by Raymond Gram Swing
Sidney J. Abelson
The Freeman, October, 1939]
It is a matter of common observation that we live in an age more
self-conscious about the abstract idea of freedom than any generation
which has preceded us. This intensified interest results from an
inescapable fact, namely, that the abstract ideal has become a matter
of practical moment; the written formula is being tested in the
crucibles of depression and now, ultimately, war. Ideals can no longer
remain idle boasts; they must demonstrate practical usefulness or else
travel the road to oblivion paved by disillusionment. This is the
destiny of our times - to resolve the crisis which has arisen wherein
man is challenged to prove the practicability of his higher
Everyone pays lip-service to the ideal. Eyen the dictators labor
their ideologies with asseverations that "true" democracy or
"true" freedom for their peoples is their ultimate goal. It
becomes a matter, therefore, of evaluating the concepts which underlie
the interminable outpouring of words -- in short, what do these
numerous protagonists of freedom mean by "freedom"?
In many cases it is obvious that the concept of freedom is limited in
application to a particular social group and implies a corresponding
lack of freedom for other or supposedly antagonistic groups. "Freedom,"
Stalin style, for the proletariat means extermination of rights for
all other classes of society. "Freedom," Hitler style, means
German world hegemony, freedom of a kind for Germans and enslavement
of all other nationalities. It is not at all difficult to appraise the
conceptual workings of the dictatorial minds.
The "liberal" mind is another matter. One cannot probe its
depths so easily, if at all. What the liberal means by "freedom"
is something that cannot be defined, for "liberals"
themselves, reserving the right to differ from one another on the
slightest grounds, do so differ; and in the exercise of, their right
to disagree neglect to investigate the subject of freedom beneath the
superficial level of functional pattern, so that the question of how
to enjoy freedom crowds out the bigger question of how to achieve and
One thing can be said for the liberal -- his intentions are far more
honest than those of dictators. Though inept and ineffectual in his
search for an explanation of freedom he does not employ the technique
of mendacity in that search. Moreover, the liberal, historically
speaking, has performed yeoman service in extending the boundaries of
this search, and we are able today to engage in an honest and
intelligent struggle to free mankind only because tolerably free
institutions and an intellectual background of respect for the ideal
of freedom provide a fertile, if a not too understanding, atmosphere
in which to labor.
A typical but unusually ambitious example of liberal literature on
the subject is "Calling America," a volume reprinted by
Harper & Brothers from a special issue of The Survey Graphic. A
number of leading liberals contribute their opinions -- H. V. Van
Loon, Dorothy Thompson, Thomas Mann, Felix Frankfurter, Archibald
MacLeish, et al. Subtitled "On the Challenge to Democracy,"
this symposium attempts to analyze the problem of preserving the
generally supposed modus operand! of a free society, but on the whole
it accomplishes little more than an excoriation of despotism and an
eulogization of democracy.
Raymond Gram Swing opens the discussion with the sound observation
that "the individual is the basic unit of society, and the
welfare of the whole is dependent on the welfare of all its ingredient
parts," and then proceeds to embroil himself in the usual
inconsistency of those who support the "Roosevelt Revolution"
by listing as "a gain that will not be lost" the fact that "the
federal government has assumed responsibility toward unemployment and
impoverished old age." He fails to see that government, however
humanistic, can never assume effective responsibility for the welfare
of the individual, except in the same way that a prison warden assumes
responsibility for convicts. The individual, as an "ingredient"
of society must be free to provide for his own welfare. But it is not
necessary for me to point out Mr. Swing's muddled thinking; he
performs this job quite adequately himself. For example: "He
would be an optimist indeed who saw that we were any closer to
achieving economic democracy than we were a generation ago. We may be
farther from it, since the concentration of economic power is much
greater." In short, the net effect of the Roosevelt policy, as
far as ultimate solution is concerned, is nil; and, though Mr. Swing
does not realize this, this is because the Roosevelt policy, despite
its humanism, fails to touch the basic cause that conduces to the "concentration
of economic power."
But the reader of "Calling America" has an ever-greater
disappointment in store for him. Bertrand Russell, the distinguished
mathematician and philosopher, adds nothing at all to his reputation
by contributing a chapter on "Democracy and Economics." He
employs the technique of metaphysical discussion in the field of
practical economics -- and the result is nothing short of horrible to
behold. He states a few obvious truths and then bogs down hopelessly
in an effort to rationalize them. He repeats the lamentable mistake of
those who advocate extension of government control over economic
affairs, but in view of his great reputation, 'his culpability is
greater than that of the ordinary commentator. His speculations on how
to solve the economic problems are painfully obtuse. For instance, he
proposes to break the power of plutocracy by transferring ownership of
industry to a "democratic state," and he would do this by
compensating the plutocrats with pensions of equal value to their
holdings. He says further, "it might be possible to decree
effectively that the pensions of ex-magnates should cease as soon as
they took any part in politics." Shades of Prohibition!
"Calling America," serves to widen the discussion of
freedom, however inadequately it does so.