Published in Freedom First Magazine 1955, the following article by Mr. M.B Shah has timeless relevance to issues surrounding the idea of freedom, the position of an individual and the challenges of totalitarianism which the world faces in various forms. The author attempts to bridge the gap between positive and negative freedom while recognizing the sovereignty of the individual.
The function of philosophy is to find out the fundamental postulates from which a particular system of thought or values is derived. The task of the philosophy of freedom is to explain the basis on which the value of freedom is founded. In nature itself there is neither freedom nor bondage. Freedom is a human value.
The primary urge of every living organism is to exist, grow, develop and perpetuate its species. In order to satisfy this primary urge, the living organism has to act on its surrounding environment. In the sub-human animal world, this urge leads to mechanical adaptation to the environment. However, as man has a better organized neural system endowing him with the powers of memory, reflection and transmission of his experiences to his like species, the primary urge expresses itself in conscious action and reaction to his environment. In the course of this action and reaction on the environment, man gathers experiences and knowledge of his surrounding nature. This knowledge becomes a powerful lever in man’s further progress. However, man as an individual is powerless to struggle against the mighty forces of nature. Hence, his co- operation with other human beings which ultimately results in the development of society and all its various organizations, political, economic, social, cultural, spiritual and the like.
With the help of these organizations growing up in the course of the satisfaction of his primary urge, man embarks upon the attainment of freedom. Freedom can be defined as “the progressive disappearance of all restrictions on the unfolding of the potentialities of the individuals as human beings and not as cogs in the wheels of a mechanized social organism”. (M N Roy in the Principles of Radical Democracy). Functionally, freedom means “the conditions necessary and sufficient for the formation of a purpose, it’s translation into effective action through organized cultural instrumentalities and the full enjoyment of the results of such activity”. (Bronislaw Malinowsky in Freedom and Civilisation).
Freedom has two sides, one positive and another negative. Negative freedom is freedom from the forces crushing man’s assertion of individuation from the rest of the nature including human society. Positive freedom is one which creates the necessary conditions and affords proper opportunities for “the realization of his individual self, i.e. the expression of his intellectual, emotional and sensuous potentialities”. (Erich Fromm in The Fear of Freedom). ln the course of his struggle for the satisfaction of his primary urges, man has to struggle against nature to secure his physical requirements like food, shelter, clothing, etc. The overpowering of natural forces has been attained to a very large extent and man has now come of age with the help of scientific knowledge and technological advancements. Likewise, in the course of history, man progressively liberated himself from the controlling forces of church, state and social slavery. With the ushering in of the industrial revolution, a powerful ideology of liberalism and economic laissez faire made man a completely individualistic person to care for himself.
However, this very process of individuation from the original ties working for his security and oneness with nature and society made him also an atomized individual to make his way wherever he could single-handedly. With the Declaration of the Rights of Man in the great French Revolution, man’s inherent dignity was asserted. Democracy, the greatest invention of man’s genius. was ushered in and put on a practical experimental plane. However, in practice, it turned out that democracy was working in the social and economic frames which were not conducive to the assertion of human dignity and realization of the best potentialities in man. Man was not considered as an end in himself to be respected and cultivated but an economic entity driven by his animal passions and selfishness. ln these circumstances, the ideals of fraternity, equality and liberty were negatived in practice and man became a lonely and powerless creature at the mercy of uncontrollable economic and social forces. Man of flesh and blood ceased to be an entity, an end in itself. lnstead of security and co-operation of society, man became isolated from society and a dichotomy was created between man and society. The issues were posed like man versus society, freedom versus organization, etc. instead of man in society, freedom with organization and the like. Thus all the values of man like love, brotherhood, creativity, etc. were nullified in practice.
Individual man not endowed with the biological superior capacities to make room for himself by elbowing out others and also man with principles and scruples was relegated to the devil’s care as good-for-nothing. The result was man’s loss of confidence in the utility of freedom and democracy, the loss of confidence in himself and in society. Ultimately, helplessness, resignation, frustration, destructiveness, submissiveness and such other anti-human and anti- social characters took hold of man. Man became afraid of his own freedom and was prepared to surrender the same in search of security though it may be an illusory one. Man preferred to be either a slave, master or an automation rather than a free, spontaneous, creative, acting and loving person. In this situation of frustration, resignation, submission and destructiveness all sorts of totalitarian and authoritarian ideologies like fascism, nazism, nihilism and communism drawing their inspiration from extra-human forces possessed man. All these movements exhibited and exhibit the symptoms of the sickness of society and the spiritual and cultural crises of mankind. They all promised panaceas and liberation from anxiety, isolation, frustration, resignation. ln the search of security from this burden, man surrendered his freedom and self to these authoritarian and totalitarian ideologies. After the defeat in the last world war, fascism and nazism have been weakened to a very large extent, though they are not completely annihilated. However, on account of the combination of certain factors, communism has come out as a nightmare to the free world. It has expanded its control over vast areas and populations. And with the resources at its command, it is threatening other parts of the free world.
Therefore, the main problem facing mankind today is freedom versus totalitarianism. All other problems and issues are either subordinate to this problem or merge in it. However, if totalitarian onslaughts are to be fought out, democracy will have to orient itself to positive freedom and will have to overhaul its social, economic, cultural and spiritual set up with a view to give full scope for the assertion of the human self, i.e. for the full realization of emotional, intellectual and sensuous potentialities of human beings. Its new set up will be of a kind in which man’s individualism is integrated with society on a higher level of co-operation, equality, liberty, creativity and love as between free men. The economic-man will have to end and a new rational and moral man will have to rise to take his place. The whole social set up will be based on the principle that he is the measure of all values. All collective endeavours will be measured in terms of the actual benefit conferred on constituent units. The position of the individual will be the measure of the progressive and liberating significance of any collective effort or social organization.
As Erich Fromm states in his Fear of Freedom, “The victory of freedom is possible only if democracy develops into a society in which the individual, his growth and happiness, is the aim and purpose of culture, in which life does not need any justification in success or anything else, and in which the individual is not subordinated to or manipulated by any power outside himself, be it the state or the economic machine; finally, a society in which his conscience and ideals are not the internalization of external demands, but are really his and express the aims that result from the peculiarity of his self. These aims could not be fully realized in any previous period of modern history; they had to remain largely ideological aims, because the material basis for the development of genuine individualism was lacking. Capitalism has created this premise. The problem of production is solved in principle at least – and we can visualize a future of abundance, in which the fight for economic privileges is no longer necessitated by economic scarcity. The problem we are confronted with today is that of the organization of social and economic forces, so that man – as a member of organized society – may become the master of these forces and cease to be their slave”
Mr. M. B. Shah was a rationalist and a businessman.
The article was originally published here.