Socialist Worker

How did liberals get it so wrong over Question Time?

by Mark L Thomas
Issue No. 2175

The debate over Nick Griffin being invited onto last week’s Question Time was dominated by a belief that abstract rights like “free speech” are the most important thing—even for Nazis committed to destroying them.

Those who put forward this idea say that the power of rational argument can defeat fascism. This reflects the hold of liberal ideas—individual freedom as the supreme goal of society.

As the US Declaration of Independence put it, “all men are created equal…with certain unalienable rights…governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed”.

Such ideas were a progressive blow against the old feudal order where authority flowed downwards from god to monarchs and bishops—and serfs were beholden to their masters.

The revolutionary new ideas of freedom, equality and the rights of man didn’t fall from the sky. They reflected the new ways of organising economic life that capitalism was establishing.

Workers under fully developed capitalism are no longer legally tied to particular employers as a form of property. They are free to work for whoever they choose.

But as Karl Marx pointed out they are also “free” from any control over the means of creating wealth—the factories, offices, mines and so on— which are owned by a small minority.

Only the capitalists decide what will be produced and how many workers will be employed to produce it. The “formal” freedom of the wage contract between worker and capitalist is wholly subverted by this fundamental inequality.


This allows the capitalist to pump out unpaid surplus labour from workers—in other words to exploit them—just as the feudal lords did the serfs. Yet this exploitation is hidden from view beneath a surface veneer of “freedom”.

This contrast between proclaimed freedoms and fundamental inequality pervades liberal capitalism. Liberalism sees the individual as the basic unit of society. The obvious differences in power and wealth that exist are put aside.

Under parliamentary democracy, worker and capitalist each only have one vote. Yet the power of big business to dictate to elected governments is immense, while that of the worker is minuscule.

If this is not grasped, then the class conflict built into capitalism becomes, for liberals, something accidental—a mistake that needs fixing.

So liberalism creates a prejudice in favour of negotiation and compromise—the idea that “we’re all in it together”—rather than the vigorous pursuit of class struggle.

This points to another central feature of liberalism—its idealism. This is the belief that reason can overcome all social evils. Poverty, racism and war are held to be caused by ignorance, best remedied through education.

But the apparent optimism of this view can, when confronted with the entrenched persistence of social ills, rapidly give way to despair. This can be followed by accommodation—racism will always exist and “fears” about immigration are “legitimate”. Or it can lead to a coercive regime—bombing Afghanistan to “liberate” women and establish “democracy”.

So abstract talk of freedom or democracy in general, or the need to uphold “impartiality” in a society brutally divided by class, only masks the real inequalities of wealth and power.

Workers can only effectively resist the huge concentrated power of capital if they unite collectively in trade unions and political parties. Then, as the real producers of all wealth, workers have the potential power to change the world.

Only by adopting a view of the world that starts with the reality of class division under capitalism, rather than an outlook that only occasionally glimpses this harsh reality, can we fight effectively and consistently for real change.

Fascism is not a product of ignorance and mistaken ideas—it has its roots in capitalist society. It must be opposed not just by good ideas but a mass movement that aims to deny the Nazis any opportunity to organise and build support.

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Tue 27 Oct 2009, 18:37 GMT
Issue No. 2175
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