. They have a nostalgia for the past which they cannot recapture, and a fear of the future which they dare not enter.

Thus, they compare unfavorably even with the Communist dictatorships, where we perceive tyranny, but at the same time

a persistent pattern of political mutations.

Viewed from this standpoint, there is no justification for taking a pessimistic view of libertarian values in the modern world. On the contrary. All the main influences that are at work making for the material amelioration of the lot of mankind work also, in felicitous co-operation, for the enlargement of the human spirit and the defense of individual liberties. -jç