What is freedom?

In George W. Bush’s inauguration speech he used the word freedom 27 times. It was a 20-minute speech.

“There is only one force of history that can break the reign of hatred and resentment, and expose the pretensions of tyrants, and reward the hopes of the decent and tolerant, and that is the force of human freedom,” Bush proclaimed.

Who can argue with that? Freedom is a deeply loved word, a deeply felt yearning in the U.S. and around the world. The battle against British colonialism in 1776 was a battle for freedom. The Civil War to abolish slavery was a fight for human freedom.

During the height of the struggles to organize industrial unions, unemployment relief, New Deal programs and against Nazi fascism Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared: “In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms. The first is freedom of speech and expression — everywhere in the world. The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way — everywhere in the world. The third is freedom from want — which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings, which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants — everywhere in the world. The fourth is freedom from fear — which, translated into world terms, means a worldwide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor — anywhere in the world.”

The civil rights movement of the 1960s was often called the freedom struggle. “Let freedom ring,” the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. declared to the hundreds of thousands marching that hot August day in Washington, D.C.

Yet, those who completely opposed what the early American revolutionists or the abolitionists or the students who volunteered for “Freedom Summer” fought for have employed the word freedom.

During the fight to end slavery in the 1860s — the slavocracy claimed its freedom had been denied. They had no liberty. Such cries made Abraham Lincoln aptly observe that the lion and the lamb will never agree on the definition of liberty.

In the 1930s and ’40s, the Nazis used the slogan “Arbeit Macht Frei” — “Work Brings Freedom.” The slogan hung above the entrance gates of Auschwitz concentration camp.

We live in a class-divided, capitalist society. There are those who own and run the show, and then there are the rest of us who have to sell our labor to survive.

Freedom, like our society, our country, is defined by the class divide. The class divide informs everything. So when Bush declares freedom, the first question that comes to mind is, “Freedom for whom?”

There is the freedom to exploit and the freedom from exploitation. The freedom to oppress and the freedom from oppression. The freedom to make war and the freedom from war. Freedom to spur hate and the freedom from hate.

Bush says, “Eventually the call of freedom comes to every mind and every soul. We do not accept the existence of permanent tyranny because we do not accept the possibility of permanent slavery. Liberty will come to those who love it.” And then links that freedom and liberty to an “ownership society.” He is stating his class viewpoint on freedom.

Bush cleverly uses a word, which is so dear to millions, and then fills it with ruling-class content. His freedom means not merely the freedom to own a home or car, but freedom for corporations to own the world’s natural resources, the labor market, public space and socially produced wealth. He is talking about the ruling class’s freedom to exploit and wage war.

Janis Joplin once sang, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” Karl Marx’s close colleague, Frederick Engels, said, “Freedom is the recognition of necessity.” To recognize the reality of capitalism’s class divide will set us free.

“Workers and oppressed of the world unite. You have nothing to lose but your chains.”



Terrie Albano (talbano@pww.org) is the editor of the People’s Weekly World.